November 25, 2022

Jake Blount’s “The New Faith” is an uplifting and clarifying Afrofuturist tale

Generations ago, gospel giantesses Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson each sang the rhetorical question, “Hasn’t it rained, children?” and bent time with the emphatic responses they provided. “Listen how it rains,” they urged, adopting the present tense, “all day, all night.” Their exuberant and imaginative readings of the scriptural event of the Great Flood bore witness to past divine judgment and deliverance, then immersed their followers in the immediacy of it, as if pressing their faces against the window of the ark. of Noah.

Jake Blount leaned into these archetypal versions of “Didn’t It Rain” and discerned a different resonance in the song. His interpretation of The New Faith, his new album, is as rhythmically lively as its predecessors, but the guitar solos he plays are deliberately destabilizing, insidious, volatile. A harsh, high-pitched hum extends over the recording. The story it tells foretells a day when a catastrophic flood, already unleashed upon the world, can never be contained or trusted to allow tranquility again.

It is a chapter of history that he unfolds on this revealing feature film, the story of a small group of black Americans who survived the environmental destruction of the earth and founded a new civilization with its own mythology, its belief and context for the former. Songs. “In my view of these people’s religion, because of what they went through and what their ancestors went through,” Blount explained in a recent interview, “they’re not going to talk about God as a strength that intercedes and saves them.”

The singer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist debuts The New Faithcalling himself an “unlikely devotee”. He talks about how his homosexuality has complicated his relationship with Christianity, the black church and its music, but he could just as well be referring to the divide between black folk and old songs which he is an expert on and the push fierce forward of Afrofuturism, to which he adds his transformative imprint on a concept album he dedicated to literary luminaries Octavia Butler and NK Jemisin.

As a performer and scholar, Blount took head-on the whitewashing of folk traditions, not to mention the heteronormative lens that was applied to them. When he excelled in competitions of yore in 2017 and 2019 at a venerable festival popularly known as Clifftop, he made it an enlightening moment, pointing out that he and some of his peers brought their darkness or queerness to this frame right next to their musical sense, just like his first solo album, 2020s spider tales, searched the buried lineages that he proudly perpetuates. That same year, Blount won the Steve Martin Banjo Award and, on this expanded platform, increased his advocacy. He joined the board of directors of the non-profit organization Bluegrass Pride and wrote a Dough editorial that dismantled an earlier piece by a white journalist that grouped black roots artists into a flattened category dubbed “Afro-Americana.” Blount’s sickest burn pointed out that the other writer apparently didn’t know his history when it came to things like the significant repetition in traditional black song forms and the artificial segregation embedded in the music industry since the 1990s. dawn of commercial recording.

This type of work – correcting false narratives, reclaiming the pioneering presence of BIPOC music makers and, very often, educating white audiences about the banjo’s West African roots – could have become consuming work, even for an artist with Blount. virtuoso abilities and conceptual leanings, if he had not sought to invest himself more in his enhancement of tradition. “Over time,” he explained, “I went from feeling like I was doing the job of educating people about it to feeling like I was exploring its meaning for me and for d ‘other people like me, and it doesn’t change anything, feel as much like work.” When he felt the precariousness of his own life and health as he endured a long COVID, he plumbed the depths of the spirituals and sacred blues numbers from the archives and his spirit led him into the future. It was then that he began an investigation into the prophetic evolution and the afterlife of old songs.

Musical expressions of Afrofuturism – as modeled by Sun Ra, Labelle, Parliament-Funkadelic, Digable Planets, OutKast and their relatives and descendants – have tended towards brilliant, technologically advanced fantasies that venture far beyond the world that we know. Blount is much more skeptical of the notion of technology as a relentless forward march. He writes present and future iterations of it from his song cycle, instead recreating the hiss and low-tech distortion of early recording techniques, some dating as far back as the era of wax cylinders. Anything digital he treats as relics of the destructive olden days – the kind of tools he envisions survivors, who have traveled to an island off the coast of New England, have to happen. “I believe our most likely future looks a lot like our past,” he wrote in the one-liners. “My view of the course of civilization does not involve glittering ships traversing the cosmos.” He invokes a historical pattern: Black Americans survive traumas that strip them of everything, then nourish their culture again.

Blount chose a capella field recordings of spirituals as his primary source and his unvarnished sound model. While the unaccompanied vocals of Vera Hall, Bessie Jones and Fannie Lou Hamer were ornate even in its starkness, it has plenty of room to fill with its instrumental arrangements. Hamer, a civil rights activist and community organizer from the South, sang “City Called Heaven” with resolute vibrato, expressing the severity and tension of staying on the path of conviction and not letting one’s vision be obstructed. Blount only adds throaty electric guitar and the watery hiss of what could be ocean waves, but it’s actually an amplifying effect, which he and his co-producer Brian Slattery have manipulated beyond recognition. . The two textures form a breathless pulsation which beats the recording, but does not disturb the elegant gravity of Blount.

Elsewhere, he favors rhythmic propulsion that mirrors and radically transcends familiar string band forms. Although the lyrics of “The Downward Road” paint an ominous picture of the environmental consequences of the abuse of power, its fiddle and banjo parts give the song a muscular churning made considerably more dashing by hand drums and slapping. tomorrow. It’s also the first album appearance by rapper Demeanor, whose verses are filled with flowing, cerebral, no-nonsense storytelling and whose aunt is Rhiannon Giddens, co-founder of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, the band that started created the model. to blend the traditions of black string band and hip-hop. Blount shaped his version of “Death Have Mercy” much like a hip-hop tune, with Demeanor’s tenacious, poetic verses carried mostly by Mali Obomsawin’s percussion and double bass and enhanced by Blount’s hooks. Elements of it, like the four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern, cut falsetto harmonies, and taut strings, also deliberately invoke disco. This experimentation, Blount explained, aims to invoke “the queer and black elements of pop music in recent history.” As its circular banjo silhouette drops, staccato and plucked chords materialize on one side of the mix, bounce off the other and disappear again, the combined textures suggesting the plea is taking place in a chaotic surreal environment.

During “Give Up the World”, delicate clawhammer banjo and fingerstyle guitar figures interlock and Blount engages in a call and response with himself, reasoning with warm solemnity before doing echo of a light and plaintive voice. Demeanor takes two verses, urging his audience to assess what’s valuable in existence: “Are you trying to tell me everything here is tangible? / What about love and gravity? / What about humanity not defined by anatomy? / What about the feeling on the back of your neck when you leave a room? / Or the fact that your momma can still see right through you? Blount makes “Once There Was No Sun,” originally sung by Bessie Jones as an encouraging retelling of a Genesis creation story, an ominous reminder that the cosmos hovers over a vulnerable earth. of backing vocals end up worrying a line, terrible strings take center stage, soaring and haunting, then plunge into fate. Midway through the piece, Blount introduces counterpoint, his plucked banjo arpeggios springing like fragile new life .

He divided the album into three movements: The Psalms of the Sentinel, the Master and the Gravedigger, each transition being preceded by recitations which he pronounces as orator, liturgist, chronicler of an oral history belonging to a remnant come to worship the ruthlessness of death above any deity. In religious traditions and pop culture portrayals, there is a tendency to dramatize the apocalypse in loud and jarring ways. Blount, however, sings and speaks from the eye of the musical storm that he has cultivated with a keen, collected alertness that is fascinating. He communicates all he has seen of the extraction of resources and the destruction of ecosystems; how he imagined the sound of a world as distant from him in time as the archaic sounds he studied; how much he knows about human nature and ingenuity. Following his voice and his vision is powerfully clarifying.

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