Q: I'm curious about your reception in Africa the first time.
A: In the beginning it was awkward because I didn't have the language down very pat, which is a euphemism for I didn't have it down at all. And Yoruba, like Chinese, is exquisitely tonal -- the tones must be chimed just right. I would make all kinds of faux pas, like I would say, "That child that you've given birth to is so beautiful." I thought I was saying that. But by using a low tone instead of high tone I'd said, "That child you've just puked up." And people would laugh.
Q: But they knew what you were trying to say.
A: Yeah, but it's disaster time in the beginning. The Yoruba, however, are so savvy and self-confident that as long as you would indicate to them clearly at the beginning that you weren't going to waste their time -- that you're going to move in -- they would study you and see if they liked you and if they liked you then they could set up some appointments. Then they wanted to make sure that the informants would be paid for their time and that no one's time would be wasted. As long as they were sure that you hadn't come in just to whip out a notebook and take down all this stuff and then wheeee, disappear.
I had the luck of a guy who was traveling with me, a field worker. And he had a knack of telling them, "This is for heritage," and accelerating the process of getting them to know what it was I was trying to do. A cultural interpreter. Gradually the day came when I realized I could do it on my own.
Q: How did that feel?
A: Oh, wonderful! Instead of saying, "Adisa, ask him how many years ago -- ." I'd just ask it myself. But it'd work. And still, no matter how many times you go to Africa it's like Hollywood. You know you're only as good as your last performance.
Q: How much time have you actually spent in the field?
A: The longest time was more than two years, 1962-1964. I look back on that with awe and tremendous wistfulness because I'll never have the time to spend two full years again. Now I go in fragments. I've become a guerrilla scholar. Boom, go in, do the work and then time runs out, money runs out, you go back. But I keep going back. Keep getting little fragments and putting it in notebooks, comparing it. I can't stand to read the literature anymore, I want to go in the field for everything.
I'm trying to ask Africans what they think about Picasso. They say some rather fascinating things. One Mu-Kongo said that those dark squares built into the body -- he was talking about Cubism -- indicate some horrific issues about to happen. That the issues (were) sharding the body like that. All that trouble embedded in the body. What horrific thing was about to happen? Like World War I, by eerie coincidence.
They were worried about Modigliani too -- those elongated noses. To elongate the nose that long is a symbol of the length of a very serious deadly issue. [When] they found out that he was doing this on his own with no spiritual training they were worried about him. I didn't have the heart to tell them that in fact Modigliani died young of tuberculosis.
Q: It's like backwards fortune telling.
A: Yes. They can postdate as well as predate.
Q: Has your white skin ever hindered your work? Have you ever encountered hostility?
A: Oh, yes. I've encountered in some villages, "What does he want?" "Is he a tax collector?" "Is he CIA?" "What is he?" The thing that I put in my mind is what if someone dressed in Tibetan garb arrived at my front door and rang the bell and said, "I am from Tibet and I would like to interview you [about your] Western traditions," it would be very off-setting.
There's no avoiding in areas where you have not worked before, the natural suspicion. One time, a ruler's wife came out and looked me right in the eye and said in English, "What for?" "What from?" "Where from?" So direct. So beautiful. I thought, why can't we streamline a lot of our relationships?
Q: What kind of family were you born into?
A: I was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1932, the son of a surgeon who wanted me to be a surgeon. But by the time I was a senior at Yale I knew I had to do something in blackness as I was already consumed by a love of Afro-Cuban music, and dance.
When I was in the Army I was assigned to 7th Army Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. I met a lot of interesting guys in the barracks. Gary Crosby [son of Bing Crosby] was there and pro baseball players and guys who had been drafted right off of Broadway. The guy who played the brother of Anne Frank in the original production of "The Diary of Anne Frank." It was a very stimulating time. They encouraged me. I used to put on lectures on Afro-Cuban jazz to my fellow GIs.
Then I went into law school, but I was writing articles for the Jazz Review and I dropped out of law after a year, and applied to the Yale graduate school in history of art. By 1961 I had gotten most of my orals out of the way and was lucky enough to win a Ford Foundation grant and that put me there in Yorubaland [western Nigeria] for two years. My former wife and I lived intensely in Yoruba villages and we traveled and traveled and traveled. All kinds of wonderful things happened to us.
I'd never lived in a traditional society before so it was just one eye- opening thing after another. And mostly to see the beautiful things, the way people spend so much time just greeting each other.
There's a gentleness that does not make it into most treatments of Africa. We want things now. They taught me to slow down.
Q: How did you originally get swept in by the culture?
A: Growing up in El Paso, West Texas, I had to play football. I didn't play it very well but I played it. I went along with the mainstream culture but I knew that there was something else out there. By 1948 I'd somehow gotten into Tahitian chanting. I collected a lot of Tahitian and Hawaiian records. But that was like a prologue to the real onslaught and it all happened in 1950 when I heard the mambo [a rhythmic musical form]. And then I really got hip.
I was down in Mexico City with my parents in March 1950. Suddenly, it's the first time in my life I was in a city that was completely controlled by a musical and dance style. Everyone was dancing. It was a new toy. I thought, well, I missed the Ballet Russe under Diaghilev but I didn't miss this. That's why I'm hanging out in the hip-hop [street culture of the South Bronx], breaking [breakdancing] world now too. I don't want to miss that. But that's what started it, to see these black styles emerging. Very exciting.
Mexico City turned my life around because I saw that dancing and music could be a total way of life as opposed to this peripheral entertainment and so that impressed me mightily and I started collecting records.
When the Korean war broke out there was a guy who composed a song, to assuage himself from thermonuclear war called, "La Camisa de Papel" -- the newspaper shirt. The hero is an anonymous black person in Mexico City who hears war has been declared in the Far East. But he says, "I like this shirt that's made of headlines. I'm going to wear it." And he talks himself into wearing the nervous paranoia height of dangerous thermonuclear condition. That was a revelation to me. He found a way of literally cutting down to size the threat or menace of our times. A way of being so tough that you wear your neuroses as a shirt. Wear it and get on with it.
Now there's a fantastic mambo that's a hit song of Spanish New York called "La Era Nuclear," the nuclear age, sung by Willie Colon. It's like the newspaper shirt in the '50s. I saw Willie singing it in a dance hall the other day and he sang, "La Era Nuclear Creole." Everyone laughed and smiled because we were saying, "Okay, here's the terror, let's put some Creole red pepper sauce over it and we will prepare it as a dish. Eat it. Absorb it. Get on with it.
I guess one reason why I'm so attracted to these traditions is that they're simultaneously moral, therapeutic and vitalizing. There are other things, too. Like the fact that one of the ingredients are the hunters, gentle hunters and gatherers of Africa. The pygmies and the San [so-called Bushmen] people of Namibia. There they are gathering honey and nectar and hunting. Very group, very familiar. And they're yodeling -- gentle, quiet, no text, no words to hang yourself up with. They're yodelizing cool neutrals, the most neutral sound in the lexicon. And when the Bacongos [one of the major peoples of Africa] sing, they want to make a song more neutral, they put more and more yodeling in it. There's a hell of a lot of that neutrality built into our popular music.
But just to say that blacks gave us dances and blacks gave us music is not enough. It's a moral radium -- like Madame Curie when she finds radium at the bottom of the dish. It's a moral radium at the bottom of the dish of Afro-American creativity. That's what I'm after.
Q: What about languages?
A: El Paso is on the border, a bilingual town. That automatically pushed me into the idea that there are other countries out there and other cultures. But then when I started studying Africa, seriously studying it, then Spanish became critical. A lot of critical Afro-American literature is locked up in Portuguese and Spanish. The thing that's so exciting about studying Afro-Atlantic traditions is the workload is constant but stimulating. You've got to read Portuguese and Spanish and French. I wish I could read Creole because that would unlock Haiti's culture in the original.
Q: You've said that the Harlem Renaissance would be like tiddly- winks compared to what's coming up.
A: I didn't even realize the extent of the hip-hop revolution when I said that. I was talking about something vague, the next five years. It was all around us at that very moment. All the rapping and scratching, the back spinning and the deejaying, the breaking, the electric boogies and the handclap, it was all there.
Q: What do you think is going to happen next? Any ideas?
A: I could be wrong but I think we've in for even more excitement because the Haitians and the Jamaicans are now approximately 600,000 strong in black New York City. They're pouring into the Bronx. Now when the reggae world crosses with the merengue [main beat of Haiti] world, plus mambo plus jazz plus hip-hop it will happen! We're in for some real cultural excitement.
Q: What about the black academics or students that you might have encountered here or elsewhere. Do they have feelings that you are co-opting what is theirs?
A: People have a right to figure out, on both sides of the Atlantic, and of both worlds, Afro-American and African, to see that what you do is qualified by what you do next. By now people realize that this is a lifetime passion [for me], and that I'm going to do it regardless, because there's so much richness out there and [it's] critical that many people see the richness out there beyond entertainment. I've always had a good relationship with the blacks that I worked with.
I think of something Malcolm X said somewhere in his autobiography, something like, "If you want to be with us work among your own kind." To a certain extent to be a professor of art history automatically means that lots of my students are Euro-Americans and they need to know this so I am teaching it but I'm also thrilled to have a lot of black students too. Most of my graduate students are black.
Q: Do you consider yourself a political animal?
A: To the extent that making people see that African and Afro-American traditions are linked and are a powerful alternative, classical tradition. Yes, there is a political message there that Africans should be seen as culture bearers and not as targets of profits. There's as much to learn from the epics of Mali as there is from Beowulf.
Q: Has the spirituality of the art and the culture that you studied affected your own faith?
A: Sure. I was raised a Presbyterian but I was initiated in the Yoruba religion. It's affected me, given me more confidence.
Q: Has it affected your family life at all?
A: My daughter and son love Africa. My son goes to high school which is 70, 60 percent, heavily black. He sees them as persons and he digs their culture. Knows about the African background and he has a good time. My daughter it's affected even more deeply in the sense that her painting style has an effervescent African quality to it. Her abstract paintings have colors that loom up, purple, grey, white. One of her teachers said, "Have you ever been to Africa?"
When she was a little girl, I took her to Liberia and she saw a great masked figure and she loved it. I took the whole family with me when I was working on the National Gallery show ["African Art in Motion"] in the early '70s and they saw crimson ghosts coming in answer to ceremonies of invocation. They saw trees with no leaves or any branches on them in honor of the Oro society. They were fascinated. It was like they were stepping into a storybook where all spiritual powers were true, were real again.