Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Monday, 2 April 2012


Guy Warren, in the late 1950s, was on a mission in the US to show the jazz world, and the rest of the musical community, the importance of drumming. Not only that but he was determined to show people that the drums of Africa were as expressive and versatile as any other instrument in America. For Warren, drums were not just for providing a steady background beat while other instruments took the lead. For him the drums were the centre stage instrument.
Not only that, for Warren jazz was all about the drums, and African drums at that. The music, its development, its history, was for Warren inextricably linked to African music, specifically music from West African, the part of Africa that provided many, but not all, of the people who would become slaves in the US.
Warren had played jazz in the UK with Kenny Graham's Afro Cubists and in the US with established jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, to whom he dedicates one of the tracks on this album. He had also played highlife in Ghana as a member of the Tempos along with ET Mensah and Joe Kelly. By 1958, when this record was released, he was an experienced, sophisticated musician with a vision for his music. "This is the album I wanted to make ... This is MY album" he proclaims in the linear notes.
His jazz credentials are for all to see in the linear notes. He thanks critics Nat Henthoff and Lee Shapiro. His band mates include James Hawthorne (Chief) Bey (who would play on Art Blakey's African Beat - here), he mentions Monk, he uses jazz terms such as free-form and jazz slang such as 'laid it down'. How can this be anything other than a jazz record?
That is, unless you ignore the truly obscene cover. From the cover you would think that this record was firmly in the exotica genre.

What is the crazed man in front of a fire supposed to represent? Is it a reference to voodoo, or just a blanket heart of darkness reference? I think it is tragic that a man so proud of his country and the contribution that it had made to world culture should find that his first solo record, the "album I wanted to make", should be packaged in such a crude and insensitive way. I have included a few other exotica sleeves to show that this sort of thing was not uncommon. But it also shows how Themes for African Drums suffered. The record sleeve made it seem as though the music was not authentic, that the music was neither genuine African music nor genuine jazz. On the evidence of the sleeve you might have thought that Warren's music was on a par with Thurston Knudson or maybe Augie Colon.
In fact it is fascinating and amazing music. If you've read any of my other Warren posts you will probably know I am fascinated by him and his music.

Warren, however, was a somewhat confusing proposition to the record buying public of America. For a start, although he is pictured on the reverse in Ghanaian clothes, his music was not a strict 'ethonographic' reproduction of Ghanaian or African music.
The complexities of music from Africa, the enormous range of  external influences, from Europe in the form of church choirs or military marching bands, from Cuba in the form of a wave of Latin records that swept over the continent after the second world war, from the West Indies in the form of calypsos and from the US in the form of jazz, was never acknowledged in European imaginations. Instead, as can be seen from the cover, music from Africa was assumed to be from a place untouched by the influences of the outside world. Wild, primal, sexualised (as can be seen from the cover above) and 'savage' drumming was the music that most Westerners expected from Africa. Jazz, particularly sophisticated fusions of the jazz idiom and African traditional idioms, was not expected. Few Americans were familiar with highlife or any of the other forms of modern music being created in Africa.
Furthermore, Warren's pride in his Ghanaian roots, pride in his country and Continent, proved problematic at a time when many African countries were gaining their independence. The response of jazz musicians was to pen tracks whose names recognised new nations, or the creators of new nations. The response of jazz critics and white audiences was either to ignore this or to label this as some form of racism. Where within this dichotomy could an African jazz musician and his music find a home? Warrren was, I suspect, too proud to accept any easy assimilation into American cultural imperialism.
I would guess that Warren was very influenced by the writings of Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah explored ideas about cultural transformation through the traditional culture of his country. He took popular artists such as EK Nyame and the Uhuru Dance Band with him on his trips outside Ghana and he encouraged musicians to use traditional instruments and rhythms and wear national costume. As the cover of Themes for African Drums shows, this could only be interpretedin America through a lens of colonialism and Western superiority, rather than as an equivalent and valid cultural statement. Jazz was American and even if many of its practitioners were not white Americans, for white record company executives and the white record buying public the concept that an African could explore new areas of jazz was just too incredible a proposition in 1958.
Themes for African Drums contains the amazing, Love, the Mystery Of, later covered by Art Blakey on his The African Beat LP only four years later in 1962. It also contains the incredible My Story which, if anyone's autobiography can be written using drums, then this must be it. 

Warren maintained the same musical path for his next record, that is a mix of jazz and traditional African music. To my ears he achieves a more successful fusion on African Rhythms. Again, the sleeve notes make it clear that this record is jazz and not exotica. He is joined by Richard Davis on bass and Ollie Shearer on vibes and marimba. He is praised by the likes of Leonard Feather and Nat Henthoff and is even called "a jazz genius" by Earl Wilson.
Yet once again the sleeve puts the music firmly in the exotica genre. Stylised dancers, looking very similar to depictions of black jazz dancers in the 1920, particularly Josephine Baker, replace the crazed drummer of the previous LP. However, I would say that they reveal nothing about Warren's music, instead giving the impression that it is something to accompany a Tarzan movie. There wasn't even a photograph of him on the reverse.
For me African Rhythms is slightly more pleasurable than Themes for African Drums. Although Warren plays more trap drums in African Rhythms, there are no brass instruments. This means that each track is carried entirely by the drumming - by the rhythm. I find tracks such as My Anthem and both parts of the Third Phase to be utterly hypnotic and captivating.
As Warren revealed in an interview in 1960, he was aware of the problems that his music making created in the jazz community in the US. "I could never play like Gene Krupa, Max Roach or Louis Belson. They have a different culture. So I had to make a choice of being a poor imitation of Buddy Rich or playing something they couldn't. So I started playing African music with a little bit of jazz thrown in, not jazz with a little bit of Africa thrown in. For it is African music that is the mother, not the other way round. But I had to find out the hard way!"
What he found out was that, like many innovators, he was too far ahead of his time. In a few years, in America, the concept of Africa, the concept of the continent's meaning in jazz and for jazz, and the concept of what music from the continent could sound like, had changed completely. Records by Olatunji took the same elements as Warren's records but found a wider audience. Olatunji became friends with John Coltrane and apparently the two considered recording together. Other drummers, Big Black, 'Chief' Bey, Solomon Ilori, Montego Joe, put out records and carved successful careers within the American jazz scene. Symbols taken to represent Africa became more common as did the adoption of musical signs and idioms to indicate that black jazz musicians recognised that Africa was their spiritual home. All too late for Warren who unfairly has been neglected as anything but a footnote in jazz history. Buy his records and rediscover his greatness.


  1. This is a great album.

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