Black Arkestry: Falling In Love On The Ark

Our new guest contributor, Harmony Holiday, presents her Astrosonics Event Number 1: introducing us to an alive, ever-expanding archive of out-of-print and rare Diaspora poetry and writing.

 

Secret Garden

The personal ad would read something like: devoted dreamer seeks fresh archetype to concert in her subconscious or black poet looking for primordial forms both on and off the page, or jazz trumpeter seeks benevolent archive for his scores, or black archivist looking for ark-esque vessels for notes and tones from the Black Ark. The romance is haunted from the start, by the outlandish yearnings it’s founded upon and refuses to resist; but an unbreakable bond forms between the call and the response and a new layer of atmosphere, an exclusive cosmos, reveals itself and sustains the new range of vibrations between them.

But what gallant kindred spirit is equipped to answer this call? At AfroSonics, where this search began as a Call for an Archive, and then evolved into the work of creating an audio archive through recording out-of-print and rare Diaspora poetry and writing, the seeker is answering her own love call by carving out the space for a response that does not veil its roots in myth, improvisation and insurrection. AfroSonics, which originated as a Tumblr,  is moving toward a more encompassing digital archive, as well as a physical/analog archive of jazz poetry that will feature over 100 LPs in the tradition, at Columbia University’s Wiener Music Library.

We do all such work as a true labor of love, because we believe black people depend on sound for liberation and yet we would be hard pressed to find an archive at any U.S. university, museum, or library, that focuses on our relationship with sound and listening without the monolithic intervention of some nuance of western anthropology. This needs to change. We need to be able to study the audio forms of poetry, speeches and music that help express our own omni-layered relationship with speaking, writing/transcribing, and listening, without demeaning these practices or turning them into kitsch or relics.  We need to be allowed the sensual, deliberate and lazy kind of obsession that lets the artist fall in love with the archive without trying to or even wanting to control it.

AfroSonics, which originated as a Tumblr,  is moving toward a more encompassing digital archive, as well as a physical/analog archive of jazz poetry that will feature over 100 LPs in the tradition, at Columbia University’s Wiener Music Library.

For to fall in love with an archive is to fall in love with a living myth, with the interaction between the ark and ankh, and the ka or spirit protecting and driving that interaction, the ancient future in there, the forever element which no degree of manipulation or twist or envy, which no mental, physical or emotional slavery, can temper or tamper with, the eternal and eternally regenerative creative force within a body, an often abused but always strikingly beautiful, body of source material.

And this love affair is no fairy tale. For the Black/African Diaspora artist, any affection toward the Black Archive or what Lee Perry properly calls the Black Ark, demands unconditional devotion to a long-neglected psyche that will not hesitate to lash out, unkempt as a caged or untrusting anything, and then ask for and merit all of the love and attention you have in spite of that, because of that, as in Miles’ ineffable So What lifted to the mandate pitch of It ain’t necessarily so, until the battered glimpse we can earn into the depths and peaks of this archive often plays out like the tale of Echo and Narcissus, we look into it intently and become obsessed with what of ourselves it reflects and shields, we need the reflection like a we a need a reflex, to lure us back into our own true natures, and for it we risk self-delusion in a ritual dance of paradox and purification. 

This slick, slightly casual but actually very serious obsession, is what our best hip hop producers visit upon themselves when they spend days, hours, years, scouring record stores and reading the auras of one 33 and 1/3rd after another in hopes of finding echoes from the future somewhere in those waxed tones. This is the muffled taunt that the Diaspora student of Egyptian civilization faces when reading one racist, Eurocentric account after another, in search of the scholar who isn’t a scholar but a healer, or in search of Sun Ra’s discography and syllabus. This is the same coil of agony and bliss in equilibrium that the black filmmaker, painter, and photographer encounter as they pursue a visual landscape that does not promote visceral and almost voluntary blindness to self, or become brittle and stale through a self-conscious over-seeing. And indeed, this is the jade wall of stilted and awkward forms that the black writer and poet must walk through unflinchingly in order to reach what Amiri Baraka calls/reclaims: Black Dada Nihilismus, that Namelessness turned sacred anonymity that James Baldwin empowers with his elegant belligerence, that unabashed celebration of blackness from the inside-out that crystallizes in the poems of Helene Johnson, an ideal waltz or lindy of substance and light that is never rude, never polite; the place wherein we understand that rhythm and rhyme together create reason.

I introduce these dream-state themes and codes to suggest an under-credited but not under-activated alliance between: (1) creative/imaginative power; (2) mythos and/or the generating and regenerative power of autonomous black myths; (3) collective improvisation, (4) and archival practice. As with Jazz, Hip Hop, and just about every other Diaspora artform one could name, collective improvisation on a standard theme or piece of archival footage creates new myths, radicalizes that theme or aspect of a piece of archival material/data—and a work of art that both comprehends, and transcends the so-called original is born. This is the way in which black artists have managed to use art practice as a form of archival practice, with a keen awareness of the fact that establishing formal or traditional archives in libraries and universities is an arduous task for Diaspora art and scholarship, while simply engaging the work of preservation as a personal duty, and using that sense of responsibility to augment one’s own creative power and output, can create a new kind of commons.

doug & jean

It is with all of this in mind that I set out to create an archive that admits the mythos upfront; or a myth that accommodates the archival material and tools for archival practice we have at our disposal. A Black Myth that says: so what if it isn’t popular so long as it’s pure of heart, so what if it doesn’t abide by the rules, as long as it makes available information that the rules are in place to suppress.

In West Africa, art and performance have been linked to record-keeping and storytelling since far before we were sold or abducted, and the archives we create in this land need to name and rebuild that relationship to be effective at restoring our understanding of ourselves as artists and thinkers and overall lovers and masters of life. Because we architect our realities around sound and listening, this work must begin within those structures: deep inside of the science of sound, pulse, vibration, rhythm, frequency—and therefore the chief initiators of our archival practice are poetry, oration, footwork, and music.

Such are the goals of AfroSonics. We work toward all of this without aiming for any aloof hipness, but aware that a certain radiance is built into the affair between sound and listener, artist and archive. There is a sweet, disorienting, and reaffirming double hipness that enables new forms and ideas to flourish there in that space one only reaches through sincere devotion to its reaches. Here at Bold as Love I will be examining some of the recordings from this living and ever-expanding, archive of Astro and AfroSonics, with a more meticulous eye, looking at where, when, and how, specific recordings came to be and how they mobilize Mythscience and improvisation to create a new poetics, new genreless genres of writing and music, and a rejuvenating, soul-affirming aspect in the New Black Imagination.

Harmony Holiday is a poet and choreographer.  You can check out her work on the AfroSonics Archive here.

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Bridgett M. Davis' latest novel, INTO THE GO-SLOW, will be published by Feminist Press in September '14. Bridgett is the Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program at Baruch College and a founding member of ringShout, a group dedicated to promoting ambitious black literature. As the Books Editor for Bold As Love, she curates Sundays @. . ., a monthly reading series for works in progress.

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