Anna Badkhen graced us with this stunning essay that grounds us to our infinitesimal moment in time. She moves about millenniums and back to a small chapter in her intrepid saga, to Tulsa OK, home to jazz and glimmers of hope. This essay collapses eons down to a singularity, through the unifying impulses of music and human struggle. On top of that tall task, her prose is effortlessly poetic without being pretentious, reaching without the slightest sweat stain.
A brief and humble bio: Anna Badkhen has spent most of her life in the Global South. Her immersive investigations of the world’s iniquities have yielded six books of literary nonfiction. Her essays and dispatches appear in periodicals and literary magazines such as the New York Times, Granta, The Common, Guernica and the Boston Globe. She is at work on her first novel. Read everything she has written and you will be rewarded.
A great interview with Anna and one of our previous contributors, the amazing poet, Clem Heard, is HERE>
By Anna Badkhen
I hear my first Tulsa trumpet the day I move to the city. It is a Saturday in January. The man sits on a bench on the corner across the street from my apartment, presses his lips against the mouthpiece in such bitter cold. Like maybe he can keep warm by touching his mouth to brass the color of the hottest fire. He is playing Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” on repeat. Hold it steady right there while I hit it / Well, reckon that ought to get it. Around us, the red-brick right angles of the Brady Arts District, the 1921 site of the worst massacre of black people in the United States’ history, a neighborhood that bears the name of the city’s most prominent Klansman and is being gentrified into a tightly-curated hipster haven. I cannot tell if the burning smell in my flat comes from the oil refineries that rim the city or from the cinders of pogromed livelihoods that underlie the luxury apartment blocks and galleries and baseball field. Just as I can’t tell if by choosing “Work Song” the man on the corner is flipping a bird at all this cognitive dissonance or playing along with it or both.
The oldest trumpets known to man were found in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. They are more than 3,300 years old. They are about twenty inches long, straight like Greek salpinges; the Pied Piper of Hamelin is believed to have played an instrument shaped the same way. In 1939 the BBC recorded Bandsman James Tappern of the 11th Hussars playing them. Tappern used his own mouthpiece to perform something like a fanfare based on the “Posthorn Gallop” by Hermann Koenig, the 20th century brass band darling. But the music on the recording is not the Gallop. No. There is something queasy about the sound. It wobbles, bends anxiously. It throbs. It is terrifying, terrible. It feels in my gut like a malarial dream. Pied Piper’s horn must have sounded like this.
“Instruments used in war to frighten the enemy,” the ninth-century philosopher and musical theorist Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad al Farabi wrote in his Grand Book of Music, “are very loud and unbearable to the human ear.”
There is a legend that the Pharaoh’s trumpets are cursed with the power to unloose war. People who believe this legend point out that each of the three times the trumpets were blown since being exhumed, catastrophe followed: first World War II, then the first Gulf War, then the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. This may be apophenia. In the history of human violence there is always a war somewhere to match the blow of a horn.
For about a decade scholars believed the oldest known existing instrument to be the Divje Babe Flute, a piece of bear femur about five inches long that may be as old as 67,000 years, which would have made it the only found musical instrument of the Neanderthals—except then tests determined that the Divje Babe Flute, discovered in a Slovenian cave, was merely a bone chewed up, likely, by a hyena, not a musical instrument. Now the consensus is that the earliest found musical instruments are the flutes some Homo sapiens, in what today is Germany, whittled between 42,000 and 43,000 years ago of mammoth ivory and swan bone.
I saw a swan bone flute in Tbilisi, Georgia, in a museum. It dates back to 12th or 11th century BCE, about as old as the Trojan War, or the Olmec civilization, or Nebuchadnezzar. It is almost eight inches long. It is silvery grey, slightly bowed, polished to a sheen, unreeded, and has only three holes, and it was found alongside the body of a boy of fourteen or fifteen years old. The Soviet academician who found the burial site in 1938 called it the Grave of the Little Shepherd. What was it like, the devastation of that swan bone flute in the velvet dark of the Georgian Caucasus three thousand years ago, that Little Shepherd’s swan song?
Once, in northern Afghanistan, I heard a little shepherd’s flute in the ruins of the city Alexander the Great had built for his Afghan trophy wife, Roxanne, in 328 BCE.
Little remains of Alexandria Oxiana: over two millennia invaders from all over have sacked the palace, bombed the bathhouse, used the limestone curlicues of Corinthian columns for target practice. There is a hint of a perfectly round theater where wild garlic sprouts through bits of pottery and sheep droppings in a circular field; fragments of columns glow white among overgrown rectangles of mid-20th century excavations that were abandoned because of war. And the name: Ai Khanum, Lady Moon, as the Afghans call it. The last time I visited Ai Khanum was in the early spring of 2010. I was in the area to see a friend, a farmer who used to smuggle artifacts from the sacked town and fenced them to visiting merchants until the post-Taliban government clamped down on the trade.
A steady drizzle fell on the ruins when we arrived. The plateau flat, cold. Sparrows banked on gusts of wind. That’s when I heard the flute. A dirge, so lonesome and singular my heart broke.
We passed the little shepherd on our drive back to my friend’s farm. He and two other boys were sitting on a spring-green hilltop, in wet grass, watching some cattle and sheep. The one with the flute was the oldest and looked about eight. He had been sitting there since before Alexander and his Lady Moon, he is still sitting there, I think he will sit there forever.
Even if a hyena’s teeth and not a man’s tool bore the perfectly round openings in the Divje Babe Flute, how can we know for sure that some Neanderthal didn’t play the thing? That it did not make music? That it didn’t undo all those who heard it?
I don’t know why the Little Shepherd of Georgia died before reaching adulthood. Tutankhamen, who also died a teenager, likely died of malaria. Almost half a million people still die of malaria each year, mostly children. One child every thirty seconds: say it out loud, can your ear bear it?
Humans blew trumpets in ancient Africa, Central Asia, Greece, Rome, and the Levant. (My God, the distress of their queer call across that swath of the Earth!) About two hundred years before Tutankhamen was buried with his trumpets, Israelites blew trumpets outside the walls of Jericho—though their trumpets most likely were shofars, ram horns like the one that made Israelites tremble in awe before God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai. Until the fourteenth century trumpets were ritual instruments or signal instruments, one- or two-toned, “not known to have been used in music,” according to the New Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986, p. 880). “They remained instruments…for signaling, announcing, commanding, and ceremonial purposes.”
Go blow them ram horns Joshua cried
‘cause the devil can’t do you no harm.
But what is music if not a command? The second time I hear a trumpet in Tulsa I am crossing over the railroad tracks on Boston Street Bridge. Dark evening in late winter, cold prairie wind dense with petrochemicals and sorrow—and then the doors of the old railroad depot open and there it is. A brass summons; I enter. Inside, a mostly older crowd, standing or sitting around some tables, nodding as a jazz band plays, ambitiously, “Blue in Green”. One couple dancing—sailing is the word really, their moves understated, minimal, not so much moves as signifiers of moves, the way a dance can become for two people who have been dancing together for half a century. I find a place to stand in the back, behind one of the old repurposed wooden train station benches; in front of me a man senses my presence, turns his head, we nod, here we are together, the music’s good, good to be here, out of the cold and the stink, here on the bridge above the wounded suppurating city.
No walls come tumbling down at the jazz depot. Tulsa remains recalcitrant in its hyper-American Manifest Destiny mythos, its vestiges of oil wealth and its food apartheid. But the Tuesday night jam at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, which is what the place is officially called, becomes my weekly comfort, my spacetime of querencia, a place to make and meet friends, an oasis that sits above the railway that splits the city, segregates the wronged side of the tracks.
Been working and working
But I still got so terribly far to go
My favorite horn player is the French-Lebanese jazz composer Ibrahim Maalouf. His trumpet has a fourth valve, for quartertones, but it is not the extra valve that makes his sound unmistakable: it is that when he plays he loosens his embouchure to let a little bit of air escape between his lips and the mouthpiece, making the sound so light, almost sloppy, but once he hits a note he stiffens the lips again and tongues the mouthpiece like he is talking to it, like he is making love, going down on it, persistent and gentle at once, the best head I’ve had has been like that, please oh please oh please don’t stop, make her sing.
The common view that jazz is music is relatively recent. In February of 1921, three months before a white mob lynched and burned Black Tulsa, the Princeton professor of English Henry van Dyke, a white man, told a national convention of educators in New Jersey: “Jazz music was invented by demons for the torture of imbeciles.”
Trumpets did not make the walls of Jericho fall; human voice did. “The people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat,” reads the Old Testament—or, as the spiritual has it, Old Joshua shouted glory / And the walls came tumblin’ down. The human voice was the first musical instrument, before the swan bone flute. No musical instrument, according to al Farabi, is more perfect than the voice.
It begins as the slightest tremolo, not a song but a hint of a song, a song being born. It is being born right here before me, on a night terrace in a colonial city built mostly on water, built maybe even of water, a vanishing city that the rising ocean is slowly licking back into the waves even as the song unravels above the unraveling coastline like the gillnet the city’s fishers unfurl in the water to comb the depleted and ravenous ocean for fish.
Like Alexander’s fallen metropolis in Afghanistan, the city has two names. The Wolof call it Ndar, the name it had before the French invaded it, renamed it Saint-Louis, and turned it into the capital of French West African colonies and a major port exporting African women, men, and children as slaves to the New World. Maybe the ancestors of the Tulsa trumpet player, too, had fished this coastline. Maybe the grandfathers of the people who survived and who did not survive that dreadful night in Tulsa in 1921, too, had sung on these shores.
Two men are casting the song into the dark, a baritone and a falsetto. Their names are Cheikh Baye Fall and Ndoffène Diouf. Their performance is part of the Saint-Louis Jazz Festival, a major annual cultural event in Senegal. Their set begins with a song that, in turn, begins with the Shahada, the foundational recitation of faith. Sufi Muslims believe that music can help you achieve proximity to God, that the ultimate truth can be found in the obliteration of the self through high mystical ecstasy, and that mystical ecstasy may be achieved through song. “Ceremonial purposes,” as the Harvard dictionary puts it. The men hang the diaphanous net of their song in the dark where it coruscates, glitters. Over the terrace in Ndar/Saint-Louis a full moon rises, and I understand.
It is like holding your breath, like holding a bird in your hand. My heart is flung open. All the walls come tumbling down.