Lonnie Holley quavers. His hoarse voice belches and projects itself onto the microphone that sprouts behind the small piano and vibrates across the auditorium. “I’m a suspect,” Lonnie tells us in lamentation. The soft chords he plays are a sleepy backdrop to his communal confession that pans out four hundred years of meditative escape from violence that, to the surprise of no one, culminates, still, with a tired suspicion:
“I thought beyond the chain gang. The games were still the same … Coming as a slave, so many of my people, friends and relatives, are now in their graves.”
It is, it feels, a bedtime story dedicated to those who were spared a childhood; a lullaby that hits all of the black notes.
Artist and musician Lonnie Holley and the Mourning [A] BLKstar band performed this past November at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in the framework of Cosmic Awakening, a three-day festival dedicated to "Time and space travel, cyborgs and escapism,” as well as questions of “how do visions of the future transform into music.” In the constellation of a festival dedicated to “utopian sounds,” Lonnie, through an improvised free-flowing compositional stream of consciousness, metaphorically pointed in the direction of a utopian golden city upon a hill when taking center stage. But utopia is not a promise; utopia is, in fact, no place at all. And after we resurface from this brief etymological interlude, we can finally unclog our ears.
Just listen to how Lonnie points in all directions. Just listen to that grounding tritone disharmony shared between backup singers and rusty brass, who echo all of the noises once howled east of the Mississippi River. Improv this evening is no fancy recollection of African-American music. Rather than private flamboyance, it is a collective effort––an ongoing attempt in sense-making. Improv this evening is a soul search. A middle finger to those looking for a smooth-jazz-easy-way-out when the words “some of us been bound down and roped and tied” are uncomfortably lodged deep in their eardrums. The audience sits still. It knows better than to whoop, holler, or cheer at an account of domination. It is respectable, therefore it is silent, therefore it is violent. Good samaritans, perpetual onlookers, shy voyeurs.
Deliberately trying too hard, Lonnie knows well the unforgiving attempt to excavate beauty from spoil. Lonnie knows not to trust smooth sailing on a slave ship called America that he and others snuck off of. Every chord and scale played is another fork in the road. There will never be the right tune to sing along to mistrust, trauma, and abomination. But there will always be a search for it. And that sisyphean act could, at times, be beautiful too.