Friday, January 15, 2010

The Third Day - Africa, from 12 Last Days of the Soviet Union

ROVA in San Francisco

One of the great treats of traveling with a jazz group was that every night I got to hear wonderful music. I never grew tired of the ROVA group, as I came to know some of their works quite well.

The first few days, moreover, occurred during the Leningrad Jazz Festival, featuring many of the top talents from around the world. The Festival was held on an island, which required one to cross a drawbridge, which led, the first night, to my roommate being home long after midnight. The ship was trapped under the bridge!

I attended the second day, truly enjoying the vast array of talent. One young Soviet saxophonist-violinist was particularly appealing, I recall, but now, some 21 years later, it is hard to remember any the performances I witnessed. I believe I saw Viatcheslav Nazarov, the noted Russian jazz trombonist, as well as the Leningrad Dixieland Jazz Band. I vaguely remember that there was one group called "Africa," which featured only white players, but seemed an appropriate name nonetheless, celebrating the roots of jazz. Arkaddii Dragomoschenko later told me that there a great many singers and groups in the Soviet Union who had taken on that moniker.

From time to time, I went to the nearby green room, which had a small café, and where figures from all the arts gathered to talk. Whenever my friend, Arkadii, decided to visit the café he simply got up and walked across the stage instead of retreating through the back of the vast auditorium. It was his way of speaking out, I believe, against the authoritarian way of life in the Soviet Union, a kind a swagger, as if to say, "I'll go wherever I damn please." I always chose the long route.

At the café, Arkadii introduced me to several young poets and to two young curators, husband and wife, who were planning a large international retrospective of contemporary artists. When I told them of my companion, Howard's involvement with art, they immediately responded, "Oh yes, we know of him. We have his Robert Longo catalogue. Yes, we want definitely to include Robert Longo in our show." I grew interested, and we discussed several other artists they hoped to include, often asking me what these people were like to work with. "That, I wouldn't know, except for hearsay. Robert, I believe, is usually a sweetheart."

After a while, I asked them what they were thinking of calling their show. Both quickly responded: "AF-ri-ka," emphasizing the first syllable.

"Africa?" I queried. But you've named no African artists in your show, not even any Blacks!"

"Oh, but you see, it is a world of pristine beauty. Of perfection. Of innocence. That's what we want."

"Oh dear," I pondered. "When I think of Africa, I think of all the destruction of land and cities caused by Western investments. I think of great poverty, of diminishing wilderness. Yes, I am sure there is much beauty in Africa, particularly in the protected parks and isolated sections, but so many scenes in photographs and films show ramshackle huts and tin-built canteens, crumbling cities. But then, I've never been there."

"Nor we! But I am sure it is beautiful," insisted the male.

"It is as close to heaven as one can get," added his wife.

I smiled painfully. How to you argue against such a wonderful illusion? Given their own polluted rivers, rusting industrial complexes, they needed to believe that such beauty might exist somewhere, just as I had had to look elsewhere when faced with my childhood of suburban burger and pizza stands and chain shopping outlets.

Los Angeles, January 14, 2010

Go here to listen to a piece from the same year:
Rova Saxophone Quartet - Third Terrain (1989)

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