Wade in the Water

The biblical story of Exodus is a foundational narrative in many black diasporic spiritual traditions. The story of the Jews’ redemption from Egyptian slavery represents a powerful allegory for the promise of freedom from captivity in the New World. Zora Neale Hurston’s 1939 novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, for example, is a typological reading of Exodus that translates the historical context of the narrative and transforms it by incorporating black American folklore and African-derived storytelling and religious traditions.

“Many men could climb mountains. Anyone could bring down laws that had been handed to them. But who can talk with God face to face?” Hurston asks, “Who has the power to command God to go to a peak of a mountain and there demand of Him laws with which to govern a nation? What other man has ever seen with his eyes even the back part of God’s glory? Who else has ever commanded the wind and the hail? The light and darkness? That calls for power, and that is what Africa sees in Moses to worship.”

Hurston remarks the links between Moses and the premiere god in the Haitian pantheon, Damballa, whose origins lie in West Africa. “So all across Africa, America, the West Indies,” she writes, “there are tales of the powers of Moses and great worship of him and his powers. But it does not flow from the Ten Commandments. It is his rod of power, the terror he showed before all Israel and to Pharaoh, and THAT MIGHTY HAND.”

Spirituals like “Wade in the Water,” “Go Down Moses,” and “Elijah Rock,” deal extensively in the tropes of Exodus. Professional black singers have long had a complex relationships with the spirituals, yet the persistent relevance of the songs still works something like alchemy. Listen to Mahalia Jackson. Her sublime faith transforms historical suffering into something meaningful, lasting–I dare say universal.

This year we’ll be hosting the first night Seder and to accompany the festive meal, I’ve made a playlist of black diasporic spiritual music that deals with slavery, redemption, and the perpetual striving to chant down Babylon–to fight the forms of oppression that still shackle people around the world. Tonight, the Exodus happens to each of us individually. We repeat, as Hurston did, the narrative of enslavement and freedom in order to suffer and survive together, again.

Peace in Azawad

Last week I had the chance to see a group called Tinariwen at the State Theater in State College. Though I wasn’t very familiar with their work a few weeks ago, I caught up quick. After learning that the show was sponsored by Stax of Trax, a local vinyl purveyor, I found their Desert Sessions video and put it on a loop all week in preparation for their arrival.

It wasn’t just the remarkable setting or guest appearances by members of TV on the Radio that got me hooked. I recognized the Saharan drone blues blended with Algerian Rai from listening to Bombino. Tinariwen’s sound, though, is what I always imagined Ishmael Reed meant by the “Black Mud Sound” of the “old songs” played by Jethro the Midianite in Mumbo Jumbo. These cuts are that deep.

Tinariwen are Tuareg and Berber musicians originally from the northern region of Mali called Azawad. A little obscure, perhaps. For many, Timbuktu is just an idiomatic reference to nowhere. Yet Mitt Romney of all people brought a little attention to the region during the presidential debate on foreign policy the night before the concert. When he said that the northern part of Mali had been taken over by “Al-Queda type individuals,” however, he neglected the fact that this struggle for independence in Azawad goes back decades. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, a founding member of Tinarawen, watched the execution of his father, who was a Tuareg rebel, in 1963 when he was four years old. Forced to flee across the border into Libya, some of these Tuareg refugees trained in Gaddafi’s army, earning them–one imagines–the title “Al-Queda type individuals.”

When Tinariwen’s front men appeared on the Colbert Report with Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, Colbert struck precisely this nerve. The interview is from February, 2012.

In March, there was a military coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako, which toppled a legitimately elected civilian government for their perceived mishandling of a previous Tuareg rebellion. Amidst the confusion in the capital caused by the coup, Azawad was seized by these same rebels and declared an independent state in April.

So Romney’s comments unintentionally heightened the political stakes of the performance—at least for this listener.

Although the musicians said very little, mainly just “salaam” and “merci.” Their message was clear enough. Although the single percussionist in the group was extremely capable, the audience added support by clapping along. The participation was as enthusiastic as any I have witnessed at the venue. The band moved from prayerful and meditative pieces to lilting folk ballads, culminating in the heavier pedal tones, thumping bass, and overdriven guitar riffs that united the audience into something like a collective ritual.

The only message they conveyed in English came during the introduction, when the announcer asked for “Peace in Azawad.”

These are the last 10 minutes, before they returned for an encore.