The complex relationship between creativity, culture and ethnicity
In early 2019 Robert O’Meally, jazz and art writer and professor at Columbia University, gave a talk on a film titled Parisian blues. The interview took place in Paris. O’Meally was looking for a book, which was to have a chapter on the film’s “unruly cosmopolitanism”, as espoused by a group of musicians of different colors who met in Paris in 1961, performed by Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Louis Armstrong, and others. It’s amazing how much black and white film can filter out, and, on the other hand, what range of tones it can cover. As O’Meally pointed out, the opening credits scenes, made up of stills of jazz bars, capture a cultural mix, a range of blacks and whites, that the film’s watchers and financiers quickly picked up on. removed from the rest of the film. But, throughout the lecture, there was – another focal point of O’Meally’s lecture – the Duke Ellington soundtrack: black, in the same way blues and jazz are black, and yet resistant to ethnicity: a different color, therefore, that neither had the only political specificity of black, nor the universality of the wolf disguised as a sheep of white. A cosmopolitan soundtrack, but also unruly, as it embraced rather than transcended the place. But what place was it?
Asking this question is like asking, as Byng Whittaker did in an interview with Ellington in 1964 (a clip O’Meally shared with us in his speech), who could be the “people” or the constituency of an artist. Cultural and ethnic origin is central to creativity, and yet there is no simple answer to this question, as an artist – especially one who, like Ellington, engages in hybrid forms – is , at one point, bringing their people in existence. “You have been told that you write the music of your people as you see fit. Would you like to explain that to me a bit? Whittaker asks. Ellington does an imperceptible double take, makes a calculated void, and eloquently tinkers with his piano, playing chords and a line of B-flat blues, while repeating, in an incredulous reverie, “My people … my people …” He stops playing and says, “I was afraid you would do this, put me out here… and expose me to my own ignorance.”
After which, he launches into a kind of improvisation, like a musician taking inventory of notes and defamiliarizing them through different approaches. The action notes here are the words “my people”: “Now who of my people?” I mean… you know I’m in several groups… I’m in the pianist group… I’m in the listeners groups… I’m in the groups of people who have a general appreciation of music. I am in the group of those who aspire to be dilettantes. I am part of the group of those who try to produce something worthy of the set. I’m in the group of what… ah yeah, those who appreciate Beaujolais… heh heh.
The lists form a kind of family. But Ellington’s list, like his idea of the “group,” does not; each of its units is a departure. With this mention of Beaujolais, both the laughter that accompanies our encounter with the unknown and the question of savoring the strangeness – “appreciating Beaujolais” – occur in an inappropriate context: the context of identifiability, to see with “his people”. Ellington may have misunderstood what the words mean.
Ellington’s improvisation immediately reminded me of two other answers – both equally evasive and slightly belligerent – and also a philosophical reflection on categories, of which “my people” is a prime example. The first includes Bob Dylan’s responses to interviewers, Voice of the village press meeting in 1965, who intend to find out who are his “influences”. “Has Woody Guthrie been your biggest influence? Someone asks. “I don’t know if I would say that,” Dylan says, and he clarifies, “but for a while the thought of him affected me a lot.” After that, they question him about Brecht, Rimbaud and Hank Williams; At the mention of the last name, Dylan clarified: “Hey look, I consider Hank Williams, Captain Marvel, Marlon Brando, Tennessee Stud, Clark Kent, Walter Cronkite and J. Carrol Naish as influences. Now what is it – please – what exactly do you want to know? “
In an interview with Rolling stone magazine in San Francisco that same year 1965, Dylan, like Ellington, continued to exhibit a peculiar form of dyslexia in relation to the sense of categories, and, when asked, “Which poets do you like?” to guess; WC fields; the family, you know, the trapeze family in the circus; Smokey Robinson; Allen Ginsberg; Charlie Rich is a good poet. As with Ellington’s List, the building blocks have a life of their own – they go in different directions, with laughter (WC Fields) being one of them. Dylan, at this point, would have known he didn’t have “people.” He had a large following, but that was because his audience mistook him for a “folk singer.” Dylan had to create his “people”.
In 1970, the critic Philip Engblom asked Arun Kolatkar, the bilingual Indian poet who had embarked on a few years ago in remarkable double works in English and Marathi, who were his favorite writers. Kolatkar’s English poetry, in an India wary of the colonial heritage, not only had no readers to speak of: eccentrically, Kolatkar worked hard to make sure it had it. less possible, leaving unpublished books for long periods of time and devoting his English work to a small press in Pune which supplied its collections to a single bookstore in Bombay. It was as if, in order to make his “people” exist, Kolatkar first tried to free himself from the readers. For a poet so parsimonious in sharing his work, Kolatkar’s response to Engblom is ample: “Do you want me to give you a list?” Whitman, Mardhekar, Manmohan, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Kafka, Baudelaire, Heine… Janabai, Eknath, Tukaram… Ramjoshi… Mandelstam… Apollinaire, Breton, Brecht… Henry Miller, Nabokov, Namdeo Dhasal, Patte Bapurav , Rabelais… Gerard Manley Hopkins… Kabir, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly… Eisenstein, Truffaut, Woody Guthrie, Laurel and Hardy.
The philosophical reflection that I mentioned is at the beginning of Michel Foucault’s book The order of things (1970), a work that questions the bases of knowledge – a knowledge that we assume to be universal and organic – at different times in history. “This book was first born out of a passage by Borges,” says Foucault, “from the laughter that shattered, by reading this passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought that bears the imprint of our time and our geography – shattering all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to taming the savage profusion of existing things. There is a typographical emphasis and distancing on ‘our thought, ”echoing Ellington’s incredulous repeat of“ my people ”. What passage? This is a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which ‘”the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tamed, (d) suckling pigs, (e ) mermaids, (f) fabulous, (g), stray dogs, (h) included in this classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine brush in camel hair, (l) etc, (m) just breaking the water jug, (n) which from a distance look like flies ”. Foucault says: “In the wonder of this taxonomy, what we apprehend with a great leap, what, by means of the fable, shows itself as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of ours, the absolute impossibility of thinking that. The impossibility of thinking “that” – whatever “that” – and the “limitation” of our “system of thought” (“my people”) is the point to which Ellington leads Byng Whittaker when he admits his solidarity with the Lovers of Beaujolais; laugh and provoke laughter.
This essay was first read on A point of view, BBC Radio 4