Multi-instrumentalist and composer Angel Bat Dawid’s emergence has been one of the most exciting things to happen on the Chicago creative music scene in recent years. Her release of The Oracle in 2019 was a monumental debut release and she has not looked back since. Collaborating with musicians on four continents over the past two years has proven that Ms. Dawid is not only a versatile and visionary musician, but is a community-builder whose energy and creativity has no limit. The editor had the opportunity to talk with her in a recent interview about past, present, and future work.
Cisco Bradley: What was the spark for your recent release of Transition East?
Angel Bat Dawid: So about three years ago I took a trip to London for my birthday. International Anthem, the label I am currently on, was doing a big music event getting London musicians and Chicago musicians together to perform at this dope DIY spot called Total Refreshment Center. So I made the trip a birthday excursion for myself hopped on a plane and had the time of my life.(The song “London” from my album The Oracle I also recorded during my time there). It was at Total Refreshment Center that I met journalist/writer Emma Warren, and we instantly became really close friends because of our shared experience of having such a grand time at Total Refreshment Center. Fast forward two years later. Emma was so inspired, refreshed and in awe of the vibe at TRC that she wrote a whole book about it called Make Some Space. Emma then hits me up and asks if I’d like to contribute a soundtrack for the book since that was where our friendship started. I of course said hell yeah! So Here in Chicago there was a space that is very special to me called Transition East. It’s a small performance venue with a rich Black avant-garde secret history. So I thought it just important to pay homage to the space here in Chicago that touched me much like Total Refreshment Center did in London. The present story is that Transition East became very important to not only myself but a whole community of musicians who I still work and play with to this day!
CB: What is the legacy of the Transition East community center to the Chicago community of artists of which you are a part? What has Eliel Sherman Storey done to revive that?
ABD: Transition East was a small health food restaurant back in the 1970s that was at one time even owned by Phil Cohran. It was a special place because it was also a space for musicians to come and hold events. There’s only bits and pieces of the history I’ve gathered from elders who used to go there. So Phil Cohran had the Afro Arts Theatre which was a magical center for performance art fully funded by the community. But the Afro Arts Theatre began to be scrutinized because of its political affiliations and began to even be watched by the FBI. This caused some hardships I think for the theatre and then it closed. So apparently many artists were still looking for places to perform music and Transition East began to be one of the spots for that. Eliel Sherman Storey tells many stories about how Transition East was a very sacred and special place for him when he was just getting into music, he’s an amazing multi-instrumentalist himself. And because the space was so precious to him he opened the current Transition East in homage of the former. So if you’ve read about my story with music I took a leap of faith six years ago to pursue music full time and it was during that year that I met so many musicians at a popular free jazz jam session. These sessions met once a week but a small music community was brewing amongst us and we wanted to play more often. So folks started coming through to my crib for jam sessions. These jam sessions were so deep and we were all growing so much musically we decided we should have an event, or a show. No one was booking us and we didn’t really care cause we wanted to be like AACM anyway, not just a band but a coalition of artists. So we came up with the Participatory Music Coalition, And we asked Eliel if we could use Transition East for our first shows. Transition East is also a full studio cause Eliel is also a sound engineer, he actually does all the sound for the Art Ensemble of Chicago. So we even recorded an album there too. Again it wasn’t about popularity or getting famous. We just all put in our money together to get the album out. It was all organic and just some of the best memories of my life. To see everyone in that original community still thriving most of us are full time or semi full time musicians now… so much in this art is truly incredible!
CB: What is the current state of Black Arts today? Where do you see points of community coalescence and cultural potency?
ABD: Black Arts is and always will be thriving. I quote Mmtume off of his now rare record Alkebulan he said “Black Music will survive and Grow, simply because Black People Survive and grow.” Black music/arts is music that comes from Black people, it’s just that simple. I use to ask Eliel about Transition East seeing artists like Anthony Braxton or Henry threadgill play the avante-garde and I asked him if he thought it was strange to hear that kind of music back then. And he said it never crossed anybody’s mine if they were playing a genre or anything other than a man or woman getting on stage and expressing their soul in whatever way it came out. Their Black soul, their history and everything. Genres really don’t exist in Black arts, it’s basically you a Black person doing art then the art is going to Black.
CB: What brought you to Brazil? Can you talk about how the collaboration with Ben LaMar Gay, Edbrass Brasil, Romulo Alexis, Tadeu Mascarenhas, Nancy Viegas, and Germano Estacio came together?
ABD: I was invited to do a cultural exchange trip where Chicago artists collaborate with Brazillian artists. I was so excited and honored to be asked to join this wonderful trip. I was even more excited because I was going to Salvador, Bahia which everyone was saying had the richest ancient African presence anywhere in Brazil. I guess I expected in my head that I wouldn’t have to deal with racism as much. But of course we still live in a very white supremacist world and dealing with cultural exchanges I of course had an experience where a person said a harmless comment in her mind, but a very racist thing. I don’t give people passes anymore with today’s world having ample means to know culturally how to respect people. So I of course confronted the individual and told them that saying those types of things are offensive and please don’t do that to anyone else ever again. It was not up for discussion. So this made me very uncomfortable on the trip. Now my host was a Brazillian doctor with a very beautiful home overlooking the ocean. He was so hospitable and wonderful and a very big advocate of music and arts and he had a piano in his house. I was still kind of upset about the racial encounter and knew I had to compose something. And that is Where “No Space for Us” was born cause I really felt like no matter where I go there is no space for us and that there is this innocent viciousness that happens where Black folks are completely misunderstood, underestimated and constantly stereotyped…it’s so exhausting. I just felt like places like Total Refreshment Center and Transition East were born out of people feeling like they don’t have a space of their own to express themselves. And the world in general seems to constantly remind Black people that we are odd, different and weird or people are scared of us or fetisize us or love our culture, music, etc., but hate us. Or think we want to steal or think we are not beautiful. There’s just so much as an artist of color that we have to think about going into all white spaces, it would surprise many white people what we have to think about and deal with. So after I composed it I hit up my good friend Edbrass Brasil (he came to Chicago the summer before and we became good friends so I was excited to vibe with him again) and asked him if there was a studio I could record at and could he gather some other musicians together to record. He was like ” I got u friend” and made shit happen for me. That’s why I have him as executive producer of the track, he was so helpful in getting that together for me. So Nancy and Tadeu own the studio and are also musicians… and Romulo and Germano were part of the exchange program already. I asked Ben to roll through who is seriously beyond a friendship. I consider him just a straight fam (Ben has always been such a wonderful supporter of my music and I have traveled all over the world with him). He rolled through and laid his part down. It all just came together so beautifully and really helped me feel better after the offensive remarks.
CB: Will there be more music developing from the Brazilian collaboration?
ABD: I would really hope so. There’s a great community of musicians there who are my good friends and I would give anything to get up with them again and do some music for sure!
CB: You spoke of the exhaustion that comes from constantly dealing with all kinds of racism and white supremacy and the need for autonomous cultural space for Black artists and communities. Outside of Chicago, what other key Black arts spaces have you connected with in the United States?
ABD: I’ve also linked with cats in New York, Standing on the Corner, in L.A., the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, and in Detroit there’s a group called Lufuki & Divine Providence. I met them all on instagram and formed great friendships and connections and even have performed with them all. They all are on this same vibe with the music. We know the music is much bigger than an album or fam dada . . . the music is for healing and bringing people together. So it’s def a wonderful time to be doing music! Alkebulan means Land of the Blacks . . . so wherever Black bodies are present are the art spaces.
CB: How would you characterize your sonic aesthetic? Who has had a big impact on your making of that aesthetic?
ABD: I characterize my sonic aesthetic as Great Black Music always. I am a Black woman so all the music that comes outta of me comes with the history, the culture, the joys, the suffering the ups and downs and everything in between of the Black experience. It’s a lovely collage.. a quilt of sounds. Because there are so many different musical traditions within Black music from rock to soul to reggae to jazz to hip hop gospel etc. to almost all music in the world that is extremely popular has its roots in Black culture.
CB: What were your first impressions of the city of Cape Town when visiting to record for The Oracle?
ABD: Me and my comrade Viktor Le who is also in my band “Tha Bothahood” made an impromptu journey to South Africa. The reason Viktor wanted to go to South Africa was because a group of poets came to Chicago and they said if he came thru we could perform. When he told me he was planning on going…I had just got my tax return and was like fuck it I’m going too! We had so much fun everyday no plans just going wherever the spirit led, like for real no plans and really didn’t know anybody. So we started in Johannesburg and just went to any art shit we could fine from open mics, festivals, churches etc. to going to hear famous poets I mean Joburg was just dripping with so much rich and beautiful culture. I even had a great long jam session with our airbnb host. That trip was all about connection and meeting and making new friends . . . it was soooo fun. We wanted to go to Cape Town too which is like 12 hours away. So we gladly hopped on a bus which we enjoyed traveling and soaking up the sweet African terrain. When we got to Cape Town it was beautiful, it look like L.A. So we kept on with our adventure. So the group of poets Viktor knew said they were having a show and asked Viktor and me to perform. It got so deep We even went to Cape Town University to talk to the head of the gender/race studies just to get info on Cape Town and culture. We just went up there and asked to talk to her. She was so kind and brought us tea and talked to us about Khoi people and traditions. Viktor and I are very much on a journey of Ancient African spirituality so we were on our Indiana Jones shit, LOL.
CB: What was it like performing in Africa for the first time?
ABD: I met Asher Gamedze because I had reached out to a friend in London who I knew had homies in South Africa and she had told me that I should meet him. We linked up at a coffee shop in Cape Town and discovered we had a deep interest in Free Jazz and music. Asher saw I had my clarinet and asked me if I wanted to go back to his crib and jam. I was like HELL YEAH! It really wasn’t a performance it was an impromptu meeting and we went to his house and had a jam session. I just recorded it on my phone and wanted to share it on the album because I wanted the world to see how easy it is to just meet people and play music together. And look at us two years later we both have albums out, we been on tour together and Asher even came to Chicago. All because we said yes to Music. And that’s what you hear on The Oracle. See The Oracle wasn’t an album made for an album, The Oracle are songs all tied to my travels, adventures and just my musical life in Chicago. A collection of songs that were building up on my phone.
CB: What connections did you make with the community of musicians in Cape Town?
ABD: Just Asher really, I stayed in a hostel and airbnbs, met so many people. I stayed in Soweto, too, and my airbnb host there had turned his garage into a music venue. I mean you can’t make this shit up. Like when we booked the spot we had no clue. It was so random and serendipitously amazing. So I was playing music with musicians everyday and they even took me to secret jam session where I heard some of the best music in the world. When I tell you that trip was completely unplanned and we knew nobody I mean it. There was no plans. It was the best trip of my life! I made so many new friends and still all stay in contact on socials I just know if I go back I got fam and I’m gonna play somewhere even if its under a tree. I dont gives a fux. South Africa is such a special place!
CB: In reflecting back to your 2019 release of The Oracle, how have you evolved as a musician and composer since its release?
ABD: I have evolved greatly and I always seek to evolve. For instance, The Oracle was a time stamp and can never be recreated again, cause even when I perform it with my band “Tha Brothahood” the songs go in a whole other way, which I love so much. To go from me doing all the instruments by myself to playing the music with a seven-piece band the songs just take on a whole other thang. I definitely have grown so much compositionally. I really feel like there is no cap or limit to how much music I can make. It’s my unlimited resources. And I’ve also stepped up my studio space. One of the reasons I used my phone to record the Oracle was because it was the most convenient resource that I had to get my compositional ideas out. Now I’ve upgraded everything and am also currently working on mixing my next album. Which I am sooooo excited about.
CB: It seems that much of your music-making has been a solitary process. Can you talk about your work process of generating ideas, composing, and recording?
ABD: I am a very outgoing person…always have been the life of the party! But I also am a person that loves to spend time alone. Because there is no judgement or anything with myself. I love myself very much and “me myself and I izz all I got till the end” as Beyonce says! So when I am by myself I am much more adventurous with sounds and experimentation because no one is there to judge it and I don’t have to cater to anyone but myself. Because I basically love and bless anything that comes out of me. My music is all story based and spiritual. I don’t sit down to any composition without ritual, mediation, prayer. Because it ain’t about me. I am just a vessel to outflow the gifts that I have and have worked to have. I wasn’t a naturally gifted musician. I had to really work hard and study and practice, a lot of self discipline and patience, and this is an ongoing thing. I was always envious of the child prodigy who just could play. that wasn’t my story at all. I went through many stages of life not affirming the work that I put into my craft. Cause faith without works is dead. All my compositions have to have purpose and reason, and that’s my advice to all creatives all over. Have strong solid intentions about everything you create and you will never run out of ideas, because you realize it ain’t about you anyway. And that’s when composing is the most fun and fulfilling because you feel like you serve a greater purpose than yourself.
CB: If you could go back in time and talk/perform with one person who is now passed away, who would it be? And why?
ABD: I would love to go back in time and have a convo with Sun Ra. In fact I do have convos with him. Sun Ra always spoke of myth science. He was one of the best at it. Mythology is so important to my work. Mythology does not mean truth or lie, it’s just the whole story in no particular order and the parts you don’t know you can fill in the gaps with whatever your imagination will allow. So in Angel Bat Dawid’s mythological reality I ask Sun Ra for advice on music by listening to his albums or reading his books of poetry and lo and behold we are having real legit ass conversations. It’s not any spooky stuff it’s just mythology. Like I was saying a quilt, a collage of information and you can piece it together however you like.
CB: What’s next for you?
ABD: Well I got two new albums coming out which i’m so excited about. Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood Album Live album coming out this fall from our EU tour and I also composed a Requiem for Jazz for the Hyde Park Jazz festival last year so I’m gonna be releasing that and a film with it in January. So I was commissioned to compose new work for the Hyde Park Jazz festival here in Chicago. “Requiem for Jazz” is a twelve-part mass service I composed for the death of Jazz based off of a short obscure docudrama called The Cry of Jazz. This film was made in 1959 and has an integrated cast of Blacks and whites discussing music and race and a soundtrack composed by Le Sony’r Ra aka SUN RA! The thesis of the whole film is that “Jazz is Dead.” So I thought if Jazz died in 1959 why wasn’t there a funeral for such an epic entity? So I knew I had to write a requiem (funeral music plus Mozart’s Requiem is such a significant work to me I’ve always wanted to write one). As I was working on the music an incredible film company Rawmusic international (they did a beautiful short film about Lonnie Holley that was featured at Sundance) had heard The Oracle and were interested in my story and asked if they could do a documentary with me and started filming my shows and life. When I told them about the Requiem they were very intrigued and filmed rehearsals, production process, and the performance. So the album has a documentary movie with it. I’m super excited about all this music . . . CAN’T WAIT!!!
CB: Wow, I’ll look forward to all of these things in the coming year. Thanks so much for sharing perspectives on your work and these promising future releases.
Cover Photo Credit: Rhizomes Films.