event review: the black rock coalition orchestra’s deep roots of rock and roll

November 27, 2013

The lower part of Manhattan is a maze for those unfamiliar with it. The canyon-like city is at its deepest and most structurally imposing here, as the towering, mirrored office buildings stand on some of the oldest, most narrow streets in the U.S.. Like a spelunker, descending to reveal the treasures hidden in the Earth’s core, I came to find The Deep Roots of Rock and Roll within Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center For The Arts. Having never been there before, yet knowing what I was looking for, I kept my eyes peeled for a trail of those I’d assume to be my kindred spirits – African Americans less inclined toward hip hop and mainstream tastes, and more so toward leather and mohawks. So much for assumptions, as when I arrived I found the lobby to be filled with a wildly diverse crowd of New Yorkers, and all vocally anxious to witness the amazing gathering of talent proudly brought together under the banner of The Black Rock Coalition.

By Craig Carpenter, AFROPUNK Contributor

For those unaware, the Black Rock Coalition, or “BRC”, has been in existence as a collective since 1985, and operates with a commitment to preserve and promote the legacy of Black music as the progenitor of all that is now called “popular” music. As Leroi Jones reminds readers in his seminal work, BLUES PEOPLE, it is impossible to extricate Black people and their struggles in America from their musical expression which echoes throughout popular culture today. As a nod to this idea, BRC member and musical melting pot, Toshi Reagon assembled on this blustery night, a collection of musicians that could light a fire to any stage, literally anywhere. Acting as musical director and designer, as well as soloist and accompaniment, Toshi provided a most honorable tribute to the styles that informed her artistry, sharing the stage with a scrolling list of notables, such as the pioneering Nona Hendryx, BRC founding member and guitar virtuoso, Vernon Reid and NY indie-rock stalwart, Tamar-Kali. It was her mission travel a bridge to reach the path laid by the ancestors – a path that is remarkably close, yet often overlooked or forgotten as some of today’s narrators may have it. Not on this night. Not in this house.

The offerings started with a praise dance by the statuesque, white-gowned Adaku Utah. To be sure, there were few in the audience who could have assumed that this showcase would be a lightweight affair. As an opening, a pronouncement this night would be a spiritual journey, Ms. Utah filled the stage with her movement as if to make the place hallowed. And she did. The seated players of instruments, already singeing the carpeted room, welcomed the vocalists, led in procession by Ms. Reagon. One would need only to glance at her to recognize her joy and seriousness in presenting such an event, and the audience’s anticipation was rewarded instantly and repeatedly.

With performances by the majestic Nona Hendryx, (able to out-kick Beyonce and Rihanna, I have no doubt), performing a rendition of Sam Cooke’s “Try A Little Tenderness”, scorching guitarist, Kat Dyson treating the crowd to the later Jimi Hendrix burner, “Freedom”, or Marcelle Davies Lashley, performing Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over”, to stunning effect, all served to remind the audience just where Rock and Roll came from. There is no secret in this truth, yet the BRC Orchestra was determined to convince.

With the all-star cast performing gospel, blues and rock and roll standards, this was a clinic in American music. Serving as DJ and narrator, spoken word artist, Carl Hancock Rux provided the academic underpinning with wit and gravitas. Explaining, throughout, the barriers and obstacles African Americans faced in their years of struggle (and achievement) on this continent, the aforementioned treasure that this event was musically, was equally informative. The end result of the night was exuberance, as the gathered musicians appeared aware and satisfied in their contribution to the world, their vocal libations. The audience, standing and dancing for the final fifteen minutes of the program, stomped and shouted as if they, too, had called forth the spirits. If there was fairness in the world, such a showcase would make the rounds of every U.S. institute of higher learning, as well as perform a daily feature on MTV, just to be sure. It’s that important. In her penned program notes, Ms. Reagon writes, “I could do this show every night of an entire year and never repeat a song.” That an audience could be so lucky evidences another reason why prayer exists. And I pray hard.

Deep Roots of Rock ‘N’ Roll with The Black Rock Coalition Orchestra was curated by, and hosted by The Michael Schimmel Center For The Arts of Pace University. The performers included: Toshi Reagon, Carl Hancock Rux, Nona Hendryx, Vernon Reid, Corey Glover, Tamar-Kali, Marcelle Davies Lashley, Jason Walker, Kimberly Nicole, Karma Mayet Johnson, Marc Anthony Thompson (aka Chocolate Genius), Matt Whyte, Kat Dyson, Fred Cash, Mimi Jones, Robert”Chicken” Burke, Jeremy Mage, Juliette Jones, V. Jeffrey Smith, Adaku Utah, Asa Asa Lovechild and Ronny Drayton.