Slavery, in words and song Performance: Poems about slave women move composer Wall Matthews and singer Aleta Greene to pool talents with powerful results.

April 26, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

When Aleta Greene started to read poems from Dolores Kendrick's book "The Women of Plums: Poems In the Voices of Slave Women," she had no idea what to expect. All she knew was that her friend Wall Matthews -- a composer, guitarist and percussionist whom Greene had known for years -- was writing music for these poems and felt that Greene would be the woman to sing them.

By the time she finished reading, she was in tears.

"I called him the night that I read them," she says. "I was crying, because they were so moving to me, and he was overwhelmed that I was so moved."

Greene wasn't just moved, though. She was stoked.

"I just couldn't wait to do it," she says of the project, and after listening to "The Color of Dusk," it's easy to understand why. On the one hand, the music Matthews and Greene make is as powerful and elemental as anything in America's wealth of folk culture.

It isn't just that the music draws from the various traditions of African and American music, incorporating bits of West African drumming, Southern spirituals, country blues, and more. The real power of this album has to do with the way the music merges with the words to reflect the realities of slave life.

The women in Kendrick's poems speak with painful clarity about their lives, conveying courage, despair, longing, loathing, passion, pride, anger and transcendence, and it's almost impossible to hear their stories without feeling a similar range of emotion.

" 'Leah: In Freedom' was particularly hard to read," says Greene of one poem about a runaway slave. "You hear about slaves running away all the time, but do you know that they marked them? Do you know that they would pull a tooth out, so they would know this one from another one in case she ran away again? Or make her wear a yoke -- when she's not working around the kitchen or garden, she has to wear a yoke to keep her from running?

"Or that, after all this running and getting beat and getting her teeth pulled out, she still has to go and work up with mistress and sew her clothes. And mistress is going to save her soul."

Greene pauses.

"It's hard to know about it, and a lot of people don't really want to know about it," she says. "But it's history, and as Santayana says, they're doomed to repeat it, those who don't remember."

Part of her remembering was cultural and historical, but there was also a part of it that was personal.

"There were poems that reminded me of people," she says. "I had a lady in my family who wasn't a real cousin, but we called her cousin no matter how old we were. When I was young, she was really, really, really old, and she lived to be 104.

"But when I was small, she said, 'I was a slave when I was a little girl.' I imagine that she must have been a very little girl. But I used her voice in 'Prunella's Picnic,' because she had the sweetest voice. She had the most dear voice, and it made you kind of giggle.

"She was always gossiping, so [Prunella's] conversation with Tula reminded me of the conversations she would have with one of my aunts who would baby-sit. They would get together in afternoons when I was supposed to be sleeping a nap, and I would eavesdrop on them. I remembered her voice from that, and used it."

Hearing Greene assume these characters and give the melodies flight, it's easy to understand why so many of the musicians she's worked with in Baltimore are in awe of her versatility -- "All the voices I have," she laughs. But at the same time, Greene's power and polish make it hard to believe that "The Color of Dusk" is her debut album.

"It's amazing to me that she hasn't had anything out with her name on it," says Matthews. "It seems absurd. But if you know Aleta, it also makes sense, because she's been very happy to keep her world right here."

That's not to say she's gone unheard. In addition to a local following dating back to the early '70s, when she and another then-unknown singer named Emmylou Harris did backup for Michael Goldberg, Greene has sung on literally hundreds of jingles.

"I've always had a certain duality," she says.

But "The Color of Dusk" is something altogether different for her. "And I was worried about the subject matter, as far as the audience that I've cultivated all this time," she says. "Because it's way far afield from what we do together on a Friday or a Saturday night in a nightclub.

"It's not pure entertainment. It addresses a painful subject, and I wonder what the African-American members of my audience think. And what the white members of my audience think. "

Complicating matters still further is that this powerful music about the slave experience was written by a white man. Although Greene says no one has yet brought it up with her, "the subject will probably come up," she says. "I think he should be prepared, as will I."

So far, though, Matthews says the music has made the issue moot. He mentions that Kendrick has a group of friends who are in their 70s to 90s.

"Dolores defines them as the kind of people that would have told God what he did wrong in the first seven days," he says. "She was hesitant , but she played them the material, and they heard the guitar stuff. And Rose, the 90-year-old woman, said, 'Oh, I know this sound. That's the Mississippi sound I heard as a young girl growing up in Mississippi.'

"Dolores said, 'Well, guess what? The composer's white.' And Rose's response was, 'Say what?' " Matthews laughs. "Dolores told me, 'You'll probably find that funny,' " he says. "But I take it as a compliment."

Words and music

When: Today and Saturday, 8:30 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art

Tickets: In advance, $15 general, $13.50 BMA members/seniors/ students; at the door, $17.50 general, $15 BMA members/ seniors/students

Call: (410) 235-0100

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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