Category Archives: Arts & Culture

A bit about Black Rock Bands out of Detroit.

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This weekend at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, I caught a documentary about Death, a 1970s all-black proto-punk band out of Detroit. The documentary, titled “A Band Called Death” chronicled the group’s forming, brush with success, and descent into obscurity. The master tapes of their sole album, recorded under Don Davis’ Groovesville productions languished in an attic for over thirty years. That is until a perfect storm of record collectors resurrected the work, resulting in a New York Times article, a reissue, and a tour.

It was interesting that one refrain in particular was repeated throughout the documentary:

black people in Detroit just weren’t doing rock.

Sure, it wasn’t the norm; but I think that the idea that black people weren’t doing rock is an over-generalization. I would argue that early Funkadelic (especially the album “Maggot Brain“) is as much Rock as it is Funk. The wailing guitars melded seamlessly with gospel-tinged organs and sizzling drums into something quite some distance from Motown. Oh yes, and Eddie Hazel is a totally under-appreciated face-melting guitarist.

Besides, it’s worth noting that most classic “rock” idioms come from some sort of “black” music (from the earliest Rock and Roll to the Blues).

The other refrain heard in the documentary “A Band Called Death” was that the name “Death” was a huge stumbling block in the way of their success.

Interestingly, an all-black rock group called  Black Merda came out of Detroit and recorded an album here in Chicago for Chess Records in 1970. They worked with another Detroit-based rock artist called Fugi (who also released some singles on Chess). It was by no accident that these folks found their way to Chess.

By 1969, Chess had released some unbelievable psychedelic Blues records featuring the label’s biggest stars, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. The backing bands were, for the most part, black (featuring Chicago session artists Morris Jennings, Pete Cosey, and more).

Below is a picture of Anthony Hawkins of Black Merda (with “Mary”) circa 1969. They are proudly holding copies of the two psychedelic blues records by Muddy Waters: After the Rain (1969) and Electric Mud (1968). More on those albums can be found here.

Mary, Anthony 1968 Photos from Black Merda

Black Merda’s album was released; but didn’t sell many copies. But, I’d credit their obscurity to the subsequent sale and implosion of Chess Records, rather than their death-related name.

Jive on.

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Merri Dee: Media Legend On Chicago Radio Again.

merri dee WBEE

Many Chicagoans know Merri Dee as a personality on WGN-TV; but her roots on Chicago Radio are undeniable. She hosted a popular program in the late 60s and early 70s on WBEE (a station out of Harvey). The above ad for her show, “The Merri Dee Magic Sound” ran in the Woodlawn Booster back in 1970.

About a year after this ad was published,  A stalker shot Ms. Dee multiple times and left her for dead. She ultimately recovered, and went on to spend nearly 4 decades at WGN.

Merri Dee is an amazing woman who has overcome the odds (including abuse and attempted murder) to be a beacon of light, a trailblazer, and a role model for women of color… especially those (like me) who work in media here in Chicago.

Ms. Dee will be the featured guest on Vocalo‘s Barber Shop Show (which airs live from Carter’s Barber Shop  in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood). She will talk about her life, and her newly published memoir, titled “Merri Dee, Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace”.

The Barber Shop Show is hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele, and streams on http://vocalo.org Fridays at Noon. On-air, Chicago listeners can tune into 89.5fm or 90.7fm. Tune in tomorrow (June 28th) at Noon for her riveting story.

UPDATE: In case you missed the show, you can hear the archived version here:


Join Ayana Contreras: Monkey Hustlin’ in Chicago.

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I will be hosting a film screening of 1976’s Monkey Hustle at the Black Cinema House on Sunday, June 9th at 6pm. We will watch the film (which was shot mere blocks from where we’ll be watching it), and then discuss it.

Monkey Hustle – hosted by Ayana Contreras

Black Cinema House
6901 S. Dorchester Ave., Chicago

Sunday, June 9th at 6pm

Seating is limited, so please RSVP by emailing blackcinemahouse@rebuild-foundation.org to reserve your seats.

For more on the film, see my review below.

Monkey Hustle is a black film shot in Chicago in the 1970s (a rarity, in that regard), around the same time as Cooley High.  Mainly shot around 63rd Street, East of the Dan Ryan (the Woodlawn Neighborhood), and various West Side locations, the city figures prominently in the overall vibe of the film.  Starring in Monkey Hustle are (among others): Yaphet Kotto as a small-time hustler/love interest of the lovely Rosalind Cash, and a very young Debbi Morgan as Cash’s daughter.

Cash runs the local teenage hangout.  As the neighborhood hero/big-time hustler, we have Rudy Ray Moore (who is also Cash’s alternate love interest).  The other major character is Win, Debbi Morgan’s love interest who, despite showing promise for bigger things, dips deeper and deeper into the “Monkey Hustle” with Kotto.

The overlying plot is fairly pointed:  The city government is pushing ahead on plans to construct an expressway on land currently occupied by the neighborhood (which was actually happening in real-life Chicago… remember the plans for that “Crosstown Expressway“?).  Ultimately, the set-up becomes ‘the hustle must go on to save the community (by any means necessary)’.  Overall, a message movie with too many competing angles.  But fun for the shots of Chicago (and the girl fight).


Opera-Matic’s New Moon on the Lagoon

Opera-Matic's New Moon on the Lagoon


In this audio piece, I eavesdrop on rehearsals for Opera-matic’s very cool New Moon on the Lagoon, an “evening lullaby parade”, featuring a 15 foot tall giant moon that will be lit up from within by projections of facial expressions.

It’ll be happening Friday May 10th and 11th, 2013 at the Humboldt Park Lagoon in Chicago. For more info, visit: opera-matic.org/upcoming-events/

This piece originally aired on Reclaimed Soul on Vocalo. Reclaimed Soul features music spun on original vinyl records, and stories of people making our world better (artistically, economically, etc) with old materials.

You can tune in to Reclaimed Soul live at 8pm CST on vocalo.org, 89.5fm (NWI/CHI) and 90.7fm (CHI)


DJ Ayana: Spinning in the Park.

djing at hyde park records

…Hyde Park, that is. This Saturday at 7pm CST, I’ll be spinning at an In-Store at Hyde Park Records (1377 E 53rd St  Chicago, IL 60615). It’ll be cool.

For more on Hyde Park Records, listen to my interview with the owner, a Frenchman by the name of Alexis Bouteville that originally aired on my radio show, Reclaimed Soul.

In this Episode, Alexis Bouteville, owner of Hyde Park Records, talks about coming to Chicago from Paris, and how owning a record store here was ‘a dream’. Bouteville also waxes poetic about how here in Chicago, he not only hears “the music”, but can “see it” all over the South Side.

For more information on Reclaimed Soul, visit: vocaloreclaimedsoul.tumblr.com


David Boykin Trio: Live at Dorchester Projects Album Release/Listening Party.

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Saturday February 16th at 8pm, join local Chicago Jazz combo The David Boykin Trio (Boykin on sax, Alex Wing on bass, and James Woodley on drums) at the new Washington Park Arts Incubator. They will be playing work from the new album “Live at the Dorchester Projects”.  I (also known as DJ Ayana Contreras) will also be spinning.

Dusty Groove says about the new record:

One of the greatest albums so far from mighty Chicago reedman David Boykin – and easily a set that lives up to the rich legacy of avant jazz in the Windy City! There’s a depth to the record that comes through right from the very first note – a sense of history and feeling that shows just how much Boykin’s developed as a player over the past decade or so – a tenorist with a done that’s right up there with Archie Shepp or David Murray at their creative best – really stretching out on some wonderful solos that never fail to dim in imagination or new ideas.

The event is a part of the “Off the Record Series”, through the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and Elastic Arts. The year-long series highlights new works by local musicians released on vinyl.

Below, my interview with David about the new record, and about the scene in Chicago today. This originally aired on my radio program, Reclaimed Soul. Reclaimed Soul airs on 89.5fm in Chicago, and streams on vocalo.org everywhere Thursday Nights at 8pm CST. Jive on!

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the particulars:

David Boykin Trio: Live at Dorchester Projects Listening/Album Release Party

Friday February 16th, 8pm – 11pm

Washington Park Arts Incubator

301 East Garfield Blvd., Chicago

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Otis Clay: Live at S.P.A.C.E.

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Otis Clay performs this Saturday night (January 5th, 2013) at S.P.A.C.E. in Evanston.

He’s a Chicago-bred deep soul artists I’ve profiled before on Darkjive. He’s recorded on a ton of labels (including Kayvette, Dakar, Hi, One-Der-Ful, and his own Echo imprint since his beginnings in the 1950s), but it’s his consistency that stands out.

This event is celebrating the release of his latest album, “Truth Is”.
for more info, and to buy tickets, click here


Fontella Bass: In Memorium.

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Fontella Bass was an amazing lady who passed away on December 26th, 2012. In memorium, Darkjive revisits a post from 2011 that touches on her legacy on the Chicago Soul scene.

Not only [was] the trajectory of her career fascinating, but she’s arguably the archetype for what Aretha Franklin was to become: a sassy, soulful siren in the first degree.

Ms. Bass comes from the St. Louis, and is a part of a group of St. Louis native vocalists that made their way in Chicago (this includes Chuck Bernard, Little Milton, and Bobby McClure). Her voice can be described as a salt-sweet Alto that is absolutely gorgeous, in my opinion.

She is best known for the HUGE hit “Rescue Me”, which is a Chicago-written, recorded,and produced slice of 60s Soul. Her greatest hit (which she also co-wrote), “Rescue Me” has been featured in movies, commercials, and TV shows galore; but it is also too often mistakenly attributed to Aretha Franklin. Ironically, at the time of its release, Aretha Franklin was singing jazzy pop standards, a’la young Dinah Washington. 

In fact, “Rescue Me” predates Aretha Franklin’s soulful breakthrough release “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” by a couple of years.

“Rescue Me” was released on Chess Records’ Checker imprint, after which Fontella continued to release soulful gems for the label (my favorites being “I Can’t Rest” and “Lucky in Love”) until 1968 or so.

By 1970, in a plot twist worthy of an arthouse movie, Fontella Bass was married to musician Lester Bowie and had joined him as an expatriate in France in The Art Ensemble of Chicago. There, she served as the vocalist in the group: a seminal, Chicago-based free-jazz combo… I suspect that’s her in the white face paint in the far right corner of the album pictured below.

In 1990, she heard her own voice singing “Rescue Me” on an American Express commercial and was inspired to look into her rights. She wound up suing American Express and its ad agency. She won over $50,000 plus damages in a settlement. Awesome.

for more Fontella Bass music click here and scroll to the bottom of the post.


Chicago: Segregated City

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Kartemquin Films is collaborating with Black Cinema House to present “Chicago: Segregated City”, a screening and discussion of three of Kartemquin’s classic films about racial issues in Chicago, along with an exclusive sneak preview of 63 Boycott, their in-progress film about the 1963 boycott of Chicago Public Schools by thousands of African American parents and students.

Films featured will include:

UE/Wells (1975, 15 min.)[pictured]

Winnie Wright, Age 11 (1974, 26 min.)

Trick Bag (1974, 21 min.)
The films will screen on December 17th, 6pm at the Chicago Public Library’s Greater Grand Crossing branch at 73rd and Ellis. Filmmakers Gordon Quinn, Peter Kuttner, and other members of Kartemquin will be present for a discussion moderated by the Chicago Reader‘s Steve Bogira.

Monday, December 17 at 6pm
Chicago Public Library
Greater Grand Crossing Branch
1000 E. 73rd Street (73rd and Ellis), Chicago


DJ Ayana: Ready. Set. Spin.

I’ll be spinning at two public events this week (and just picked up a whole bunch of records…):

Reclaimed Soul at Maria’s

Tuesday November 13th, 10pm-2pm

Spinning groovy classics and rarities with a heavy Chicago accent (not unlike my weekly Radio Show, Reclaimed Soul)

96o w. 31st Street, Chicago

No Cover.

Genius of Jazz and Hip Hop

I’ll be spinning hip hop (mostly instrumentals), samples, jazz, and some new grooves (all on wax). Also on the bill are:

Chess Mastaz – performers of “metaphysical hip hop”
http://chessmastaz.bandcamp.com/

David Boykin Expanse – experimental jazz infused with hip hop lyricism – David Boykin sax and vocals, James Baker keyboards, Alex Wing bass, Phillip Fornet drumset
http://sonichealingministries.com/

Saturday November 17th, 9pm

Carlos and Sarah’s Surplus of Options
3664 N. Lincoln Avenue

Suggested Donation $7