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OCT 23, 2008
© Amir Bey, 2007
Ras Moshe, in SYNERGY performance -Costumes and set design by Amir Bey
Ras Moshe
Ras Moshe, Tenor, Mat Lavelle, Bass Clarinet, Michael T.A. Thompson, Drums, @ Brecht Forum
Ras Moshe with Sabir Mateen in a flute duet
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© Amir Bey, 2008

Ras Moshe is a third generation reed player who, although trained in earlier forms of "Jazz", says his preferred mode of improvisation is in the later or "free" developments of the music. He's a composer, poet, lover of African American history, music curator and cultural activist, has been involved in New York Cityís music and art scene early in his life. In his teens he was collecting and listening to the cutting edge in Jazz and poetry, checking out Jameel Moondocís big band Jes Grew Orchestra at the Neither Nor Bookstore, or Amiri Barakaís poetry. Presently he is the organizer of the MUSIC NOW series at The Brecht Forum, a progressive organization that aims to promote social change through education and culture. Moshe has published several albums, including Transcendence, (2007), which has received international acclaim. The following is an interview with Moshe (pronounced Mo-shay).

HOLLER!: What is the concept of your Music Now series, what kind of music do you present?

MOSHE: The concept comes from the tradition of artists engaged in organizing events themselves. Itís definitely not new. Jazz musicians especially, have serious concerns about the nature of how this music is presented and the things you have to go through.

HOLLER!: How do you view the Music Now series in relation to whatís going on in New York?

MOSHE: Itís the continuation of an idea, and the actual application of that idea. [Itís] theory into practice [with] the musicians themselves guiding their destiny.

HOLLER!: In some of your statements, you see music as an instrument of change, and you also see music as personal expression. How do you balance social commitment and personal, artistic expression?

MOSHE: I don't see any contradiction between the two concepts; music for a cause and music for music. I think both are natural impulses. As far as myself, I never had any problem balancing the two perspectives. I came up in a time when Jazz was seen as the part of the overall African concept of art being functional to everyday life. I think people of every cultural background use the arts to describe their political and personal realities."

HOLLER!: You study many aspects of the cultural and social history of music, African Americans, and American society. What era and areas give you the most inspiration?

MOSHE: I like history in general regardless of time period. I was always very interested in what was happening from the mid 50's throughout the 60's. The connection between the changes in jazz and what was happening socially in this country is undeniable. Actually, Duke Ellington is the pioneer of this kind of expression that Archie Shepp, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and others we know were engaged in.

Also, I always read and collected literature and music from The Black Arts Movement of the 60's. Magazines...articles...Archie Shepp...Pharaoh...Baraka and Larry Neal of course....all of that artistic activity was/is very exciting to me.

HOLLER!: In historical terms, who do you see as the most influential artists?

MOSHE: Hmmm, let me see...John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Malcolm X, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, Rumi, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Albert Ayler, Amiri Baraka, Salvador Dali, Jacob Lawrence, Cecil Taylor, Langston Hughes, Henry Dumas, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Tosh...I should stop now....there's many more!

HOLLER!: What collectives do you admire?

MOSHE: I was into all of that history about The AACM in Chicago; Black Artists Group (BAG) in St Louis; Tribe; Strata and Griot Galaxy in Detroit; The Spirit House; The National Black Theater; The Liberty House; Studio WE; Studio WIS; The East; The East Wind (run by The Last Poets); The NY Musicians Festival; Collective Black Artists (CBA); England; Japan; Europe; Mother Africa.

HOLLER!: How do you see your role as an historian?

MOSHE: It dawned on me later in life that I was actually engaged in that profession. Not in a pretentious way, but to keep this history alive. I learned about Jazz (in all its forms) from elders in the community; there are scores of black people who collect this history; they have all the records; all the books and old fliers. I sat at the feet of these people as a child and later in life, sat next to them and continued to learn. That's why I never went for that "black people are not into the Avant-garde" stuff that came later. I learned about the so-called Avant-garde from the black community. (I donít really like that term!) So itís just a case of some like it and some donít, just like any other group of people. But of course that's part of the plan to dumb down what the black youth listen to.

HOLLER!: How are you documenting and distributing the information that you are accumulating?

MOSHE: I donít really distribute information. Whatever I know about comes out in conversations with friends about music and revolutionary history. I documented things since I was real young by taping jazz off of WKCR and taping jazz and political stuff off of WBAI -before the jazz decreased over there. I think I have every documentary that has to do with the Black Freedom Movement and all folksí struggles too. Of course I try to lay it on the young ones in my family once they take a break from listening to all that bad music. I've been sounding like my parents lately!

HOLLER!: You grew up in a musical environment; your father and other relatives were musicians. What did you absorb from that, and what did you reject?

MOSHE: My father plays Alto, Flute and Bass Clarinet and his father (Ted Burnett I; he used "Barnett" sometimes) played Tenor and sometimes Alto. No uncles played that I know of. My father was deep into the free music as well as bebop and all music in general. My grandfather was in the big swing bands of the time. He later became a born-again Christian and stopped playing Jazz. I absorbed a love of music, but I reject religion. My other Grandfather didn't play music, but he grew up around jazz artists and listened every day after work, so I have a jazz oriented family on both sides.

HOLLER!: Your father was very religious; how did that influence you?

MOSHE: We're very close, but I'm not religious. I am very spiritual though. I think black people get preoccupied with religions too much. We really need to understand real history about the world and its connections to many characters' need to control. They should also know the real history of Slavery and religion's connection to that.

HOLLER!: Whatís your take on the present music scene in New York?

MOSHE: A lot of music spaces closed down unfortunately. At the same time there's always more that pop up. This music is unstoppable! We have to do something about some of the exclusion that goes on too. Musicians that I came up listening to (and the ones I play with) often tell me some really troubling stories about trying to break on through to the other side beyond all the cliques.

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