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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, James Poore, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Bert Thompson, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf

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Ask Your Mama

Music by Laura Karpman,
poetry by Langston Hughes




Music by Laura Karpman, poetry by Langston Hughes


Laura Karpman, The Roots, Nnenna Freelon, Janai Brugger, Angela Brown, Medusa, Taura Stinson, Monét Owens, Black Thought, Tesia Kwarteng, Erin McGlover (vocalists) & with taped vocals by Langston Hughes

Questlove & The Roots (drums), Ben Wendel (saxophone), David Loeb (piano), M.B. Gordy (percussion), Bert Samolis (bass), Firas Hassan (Arabic percussion)

George Manahan (music director)

rec. Skywalker Sound (place & date not given) 2 discs [62:15] [38:19]

They say that there’s a buyer for every house and that’s obviously true but I can’t imagine there would be many for a dilapidated house without plumbing with almost no outside space, next to an industrial estate by a very busy main road and overpriced just because it is in London. Equally I cannot believe there will be a huge take up for this two-disc set, well meaning though it may be and involving undoubted talent aplenty. When I first heard it I immediately thought of the Emperor’s new clothes and that feeling was not dispelled during a second hearing and I write this while giving it a third outing and will be pleased to have finished my review when I have. I recently began to read the excellent and fascinating reminiscences of the recently departed and sorely missed Edward Greenfield the doyen of music critics, or as he preferred to call himself ‘one who appreciates’. He added that “My aim always is to go to a concert, or put on a CD, wanting to like” and continued “to my mind the music critic’s main justification lies in encouraging others to share in enjoyment, in pointing the way towards it” and concluded “If anyone has been encouraged to go out to listen to music after reading what I have written, that for me is the response I cherish most of all”. I felt hugely satisfied when I read his credo for it absolutely mirrors my own and I regret not being able to write to him to say how much I appreciated reading it. It also explains why I enjoy the overwhelming majority of the discs I review and I have the added luxury of being able to choose what I review rather than being specifically asked to do this or that disc. However, sometimes one can make a mistake, especially when one cannot sample anything from it first which was the case here; let me be frank, I wouldn’t have chosen it if I had. Instead I was intrigued when I read it described thus: “Ask Your Mama bursts the boundaries of time, place and expression, tracing the currents and tributaries of cultural diasporas, from Africa to the Americas, the South to the North, cities to suburbs, opera to jazz, gospel to be-bop. It is an ‘Ivesian collage with club-culture remixing’ (the New York Times) and a plural vision of the American dream deferred. Karpman fulfils Hughes’ musical instructions, which run in the margins of the poetry, evoking hot jazz, German lieder, cha-cha, patriotic songs, post-bop, Arabic music, Afro-Caribbean drumming, and weaves a compelling tapestry of American cultural life through the lens of 21st century orchestral, genre-bending music”. Now be honest, who among you wouldn’t be eager to get their hands on a document encapsulating all that?!

In the event though I appreciate what composer Laura Karpman (in this case acting more as a compiler of what she chose as suitable accompanying snippets) was attempting to do I find the end result too disjointed to make a complete experience that can be enjoyed for a total of over 100 minutes. One thing that may have helped me would have been a copy in the booklet of the complete poem (with Hughes’ annotated margins). Hughes can be heard at times reading from the poem but 1) I don’t know whether it was the complete poem and 2) his voice is at times somewhat indistinct against the background of music and singing. The subject matter is serious indeed concerning as it does the plight of the black man in America which, to that country’s shame, is as relevant today as it was at its time of writing in the 1960s, and I’m not saying that there aren’t moments of interest, but the whole thing is too long to maintain this fragmented presentation along with my interest. I found myself expecting that it would ‘sober up’ and suddenly follow a more cohesive path but it never does and I simply found myself wanting it all to come to an end. As I said at the start there’s a buyer for every house but this ‘one’ is not for me.

Steve Arloff

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