A concert dedicated to the memory of the enormously talented Sekou Sundiata and entitled “Tongues of Fire Choir” was appropriately named and bristled with all the intensity that three writers—Amiri Baraka, Abiodun, and Rakim—and musical curator Craig Harris could muster last Saturday at the Apollo Theater.
From the opening number there was a loving tribute to Sundiata with vocalist Carla Cook, backed by a searing band, delivering a tender version of “Song for a Friend.” But this was but a tuneful prelude to “In the Tradition,” with Baraka reciting his lengthy poem and indicating that the fingerprints of African American culture is everywhere in this land.
Baraka’s words, a living flame of verbosity, were accentuated by Bobbi Humphrey’s lilting flute and Regina Carter’s always tantalizing violin. And the moment was given added resonance with photos illuminating the background, none more rewarding than the smiling face of the late poet Louis Reyes Rivera. The segment was brought to a blistering conclusion with Baraka’s shout of “Death to the Klan!”
There was an extended riff on “Some of it’s hip and some of it’s not” with Harris, who composed all of the music, leading the call and response on the nature of hip hop that was soon bolstered by the appearance of rapper Rakim, who then rocked the palace with his typical inventiveness.
One of the evening’s most spiritually poignant moments came when Latanya Hall lent her mellifluous voice to “I Found God.” God was given a feminine turn and Hall’s interpretation cast an angelic quality as she pushed the lyrics to a heavenly crescendo. The solo by the guitarist—was that Vernon Reid?—framed the occasion with a filigree of sound straight from the Black Rock Coalition.
Liza Jessie Peterson tamped down the often energetic performances with tender rendering of “A Letter Home,” written by Sundiata, who joined the ancestors six years ago. And this complemented Carter’s take on Monk’s “Round Midnight,” with Harris’s trombone providing a mellow counterpoint. Helga Davis burnished “Sound of Memory” with an unforgettable panache.
The first half of the concert closed with what appeared to be the flourish and funk of a James Brown punch. It was “Blink Your Eyes,” and once more reminding the nearly packed theater of Sundiata’s productive passage among us.
Ngoma set things in motion in the second half of the concert with a recitation that was replete with a litany of African deities from Ogun to Obatala, and it rang with a cadence that was reminiscent of the poet Reyes.
Baraka returned to the stage informing us that the “bottom of the Atlantic Ocean is a railway of human bones—Black ivory!” Cook gave this metaphor added meaning on her breathless take on “The Sea,” and once again Harris’s trombone was more than a significant other.
“Deep Thought” was a triumphant closer with ululations from Nigerian singer/dancer/prancer Wunmi, Rakim, Abiodun, Baraka, and Peterson, and it was all they could do to match the band’s full spectrum of sound. With the final note it was time to exhale and blink, and to remember the poetry of Sekou Sundiata who wrote: “Blink your eyes. All depends, all depends, on the skin/all depends on the skin you’re living in.”