“The theatre of the book.” So says Matana Roberts during an impromptu post-gig Q&A with the audience in reply to a question about whether she was holding a bible in her hand as she narrated. It was indeed the word of god at her fingertips but customised with scores and other texts used liberally throughout what was an engrossing, very often challenging presentation that defied standard definitions when she appeared at London’s Café Oslo earlier this week.
The conjunction of sound, image, electronic manipulation and acoustic improvisation falls tantalisingly between performance art and jazz, and as the singular Brooklynite says herself the dramatic implications of reading from a religious tome, which she has also taken pleasure in defacing, are not to be downplayed. Roberts creates something with and beyond music, and the fragmented but cyclical nature of the production seems to adroitly mirror the turning of sacred pages.
On stage with a small mixing desk, sampler, laptop, alto saxophone and microphone, Roberts, quite tellingly, appears anything but an isolated figure, first and foremost because she has a 3D charisma that radiates across the room like the dreadlocks springing antenna-like from her head. Secondly, the visuals projected on to a big screen behind her, replete with skillfully tapestried tableaux of pre and post-Emancipation Americans, black and white, form a kind of virtual cast of characters, thus lending more weight to tonight’s source material, the Coin Coin: Gens De Couleur ‘colored folks heritage’ project of which three lavishly praised albums have been released since 2011.
Roberts, whose Chicagoan roots, formative years among black radicals and early experiences playing with the AACM, always suggested she might break a mould or two, is pushing the envelope on multi-media creativity in the widest sense. The grainy loops she triggers are almost like an unsettling on-the-run breath against which smatter recitation and choruses sung with Jeanne Lee’s tonal gymnastics and an ashen starkness slightly recalling Abbey Lincoln circa We Insist!, and they potently conjoin to the trance-carousel of portraits screened in a similarly insistent rhythm. Round and round again comes the most resonant sight – the freight train – the symbol of both expanding industry and solace for slaves set to escape the horrors of bondage.
If the short but potent horn solos, which shift from a lithe mid-range sensuality to ruggedly explosive ascents, mark a vivid contrast with the audio-visual circularity elsewhere then the range of nuance Roberts brings to the simple but utterly haunting vocal line ‘Doctor, doctor I’m ill, master, master I’m ill” is vital. It is the central motif of the evening. With a project of this magnitude the setting as well as the staging are of paramount importance and although the audience receives the work in rapt concentration one might argue that the focus would have been even sharper had the venue offered seating as opposed to a standing space. Given the density of the material on all levels – emotional, cerebral, sonic, visual – it seems we need to feel as rooted and motionless as possible to grasp the penetrating motion of Coin Coin, especially in the moments when Roberts is at her most confidential and confrontational, whispering “I like to tell stories” without the rejoinder that the process can induce as much inquisition as sublimation.
There are also a few wrinkles in the mix whereby her words – and this is a gig where not one fragment of text is superfluous – are too low to be divined. Yet for these shortcomings this performance feels like an important event. Concerts in which form and content are neither borne of nor executed with conventional means are rare these days, but so are the vision, courage and conviction of Roberts. She rounds off the Q&A by pinpointing the need for America to recognise its Native American as well as African American origins, making the alarmingly repetitious roll of exploitation and dehumanization in history burst one more time on to the screen Roberts constructs in the mind of her congregation. The train offering salvation is timeless and universal, be its provenance Mississippi, Calais or Budapest. The words of those who have the power to decide who has a tilt at some semblance of a life and who doesn’t appear stuck in the grimmest of grooves. Matana Roberts inspires with her open wound examination of the Deep South just a day after Theresa May prescribes a bitter pill up north, by claiming that migration is a threat to a ‘cohesive society.’ Doctor, doctor, she’s ill.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Roger Thomas