Writing so often (and in such crowded cafes), working alongside music aficionados, and teaching about New Orleans is forcing me to reconsider getting into jazz.
My knowledge of the form pretty much begins with Natalie Cole and ends somewhere in the blue with Miles Davis. And it’s not that I’m uninterested. But I’ve got a tendency to play what I like over and over until I’m sick of it. And since that process may take years, I miss a lot of great stuff in between. Like Cassandra Wilson…
…which popped up in my Pandora station one day (her ole fine self, singin like an angel…lawd).
Enter Matana (Mah-ten-ah) Roberts:
Roberts is on the sax. Yes. Her. GiViN it.
The clip above is from the London Jazz Festival in 2007 where she performed pieces from her album, the Chicago Project. But that’s not where I fell in love with her work. Roberts newest project is called Coin Coin, named after perhaps the most famous Gulf Coast free woman of color outside of Henriette Delille and Marie Laveau.
Maria Thereze “Coin Coin” Metoyer was born a slave at Natchitoches and became the mistress of her owner Claude Metoyer, a slaveowning French planter. Over the course of her life, she secured her own freedom, helped free her children and grandchildren, purchased land, started trading and planting enterprises, and became a slaveowning entrepreneur in her own right. Matana is one of her many descendants. This album is a tribute to that history and to her legacy:
Chapter one of Coin Coin begins in 1742, Metoyer’s birth year, and the entire cycle starts in 1685—as far back as Roberts has traced her family tree. (The trail ends in what’s now the UK, not in Africa.) Roberts is particularly interested in her connection to the Great Migration of the 20th century—her ancestors were part of it, moving to Chicago from Mississippi and Louisiana—but recently she’s pulled back from her family history in favor of something more universal. In chapter two she used an interview transcribed straight from her grandmother’s mouth, but newer portions of the work use fewer concrete biographical details and more family folklore. “I need to protect these people and their stories,” she says. “I may be telling their stories in a way that they didn’t want them to be told.”
Roberts uses new media in ways that gives me chills–and all in the service of women who deserve the absolute best that our creativity and technology has to offer:
“I started Coin Coin so that I could create my own compositional system, which at the time I was calling panoramic sound quilting,” Roberts says. “I noticed that I would write these things which weren’t full pieces. They were snippets, and I would spend a lot of time trying to edit them, but I couldn’t really figure out what to do with them. I also wanted to create a project so I could explore some other elements that I couldn’t really explore in some of the other bands I’ve been in, in terms of dealing with theater and spectacle.”
Roberts’ blog, In the Midst of Memory, is a digital archive of contemporary jazz, composition notes from the project, photos from her own past and so much more. It is the equivalent of 21st century liner notes. She describes the project in similar ways below:
WHAT IS COIN COIN?
COIN COIN is a compositional sound language, that I have been developing since 2006. My initial interest in creating this work came from my childhood fascination with ghosts, spirits, spooks, and the faint traces of what they leave behind. This project is a combination of those interests as well as my delight in musical communication ,the emotional contradictions of sensory memory, ritual adornment, and the genealogical 20th century history of Africans in America. The musical root of much of this work also stems from my continued attraction/repulsion to certain aspects of the American jazz tradition(s) of which I am deeply involved with as an alto saxophonist and performer.
The term “coin coin” is many sided in references here. To sum it up briefly, I’m trying to combine ideas of Location/Place– as in the french definition of “coin” —“corner” of my world…..Value–what is the cost of human space specifically as it relates to american culture and idea of “cost”… Legend/Oral tradition/Memory as it may or may not pertain to human DNA and the confusion it can play in the rendering of “tradition” , and ideas surrounding “Personal Politic” the metaphysical linkage/contradiction between difference vs. identity and how it relates, or does not relate to my “place” in the world as a sound explorer. Lastly, it is also a small shout out to snippets of my own ancestral lore.
The work is divided into 12 sound “chapters”.
To date 6 of 12 chapters have been explored in different sound configurations in the United States, Canada and Europe.
As if that weren’t enough, to download her album is to fall into another arena of the Coin Coin-Matana Roberts webscape. Alongside a list of stores where the album can be picked up, there are descriptions of the jackets and inserts worthy of a Library of Congress finding aid, links to listen to a streaming version of the album or download a “Coin Coin Album Mix,” and a short film directed by Radwan Moumneh.
The album itself is an unsettling cacophony that puts meat on the pain and confusion of slavery while still holding on to the creativity and industry of black women themselves. The stuff that helped them survive. It is music that is troubling and spirit-borne all at the same time.
Are there other artists doing what Roberts is? Writers, musicians, digital artists? Who inspires your art? Put me on game because I am always in need of more inspiration. I wanna live, yall. THIS is the work we need to be doing. This is new media, digital tech, sable fan gyrl shit at its damn best.
Many thanks to you, Matana, for being in the world.