Matana Roberts: An Ancestral History In Music

Originally published on July 27, 2011 7:34 pm

Matana Roberts grew up in Chicago hearing stories about her extended family, from its roots in Louisiana and Mississippi, to its participation in the Great Migration north early in the 20th century. The stories caused her to develop a deep love of history and a desire to somehow turn that into music.

Roberts has worked as a jazz saxophonist for more than 15 years, first in her native Chicago, and for the past decade, in New York. She's released several albums during this time, but on a brand new recording she's looking for something much more personal, stylistically splintered and true to her own life experiences.

Her maternal grandmother told her about how her great-grandparents had quilted, creating new fabrics from worn-out scraps, and the idea resonated within her. She realized that putting together fragments and snippets, without much purpose on their own, could result in something new and meaningful.

Roberts began working on her 12-part cycle COIN COIN back in 2006, and originally intended it to reflect the history of her own extended family. But she's pulled away from private details in favor of more general human experiences, combining her interests in jazz, genealogy, ghosts, theater and spoken word. Before embarking on the project, Roberts realized that she wasn't cut out to write conventional pieces, and COIN COIN gave her the opportunity to stitch these fragments together, a practice she's called panoramic sound quilting.

Chapter One, subtitled Gens De Couleur Libres (or free people of color), is also the first segment of COIN COIN to be released on an album. It was made with 15 diverse players from Montreal's potent jazz, rock and improvised music scenes, with whom she developed strong ties on numerous trips over the last decade. The album examines a period in Louisiana history running from 1742 to 1830. The life of Marie Therese "Coincoin" Metoyer, a freed slave and businesswoman who helped establish a Creole community in Louisiana around the turn of the 19th century, functions as a jumping-off point for the loose narrative.

It's a gripping patchwork drawn from family interviews, historical accounts and fictional detail. On the powerful "Libation for Mr. Brown: Bid Em In ..." she borrows ideas and form from a song written by the great Oscar Brown Jr. She portrays a slave auctioneer, selling human merchandise.

The arrangement of the 12 chapters isn't chronological, and even within each section Roberts is less concerned with exacting narrative than in sharing the power of memory. COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens De Couleur Libres closes with a beautiful, gentle ballad she dedicates to her mother, who died just two weeks before the recording was made, and her voice practically trembles with emotion. It's a sincere, lovely farewell, ending an hour of tumultuous, sometimes jarring, but consistently rewarding music.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Matana Roberts has built a reputation as one of the most exciting young jazz saxophonists on the New York City jazz scene. Her new recording "COIN COIN Chapter One" tells the stories of 18th century Louisiana slaves. Peter Margasak says it's a musical patchwork that spans cultures and time, history and memory. And he has our review.

PETER MARGASAK: Matana Roberts grew up in Chicago hearing stories about her extended family, from its roots in Louisiana and Mississippi to its participation in the Great Migration north early in the 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARGASAK: As a result, she developed a deep love of history and a desire to somehow turn that into music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MATANA ROBERTS: (Singing in foreign language)

MARGASAK: Her maternal grandmother told her how her great-grandparents had quilted, creating new fabrics from worn-out scraps, and the idea resonated with her. She realized that putting together fragments and snippets that wouldn't serve much purpose on their own could result in something new and meaningful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARGASAK: Roberts began working on her 12-part cycle "COIN COIN" back in 2006 and originally intended it to reflect the history of her own extended family. But she's pulled away from private details in favor of more general human experiences. Before embarking on the project, Roberts realized she wasn't cut out to write conventional pieces, and "COIN COIN" gave her the opportunity to stitch these fragments together, a practice she's called panoramic sound quilting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERTS: I was born a child of the moon in the year of 1742, the second daughter of Papa, Papa, Papa. Coincoin. My master was ruler of the land, governor. He was from Natchitoches, where I was born...

MARGASAK: Chapter One, titled "Gens De Couleur Libres" or free people of color, is the first segment of "COIN COIN" to be released. The album examines a period in Louisiana history running from 1742 to 1830. The life of Marie Therese Metoyer, a freed slave and businesswoman who helped establish a Creole community in Louisiana around the turn of the 19th century, functions as a jumping-off point for the loose narrative.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERTS: After laying down with me for 19 years, he decided to marry that widow that has my name, but not my face. After laying down with me for 19 years, for 19 years, but he set me free and...

MARGASAK: It's a gripping patchwork drawn from family interviews, historical accounts and fictional detail.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIBATION FOR MR. BROWN: BID EM IN"))

ROBERTS: (Singing) I bid a man, get a man, bid a man. I bid a man, get a man, bid a man.

MARGASAK: On the powerful "Libation for Mr. Brown: Bid Em In," she borrows ideas and form from a song written by the great Oscar Brown Jr. portraying a slave auctioneer selling human merchandise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIBATION FOR MR. BROWN: BID EM IN"))

ROBERTS: (Singing) In the end, all you got to do is bid (unintelligible). All you got to do is bid 'em in.

MARGASAK: The arrangement of the 12 chapters isn't chronological, and even within each section, Roberts is less concerned with exacting narrative than in sharing the power of memory. "Gens De Couleur Libres" closes with a beautiful, gentle ballad she dedicates to her mother who died just two weeks before the recording was made. It's a sincere, lovely farewell, ending an hour of tumultuous, sometimes jarring, but consistently rewarding music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW MUCH WOULD YOU COST?")

ROBERTS: (Singing) I know how precious our lives can be. Dedicating this moment to you and me. Let's dance the Calinda, celebrate life. Reach for the sky, keep up your fight.

NORRIS: Peter Margasak is a staff writer for the Chicago Reader. He reviewed the album "COIN COIN Chapter One" by Matana Roberts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW MUCH WOULD YOU COST?")

ROBERTS: (Singing) Oh, how much have you got? I know how precious our life can be... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.