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The Time-Traversing Sound of Oakland's Black Spirituals

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Oakland duo Black Spirituals exist in and out of time — tethered to the past yet rooted in the current day, building on the propulsion of civil rights-era avant-garde jazz and filtering it through modern experimental electronics.

It’s a unique position for the Oakland duo, composed of Zachary James Watkins and Marshall Trammell, who create a vibratory noise that refracts upon itself while serving as an abstract rumination on history, oppression, and culture. (In a review, the New York Times recently dubbed them “a duo that defies categories.”) Processed through mixers and effects, Watkins’ guitar resonates even when it’s not traditionally strummed, while Trammell approaches his pared-down drum kit with the mindfulness of a musical author, improvising with Watkins’ churning atmospheres. Their music isn’t harmonious, or explicitly soothing. But then neither is much of American history.

“What is important for us is, we’ve toured four or five times or more in the U.S. and abroad, and we gather information,” says Trammell, who cites a “question of sanctuary” running throughout Black Spirituals’ work. “And we come back home to Oakland, to the Bay Area, and our community grows. We are informed by our community who’s touring, and is in resistance and resilience to oppressive things, and we celebrate our discontent together, and we keep growing.”

Black Spirituals

The name Black Spirituals derives from Watkins’ work at UC Santa Cruz, where he currently teaches, while archiving lectures by activist, composer and Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon. Her lecture, “Black Spirituals,” demonstrates the power of inflection in one’s voice to convey an emotional biography; an age-old idea in black popular music that in America spans back to early Southern gospel on up to evolutions by free-jazz collectives like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Albert Ayler.


That approach, of conveying a story through sound, is at the heart of Black Spirituals’ music. And as befits their expansive view, that story is just as likely to be the current-day struggles of living in the Bay Area as it is the plight of 19th-century slaves. (In 2015, Watkins and Trammell were invited to perform and conduct workshops at a former church in Ontario, Canada built by slaves who’d escaped via the underground railroad, an experience Trammell calls “spectacular.”)

Saul Williams with Black Spirituals

One enthusiast of Black Spirituals is celebrated spoken-word artist Saul Williams, who was so struck by his collaboration with the group last year that he opted for a repeat performance at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage in May as part of the Bay Area Book Festival. On the phone, Williams tells me that collaborating with Black Spirituals “brings us to the grounds of communion, it’s a sacred space” — and emphasizes that’s not always the case when appearing with live musicians. “There’s a lot of musicians that I have no interest in vibing with, because their sensibility may not be what or where mine is,” he says. “I have very particular things that speak to me.”

Williams and Black Spirituals together enter a lineage of black poetry and improvised music that includes Langston Hughes with Charles Mingus; Ishmael Reed with Sunny Murray; and Amiri Baraka with David Murray. “It’s an honor to even consider myself part of that legacy and tradition,” says Williams of his collaborations with the group.

Zachary James Watkins of Black Spirituals

Meanwhile, in Oakland, which has lost 10 percent of its African-American population in the past 10 years, and where the tech boom continues to cause artist evictions and displacement, Black Spirituals haven’t yet enjoyed permanent financial sustenance through their art. But as Watkins testifies — like so many before them — the rewards run deeper than dollar signs.

“We are meeting people, we are making relationships, and we are building,” Watkins says. “It hasn’t paid our rent yet, but I seem to be still 100-percent inspired and ready to wake up tomorrow and do it again. So there’s something else that’s feeding me right now.”

Video by Jessica Jones; story by Gabe Meline

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