Deep Roots of Rock and Roll: a Black Rock Coalition premiere

Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University, November 23, 2013

I have never before visually witnessed a cultural offering like the BLACK ROCK COALITION. I WAS GREATLY IMPACTED BY THE FULL STAGE.

When I got into the room, I noted the complex keyboard layout to my visual right from the front of the stage electronic keyboard to Hammond B3 organ with a full upright piano forming a tight angle to the section. In the center front of the stage there was one mike on a stand. There was a line of 6 chairs each with a mike stand in front.

Toshi Reagon’s stage plot

Moving to my left there was a small table with a set up, mike and chair. Moving back and across were several speakers waiting for instrument plug ins and players with instruments, there was on the back line a drum set and another speaker. It looked like a skeletal design for what???

The filled stage was magnificent; the small table was a radio DJ station with Carl Hancock Rux threaded us through a magnificent historical musical journey from 19th century roots to the contemporary world of Black Rock music. When the musicians took their places, I realized that Toshi Reagon, conceptual producer, had moved the entire orchestral based production on stage in full view for the entire evening. Only one performer, the great Nona Hendrix, moved on and off the stage for her powerful performances. The rest of the cast walked on as an ensemble, took and held their places and stayed charged and focused, with no drop in energy.



Photo credit: Kevin Yatarola

Carl Hancock Rux kept us, the audience, aware of where we were in the journey. There were acknowledgements of contributors whose music we did not hear, but we heard their names in historical context that kept us in touch with a rich, wide unfolding line of creative exploration and advancement in recordings, radio, producers, musicians, singers, touring across a two century span.

The six chairs were filled with talented singers. I recognized Jason Walker, Karma, and Marcelle Davies Lashley, with whom I have been blessed to work with many times. They were leads, charged backup chorus, and onstage audience reflecting to us what audience support was…

From this group came the incredible tributes to the women giants who created the place for lead singers. There was a wonderful rendition of gospel composer William Herbert Brewster’s “How I Got Over” led by Marcelle backed up by the singing ensemble. These singers were superb backup singers and soloists offering fierce renderings to the line of great women singers creating the 20th century line. The keyboardist was a wonder, moving seamlessly from one keyboard to another and charging that corner of the stage with lightning intensity.

If this was a Toshi Reagon thing, then where was BIGLovely? Fred Cash on bass held down the back line of the orchestra. He was in movement and in the middle of one number, he was no longer facing the audience. He turned moving down a cleared path playing the bass and syncing the elements from his bass past the drums in the hands of BIGLovely’s Bird, to the lead guitarist and then back again to his station facing us – I have never seen that before.

Forward front, working from Rux’ station toward the center, was my first child, the creator of this wonder, Toshi Reagon in full bloom, lead singer, backup, guitarist, herder; singing duet with Nona Hendrix…

When the evening was over, I staggered out knowing that I had
witnessed a new thing. It felt like one of my conceptual conferences celebrating one component of African American tradition stressed out over three days – compacted into one evening unfolding from one stage – and the orchestra was not in the pit, the orchestra was mainline with the singers – with the narrator and the conductor never turning her back to the audience.

Sometimes it is good to live to see the next thing…

Bernice Johnson Reagon

From the program: On Deep Roots Of Rock n Roll

by Toshi Reagon

Toshi Reagon performing at Deep Roots of Rock and Roll Photo: Kevin Yatarola

Toshi Reagon performing at Deep Roots of Rock and Roll Photo: Kevin Yatarola

I could do this show every night of an entire year and never repeat a song. We could go all the way back to the Mother Land and sing our original songs before we were stolen and brought here over the time of four centuries. We will start near the end of the 19th century where we, Black people forced Freedom and democracy on a not-ready nation. Where an explosion of creativity resided within us along with surviving un- imaginable brutality. Where Freedom does not mean openness, and clean, clear space, safety, love. Where freedom means a grinding of gears – force, constant everyday battle with the Idea of what it could be in your heart and mind so that you stay the course and don’t lose yourself.

I imagine that one of the best ways to visit/reside in that world/energy called Freedom would be to sing. Sing power, sonic power, Vibrations. Use your voice, stomp your feet, find a stick, make a drum, strike strings with a bow, blow a fife, a horn, hit the keys of a piano, stomp melodic madness. Let the electricity flow and turn on your organ, your electric guitar—make a wah wah cry like a baby. Dress up in anything and everything, be grand, be innovative, explode the truth that you know from the bottom to the top of your being. Call out the injustice. Call out joy, Call out to Jesus. Tell the truth about a nation built on violence, lies and segregation, and exploitation. Teach the whole world how to do it. How to say their names. How to sweat in the holiness of Freedom. How We Got Over.

If you let these sounds, and these dead souls teach you, you will realign inside of this world. You will want to be fit enough, and clear enough to find your voice in a congregation. You will want to be able to be strong enough to plow through the acres to plant food. You will want to be undoing systems of exploitation and violence, because it makes no sense at all to make/hear such an incredible sound and then turn around and be so wrong. I think we should do this show every year at many different places in many different ways. Hold us to our truth. Remind us that people who woke up one morning at home ended up in a cave, in chains, planked on a boat, rode across an ocean for the first time ever, tortured. Turned into a value against rum, sugar, beads, and the start of a credit-based financial system. They arrive with home in their bodies. They used the sound that their bodies could make to stay somewhere in the line of life. That is why I am alive. The is not just the Deep Roots of Rock, it is the Deep Roots of my everything.

The exploration and living of this music is not just a good musical activity, it is a necessary life discipline. Much negotiation happened to create and record this music—even as we stopped enslaving people in this country. Our system of governing, and our financial system was/is still set deep in the values of exploitation, violence.

Doing this research, I found that money, technology, and Injustice went everywhere the music went. The racial divide made it so that by the 1970’and ‘80s it seemed strange that Black played rock. At the age of 3, I sang Motown. At the age of 4, I asked for a Jimi Hendrix record. I loved Funkadelic, LaBelle, Rufus, Zeppe- lin, Black Sabbath, Joni Mitchell, and I noticed anything White people sang, no matter what genre of music, was called Rock or Pop. I almost never heard Black voices on those radio stations. When folks said, “what is your favorite station”, I had four. Thank the Lord for a mom who took her kids everywhere. Folk festivals, church, and protest rallies. For a mom who bought tickets so I could see KISS, Jethro Tull, Yes, and Heart, but handed me Big Mama Thornton records at the same time. The world widened.

White folks and Black folks told me I could not sing rock. I did it anyway. It was a battle until I walked into a re- cord store with friends and saw a poster of Nona Hendrix in a leather jacket—and the store blasting “Winning” from her new solo recording. I turned to my friends and said, “See we do sing Rock in Roll. Hahahahaha…” Before NY, I lived in DC. One of my first bands was a rock trio with Ann Hairston and Meshell Ndegeocello. We were awesome and very young. When that band split up I felt alone until I moved to NYC and saw a band called Living Colour. Until I heard Tamar-kali raise fire with her throat, until I hear Marc Anthony Thompson sing perfectly, Carl Hancock Rux read a poem, Karma Mayet Johnson sing like it’s 1936. Until I heard Kat Dyson play whatever she wants on the guitar. Until I heard Marcelle Davies Lashley keep her faith in every note she sings no matter what it is she sings. Until I met Fred Cash and witnessed him use his bass to teach NY bands how to play together. If Fred is in your band, your band will be better than it was. I could go on and on about every single person on this show, and hundreds who are not. The point is—We are here and it has been invigorating and sunshine to my soul to turn to this music, and these people who created…it living and dead…to find my place, hold and continue the line forward.

Members of tonight’s Black Rock Coalition Orchestra

Toshi Reagon
Music Director, Vocals/Guitar
Carl Hancock Rux
Nona Hendryx
Vernon Reid
Corey Glover
Marcelle Davies Lashley
Jason Walker
Karma Mayet Johnson
Marc Anthony Thompson
Matt Whyte
Kat Dyson
Fred Cash
Mimi Jones
Robert “Chicken” Burke
Jeremy Mage
Juliette Jones
V. Jeffery Smith
Adaku Utah
KiKi Hawkins
Asa Asa Lovechild
Ronny Drayton

Songs By

  • Rising Star Fife and Drum Band
  • Charley Patton
  • Memphis Minnie
  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe
  • Lead Belly
  • T Bone Walker
  • Fats Domino
  • Big Maybelle
  • Bo Diddley
  • Chuck Berry
  • Ike and Tina Turner
  • Little Richard
  • Mahalia Jackson with Herbert Brewster
  • Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon
  • Otis Redding
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Sly and The Family Stone
  • Led Zeppelin
  • Mother’s Finest
  • Nona Hendryx
  • Living Colour

Special thanks to LaRonda Davis and the Black Rock Coalition, Carl Hancock Rux, Nona Hendryx, Bernice Johnson Reagon and all of the artists. Everyone on the stage is incredible. It is an honor to be working with them. Please take their names, look them up if you don’t know them, and enjoy their work.

Very special thanks to Isabel Soffer, Abigail Buell, John Fistos and the entire staff at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Creative Arts