Guitarist Vernon Reid is best known as the leader of the hard rock/metal band Living Colour. Before that, though, he was a fixture on the New York avant-garde scene, blending rock, jazz and noise as a member of drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, duetting with Bill Frisell on the album Smash & Scatteration, and co-founding the Black Rock Coalition, among many other things. He’s released multiple solo albums (the first of which, 1996’s Mistaken Identity, is the only album to credit both Teo Macero and Prince Paul as producers), and, this month, is premiering a multimedia performance piece, Artificial Afrika: A Tale of Lost Cities, at Dixon Place. The piece combines music and videos by Reid with contributions from DJ Leon Lamont and African vocalist Akim Funk Buddha.
In late January, I got Reid on the phone to ask about the project, its inspirations, and more.
What was the genesis of Artificial Afrika? What sparked the idea, and how did you arrive at the multimedia format?
Well, the beginning of it was a little darky figurine that I bought in the South. I was on tour with the Rolling Stones and I used to like going to antique shops… So I walked into this shop, and they had a little combo—four musicians, and they were done up in the usual darky style and kind of dressed like the Beau Brummels. And the instrumentation was exactly like the band Living Colour, a guitar player, bass player, drummer and singer. And I thought, “This is supposed to have something to do with me.” And as an impulse, I bought this figurine, which I still have. And it started me thinking about, “How did this come to be? How did something like this object come to be? And what does this object have to do with me or anyone I know?” And there was kind of a standard way to react to such a thing. To be angry or sorrowful or ashamed.
It’s an object that was meant as something humorous, I suppose, but it was also a thing that had nothing to do with how actual people looked. And there were a lot of these ethnic gargoyles, if you will. You had the hyper-red Indian, the hook-nosed Jew, they were part of Americana. I wound up using this figurine [on the cover of] a record I did post-Living Colour called Mistaken Identity. And this whole notion of identity has been a big part of what I think about. And at a certain point, I started—I got my first computer, and one of the first programs I got was Photoshop. I actually got Photoshop before I got a music program. And I started looking at these things from a different point of view. I kind of stopped being ashamed of the figurines and started becoming fascinated with the pathology of the people that thought these were funny. The psychology of people who made these things, the illustrations, the saucer lips and bone in the nose, the jockeys and all that.
At a certain point it turned into the idea—I’d been a big fan of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s record My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and all this eventually turned into this idea that Africa’s not only a continent and a compendium of interlocked cultures—in reality, it’s many things—but Africa is also a country of the mind. There is a notional, separate, parallel Africa. I think of it as the Africa that floats just above the land. The Africa that’s in everyone’s head. And there’s kind of an undifferentiated idea about this place. It’s everything from Mother Africa to Tarzan to starving children to all of it. And that’s basically the impulse behind it, is diving into all this kind of notional weird stuff about it. From mythologies to Aunt Jemima. It includes cakewalking as well as fabrics and figurines. It’s a kind of Afrodelic experience, if you will.
There’s an easy way to go with this sort of thing, which is to present old clips of the natives from Tarzan movies, the black maid from Tom and Jerry cartoons, stuff like that. In what ways does your piece get beyond that?
You know, to be fair, I’m not gonna say there isn’t a bit of that, but a lot of it is not linear. I followed certain impulses. Like I’m a collector of masks, and masks are a theme that recurs throughout the pieces. [I’m] taking my cues from different kinds of narratives—it’s hard to explain, because you’re right, there is an easy and obvious way of doing this, and…
There’s also a flipside, like the vogue for Afrocentric hip-hop in the early ’90s, with artists like X-Clan, King Sun, and even the Jungle Brothers.
Oh, sure. The thing of it is, if it was just about the racism of white people and the horrible things they did, it would be simple. But it’s never that simple. And one of the things that I thought about is how nobody escapes from this notional idea. Certainly, Africans themselves have a clouded view from time to time about their history and where it fits in. There is a lot of ambivalence between Africans and African-Americans. ‘Cause on the one hand, Africans were taken from Africa, but Africa was also altered in the process. On the one side, there’s what happens when Africa is fetishized in an undifferentiated way. And part of the thing for me, too, is that there’s a way I’m supposed to feel about Africa. I’m supposed to feel it’s all very, very serious, and I explore some of this stuff and a lot of times I feel guilt at the pleasure I take in making these films, because it’s a very serious matter and we should all take it seriously. And it’s that, but it’s also a coffin shaped like a guitar. It’s a lot of things at the same time. So that’s part of what I’m exploring, along with Akim Funk Buddha, who’s a South African performer—dancer and singer—a very interesting artist because he also uses Tuvan throat singing, which is very atypical—not a sound you expect to hear coming from an African throat, but he’s really great at it—as well as DJ Leon Lamont. And the video art.
What about African artists who embrace exoticization? Fela Kuti, for example, really played with images of super-virile African manhood in order to enthrall white music critics.
Well, I think he managed to enthrall whoever saw his band. You talk about music critics, well, those are male music critics. I saw one of his last performances, and it was astounding. He had these shake dancers who literally mesmerized all the men in the crowd. At one point I stopped looking at the stage and was looking at the men looking at the women. And then I was looking at the women looking at the men looking at the women. It was a very interesting dynamic, because a lot of the women in the audience were not thrilled. You know? He sort of created a field, not unlike how Sun Ra created a transformative area, like George Clinton at his best. There was a notion of a journey, you were going to go into a place. I think James Brown had the same kind of thing. I know when I saw Miles Davis, there was a transformational aspect, and certainly Fela had that. He really cast a spell. King Sunny Ade did the same thing. These were very different musical experiences, but they acted at a different level than just going to see a great player or hear your favorite songs. There was something else going on. And that’s why when I think about these pieces for Artifical Afrika, they’re not really linear, and part of what happens is Akim is also interrelating with the pieces and he’s got a kind of freestyle commentary going on, just like Leon Lamont is with the beats. It’s meant to be more of an experience—Afrodelic, like I said. Just let it wash over you; some things will connect, other things will not, but the overall experience is what I hope to convey.
How has the show evolved or changed since you presented it at Winter Jazzfest just over a year ago?
Winter Jazzfest, it actually worked okay. There was a big glitch at the beginning and it was a real drag for me. But I managed to get past the glitch. I was not very happy with the technical issues. I also did it at the Winter Garden [in 2009], which went pretty well. What’s changed is, I’m continuing to refine the pieces. I’m working with some material that touches on the idea of what happens to cities. People talk about the darkness or the abyss, the heart of darkness. I feel like the heart of darkness is no longer in the bush, but in the great, decaying cities. And I’m working on other sections that speak to that. One other thing is that this whole run is dedicated to the choreographer and dancer Niles Ford. He was at that Winter Jazzfest performance, and he saw right past the glitch and said, “Man, you’ve got to present this at Dixon Place.” He was tireless. He really just kind of prodded me as a friend to do this thing at Dixon Place, one of the premier art spaces in New York. And then he had a heart attack and passed, a week ago. It was a real shock, and devastating. He’s a part of one of the pieces, in a time-lapse stop-motion bit. He was in a piece that wasn’t shown at Winter Jazzfest, but is premiering now. He was a really good friend, and he totally got what the overall piece is saying.
Vernon Reid’s Artificial Afrika: A Tale of Lost Cities will be presented February 10, 11, 17, 18, 24 and 25 at Dixon Place.