Kamalay: 'Perhaps the comparative ease of our lives has sensitized us to such cruelty.'
Performance and philosophy go hand in hand for Detroit native Ray Kamalay. When he visits the Goodman South Library tonight, he'll draw upon his degree in political philosophy and his experience as a professional jazz guitarist and singer. During a lecture titled "World Slavery: The Haitian Revolution and the Rise of American Music," which explores the history of slavery and some of the musical traditions slaves pioneered, he'll perform old-time blues, ragtime and minstrel songs to illustrate the evolution of American music.
I asked Kamalay about this presentation before his trip to Madison.
The Daily Page: You've been a professional musician since 1974. What inspired you to start playing music, and what made you focus on the guitar?
Kamalay: It was a performance by Doc and Merle Watson in 1971 at Ohio University. At the time, it seemed that the popular music world was overlooking the wisdom of the world of traditional music. The popular music world still doesn't get it. But there has never been a greater proponent of traditional and acoustic music than Doc Watson. His life and music were a great blessing to us all.
What made you initially think about the roots of American music? Was it the jazz music you were playing, the people you were playing music with, your background in political philosophy or something else?
The initial appeal of the music was instinctual. However old it was, it seemed entirely new to me. It was only after years of playing and study that I realized that there was a political economy to the music of the slaves.
What has your research about world slavery -- from ancient Roman history to early American history -- told you about the nature of oppression over time?
I do think life must have been truly difficult for almost everyone in the past, not least the slaves. Fate dealt a cruel hand to many in every walk of life. Perhaps the comparative ease of our lives has sensitized us to such cruelty. If that is so, we may be the lucky ones.
What might attendees be surprised to learn from your lecture, and how do your musical performances help illuminate the history you discuss?
I think an understanding of the development of slavery -- and its astonishing self-destruction in Haiti -- can bring us a different understanding of our own African American culture, especially in the great sensitivity, intelligence and courage of the slaves. This body of culture is a great treasure, like Chopin and Lao-Tse. We would be fools to squander such a legacy.