Seeing Matana Roberts at ATP late last year was something of a revelation. Out of the freezing wastes, she performed a set of such bluesy, beat warmth it was like being in the presence of fire. She was trialling a brand new saxophone and coaxed wooden, reedy sounds from its depths, using the silence of the room to bounce percussive knocks off the dampened circular walls of the Reds bar.
Given what little I knew of her work, I’d been expecting a different kind of fire that day, something harsher. Alongside her solo work, she’s played in a number of band situations, with Josh Abrahams and Chad Taylor in Sticks and Stones, in Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar Collective, plus her work over the years with her ‘UK group’ which culminated in the Live in London set released earlier this year, a record of a raucous night at the Vortex club. She also has a long history of performing with the illuminati of the Montreal post-rock scene – all of which has resulted in a body of work that is always fierce, always exploratory and always alive with possibility.
All that said, nothing really prepared me for the impact of her new album, Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres. It’s a huge ensemble piece, featuring 15 musicians, and is the first recorded part (Matana has played various other segments of the suite live before now) of a 12-part suite exploring Matana’s ancestry, her peoples’ ancestry and what she calls a ‘childhood fascination with ghosts, spirits, spooks, and the faint traces of what they leave behind’. Within its boundless emotional and musical territory, she has assembled an extraordinary array of influences and sound experiments: traditionals, references to Oscar Brown and Dr. John, call and response techniques, tone poems, rampant fire passages that summon images of Ayler and Coltrane, raucous New Orleans rags. And then there are three wrenching passages of primal screaming where Roberts gives herself over to another space, another time, the voice and the body becoming an instrument of attempted communication, giving a glimpse into the unrepresentable void of the horrors visited upon the people of the African American diaspora. Roberts has called this method of melding different techniques and technologies a kind of musical quilting, something which extends to her use of a bespoke system of graphic notation, plus her inclusion of photographs and artefacts within the artwork. Coin Coin has the feel of a major work and it doesn’t feel hyperbolic to mention it alongside the likes of Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite and Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues and The Cry of My People.
Matana was kind enough to answer a few of our questions. All images by Scott McMillan.
You seem to lead a fairly peripatetic existence – where are you at present and what’s happening around you?
Today I am in Harlem New York. It’s summer in NY, so it’s a nice time to be here.
How has 2011 been for you so far?
Tough. My mother and my mentor (Fred Anderson) both died around this time last summer so it’s been a really rough year. My mother was fairly young and so her death was really unexpected at this point in my life. So I am grappling with a lot of new ways of seeing my life at present and this is of course affecting my thoughts on my creative voice as well.
You’ve played in band situations in the past – have you always had in mind something as ambitious as the 15-piece band you assembled for the various chapters of Coin Coin? Could you tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea for the project?
Yes, Coin Coin represents a segment of my work that I had been piecing together before I even realized it was what I was doing. It has been a very organic process. Coin Coin is multi-segmented because I have about that many areas of enquiry based around the historical subject matter of the American South as in it relates to my own ancestral history as well as a continued an interest in spooks, ghosts and spirits and the universality of humanness outside of boundaries of race, gender and class.
There is a real complexity to the weave of Marie Therese Metoyer’s story and the ways in which it intersects with the wider story of the African diaspora and also your own childhood and upbringing. Is there some kind of fate in the entwinement of your nicknames do you think?
It’s not so much about her story, as it is about my people’s history and the ways in which family oral tradition informed my upbringing – especially as it pertains to a matrilineal through line. I am hinting at a woman’s voice for sure though, and in some ways hers, but it’s under a very large umbrella of story telling that is a huge part of the African American diasporic experience – documented and undocumented. There is really no direct single signifier.
You’ve spoken in the past about your experiments with collage and decoupage and how historical objects carry the traces of those that held or used them and the Coin Coin project somehow has the feel of something that could easily accommodate so much more in terms of media and artifacts – is it something you’d like to expand on?
Yes, I created this project so that I could do just that. I have started doing sound art based on the work.
And was this behind your graphic notation system used in band rehearsals for the live performances of the various chapters?
I am a very visual person and western notated music does not always encompass the depth of what I wish to hear but graphic notation does.
It seems wrong somehow to isolate chunks from the overall recording but could you tell us a bit about the following sections and how you came to use/choose them? i) your adaptation of Oscar Brown Jr.’s ‘Bid ‘Em In
I am a big fan of Oscar Brown Jr. I had decided that I wanted a slave auction in the piece and set out to write my own, doing research on the history of auctioneering in America, which is quite fascinating. Then my mother gave me a book of poetry of his and it included this auction poem (I have actually never heard his recorded musical version) – I loved the poem so much, and combined it with other auctions I found and went from there.
ii) the extraordinary screams and guttural explosions that feature in pov piti
there are three primal screaming exploratory sections in the entire piece. I wanted to create a platform that would allow me to explore this sensation and it seemed to fit well in the first chapter of this work.
and iii) the evocation of the kalinda dance that closes the performance?
Almost every chapter of Coin Coin deals with traditional folk songs/Americana type melodies and beyond as it pertains to the story i am exploring of some kind or traditional American song forms. This melody is based on a folk song melody that was common to this Louisiana region I speak of in the piece.
How does your deployment of ‘chance strategies’ influence how these live performances eventually turn out?
It is different every time but there are very particular hallmarks that are always there and constant. I have really only scratched the surface and hope to go deeper as I continue on this path.
And finally, if we can be selfish for a minute, is there any chance of you touring this set or bringing any of the Coin Coin pieces over to the UK?
I would love to, but have no idea how that might happen. It would take some real strategy to pull off.