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A Polyphony of Politically Engaged Art: Interview with Benjamin Barson

Studio Museum

Photo: Sasha Mishkin

On Friday, June 22nd,  Katrina De Wees, Education Assistant at The Studio Museum in Harlem, sat down with Benjamin Barson, Production Manager at Ginny’s Supper Club Red Rooster Harlem, to discuss his most recent project, in collaboration with Arturo O’Farrill’s Grammy Award Winning Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and El Museo Del Barrio.

Katrina De Wees: Can you start with an introduction of yourself?

Benjamin Barson: Sure, my name is Benjamin Barson. I’m a baritone saxophonist, producer, activist and intellectual. I am currently employed by The Red Rooster in Harlem, where I’m the production manager of all of the music and live events. I also have a role in shaping the curatorial element: what bands should be booked, and the message we are trying to communicate in our programming, and I share that responsibility with another individual named Andre Torres, who is the Editor-In-Chief of Wax Poetics.

When I’m not at Red Rooster, I’m also participating in a number of events, which I would describe as political. For instance, Salim Washington (who is a saxophonist and the head of Jazz studies at Brooklyn College) and I are playing for Colia Clark, an African-American, Green Party candidate tomorrow evening. We are also playing tonight for a benefit at The Maysles for Sekou Odinga, a political prisoner. Before that, we played with the same configuration for an international campaign around a political prisoner named Russell Maroon Shoats, a former Black Panther Party member who’s been in solitary for thirty years. So I’m trying to find the fragile and fertile ground between activism and art, because especially in music, it has a really rich tradition that has been somewhat obscured within Jazz recently. I currently work with a collective of artists and activists called the Scientific Soul, and we put on events that combine radical politics and avant-garde art.

KD: And who else is involved with the Scientific Soul?

BB: Scientific Soul is comprised of Salim Washington; Fred Ho, an internationally renowned Baritone Saxophonist, and activist who helped found the Asian-American Arts movement, but more specifically the Asian-American Jazz Movement which was prominent in the 80s.; Joel Kovel;  Day Star, a Native American activist and also an activist in the Green Party; My friend Quincy Saul, an intellectual and clarinet player and also an activist around eco-socialism.

KD: Awesome. Thank you for that wonderful introduction. How did you get involved with Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra? How did it all come together?

BB: All these different spheres happened on their own, and then moved together in this really interesting way. I met Arturo as a student. I was attending Hampshire College but I took a Jazz Improv and ensemble class at The University of Massachusetts Amherst. Arturo was the visiting professor of Jazz and he was such a great teacher. He was so alive and dynamic and really knew how to get to the heart of what made the music speak. It took some time before I was able to approach him as a college graduate, but eventually I expressed interest in helping out with his nonprofit The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance.

So essentially Arturo took his Grammy-winning, esteemed Latin Jazz ensemble called The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, which plays the sort of repertory of the music and also expands it. He turned the whole thing into a non-profit organization, which not only does performances but also does cultural exchange with Cuba. The organization also teaches lower income students of color in the Bronx and Manhattan, and soon hopefully Brooklyn, the legacy of this music, more specifically instrumental music. Music programs in New York City public schools are basically non-existent, and certainly don’t afford instruments, which is another reason why this music is increasingly played by mostly white, middle class children. Arturo is trying to reverse that trend.

KD: That’s definitely sufficient. Thank you. In your introduction you spoke a bit about the work you do at Red Rooster, but how did you get involved specifically with Ginny’s Supper Club?

BB: Well, I was speaking about Fred Ho previously, and Fred has really been the north star for me, in terms of how to have this politically engaged artistic life, and how to have an artistically engaged political life. And one of the artist’s he’s really interested in as a historical figure and as an influence in his music is Cal Massey.

Cal Massey was a 1960s jazz composer and political activist who wore his militant politics on his sleeve. Even though he was hanging out with Coltrane and Charlie Parker recorded a lot of his music, Charlie Parker’s first Latin tune Fiesta was a Cal Massey composition; Coltrane’s first album had a Cal Massey composition named Bakai. He taught Lee Morgan and gave McCoy Tyner his first professional gig at 17. All these greats that really went on to make history, yet he’s nowhere in the history books or the Jazz anthologies.

Instead of recording with Blue Note [Records], he was commissioned by Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther party to write works such as The Black Liberation Movement Suite, which was a nine movement suite that paid homage to Eldridge, (which maybe was just a reflection of his commissioning of the suite), Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, etc.

Cal Massey also played at the original Red Rooster, of which the contemporary Red Rooster is sort of a historical imaginative recreation. So I brought this to the attention of Chef and Owner Marcus Samuelsson, who is really interested in bringing back this history, music and culture to the community using the restaurant as a vehicle. So we put this work together, and with a lot of gracious support from Red Rooster, and what would become Ginny’s (at that time it was called the Red Rooster downstairs), we premiered this work with a 16 piece big band. I was playing baritone saxophone, and also producing and doing publicity for it to try to bring different communities out. So that’s the beginning of Ginny’s.

Since then, they’ve gone on, and they’ve had Roberta Flack there, and other acts of this nature. But the next piece that I helped produce was this work with Arturo O’Farrill, and he produced and composed a new suite called The Offense of the Drum which we just premiered at Red Rooster Ginny’s.

KD: On Tuesday [June 19th, 2012]

BB: Yes.

KD: Can you explain, in brief, the ideas behind The Offense of the Drum, and your experience inside the work?

BB: Arturo came to the Cal Massey show, and really liked what he saw. We spoke on the phone and he was telling me about how he’s been thinking about similar themes, partly as a result of Occupy Wall Street... He’s become more interested in politics, and as as a a result integrating it more and more in his artistic life. He said:

I’m thinking about writing this suite. I’m thinking about drumming, and how drumming was used in Zuccotti Park. And I was thinking about [Mayor] Giuliani cracking down on the drumming circle, and I was thinking about the drumming there, and I was thinking about the drums 400 years ago, used amongst the slaves to communicate resistance, and create a common culture and common language, and that’s where this music comes from.

Not only was he working in this direction, but he wanted to bring that to Ginny’s Red Rooster and have me be a part of it. So I set it up, Marcus and Andy Chapman, the other owner of Red Rooster, Arturo and Arturo’s manager Eric Oberstein and I sat down and started to discuss different ways we could work this into the Supper Club environment; adding a Cuban menu and cocktails to evoke that experience. We also wanted to explore the ways in which we could collaborate with a visual arts institution that was doing similar work. Immediately, El Museo Del Barrio came to mind since they are the representatives, culturally speaking of East Harlem, the Puerto Rican Diaspora, and Latin Americans more generally in the United States. And coincidentally enough, they were doing this exhibit with The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Queens Museum of Art called Caribbean: Crossroads of the World, which was exploring a lot of these same themes.

The Caribbean was a site of struggle and resistance with Maroon communities that actually survived for hundreds of years, and became independent as a site of drumming; and drumming as a site of really rich evocative experience, but also had something that was social and historical. So for instance, in the English colonies drumming was banned. In 1739 in South Carolina, there was an event called The Stono Rebellion where 20 slaves overpowered their master of the plantation and escaped, got their drums and weapons, and went to a hilltop outside Charleston, and started drumming, and they summoned dozens. Their ranks raised to more than one hundred. 

The revolt/revolution [Stono Rebellion] didn’t succeed, however. But what it spoke to was not only the drum as a weapon, but the fact the fact that the English actually banned the drum under the American colonialist. They clearly saw a threat, whereas in the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, like Brazil and Cuba, they weren’t as adamant about banning this music. And that’s why in Cuba, for example,  you have these rich polyrhythmic expressions.

Robin [D. G.] Kelley and others have written about [how] polyrhythm represents a unity in the diaspora. So you have all these different identities that are being articulated within these overlapping rhythms, and that’s what Caribbean: Crossroads really speaks to: The difference, the unity, the experience of racism and imperialism and colonialism, how that was overcome, and how that was internalized in the subject.

The Offense of the Drum looks at the drum today as a political tool in Zuccotti Park. It’s looking at the drum historically as a metaphor, an actuality of African diasporic culture and history, and how it brought all these different people together. I was so excited to bring this work to Ginny’s because I thought that this is really what the community of Harlem needs. This is what the music community needs, and this is what we need to be talking about right now in 2012.

KD: Thank you so much for breaking that down so eloquently.