The Search for Home: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Red Earth

By Daniel Garrett

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Red Earth: A Malian Journey
Producers: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jean Marie Durand
DDB Records/Decca-UMG, 2007

Dee Dee Bridgewater begins her album Red Earth with a nod to the jazz tradition by performing “Afro Blue,” a song associated with Abbey Lincoln, and Bridgewater connects with the rhythm-and-blues tradition by closing the recording with Gene McDaniels’s composition “Compared to What,” a song Roberta Flack sang. What comes in between is different, quite different: it is a collaboration with Malian musicians and it is an actual and symbolic return to the motherland, Africa. Bridgewater traveled to Africa and found herself drawn to Mali, and many people told her of her resemblance to the Peul people there; and this album, recorded in Mali, is the result of her quest for a spiritual home. (She is reported to be building a house there too.) I have reservations about Red Earth, but I think it is, for the most part, wonderful!

“Dream of a land my soul is from, I hear a hand beat on a drum, shades of delight, cocoa hue, rich as the night, Afro blue,” are the first words to the song “Afro Blue.” Dee Dee Bridgewater’s interpretation of Mango Santamaria and Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Afro Blue,” famously recorded by Abbey Lincoln, is not only respect paid to the jazz tradition, but an acknowledgement that a high regard for Africa has been part of the tradition. The song—about place, and also a dream of love (“two young lovers are face to face, with undulating grace”)—is celebratory scene-setting.

“Go away from my door, I refuse bad news,” are words from “Bad Spirits.” The acoustic “Bad Spirits”—its music can seem simple, or classical (actually both); and it was written by Kassé Mady Diabaté with Bridgewater—and in the song there is terrific interplay between voice and strings, with Bridgewater’s vocal pacing and improvisatory sounds definitely rooted in the jazz tradition. (A man’s voice is also heard—Kassé Mady Diabaté.) “We must leave the past behind, in order for us to find the goodness in everyone, that’s hidden inside,” are words of wisdom; and they can be read as a repudiation of both constantly restated ideological grievances and an attitude of bitterness and resentment. The words can be read in spiritual terms and in political terms. Bridgewater’s singing has a theatrical aspect that is charming, but it denies also a certain elemental power, an irony with this kind of back-to-roots recording. Bad spirits go away, don’t come knocking at my door.

Bridgewater’s lends her name to the song “Dee Dee,” a song that makes plain the singer’s musical and spiritual search, culminating in the album’s creation: “I’ve been trying to find my home. Then the music of sweet Mali spoke right to me, and it led me home.” It is hard not to think that Bridgewater’s journey and return is a triumph that is for us all. For African-Americans it is a model for the recovery of a usable African past and present; and for all music lovers it affirms that music crosses established borders of nation, culture, and language. There are fifty-three countries in Africa, and Mali is surrounded by Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Niger, in western Africa; and Mali, flat and dry, is known for its musicians, such as Salif Keita and Ali Farka Touré, musicians of international stature. Bridgewater has assembled some respected Mali musicians for Red Earth. In the duet with Ramata Diakité “Mama Don’t Every Go Away,” about a mother’s teaching and a daughter’s love, a timeless subject, the tones are playful, tender, and smart; and this is a joyful music. Reflective is “Long Time Ago,” a lovely piano-driven jazz piece, but with lines such as “Birthplace of nations, where life had its beginning. We were a family—we were of the same skin,” it verges on myth-making, on taking history and turning it into something too simple, a lost paradise (“We’ve lost our way now. Our lives are full of sorrow”).

There is a grave—an earthy elder’s—authority in the voice of Ami Sacko in “Children Go Round,” a song that encourages children toward courage, education, and freedom; and Bridgewater’s voice in the song is forceful, oratorical. Bassékou Kouyaté on ngoni—a string instrument, looking like a slender small guitar or violin (it has been described as a lute)—does something fast, rhythmic, that sounds nearly rocking (I can hear what seem rock, blues, and country music echoes—or roots). “The Griots” is an acknowledgement and a celebration of African storytellers and historians (“praise to the griots who are our guides”); and a flute is heard within it. “Oh My Love,” a duet, is a mellow piece, soulful. Bridgewater takes on Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a formidable challenge, a song that features a worker, a tragic mulatto, a temptress, and a rebel, several archetypes within their context, and Bridgewater is equal to the song. “No More” is a song about female independence: “No more will you handle our destiny.” (The theme adds relevance and texture to the recording.)

“Red Earth” is about a childhood in Tennessee, blues music, a life of searching, of finding, with connections seen between America and Africa: “the red earth has always been so good to me.” (That affirmation reminds me of the book African American Environmental Thought by Kimberly Smith, published by the University Press of Kansas, 2007, a book that argues that the African-American response to nature—a philosophical and spiritual ethos regarding how land is lived on and with, how land is a vital part of private and public life—is a unique resource for the conservation movement.) That is recognition of the earth’s splendor that sees an individual human life as part of a larger whole.

“Meanwhile” is a song about trouble that is known and tolerated, a song about poverty and suffering, a downbeat composition. (Africa may offer something to an African-American singer but has not offered enough to its own children.) Red Earth is a very special recording: it offers joy and thought, African and African-American music, and a woman’s claiming her own power and recognizing the truth—the joy and the suffering—in the world.

Daniel Garrett’s extensive commentary on the film Brokeback Mountain was published abroad last year (2006), in Film International. Daniel Garrett, Louisiana-born and a longtime New York resident, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, is a writer of essays and creative work, including fiction, drama, and poetry. His work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. For The Compulsive Reader, Daniel Garrett has written on music, films, and books. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com

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