Sifa Zote Kwa Mtu Mweusi: All Praises to the Black Man / by Jahan Sharif

Gary Bartz

Gary Bartz

I.

The DJ is playing music that sounds like it was made by aliens for aliens, and it’s making me crazy. I’m here to listen to a famous Jazz musician, but if this DJ set is any indication of what to expect, then I had better brace for a total mental breakdown.

Listening to Jazz can sometimes feel like reading a science fiction book with loose grammar and no punctuation inside of a wind tunnel. Jazz draws from everywhere, and yet doesn’t meet you anywhere. It asks nothing of you, and yet requires your full faith to go to where it needs; and, if you get there, it still doesn’t promise you anything, it just presents you with an opportunity.

Gary Bartz crica 1976

Gary Bartz crica 1976

Tonight, I’m with a friend at a performance venue in Highland Park, and we’re here to see the saxophonist, Gary Bartz. I’d never heard of him before, but he has the endorsement of many respected musicians. In fact, Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest and Verdine White, the legendary bassist from Earth, Wind, and Fire, are both here.

It’s a diverse crowd with ages ranging from high schoolers as young as 15, to veterans well into their 70s, and us in between. The gentle hum of idle conversation hangs overhead as we wait. I have the impression that most people here tonight are like me-- we have some inkling of what is possible, and so we came in case something did.

II.

With the pacing of a person who moves exclusively at the speed of his own choosing, Gary Bartz-- dressed in a white collared shirt under a black corduroy blazer, and donning a wide-brimmed bowler hat-- smiled as he sauntered his way to the mic. He adjusted his saxophone and bantered playfully with us, saying that he had to take the stage this early (11pm), because we were so young we probably still had curfews. As we laughed, he said that since he’s started to look old (though he doesn’t feel old) he feels the need to remind us “young people” that even now, after more than 60 years of performing, he “don’t know what we gon’ do, or how we gon’ do it. But I hope you enjoy it.”

With that, he put his lips to the mouthpiece and produced a noise that sounded like a screaming elephant with bronchitis. And then, he just matter-of-factly carried on from there; making his horn screech and scratch, then squeal and wail: Forcefully, confidently, and without apology. This was not easy listening.

The band joined in and soon the sounds flowed together like a field of multicolored wildflowers swaying in the desert breeze: individually remarkable, spiritual in unison, and organized in a such way that seemed like it could have only been envisioned by Mother Nature herself. While I’d never heard anything like it before, even an unsophisticated ear like mine could tell it was something special.

Aside from his brief cover of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Fantasy”, there’s one song I remember clearly.

He started it off by singing in a low speaking voice, seeee-faaaaah zooooeee-tehy, the sounds dripping out of his mouth like warm sap from a maple tree. Seeee-faaaaah zoooo-tehy...seeee-faaaaah zooooeee-tehy. His eyes closed as he rolled each syllable around his tongue like he was savoring the flavors of the perfect bite of his favorite meal. Seeee-faaaaah zooooeee-tehy...seeee-faaaaah zooooeee-tehy...seeee-faaaaah zooooeee-tehy...

“You like how that sounds?” He asked, gazing out over us.

We cooed with approval.

“Me too...so much so that I made a song out of it. Sifa Zote: It means ‘All Praises’ in Swahili. Sifa Zote Kwa Mtu Mweusi-- All Praises to the Black Man. That’s music, all praise. And that’s me, a black man. You get the music with the man, and you get the man with the music.”

He took a breath, closed his eyes, put his lips to the sax, and made it sing. And with its song, he preached.

III.

Listen to Sifa Zote on the album I’ve Known Rivers And Other Bodies, by Gary Bartz (1973)

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