Tamar-kali is a fierce, rising composer, who stunned audiences with her organic, gripping debut score for Dee Rees' Oscar nominated period drama, Mudbound. She is a critically-acclaimed independent singer/songwriter, theatrical performance artist, and multi-faceted intellectual. Her scintillating creative voice draws inspiration from the cultural melting pot of her native Brooklyn and her ancestry from the coastal Sea Islands of South Carolina. In honor of her emotionally nuanced score for Joshua Marston's Come Sunday, Tamar-kali speaks on the eclectic components of her mesmerizing sound and the deep importance of truthful representation.
I understand your father was a bass player. Can you tell us about your introduction to music making?
Music has always been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. At the end of 2015, my dad passed, but he would always take credit for my sense of pitch and my ear. He talked about how he would sing the scales while I was in utero to my mother's belly. For as long as I can remember, I was singing and listening to music. I think about a time in America when a lot of homes had pianos, so I believe it was important for me having musical instruments in my house. I pretty much taught myself how to play the guitar. I wasn’t supposed to touch my dad’s bass but I would. He started playing jazz on an upright, studying with Keter Betts in Harlem, but he said that it became apparent to him that in order to be making some money and have more opportunities, he needed to start playing some funk and soul. He played an Ampeg.
Music was all around me. We had lots of LP’s in the house, everything from jazz to funk to soul and some rock. We had musical instruments around and then my aunt used to sing with my dad's band sometimes. She was a music hobbyist and my dad probably stopped gigging around when I was a toddler, but we always had musicians around. Archie Bell from Archie Bell and the Drells was like my uncle. Ray, Goodman and Brown. I was always around Crown Heights Affair. My family had a little juke joint in the south where my Mom is from, so bands would come through there. Sometimes, my dad would have me sit in with the band, so I was singing with live instrumentation from a young age. The tradition of music was a part of my life growing up. It was a resource and had a lot to do with my development.
Could you elaborate a bit on the foundation and rich traditions of Gullah/Geechee culture?
Gullah culture essentially comes from a cluster of sea islands that starts from about Wilmington, NC and goes all the way down into Florida. During chattle slavery, there was a pretty consistent circle of enslaved Africans coming into the area and because of the isolation, they called that part of the country, the low country. They were able to retain more of the previous culture. So, akin to the West Indies and Jamaican Patois, we have an American Patois and that's what Gullah is.
It's the language that we speak, essentially a pigeon English, so we still have Fulani words in our lexicon that you can find in common with Patois in the West Indies and that trace us back to Sene Gambia, West Africa. The influence is also in our food. Carolina is the rice coast, but it was not a crop that the chattle slave owners were interested in. They were focused on cotton, but then they saw enslaved Africans growing rice for themselves with techniques that they had carried over from the continent and that's how they discovered it. The swampy area was kind of perfect for it and that's how rice became a great boon for the Carolinas.
One major thing that happened was when Sherman came through on his cut and burn campaign with the Union Army. A lot of the slave owners fled and Sherman's Edict was created, which essentially seeded the land back to the descendants of the enslaved Africans and the indigenous that were left. We were really left to our own devices. During the Port Royal Experiment with the introduction of free schools, we were able to maintain our culture and our identity with subsistence farming and self-sufficiency. Things changed after the Army Corp of Engineers secured those areas and that land has become desirable. Everybody wants waterfront property, but it used to be considered perilous and dangerous, so people were able to really thrive there and that's where Gullah originates from.
What are the most significant ways your upbringing in Brooklyn and your Afro-indigenous ancestry have influenced your artistic identity?
Being rooted in Gullah culture and having that identity allowed me as a child, a black girl in America, growing up in Brooklyn, I didn't feel like I sprouted out of this concrete. Every summer, I went home to where my family was, where they owned their property, where they owned their homes, where they worked in a range of different professions, where there were people who looked like me. There was such a strong tradition of community support, education, and cultural integrity that I didn't feel lost. I've seen some people who might have a Southern background but didn't really have a solid foundation. It's like you feel like you've sprung out of the concrete. I never felt like that. I think it definitely influenced my sense of independence, especially seeing self sufficient people who make their own way, farming for themselves and owning their land. There was just a sense of self that I acquired from having that type of background and that's the fact of the matter. It's something that I didn't realize until I was older.
In terms of coming up in Brooklyn, I think it has more to do with the generation, the one right before me. During my time there, there was a lot of unbridled expression. I think about the generations before me that my generation idolized. When you think about punk rock in the 70s and or the scenes out here in New York where punk rock and hip-hop were very close, they were also happening in some similar spaces like Danceteria. I didn't have the sense of boundaries. You went where you wanted to, you played what you liked, you listened to what you liked. Being eclectic made sense for someone of my generation. Of course, there have been people that have always played it safe, but the rebels that I was aware of were always very eclectic and the kind of punk rock I was influenced by was intellectual. They were questioning authority in an intelligent way. It wasn't about just rebelling for the sake of rebelling. When I think about bands like The Dead Kennedys, they were asking serious questions. When you have people who are infusing their cultural identity into a scene, a new art form is created with that hardcore disposition.
I feel really lucky that I came up at a time where people's self-expression was very important. It helped to birth new movements. It wasn't a cookie-cutter scene. The 70’s were about discovering art, creating record companies, fostering all these amazing artists, and then the 80's were about the pushback against Reagan and all that stuff. People were being super creative with whatever it was that they had with no holds barred. I think those things contributed and worked together to define the cultural identity along with what was happening in the pop culture of America at that time. All of this definitely influenced how I function as an artist.
Coming up as a classically trained musician in a Catholic school, how did you come to embrace punk rock? Who are some of your most profound musical influences?
I went to Parochial school from Kindergarten to twelfth grade and I was very steeped in Catholicism. I was lector and a cantor by the age of twelve or thirteen, but once I got into high school, I went to an all-girls Catholic school and that's where I received my General Music Theory training as a choral classical vocalist. I was a first soprano in my choir, which was pretty good and used to perform on a televised mass. That was a big part of my identity. I credit those experiences with teaching me the art of resistance because, at that time, you think about the 80’s, there was a sense of oppression that I was feeling. It wasn't just about religion, it was also about me showing up as a black girl in this environment that was predominately white and pushing back through excellence; that is what I was trying to do. Still, there were a lot of times where it didn't matter what I did. It didn't matter if I was the best because I wasn’t the face that was wanted or needed. I've always had a rough, warrior spirit since I was a child, so punk rock and hardcore speaks to that part of me. It really made sense to me when I got out of high school and I was really starting to ask questions about authority, about the history of this country, who am I, who am I descended from?
Coming from a musical family, punk rock and hardcore were more of a social expression. Like-minded people had a similar philosophy or ideology. At that time, punk rock and hardcore was a safe place to explore the emotions that I was being confronted with when asking those questions. I think that’s also what it was like for a lot of the other artists that I admire. I love classical music and it was not like I ever ran away. It wasn't something that I discussed on the scene, but I've always been connected to what my roots were as a classical singer and also growing up with my dad being a musician. When I was doing hardcore shows, there were times when I'd get session work because I was a good vocalist. Since I'm a second generation musician, that wasn't a conflict for me. It wasn't necessarily something that I discussed openly and freely, but I was always doing music in some way and my dad negotiated the first couple of my session gigs. I’ve always been connected to a range of things in terms of the world of professional music.
Come Sunday was recently released on Netflix, exploring the life of a revered pastor, who alienates his community and church by questioning a church doctrine. He is subsequently branded a heretic. Can you tell us about how you originally came to be involved with this project? What did you set out to achieve with this score?
I met with the director, Joshua Marston, I was familiar with his film, Maria Full of Grace. I thought it was a beautiful film that was very striking, so when I heard that he was a director I was definitely open. We talked about it and the story was very interesting to me. Although I grew up Catholic, my mother converted from Baptist to Catholicism for my father, but a lot of my father's extended family in the South reside in the Evangelist Christian world. There are quite a lot of Black Christian Evangelists. When I would go to my auntie's house, she'd always have the 700 Club on, so that's a whole world that the average person might not know about. As a Christian, Reverend Culture Pearson's story was immediately interesting to me because when you think about the legacy of Christ, you wonder how it works into this very hard line of the Fire and Brimstone styled doctrine. Once I familiarized myself with that, I thought that it was definitely a project of note that I wanted to be involved in.
In regards to the musical approach, Joshua was familiar with the score I did for Mudbound and he connected with the emotional aspect of the music. That was good because, for me, that's where I'm coming from. If a director has a specific idea about instrumentation, I will definitely take those notes and work within that paradigm, but in terms of my compositional approach, it's steeped in what is happening in the scene. What are the emotional underpinnings? What are the characters going through? I try to capture that emotion with the music as opposed to using it to point in a direction. I really am inspired by the work and the emotional resonance, sometimes by the palette too. Joshua connected to that and it was a great start. The first score I ever did was basically like a string sextet, but in this one, I use harp as well as piano. I like how the harp isn’t used in an expected way for a film that is dealing with spirituality and religion. I was glad that I was given the opportunity to be able to present that instrumentation in a way that was something different.
Your score for Mudbound has a very earthy, organic, and emotionally gripping nature, utilizing strings in a myriad of dark and twisted ways. How were you initially inspired by the narrative of Mudbound and how did that lend to the treatment you pursued in collaboration with the director, Dee Rees? How much of your work was improvisational?
My score was very representative of the environment that they were in. The mud, the oppression. I was planning out everything and vibing off what I saw, then writing and building the frame. The climax of the film, that was a rough cue. There was only one piece that was improvisational in my writing of it, which was the scene where they take Ronsel to the barn. That was the one cue that I was essentially afraid of. The only way I could get to the heart of it was to just watch it over and over, creating a soundscape based on my reaction in the moment.
Can you tell us about the nuances of your collaboration with director, Dee Rees? What aspects of your individual visions and personalities complement each other in work and in life?
My first time working with Dee was on her first feature film. I was approached just to contribute songs, but then after getting to know my work, she asked if I would do a cameo and perform with my band in the film. That was super cool and then after that, I even covered a version of a Gossip song for the ending credits for the film.
It was just a really positive experience and we worked together again when she was doing the Bessie Smith biopic for HBO. She actually wanted me to score that, but I didn't get that job because I had no real experience and HBO wanted someone seasoned to do it. Rachel Portman did it and it came out great, but I did sing on the soundtrack and then when Mudbound came up, Dee was determined to have me involved. I'm very grateful that she followed through in the way that she did.
In your career as an artist, how does your creative process distinctly differ from a more structured approach to film scoring? What were the initial adjustments you had to make when you first began creating music intended for screen?
I always tell people that nothing changed in terms of my artistic approach because my artistic heart is always what it is. I was inspired by the work. Everything from the strong performances of the actors to the beauty of the cinematography, the screenplay, everything was so spot on that I just wanted to make sure I was representing. I had to bring something to the table because everyone brought their A game. For me, the biggest shift was actually like a perk because as an independent artist, I have to wear so many hats for myself. I’m a performing artist and a recording artist, I co-produce whatever I’m recording. In addition to writing and performing my songs, I am the one hiring the musicians, self-managing, fiscally sponsoring my tours, doing the admin and booking my gig. When I had a gig like this, every day I would get up and my sole job was to write music. That was my sole job and that was a friggin’ relief. That was my sweet spot. I felt like I won! For me, not having the final say on the compositions was the trade-off for this gift. A gift of being able to wake up and be creative with composing as my only thing I had to be concerned with.
What is the overarching message of your solo artistry? What do you enjoy most about live performance and connecting with an audience?
I don't know if there's an overarching message. I'm a singer-songwriter, I'm a vocalist, I'm a composer, I make music. I don't have some grand plan around that, it's an expression. I feel grateful, I think that music is my gift and I feel grateful to be able to support myself doing that. As an artist, I’m just sharing my experiences, my stories, as well as the things that inspire me and sparks the creativity in me.
As I’ve matured and gotten older, I’ve been more conscious of not taking my voice as an artist for granted. Being responsible for my expression makes me work in as meaningful a way as possible as opposed to doing things just for the thrill and vanity of being an artist. I’m an independent artist and it’s not glamorous. I’m out here grinding and working hard. The idea of creating art for art’s sake can be this very internal, myopic experience, so as I’ve matured, these times have made me more mindful about what I put out there, giving context to the subjects. It’s very important to manage and maintain your narrative, so someone isn’t imposing or projecting another story on you. It’s not my style to be some type of zealot or preacher, but it’s important to develop a way of communicating in the language that is your art, but that doesn’t leave people guessing. It’s not enough for me to put out a song and let you figure it out. I want to offer up my story, share my cultural identity, discuss themes that influence and inspire me. I think there needs to be clarity.
For me, live performance is the payoff because being an independent artist is very rigorous. How I'm able to like regenerate and replenish myself is through the performances on stage and the stage is a hallowed ground for me. I leave everything at the curtain. When I get on that stage, it’s my practice. What I hope to embody in my practice is full and total abandonment, being completely in the moment and present to the music that I'm making right there. Sometimes, I'm more effective and in line with that than others because my mind is definitely like the band leader. As the artist, I'm always thinking of things like “Did you play that part right? or is there's not enough this?”, but I'm trying to get to that point where all of that melts away. That’s the ultimate goal, to just be music when I'm in that space.
Communing with the audience is a wonderful thing. I'm someone who loves music and came up having those really amazing, ecstatic experiences. Whether it was in the mosh pit or the concert hall, I think music is the highest form of communication for human beings. I think it's where we become the thing that we're made of, that thing we all share in common, the life force. I think that music is a conduit to that space and that's what I hope to accomplish as a composer, as a performer, all of that. I just want to exist in that space.
I read that you are working on a dynamic musical project called Demon Fruit Blues, which explores the misogynistic experience of women through Western history and your own journey of self-discovery and acceptance. What was the motivation behind this performance art piece and can you describe your process to prepare it for an audience?
Demon Fruit Blues is definitely a work in progress that's currently in development. I just finished a month long residency at Mabou Mines, which is an experimental theater organization that was founded by Philip Glass and Lee Breuer. There, I was just working on the acoustic and chamber music elements along with some visual imagery and the piece should debut in its completion in summer or fall of 2019. I have a residency this summer at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It’s essentially a music immersed multidisciplinary performance. I think of it as a concert with a heavy theatrical element. I am collaborating with different artists and in talks with some directors right now. I have a couple of artists that I've worked with so far in creating visual imagery. I’m also collaborating with an African Diaspora Dance Ensemble. There’s a dance element, there's visual imagery element, as well as my composition, which is a full range from experimental classical to aggressive melodic rock. It connects the dots between the blues and coming into rock and then incorporates the influence of classical music in my life, but also in a different context that you're not necessarily familiar seeing it in. It connects the dots of all these different mediums that I use to express myself as a composer.
Demon Fruit Blues is basically a naming of misogyny because you can trace the roots of the misogyny to Genesis 3:16 and the story of the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve and the fruit from the tree. Eve represents the concept that women can’t be trusted. In actuality, what was her greatest sin? That she wanted to have knowledge? The fruit from the tree, being the demon fruit, and now, women have the demon fruit blues and suffer in child labor as a result of this set up of us as villains for humanity. It’s spelled out in this Judeo Christian context. It explores how this story defines a woman’s identity, how that reverberates through history, and how it shows up in the form of misogyny and sexism. It addresses how we as women, we as humans grapple with that reality and what it means. For me, it means that a lot of women are in the shadows. Culture is not being experienced to its full potential because humanity has a blind spot that lies in the accomplishments, the achievements, and the contributions of women. Those stories are often left off by the wayside.
In your opinion, what are the core issues you think need more attention, thought, and strategic action in today's world? How do you think the culture of America can be improved?
I think of myself as an advocate for equity in our society. If you believe in equity, then you are aware of when your fellow citizens are being disenfranchised of their rights to have equal representation and protection under the law. Outside of being an American citizen, we are human beings. If a fellow human is suffering, I wouldn't want that. I'm not talking about some Utopia, where there's no death and no pain. I understand that we're human beings and we're primates, but there's just a lot of institutionalized BS that needs to end if we're going to have an equitable society.
In terms of the industries that I move in as a professional musician and composer, I've had people say things to me like diversity is such a hot topic right now. When they say things like “diversity is really in”, that’s basically telling me that my humanity is on trend. I’m all about being able to think critically about whether or not we're living in an equitable society. What people need to understand first and foremost, is that when the whole story isn't told, we do ourselves a disservice. I just want the industries and the major media to be reflective of what actually exists in the world, as opposed to the dominant model they would like to project. I think that there's a difference and I think that's being responsible.
When people use gender or diversity as a marketing ploy, that's a problem. When they have women in film panels, it's a double-edged sword. It's important, but at the same time, I feel like it's time for us to sit down and think critically about what we need. If we get to the heart of it, truthful representation matters. If you think about who is consuming this art, there is a big problem with how things are perceived and those personal perceptions make our reality. I’ve heard people go from “I don’t know any female composers” to saying there aren’t any. That’s a huge leap. We have to be careful with the language we use. Just because someone doesn’t know something, it doesn’t exist? What empowers you to make your ignorance the palette you cover the world with? That is the major issue at hand. It might be laziness in part, but I think there’s a level of hubris, privilege, and comfort with the status quo. I think there needs to be greater accountability. Let’s be honest about what this is. There will be a new symptom if we don’t cure this disease.
When things get weird for me and I get nervous and frightened, I just put my head down and I grind. I want to create and work. I can't allow the business of being a professional musician take me out of the frame work of being an artist. I need to be making something and nothing can get in the way of that.
If you could examine a day in the life of three different musicians, who would you choose and why?
I would have loved to be Betty Davis' familiar. Like her favorite scarf or hat or something. I’d want to see and know everything that was going on. You know, when she was married to Miles, all the wonderful music she made with these amazing people like Larry Graham and Neal Schon from Journey, who was her guitarist when he was young, and Jimi. There was such an intersection of worlds at the time when she was doing what she was doing. I would be very interested in knowing what a day in the life was during her heyday.
I would've also loved to be a fly on the wall with Patti Smith and see what she was up to and what she was doing. It's about that community of people too. Literature and visual art and music. That's super exciting! Mary Lou Williams would be another choice because she was like the mama composer of all these jazz artists. They would all go to her house. I would also be curious about Jessye Norman, the classical singer or Grace Bumbry, the contralto. She was such a diva.
Hear Tamar-kali's latest score in Joshua Marston's Come Sunday, now streaming on Netflix.