The Blues and Its People


A Message from Russell Gunn

The thing that fascinates and inspires me most about our people is not only that we possess the ability to survive the seemingly unsurvivable; but to survive, adapt, and create things of unparalleled beauty which can only be explained through our innate sensibilities. From our ability to creatively prepare food that was deemed unworthy and taking discarded and broken musical instruments and making them the architectural tools of Black American Music. And although separated from the root of Africa, our sensibility could not be separated. The seasoning of the food by our cooks, the harmonic and rhythmic tendencies of our musicians, the way we respond and move automatically to certain rhythms and tempos. Our connection to the most important way of communication besides the human voice, The Drum.

While the drum at times has been outlawed, sometimes even punishable by death, to keep us separated, it traveled with its people through the horror of the Middle Passage and lives with us. It is a part of our DNA and cannot be destroyed, as long as the people live. 

I am a living witness that the drum lives in us and will always and forever manifest in its people. As a child and teenager growing up in East St. Louis, whenever the teacher left the classroom, the boys would start what we now know to be a “cipher,” but to us it was just the boys beating out rhythms on our desks while other boys took turns rhyming. We didn’t know that this was an African drum circle, we had never heard of a Djembe or knew what a Griot was. It was simply a manifestation of our past life.

The same way our ancestors took those discarded musical instruments and created beauty, is the same way my peers responded to music and art being taken out of many Black public schools. No Instruments?  No problem, I can make beats with my mouth or use my hands to beat on anything around me, while expressing myself through the power of the cultural spoken word. This is The Blues. No Paint? No problem, I found a can of spray paint and now the entire city is my canvas. This is The Blues. No dance class? No problem, I found a piece of cardboard and my natural sense of rhythm is makin’ it do what it do. This is The Blues and this IS magic. Because there is no verbal way to accurately describe The Blues and the phenomena of the African sensibility manifesting itself in our brothers and sisters from South America, up through the Caribbean Islands into North America.

There is no separation of the Blues and Its People.

The beauty of our people is in that traveling drum, that braid and loc in our hair, that food in our pot, that Second line, that Shuffle, that Go-Go, that Swing, that Funk, that Boom Bap, that Jelly Roll Morton, that Louis Armstrong, those Nicholas Brothers, that Josephine Baker, that Katherine Dunham, that Sammy Davis Jr., that James Brown, that Howlin’ Wolf, that Muddy Waters, that Mahalia Jackson, that Aretha Franklin, that Michael Jackson, that Duke Ellington, that Charlie Parker, that Miles Davis, that John Coltrane, that Woody Shaw, that Ornette Coleman, that Kenny Garrett, that Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra!  the Buck Dance, Salsa, Mambo, Rumba, Merengue, Bachata, Yanvalou, Top Rock, Lindy Hop, Cake walk, Camel walk, Moonwalk, and Crip Walk. All part of the continuum, not to be separated.

So as we celebrate our dear brother Amiri Baraka’s foresight to document this phenomenon of us, in this Harlem building that is the true Mecca of the expression of The Blues and Its People. That it is serendipitously named “Apollo” which is the Greek equivalent of the Ancient Egyptian “Heru” or “Horus,” The God of protection. Professor X, the Overseer of The X Clan, gave us a word, and I choose to use it also:

I say to you “Vanglorious!” This is protected by the red, the black, and the green!”

Russell Gunn
Composer, Music Director

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