French alto sax player Stéphane Payen and American, Paris-based hip-hop poet Mike Ladd discussed the option of a joint project for several years. The brutal death of George Floyd and the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement led to the creation of Baldwin En Transit (Baldwin in Transit), a bold and inspiring perspective of today’s global affairs through the prophetic texts of American writer, poet, playwright, political activist and openly gay Afro-American James Baldwin (1924-1987), who immigrated to France and died there. Baldwin wrote: «I am a foreigner, I have left my motherland. / I look for myself in the face of the Other».
The texts of Baldwin, obviously, resonate strongly with the ongoing struggle for black lives in the United States but are relevant to any human rights struggle around the world. Baldwin En Transit is a bold and inspiring musical attempt to interpret Baldwin’s texts as ones that motivate action and deeper awareness about race and self-identity, as Baldwin himself moved between countries and languages, between genres and orientations, and between music and art. It does not provide simple answers, as it is much more of an observation that raises more questions. Baldwin was completely right when he wrote: «You don’t know what it’s like to be black and a man?» Ladd touched on these issues in other projects, most notably his work with pianist Vijay Iyer, In What Language? (Pi, 2003), that offered a series of darkly lyrical monologues by people of color negotiating the hyper-globalized setting of a 21st-century international airport.
Payen and Ladd called for this project two more Afro-American vocalists-poets expats who live in France – Jamika Ajalon and Tamara Walcott, and together with Ladd add insightful, polyphonic multitudes in Baldwin’s texts and especially about what it means to live through and outside of black skin today. Payen composed chamber jazz compositions that correspond with Baldwin’s texts. In addition to Payen, the ensemble guitarist Marc Ducret, flutist Sylvaine Hélary and violinist Dominique Pifarély. The subtle interplay between the suggestive delivery of the vocalists-poets and the musicians is simply fantastic and flows and intertwines naturally but in unpredictable, imaginative courses.
Baldwin En Transit allows Ladd, Ajalon and Walcott to spread their wings and dive into territories Baldwin explored in his time. They call it a love story. It touches on the rich literary work of Baldwin, his work with the American civil movement, masculinity and sexuality. It reflects his complex life, passions, political commitment and activity, and, obviously, issues of race. It is a story of fluidity and articulation. It is also about the much-needed compassion in our relationship of otherness, a reciprocal commitment, a responsibility of one to the Other. The artistic director of Jazzdor, Philippe Ochem, who supported this project, concludes: This project is about discovering the Other, and recognition of the Other’s face. It is also a brilliant play of resonances with multiple echoes and voices.
Jamika Ajalon (vocals, lyrics), Mike Ladd (vocals, lyrics), Tamara Walcott (vocals, lyrics), Marc Ducret (guitars), Sylvaine Hélary (flutes), Stéphane Payen (alto saxophone), Dominique Pifarély (violin)