BlackNotes is a musical ensemble based in Washington, DC, that features progressive poetry, soulful singing, sweet keyboarding and spicy African drumming, blended harmoniously to produce what BlackNotes calls SWARM (Spoken Word * African Rhythms * Melodies) music. BlackNotes has produced a dynamic CD entitled "Miracle In Progress", which has gotten rave reviews from a variety of sources, and has gotten substantial airplay on a few progressive radio stations. BlackNotes' original SWARM music uses skillful wordplay and soulful singing to deliver positive, insightful and uplifting messages emanating from African heritage and the African-American experience, creatively combined with dynamic musical instrumentation to provide high-level, conscious-raising entertainment.
Although BlackNotes' SWARM music is a unique musical form, it draws from and combines elements of other musical and artistic forms in the African and African-American cultural tradition (West African, R&B, blues, jazz, funk, reggae, hip-hop, go-go, performance poetry). To quote from the cut entitled "BlackNotes" on the group's CD:
"BlackNotes is... soul force transported through slave-era field songs, spirituals, blues, bee-bop, hip-hop, and the likes of The Last Poets traversing historical currents... and through the masterful musical genius of Fela, Scott-Heron, Sweet Honey, Tosh and Marley wailin' for justice... BlackNotes, moving forward in that sacred tradition... BlackNotes, a progressive word, music, dance expedition..."
The CD: “Miracle In Progress”
BlackNotes’ CD, Miracle in Progress, delivers messages of Pan-Africanism, strong Black families and African cultural concepts. As far as can be determined, it is the first of its kind, combining spoken word, singing, contemporary musical instruments (bass, saxophone, keyboard, etc.), and traditional West African drumming. The title cut, “Miracle in Progress”, written by the group’s founder and director, Lasana, who is a poet and percussionist on the CD, gives a positive and reaffirming insight into the significance of Black family, extended family and ancestral love, and their expansion through the miracle of conception and childbirth. This message is delivered through both spoken word by Lasana and soulful singing led by superb vocalist Ayanna Gregory. Throughout this piece and all of the others on the CD, dynamic “djembe orchestra” drum rhythms straight from the Motherland, mastered by BlackNotes drummers Mahiri Fadjimba-Keita and Kweku Akoto, pulsate and breathe the African heartbeat into the listener’s soul.
“While Malcolm Preached, ‘Trane Played”, with spoken word by activist attorney Nkechi Taifa, combines an exploration of the musical spirit of jazz pioneer John Coltrane with some of the powerful words of Pan-Africanist and human rights activist Malcolm X, giving the listener the poet’s insightful take on the significance of the combination of the contributions of these two legendary figures. Of course the saxophone figures prominently in the music of this piece, played by Kamau Lumumba, along with jazzy, harmonic singing by Yvette Benjamin, Aisha Jackson and Ayanna Gregory.
One of the selections on the CD that demonstrates the group’s diversity is “Babylon Blues”, which begins with bluesy guitar licks and vocals, along with classic harmonica rifts, then breaks into a hip-hop rhythm played on West African drums overlaid with crafty rap lyrics by “rappercussionist” Jali-D, touching on some of the blues associated with being a Black man or woman in America. Towards the end, it breaks back into blues music overlaid with poetry to conclude the piece. So in just this one piece, the listener gets a taste of traditional Africa (the drums), historical African America (the blues), and contemporary African America (hip-hop/poetry).
“Identity”, with lyrics written and delivered by poet/author Joy Jones, provides a somewhat light-hearted approach to the serious issue of the varying ways in which African people in America have identified themselves over the years (Negro, Colored, Black, African-American, etc.). The poet concludes that she’s a “twentieth century miracle of African descent flourishing in America and most definitely a blessed child of God,” but leaves it to the listener to answer the piece’s concluding question, “Who are you?” As with all of the pieces on the CD, the music is anchored by a dynamic West African drum rhythm and a funky bassline by bass guitarist Kwesi Brown. These instruments are accompanied by some nice “call and response” interplay between the harmonica and the flute, played by Morton Brooks and Kamau Lumumba, respectively.
The selection entitled “Down Low” contains the spoken word delivery of Black bookstore entrepreneur Brother Yao (co-owner of Karibu Books in the Wash., DC Metropolitan area). This piece addresses the fact that African Americans living in an urban environment have adapted in certain ways in the process of manifesting their unique identity and “subculture,” including creating and listening to music with heavy bass and drums, which compliments a lifestyle that is often out of the American mainstream or “on the down low.”
The final selection on the CD, “BlackNotes”, includes interactive sharing of lyrics and chants among all of the poets on the CD, with the singers and musicians moving harmonically through this dynamic composition. It attempts to convey in theory and practice the artistry that BlackNotes brings forth in drawing from the strength and beauty of our history and culture with the combined power of words (“Nyama Nommo”) and music (“Kucheza Ngoma”), producing a powerful energy that is released into the cosmos and righteously affects everyone and everything it touches.
Performances & Workshops
BlackNotes performances are dynamic artistic experiences that have been known to mesmerize audiences, featuring Lasana on spoken word and keyboard, and lead singer Maimuna, of course supported by the pulsating African drums. The performances include an audience participation (call and response) element that makes the audience/community a part of the experience.
Realizing that the combination of artistic elements in and messages conveyed BlackNotes’ work raises questions and promotes dialogue on a variety of issues related to African and African-American history, culture, and artistic expression, BlackNotes has designed several workshops to address some of these issues and offer the opportunity for questions to be answered and for dialogue to take place.