From poet and writer Paul r. Harding:
New Directions in Spoken Music: Introducing Juju Seahorse
Maybe this blue-brown ship is the ocean and vice-versa. The sky not a sky at all but a mirror of rhythm, of pure sea lyricism. Of that realm of truth that spells no such thing as nowhere as long as there is heart. No such thing as silence but space. Like Einstein listening to Coltrane’s One Up, One Down, figuring out the equation of a single beat. See, this lifelong thing about juxtaposing. Religion of rhythm where the prophecies are, in a sense, spontaneous acts. Juju epiphanies. Totally humble in that there is no aim, goal, or victory but for the heart; only the pathos loneliness and this art form that this america made of it–The Blues.
The most beautiful roses have the most dangerous thorns. Beauty, yes, comes from imperfection; and the Blues has its sharpest patterns, straight pins but fingers on a “National” guitar. The Strings–merely Juxtaposing needlepoints.
Yeah, a quality of pain, deliriously liberating–a Son House foot stomp. A Ray Charles moan. All, futile? Wasted juggling of beauty and hurt? Is there a more existential cat than the Black Man of this america? Of its quandaries in genius and murderous ways. And this is the thing? Of spiritual suffering versus man’s way of oppression waiting for us to get down on our american knees and fuckin’ just admit that we’re not interested in Freedom. That The Music is fighting for its life in a download swamp. That The Blues is software in a heart transplant that cut to the quick. Instant satisfaction in “affordable” negotiations of this america’s real church–The Bank. It’s highest Spirituals in John Coltrane. Highest mast in a Melville (Sun Ra) whale hunt that never moors. Never harpoons its prey. But we cry from its 12-bar deck. We stop dancing and talk in tongue . . . beyond the babbling of voting and women’s rights while lying to the children about everything from guns having to do with peacemaking? With money having to do with obtaining knowledges of the arts and sciences. The splitting of atoms in a Albert Ayler quell underneath the drums we call ocean waves. Underneath the poetic lines the prepositions, like augmented notes, gone–making way for new verbalization.
This is why this poet’s helm steers towards and for the olive branch. Is the motion that makes all movement totally insignificant; as unimportant as our notions of gain, ownership, and status. Rather, the opposites are about importing–influences in versus of: the world? Can’t rob a bank if there ain’t no bank; or if you could if no interest rate then the need to rob? severely reduced? Not cool because of fear of jail but because stealing ain’t ok; yet only war more profitable than penal labor? Beethoven’s name more familiar than Ellington in this america? Using space unlike iambic meter. Rhythm where written language has mostly suppressed–jailed this Teutonic/Celtic in the mis-told past.
But no, greed, all by itself, can’t destroy humble truth. Fear can’t steal this identity. Terror cannot defeat the love in the soul. Grass is green truth. Fear is as man-made as tooth-paste commercials; as a Rapper cussing out his Mama more marketable than Pharoah Sander’s The Creator Has a Master Plan. Then a black man, like this one, having no say in this destiny, giving his life to the working of poetry. Fate is a card we can play. Destiny is God’s deal.
More and more about opposites–not in the Ying/yang sense but in the multi-phonics Blues tonic with a James Brown scream. A sweet Motown downbeat sharing a glass of cool water with Robert Johnson on Billie Holiday’s stoop. Trane’s drone is the Mississippi. This music poet’s pen is a boatswain’s mate. The bond I compose holds on to a hard-salt rope like ink to paper. Beginning in WCBS radio newsroom stripping teletype until free-lance copywriting for Columbia Records before 21 years of age, where Charles Osgood and Ed Brandly encouraged my reading. Meeting Chico Hamilton, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, and Taj Mahal before these hands reached the piers of foreign scope and holes-in-the-wall of Bowery lower eastside where geniuses played The Music to feed their needs. They’d already torn down Birdland and built the discotheque called The Cheetah. (No, Disco was no music direction but instead a good 12-year commercial to dance to–which is not to say there weren’t Pop artists who fared something vital in it). I’d yet to throw, pull, and tie any experience around chocks of a foreign piers. Only Charles Laughton’s scream of “Sanctuary!” as Quasimodo in Hunchback of Notre Dame took me past the isle of Manhattan; past any map but the soul of my country through the failure of Reconstruction to the victory of Spirituals as Blues as Gospel . . . Liberated me as he did the gypsy. And now, post revolution, I speak Music. Lifted up from a pathos of the most uniquely suppressed and beautiful people in the world of mostly water. I found a way in and out those waters. That spiritual quandary of land and water. Of rural and urban. Of the clay and flour of this culture’s rising. Born and lost at sea at the same time. The broken part of the heart the most studied. America’s untruthfulness and cowardliness her rudder and her bottomless anchor.
Sweetly and terrifyingly tossed into time (signatures) where there was no sign of land came Hot Mustard & Lay Me Down (en theos press). The forecastle diving so far into the haze of equator (middle) waters that there is no label or flag or insignia for this poetry. No port-o-call that hasn’t touched something in this (Miles Davis) Dark Magus verse-maker. A seafarer who has arrived at the edge of (another) horizon- and as ungraspable, unreachable… where, before embarking, first spurted out to a bewildered father: “I want to create my own language”–long before this use of language I learned to swim in, submerge in so long before lessons of the salt melted into my own rhythm . . . my own metaphor shorelines. The salt in it the same as in our tears. Clues more in the paradox of rhythm storytelling in fiction and poetry The Music of unchartered literary map.
Before Hot Mustard I found The Music deeper in places “Up South” like Buffalo. I was picked up by some other captains of Space, a crew greeting me after my falsely thinking that A Love Supreme was the last great expedition. In my mind songwriters were more intriguing than poets. Tin Pan Alley to Brill Bldg. Memphis to Muscle Shoals. Irving Berlin to Willie Nelson. Irene (Wilson) Kitchings to James Brown. Lyrics in harmonic rhythm. I improvise and chorus at same time; couldn’t articulate but knew alliteration was not me. I was no Langston Hughes. But Lyricism in rhythm. Jean Toomer was my Wayne Shorter in these american letters. E. E. Cummings meets The Blues in my ship cabin. Yeats meets Paul Laurence Dunbar working in a Motown studio in my idea of poetry music. Gwen Brooks meets Billie Holiday for lunch. Derek Walcott abandons ship while Jayne Cortez stops it from capsizing into shallow drifts (corporate mass media) of disposable culture, consumer diet of a whole other blood sucking substitute for salt that has nothing to do with democracy. Like this novel I call EASTER (excerpt in Black Renaissance Noir Journal) finding the right port to moor in. A publisher for a novel that’s told like a song.
This america’s greatest gift to the world is our highest mast banner: The Music . . . and where we sail between Little Richard’s Upsetters’ breaks and jim crow dice. We row clauses that are really chords. Alphabet that is really the Amistad crossing slave ship scale. Oars of augmented notes only conjunctions. Commas but rests. Living metaphors like time a Max Roach plays. Hooks like Rhythm n Blues in Ronald Shannon Jackson decoying. Cecil Taylor Unit meets Fletcher Henderson at a bowling alley where they don’t throw balls but rather conduct the pins of sound into Ascension. Where the metaphor of T-Bone Walker is as real as the stars–the ones Armstrong played falling over Alabama.
In a new expedition entitled “Unfounded Blues” after invasions of poor Brown peoples’ lands, we did decommission this ship so that we might build a new one for a new route. Two models. One, a shorter vessel christened “New Half Notes” and a longer frigate of longer knots I call “Versions of Penguins” while completing the hull of a new design I call “The Next Song & The Moon Has Legs” The crew grew from the Juju Detective Agency to what we are known as now: Juju Seahorse. The band consists of Joe Ford, Ronnie Barrage, Hill Greene, and Chris Cubeta.
So, we have renovated the ship, reset its direction. Since performances of the great trips in The (Spoken) Music with the brave seafarers like Michael Bisio, Charles Gayle, Ravi Coltrane, and others. Between great waters of Middle-Voicing Elvin Jones’ undertow between tides and quells of gravity I have arrived at deeper juxtaposing. Every beat is at least half silent; this boat disappeared in such inlets. Calling river.
But the most paramount work is what we bring to the children. What we offer, teach. What we promise and mandate. What we strike dead in the name of human justice? The education and health system of a capitalistic madhouse cannot find calm, sanity, or the god health of our offspring in a cesspool obsessed with competition, gain, and climbing these surreal ladders to some abstract success? Towards a credit score salvation? To be the best you can be for “bombs bursting in air”? Bank of America on Mars. Over a third of the people’s budget spent on Military Defense. “Affordable health Care?”- what the hell is that? A progressive liberal–What the hell is that? What I do know is that this america’s real church is the bank- for no one would dare torch it with a match. And somebody tell the mythical Christians of this america that the first covenant clearly says that to charge interest is a sin. While our greatest–most tragic distraction is a base, foot, and basketball. Balls made where, by whose hands for? In a land of pyramids of shoes and burning of books!!? The social consciousness of young multi-millionaire men as absent as is the honor of the 4th, 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments–and we’ve been fighting to secure them since Lincoln was murdered?
Bottomline: To harm the “hem” of a child is unforgivable. Like the war of art versus commerce- the unending world war is guns versus drums. Good guy? Bad Guy? I am reproaching this pier without any mercy for the addicts of image- of those who praise a president (Obama) yet dare not mention his foreign policy’s reality. The entire fablelike special effects tidal wave of a supposed moral beacon–of this america as a principled “experiment” in democracy? No, this is that place Sydney Bechet describe so wonderfully in his memoir: Treat It Gently. For nature is not on our schedule, playing in our scale, or singing in our nuclear missiles key. She is Abbey Lincoln and Harriet Tubman in one Babylonian born in Brooklyn heart. No storm scares me. Have never been seasick a day in my life. My poetry has crossed the equator. No tsunami or tornado throws me off course because Coltrane’s Interstellar Space keeps our soul balance. We owe every child every ripple and incoming tide of love of that balance.
Yet, in this quandary of Congo Square (New Orleans) and confederate flags? In this hypocritical cesspool of supposed courage and sacrifice for? There is another route to the fountain of ‘truth,’ and here I give all this skinny ageless juju captain has crisscrossed, boogaloo-ed and be-bopped, and fantail gazed at the gods of rhythm. I am drawing a map of critical thinking I call Die Like a Man: Heroism and Race in Hollywood and Early Television. This non-fiction body of work is not about pointing out the holes of racism in the visual media but to present these port-o-calls as if there really was an even playing field. Broken down into chapters of heroes. Dance, cowboy, romantic, war, invention, fantasy, music (soundtrack), political, and adventure heroes. Example: The Dance Hero is called 1000 Bojangles. Imagine if a “brother” (Black male) auditioning for the same lead roles as a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelley? Let’s spill all the beans of all the seas that surround and have protected this unique (yet tragically crumbling in surreal hypocrisy) place called Hollywood.
A country bent on commodification of everything should at least teach its youth what a copywriter is.
Our omissions in history and song and sea costing a whole generation an integrity of cultural identification. Of The Music and its immortal storytellers. From John Brown to Henry Wallace. From Walter Page to Mingus. Mary Lou Williams meets Toni Morrison. Juju Seahorse navigates in compassion and unknown waters of freedom where there is no need for revolution if not for love.
bleeding sunrise undertow
rust color leaf hurt were hands
skin-smoke goddess only knows.
more bruised dry burned hands
black knuckles pealing star-rub
harder than tobacco pick scrub
invisible red-brown voice blood
mariachi band closest to wedding
between the sun your godly tone
way, way down across ocean floor bedding
long, long labor until twilight brings home.
–Paul r. Harding, 2022
Paul r. Harding’s published works: Hot Mustard & Lay Me Down (En Theos Press, 2003), Excerpts of Lamentation & Evidence of Starlite (Aurius Unlimited, 1993), short story in Black Renaissance Noire; excerpt of completed novel manuscript in Black Renaissance Noire; selected verse in Black Renaissance Noire, Transition 112, Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, Konch, Coon Bidness, Berkeley Poetry Review, Earshot Jazz, Raven Chronicles and various anthologies. Unpublished manuscripts in both the Gwendolyn Brooks Papers at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and the Derek Walcott Collection at the Alma Jordan Library, University of West Indies. Awarded Philip Whalen Memorial Grant for poetry and Edith K. Draham Scholarship for fiction. ‘Spoken Music’ performed with legendary Charles Gayle, Ravi Coltrane, Joe Ford, Michael Bisio, Joe Ford, and other renowned musicians. Former Earshot Jazz Board of Directors President, former Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle Education Director and founder of ULMS Children’s University. Previously taught critical thinking, reading, and writing in the Bronx. Presently completing a manuscript of short poems and researching first non-fiction project: Die Like a Man: Race and Heroism in Hollywood and Early Television.
Cover Photo Credit: Gilberto Polanco