Louisville residents Dr. Alphonse Keasley, a current teacher and former vice chancellor at the University of Colorado and Ron Meyer, president of Centre Communications, have worked together in various capacities for 20 years. They count work highlighting achievements among African American artists among their accomplishments.
Their latest project, the six-part “The Genius of African American Music,” produced for Ambrose Video, documents the rich history of Black music in the United States, everything from spirituals, jazz and blues to soul, rap and Afrofuturism. Each topic is afforded its own roughly 30-minute episode. The videos feature members of the Colorado music scene, including Erica Brown and Chris Daniels, along with members of the scholarly community.
The production of the films was a learning experience for Meyer.
“I had no knowledge myself, at the time, of African American music,” Meyer says, recalling a conversation he had with Keasley about what project to take on. “Alphonse said that there is a really cool history here and it really hasn’t been told.”
Boulder’s Roots Music Project, in cooperation with the Colorado Blues Society, is hosting the world premiere of the series on Aug. 20 at 7 p.m. It features a screening of the blues segment of the show, a question-and-answer session and a blues dance party with Rex Peoples and XFactr.
Keasley grew up in New Orleans and the Black church community, both rich sources of musical education. He says the story of African American music in the United States has been one he’s long wanted to tell. Paraphrasing sociologist Paul Gilroy, Keasley says the African American musical tradition is a jewel that emerged from the horrors of the slave trade.
“It was an interesting opportunity,” he says. “There have been some other discussions I’ve been a part of where this has been a topic. So this was a grand opportunity to do a 2022 version of this discussion. It’s understood from the scholarly perspective.”
He adds that during various parts of his life – he’s now 75 years old – he’s been drawn to numerous musical traditions.
“As a New Orleanian, I’m definitely connected to the idea of jazz as well as growing up during that time of great upheaval in the country, looking at the messages that were a part of that music,” he says. “One of the jobs I had when I first moved to Boulder to work on my doctorate was over at Rocky Mountain Music and Tapes. I ran the classical piece. I have a major connection to music.”
Meyer classifies as not much of a country fan, and admits to fleeting fascinations with techno and classical music. For the most part, however, he’s a classic rock-and-roll type of guy.
He says the documentaries, geared toward lower-level college students and high school kids, have been picked up by public television stations in Los Angeles and New York as well as Utah. The videos are available through the Ambrose website. They filmed the series in a public television-style with a mix of musicians and scholarly people, the latter of which were hard to come by when they first started researching the series. (At least one music scholar was weary of being exploited by a white man and white-owned company – Meyer is white – and some introductions via third parties were necessary to ensure that he was on the up and up.)
“I immediately found out there weren’t a lot of scholarly people I could contact in the university system,” Meyer says. “People couldn’t get degrees (in African American music) and it hasn’t been studied, so that made it quite difficult.”
In the end, Keasley and Meyer found a solid group of people to participate, both scholars and musicians. Meyer adds that the dearth of formal study of African American music sees odd too, because it plays such an outsized role in most, if not all, popular American music.
“I would say every contemporary form of popular music goes back to Africa,” he says. “For example, call and response is an element that extends all the way through to modern-day Afrofuturism, as did improv. These originated in Africa and carried over to the early enslaved people. Even country music uses the “blue note” which was not part of the scene for classical music.”
Keasley says that many of the people who speak in the series are also performers in various genres, and that appealed to him as they put the videos together, and he likes that aspect of the production.
“That was a great combination, as far as I was concerned, about having not only scholars but practitioners,” Keasley says. “As we say in, I’m part of the theater world ‘scholartists,” scholar artists.”
Keasley and Meyer say they were fascinated by the manner in which enslaved Africans used music as a way to communicate with each other, often in a coded manner that wouldn’t be noticed by white people. It’s another unique quality that African American music possesses.
“As slave markets were going on, different folks from various parts of the African continent were finding ways to be able to pass information on to others,” Keasley says. “That became a major form of communication without it being clear to those who were, you might say, the slave owners and others involved in that system.”
Meyer says improvisation is also a longstanding quality of African American music that has its origins in the slave trade. It was and remains a way for African Americans to feel free in a country where that has not always been a guarantee for a variety of well-documented reasons.
“They can do what they want,” he says. “They can feel what they want. They can feel what it means to be innovative. They can get that sense of freedom that isn’t available to them in terms of where they can live, who they can interact with. They can express themselves with music through improvisation.”