Music Review: Afro Yaqui Music Collective’s ‘Maroon Futures’

Afro Yaqui Music Collective's album, "Maroon Futures"
Afro Yaqui Music Collective’s album, “Maroon Futures”

These remarks were delivered on June 24, 2021 during the Afro Yaqui Music Collective’s “Maroon Futures” album release event held on Zoom.

I’d like to begin by thanking Ben Barson and the Afro Yaqui Music Collective for the invitation to speak at this celebration. I’m honored to share my reactions to this beautiful work, and it’s a humbling task to gather up thoughts about such an expansive and powerful album by a roster of such talented and accomplished musicians.

To my ears, Afro Yaqui’s “Maroon Futures” follows in the tradition of so many great and important musicians, tapping into the spirit of jazz artists, including John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, McCoy Tyner, Duke Ellington, and Alice Coltrane, among others, who in the 1960s and 1970s were looking to “Third World” cultures for musical and spiritual inspiration. They are also in the lineage of musicians, such as Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus and Nina Simone, who insisted that their creative work explicitly respond to its immediate social and political context.

Afro Yaqui Music Collective / credit: Twitter/AfroYaqui
Afro Yaqui Music Collective / credit: Twitter/AfroYaqui

Even more specifically, “Maroon Futures” echoes a form of musical hybridity—a growing together of cultural practices born out of living, loving, and struggling together—that I associate with the spirit of the Asian American Jazz and Creative Music Movement of the 1980s. These musicians, including Jon Jang, Francis Wong, Fred Ho, Glenn Horiuchi, Mark Izu, and Anthony Brown, to name only a few, came together to support one another, recording and releasing their music, under the rubric of Asian American jazz. Facing a music industry that had no place for them nor for their radical political commitments to racial justice, they collaborated with their African American peers and provided a model for cross-racial solidarity. They transformed their invisibility—the lack of existing models for what Asian Americans should look and sound like—into a strategic advantage that allowed them to think outside of the box and reach towards a new hybrid sound that reflected their dreams of freedom.

I hear that same search for freedom in “Maroon Futures,” especially in Ben Barson’s baritone sax and big band arrangements that echo his mentor Fred Ho’s unique sound. I also hear a similar approach to creatively “misusing” instruments in new and improvisatory ways. Whether Yang Jin’s explosive pipa playing, or Mimi Jong’s contributions on erhu, Afro Yaqui finds a way to make unlikely combinations of instruments sound together.

Afro Yaqui Music Collective's cover for their latest album, "Maroon Futures"
Afro Yaqui Music Collective’s cover for their latest album, “Maroon Futures”

However, in comparison to their Asian American jazz predecessors, Afro Yaqui puts a greater emphasis on groove, reflecting the importance of Afro-Diasporic technologies for creating community through dance and movement. This is a group of musicians intent on celebrating life in the midst of struggle. “Maroon Futures” draws on the musical insights of James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, and Sly and the Family Stone. It is Revolution of the Mind music. It’s Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow music (or is it “free your ass, and your mind will follow?”).

This is music that fuses the fierce spirit and capacious heart of free jazz with hip hop’s commitment to groove and its insistence on the power of the funk. 

Afro Yaqui’s music, which takes an Afro-Diasporic approach to groove and blends jazz and hip hop with traditional Asian, Indigenous and Middle Eastern sounds, defies existing categories and it confounds a music industry that relies on a genre-based system to market and sell its products. As musician/composer, scholar, and AACM member George Lewis explains, “in music, kinship is often represented as genre. Its root, gen- (genetic, genotype, and even gender) is often found as representing not only family, but fixity.” In other words, genres are useful but dangerous. They are often a means by which the music industry engages in gatekeeping and border-policing that discourages experimentation and maintains the status quo. However, in their expansive vision and sound, Afro Yaqui seem intent on proving that music is, as George Lipsitz suggests, a way of rehearsing identities and relationships not yet permissible in society, or as Gaye Theresa Johnson has written, creating a home from which disposed populations can never be evicted. Nowhere is this more clearly audible than in the Aztec funk of “Nonantzin” or in the matriarchal poetry of Mama C (Charlotte Hill O’Neal).

As the saying goes, when a language dies a whole world dies with it. To the contrary, Gizelxananth Rodriguez’s Nahuatl vocals suggest the rebirth of an Indigenous way of being. And Mama C’s powerful poetry, which lace a number of tracks, manifest the emancipatory vision and matrifocal orientation of “Maroon”’s politics. And what is more, Nejma Nefertiti’s sharp lyricism and next-level flows add the power and authority of hip hop MCing to this heady mix.

On “Insurrealista” Nejma describes herself as a “revolutionary matriarchal activista microphone antagonista” – blending languages and mixing metaphors over a funky groove. Her flow is revolutionary “Ladies First” fire, as if Monie Love and Dead Prez got stuck in an elevator. The title of the track, “insurrealista” perfectly captures Afro Yaqui’s blend of politics and imagination. They are here to disrupt business as usual through a radical imaginary that leaves room for creativity, love, and celebration.

But don’t take it from me: acclaimed scholar, activist, and Thelonious Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley says Afro Yaqui creates “joyful music that swings and sings and sometimes stings but always keeps us dancing toward freedom.” And music critic Larry Blumenfeld describes them as a “wondrously unruly yet gorgeously cohesive group… in a proud lineage of free-thinking musicians and freedom fighters everywhere.” 

It really is a great pleasure and honor to congratulate the group on this momentous accomplishment and wish them well on their next mission.

Loren Kajikawa is Associate Professor of Musicology at the George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. He is the author of Sounding Race in Rap Songs (University of California, 2015).