There are listeners who, when they hear the name James Mtume, they think of his 1983 hit, “Juicy Fruit,” in sampled form. They think of the Notorious B.I.G. unpacking his ascendance, using the song’s luxuriant gloss to craft his own hit, “Juicy,” in 1994. But when I think about Mtume, who died this week at the age of 76, I go back two decades, to Alkebu-Lan - Land Of The Blacks (Live At The East), a jazz album he released as leader of the Mtume Umoja Ensemble in 1972. It’s a far cry from “Juicy Fruit” and the electronic funk he made in the ‘80s. Alkebu-Lan was an Afrocentric blend with volcanic flourishes and chants rooted in African pride, a rousing celebration of Blackness and spirituality.
By definition, one would call Alkebu-Lan a jazz record, even if Mtume himself rebuked the characterization. “What you’re about to hear is not jazz, or some other irrelevant term we allow others to use in defining our creation,” he declared on “Invocation,” the album’s mission statement. Rather, he inferred, Alkebu-Lan was meant to bolster Black awareness within the community through the use of Black music, a universal term synthesizing various genres without adhering to just one. “What is represented on these jams is the crystallization of the role of Black music,” he continued, “as a functional organ in the struggle for national liberation.”
Between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there had been a rise in Black consciousness in the United States. Artists like Sun Ra, Nina Simone and Pharoah Sanders raised vibrations in their music, crafting psychedelic and emotive forms of jazz and soul that traversed the full spectrum of space, love and emancipation. Indeed, there was a feeling that Black Americans weren’t gonna take any more shit. The music grew louder and more abrasive, an audible depiction of heightened self-perception. Alkebu-Lan was very much of this ilk, a 90-minute trek through the abundant joy of Black existence, a celebration of fellowship and cultural identity at a storied Brooklyn venue.
You can’t discuss Alkebu-Lan without discussing The East, the arts center and part-time jazz club in which the album was recorded. Opened in 1969 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, The East cemented a block off Fulton Street that The New York Times once called “a bit of Africa.” The center and the organization it housed (also called The East) were hubs for Black culture and education, where children read community-focused stories and learned Swahili. Musically, The East became a backdrop for various jazz records in the ‘70s: two different Live at the East albums — one from the band Juju; the other from Pharoah Sanders. Like those LPs, Alkebu-Lan was as much about the venue as it was about the music itself: the live energy, with all its praise shouting and verbal encouragement from the crowd, was its own character, nudging the band through these explosive arrangements.
When I think of Mtume, I think of songs like “Baba Hengates,” with all its stops and starts, and shapeshifting orchestration that turns on a dime. I think of its initial sway, the deconstructed blues pounding beneath the youth poets on the first movement. I think of the power in their little voices, the chest-thumping ethos of their declarations. “A-fri-ca, land where my forefathers came from!” they assert. “A-fri-ca, where beautiful and Black looks just like me!” I think of “No Words” and its melodic swing, a proper comedown after the album’s opening procession. I think of “Sifa (The Prayer),” an absolute stunner that splits the difference between psych-rock and free jazz without veering off course. The album sounds best when it hangs in the balance, and the sound goes just to the edge of being too much. I think of the bass solo near the end, which slows the track to a meditative pace. I think of Mtume’s djembe drum solo. I think of the heart and passion that he brought to this song and career. So while others remember him for other work, I remember him for this: a maestro of Black music who made the world a whole lot funkier.