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Anniversary Archive Choral Compositions Electronic Experimental Memoir Percussion Photo Pop Postclassical Vocal

95/25: Uhuru

Uhuru is a self-released album which was completed during the winter of 1995 and released in the fall. I had originally hoped to release it on CD but was unable to secure sufficient funds, so it arrived in a run of 100 cassettes. The program was over 70 minutes long, comprising mainly songs and instrumentals I had composed in the preceding two years, much of it dedicated to my adoptive father who had passed away at the beginning of that period. In honour of the 25th anniversary, I present three selections from the album.

The recordings were a bit more developed than demos, though with a very minimal budget for studio hours, it was still well in the realm of bare bones production. All of the solo vocal tracks were sung live to master in a single take, over a backing track created on my keyboard workstation (a Korg 01/WFD which sits beside me now, waiting for archiving assignments). I called this method “guerrilla karaoke.” Several tracks involved overdubbing my voice to create a chorus, and benefitted from a mixdown, usually on the spot after recording.

While I had sung in a church choir, community musical theatre and in bands through high school and university, some years had passed without me singing anywhere at all, thus my voice on Uhuru often has a plain, hushed or tentative quality. It suited the part of me that embraces the imperfect in art, often in an uneasy relationship with the part that tends to want structure and precision. I seemed to enjoy rediscovering and exploring my voice, all the same.

There was no preplanned theme to the album, and it was highly eclectic in sound and style on purpose. In retrospect, it appears to focus on discovering and exploring my own identity and personal myths, often letting these remain fragmented and obscure.

In terms of its strange audio, “Fermentia (Apple of My Eye)” was my response to trip hop. It was a gesture towards a quiet inner music, with my noisier tendencies surfacing at points in seeming opposition to the precious bits. The lyrics wander through some personal images from childhood, and in an abstract way are processing my questions and feelings around being a transracial adoptee, from the perspective of a young fine arts grad. I rode the distortion and delay effects on the Korg workstation during the instrumental sections while doing the vocals. I performed this song live several times during that period, with the same setup. The ascending and descending melodic line near the end (“you are eros in my life”) is the opening row of “Uhuru” transposed.

Written and recorded January 1995
Korg 01/WFD, voice live to DAT
Engineered by Scott Collings
Photo: Uhuru cassette and layout

“The Farthest Shore” incorporates voices, penny whistles, floor tom and ocean drum (beaten, shaken and tilted for the ocean sound). The harmonies were roughed out beforehand, based in part on the augmented scale, while some notes are improvised. Everything else was created during recording. The title is from the book by Ursula K. Le Guin, the third in her Earthsea Cycle. I met the late literary icon five years later at a reading and book signing, and she was encouraging to me as a composer in any potential attempt to set her work. It’s neither an attempt at world music nor at conveying a particular narrative concept.

Composed and recorded February 1995
Half-inch 16-track mixed to DAT
Engineered by Scott Collings
Photo: near Sunnybrook Park, spring 1994

“Uhuru” —or, as I like to joke, life before autotune—emerged spontaneously from my vocal explorations, and was my first notated choral piece. The text was chosen somewhat randomly, sometimes more for sound than meaning. Key words and phrases suggest a lament for something lost in a hidden past, and a prayer for the end of violence against Black bodies. There is also a comforting hint of the ever-present pop ballads of my childhood, offset by angular sonorities. Except for one brief moment of chromaticism, the music uses only the seven pitches of the diatonic scale in C major as spelled out in the opening row, employing a variety of symmetrical chord structures (lots of stacked fourths and fifths) and featuring a short canonic break.

Composed November 1994, recorded February 1995
8 voices (sung by the composer, 2 per part), half-inch 16-track mixed to DAT
Engineered by Scott Collings
Photo: handwritten score excerpt, 1995

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2020

Categories
Compositions Family Photo Postclassical

Companion

Companion, for two pianos, was composed through late 2018 and early 2019, while the first notehead pencil sketches date to 2011. It is dedicated to my two youngest children. All of the material derives from seven-note rows: orderings of the pitches of the diatonic scale. The harmony resembles traditional tonality heard through a pandiatonic filter. There are four sections, divided by key signature: F major, A-flat major, B major and D major.

Each section is constructed from one or two unique, quasi-symmetrical rows that move generally by fourths and fifths. Each row is layered against itself in homorhythmic canons of up to six voices, often accompanied by high and low pedals tones which form an additional canon in augmentation. Almost every chord in Companion is the result of a basic serial process, one exception being the transition between the third and fourth sections, which features chords built from nested fifths. Ultimately, such chords result from the canons as well.

The final chord is arrived at through symmetrical voice leading from the penultimate chord, and is also the initial row spelled vertically from bottom to top. Form at the local and vertical levels is highly rationalized, while global and horizontal form—rhythmic structure and phrasing—is loosely associative.

Composed 2018-2019
Audio export from the notated score, April 2019

Photo: Centre Island Beach, August 2019

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2019

Categories
Journal Photo

Mahboob

(2009/2011)

When I was about 13, without any knowledge of my past beyond the fact that I was a black transracial adoptee, I decided to create an alter ego.

In my mind he was a jazz musician, sometimes a cultural diplomat from the West who had reconnected with his own roots in Ethiopia—or depending on the occasion, Ghana, Nigeria or Egypt—and was bringing this back into his own identity or creative portfolio. He was an ambassador to my unrecoverable roots. I couldn’t have expressed it in such language nor such an optimistic light back then. I kept this persona to myself for a while, and it seemed a simple if vague idea; when I brought it out to friends it became complex, debased, problematic.

Primarily I was spoofing myself, in a way that reflected my own blinkered reality, televised desensitization to minstrelsy, and awkward struggle to get past that. If there was sincerity in the gesture, it was a reach for my own identity. Something beyond the identity of a black person who had been raised as racialized but culturally zeroed and invisible—hence performing white—in an all-white community.

The name I came up with for myself was Mboobe (“mm-BOO-bay”), later Mbu’ube. The latter spelling was dodgy, Dune-inspired Orientalism, as I came to realize later, though narcissistically it created a symmetry within the word “me” using the letters of my adopted first name that I liked. An unconscious influence was the jazz/R&B musician James Mtume. I’d also seen the Indian name Mehboob in a newspaper, and eventually learned of the Arabic word mahboob—beloved.

(At the same time, I had started attending confirmation class in the United Church of Canada, where we were encouraged to develop our own personal symbols—as subsets of the obvious big ones, it almost went without saying. I kept the identity above to myself and went with a symbol I found interesting: CXI, the number 111 in Roman numerals. It made the shape of a fish—an early Christian password—or a WWII-era bomb, depending on one’s state of mind.)

During my adolescence and early adulthood, Mboob was my stage name as a musician; an imprint for my formative period as a creative artist, and the cassette albums and mixtapes that came out of it.

Six years ago, I wrote this about the name:

Perhaps there could have been a parallel to Black American jazz musicians of the 1960s converting to Islam and adopting African names, one I wasn’t so conscious of. Regardless of the ridicule such a name and such a bogus re-Africanization might have received—it was merely perhaps a more sophisticated or ironic type of minstrelsy that still made white folks laugh—it was self-acknowledgement. It was my first crack at identity.

The past is almost always ironic. Almost three years ago, I met and became close to someone who was the opposite side of the coin to me—me who had no claim to anything, no properly directed desire for nationhood beyond the lazy, whitewashed imagination of mainstream Canada. She was born in the same place as her family, her people, and was directly and actively connected to an ancient culture and bloodline. We fell in love—insert ellipsis—and later married. I converted to Islam for her, or as some might say, corrected.

During the first few months of our romance, she drafted a new “logo” for me as a gift, this time spelling mahboob in the original Arabic (see text image at top). I knew I wanted to post it, but waited for the right time; until it could also symbolize the strength and commitment in our relationship and be more than just a fetishism.

Behind every apparent urtext (i.e. my “original” alter-ego name), there is a forgotten origin, possibly a buried genetic memory. Now I have a new family, a new god (where there had been none for decades), a new sense of identity. In finding this new beginning, I may have been seeking out, as a dear elder recently put it, what may well have been my ancestral home. Perhaps Mahboob was synchronicity. Or perhaps this is all just probability. I try not to see destiny in things (not my role) nor place too much stock beyond the here and now but, Masha’Allah, I’m happy and thankful. And loved.