Stan Douglas’ Luanda-Kinshasa recreates a jam session in “The Church,” a legendary Manhattan recording studio that had musical giants such as Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin grace its booths from the late ’40s until 1981.
The video is a veritable feast for the ears and eyes, with a palette of rich oranges, reds and mustard yellow melding with the warm, fuzzy, tube-amplified sounds of the music. The camera pans around a room chock full of musicians, most of whom are Black and all men save one, the drummer, who is the star (for me) of the show. They are jamming out, the sounds swinging from jazz and Afrobeat to funk and psychedelic rock. Everything from oversized lapels and a profusion of polyester to vintage cigarette packs and Rhodes keyboards speaks to the mid-1970s, a time when sharing global sounds became commonplace thanks to the easily reproduced vinyl record.
At first glance, the scene is convincing as a live-action jam session. However, Douglas drops hints that it is staged. This slippage is enacted by the presence of white technicians in the background performing the same action repeatedly, stuck in a moment even as the music flows and changes around them. As the technicians fiddle with cords, snap photos and sit in the background, the musicians, all People of Colour with the exception of a white Jim Morrison-esque guitarist and a synth player, groove out, delicately shifting focus between one another. The shifting focus, enacted by both the camera and the foregrounding of specific instruments, is enhanced by meticulous sound and video editing, which brings individual players into high relief.
African, Middle Eastern and Latin sounds come to the forefront in fits and bursts, like a kind of analogue sampling. Sampling in music inevitably raises questions about cultural imperialism. Music journalist Vivien Goldman suggests that “without appropriation, there would be no pop,” citing “cultural mutation” as the driving force behind musical movements.
In Luanda-Kinshasa, this idea is expressed visually as well as sonically, as the camera lingers on traditional garments and instruments, making clear that the jazz and funk with which many people are well acquainted originates in places far from the United States. It is easy to extend this theory from the production of music to that of nation, of song to city.
This video speaks to the complexity and innocence of an era when sounds from Africa and the Caribbean Islands were fused with funk and Motown, and when old folks played hand percussion alongside early Moog synthesizers. Douglas’ reimagining of this collision of technologies, and of cultures, is charged and energetic, and functions as a representation of how appropriation and exploitation have woven together to create today’s society.
Also, I may have gained a new appreciation for both the much-maligned wah pedal and psychedelic polyester shirts through this viewing experience. Would highly recommend.