Modern Griots: Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Today is the day I entered into this world and one way I will celebrate is with a tribute post to musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with whom I share a birthday.
“Y’ know, Music is a beautiful thing.
When I’m reincarnated, I’m gonna come back as a musical note!
That way can’t nobody capture me.
They can use the hell out of me
but ain’t nothin’ too much they can do to me.
They can mess me up. They can play the wrong note.
They can play a C, but they can’t really destroy a C.
All it is, is a tone.
So I’m gonna come back as a note!”
— Rahsaan Roland Kirk
“…Keep searchin’ for your mystery note on the universal piano of life.” — R. R. Kirk
“I can only say that he sounded like a snake charmer from another planet…It was a sound I had never heard in my life, but it was something that was certainly seductive” – Tod Barkan
Although another jazz musician, Charles Mingus once said that Kirk was “…what jazz is all about. He’s real,” Kirk’s musical abilities and performances placed him from the realm of the unreal. Imagine someone standing on stage with multiple wind and brass instruments hanging on him and playing up to three of them at the same time, including a wooden flute with his nose. He could also sing or hum while playing the flute. Kirk’s circular breathing was the only thing keeping him from blowing a hole in his head during his continuous one-man band performances.
On top of that, he constantly tinkered with several musical and non-musical wind instruments, even a section of a garden hose dubbed “the black mystery pipes.” Additionally, in his studio recordings he would use tape manipulation and early electronic sounds before they were common. Kirk was so awe-inspiring that even rock legend Jimi Hendrix bowed to him. You could say that he was the jazz version of Inspector Gadget.
This visionary, who happened to be blind, actually began his experimentation with a dream at sixteen about playing three instruments at once. After the dream, he went to the Gaetz music shop where he was introduced to two old-fashioned saxophones (straight alto saxophone and mangled saxello) from Spanish military bands, which he turned into the stritch and the manzello (“moon zellar”). His discovery led him on a sonic exploration, releasing to the world his inner-visions and inner-sounds. Together with his band, the Vibration Society, he created what he described as “black classical music” until his death in 1977 from a stroke.
His albums, like I Talk With the Spirits and The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color, were filled with symbolism and social and political commentary. For example, the latter album confronted the rising dependency on computers in our society. Through out his career, Kirk kept on top of the current events and would comment on his albums and in his performances. Still to this day, he continues to influence musicians, including those from bands like the Flecktones, Jethro Tull, Sonic Youth and Radiohead. Kirk was influential because of his ability to, as John Stubblefield said, “…hear around corners.”
Read more about his life here.Excerpt from documentary in progress, Return of The 5000lb Man
“I Talk With the Spirits”