Jazz and Mdw Ntr: Divine Speech

My teachers -- both in print and in person -- always remind me to study the beginning. That is, to study the source and to seek the origin, or dig until I locate the roots. I will admit that too often I am a wayward student and waste precious, valuable time. While my heart’s intentions are wedded to the idea of Liberation, I know that my actions impede the process of reaching this goal. When it is all said and done, I hope to reconcile myself and my future with this fact. And to also do better: immediately.

Mdw Ntr is the oldest example that we have of our speech -- our oldest record of our ancient form of communication. This Mdw Ntr -- "Divine Speech" -- is not just about written or even spoken language. It is about a worldview and a way of life. In Intellectual Warfare, Dr. Jacob Carruthers (Jedi Shemsu Jehewty, Maa Kheru) explains that “the exaltation of Speech” was at the center of the Kemetic (African) worldview (1999, p276). Dr. Carruthers refers to the Shabaka text (transcribed during the 25th Dynasty of Kemet, also called the Nubian Dynasty) where Mdw Ntr is defined by its own practitioners:

“The seeing of the eyes, the hearing of the ears and the sniffing of the nose report to the mind, which makes every understanding come forward. As to the tongue, it repeats what the mind has planned, thus all divine powers were created. For every divine speech came about through what the mind planned and the tongue commanded, thus all labor and all crafts are made, the actions of the hand, the motions of the legs, the movement of the limbs, according to this command which is planned by the mind and comes forth on the tongue and creates the performance of everything” (1999, 282).

Dr. Carruthers goes on to explain,"When you look at humanity and observe humanity, in its human form, acting as human, then you observe it acting through speech... Speech is humanity when humanity is at its best” (1999, 283).

In theory, this was never hard for me to understand because it made sense. In practice, I tried to envision Mdw Ntr in my own lifetime and space but never felt like I was fully manifesting the concept or the vision as it is so eloquently described in the Shabaka text.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Jazz lately. Growing up, I dibbled and dabbled in Jazz -- in school choirs and music courses -- never planting my feet firmly in the genre long enough to access the deep roots. I collect records though, and through my journey as an amateur vinyl connoisseur (wink...smile to myself), I’ve come across lots of rare finds. Over the years, my curiosity has led me farther and deeper into the world of Jazz. And more recently, I’ve come across some amazing music, created by some extraordinary people.

From my observations, Jazz is more about sound than anything else. A good amount of Jazz music is instrumental, without lyrics or vocalists to amplify the message. And yet, with great clarity, these instrumentals speak. As if to ensure that the focus of these “speaking” instrumentals would not be lost in translation, the master Jazz musicians titled their work in ways that left nothing to chance. From “Nubia” and “When There is No Sun” to “You Got to Have Freedom,” “Balance of Life (Peace of Mind),” “Selflessness” and “Uhuru Sasa.”

In retrospect, it seems as if a wave of African worldview consciousness invigorated the Jazz community. Beginning in the 1950s, some Jazz musicians even changed their names to reflect their new found understanding. Some, like Sun Ra -- and later Pharoah Sanders -- took on names directly related to the ancient African (Kemetic) worldview. Others, like Ahmad Jamal, Yusef Lateef, Art Blakey (Abdullah Ibn Buhaina), and Idris Muhammad, changed their names as a result of their conversion to Islam. Regardless, the music would ultimately speak for itself and reflect the cultural orientation of the creators.

I will not pretend to be a Jazz historian. Besides, no real discussion of Jazz could exist without exploring the global context of the African Diaspora and Africa itself -- which is missing from this particular discussion. However, even from what I have learned so far, it is quite clear that there was a deliberate expression of Mdw Ntr (Divine Speech) in the Jazz created by these great men and women: in the midst of American racism, socioeconomic oppression, political disenfranchisement and brutal violence against African people.

I am humbled by the efforts made by these individuals to connect with, and reinvigorate the memory of, a worldview that dates back many thousands of years. To boldly proclaim the African worldview in a world saturated with notions of assimilation and forgetfulness. To remember, in spite of the efforts of their enemies and oppressors to trick them into willful amnesia.

I am not surprised because their diligence was born out of a long and deep tradition of creative resistance. However, when juxtaposed against those who did not (or could not) speak the language of their foreparents, these Jazz women and men emerge as exceptional and extraordinary. So much so that Sun Ra’s discography alone is overflowing with specific references to distinct aspects of the most ancient African worldview. And then there is the spiritual enlightenment of John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas. Or the protest compositions of Nina Simone, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Charles Mingus, Gary Bartz and Gil Scott-Heron. The cultural reinforcement of Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, and Idris Muhammad.

These are just a few examples. The collective force of these individuals together with their musical counterparts (in the form of trios, quartets, quintets, “arkestras,” and ensembles), is a force that was born of many foreparents and in turn, replicated itself over and over. Sometimes in quiet spaces, other times in loud venues for all the world to see.

And their talent continues to remain unparalleled. Somehow, they combined exquisite mastery of music with deliberate speech (verbal and otherwise) to create lasting expressions of the African worldview. And it all seems so effortless. So incredibly seamless, in fact, that they set a new tone and made that the tone: speaking loudly and Divinely, just like Mdw Ntr.

Already, I am forced to renew and to redefine my definitions of art, music, spirituality, and more importantly Liberation. It would appear that I, along with my generation, am much freer to do, say and think, than those who came before me. However, the Jazz that I’m talking about oozes freedom. It questions and answers, it protests and defies, it loves and remembers and repeats what it knows to be true. Over and over again. Despite their imperfections (on a personal level and collectively), somehow they managed to keep “it” together, manifesting something that was at once ancient and futuristic.

All while improvising, wowing the crowds and recreating a genre in ways that will remain etched in our cultural memory.

How clever!

Carruthers, Jacob. 1999. Intellectual Warfare. Third World Press.

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by Stephanie Joy Tisdale

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