Come Through

I created a playlist a couple of years ago, to collect a series of 70s and 80s re-edits emailed to me in draft form for my feedback. One of the tracks arrived by way of reply to an email I’d sent with a gift of remastered music files, the source material for the re-edit. This was how it was with me and Masimba Kadzirange, Grandmaster DJ Son Of S.O.U.L., Source of Undying Love. For me it was an acknowledgement: among circles which intersected and didn’t in our brief friendship, we had this. A man of extraordinary musical gifts, recollection, insight, technique and experience, he included me among those trusted folks from whom he sought an opinion and whose musical values were understood and shared. I’m honoured by that fact.
It’s been one month since he left us suddenly. I’m grateful to have shared in the wonderful human being he was, while part of me remembers not taking up his invitation to “come through one time” to a recent series of club nights he was putting on only a ten-minute walk from my home. I was too tired from my job or busy tending to the bedtimes and wakeups of our small children. Every time I did get to hear him spin and cut — always with turntables, music on vinyl and no software — I was astounded by his musicality and brought to my feet to dance and sing along.

Masimba made a tremendous impact in his community. He was loved. He will be missed in person, though his memory will continue to be celebrated by those who knew him, and through the music that was a central part of his own celebration of life.

“Pardon the delayed response my brother. You all will see me soon.”

Like It’s 1994/95: Uhuru

A recurring introspective retrospective of my music as it sounded twenty years earlier. In early 1994, I took my first trip to Europe, spending a week in Lyon where my music was heard at a university dance festival as well as in the subway for a pop up freestyle contemporary dance event. I spent the latter part of the year working on the indie cassette release Uhuru, which would come out the following spring, and playing keyboards and percussion in a post-punk band. In early 1995, another dance score was heard in London. In late 1995, I began graduate studies at York University, returning nine years after I had first arrived as an undergraduate.

Throughout this period, I continued to hold down a full time retail job selling classical and jazz CDs in Yorkville, as well as freelancing as a composer for dance and theatre. I also got my first taste of hosting college radio. It was my most active period being involved in music in general.

November 1994 rec. February 1995. 8 voices (2 per part), 8 track reel-to-reel. Begins with a row on the seven pitches of the diatonic scale. The pronunciation of uhuru was conflated with “yoo hoo” although I now prefer the proper initial “u” sound. This is life before autotune, for better or worse. Photo: handwritten score excerpt, 1995

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2014

Love and the Troubles

The five-part piano cycle Gimme Some Modes was composed from 2005 to 2009. Each piece uses a different seven-note, non-diatonic mode as a basis to explore ambiguous, scalar tonal schemes. The texture evolves by way of interleaved patterns of pitch rows, arpeggios, progressions of parallel chord shapes, note-on-note canons/chorales, and high and low pedals. The result is a set of meditations on harmony.

The fifth piece, “Love and the Troubles” (2009), begins with a mode spelled C-flat, D, E-flat, F, G-flat, A, B-flat (i.e. B-flat double harmonic major or E-flat double harmonic minor). After a seven-note row on this mode is woven into an extended chordal canon, a second mode is introduced with the substitution of one pitch. This mode is spelled C-flat, D, E-flat, F-sharp, G, A, B-flat (i.e. C-flat augmented with an added flat seventh degree).

The final passage modulates through several keys, always on the pitches of the mode but highlighting its tonal ambiguity. The row appearing just before the very loud chord at the three-quarter point of the piece spells out the chord, the mode, and the bass pedal tones of the ending: C-flat, D, E-flat, G, B-flat, A, F-sharp.

The score is dated 09 09 09.

Recorded February 2014, Roland digital piano direct to file

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2014

I Am Somewhere

For most of my life, I have been someone who was for the most part visibly, identifiably mixed race black, but lacking any other evidence of my ethnicity — biological relatives, genealogy, language, cultural items or history — beyond an adoption file that listed me as “Negroid.” I had no roots.

I knew that my white heritage was English and Irish. Unlike black peers who have often been asked where they were really from and to protect their dignity might simply answer “here,” I didn’t even have somewhere to refer back to had I chosen to disclose. Beyond being racialized, I was/from nowhere.

This year, I made contact with a birth relative, learning more about my background in the process. At the same time, an app on a personal genetics site pointed to Haïti and Jamaica as my countries of ancestral origin. The plot only seemed to thicken during 2013. [2015 update: Cuba, the Bahamas, Italy and Nigeria are listed, too, in addition to my birth and parental roots in Canada, the UK and the USA. 2018 update: France, Germany, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone.]

With this theme in mind, the title of the piece is a reference to the poem “I Am – Somebody” written in the 1950s by Reverend William H. Borders, Sr. and widely popularized by Jesse Jackson.

There is a procedural approach to harmony, with root-progression clusters moving in parallel, alternating diatonic, harmonic minor and melodic minor scales. The music has nothing to do with the subject per se, but seems to fit with it terms of weight, density and tone. It is a reflection of my frame of mind during these developments. Some sense of mystery is present.

Composed August 2013, recorded October
Roland digital piano direct to file

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2013

II. Sociology (Negroid)

This is my order, redacted. Me in a page, outlines obscured.

Adoption Order redacted 24Dec13
I have written before about being inside white culture, and outside black, as a young transracial adoptee. About feelings of isolation leading to a suicidally depressed period. About seeing myself identified on generalized adoption records as “Negroid.”

I’ve written about the joy I feel now many years later, reflecting back on earlier struggles with some wisdom of experience (albeit self-proclaimed), and gratitude.

I don’t know if I feel like I’ve ever actually entered black culture, if I belong to it, after twenty-seven years in the city, but to know it was here and to know something of what it might be in relation to me is enough. I will always feel parenthetical, which is a kind of belonging. And more recently, the identity revision of personal genomics is yet another kind: now I can say with some conviction that I have island roots.

My early childhood is sometimes stored more in memories of moods and sensations than anything else. My mother says at Christmas I would get depressed, and wonder aloud why my biological mother had not sent me anything, not even a card or letter. It was a time of closed adoptions so such a thing was highly unlikely. There are a few square-frame, long-faced holiday photos which survive, along with photos of adopted nuclear contentment.

It was somehow anticlimactic when, after forty years of generally not expecting anything, a letter arrived. From her. Last week. It added a geographical connection with Ethiopia to these narratives. It spoke to how there is always a return.

After all that time, this year I was suddenly adoptee, full circle. And suddenly something of an immigrant in all but birth. The letter wasn’t the first one, but it arrived around the time of my second daughter’s first birthday and near Christmas. I don’t connect with the holiday the way I did in my youth but the significance, coincidental, wasn’t lost.

Over a decade ago, I received non-identifying information including an oral history from my birth mother. Not just a narrative but a story. Five years ago, new legislation allowed me to obtain the long form birth certificate containing my biological parents names. Or one, at least. Two years ago a search angel, herself an adoptee, found my profile in an adoption group on social media and offered to help. My life had been so busy I missed her email for over a year. Within days of putting that one name forward, a person came back.

Being a parent, to at last be in the presence of beings whose biological continuity I shared, is somewhat magical. Add to that a new sense of fulfillment through the potential to extend our shared line further back in time, locate ourselves elsewhere on the map.

Thanks to my wife Nehal El-Hadi for helping me put this post together.

I. Pathology (Black Mood)

It’s the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and MLK’s “I Have a Dream.” It is a media event but more importantly a reminder and celebration of the prime meridian on the map, so to speak, of our era. In an age of spectacular technological innovations and creative visions, these words still define us. We strive to define them.

It’s another anniversary for me, though not one I’ve ever made note of before. Thirty summers ago as a teen I had a suicidal episode (the most dramatic of several that year) that led to a series of stays in hospital wards, concluding in what was then called a sanitarium.

Admission Note

By swallowing 54 pain relief pills, I handily gained two numbers in the DSM: neurotic depression #300.4, and schizoid personality disorder of adolescence #301.2. An all too common trope, although I wouldn’t know about those now nearly meaningless numbers until many years later. I was lucky that I was a lightweight when it came to staring into the abyss. After subsequent precarious situations, I eventually admitted it wasn’t my time.

Is it trite, trivializing, for me to suggest a connection between my turbulent youth and one of history’s greatest scenes? Like King’s speech, my break was a singular event, the memory of which continues to provide focus for me. I had been the good son, a successful salvage by white society from a life of sure abjection among any potential black kin I might otherwise have been adopted by. An infant, only weeks after King’s death. I cannot but help see myself as a reflection or a result of that profound legacy; this is just personal experience. To say nothing of my biological parents’ experience, which will never be mine.

I frayed around the edges at puberty after an early career in scholastic excellence and socially isolated nerdery. Random anecdote: one teacher, despite me having been his top math and science student, saw me perform in a talent show and later proclaimed, “You’re bound to be the next Harry Belafonte!” That spoke to the visibility of lighter skin (mine), and the assumed invisibility of shadeism in Canada, a nuance I would miss then.

Every report card comment could have been summed up thusly: “a novel presence until becoming difficult,” though I wouldn’t necessarily let you know just when “difficult” had arrived. After a sheltered but sometimes sad childhood, I kept my observations largely to myself. I was fed up with the experience of constant scrutiny and sought to avoid it; when I couldn’t keep silent or “normal” any more I drew scrutiny and rumour in around me through catharsis.

There was a lot to sort out in my childhood that never really got sorted until much later, and which probably continues to get sorted. After my attempt and for months surrounding it, after I had headed both literally and figuratively for the belfry in our community church, adults and peers around me struggled to identify what had gone wrong.

Racism seemed obvious; one problem, no one had talked about race at all ever in my universe and I was not about to start talking on everyone’s behalf. Adoption issues as well seemed likely, though it was early in the process of understanding what those might be in the context, the great social experiment of closed transracial adoptions. And there was always just blaming my family for not being the Brady Bunch or the Drummonds of Diff’rent Strokes. Didn’t want to talk to that either.

The warm glow that the promise of King’s appeal and the March had created undoubtedly inspired my adoptive parents in their plan to have a multiracial family, but as with civil rights in the aftermath of King’s assassination, there was little momentum for sudden transformations of reality as it related to history. There was trauma written into my physical, psychic and cultural being, paradox as existence. A lineage of negation.

It was far easier to dismiss a few small town rednecks than to critique the “raised white with a tan” narrative I grew up in. Yes, some folks tried to kick my ass a few times, but it was mental and emotional aggression, the violence of being isolated and ostensibly deracialized, which did more damage than a sucker punch.

My suicide period spotlit but did not dominate my adolescence. Despite others’ attempts at compulsory pathologizing and guilt-based religious moralizing, I would learn my own coping/dealing strategies (as always, as the outsider) and move on from any potential career in institutionalization – at least of an expressly psychiatric designation.

I found music, something I knew I had some curiosity about and perhaps some small ability in, and then suddenly learned was something shared with my biological parents, both professional musicians. Perhaps it began as distraction, therapy; it became a core dimension of my person, an acknowledged gift even though I kept it somewhat protected from the world by not becoming a full-time musician myself.

Mine is the kind of story that people living with far more serious and overwhelming states of emotional and mental distress don’t need to hear, with its potentially dismissive “I got over that phase of ennui” quality. Yet I consider myself having survived my entire childhood as much as that interval of hyperbolic grief. In a lot of ways the latter woke me up to who I was, already that survivor. One year older than Emmett Till, with a responsibility to prevail and stay woke.

Life in these years is unquestionably, fully great, slowly built. I have struggled now and again with rumination especially around transition points or traumatic moments, it’s part of the expected landscape. I feel fortunate in that the initial deep depression resonates through the years like a tuning note; if it were clinical at all, it is not chronic nor overly present as the years pass. I can’t deny feeling more anchored than ever in a growing, loving family I am blessed to be a part of. I’ve lived to be able to share in the dream for our daughters, and there’s much more living to do, Insha’Allah.

“. . . We will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics [and Muslims, Hindus, Jainists, Sikhs, Buddhists, Shintoists, Yoruba, Rastas, Pagans, secular humanists…], will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

Up on Garrison Creek

July 2001, early morning. I pass through an intersection in a quiet neighbourhood and walk along a street that appears impossibly green, even for Toronto. As I look in all four directions I see no one else. The light is golden, the air still cool and I have a rare unobstructed view into the distances. I am about to begin a new chapter. There’s a lot of fear but this moment is breaking it up. This corner of stolen land or what is built upon it seems briefly mine.

November 2011, mid morning. I reach that same intersection in a busy neighbourhood, to view the apartment home that my wife, children and I will live in. The corner is bustling. Much has changed here in a decade, in my own life to an almost unfathomable degree. Spiritually it feels like coming home; mentally the years are a discarded anchor; physically this is only a brief resting place.

July 2013, late evening. I stand on our balcony, staring out at the intersection. Always that. The year is barely half over, and already it has seen almost as much change as the dozen just passed. Change that flows out of the natural course of things, and sudden, surprising change. It’s not all good, it just is. Love is more difficult, but deeper. Ideals are more firmly grounded, less rosy. But dreams don’t die.

Halfway mark, insha’Allah.