When the slaves came to North America from Africa they brought with them not only their own musical traditions but their way of using the music. In the villages where they came from there had always been a person who kept a record of the people's history in song and music. The griots, as they were known, could be called on to recount either a specific person's family history, or to tell the stories of the people that taught them how to live. Over here the people were scattered with families being split up and sold to separate owners, and villages scattered from the Caribbean to Canada, and the old histories became obsolete.
The music changed so that it reflected the lives they were currently living. It spoke of the pain and hopes of people enslaved; the pain of the labour and the hope of freedom. As their masters imposed their religion on them, they used the text of Christian gospels to express some of their feelings, but held onto the music they had brought with them. With freedom the music split between the secular and the religious and the griots of those days could be found in the bars and honkey-tonks singing the blues and banging out the old rhythms on the keyboards of pianos.
In the introduction to the liner notes of the DVD Nina Simone Live In '65 & '68, part of the Jazz Icons: Series 3 collection co-produced by Reelin' In The Years Productions and Naxos being released on September 30, 2008, Nina Simone's daughter says that her mother considered herself a griot, for she would take her listeners on a journey. The journey that Nina Simone took her audiences on was a continuation of the one started by the singers and songwriters from the beginning of the twentieth century who sang about the emotional and spiritual condition of African Americans in churches and bars.
This is especially true of the period in her life during which the two concerts on this DVD were taken. Between 1963 and 1970 Nina Simone recorded and sang songs that reflected the conditions of African Americans in the United States as they fought for equal rights. In his extensive liner notes for the CD Professor of Music Rob Bowman quotes Nina as saying that it was the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street church in Birmingham, Alabama that resulted in the deaths of four little girls in 1963 that brought home to her the emotional reality of "what it was to be black in America".
Her first impulse was to build a zip gun and go out and kill someone. Her husband pointed out that she didn't know very much about killing but knew a lot about music, so perhaps that might be the route to go. Within the hour she had written her first civil rights song "Mississippi Goddam", one of the songs she performed at her 1965 concert in Holland that opens this DVD. The two concerts, the 1965 in Holland and the 1968 Granada television special from England, are emotional tour de forces by a woman known for her ability to communicate emotions through song and music. So be prepared to be on the receiving end of the type of potency that's not often seen or heard in contemporary music as she holds nothing back.
In the 1965 concert, she starts off with "Brown Baby" and moves into "Four Women", songs that talk about the social circumstances of black people in America. The second song is especially pointed as it deals with the class structure attached to what shade of black a person was and how it affected their status within their own community. In the late fifties and the early sixties it was still a matter of the paler a person's skin colour and the straighter their hair, i.e. the whiter they looked, the higher their status. Until the concept of Black Pride became predominant in the latter part of the sixties, being able to "pass" as white was considered the apex of social standing. "Four Women" expresses Simone's anger at a world where people are made to feel so ashamed of who they are, that they judge themselves based on another's prejudice.
The Holland concert finishes with "Mississippi Goddamn", and in it you can hear all of the singer's anger and sadness at the events that inspired it. It seems only appropriate that those putting this DVD together have opened the second concert of the disc with her song "Go To Hell", a statement of anger if I've ever heard one. She follows that with a medley of two songs from the musical Hair, "Ain't Got No" and "I Got Life". While she turns the first into a testimony of the deprivations of poverty that most of black America suffered from during the sixties, the second becomes an affirmation of those things that could and will make life worth living.
The real emotional killer on this disc though is the final song "Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)". The song was written by her bass player Gene Taylor in honour of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly after his assassination in April of 1968. His death was the death knell for the civil rights movement as there wasn't any leader of the same stature able to carry on his work. Nobody else had the charisma to hold together the alliance of people that King had built, and there's something about the way Nina Simone sings this song that tells you she knows those days are over. The lyrics might be in praise of Dr. King's life, but the way she sings them they're also an elegy for his dream.
Nina Simone: Live in '65 & '68 is an amazing testimony of the power of song to communicate emotions, and the power of Nina Simone to communicate through song. For those of you who thought they had seen impassioned singers before, this disc will leave all of them in its wake. While it's irresponsible to label anyone as a spokesperson for any group of people, Nina Simone's singing captures a good deal of what it must have been like to black in America during those tumultuous times. Like the griot she was, she told the story of her people in song, and this DVD is a record of her storytelling.
Obviously, the sound quality is spotty in places, especially in the first concert, as the original masters are so old, but it's remarkable really how good they are, as both picture and sound are probably better than we have any right to expect. Although there are no special features included on the disc, the extensive liner notes that come with the enclosed booklet, are an amazing overview of Nina Simone's life and career, providing information that you'd be hard pressed to find on any other similar music collection. For lovers of Nina Simone, and those just new to her work, Nina Simone: Live In '65 & '68 will be a pleasure and a revelation.