Monday music: Spinning the blues

SpinningIn case you are new to Monday Music, this month I have been reflecting on the musical influence of my older brother Mark, who was born on the 25th September. He would have turned 62 this month. This week’s post, which is the last of the series, also doubles as the finale in a quartet of posts that I decided to write as part of my grieving/healing process after his death almost three years ago.

The other three posts told how books, music, and organising his funeral helped me to grieve. This post, which I’ve been planning to write for a long time now, feels more like fulfilling an obligation to him. It’s a story from the last year of Mark’s life that I think deserves to be told, and my Monday Music series is the nudge I needed to finally get my act together and do so, because it’s about the music Mark loved the most: the Blues.

Mark and I both learned to spin from our mother, at around the same time that he was introducing me to the songs of Billie Holiday. Fast forward 20 or so years, and Mark, having time on his hands after his employer decided to outsource his job, rediscovered both spinning and weaving. He attended a spinners and weavers group every Tuesday, and for several years was the only male member, much valued for his height (getting things off the top of the cupboard) and his IT skills, as well as his gentleness, sense of humour and the beautiful yarns and cloth that he crafted.

Each year, the President of the group sets a creative challenge for members, and in the year that Mark became ill with cancer, the challenge was ‘Spinning the blues’. I don’t think the President expected anyone to take this challenge quite as seriously as Mark did — she probably just expected lots of lovely blue creations. It was perfect for him. It brought together three important strands in his life: his love of spinning and weaving, his deep knowledge of the Blues, and his connection, via my African Australian family, with West Africa – whose own rich textile and musical traditions are intertwined with the music of Black America.

You can hear the influence of African music on the Blues in the music of one of Mark’s favourite African musicians, Ali Farka Toure, playing here with Ry Cooder. This song is on their album Talking Timbuktu, released, coincidentally, the year my son AM was born.

Toure describes hearing Bluesman John Lee Hooker for the first time:

‘The first time I heard John Lee Hooker, I heard his music but I said “I don’t understand this, where did they come up with this culture, this is something that belongs to us [Africans] …”.

Mark’s response to the President’s challenge spanned the months from just before he first became ill, to completion around the time of the surgery to remove his tumour. This was his final project. I don’t think he had the energy to do more than some occasional spinning in the months between the surgery and his death. It also became a storytelling project, as he explained, to anyone with an interest (and also, perhaps, to a few people who weren’t interested), the multiple histories, connections and relationships that came together in the hand-spun, woven and block-printed shirt that he created. The story grew in the telling; by the end, he told me he could spin it out to 15 minutes. It’s the story I want to tell here. I know I can’t tell it as he told it, but I hope I can do it justice.

The story begins with cotton.

close up of hand spun and woven white cotton Cotton is one of the reasons that people were stolen from Africa, in a trade that lasted hundreds of years, and shipped to the Americas to work white colonists’ plantations. Cotton, sugar, tobacco.

Stripped of almost everything they owned, they still had their music.

The songs sung by Africans imported to work these plantations, and the musical genres invented and developed by their descendants, are world famous now: spirituals/gospel, jazz, hip hop, and of course the Blues. It’s not surprising that centuries later, Ali Farka Toure could hear the echos of his own traditions and say “That belongs to us”.

Many of the early songs naturally focussed on the hardships of their daily life, such as growing and picking cotton. It was hard to choose a song for cotton, there are so many, but I decided on Leadbelly’s ‘Pick a bale of cotton’ because he works hard at it, and the speed he reaches evokes the madness of forced labour – although, obviously, the song’s a lot more fun. In next week’s Monday Music I’ll be sharing some of the other cotton songs that I found.

Some of the cotton grown on these plantations was exported back to Africa, and other colonies, as trade goods. This trade threatened local textile manufacturing (cotton has been grown, spun and woven in West Africa for millennia), but the ‘wax’ (batik) prints initially designed for Asian markets and later reinvented using African designs and symbols, also became hugely popular among their target market. Without knowing the historical background, people the world over now think of these prints as entirely African.

So with all this history, cotton was the obvious fibre for Mark’s Spinning the Blues project. Cotton reclaimed; thick, soft, knobbly, loosely spun.

Also a no-brainer, was how the yarn should be woven. West African cloth is traditionally woven in strips about 10cm wide, on foot operated looms, by men and boys. Like this:

The boy is weaving a strip of Kente cloth (it’s probably rayon, not cotton). It’s almost a music video due to the percussive sounds of the shuttles.

The strips are stitched together into lengths of cloth which is wrapped around the body in various styles, or made into whole garments. The traditional shirt for men in northern Ghana is the big, swirling, dramatic batakari that’s made from such woven strips. In English this would be called a smock, but that seems a bit of a daggy name for something so wonderful.

Batakaris are woven and probably also sewn by men. So although Mark was the solo male in his spinners and weaver’s group, his decision to make a (considerably) toned down version of the batakari totally fits with the textile cultures of West African men. Here are some drummers and dancers in Northern Ghana, showing off their batakaris (as well as their musical skills, fittingly for the theme of this post).

This video is also an apt introduction to the non-musical ‘blue’ component of Mark’s project. I strongly suspect that some of these batakaris were dyed with indigo, or if not, they are at least continuing the tradition of wearing blue cloth, that in earlier days would have been indigo dyed. And there is definitely indigo in this video of Malian Tuareg band Tinariwen – check out the deep blue head wraps for the distinctive metallic sheen of quality indigo – as well as the sound of ‘desert Blues’.

This is another band that Mark introduced me to. We went to see them perform at the Sydney Opera House in 2009, and one of his last gifts to me was a DVD of their songs and interviews.

Like cotton, indigo has a long history in West African textiles. Dye-pits in northern Nigeria (where men do the dying, although elsewhere it is women’s work) date back to the 15th century, but it’s likely the practice is much older.

Ideally, Mark’s project should have been dyed and printed with indigo, but as Claire Polakoff, author of African textiles and dying techniques, points out, ‘nothing in indigo dying is easy’. Mark owned this book, which probably provided a lot of material for his ‘Spinning the Blues’ story, so he would have known what it would take to work with indigo. I wished he would use it for his project, but he knew that he didn’t have the space, or given his poor health, the time and energy, to do so. Instead, he experimented with ordinary commercial blue dyes for the finishing touches to his garment: contrasting blue strips at either side, the yarn for stitching the panels together, and printed adinkra symbols on the panels.   

Adinkra symbols and stamps on blue and white cotton clothAdinkra symbols are everywhere in Ghana. Traditionally reserved for the clothing of kings, or for funerals, nowadays these visual representations of proverbs and aphorisms are painted on shopfronts and taxis, are in business logos, are even available in concrete building blocks. You can, however, still buy traditional adinkra cloth from Ntonso, a village that’s famous for producing it.

The symbols are applied using stamps carved from calabashes (gourds) and dipped in a sticky black dye made of bark. When he visited Ghana, Mark was fascinated by these stamps, and bought a couple, but when it came to printing his cloth, he decided not to use them and made his own stamps out of polystyrene fruit boxes. I suspect that fact also featured in his story – the craftsman’s use of what’s at hand.

I didn’t know the meanings of the symbols Mark chose until I looked them up for this blog post. I don’t know what part they played in the story he told about his project, because he never sat down with me to tell me the whole thing. I heard ‘Spinning the Blues’ in bits, here and there, as he was thinking through the different parts of the project. Much of it was familiar to me already, because of the many conversations Mark and I have had –about textiles, and about music — over all the years since he first played Billie Holiday for me.

I don’t remember if he told me why he chose the adinkra symbols ese ne tekrema, ‘the teeth and the tongue — a symbol of friendship and interdependence’, and ananse ntontan, ‘spider’s web — symbol of wisdom, creativity and the complexities of life’, but I can guess. Although he was a bit of a loner, he valued the love and friendship he found with his drinking mates, his fellow spinners, and our African Australian extended family. Corny as it sounds, Mark’s choice of ese ne tekrema feels now like a message from beyond the grave about what is valuable above all else: connection with other human beings.

As for Ananse ntontan … Ananse is the spider who according to Ghanaian folklore inspired weaving. Ananse is also a trickster, the anti-hero of many Ghanaian stories. Stories, in DadaK’s Ashanti culture, are known as Ananse sem: Ananse’s stories. One of the stories even tells how Ananse stole all the stories (wisdom) in the world. Another version tells how the sky god gave him the stories as a reward for performing impossible tasks (he succeeded through trickery). 

I first heard Ananse sem from DadaK, back in the early days of our relationship. Perhaps it’s Ananse that we have to thank for bringing us all together as a family. I don’t know if he told the stories to Mark as well, but Mark found them anyway, and loved them. He liked the notion of a trickster, and I’m sure he appreciated the parallels between Ananse’s role as the origin of both spinning and stories, and the Australian phrase: ‘spinning a yarn’, i.e. tell a tale. Ananse ntontan, then, is an obvious choice for Spinning the Blues, which began as a textile project and became a story.

mark%202I read somewhere that the Blues, although often about sadness, are intended to make both singer and listener feel better, to take their mind off hardship and suffering. This picture of Mark wearing his creation makes me sad, because it reminds me of his illness, but I know that Spinning the Blues brought him a lot of happiness and satisfaction — in the making, the wearing and the telling. I’m glad I’ve at last been able to retell his story, and point to all the stories that are part of it – stories of slavery and suffering, of resilience and rhythm, of creativity and connections across oceans, cultures and centuries.

I’m not sure how Mark ended his telling of Spinning the Blues, but for this blog post, I need to end it with music. Considering the sorrow that gave rise to the Blues, I think the most appropriate final video is one that shows how the world has changed for the better since the days of slavery: Blues in the White House for a Black President.

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4 thoughts on “Monday music: Spinning the blues

    • Thanks Karen. This is one of my own favourites, I just wish I’d paid more attention to the story at the time, I’m sure there’s more details but I can’t remember them.

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