n her latest documentary, "Elements of One," Canadian filmmaker Eve-Marie Breglia explores the transmission of musical languages throughout the African Diaspora. She traverses the planet with groups
of musicians tracing the origins of their ideas and testing some hypotheses about the relationship of words to rhythms and esoteric ideas no less lofty than the structure of the soul. The film opens with a
haunting scene of Chicago-born saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman bouncing his sound off the interior walls of the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt.
Later in the film we learn that the notes he plays are the sonic
representation of the proportions Plato and Pythagoras believed to be the basis for the structure of soul and therefore the entire cosmos. These sacred notes have been heard before: they comprise the
opening sequence in John's Coltrane's ballad, "A Love Supreme."
The portrayal of the artist as transmitter of knowledge brings to mind the archetype of The Magician, or Trickster as he is known in the
Cuban Yorùbá Lucumi religion. Clever beyond words, The Magician is bursting with information that he must share and, destined to fulfill this mission, he will find or invent whatever means are necessary to
communicate. Captivated by the possibility that there is one creative principle behind all diversity, The Magician journeys throughout the world arranging demonstrations of his ability to harness nature's
energy for his purposes. "I believe that sound has information in it," says Coleman early in the film. "It is encoded with information and that information affects people in real ways."
Steve Coleman is a force majeure in what he has called music based on the living experiences of African-American people and the African
Diaspora. (Like some of his predecessors on this path, he resists using the word 'jazz' as it was invented by and for the marketplace.) "Elements of One," recently released on DVD, documents Coleman's
odyssey over six years as he collaborated with virtuosic artists in Cuba, Senegal, India and various cities in the United States. Dense with imagery of these creative cultural adventures, the film portrays
the process of discovering and sharing musical languages and the symbolism carried in movement and rhythm even when common spoken languages were unavailable.
Music and dance, and especially certain rhythms, have for centuries been the essential technologies of the Cuban Yorùbá Lucumi religion
which was originally brought to the island with the slaves from Africa and has, since then, been thoughtfully passed on from generation to
generation. Meanwhile, the slaves in the United States were forbidden to use drums as these instruments were a suspected means of secret communication. The elimination of the drum as a form of expression
along with efforts to suppress singing and dancing eventually led African American musicians to turn to the only means available to them: the instruments of the marching bands and orchestras. This led
to the new sound created in New Orleans around the turn of the last century.
As this contagious sound developed and spread in its multiple and divergent forms throughout the United States, a curiosity about the
music played by their spiritual brothers and sisters in the Caribbean, and especially Cuba, led to creative pilgrimages by American masters including Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. Longing to re-connect
with the African roots of their own music and finding inspiration in the passion and intelligence of the Cuban artists, a natural synergy led to
exchange of ideas with artists living on the Caribbean islands. These influences shaped and inspired the North American musical repertoire
as composers, according to Coleman "kept trying to get that [African] sensibility with our Western instruments."
Of course, access to Cuba abruptly ended when the United States invaded Cuba in the early 1960s and instituted the now middle-aged
embargo. Entire generations of American musicians have known only this politically-motivated stifling of creative exchange. Thanks to a
perhaps unofficial leniency practiced by the Clinton administration, Americans were able to travel to Cuba in the 1990s without the fear of harassment and worse that are again being inflicted by the Bush
administration. Fortunately, Coleman made multiple trips to the island during this time and Breglia captures much of what he saw and did. Along with other like-mindedly curious and capable musicians
accompanying Coleman, he worked with his Cuban collaborators to explore similarities in the underlying principles and concepts found in their respective yet related forms of expression.
Breglia's complexly woven film depicts what drummer Gene Lake refers to as ''the three-fold process" of learning what the Cubans were
playing and the science behind it, sharing with them what the Americans were doing and, finally, creating something they could do together. The result was performed at the Havana Jazz Festival and
later released as a compact disc entitled "The Sign and the Seal."
From Cuba, and with several of the Cuban drummers and their sacred drums in tow, the group migrated to Senegal for further exploration
and collaboration with a group called SingSing Rhythm. The film poetically portrays the similarities in the natural beauty and street-life in Havana and St. Louis, Senegal, and in rehearsal as the artists
shared with each other their convergent musical languages. The Cuban musicians hold tight to their musical, religious and cultural traditions while the Africans, having never experienced the threat of
silencing, express both their heritage and its constant transformation. The rehearsals in Senegal, similar in creative intensity to those in
Cuba, are processes of sharing among the musicians and discovering, as the director of SingSing says, that when he hears the Cubans play their music, he feels himself.
After Senegal, Breglia takes us to the Fruitvale in Oakland, California. I was peripherally involved in the eight-week residency that Steve
Coleman and various artists from around the world held in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1996 and I originally met the filmmaker at that time. Their silent shadow, camera balanced on her strong and steady
hand, she glided the perimeter of the stage catching the dazzling performances of the various Brazilian, Cuban and American artists. The nightly sessions were an open question as an unpredictable
blend of performers played their instruments, danced and vocalized at the Nu Upper Room. Especially thrilling are the performances of rapper/lyricists Black Indian, Sub-Z and Kokayi from Washington, D.C.
Bursting with creativity, they dispel all doubts about the possibilities for this much-maligned style of vocalizing
After Oakland, a smaller-scale group, still under the leadership of Coleman, traveled to Madras and Bangalore in Southern India.
Working there with members of the Karnatic College of Percussion, the exploration of the language of the drum continues. The tender South Indian singer Sankari Krishnan serenely vocalizes the
vocabulary of the drum and Coleman picks up and plays her melody on his alto saxophone. As with the Cuban and African segments of the documentary, Breglia sensitively shares the dusty streets and vibrant
farmland and the ever present appearances of sacred cows.
A brief but riveting appearance by an Indian dancer that culminates this section and the mesmerizing performances of the African and
Cuban dancers seen throughout the film are endowed with meaning. Early in the film, the Cubans speak of their choreographed ceremonial offerings to the pantheon of Yorùbá deities. This contrasts sharply
with the American's concept of including dance. Neither integrated nor innovative, the bitter-sweet eye candy grafted onto the music is a telling symbol of America's cultural immaturity. Where the African,
Indian and Cuban movements are ritualized moving prayers, by contrast the performances accompanying Coleman's performances appear curiously shallow.
The closing section of the documentary is devoted to the esoteric questions that animate Coleman's thinking about music. A tireless
intellectual and spiritual seeker, he looks to sources reaching back through Plato, to Pythagoras and the ancient Egyptians to understand the proportional relationships that explain beauty and symmetry in
nature and the logic of harmony. During a residency at IRCAM in Paris (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), he rehearsed a band to perform with 'Rameses,' a computer program he
designed to improvise in real time as a member of the band. Programmed based on notions of proportion found in the Golden Mean, astrological relationships and the numerical associations of
words, the computer debuted on the stage Bouff du Nord in Paris on June 11, 1999. In spite of a relatively short rehearsal period and a less than inspired performance by most of the musicians, the
European audience's enthusiastic response bordered on ecstatic.
In a brief clip of a conversation between Coleman and the brilliant musician, composer and technological innovator George Lewis, Lewis
describes the traditional role of African Americans vis-à-vis technology: Those not aware of the technological impact that African people have had since ancient times have assigned them the role of
the faux primitive so as not to sully their spiritual purity.
Breglia's film makes a convincing case that technologies such as music and dance are powerful forms of prayer that serve humankind's immutable need to communicate.