The vast interactive exhibition “Great Black Music” retraces the diversity of black music through different eras and continents. An epic story that is intrinsically connected to the emergence of pan-African consciousness, which is also expressed through the voices, rhythms, and spirit of that music.
A strange photo from the album art for Maggot Brain by Funkadelic was chosen to promote this exhibition about “Great Black Music”. The image expresses both a cry of liberation and someone being smothered, or even an execution. Is black music in danger? Not really. You could even say that, in its globalised form, it represents a major component of popular music today.
How did we get here and how do you tell the story of black music? Of all black music, music from America, of course, but also from Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe.
This exhibition, created by Marc Benaïche, was held for the first time in Dakar in 2010 and has since toured nine countries. It has been updated each time and now includes, for its Brussels phase, a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement.
It's an immersive exhibition with no display cases and no objects. Instead, it has screens and ports to plug your headphones into.
In this huge multimedia juke box, you can experience a total of eleven hours of documentary footage and music. In other words, it is impossible to see everything, so you will have to be selective.
The exhibition features Fela Kuti and Gilberto Gil, Ray Charles and Michael Jackson, Billie Holiday (photo above) and Celia Cruz, alongside other legends of black music. The Mama Africa section takes you on a journey from the Sufis and Bantus of southern Africa to the Afro-Soul of West Africa and the rumba makossa of Central Africa.
When tackling such a vast field, there are inevitably going to be some omissions. For example, the absence of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, dubbed the Godmother of rock 'n' roll, who performed onstage with an electric guitar in the late 1930s, is regrettable, as is the fact that Ethio-Jazz is represented by only one song by Mahmoud Ahmed. Everyone will have their opinion about what should have been included. With such an abundance of material, however, one can hardly complain.
To break the monotony of the screens, the creators designed a space devoted to sacred rhythms and rituals, where you observe a screen through a slit in a black drape.
The historical theme gives you the chance to discover links between events from the rich history of Africa and major works of music and literature. A thread runs from the construction of the pyramid of Cheops to the militant Caribbean politician Edward W. Blyden's trip to Egypt in 1866 and to the album Pyramid by the Modern Jazz Quartet. Further on, the assassination of the homosexual mayor of San Francisco Harvey Milk in 1979 is juxtaposed with sets by Frankie Knuckles, the resident DJ of the gay club The Warehouse in Chicago, the epicentre of house music. The final part is devoted to the Caribbean, Cuba, Samba, Salsa, and funk, polyrhythms that melt into the global mix of today's music in which the powerful sounds of urban and pan-African music are mixed with electronic beats.
When you hang up your headphones, you feel like you have pins and needles in your legs. How were you able to see and listen to all that music without dancing? That's a question with no answer.
GREAT BLACK MUSIC
> 20/12, Les Halles, www.halles.be