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Julius Hemphill - Dogon A.D.

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Artist: Julius Hemphill

Album: Dogon A.D.

Label: International Phonograph Inc.

Review date: Nov. 1, 2011


    “Given the centrality of various forms of graphic inscription in Dogon cosmology, the cosmogonic potency and role of sign, figure, drawing, trace, diagram, outline, image, mark, design and so on (for all of which the Dogon use a careful, hairsplitting terminology), along with the strikingly tactile, abraided vocality, the grating ‘graphic’ tone and timbre of the song of the Andoumboulou itself, I couldn’t help thinking of the Andoumboulou [an earlier, incomplete form of human in Dogon mythology] as not simply a failed or flawed, earlier form of human being but a rough draft of human being, the work-in-progress we continue to be…The song of the Andoumboulou is one of striving, strain, abrasion, an all but asthmatic song of aspiration.” -- Nathaniel Mackey, Splay Anthem

Dogon A.D., Julius Hemphill’s first album as a bandleader, was recorded in St. Louis in 1972 and released on his own Mbari record label. The sessions for the album produced four songs, almost a full hour of music, too much for any LP. The extra song, “Hard Blues,” became the first track on Hemphill’s second album, ‘Coon Bid’ness on Arista/Freedom, and is included on this CD, unifying the session on a single disc. Dogon A.D. was reissued by Arista/Freedom in 1977, well after Hemphill had left St. Louis for the loft scene of New York City. But even before that, the album had apparently struck a nerve. Robert Palmer, writing the liner notes for the Arista reissue, notes all the glowing reviews the album garnered in the five years between initial release and reissue.

Most of the buzz for the album is from the title track, which offers an alternate vision of the jazz future/past of 1972. While it may be folly to reduce any era of jazz down to a few trends, one could reasonably say that by the early 1970s, jazz had stratified into two main camps: fusion and the post-Coltrane, post-Ayler avant-garde. “Dogon A.D.” offers either a bizarre hybrid or a completely new way out of that binary. At its center is a stark, looping groove built by drummer Philip Wilson (who sounds like Tony Williams with only one arm and one leg) and cellist Abdul Wadud (who sounds like he’s trying to make power chords with his bow). On top of this, Hemphill and trumpeter Baikida E. J. Carroll spin free solos that are simultaneously neck deep in the blues and throat deep in avant-garde. But neither of them blow just for the sake of blowing -- they use texture, vocality, grain and space as tools to express some kind of ur-blues, one that has more in common with the grit on an old 78 or a mythological view of the Dogon of Mali than B. B. King. And both interact with and against the underlying vamp, using its subliminal rock feel as a point of departure. It feels like an answer to the question of what might have happened if Miles had never heard of Sly Stone. “Hard Blues” is an even more extreme version of this, a lilting Texas blues with Hamiet Bluiett adding a swinging, powerful baritone sax to the mix.

The other two tunes here are a closer to the free-blowing jams of the Art Ensemble, Henry Threadgill or Anthony Braxton. But they never actually freak out. There is no loss of control, there is still a sense of line, of voice, of conversation. They are graphic players, using their instruments to create the kind of ecstatic collage that appears on the cover of the Arista/Freedom version of the album, in which a man in a Dogon mask plays the saxophone while leaping out of the center of a campfire with Dogon huts looming in the background. In these songs, Wadud becomes the propulsive center of the ensemble, acting as a guitar/bass hybrid, providing occasional harmonic frameworks, but also anchoring the rhythm with provocative bass lines. And Wilson’s restraint opens space for Hemphill’s flute vocalizations in “The Painter” and the collective skree of “Rites.”

I’ve been purposefully avoiding the question of the Dogon, the title, and the question/role of Africa in this album because there’s so much in there to unpack that goes way beyond what I could possibly write here about this particular album. What I can say is that, to Hemphill, the Dogon seem to represent some kind of mythical tribe that is simultaneously not of this time and yet in possession of knowledge from the future, occult knowledge of the universe. You could perhaps draw a line between Hemphill’s Dogon and Sun Ra’s afro-futurist mythology. But I’ll let Hemphill himself explain it to you.

    SM: You recorded Dogon A.D. on your own label in ‘72 (it was re-released in ‘77). The title refers to the African tribe in Mali called the Dogon. Why did you chose [sic] that subject for your album?

    JH: Well, the A.D. stands for adaptive dance, and I had in mind a dance all along. I read an article about how the Dogon had decided to reveal some of their sacred dance ritual, to attract the tourist trade. I had seen some of the dancing on video, and I had read a little about the Dogon and their cosmic view, and it was quite extraordinary. They have been proclaiming the existence of a companion star to Sirius, which could not be seen. And finally, Western scientists have telescopes that can see it. So how did these people living in these mud huts know this about the solar system? Like elliptical orbits, and all of these uncanny things. The Dogon seemed to be singular in their beliefs; they claim that they were visited by star people, and they have drawings of some of these events that they had kept hidden. There were a lot of fairly mind-boggling stories. And what they understand about the planets, without a telescope, mind you, researchers, especially French and British researchers, have been trying to poke at for 40, 50 years. The real clincher was the discovery of the star Sirius B, as it is called, and it’s there, like they said it was. The orbit for this invisible star to come around Sirius takes 55 years. And every 55 years the Dogon have a festival. So, I find them extraordinary and unique among Africans. – Julius Hemphill, interviewed by Suzanne McElfresh, BOMB 46

By Dan Ruccia

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