As a name, Afro-Jersey conjured for me the image equivalent of a garage band, not I might add, a particularly serious one. Improbably transnational, or more specifically transcontinent-state which is even more improbable, the name sounded throw away, and so I supposed the quality of music might be equally so: casual to insouciant, a start-up easy to set down. Of the moniker’s amalgam, trio member Marlon Cherry seems to concur. The geographical marriage between Conarkey, Guinea and Park Ridge, New Jersey are the global roots respectively, of djeme master Sidiki Conde and Terre Roche from the sister singing group once a duo, then a trio, and now a kind of dynasty with performers of both genders spinning into music careers of their own. On the decision behind the band’s name Marlon shrugs off a joke: “I really don’t know what Afro-Jersey means. I’m from North Carolina so I’ve got nothing to do with that.”
The compilation of songs, all written by trio members with the exception of the last, gives audial witness to events of the day, the decade, the shaping of what one could say is still a nascent century. While themes address the lure of the ladder of class, problem generation of garbage, representative government after dictatorships, and there is even a hymn to the Occupy movement, the songs are light-hearted and ironic, not spirituals like early slave songs, and not anthems of resistance like union songs or those from the 60s era anti-war movements. In “American Autumn,” the stealth with which austerity masticated our material security is summed up: “none of us could have imagined one percent of ourselves putting on a royal pageant while the rest worked on like elves.” The Patriot Act which criminalized guarantees we took for granted is obliquely hinted at through reaction: “our leaders went berserk.” In “Alpha Conde,” titled after Guinea’s sitting president, oppression under French colonialism, IMF and World Bank controls, and current resource grabs by international conglomerates receive provisional cover in the celebration around the instance of its first (foreign-monitored) election. The infectious rhythms of “Tsunami” remind us that capital’s flight, including that from drugs, has its own rhythm and it is fickle: “take a shower in money . . . and let it go.” Politics abound, yet so non-doctrinally it is entirely possible not to notice. As the songs soothe rather than rev, the polemics come through what Afro-Jersey, with Garry Dial on piano and keyboards, Vincent Nguini on electric guitar, Moist Paula Henderson on baritone sax, and Roger Greenawalt on pedal steel, does with the music and how.
The single song not the trios’ own, “Shenandoah,” comes last. From the first note Marlon Cherry steals your senses whole the way Italians say fire in the hearth steals your thoughts. Velvet is velvet is velvet. His voice seems to come elsewhere than from his body. Deborah Ross, friend of the trio, says: “It is as if you are suddenly listening to Perry Como with a drink in your hand.” Marlon provides the base and reason for the song. He rolls out longing to the object of longing, the river. Addressing it by pronoun, the river becomes more than anthropomorphized; the speaker feels it existentially complete “just to be near you.” Marlon’s is a voice beautifully male at a time when it may seem to many there is so little that is. Aggregate systems of social order – i.e., war, torture, interrogation, surveillance, organized religion with its mores, economics with its trade systems, law with its theories, demarcation of land with its namings and christenings, all germinated in the minds of men and endure with what seems exponential violence. An index for this condition is not only that the pejorative ‘testoterone poisoning’ proliferates throughout popular mediums, but that the term hatched immediate recognition in the first instance. Is there something, anything at all, signified by gender? Let us imagine a dance where the performer wears a padded costume. If at some point during the performance, after we long settled into passivity, the dancer removes layers to reveal gender, for how many of us would the aspect of this figure at least slant toward, at least a beginning of, story? However cosmetic, medical and technological apparatuses, and in some cases nature itself, may work to modify gender’s binary states, one is seed and one is shelter, food. A scientifically contrived male conception would be more controlled construction than birth, and however imprisoning one can feel one’s sex to be, scientifically altering it in the end works to reinforce the gamut of properties checked within those prisons. Can we never be relieved of this ancient determination? As with the Romance languages, all is experienced, even objects themselves, with this distinct assignation. What does a soprano signify? Longing flows to the estuary feminine when Terre, with not only voice but with gendered noun, brings in the stanza, “Shenandoah, I love your daughter.” Her voice carries Marlon’s base and reason somehow upward until it blurs boundary as the estuary blurs. So enveloping is her addition, it took nearly fifty listenings at elevated volume inside a cabin in the Catskills before I attached words to a point that should have been obvious from the start: in this piece she took no solo. Cascading with Garry Dial’s lilting piano, the sound is pure as rambling water.
As a song, “Shenandoah” is classified traditional, meaning it became popularized as it shed recognition of its composer. It offers Americana in a preponderant, mythical representation; the image of a river, fierce, mighty, unbridled. I for one, count among the many for whom traditional Americana songs cause some moments of discomfort, a confused non-alliance. The sentimental, romantic song in praise of the frontier embodies the concept of freedom, and those of us taught these sentiments when young can remember how sweet was the myth. But from moments of the country’s inception through the long march to Empire, we learned in instance after instance, this freedom suffered need of another name. Best to abandon the call to that sweetness in favor of a nostalgia for what never was. To this insider’s tension, what can an African, with vast tensions of a vastly different order, possibly contribute? Yet when Sidiki enters as the tertiary interlocutor, what dimension is given song simply by words in the Mandigo language. Particularity is to the universal what the universal, or at least diversity pitched wide as Missouri, is to the particular back again. Sidiki’s is a voice, should we call it that simply, unerring and free. Where has a person been, in this world of infinite relativities, to be so right? How does one come to a place of authority which rejects authority, which is right by a measure which measures nothing?
In the film “Painting,” Gerard Richter is asked how he knows when something is right, and therefore finished. He explains by tautology: “When nothing is wrong anymore.” As the Russian artist Kasmir Malevich explored: “I transformed myself in the zero of form . . . and escaped from the circle of things, from the horizon-ring that confines the artist and forms of nature.” Sidiki is right like that rare poem which, as a friend once aptly described, “lifts off the page.”
The trio’s three particulars, situated within their particular genders and ethnicities, their geographies and histories, forge something of a new order. In spite of the singular quality of Sidiki’s voice and the addition of his mother tongue, the three weave through the lines of “Shenandoah” with nothing resembling hierarchy or a best-for-last cliché. It is ordered in the zero of such a form, an order that flows like the river bounds across variegated terrain, gathering particulars on its way. So transported is this state, in the immediate silence of the song’s cessation there hollows out a feeling of loss. Why isn’t the remaining world more like the world of this one?
In the cabin deep in the Catskills there lies a multitude of CDs. All are loved. Yet for the particular now that forms this moment, “Shenandoah” is entry to an altered state. As written in Corinthians: “When that which is perfect has come, that which is in part shall be done away.” While there descend moments which demand we adhere to particulars so as to assure their political freedoms, where is freedom most tangible than in realms, like this utopia-mirrored river, most intangible? As a poem frees from its page, as Malevich’s Black Square frees from its surface, Afro-Jersey’s rendition of “Shenandoah” as celebrated common song, celebrates in the common woman and man a longing, nostalgia even, for all that defies name and remains unharnessable. I hit replay, full-circle over and over, just to be near it.
Patricia Dahl is an artist and activist. Her writings have appeared in a number of political journals.