The Back Story of Heroes Are Gang Leader’s “The Amiri Baraka Sessions”

Heroes Are Gang Leaders, also known as HAGL, was co-founded by poet, photographer, professor Thomas Sayers Ellis and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis who met at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, in 2011, where Ellis was teaching and Lewis was studying with pianist Matthew Shipp. Shortly afterwards, they began collaborating and performing at various universities, conferences and literary reading series, including the 92nd Street Y, AWP (Boston) and Furious Flower, eventually culminating in opening for legendary poet / essayist / playwright / activist Amiri Baraka at the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church in New York City in February 13, 2013 just several months before his death on January 9, 2014. In the days immediately following Baraka’s death, Ellis wrote the anti-elegy “Vernacular Owl” which appeared in Poetry Magazine.  Ellis and Lewis also recorded the poem for the Poetry Foundation and it was this recording (not included here because it historically belongs to the period before the birth of HAGL) that set in motion the energy for the full-on tribute and gathering of a group of poets and musicians to record The Amiri Baraka Sessions, which was originally conceived as a two-CD project. Ellis recalls, “The first session was a learning experience with the The Shrimpy Grits being the only surviving track but then JBL called-on bassist Luke Stewart, drummer Warren “Trae” Crudup and Philly trumpeter Ryan Frazier (aka Heru Shabaka-ra) and the band’s purpose was instantly realized. I think the We Can Do This Because We Are Supposed To Do This Moment came during the recording of Land Back. There was definitely a force in the room with us.” Land Back, it must be noted, incorporates two poems by Amina Baraka, the classic “I Wanna Make Freedom” and an excerpt from “To Pharaoh Sanders, both performed by poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie. Ellis also remembers telling professor poet Randall Horton, after he recorded The Real Illegal Must be Crazy, “Man, you were born to be HAGL…” The second Session was scheduled to be the final one but after composing Superstar during a practice session for their first performance together as full group at Thinking Its Presence, a conference on creative writing, race and identity at the University of Montana, HAGL went back into the studio. Because Baraka was equally respected, if not more, for his writings on Jazz and his performances with Jazz musicians, than the poetry of his latter years, Ellis and Lewis were well aware of the large and controversial legacy they were attempting, seemingly out of nowhere, to explore, honor and extend. At time of the Baraka Sessions, Lewis was just three years removed from Divine Travels, his SONY debut featuring William Parker and Gerald Cleaver and Ellis was four years removed from his second collection of poems, Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems. For the third and final Session, the band used poet Bob Holman’s library-apartment in the Bowery (NYC) to rehearse. It was the most focused of the three Sessions, Ellis having learned to do things the way Paul Wickliffe, the engineer, instructed him to do them…not the way most comfortable to him. The goal of the Session was to outdo (or match) the sweeping width and passion of Land Back, while adding three songs (Superstar, LeAutoRoiOgraphy and The Tender Arrival of Outsane Midget Booker Ts Who Kill Drums Runnin’ da Voodoo Down) that would create their own unique shapes during the recording session as well as come closer to the unpredictable energy of a live HAGL performance. Ellis didn’t want only Jazz and he even threatened to take away the drummer’s cymbals during the session.  The third Session is the only Session to feature, then, new members Margaret Morris (voice), Brandon Moses (guitar) and Da Frontline TSE’s son, (Raps) but by this time Ellis was already considering HAGL’s next step, so the band used the very beginning of the Session to record WeWeWeWe The Remarkable for Gwendolyn Brooks.  If you don’t read or haven’t read Amiri Baraka’s work or are not familiar with the many changing-same-so-what-dig-its of his life, you probably won’t hear all of the layers of signifying, conflict, vibe and surreal negritude without listening many times, even SuiteBlack Flyer, Janice Lowe’s inspired interpretation of The System of Dante’s Hell is remarkable for its deceptive and dramatic suggestion of romantic subtext. Did twelve Poppa Stoppa’s who call themselves Heroes Are Gang Leaders create music for Baraka’s work or did Baraka’s work carry da music out of itself, all the way from page 63 of Tales, into other selves? Of the twelve tracks, one is from the first Session, six are from the second Session and three are from the third. The oddity, Sad Dictator, was recorded at the studio home of Paul Wickliffe not at Skyline Productions where the other trackes were recorded. Professor Meta DuEwa Jones writes, “Sad Dictator begins, then, not as a dirge, not as an elegant, and elegiac lament in the wake of the gaping (black) hole left by the loss of Baraka.  It is less New-Ark and more New Orleans in its raucous funeral march and moan…” Perhaps to find their own “grease,” HAGL stayed away from the poems everyone knows but hopefully the most “Outsane” of these recordings will pick right up where Baraka’s recordings of Wailers and Nightmare Bush’It Whirl left off.

Come Join Heroes Are Gang Leaders, the 2018 Winners of the American Book Award for Oral Literature, as we celebrate the release of “The Amiri Baraka Sessions” and pay tribute the the highly influential poet / activist / jazz critic!

 

 

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