Faith Lift

Renaissance woman in exile: Meshell NdegeOcello
Sheryl Nields
Meshell NdegeOcello
The Spirit Music Jamia:
Dance of the Infidel

Shanachie Records


Meshell Suhaila Bashir-Shakur (better known as NdegeOcello) is speaking from her cell phone, holed up in a small café in Prague while on break from sound check. The warmth of her voice carries even through cross-Atlantic static. The tempestuousness often ascribed to her is nowhere to be found, although streaks of bluntness crop up late in the conversation. One of the preeminent bass players on the planet and the consummate all-around artist, she's one of those creative types whose career is made precarious not only because she confounds bean counters and marketing men, but because with each release she challenges even her hardcore fans, obliterating genre lines and expectations. There's something both thrilling and almost perversely/paradoxically self-destructive in her unwavering integrity.

From the combative and confessional hip hop/funk of her '93 debut Plantation Lullabies, to the starkly gorgeous break-up cult classic Bitter (1999), to the reggae & reefer-inflected dub of '03's Comfort Woman, she's made hard turns that make perfect sense when you step back and appreciate the fact that she's cut from the cloth of seeker (spiritual, artistic) and restless savant. On her new CD, Dance of the Infidel, she leads an all-star collective called the Spirit Music Jamia and featuring Cassandra Wilson, Kenny Garrett, Federico Gonzalez Pena, Oliver and Gene Lake, Joshua Redman, and others. Meshell doesn't even appear at all on some tracks, and sings on none. The album itself is almost defiantly beautiful, smoked in spirituality and sensuality. Here, she talks about the genesis of the album, her creative process, and her standing in the music industry.


City Pages: You converted to Islam a few years ago. What role do your religious beliefs play in your creativity--especially in the kind of music that you seem to be interested in making now?

Meshell NdegeOcello: I think I'm just more aware that I have a gift and the gift is energetic, so I'm a bit more conscious of what I'm expressing. And I'm very clear that my heart is beating, that my blood is flowing, and I know that this gift of life came from some incredible creator, some incredible designer. I just want to acknowledge that presence and be grateful. And not take this for granted because life is a fleeting thing. I don't want to be attached to it; I just want to somehow do good deeds in praise. That's pretty much it. I'm no different than I was. I'm just really trying to tap into my intentions and put a little positivity in the world.

CP: What was the creative process like for this album? Was it a matter of you presenting the compositions to the musicians and then having the songs be fine-tuned, or did you have rough sketches...

NdegeOcello: Yeah, rough sketches. I mean, I'm a child of hip hop so I write all the time on my little drum machine, my keyboard, my computer. I had all these improvisational sketches just sitting around. A couple of them, like "Luqman" and "Mu-Min," I sent rhythm tracks and harmony tracks to Oliver Lake and he wrote to them but I didn't see him till we got to the studio to do the recordings. I told them what I was looking for, what the surahs [chapters of the Quran] were about. Like, "Luqman" is inspired by that particular surah in the Quran that says, [she paraphrases] If all the oceans were ink and all the trees were pens, four times over, you would never be able to exhaust the conversation about God. It's endless. And also, that this will all come to pass. I would talk to them about that.

In the Quran, there are like a hundred different interpretations, translations, interpolations. It goes on and on, and that's just like jazz. If I give you the melody or Jack De Johnette the melody or Kenny Garrett the melody, we're all gonna play it differently. We're all gonna have our energetic presence on it but we're still believing in the same thing. We're all there interacting on these harmonies and melodies to see where we can go, and that is a gift that I wish people really understood. Especially nowadays where we have these cookie-cutter records--and this is no criticism. We're all trying to feed our families. But I've embarked on faith. When you watch a jazz musician play, all he has is that melody, that harmony, and his faith--his faith in himself.

CP: Why the title, Dance of the Infidel?

NdegeOcello: I don't know if you're familiar with the Bud Powell book called Dance of the Infidel. 'Round Midnight, the film, is based on him. He was an amazing pianist who had to expatriate to France to do a lot of what he was doing. It's also an interesting book because he had an alternative sexuality, which is a hard thing in the macho, male-dominated jazz world. So, his personal life was quite interesting as well. But also, I feel like no matter who we are--I could be black in a roomful of people who wouldn't accept me. Like, in Islam, there are people who won't accept me because I don't dress a certain way. Everyone is an infidel at some point in their life. And so, to me, I rejoice in it. I dance. I'm happy in my difference.

CP: I know this has been a dream project of yours for many years. At one point Verve was going to release it, but it's being released on [indie] Shanachie. How'd that come about?

NdegeOcello: Verve didn't like it. I handed in the record and they didn't get it. They thought it was all over the place. I mean, that was the quote. But as I said, even trials and tribulations are a blessing. The record sat for a year, but the people who picked it up, they love it and they're supportive and they're great. So, it's a blessing. I praise Universal France also. They're the people who have signed me for my [next] vocal record. I went around to some majors here, in America I mean, and they all said no. My life is like Bud Powell's. I have to go someplace else in order to express myself. But it's gonna be great.

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