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Photo: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

Christian Scott ATunde Adjuah Discusses Music And Culture Ahead Of Prospect.5 Gala

By Noe Cugny for OffBeat

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is a five-time Grammy Award-nominated musician, composer and producer. His musical tutelage began at age 13 under the direction of his uncle, jazz innovator, Black Masking Indian chief and legendary sax man Donald Harrison Jr. After graduating from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) in 2001, Adjuah received a full-tuition scholarship to Berklee College of Music where he earned a degree in professional music and film scoring thirty months later.

Since 2002, Adjuah has released 12 critically acclaimed studio recordings, three live albums and one greatest hits collection. He is known for a distinctive emphasis on breath over vibration at the mouthpiece, a style Adjudah defines as his “whisper technique.” Adjuah is also the progenitor of “stretch music,” a jazz-rooted, genre-blind musical form that attempts to “stretch” jazz’s melodic conventions to encompass multiple musical forms, languages and cultures.

In advance of the Prospect.5 Gala on January 22, where Adjudah will perform as the headline act, the versatile musician spoke with Noé Cugny, OffBeat‘s videographer, in a wide-ranging interview about his music and dedication to his culture

How’s life treating you these days?

Can’t complain. I just finished a long, long workout and run. And I got a full press day lined up after you, some stuff with Billboard and Rolling Stone. I can’t complain.

You’re a busy man, thanks for taking the time. I’ve been following your work for a long time now. It’s always exciting to see what you’re up to.

Thank you!

Are you in New Orleans right now?

No, I’m in Los Angeles. I’ve been kind of splitting my time between L.A., New York and New Orleans, but currently I’m in L.A.

You’ve been doing that for a while now, bouncing back and forth between all these places.

Yeah, I’m a pretty nomadic character. [Laughs] It’s funny, you know, because I have these conversations with my uncle Donald [Harrison Jr.] all the time. I started touring with him, going on the road when I was about 13, 14 years old. And before that, with my grandfather [Donald Harrison Sr.] the [Black Masking Indian] chief, when he would do cultural exchanges and different things, we started moving like that when I was about seven or eight years old. And so even when I was in school growing up, I was always on the road as a small kid. I can’t keep still. And I prefer it that way, too. I learned to embrace being a world citizen, a global citizen. And also, the things that you are able to glean when you’re willing to spend time in places with all these seemingly different culture groups, it becomes easier to develop… especially with what we’re developing musically, one of the requisites is actually to be around and live in those spaces for time. I bounce around a little bit.

Are you working on anything specific right now? Where’s your head at?

Yeah, there’s a lot. Right now, there are four new records slated for the next year. Two will probably come out in the summer. So Bark Out Thunder, Roar Out Lightning is the next series of records that we’re releasing. That statement is an ancestral statement that all of the Harrison chieftains say on either Carnival morning or St. Joseph’s Night before they take the tribes out. So we’re developing new music centered around the musical methodologies of the Black Maroons of Louisiana and New Orleans. Obviously, in New Orleans we use the term Black Indians but you know, my family prefers to say Afro-New Orleanian culture or Maroons.

This past Mardi Gras, early in the morning I roamed the 9th Ward and ran into your grandmother [Herreast Harrison] who broke it down and explained how the family was being cautious with the language they use around their cultural practice and heritage.

Yeah, it’s important to reevaluate those things. The music of that recording is rooted in that culture, and that cultural space. That particular album is gonna pay homage to my Uncle Donald and also my grandfather, for the things that they did, and to make sure that the tenets, the musical aspect and also the ceremonial regalia and all those things, survive. But because of our relationship to First Nation people in this country—you know my grandfather brought the first group of Louisiana Maroons and Afro-New Orleanians into the largest powwow in the Northern Hemisphere; that’s the Gathering of Nations. When I was a little boy we would go. The shared stories and shared narrative of experiences between what our ancestors and forebears actually experienced and most of the natives that were there…it was staggering how many points of connection there were. But part of what was also intimated in those moments was also the shared experiences in being labeled things based on other cultural groups’ imaginations as opposed to being able to be who you actually are. So, it is of paramount importance in this moment—as we move into the 21st century of these cultural exhibitions—to be really clear in the terminology and to make sure that everyone is also seen and recognized in a way that actually makes sense for them.

Tell me more about Bark Out Thunder, Roar Out Lightning.

That album is looking like it might end up being a double, because there’s so much content. Like I said, there are four records coming. I never stopped recording. We have our own studio here in Los Angeles. But that record is mixing the Louisiana Delta Maroon sound with the Louisiana blues sound, with the cultural forebears to that music. That music actually comes from spaces like Mali, Senegal, Gambia—these sort of spaces in West Africa and as far into the interior as Uganda and Tanzania—and also places like the Congo. So what we’re doing is taking an ethnomusicological approach to limitless fusion that really recalls and binds some of the older methodologies that seeded that music of the Louisiana Delta. We’re reconnecting to the past spaces, but doing it with completely new instruments—that I created—that are a 21st-century recapitulation of the traditional West African instruments, like the kora on the kamale ngoni. I created a new instrument that right now is being called the Adjuah bow. We have three different prototypes that we’re gonna be releasing soon. It’s a hybrid of the West African double-sided harps. The main instrument that I’m playing on the record is not the trumpet. It’s actually singing those traditional songs and also playing these sort of in an Old World, 13th-14th-century stylized West African traditional hunter and court harps.

You’ve always been dedicated to crafting your own tools.

What I love about it is that we now have the ability to reevaluate which parts of those instruments and methodologies make the most sense for the modern expressions or recapitulations of some of those narratives and stories. I’m always on the road and I always have four massive cases and things because I have all these instruments, horns, and all this stuff. They’re almost as big as you and I are. It’s gotten to the point where it was so impractical to travel with all these things, that I wanted to try to create an instruments that hybridized the methodologies and also the sonic profiles of all of these into one instrument. The Adjuah trumpet is built like that, as a hybrid of trumpet and cornet and a flugelhorn. This Chief Adjuah bow is essentially taking any of the West African double-sided harps that have existed from the 1350s and 1360s—when we first knew of them as being documented by the West—and mixing the methodologies in them. It’s also really easy to adjust and tune them differently based on how the mechanism is built. So I can have the bottom octave speak more to Mende, Songhai, Wassoulou sort of pentatonic tuning for traditional hunters’ music, while simultaneously having the top two octaves speak exactly like a kora does. This way you can mix the styles of playing from a hunter to the griot to the jeli that are in the court, which are deeply different styles. You could listen to it and it may sound like a similar thing, but the approaches, the techniques are basically all different. So it’s been really fun developing these newer instruments. We’re going to build some manufacturing relationships in the next few months to try to see if we can get a bunch of these instruments specifically to children in New Orleans, because built into the mechanism is a completely different type of ancestral memory than what standard Western instruments hold, specifically for kids from our culture group. When I sit down with a seven-year-old New Orleanian who may have ancestry that comes from Senegal or Gambia, when they touch these instruments, their fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ mother’s mother’s mother’s hands are already built into the template. So I think we will see a moment where we allow young people to build their musical foundation on instruments that have these ancestral memories or recall built into them. They are also rhythmically set up in a way that are wholly different than most of the instruments we have access to in New Orleans. I think we’ll also see a really, really cool future.

And I also wanna be clear that the point for me in stretch music and in all of these ideas, is to try to unify people in one understanding through the fact that all cultures and music are valid and beautiful. To do that, we have to also start to create corollaries to the instruments that may have gotten lost due to the natural way that human beings have actually moved around the planet in the last 500 years. So some things were lost, but these are ways to be able to re-tether those things, and to also welcome new communities into those spaces and allow them access to those methodologies as well. I’m looking forward to that.

I saw that you call your current band Sound Carved From Legend. What’s this band about?

Yeah, that’s the new group. That recording I mentioned earlier is from this group. It won’t be like one of the stretch music kind of collective records, which are more rooted in an energy that is harkening to a creative improvised space. This music is more rooted in the ritual practice and ceremonial rites of initiation: the narratives, rhythms and songs and energy that come from those spaces, and the spaces that seeded those things before the transatlantic experience. On those recordings, there won’t be any trumpet, it’ll be just me singing, on the harp and all those things. But the touring experience will be different, in that I want to make sure that when we’re touring, if someone’s never heard me play the trumpet and they’ve been told they should hear it, I don’t want them to leave without hearing it. That’s not fair. So the touring experience is gonna be more of a hybrid. They’ll hear the harp, some of the music written for my grandmother, grandfather, traditional Black Indian music, but they’ll also hear newer stretch music that is built out of those methodologies that do have the trumpet on it. In terms of size though, it’s a much larger group.

I wanted to ask about the Weedie record [Hands of Time, Weedie Braimah] that earned you a Grammy nomination for Best Improvised Jazz Solo. The record has been receiving so much love recently. All accolades aside, Weedie has been such a core collaborator for you in recent years. He’s been such a valued sideman for you and many others, how do you feel about seeing his debut as a leader receiving all this high, well-deserved praise?

The thing is, whenever I’m processing the dynamic between Weedie and me and our relationship, it’s hard not to become really emotional. Weedie and I met each other maybe seven or eight years ago. Most of my peers that spend time in New Orleans or play, I’ve known since we were little children. [Trombone] Shorty and I have known each other since he was two and I was four, those kinds of things, second lines outside of what was Caledonia’s at the time, you know, as small people. With Weedie, our families have been running together for almost a century. His great-uncle is [drummer] Idris Muhammad, who was a second chief for my Uncle Donald’s Congo Nation.  So I ran in front of the man, I’ve played in his bands all these things…

I did not know Weedie was related to Idris Muhammad.

Weedie’s grandfather was a drummer; his name was Weedie, he was Idris Muhammad’s older brother. New Orleans is a place where you pitch a rock and hit a family member. [Laughs] So our families have had this relationship for a really long time, and when we started to work together and play together, immediately from the first moment, the synergy between how we express ourselves and the things that our families have also collectively built comes into play. This is in terms of the sonic reality of communicating narratives, music and learning. How to conjure all these things comes from deeply-rooted experiences and ritual practice and ceremonial moments, rites of initiations and all those intercultural things. The language that we spoke from the beginning was quite different than the more modern communicative moments that I have with most musicians. So there was already synergy there, but once we started to build and develop relationships, we became the closest of friends and we’re blood brothers as far as we’re concerned.

To see what it is that he’s been able to do to translate the energy that has existed around the djembe, its ability to be effective in multiple threads of music, and to change and shift that narrative and show its utility in expressing in any different form or style, is a testament to the level of refinement and care that he puts into his practice. When you listen to this record, you hear this instrument and the family of instruments that surround it—everything from Ewe drums to traditional Akan and all of these things—with textures that you have never heard before. Obviously we’re all intentional about developing ethnomusicological approach to limitless fusion; this is part of what stretch music is—unifying people under that kind of understanding. But for Weedie to also do it in a way where he recognizes the larger landscape…

You know the album came out on our record label Stretch Music, where we have a partnership with Ropeadope with seven or eight new artists that are going to be released in the next 18 months. Our label is designed for where the artists are not dispossessed. They hold on to the rights to all their master recordings, we build apps for all the artists, interactive media plan—all of these things. So Weedie, this is a person who could have signed a deal with Universal Music and took a half-a-million dollar check to make a record. I’ve been in that position, made records with Concord, Universal Music for a 15- to 16-year period; we understand the utility in not doing that in this moment. So part of the reason I applaud him is because of how valiant he was to make a record and a document like that, but also to be tethered to the intercommunal work of trying to make sure that we build equity and a sustainable flowing reality for developing musicians who are also specifically from New Orleans. It’s more than just the playing; it’s also what the man is about and the vision that he has developed. So, to see people coming around and recognize it— we got Time magazine who said it was one of the best albums of the year and all those things—is really beautiful because if I am being completely honest about it, a lot of the time it requires those things to happen for people who are unwilling to see the light and the beauty and the radiance of the type of vision he is projecting, without others’ having to co-sign on it. It’s been beautiful in the past month to see people who didn’t initially gravitate or really listen to the record appreciate it—because you and I both know, if you listen to it, you’ll hear that even if it’s not your taste, you can’t say that the exhibition is not completely sharpened and refined and amazing. Now these things are happening, and it’s beautiful to see.

You will be performing at the Prospect 5 Gala on January 22. They named their whole event after your 2010 release, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow. Do you remember your reaction to that nod?

I had been hearing whispers that they were sort of thinking of doing it, and then they reached out and they told us what the vision was and how they came to this particular junction. The explanation and the things that informed it were so light-filled and warm. For a forum that is seen as such a powerhouse in terms of its relationship to the visual art, for them to pay that type of attention and want to give that type of recognition to someone who is predominantly a sonic artist, was really cool. When we first had the conversation, they also understood the aesthetic— not just the branding, but also the ceremonial regalia that my family and I build—that we are also visual artists. You sew a ceremonial regalia for three years and put this stuff together…it’s visual art, it’s art.

They recognized and saw that as well. What was shown to me was the opportunity I was speaking to in that moment with Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, and it being related to the social things that are circling now. This is what we would have hoped to alleviate and gotten rid of in the ‘60s, and also in the 2010s. That’s still there. Embracing an opportunity to wake up today and try to do better. The way that they changed it to Yesterday We Said Tomorrow, referencing that what we’re talking about is not just personal, it’s also communal. That was really heart-warming. I’m really excited to put anything together with them because I’m feeling so “seen” by them.

The gala is going to be at Studio Be, which is a sweet space for your music in which to exist. Do you have a relationship with the studio owner, Brandan “Bmike” Odums?

Yeah, we grew up together. We went to NOCCA together, and my twin brother Kyle and Brandan have always been very close. As visual artists, they were in that same program together, though Brandan is a bit younger than us. The relationship has existed for decades. Just to see what it is that he has been able to build, even with Exhibit B, when all of this sort of started out, is the level of commitment to community that he has shown is possible in an artistic space. Because if we are being honest about it, it’s not a traditional space or artistic form. It’s a space that also allows every single layer of our city to come and be a part of it. And you’re not walking around with this feeling or this fear of who is and who is not eligible of being there. Whereas, you know, historically, not all of those museum spaces in New Orleans are welcome to all of the community. That’s just the truth. To see him build a space like that for all of the communities is just really, really amazing. All of the outreach, the work that they do with children, the synergy between what it is that he’s doing and what my family is trying to do, my grandmother, what their non-profit, the Guardians Institute and the Big Chief Harrison Sr. Museum, to see multiple threads of those kinds of energies existing in the 9th Ward is really amazing. Honestly, I can’t stop bowing to him, every time I see him I call him “King” because I feel like he is that for what he is doing for all of the people of New Orleans.

I also feel like you two share this will to use your respective crafts to initiate dialogue and shed light on a number of realities or social issues, and use your platforms and your art to start conversations you feel are important to be had.

That’s the perfect way of putting it. Our artistic contributions and exhibitions are not projecting that you should feel a way or come to a specific conclusion. It’s about the dialogue. It’s about learning how to effectively communicate. I would say that there’s a lot of synergy between our work and the work that he’s doing on that level. Because none of it is rooted in a space where you’re being browbeaten with an idea or an energy. The point is, for us to be able to move forward in a way as a group, we are going to have to converse about the best way to do that. That’s all.

We have officially entered Carnival season! I know you’re in L.A. over there, but..

Oh, I’m coming home, baby! [Laughs]

I did stumble upon a hint that you might have been sewing?

So, what’s been really challenging is the notion of fielding the group with the virus going out into the neighborhood. The thing is, my ceremonial regalia is done. My spyboy is done, flagboy is done, wildman is done, trailchief is done. Everybody’s good and ready to go. I think it’s really important that we are also reevaluating how the exhibition has been exploited. For me, we are less interested in taking the walk in a traditional way, because of how easy it is to be dispossessed. Like everyone knows, if I step out of the house on North Johnson, and go into the 9th Ward in full regalia with my order of men, immediately someone’s gonna come out and take a photograph of that and now because of the law of the land where we live, they can benefit themselves without saying who the artist is, who the human being in the ceremonial regalia is, what tribe or nation they belong to. My family’s been leading the charge of fighting those energies. Some of this stuff is outrageous. So part of the way that we are shifting what it is that we are doing is to actually create a court, and to put the court in a very specific space. And if you come into this space, we’re not dealing with cell phones, not dealing with those kinds of energies. You’re coming into a sacred space with an intention for all the people in that community to share with each other in a space that is not designed around exploitation and dispossession. I don’t know that anyone will ever see me on Carnival Day or on St Joseph’s Night in the 20th-century version of how this culture gathers. Those laws need to be shifted in my opinion. So that part of the exhibition is not what we’re interested in.

Traditionally this culture and this group has an energy that revolves around masking, due to the different threads of history that have seeded it. There are many iterations of it in this moment and each band has a different way of dealing with it— but it is important for my family and all the bands that are in our circles to be clear about the fact that the way we are communicating what it is that we’re doing has to be rooted in our actual truth, our actual reality. So it isn’t masking. Some people prefer to do it as a way to pay homage and that is totally their right. But when I am donning the ceremonial regalia, I am wearing things that I took my time and my life force to throw into, as my mother did and my grandmother did, and my uncles and my cousins, etcetera. These are more “my” clothes than anything I could ever buy from a Ralph Lauren store. It’s about reevaluating those energies and also being more clear about who and what is actually happening. Less veil, less exploitation, less dispossession, and being more clear about the narratives that have come before. Just as an example, when you’re in school in Louisiana, you take a Louisiana Studies class, a Louisiana history class, and it deals with absolutely nothing of, you know, just instances of these other cultural groups that actually exist there. So you’ll never hear anything in the Louisiana history class about Jean St. Malo and his band of Maroons who basically dominated the area that is basically the Lower 9th Ward from Lake Borgne to Chef Menteur Highway for a very substantial period. The cultural exhibition that we refer to is Black Indian culture, but those aspects somehow never end up being in the narrative that you hear. Obviously, my children will know these stories because they’re born in the bloodline, but for the other younger people that are coming up in New Orleans, it’s important for them to know their history from LaSalle and Miro, to the great chieftains of these cultures from three or four hundred years ago. We know those things, but they aren’t things that are gonna make the news in New Orleans and certainly aren’t getting brought up in an open forum. The point that I’m making is that it is high time for people to understand the true and actual histories, because they are beautiful.

So you’ll see me on Carnival Day and I’ll be around and everything. But with COVID going on, fielding a group is beyond dangerous. With the folks in the group—Weedie, Joe Dyson is our spyboy, he has a small daughter—and this virus being so bad, even though we have everything we may skip this year.

Thanks a lot for sharing all of this.

Oh, man. Thank you, and honestly, everyone knows I love OffBeat, because I grew up with it. I was the kid running into the corner bodega and grabbing them and reading all the stories.

Any last thought as we progress in this new year?

If I have to reduce it to a single want and ask, it is for people to tap into their compassion. Know that everyone is enduring this moment together, and instead of allowing ourselves to be fractured and to be moved into an energy that continues that thread of them versus us, we have to understand what we’re all going through is a new kind of challenge. Everyone that is going through this is a new person— as far as we know no one’s here on a second round—and everybody has to develop an appreciation of what they’re being faced with for the first time: try and have some compassion for each other.