Kamasi - shaken, stirred, enthralled

Updated: Aug 30, 2019, 07:23 IST | Rosalyn Dmello

Kamasi's control over his instrument was as if he were completely one with it. He was never garrulous, no note was ever excessive

Kamasi's saxophone notes are bathed in the glory of a communal hymn
Kamasi's saxophone notes are bathed in the glory of a communal hymn

Rosalyn D'MelloI took my seat a little before 9 pm. It was left-most in the front row — A16. I was slightly tipsy from pre-concert drinks. I kept all my belongings on the floor beside me and gathered myself, wrapping a shawl around me in anticipation of my hyper-sensitivity to air conditioning. The lights of the lovingly restored Royal Opera House dimmed. The curtains lifted, revealing a set stage with two drum kits poised across from each other. Out came Kamasi Washington with his band. There was no introduction. None was needed. He launched into 'Street Fighter Mas', soon arriving at the peak of musical inebriation. Upfront, I saw Kamasi stare into the centre of the auditorium, but it seemed as though he was peering into a third space that was neither here nor there. It was a mentally accessible dimension and his inhabitation of it seemed to add to his on-stage presence. It was like he was checked into himself and was drawing out a soul wail.

Over the next two hours, I frequently found myself clutching onto something as if to hold myself back from slipping into the exhilarating vortex. I briefly mused that the significant difference between Miles Davis's music and Kamasi's is that while Miles's seems to come quite obviously from a space of deep suffering and pain, Kamasi's scores are exuberant, celebratory. Miles's trumpet solos feel solitudinal while Kamasi's saxophone notes are bathed in the glory of a communal hymn. The fullness of the music gives it the aura of a church congregation that's been collectively possessed by the spirit and is now speaking in harmonious tongues. Miles was a noted misogynist. Kamasi's leadership style, on the other hand, leans towards a feminist sensibility. His performance style hadn't even a trace of narcissism. He introduced each of his fellow musicians, including his father, multiple times so their names registered in your consciousness. And, he spoke of love, and how our differences shouldn't be merely tolerated so much as celebrated. His masculinity seemed to me like an internalisation of the empowering self-confidence of Malcolm X, the inspiring kindness and love-centric discourse of Martin Luther King, with a smattering of the intellectual grace of Cornell West. But that's probably me projecting.

It was addictive, watching Kamasi's control over his instrument as if he were completely one with it. He was never garrulous, no note was ever excessive. He was restrained even when it seemed as if he had surrendered completely to the outpouring. I was awestruck. How does one achieve such a level of active presence in one's art-making practice? It was as if he had reached a state of being by which he was permanently ready to be a conduit and an interlocutor.

That morning, I had been transcribing a long conversation I'd had with my artist friend, Mithu Sen. She was speaking about potentiality and found herself referencing the female body and its ovaries. For her, making art was about being in a state of certain readiness where you were waiting for contact with something that feels external to you, that can only be imbibed from the world in which you belong in order to fertilise your consciousness. Artistic presence, she seemed to suggest, was about an intervention between the world outside and the world within, and how the two collided and commingled to evolve a third state. I always termed that level of consciousness 'being in the flow'. It's when everything comes together and there is a current that connects the brain to the heart to soul to fingertips. The physical manifestation or consequence is what I like to call my art.

The moments I find myself inside the flow are marked by the deliciousness of an otherwise inconceivable joy. Clarice Lispector called it a state of grace. From my first-hand experience I've fathomed that being able to stay in that state has to do with the act of listening, which, as a verb has the connotation of actively tuning into the frequency of the self; or perhaps a notion of the self that is so expansive it encompasses so much more than that which lies beyond the boundaries of one's own consciousness. Is listening also the beginning of empathy? And where does rage fit in? How does one transform one's anger against the world's continuing injustices through the prism of one's art?

Even though I desperately hoped Kamasi would end with his subversive 'Clair de Lune', I was elated when he announced 'Fists of Fury'; a poignant protest piece that derives its title from the Bruce Lee film. Lee has actually been on my mind a lot since I learned how his philosophy of consciousness — Be Water — has been the inspiration for the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters. "Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless — like water," says his martial arts instructor character in the TV series, Longstreet. "Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or creep, or drip, or crash." In Kamasi's version, it is the fist that has this transformational potential through the spectrum of symbolic gestures it is capable of making.

I like the metaphor of the fist. It comes closest to the part of the body that performs the act of writing. And I love the evocation of the titular fury, it personifies the role rage plays in my consciousness because I am incapable of distancing myself from the impact of the world's injustices. Mostly I find conceptual resonance in the idea of art as more than narcissistic self-expression.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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