Jamaaladeen Tacuma and The Last Poets Move Beyond the Nation’s Combative Moment

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Jamaaladeen Tacuma (center) produced the most recent album for The Last Poets, a collaborative effort called Transcending Toxic Times.

(Photo: Courtesy Jamaaladeen Tacuma)

Tacuma immediately showed an affinity for Coleman’s explosive, polyrhythmic polyphonics, now known as “harmolodics”; he was hired after his first rehearsal. But the bassist described himself as initially uncertain, later becoming comfortable with the unusual music.

He claims it wasn’t difficult, though.

“It was all about the melody,” Tacuma said about Coleman’s intentions with Prime Time, an approach the bassist has continued to advance playing with folks like drummer Denardo Coleman, Ornette’s son. “Once you heard that melody, you knew where to go; the melody was the composition. I really loved playing with him, too. I miss him, I really do.”

Even before Earland and Coleman, Tacuma had been drawn to an array of colorful styles. Born in 1956, he grew up loving the Philly soul sound, a vast range of r&b and excelled at accompanying his schoolmates on covers of hits by Eddie Palmieri and Bobby Valentine. He knows jazz: His first recording—where he’s billed as Rudy McDaniel—was on a 1977 recording by vibist Walt Dickerson’s trio. He’s into classical music, and has collaborated with improvisers and vocalists from all over the musical spectrum. Not to mention his longstanding pop-dance band, Cosmetic.

But The Last Poets presented a different sort of challenge.

The group rightly has been lauded for introducing a distinctive style of poetry backed by vigorous hand drumming on its eponymous 1970 debut. Taking inspiration from Malcolm X and the 1960s Black Arts Movement and further influenced by Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets have comprised a rotating cast of community-devoted writers. During the past half-century, the cohort has waged war on bullshit, especially that generated by conventional depictions of black urban life. The Poets’ format is confrontational, but irresistible. And its debut album was like nothing else in that era of musical profusion, and became instantly, if unexpectedly, popular.

“Three men on stage doing poetry to a conga drum, there was nobody doing anything like that,” Oyewole said, recalling the troupe’s earliest days. “It was almost like we went back to ancient times—Africa with people around a djembe player, somebody speaking up, the drum itself being a message unit. Three voices with a drummer echoing what we’re saying with the rhythms he’s playing. That was unique unto itself. It seemed to have an organic stick-to-itiveness that other stuff didn’t have.”

True, but that doesn’t give full credit to the potent language and political points of the poems.

In an oeuvre spanning more than a dozen recordings—including last year’s Understand What Black Is—The Last Poets have consistently used strong language, searing images and true-to-life stories to encourage a revolution based on unity, love and hope. The issues addressed never have been resolved, and remain not only relevant, but urgently in need of being reckoned with.

Transcending Toxic Times begins with a single deep voice issuing a brief, chilling warning: “This wind you hear is the birth of memory/ When the moment hatches in time’s womb, there will be no art talk/ The only poem you will hear will be the spear point pivoted into the punctured marrow of the villain ... .” Then Tacuma’s bass riff kicks off “For The Millions,” Oyewole’s dedication to those who came to America as slaves and whose descendants have suffered oppression, fought it and survived. “And you/ For you/ And you,” his comrade poets repeat, as Oyewole details offenses against generations of those denied rights.

As Oyewole explained in another phone interview, the texts might not rhyme, but they’re always rhythmic.

“There’s a certain beat, meter, pulse I think you have to have,” explained Oyewole, who earned a college degree while serving four years in prison during the early ’70s for larceny, then studied for a doctorate at Columbia University. “Even though your poem may not rhyme, that rhythm has to be pronounced to where a person can ride with it, flow with it. I don’t think you can substitute the essay form for the poem.”

There is nothing essayistic—or even in the prose poems, prosaic—about Transcending Toxic Times. Besides propulsive bass lines, Tacuma construed backdrops that seem to genuinely engage with the frontline action and left room for spirited solos. For instance, Tucker’s electric guitar perks up “If We Only Knew What We Can Do,” as Uzeki’s organ effectively underlies “Young Love,” on which Daud El Bakara blows Milesian trumpet and Franz Niedermayer contributes a heartfelt viola part to “Don’t Know What I’d Do,” Oyewole’s ode to his now-deceased life-partner. Guest poet Wadud Ahmad, as well as Malik B, a former member of The Roots crew, chime in, too.

Transcending Toxic Times’ last two pieces are perhaps its fiercest. “Rain Of Terror” is a brutal assessment of U.S. history: “America is a terrorist/ Killing the natives of the land/ Killing and stealing/ Have always been a part of America’s master plan.” The album’s title track is similarly concerned with societal failures and dangers, its last words imperative: “Put your mind, body and soul in order/ That’s the only way to stop this slaughter.”

But that finale, at fewer than four minutes, was added at the end of a protracted developmental and marketing process.

“‘Transcend’ had been the original album title,” Tacuma explained. “We were thinking, ‘The Poets have lasted all these years, they’re transcending now to a peaceful state.’ But then Abiodun told me he’d written this piece called ‘Toxic Times’ and I thought, ‘That’s what’s happening right now! That’s got to be the title track!’ So, even though the album was finished, I went back in the studio to add this last piece, which pulls it all together.”

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