at Cafe Voltaire, through March 30

“I was born black with anger,” the Funky Wordsmyths shout. This is a defining line in their Tuesday-night shows at Cafe Voltaire: Like Africa, it’s the cradle land, the source of everything. But like Africa, it can also be enigmatic and frightening. Seeing and hearing the Funky Wordsmyths–a fascinating performance group that incorporates spoken word and music–it’s impossible not to see Africa, with all its beauty and horror. There is mystery here in the wonderful wordplay and music. But there’s danger too, in the unrestricted emotion.

No matter how much we may want to see beyond the darkness of Africa, the Funky Wordsmyths refuse us that privilege. “As members of the Afrikan Diaspora,” says one of the group’s fliers, “[we] lack the luxury of self-pitying anxiety.” So why should we–those of us who are not black–have the luxury of pretending we don’t see the obvious? The Funky Wordsmyths adamantly remind us, not that they’re black, but that we never forget they’re black. Watching and listening to them, it’s possible to become so involved with our own emotions about our place in the fragile jigsaw of racial relations that we can’t get beyond ourselves. That’s a possibility they acknowledge.

But the strange, ironic paradox of their potentially alienating dynamic is that its very essence is inclusion: when the Funky Wordsmyths lay out their stories, whether angry or funny, we all–black, white, Latino, whatever–have a place in the landscape. It may not be a comfortable place. It may not be a particularly honorable place. But it is familiar.

The experiences detailed in the Funky Wordsmyths’ repertoire of poems, songs, and raps are distinctly those of young urban African American males. By nature, they are reactive experiences. These men don’t have the luxury of passivity or leisurely indifference any more than they have the luxury of anxiety. They don’t present what they talk about as universal experiences but as their experiences.

What includes everybody in the telling of these stories is the space the Funky Wordsmyths allow for our responses. This space–which accommodates everything from a “right on” shouted back at the performers to a sigh to a personal epiphany–recognizes the obvious: we may all live the same moment, but because of the cultural and personal prism through which we view it, we will see it differently.

This constantly responsive dynamic–the artists reacting to the world around them and calling to us, then us responding to them–is distinctly African. This is the bembe, the gospel refrain, the salsa break, scat singing. It also holds up a surreal mirror to reality: we are all in constant response, there is no way to be indifferent. Even ignoring the call is a response. There’s no melting pot here but a bubbling cauldron.

It’s no accident then that the Funky Wordsmyths describe themselves as part of a diaspora, not just as African Americans. The latter is linear and final; the former acknowledges both loss and linkage of a circular, chaotic nature. It explains their use of a European language (what choice have they got?) and mixing European and African instruments and musical idioms. It includes being African and American but it also implies they’re citizens of the world.

If the Funky Wordsmyths’ artistic and musical soup seems uncategorizable–made up as it is of reggae and jazz, hip-hop and rock, poetry, dub, religion, and whatever else–that might well be the result of our Western/European penchant for specificity. And the Funky Wordsmyths don’t specialize in any one genre: the complexity lies in their ability to incorporate everything so effortlessly. The key is to see the big picture, to see Africa.

This is, of course, political art. But it is not political because of any imposition by the artists. How could these guys make art that’s true to their lives and not be political? Yet if art is supposed to move us, disturb us, or cause us to think, then what the Funky Wordsmyths do is the most powerful kind.


at the Elbo Room, February 28

A few days after seeing the Funky Wordsmyths I saw Lynn Book, one of my favorite performance artists, rip through a fantastic one-night stand at the Elbo Room with bassist Tatsu Aoki. One of the highlights of the evening was a long, deliberately anxious piece about flying, which assumed we would recognize her experience as our own. What I realized then was that it was impossible not to see Europe in her work.

It is true that Book uses jazz as the basis for most of her new “sound” work, and jazz is, of course, an African American form. But the way Book uses jazz–as a romanticized vehicle for her vocal phrasings–is distinctly European. Aoki’s expert playing is controlled and studied. Here the music is presented as cerebral, exotic, pure. Yet, in all honesty, the music has been appropriated–something Europeans tend to do.

In contrast to the Funky Wordsmyths’ urgency, Book’s work was leisurely. While they wrestled with the absurdities of their everyday life, she observed hers ironically. While the Funky Wordsmyths risked alienating us by manifesting their own alienation, Book assumed our alienation and hers were the same, making no demands.

This is not to say that Book did not provoke responses. She is a marvelous vocal technician, a real master. But while the Funky Wordsmyths cultivated an immediate response, for Book–as for Europe–our responses were secondary, and to the extent they did exist they were meant to be savored, lingered over. That is, what Book did–the conquering of our senses–was what was important. Our responses, whatever they were, were our own concern. There was no space allowed for them, except as applause between pieces and after the show in private conversation.

At her performance, Book’s seduction of our senses was vital and exquisite. She is an artist of tremendous range and sensitivity, and one who is constantly pushing herself and her art. I can’t think of a time when Book has moved me as much, or when I’ve enjoyed her performance more. Yet I couldn’t help but notice that while the Funky Wordsmyths struggled with how to reshape an imposed language as their own in order to survive, Book rejected language, confident of being able to strike a universal note through natural and not-so-natural sounds of her own invention. That kind of assurance comes with privilege. That’s Europe. In Book’s case, it’s also honest and authentic.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.