Fifty years ago this year, as nation after nation in Africa proclaimed an end to colonial rule, a contingent of African-American scholars, writers and performing artists landed in Lagos, Nigeria, for a celebration and dialogue with their African counterparts on the gamut of art emanating from people of African descent. The Festival and Conference of the Arts in Lagos, the first of its kind in Africa, was the idea of the now-defunct American Society of African Culture and marked the opening of the organization’s branch in Lagos. AMSAC president Horace Mann Bond, dean of education at Atlanta University, led the U.S. delegation — a Who’s Who in Black American arts that included poet-author Langston Hughes, actor Brock Peters, dancer-choreographer Geoffrey Holder, singers Nina Simone and Odetta, drummer Babatunde Olatunji, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and his good friend pianist Randy Weston.
“Well, it only took about three years, but we’re back home at last,” the March 1962 edition of Ebony magazine quoted one of the delegates a saying upon arrival in Lagos.
At 85, Weston, U.S.-born son of Jamaican immigrants and one of the world’s foremost pianists and composers, has lived to tell the tale of this historic coming together and the organization that sponsored it. “Twenty-nine of us went to Lagos. We belonged to the American Society of African Culture and we spent ten days comparing notes on music, the arts. We met the great [Senegalese] Egyptologist and historian Cheikh Anta Diop,” he recalled one evening last December as he stood in the lobby of Le Méridien President Hotel in Dakar, Senegal. He was in Dakar for another momentous occasion, the 2011 World Summit of Mayors Leadership Conference that brought together more than 250 African mayors and mayors of African descent from the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America to discuss key challenges facing communities, share information and find ways to cooperate in improving the well-being of their constituents.
AMSAC was formed in the euphoric aftermath of the First World Congress of Negro Writers and Artists organized in Paris in 1956 by editors of Présence Africaine, a highly influential magazine. Counting some 400 members by 1962, AMSAC promoted African culture as a way of educating, and instilling pride in, Americans about the cultural contributions by Africans and people of African heritage worldwide. Its Lagos event spawned a vigorous back-and-forth across the Atlantic Ocean by African-American and African performing artists. “We used to have seminars in New York and we used to have these summits. African musicians came over,” Weston said. Indeed, until its demise in 1969 (caused by financial duress, allegations of CIA funding and a lack of appeal amid growing Black nationalism), AMSAC organized a robust menu of exhibits by artists of African descent; performances by African and African-American musicians; and lectures, conferences and international forums on such contemporary issues as nationalism, Pan-Africanism and cultural identity that attracted prominent names from around the world.
Ebony described the Lagos festival: “Highlights of the festival were two public concerts … Both concerts were joint African-American shows in which local artist played, sang and danced and their U.S. colleagues demonstrated what had happened to each basic art form since it was carried to America. …The climax of the final concert came at the end of the evening when vibes man Hampton led a mixed American-African group in a half-hour, free-for-all jam session on the theme of his world-renowned ‘Flying Home.’”
It’s time the spirit of AMSAC reappeared, Weston insists, a sentiment he expresses in African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston (Duke University Press, 2010). “We need to have what we used to do — ethnomusicologists coming from all over Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America to talk about the music as all one. That’s why I call my music African rhythms, not jazz,” he said in Dakar. “Before 1915, it was just Black music and included calypso, samba, gospel. We need to bring that back because that’s our contribution to the world. Those are our real revolutionaries — our musicians. Our ancestors created this music. We created so many geniuses.”