Top 40 Over 40.22: Mahmoud Ahmed


Universities can be weird places to see shows, musical or otherwise.  The setting can make it feel like whatever creative process put forward is subject for intellectual consideration from a distance, rather than communal participation.  What’s on offer might be critiqued and dismissed, or fetishized as a deracinated trophy from a frequently subaltern culture that is often titillating and/or potentially dangerous, but usually held at a safe distance with the sanitizing aid of plastic gloves and telescopic voyeurism.

I recently took my class to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University for a field trip and had the weird experience of having white tour guides present art largely by and about black and latino experience in the south to a majority black and latino audience of young students.  It was weird to see how the white guides were preoccupied with anxiety about protecting the art from being touched by the students. Art that was supposed to represent a lived tradition they belong to suddenly had a moat around it like a feudal castle, and the drawbridge had gone up.  Some of the students looked quietly at the guides and museum guards with inquisitive stares that absorbed an important message: this stuff was about their communities, but it didn’t belong to their communities.  It belonged to Duke University, which is frequently referred to as The Plantation here in Durham because of the way they treat workers and the surrounding community, (see appended quotes at the end of this post.)   The economic value of the object as a commodity eclipsed the social commentary and criticism encoded in the work itself in those moments.  I found myself wondering how the artists, most of whom were people of color, would have reacted if they had been in the gallery at the time.  I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted the kids to touch the art either, but I think they would have presented their request quite differently than the guides did.  The guards did seem to have a critical perspective on this role playing game, judging by their affectionate smiles to some of the students who were on the move.

Many of the concerts of music from non-Western countries I’ve seen at either Duke Performances or Carolina Performing Arts (@ UNC) have been remarkable for the way in which the audience has consistently refused to submit to this kind of scenario.  Audiences with ties to the performer’s home country have tended to be in the majority.  Many of the shows start out with the stage feeling like a castle surrounded by a moat.  White security guards are usually stationed by the stage and tell audience members who come up to the front of the stage to dance to return to their assigned seats.  In the beginning a few do, but soon more and more people get up and join them.  The guards begin to look flustered.  They keep trying to get the dancers to go back to the spot they paid for – the shows aren’t general admission – but they eventually give up.  They resume a stand at the side of the stage and relinquish control of the situation.  The castle falls, and the clinical distance that separates performer from audience dissipates.

One example from last fall was an amazing show I saw by the Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed at Duke University’s Reynolds Theater.  Many people in the audience brought Ethiopian flags, and the majority seemed to have a connection to the Ethiopian diaspora. Many of the folks who came to the front of the stage brought Ethiopian flags with them and waved them in the air to the music as the guards tried to interrupt them.  I had seats in the front row, and soon the whole orchestra pit in front of the stage was full of dancers.  I had a few of Ahmed’s records from the wonderful Ethiopiques series, – (check out the tune @ 12:58 in the above video, always a fave) – but I didn’t know the material as well as they did.  As soon as the first bars of the song began, people called out with immediate recognition.  Stage banter in Amharic was met with enthusiastic responses that those of us who didn’t belong to the diaspora could not understand.
I liked that Ahmed didn’t feel he had to translate for the minority in the audience.  It was the opposite of the Nasher Museum experience – this wasn’t a representation of Ethiopia for the intellectual edification of Duke University.   Duke University’s theater was a venue for a community event that had its own logic and expectations, and they held sway over those of the University protocol.

I had a chance to check my own assumptions at the door as well:  I had previously thought of the Ethiopiques series as a collection of obscurities meant for a mostly Eurocentric record collector audience.  I now thought of David Treuer’s critique of how white people tend to think of Native Americans as noble conquered ghosts. I realized that I’d been looking at some of the non-Western records I collect along similar lines.  A fertile music scene had existed in Ethiopia in the 60’s and 70’s, but was no longer.  That was the narrative I had picked up on about Ahmed and other musicians from these reissues.  It was now apparent that this tradition was not only alive and well, but that it belonged to the mainstream, not the margins, in the eyes of the folks with ties to Ethiopia that made up the majority of the audience.  Many of the folks in the audience were families represented in multiple generations, which I had also observed at other shows I’ve been to in this series performed by musicians from places like India, (Zakir Hussain and L. Subramaniam,) Pakistan, (Rizwan Muazzam,) and Senegal, (Youssou N’Dour.)

Musically speaking: Ahmed’s guitar player stood behind the horn section, which was a great contrast from the self-promoting role of guitar players in most rock bands.  He was younger and seemed to defer to the horn players, who were the musical leaders of the ensemble.  The drummer traced circular grooves across the toms that seemed to inspire the dance that Ahmed did in between his lines.  He began shaking the top of his neck and then that motion moved down through his arms and shook itself out through the rest of his body until it landed on the ground.  The motion of the drumming and the circular horn lines that were played on top reminded me of an excellent massage that encircles knots of tension and gradually teases them out towards the edge of the body to be released.  I have been noticing at work recently how much tension I store in my neck and shoulders, much of it due to the pressure of high stakes testing in today’s public school environment.  The dancing on stage and in the audience helped unwind it.  The organ’s keyboard pads, usually in minor keys, hung around the air like the karmic weight of past conflicts and complications. They were remarkably still as everything else kept circling and winding.  The weight of the past never totally disappears, but we weave our way in and out of its traps to find our way through it until it begins to seem more porous and transparent.

I’ve never seen such adoration of a non-classical, non-jazz performer in their 70’s!  So much respect for the history behind this performer, and for the history behind the audience.  It was one of the coolest connections between singer and dancers I’ve ever seen.  It continued in the hallway after the show.  Ahmed came out to sign autographs and was completely mobbed by people wanting to take their picture with him, etc.  He smiled the whole time without seeming fatigued by this.  In the culture of rock and roll, a fading star might greet this kind of attention with a surprised modesty, such as I described in my review of Gary Numan’s show at Moogfest last spring.  Here it was not a surprise, it was an expected affirmation.   It didn’t feel like it was about Mahmoud Ahmed, though.  It felt like it was about the community that was reunited through the vehicle of his music.  The concert felt like a joint performance between the musicians and the audience.  I was lucky to be there, go see him if you get the chance.


regarding Duke as Plantation:

“Durham is a historically Black city — it is the home of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, which was founded in 1898 and is the oldest and largest Black-owned insurance company in the country. Black members of the community are folk for which homeownership is not foreign, but who were priced out by the University’s own hand in development and gentrification in the city of Durham, and because of the kind of depressed wages that occur when service workers, including those who work at Duke University hospital, don’t have adequate organized labor representation. In this context, the idea that folk needed an eight-week class on home purchasing is insulting.

As a late 20th century Ghetto Philosopher once opined, no doubt echoing sentiment expressed by many before him, it’s simply “politics as usual” on Duke University’s plantation.”
— Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University’s Plantation Blues
An occupation of the Allen building at Duke last spring put forth the following demands regarding institutional racism:

“1. We demand the immediate termination, without compensation, of EVP Tallman Trask III, VP Kyle Cavanaugh, and PTS Director Carl DePinto.2. We demand that Tallman Trask issue a public apology to Ms. Underwood, all former and current PTS employees who have suffered racist abuse, and all of Duke and Durham’s community for his hateful, violent, and negligent actions.

3. We demand that Tallman Trask pay full legal and medical reparations to Ms. Underwood.

4. We demand that Duke University hire competent, outside employment counsel, approved by Duke Students and Workers in Solidarity, to conduct a full investigation into Parking and Transportation Services, the Office of Institutional Equity, and the Duke University Police Department in regards to their respective handling of Ms. Underwood’s case, as well as the unlawful discrimination complaints and reports filed by former and current PTS employees. Said counsel is to have no pre-existing relationship with Duke University, Duke University personnel, administrators, or board of trustees.

5. We demand a comprehensive and transparent review and revision of Duke’s employment standards and guidelines for sub-contracted workers, to ensure that they match the employment standards for Duke employees.

6. We demand transparency and community input in the recruitment and selection process for Duke administrators.

7. We demand that the minimum wage for Duke employees and sub-contracted workers be raised to $15/hour and for this rate to be indexed to keep up with inflation. This pay rate is closer to a living wage that strengthens their ability to meet their basic needs with dignity. Every worker deserves to be paid a fair wage and provided with the ability to make a decent living.”

From Duke University Occupation Confronts Racism, 4.1.16

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