You might expect that, whenever your band is named after a famous black slave who escaped and helped over 300 other slaves to follow suit, that the music emanating from their fingertips will in some way bear relation to black power or rights. A fair estimate, right? Well in truth Harriet Tubman’s music does reflect the inner desires and passions of said Ms. Tubman, but in a particularly indirect way. “Deeply inspired by the ideals of freedom, Harriet Tubman's music plumbs the soul's depths for liberated musical expression,” says their website. Liberated musical expression. A musical representation of the desire to be free, the ache of release, the soul-crushing struggle one faces to be recognised in a world that doesn’t want to recognise them. Harriet Tubman seek to emulate the vision of their namesake and the visionary thinkers of the 60’s counterculture who dreamed of the “liberation of humanity from restrictive and dated paradigms that had characterized societal interaction and personal ways of being.” Yes folks, here is Harriet Tubman’s ethos, their dogma, their detailed musical manifesto, their raison’ d'être. And does it matter that their ideals are based on comparatively un-modern events and thinking? Of course the civil rights movement was successful and black people now enjoy (or they should) equal rights and a life free of prejudice, as they should always have. Sixties counterculture is a thing of the past, something we may tend to push to the back of our minds for shame, shame that it only took us until half a century ago to break free of the shackles of prejudice and discrimination. But folks, discrimination and a genuine striving for freedom is as real today as it ever has been; why just this week our very own Steven aptly pointed out the struggle that black metal musicians in the Middle East have to express themselves through fear of death. Across the Arab world many are fighting for freedom of speech and freedom to live their own lives without the watchful eye of the Government intruding their lives like Big Brother. Women in select countries of the world are still fighting for equal rights; homosexuals too. Christians face persecution in Muslim countries, Muslims face persecution in Christian countries. The “ideals of freedom” are ideals that will resonate with much of mankind for a long, long time, and thus Harriet Tubman’s music is now as relevant as it has ever been. Taking musical inspiration from notable funk/R&B artists who also pioneered individuality and freedom of expression, Harriet Tubman’s music is a rich melting pot of jazz, R&B, post-grunge, turntablism, political idealism and spiritual/physical unity.
Ascension’s title is on loan from John Coltrane, whose own album Ascension was a pinnacle of sixties’ free jazz and supremely raw, emotive expression. And indeed Harriet Tubman, in their own way, have created an album of similar rawness and individuality and given it a modern tweak. Ascension is like a composite history of black American music of the last hundred years. Horns pirouette and interlock like the Dixieland jazz of the twenties. Garish drums and fervent solos echo bebop; distorted, acid-drenched guitar reminds us of acid funk and R&B in the vein of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown or Miles Davis’ 70’s bands. And just to keep me happy it seems, there’s a bit of hip hop thrown in there, with scratches and cuts courtesy of guests DJ Logic and DJ Singe. The result is a remarkably raw and challenging record, with screeches and walls of noise penetrating your earwaves and running into your eardrums like a four-by-four and repeatedly running them over and over. The post-Hendrix distortion and reverb drenched guitar sound gives the music a somewhat spiritual feel, as if not of this earth… chilling on cloud nine somewhere with ol’ Jimi himself, smoking a big fat joint and looking down on us mere mortals with a mixture of pity and love, love, love. On the other hand the squeaks and squeals of the turntables add a cruder, more artificial feel to the music, while the horns going wild all around celebrate the fervency and shamelessness of traditional African musical expression. When listening to Ascension one feels a splendid sense of musical harmony and unity, and most of all: focus. Harriet Tubman are driven by their sense of individual expression and desire to channel their “search for restored meaning” (courtesy of their website again) into their music that it gives their music a gleaming sense of purpose, a purpose as focused as that of any civil rights march. Yet by no means is the music forceful; Ascension merely comes off as an impassioned result of emotional expression and an extensive chronicle through the back alleys of African-American music. Musical quotations from Coltrane’s aforementioned Ascension are thrown in every here and there to acknowledge their predecessors’ importance in creating music of such naked desire and enlightenment, and their humble gratitude to them. But this Ascension is a totally different beast altogether, an update for the 2010-decade, making use of modern sounds and instruments while retaining the same fervency and desire for freedom as their musical and non-musical influences had.
Don’t get me wrong, Ascension isn’t an album of vaguely spiritual-sounding New-agey crap or an album of heavy political prophesying; they’re not the new Last Poets here. Heck, once again the musical message is just that: a MUSICAL message; there ain’t no lyrics, least no clear ones anyway. The ideologies I have just described are solely translated through the musicians’ extremely powerful playing. Music; the universal language, unifier of all things. The sole hope for those who long to be free? Not exactly, but they can dream. Harriet Tubman embrace that dream and make it a reality, playing the way they do in order to find “the restored meaning that we see and experience wherever and whenever we perform.” And in doing so, maybe they’ll inspire a few people to help change the world for those that it needs changing for.
Words - Adam