Words by David C. Obenour
Describing Asher Gamedze’s drumming on the critically acclaimed debut, Dialectic Soul, poet and scholar Fred Moten, said “[he has an] amazing interplay between turbulence and pulse. Pulse is supposed to regulate and also be regular, but the turbulence underneath it and on top of it, it’s just extraordinary.”
That same turbulence and pulse flows around us. The peace and the disruption, we help to shape it as naturally as we breath. Marking and monumenting time out of a compulsion, with our intent and from our station. It seems rather heady to extrapolate and try to quantify, but breaking it apart, the concepts are more everyday.
Exploring his own inspiration and further meaning from Moten’s praise, Gamedze has crafted a sophomore album that comes from every aspect of his pursuits – a triumph in understanding as an organizer, perspective as a student of history, and in song as a musician.
Off Shelf: You drew both the cover for Dialectic Soul and Turbulence and Pulse. What made you decide to use your own art for this? What particularly draws the most recent art to this album?
Asher Gamedze: I’ve always enjoyed drawing and actually started spending more time doing it a few years ago because I wanted to do the cover for Dialectic Soul. Drawing feels like it illustrates what the inside of my mind looks and what it sounds like; like theres an implicit aurality to it. It’s also a very playful way to deal and with explore ideas in a different but related way to both writing and playing music. My approach to drawing is also very improvisational and free which I like and enjoy. So it feels like a form that can both augment and extend what I’m trying to do in the music and it feels part of it somehow.
OS: Turbulence and Pulse comes from a description that poet and scholar, Fred Moten had for your playing on Dialectic Soul. What resonated so deeply with you about that original thought of his?
AG: The first thing is the regard in which I hold Professor Fred, and how his work has influenced so deeply some of my own and my thinking. He often feels present as a force in my work. It was both very humbling and beautiful, as well as some way of paying tribute to him and his work, to have him in the album in that way. The second thing is the spaces that that phrase, and also his way of thinking and use of words seems to offer and open up. So the more I thought about the phrase, the more conceptual terrains, things I was already thinking about and explore, seemed to cohere in a creative and expansive way within the territory of turbulence and pulse.
OS: You went on to expand Moten’s thought for this album, looking at time and agency and how we experience them – both in music and as observed and living history. With so few spoken lyrics on the album, can you talk about the intent of explicitly having this open the album?
AG: My sister Thuli who wrote the liner notes for the album said she thinks about the opening track, “Turbulence’s Pulse” – the piece you mention – kind of like a manifesto, which I kind of like.
It’s an interesting thing to be involved in the production of something, something that feels so drenched in ideas that are often communicated and explored textually, through the written and/or spoken word, when that something is not primarily constituted by words. And then this other thing around interpretation and the openness and invitation of a particular piece or form to people to make their own sense and meaning of. So the question to me is often around how much does one do to explicitly state or frame the terrain one thinks their work is operating in and what it’s trying to do, and how much does one leave that space free and… uncluttered? In this instance, I felt like there was something that might help to articulate more explicitly, how I conceptualize the project and what it’s political orientation is. It felt important to be unambiguous about some of that because things can get coopted, appropriated and interpreted in a whole manner of ways which may or may not resonate positively with the original intention of the work. And that will always happen and that is part of putting something out in the world, it has multiple lives with and through many people beyond you as the maker.
OS: Is there anything about jazz that feels well suited to exploring this metaphor?
AG: I don’t necessarily think about my music as jazz and perhaps there is something about that refusal of/indifference to its categorization that opens the space for exploration. Ornette Coleman said music is about ideas rather than styles and in harmolodics, his method and philosophy of music, you go straight to the idea because you are uncommitted to a style. So I’m trying to enter that space that Ornette and others opened up.
OS: Do you believe there is a way for listeners to experience agency of their own when hearing a record?
AG: Definitely. That is the hope and the intention. Meaning is always constituted by some kind of relationship between, in the case of music, the music itself and the listener’s own socialization and cultural sensibilities and and position in the world. Listening is not, or should not be, a passive process but a relation. In that a listener always has a role to play and shape that relation and thus the experience.
OS: Breaking down the inspirations found on the album, history is very present. What is it about your studies that inspire you to create music from them?
AG: Both the study of history and being involved in the process of music’s creation are part of the same thing for me – me trying to make sense of the world I am in, my position in it and make some kind of contribution, however small, to it in as progressive a way as I can. At another level, these two things are often related, there is an attention to history in many, many musician’s practices, and, one could say, history is alway present in music more broadly. Musicians build on, depart from, imitate and/or extend the traditions of music they come from whether or not they explicitly acknowledge that. Music has often been a site of keeping alive historical memory, interpreting the past and remembering.
OS: The other looming inspiration seems to come from your work as an activist and organizer. How do those pursuits translate into the inspiration for creating or performing?
AG: Being involved in and connected to different struggles has definitely shaped how I think about the world and that has a bearing on how I conceptualize my musical practice and existence as a musician. But more so than being an inspiration that translates itself, I’d say it is the place from which I create. Which is a subtle but perhaps significant difference. In other words I create and perform as someone who is involved in all of these different things, so the work of organising is part of my process of writing and playing music as much as being a musician is part of my work in organising.
OS: Released in the midst of COVID without the opportunity to perform it for audiences, what experience do you have in listening back to the music of Dialectic Soul?
AG: It’s funny because the life of an album is so differentiated and is definitely not linear. I love that album and I hope I will always love that album. And that loving has many layers, many of which have nothing to do with its release, COVID and the public reception of it. Other layers have a lot to do with that and how it’s moved in the world. But it’s difficult to say/disentangle what about the music I love for itself and what about it I love because of what it’s meant to our people and what it’s opened up for me because the layers influence each other at a certain level. I know that I still love playing that music too though, that’s a special experience.
OS: Do the circumstances we find ourselves in now change how you relate to the music from Turbulence and Pulse?
AG: That’s a great question and a difficult one to answer. I guess there is a general law of historical motion – that history moves in different modes of motion, turbulent and pulsive – that could relate to any particular moment. And there are things going on now that are turbulent and violent – the colonial occupation of Palestine, the struggle in Western Sahara, the war in Congo – and that is related to the regular Pulse and supposed peace and normalcy of peoples lives in other parts of the world which are more disconnected from that kind of violence. But part of the concept is also to be able to understand and see that turbulence and pulse are part of the same dynamic, so even in certain parts of the world which give the appearance of stability, normalcy, peace, democracy or whatever, oppressed and exploited people’s lives are incredibly turbulent – one thinks of working class people in the UK who can’t pay electricity bills or immigrant workers in the USA and their struggles. So the generality of the concept should enable us to interpret and make sense of things going on in society in a variety of ways always to progressive ends. How the music itself sounds in relation to all that to me is yet to be heard but it’s connected.
OS: The bonus tracks were recorded live with different musicians from the rest of the album – the same you had used for Dialectic Soul. What about these recordings stands out to you from these different performers? How are your arrangements new and different due to their playing?
AG: The Cairo Sessions were really special for me for so many reasons. It was the first time I had played some of those compositions and it was also the first time going elsewhere on the continent and playing my music with other musicians. The Cairo cats have a great open orientation to music and come from a very broad improvisatory sensibility, so I was able to arrange and hold space open in the tunes for a certain kind of collective playing that I really love. They were also all just so giving and generous and generally up for it which is a gift that you don’t expect especially when you traveling and playing with new musicians. So I’m ever grateful for those tunes, the way they are played and how they seem to present a whole different expansive vision on those compositions and the album as a whole.