Chicago clarinetist, pianist and singer brings her band Tha Brothahood to the Wex in support of 2019 album 'The Oracle'
As a child, Angel Bat Dawid’s father took her to see “Amadeus,” the 1984 film about Mozart. She was struck by the scenes where Mozart played piano and violin for royalty as a boy.
“I remember being a little girl like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Kids can do that? What?’ I got obsessed,” Bat Dawid said recently by phone from her hometown of Chicago. “Anywhere I saw children performing, it made me feel like, ‘Wow, I can do that, too.’”
Bat Dawid and her family lived in Africa for a while, but when she came back to the States at age 11, she started taking piano lessons and couldn’t wait to start playing violin in the orchestra at school. But when she got to the band room, the school didn’t have any violins for her to use. Her only instrument option was the clarinet.
“I was like, ‘I don't even know what that is.’ I was really disappointed,” said Bat Dawid, who ventured to the library to find out what the clarinet sounded like. “All I was finding was Benny Goodman. And no offense to him, but as a little black girl who's still trying to be cool, he just did not seem cool. Then I found Mozart's clarinet concerto. I'm like, ‘Yes! I love Mozart. Let me hear this.’ Then I got hooked. I didn't know the clarinet could do that.”Get hooked on Alive: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Over time Bat Dawid fell in love with the clarinet and continued to play piano. She studied music in college, and for most of her life, she played from sheet music rather than playing by ear. “I felt so limited in my musical abilities for a very long time, and even felt like I wasn't a good musician, because if you put a piece of paper in front of me, I could play the notes. But if you took that away, I couldn't,” she said.
That started to change when Bat Dawid found a community of musicians in Chicago’s free jazz scene. They’d invite her to jam sessions, which were awkward for her at first, but over time she got more comfortable when others told her to “just play.” She tapped into the Sun Ra records her father used to play growing up and embraced her experimental tendencies, which had been there all along and now were being given the freedom to roam. She also got a job at Hyde Park Records (“That’s where I got so much knowledge,” she said) and began to practice there every day, closing up the shop and playing her clarinet after hours.
“A lot of people struggle with learning how to be improvisers, and I tell them improvisation is this: You're not playing notes; you're playing you. And if you are struggling improvising, you're struggling somewhere with your own identity. You're struggling with accepting yourself for who you are,” she said. “When I play piano or whatever I'm playing as I'm singing, I bless whatever comes out of me. So what I used to think was a squeak and a squawk on a clarinet, no — that sound is supposed to be there right now. I accept it and I love it.”
Earlier this year, Bat Dawid released The Oracle, a jazzy, soulful album she recorded mostly on her cellphone, mixing composition with improvisation. One track, “Black Family,” originated from an after-hours practice session at the record store. The song begins with snaking clarinet, rumbling bass and a simple drumbeat until, eventually, an overlapping, spoken-word chorus of voices repeats the phrase, “The black family is the strongest institution in the world.”
“I was walking down the street, and I was looking around and thinking about black people, and I was like, ‘You know what? That's a really great affirmation for the world to speak about black people. It's something that we need to hear,’” she said. “The black family has been dismantled in this country on purpose for centuries, pulling black people apart. What if everyone just affirmed that the black family is the strongest institution in the world, and I got black people, white people, Asian people and everybody in the world to say that? That would help us greatly. That would help my people so much.”
“I believe in affirmations,” she continued. “My life is where it is right now because I have affirmed my life. We learn everything by repetition. And if you notice on the album, there's a lot of repeated phrases.”
Even though The Oracle features Bat Dawid almost exclusively, she always meant for the songs to be performed with a band. These days she performs with a collective known as Tha Brothahood, which will join Bat Dawid in concert at the Wexner Center tonight (Thursday, Oct. 10).
The one other musician who shows up on The Oracle is drummer Asher Simiso Gamedze, whom Bat Dawid met last year on a trip to South Africa. On a whim, the two improvised together at his house, and Bat Dawid’s iPhone recording of the session eventually became the track “Capetown.” At the end of the extended jam, Bat Dawid stomps her feet and lets out a primal yell.
“That was a genuine reaction, because we couldn't believe that for 15 minutes we went through all these phases and things like we've been playing together for years. … Me and him went so deep, and when you’re hearing ‘Capetown,’ I literally only knew Asher for about 20 or 30 minutes,” she said. “We knew we were both changed after that. He wrote me the most beautiful email about how hard it is to be a musician who maybe didn't go to school for music, and then you go to university and people treat you a certain way. … He knew there was something special inside of him that he needed to share with the world, and that jam session really showed him that.”
For Bat Dawid, music is the most natural way for her to express herself, but it’s also an avenue for processing the trauma of living as a black woman in the United States. “It's traumatic every time I pick up a dollar bill or a $20 bill. It's trauma for me to see a man on there who did not think I was human. In order to buy some food, I gotta look at people who had slaves. Every day. Little stuff like that is traumatic,” she said. “The music that you hear, I call it ‘great black music.’ People are gonna call it jazz, gonna call it hip hop, gonna call it all these things so they can make a dollar. But really it's black music and black people expressing themselves. … It’s something that my people do to process this trauma.”