Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres

Rise, the emphatic opening sequence of alto-saxophonist Matana Roberts chimes in with free form wailing saxophone and dancing piano, joined by a cacophony of  brass and percussion the exposition recedes and the sound of instruments being prepared for what is about to unfold greets the listener. This is not your usual jazz album with standards and well known pieces. This is not your cool, moody, chilled out jazz record you take out to sit in the dark and relax to. This is a jazz album that will confront you, disturb you, move you and shock you. The sounds wither and die at the end of Rise and morph into Pov Piti.

Immediately we begin to hear Roberts incoherent mutterings, an assault of quick paced stuttering growing louder and louder and eventually evolving into guttural screams, as piercing as they are painful. Roberts is retelling black history and oppression through music and voice, and as her screams slowly die and her voice breaks a saxophone line rises. Ominous at first and then into an elaborate bounce with driving percussion and inimitable feedback from the various instruments around her until a ghostly chorale of voice joins in and the energy is let out of the visceral build. It is in this second movement of the hour long piece that Roberts presents her first unique spoken word passage telling the story of slavery and bloodshed, relating the experience of cutting a child out of a dead mother’s womb at 16 with veracity.

The compositions are intensely complex with driving rhythms and a veritable array of instrumentation including string sections, electronic feedback, group vocals (sung in english and french) – in addition the music itself traverses a diverse field of jazz, classical and ambient experimental grounds. Song for Eulalie strolls in with an irresistible bass and percussion run hinted at by the preceding piano while Kersalia delights in its joyous marching band, bebop and early 1920’s swing brilliance complete with jangly piano and bright horns reminiscent of the great King Oliver (with the exception of course that the bass drum sounds full and not tinny, the benefits of modern recording techniques on display here…).

Perhaps the most striking musical moments I have experienced then follows. Libation for Mr. Brown: Bid em turns what we normally think of oppressed others as experiencing on its head as Roberts, a descendant of those sold for slavery in atrocious moments in history, takes on the role of a slave auctioneer spruking a young black girl to the white people –  the sheer mental, cognitive, physical strength one must have to bring themselves to re-enact such a horrible occasion from the side of the dominant man is magnanimous. This track must be heard to be believed.

Matana Roberts had composed this 60 minute piece and recorded it live in front of an audience of 30 extremely lucky people in Montreal’s Hotel2Tango recording studios. It is said that by the end the audience was in tears, fully confronted with the shocking history of the American people and the inhumane atrocities that have been (and, quite honestly, continue throughout the world). Roberts has done us all a great favour in reminding us of the trials others have gone through – and we must never forget this chapter of history.

One Response to “Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres”
  1. Alex, this sounds like an amazing album and yes I would love to listen if you can arrange it. Who said that the ‘Artist as Conscience’ was dead. It seems, albeit rather belated, that artists are once again beginning to find their voice. Perhaps there is a Renaissance just around the corner…………

    Stunningly penned review Sir!

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