Monday, July 16, 2012

The Bridgewater of Red Earth

Given her riparian name, it is perhaps surprising that Dee Dee Bridgewater identifies most strongly with soils. The title of her 2007 documentary is given as either Red Earth or Motherland, the former being much more fully descriptive of the journey she describes.

On one level, Red Earth (for which there is no listing on her IMDb page) is a film about the making of her 2010 album of the same name. On deeper level, though, it is indeed the story of her West Africa homecoming -- a journey that brings her as close as she can get to her motherland. The cruel vagaries of the Middle Passage and the arbitrary dissection of the African continent mean that Mali is not exactly her home "country," but rather a country in the land of her foremothers and forefathers.

Mali is a former French colony in West Africa that is landlocked and is currently on the verge of dividing into two landlocked countries, as occurred last year in Sudan. Bridgewater spent most of her time in Bamako, in the area still held by the government. In early 2012 the entire northeast -- including Tombouctou -- has become an increasingly unstable insurgent state.

Click map to enlarge
Read more at Political Geography Now
The term "red earth" refers to the heavily oxidized, clay-rich soils that Bridgewater (who acquired the surname from her first husband) found in both Mali and her home in Memphis. More deeply even than the musical similarities she found, this coincidence convinced her that she had found her root community, and is celebrated throughout the movie. Red soils -- perhaps ultisols in both cases -- are those that have been depleted by eons of leaching; they convey vast depths of time and profound struggle, as does her preferred music, the blues. Bridgewater's musical journey is a metaphor for her personal journey and of the melding of her own experience with that of the place where she has found home. She works alongside her long-time jazz colleagues and new-found Malian musicians to create a new kind of blues, played on traditional instruments of Mali and telling the stories of both lands.

One of the most important stories is that of force marriage in Mali. It is still common -- giving Mali the third-highest rate of juvenile marriage in the world -- but is now illegal and starting to wane, based on the efforts of some of the musicians who came to Bridgewater's project. Because of their preliminary successes, she was convinced of the need to sing their story, though she had been reluctant at first. It is good that she is joining the effort, since the problem of forced marriage continues to plague the region.

It was interesting to find so much to appreciate in a Bridgewater story that initially has only the coincidence of a name to recommend it. As it turns out, the story resonates with much of what we find in our own community, through our growing connections in Africa and especially through the education and outreach of Khakatay, our West African drumming ensemble.

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