Thursday, June 6, 2019

film review: We Are One: Blood Drum Spirit

NYC Jazz Record – June 2019 issue

We Are One: Blood Drum Spirit (2019)
Director: Sarah Pettinella. Producer: Royal Hartigan

Starring: Royal Hartigan, David Bindman, Art Hirahara, Wes Brown
 Directed by Sarah Pettinella, produced by Royal Hartigan, music by Blood Drum Spirit

Film review by John Pietaro

Royal Hartigan is a most vocal proponent of world music traditions. A professor in Ethnomusicology at Dartmouth as well as a lifelong student of culture, Hartigan is a singular force. The drummer-percussionist’s history extends to post-graduate study at Weselyan where he focused on African, Native American and Indian drumming and engaged in field research. Earlier, at Amherst, Hartigan concentrated on African American music with close tutelage under Ed Blackwell and coursework with Max Roach and Archie Shepp. The amalgam was a uniquely expansive view of jazz and improvisation. Hartigan performed and recorded with the late saxophonist/activist Fred Ho for decades, embarking on a career as steeped in international heritage as it is in building community. His own vehicle, Blood Drum Spirit, is a quartet enmeshed in this mission. The four musicians are featured in this powerful new documentary produced by Hartigan and directed by internationally acclaimed filmmaker and photographer Sarah Pettinella.

Saxophonist David Bindman is another Weselyan alumnus fusing world traditions with new music. A standard bearer of Downtown experimentation, he’s performed around the world and founded the Brooklyn Saxophone Quartet with Fred Ho. Pianist Art Hirahara has a career ranging from accompanist for vocalists to jazz composer and bandleader. He tours frequently in Japan and, like the others, Hiarhara was also a Fred Ho band member; his discography includes Ho’s Cal Massey tribute. Bassist Wes Brown first came to prominence in the ensembles of Wadada Leo Smith, with whom he continues to work, but his resume extends to Anthony Braxton, Earl Fatha Hines and, yes, Fred Ho. If there is a central fixture here, it’s not just Ho, but the baritone saxophonist’s commitment to social justice via Asian and African culture and the voices of the oppressed. Change realized through creativity.

Hartigan states in We Are One that upon first hearing African music, he recognized its relationship to jazz. “It brought me to a place that transcends everyday life” and as soon as he had the opportunity to do so, brought the band to Ghana. “You have to be in the culture with the people”, he explained.
True to form, the film documents much more than mere performances, but engagement and sharing. The quartet traveled to multiple African villages, first meeting with the elders of each and sharing in food, dance and traditional music before they brought out a drumset, electric keyboard, electric bass and a saxophone. Pettinella caught beautiful moments of Blood Drum Spirit creating music with village master musicians and average citizens alike. Expressions of joy on the faces of villagers was matched by those of the quartet who demonstrated deep respect for their hosts and sites like the W.E.B. DuBois Cultural Center. Scenes of the quartet jamming with locals and traveling throughout Ghana were interspersed with profiles of each of the four including clips of them at home and a wonderful segment of Hartigan tap dancing. There were also bits of interviews with global artists such as dancer Joann Thompson and master musician, dancer and international speaker Kwabene Boateng. The latter’s comment summed up the film’s core in two brief sentences: “Music can change the world. And I think it’s already done it”.

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