An Ear For History

In a new CD set, Robert Cataliotti takes listeners on a journey explaining the African-American experience through field hollers, spirituals and poetry

March 22, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

The sweetest compliment Robert H. Cataliotti ever received came from Shannon Powell, a popular New Orleans session drummer. The "cat's got some ears," Powell told his buddies. "He can hear all around the corner."

He's not a musician, but he is a good listener, a gift that has enabled Cataliotti to compile and annotate a new Smithsonian Folkways release, "Every Tone a Testimony," an aural history of the African-American experience.

The double compact disc set takes listeners on an inspired journey from plantation cotton fields to the Harlem Renaissance, from prison yards to black power demonstrations, and from down-home blues to hip-hop.

In an introduction to the CD set, Cataliotti, an associate professor of English at Coppin State College, writes that this rich montage of music, poetry and speech "testifies to the power of African Americans to use both their oral and literary traditions (and the interaction between the two) as a way of remembering, a way of enduring, a way of mourning, a way of celebrating, a way of protesting and subverting, and, ultimately, a way of triumphing. The history of that journey is embedded in these sounds."

This Sunday, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., a party celebrating the release of "Every Tone" takes place at the Eubie Blake Jazz Institute & Cultural Center. Cataliotti will discuss the project and play selections from the CD.

It's fair to ask how Cataliotti, of Italian ancestry, wound up teaching African-American literature at a traditionally black state school, where he has worked for eight years. The simple answer is that he followed his passion, American music, on a circuitous path that led from a freelance music writing career, to a Ph.D. program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Along the way, Cataliotti, 45, made a living as a cook in Italian restaurants and seafood joints. Kitchen work gave him the flexibility to wander the country, getting to music festivals and concerts, and writing for Downbeat, Sing Out!, other magazines and newspapers. He interviewed and befriended hundreds of jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues musicians. He lent them money, if necessary, and drove them to gigs. One of his best buddies was George "Big Nick" Nicholas, the late jazz saxophonist to whom "Every Tone" is dedicated.

Over coffee at the Stone Mill Bakery in Roland Park, Cataliotti's enthusiasm for black culture is expressed in his loud, gregarious tones. If others in the room chose to, they could be treated to an impromptu discussion of the burly Mount Washington resident's colorful career without leaving their tables.

As a Ph.D. candidate, Cataliotti, poring through slave narratives and other documents, noticed how strongly music figured as subject and metaphor in black literature. To his amazement, he found that no historical overview existed of that particular artistic interplay.

Tapping the life force

Cataliotti's dissertation, an examination of the relationship between African-American music and literature from the 19th century through 1970, was published in book form, "The Music in African American Fiction." More than writing a cut-and-dry account, Cataliotti sought to identify the life force that seems to permeate black culture.

The notion of a life force first occurred to Cataliotti while reading "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave," in which the famous abolitionist says of slave songs, "Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer and complaint of souls boiling against slavery, and prayer to God for deliverance."

The Folkways compilation draws its name from Douglass' observation, and in its introduction, Cataliotti explains how that testimony has been retranslated through sound over history: "What Douglass recognized in the sound of black expression is a communal rejection of oppression, an essential spirit that refused to submit. We can talk about - but never quite define - that ineffable spirit that reaches back to Africa as feeling, as soul, as swing, as groove, as boogie woogie, as rock `n' roll, as funk."

Digging deep in Smithsonian's treasure trove of sound history, Cataliotti carefully chose recordings that fully represent the many facets of the African-American experience. There are field hollers and poetry, folk tales, a buck dance and children's games. Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni read from their poetry, Paul Robeson sings a spiritual called "No More Auction Block," and, remarkably, there is an excerpt from Booker T. Washington's re-creation of his 1895 Atlanta Exposition address, probably recorded on a wax cylinder.

In an excerpt from his recorded autobiography, W.E.B. Du Bois discusses his opposition to Washington's accommodationist philosophy. Well-known performers, such as Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, read the work of early African-American writers, and contemporary writers, including Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez draw from their work, as well.

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