A political history of ‘Afro Blue’

Words: Hugh Morris

“Now, as we prepare for our lift-off, you need only two things to direct your course – your ears and your soul.” The captain speaking is Shafiq Husayn, the ship preparing for take-off is Robert Glasper Experiment’s 2011 album Black Radio, and the journey we’re about to undertake is a curated collection of originals and covers spanning jazz, R&B and hip-hop that surprised the world when it won Best R&B Album at the 55th Grammy Awards. A series of pre-flight mic checks are passed, and in no time at all, we arrive at our first destination – the sauntering, woozy drift of Afro Blue.

The track glides along effortlessly; neo-soul priestess Erykah Badu enthralls and entices, sitting on top of a shuffling, J Dilla-infused backing. Lazy flute hooks from KC Benjamin and Glasper’s trademark close-quarters harmony complete the track. Could it pass for a lost J Dilla production? Jazz critic Nate Chinen certainly thinks so.

Yet, far from moonlighting as buried treasure from the late producer’s back catalogue of beats and pieces, the composition predates Dilla entirely. Tracing the track past Glasper and through the plenitude of artists who have lent it their time reveals its radical and open history. A jazz ‘standard’, its history has been anything but, and it’s been contorted through numerous lenses as both an instrumental and vocal track, including the addition of a strong political message.

Unlike some similar standards, Afro Blue can be traced directly to a place, person and time. The music was written by percussionist Mongo Santamaria in 1959, while he was living in New York. A son of Cuba, he emigrated to the United States in the 1950s at the peak of the ‘Mambo boom’, where sounds like the san, mambo and cha-cha-cha were introduced to mainstream American audiences. Starting off in the groups of prolific bandleader Tito Puente, Santamaria joined Cal Tjader’s Latin jazz combo in 1957, and the first recording of Afro Blue came on the Sextet’s 1959 LP ‘Cal Tjader’s Concert By The Sea’, recorded at California’s Monterey Jazz Festival. Jazz history has largely forgotten the album, in favour of four 1959 releases that changed the shape of jazz history – Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’ Ah Um and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. But what has ensured Afro Blue’s status remains are the lyrics that came next.

Sin & Soul was the debut release by a talented and fiery young Chicagoan named Oscar Brown Jr. The album became an instant classic, in part for its unusual features. For one, the cover artwork features Brown in profile, flanked by extensive quotes from the jazz world’s finest. But the other more pressing impact was the beginning of a trend that would transform Afro Blue into a song with inherent political implications.

Part of the reason for the album’s success (and for people’s confusion when Columbia Records didn’t renew Brown’s contract in 1963) was because it spoke directly to and for the experiences of African Americans in the US. And the poet, civil rights campaigner and songwriter succeeded in that mission by combining original songs featuring resonant messages (Signifyin’ Monkey and Watermelon Man) with a new innovation – adding new, politically conscious lyrics to existing instrumental tracks. Nat Adderley’s Work Song and Dat Dere by Bobby Timmons saw new lyrics penned, and so did Santamaria’s Afro Blue.

The new setting of Afro Blue sees Brown flex his poetic muscles. They tell a vivid story of two Black lovers in a romantic idyll, full of natural imagery that depicts blissful separation (‘Dream of a land / my soul is from’). This idyll is supported until the final verse snaps (‘And then my slumbering fantasy / Assumes reality / Until it seems it’s not a dream / The two are you and me’), shaking the listener out of the blissful dreamscape and recontextualising what’s gone before as a new utopian goal to strive towards. We hear this in Brown’s delivery, too. Afro Blue is sung at a whisper, accompanied only by a drum. A sudden burst of energy through ‘And then my slumbering fantasy / Assumes reality’ gives that injection to turn the story around.

Building and then dismantling an art-for-art’s sake mentality within the confines of a single song helps Brown to position Afro Blue within the broader aesthetic objectives of the Black Cultural Nationalism movement of the 1960s, which focused on rejecting autonomous, separatist aesthetics whilst supporting a functional, collective and committed approach to creating Black art.

A similar framework can help us understand John Coltrane’s instrumental version of Afro Blue, from his Live at Birdland / 1963 album. It’s very loosely related to Santamaria’s original music – the ten-minute track only features a few references to the original melody, instead becoming a loose structure for improvisations. But it’s notable that none of the group step into the solo spotlight; the focus shifts to groove and group anticipation, before all hell breaks loose as Coltrane enters with a dramatic high entry about five minutes in. Brown’s projection of glorious liberation through collective struggle is clear for all to hear.

What’s most clear about Glasper’s version are the simultaneous engagement and departure from Santamaria’s musical text. Santamaria’s composition pits a 12/8 time signature against 3/2 cross-rhythms, creating a musical hemiola that is a foundational element of the Latin dance forms Santamaria was grounded in. We see various responses to these rhythmic features as artists make Afro Blue their own. Coltrane chooses to slow the tempo down in a jazz waltz similar to his famous take on My Favourite Things. Elsewhere, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater keeps the same tempo on her Afro Blue but annunciates the cross-rhythms to create an unsteady, throbbing feel.

Glasper’s version is perhaps the most radically different, rhythmically speaking. Out goes the light, triple time structure and in comes a skulking hip-hop groove courtesy of Chris ‘Daddy’ Dave. This feature speaks to what literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls signifyin(g), a hallmark of African American culture where pre-existing cultural expressions are altered and updated to create something new that speaks to the times. We hear this in jazz through standards, rap through sampling and dance music through remixing.

While the track’s rhythms are radically altered, the horizons of Brown’s lyrics are expanded into a future not on this earth. On vocals, we hear Erykah Badu, an artist concerned with ideas of Afrofuturism (check out her 2010 concept album New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh for a heady mix of Egyptian symbolism, digitally focused Afrofuturist and Sun Ra-esque spirituality). In this context, and when embedded in an album that foregrounds digital effects, there’s definitely a plausible Afrofuturist reading of Glasper & Badu’s version. Brown’s lyrics are thus renegotiated towards a more ‘space-age’ futurism. In their hands, the land that Brown dreams of becomes somewhere not on Earth, but more intergalactic.

Versions exist beyond this list, including an emotionally charged version from the ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ album of pianist McCoy Tyner, who sadly died in March of this year. In keeping with the signifyin(g) tradition, all add their unique touch. But, through Brown’s lyrics, the canon of recordings and, a common view of what the tune represents has emerged: beauty, love and the promise of hope beyond our current lives.

learn more

  • BOOK: Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century – Nate Chinen
  • BOOK: Agency in the Afrofuturist Ontologies of Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe Nathalie Aghoro
  • ALBUM: Oscar Brown Jr. Sin & Soul

Hugh Morris is a music journalist with bylines in the Big Issue and the Independent. Follow him on Twitter.