Saturday, November 10, 2018

Bruce Henry Shares His Life as an American Griot

Magnolia Salon, 8 November 2018

Bruce Henry
Thursday evening jazz singer and educator Bruce Henry was the featured speaker at Magnolia Salon. It was inspirational, powerful, revealing, informative, educational and a very special time. The Mississippi-born jazz performer gave a two-part presentation. In the first segment Mr. Henry shared his life story, which he called the “Adventures of an American Griot," with numerous lessons and unexpected insights. After a short break he then presented an abbreviated talk on the Evolution of African American Music from Africa to Hip Hop.

The word “griot” has its roots in Africa. A griot was a member of a class of traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa. Before the printed word, tribal peoples maintained their identity and cultural reference points by means of these oral stories sung and passed on through the generations. A griot was of such importance to a tribe that when an adversarial tribe attacked a people they usually killed the griot before capturing or killing the king and queen.

So, it was another evening of Magnolia Salon, and after a bit of visiting amongst one another the Ringing Bowl called us to order, followed by the Smudge Stick sanctification ritual with Glenn and Emily welcoming us to Oldenburg House.

Bruce Henry was here in the Northland for a slightly extended stay, presenting his talk on the Evolution of African American Music from Africa to Hip Hop talk to a number of area schools, courtesy an ARAC grant.

Glenn Swanson introduced Bruce Henry as “an exceptional human being,” which has been demonstrated not only in the spirit of his performances in the Carlton Room, but also in his dedication to educating youth regarding the history and impact of African music. During his time here this past week he made presentations to over 700 students at UMD, Hermantown High, Denfeld and Barnum, from third graders to college level students.


He began his talk with the introduction, “I am Bruce Henry. I am a singer of songs.” It was a reference to the Tony Curtis line in Holly film Sparticus, “I am Antonitus, a singer of songs.”

Though born in Mississippi, Henry spent his formative years growing up in Chicago. He said his father was a role model with strong values. His dad once said, “The person who controls your culture is your master.”

Chicago for many years was the most segregated city in America. He shared a number of anecdotes to illustrate including his first memory of a Chicago policeman when he was five. The officer, sitting in a police car, motioned for him to come over and when he was alongside the open window the officer spit chewing tobacco into his face.

The jazz singer with jazz drummer Glenn Swanson.
Growing up in Chicago gave Bruce Henry a political consciousness that never left him, which was amplified by parents who were union all the way.

His father grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi where you step off the sidewalk for whites, along with all the other associated indignities. Nevertheless, he stated, “My parents taught me not to hate. They taught me to love, when it was unnatural.” This became a foundational value in his life, to accept people .

As he grew up in the 60’s he became fascinated with history. When he was introduced to Thoreau and History and Music he responded viscerally so that when he went to college it was with the intention of becoming a politician. On his 18th birthday, however, he was invited to sing a song with a band at a biker bar and his life plans veered in a new direction. The song was “Summertime.” It resulted in his pursuing a music career.

Drawn to activism and avant garde jazz, he moved to Minneapolis where he joined a band named Solstice whose goal was to get polished then move to L.A. They attracted an agent who was all set to sign them up who at the last minute demurred, saying, “I told you, four whites, three blacks.” Their band had three white and four blacks. He tore up the contract.

Nevertheless he continued to pursue his passions, saying, “One day I’m gonna get out of Babylon.” Ultimately he established a career that enabled him to perform in five continents and to live wherever he wanted. “I’ve been blessed,” he said.

He spoke from the heart about the importance of service to others. “We have a responsibility to use our gifts for the betterment of humanity. It’s the foundation of everything. We have an obligation to use our gifts. Service is the rent due for life on this planet.”

After a break, Bruce Henry returned to the podium to share with us the Evolution of African American Music from Africa to Hip Hop.


EdNote: Mark your calendars for the Oldenburg House HOLIDAY MARKET, December 7. 20 Vendors selling arts, crafts and more.

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