From composer-poet, pianist, and interdisciplinary artist Janice Lowe:
After years of co-creating musical theater pieces, as well as playing with various bands, I branched out; formed the band Janice Lowe & Namaroon, and was finally on the verge of finishing a self-produced album that had been in the slow cooker. That album, Leaving CLE songs of nomadic dispersal, is a band performed remix of Leaving CLE poems of nomadic dispersal (Miami University Press)–which began as a book of poems about my hindsight efforts to understand my family’s reverse migration move from Cleveland to Alabama, when I was in high school.
The musicalization of the pieces, which eventually evolved into a 1½ hour concert for octet, grew out of my accompanying myself on piano while singing or otherwise intoning poems that weren’t written as songs.
Friends encouraged me to continue performing my poetry readings, now concerts, from the piano. I invited Yohann Potico, whose technique explores the bass guitar’s kora-like qualities, and vocalist extraordinaire Meredith Wright to accompany me. Later, I wrote charts musicalizing more of the poems, expanded arrangements and opened everything up so that the tunes blended groove and expansive improvised moments. I invited more musicians: drummers Maury Haymore and Howard Alper, guitarist Gregory Kage, percussionist Shawn Banks, vocalist Olithea Anglin, alto saxophonist Devin Brahja Waldman, trumpeters Johnny Britt and Heru Shabka-ra, and violinist Gwen Laster for pre-pandemic recording dates and/shows.
I’d recently returned from playing a show at the Lensic in Santa Fe. The Lannan Foundation hosted Tyehimba Jess, myself and an ensemble of musicians and vocalists for a performance of Millie and Christine McKoy Sisters’ Syncopated Sonnets in Song, for which I’d composed musical settings for poems from Jess’s Pulitzer Prize-awarded collection, OLIO.
(Excerpt) Libretto by Tyehimba Jess, Music by Janice Lowe) Olithea Anglin, voice & loops, Meredith Wright, voice, Melanie Dyer, viola, Janice Lowe, piano & found objects, Yohann Potico, bass guitar
Plantation to Grave (Listen)
Lockdown happened as I was getting close to finishing my album. The announcements came through from the mayor and governor as I was taking a walk in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on the first day of spring.The park was packed and everybody’s eyes were glued to phones, waiting for news about quarantine. I had been teaching at Rutgers. On one of my last days before quarantine, I was getting off the train at New Brunswick, NJ and heard a young man anguished, crying. He was walking with a friend who attempted to calm him. I overheard the two young men–most likely students, telling a Black woman who’d stopped to comfort them that someone on the train had verbally assaulted them for being Asian.This harasser blamed them for the spread of the coronavirus. I made a mental note to discuss this with my classes. Later in the spring, a student in my multimedia class created a photo installation delving into his own experience of being similarly blamed.
Leaving CLE Songs of Nomadic Dispersal
I had been working on the record for a long while and was getting excited about mixing it. I still needed to record background vocalists on a few tunes. The spring equinox quarantine would prevent that from happening in person. Although I would miss the singers’ lush voices, their safety was more important than anything. I finished up the vocal overdubs myself and then set my sites on mixing. I had a good working rapport with engineer A Kid Named Cus while recording a few of the Leaving CLE tunes at Mercy Sound Studios on the Lower East Side. Cus, with his vast experience with hip hop, had an uncanny understanding of my record–that the music and poetry were never sonic background to each other.
March, April 2020
Gigs evaporated, residencies were postponed. My teaching went remote. I had time…
I’d phone Cus to discuss the plan for mixing. Normally, we’d sit together at the mixing board–listening, mixing, discussing. We decided to discuss each song from my initial notes, and then email mixes back and forth. I’d listen, make comments and send Cus and email. He’d incorporate my notes into the mix, and then send a bounce. I’d listen and either improve the notes or send more notes. We’d communicate mostly by text and email. When the discussion became more esoteric, we’d speak by phone.
The mixing and mastering was finished in May. I waited to release the album. In June, I figured out a careful way to visit my mother, and assist her with some things at a time when information about the pandemic and travel safety concerning spending time with elders was daunting. Yes, I quarantined after arrival in my mother’s town.
The police murder of George Floyd and the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arberry were very much a tipping point for activism in New York and around the country. Bed-Stuy was edgy with action. I attended protests and documented some of my experience in a short film.
I waited until January 2021 to release the album. With all the time on my hands, I wrote my own liner notes and talked myself out of releasing the album. It was time to send it to friends, and then let that baby go!
Janice Lowe & NAMAROON – Leaving CLE Songs of Nomadic Dispersal on Bandcamp:
**Atlantic Noire, mixed media Artist Julie Ezelle Patton created the collage gracing Leaving CLE Song’s album cover. The graphic design is by Janice Hogan. Both artists have roots in Cleveland and were generous with time and vision in working with me virtually during the pandemic.
1.Edge-acation with its thump of existential questions about gentrification was first performed as a prose piece with chant at Write Night at Frank’s Lounge, a long thriving (now shuttered) soul-house outpost in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
- In Sign, part 2 the speaker defaces a memory of racist subway graffiti by mentally turning up with showtime dancers performing “lightfeet” acrobatics on the A train. (Listen)
- Resistance Girl T is a mood inspired by a tea maker I hadn’t met but whom I’d see hawking her hand-prepared herbal teas to local cafes. I’d (silently) root for her when noticing her teas being sold in new spots. One of the early poems I musicalized from the Leaving CLE manuscript, I first performed it on Patricia Spears Jones’s Words Sunday Series, accompanied by vocalist Meredith Wright and bass guitarist Yohann Potico, who is featured on the recorded version.
- Sanctified Blasting Boddie Recording Co. channels Thomas Boddie and his spirit of invention. Boddie founded Cleveland’s first Black-owned recording and vinyl making operation. In improvisation on piano and Rhodes, towards the end of the piece, I imagined the sound of vinyl being made. Featured trumpeter Johnny Britt remembered Boddie Recording Co. well from his audition there as a teen. On a visit to Cleveland, I talked with Mrs. Louis Boddie. She smiled remembering the teens that would come by hoping to record. Thanks to Maury and Johnny for recording voice overs in their respective home studios. (Excerpt)
- Bone Hugs Best Location Blues, a headnod ode to several generations of Ohio-grown musicians, is also a dish on vintage Cleveland politics. The hook references a line in the Walter “Junie “Morrison song “Super Spirit.” (Excerpt)
- Boy Flower Tamir is a collectively improvised lament for Tamir Rice, a 12 year old Black child who, as he played with a toy gun in a park near his home, was killed by police. (Excerpt)
- The Forty Acres–that’s the story in the poem. Dad was a sunny natured, community-minded vet with one good arm, who grew up hard, studied math and was into herbal healing and metaphysics. He retired early from his civil service job so he could reverse migrate the family to Alabama before his teenagers were too old to protest too much. Dad and Mom reverse migrated, that is. My brother and I were born in New Jersey and Ohio, respectively, and had lived with our folks in DC, Queens, Newark and Cleveland. We were too old, in our estimation, to move again. The 40 acres were symbolic. We moved, lived in a pleasant house with a regular-sized yard and eventually grew to enjoy our new neighbors. We missed Cleveland and still protested very much but respected what that symbol of liberation meant to our Pops.
- Once and Future LeBron, From The Cleveland Summit in 1967, which brought Black athletes together to publicly support Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War, to LeBron James’ strategic use of his spotlight to focus on abuses of social justice, Cleveland sports figures standing with The People was not at all unusual, which dovetails with a poem about my mother interviewing Ali. This one is just my voice and Prophet 6 synthesizer.
- H & L Express: A Barber/Beauty Establishment Back in 2013, while visiting my mother in Alabama, she said, “ I was just speaking with Rev. Linton. He said you can come by his barbershop. He’ll talk to you about his Civil Rights work.” Rev. Thomas Linton related the events of Bloody Tuesday, including the tear gassing of students on church grounds in Tuscaloosa, 1964. He was especially eager to share some hints of the strategy behind local protests. His photographic recall of voices and situations inspired the layering of voices and shifting speakers in the poem.
- Haint Blue Mr. Abraham Walton had a way of working with wood and metal. He could refurbish anything.His way of decorating, which I knew would rarely be seen again, seemed of another time and continent–Congolese in a way that was disappearing from Alabama. His house was a power figure. Heru Shabaka-Ra is featured on trumpet.
- Open the Hymning Room Every summer for years, we’d drive the 16 hours from Cleveland to Coffee County, Alabama to visit my grandparents. My grandmother would attend all day acapella singings in the country. As a child, I’d go with her and literally run in and out of the singing.
- That Daughter, featuring drummer Maury Haymore, violinist Gwen Laster and Olithea Anglin and myself on vocals is a linguistic portrait–a bit East, some DMV and AL, long on Midwest. Anybody from a place like Cleveland can sound a bit UpSouth.
- End of Chicago, the micro poem in the collection, riffs on the briefest stop in my mother and father’s migration story–February in Chicago.
Janice Lowe & Namaroon perform SuiteBlack Flyer (excerpt)
Arts for Art Peace & Justice Celebration, Janice Lowe, composer, inspired by Amiri Baraka’s novel,The System of Dante’s Hell, Janice Lowe, piano, voice; Olithea Anglin, voice, electronics; Gwen Laster, violin
Narcissystem Bed-Stuy, a short film with music, was made early during quarantine.I taught myself some rudiments of editing in Adobe.
Nocturne and Prelude
I multitracked myself reading “Nocturne and Prelude” by Russell Atkins. I was inspired by Atkins’ experiments with concrete poetry and their sonic possibilities for voice. (Excerpt)
Janice Lowe Brooklyn, NY
Cover Photo Credit: Stephanie Bok