premiere: black monument ensemble, “from a spark to a fire”
By Piotr Orlov
May 8, 2019
Damon Locks has been around the block at least a couple of times now, experiences that have guided his sense of what is fleeting, and what’s fundamental. Long before he formed Black Monument Ensemble — the extraordinary vocal, rhythm and dance troupe guided by the history of gospel music (especially its role as soundtrack to and conduit of change) and by Chicago’s rich tradition of Black consciousness and socially informed creativity — he played in a punk band (Trenchmouth) and a dub-emo-punk band (The Eternals) that messed with some of the same DNA, though maybe did so at a time his audiences weren’t prepared to hear it. BME’s new full-length debut, Where Future Unfolds, is proof that, now, Locks looks to be right on time.
Recorded live last November at the Garfield Park Conservatory, BME’s Future is a study in maximal minimalism, featuring six voices, six dancers and two drummers, with Locks’ electronics and the incomparable Angel Bat Dawid’s clarinet providing the only non-vocal tones and melodies. “From a Spark to a Fire,” which closes the album, is gloriously indicative of what came before: a drum machine and percussion set up a languid rhythm, the singers open in harmony before stretching their voices around each other, while the clarinet snakes its way around them, carrying the tune upward. It is the sound of the best kind of American spirituality and freedom, a product of heavens imagined by both the grounded traditionalists of the Black church and by the Afrofuturist likes of Sun Ra, evidence of both being in high supply throughout Chicago’s current creative community.
Locks, who has been a Chicago resident for nearly three decades and amends his arts practices as an educator and a community activist, is almost a perfect figure-head for this work — and to unpack it. So AFROPUNK asked him to walk us through the constellation that makes up the Black Monument Ensemble, and where it fits in his own story.
Talk a little bit about the energy and the inspiration behind Black Monument Ensemble, and the intent of the music. It’s easy to just slap labels on it — new gospel or Afrofuturism or spiritual jazz — and while none of these is wrong, they’re kind of reductive of all the elements in the music. So, can you explain where BME is coming from, and where you’re trying to take it?
Four years or so ago, I had been doing solo sound work and digging into my own record collection, pulling out recorded voices from the 1960s and ‘70s, speaking on issues of race and culture that we are still struggling with today. I created sound beds for those voices so they could be heard and considered anew in a contemporary context. This led me to listening to a lot of gospel music, which was the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement.
I became interested in group vocal gospel as a form. If the times feel similar to those decades past, maybe that musical form has a politically motivating, movement-generating place now as well? The Black Monument Ensemble was created about two years ago to explore those ideas. It is also a place where the artistry of Black singers, instrumentalists and dancers from all parts of Chicago can join their super-powers together and make beautiful things happen! I am really thankful for what they all bring to the music.
BME is greatly inspired by The Freedom Singers, Eddie Gale’s Black Rhythm Happening, and the first Voices of East Harlem record. By artists from closer to home (Chicago), like Phil Cohran & The Artistic Heritage Ensemble, as well as the political, presentation, and aesthetic ideas of early AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) groups who helped shape the work. By the ideology of the 1960’s; by the incredible art/activist/community work Dr. Margaret Burroughs; by Chicago visual art collective, AfriCobra, and the work of several of its members. During the time of building this work, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago to see the Kerry James Marshall exhibition, Mastry, 15 separate times. So, influences came in many forms.
I am interested in Black Monument growing in ways that I haven’t tried yet. I am interested in reaching people in places like The Garfield Park Conservatory and The Chicago Cultural Center. A small version of the group performed at Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy for their Black History Assembly this year. I want more access for people who are not reached by traditional music venues. I want to create opportunities so both the group and the audience can gain from the creating/experiencing the work.
Some people may know you from The Eternals, others may know you from your visual art and graphics work. Besides your (literal and figurative) voice, what are the through-lines from those creative outlets to Black Monument Ensemble? What would you say tie them all together?
Black Monument Ensemble feels connected to all the work I do now. It is connected to the work I do teaching art at Stateville Correctional Center through PNAP (Prison and Neighborhood Art Project). (The album song, “Solar Power,” is inspired by a conversation I had there.) It is connected to the work I do in high school through the MCA’s SPACE Program. I have shared my music with the students and it has been a jumping off point for projects. My work with the dancers of Move Me Soul, as well as Martine Whitehead, and Onye Ozuzu’s Project Tool have provided so many inspiring moments I can incorporate into BME. So much so, I had to have dancers in the performance. The front cover of the album is a collage utilizing material from visual work I have done over the last two years because I thought it was all relevant. Working on the vocals for the last Eternals record (2016’s Espiritu Zombi) gave me the courage to write music for more than one voice. So these days, I don’t think my work could be any more connected.
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