With Easter past, Shavuot approaching, and Ramadan commencing at May's end, now is the perfect time for varied and bold religious commemoration, a diversity reflected in newly released devotional music that speaks to God, gods, and the spirits of Western and Eastern theologies, beyond a single creed.
That means Franklin James Fisher, Atlanta son of Baptist preachers, reaching his way through holy-rolling gospel punk as front man with Algiers on their new The Underside of Power.
It means Christian singer Tasha Page-Lockhart – forever part of Kirk Franklin's troupe -- publishing her autobiography, And the Winner Is ... , and her second album, Sophomore.
It means Camden's Tye Tribbett, youth and young adult pastor at New Light Christian Center, whose new album, The Bloody Win, gets a showcase May 27 at Trenton's Patriots Theater.
It means activist, author, theologian, and bluesman the Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou – Rev. Sekou for short, a child of the black Pentecostal Church of God in Christ – performing Wednesday at World Cafe Live with his just-released In Times Like These with the North Mississippi Allstars.
And it means the late Alice Coltrane, a onetime Philadelphian (lived here with her husband, the saxophone god John Coltrane), whose gentle breeze of an album, World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Turiya, features meditational music based on her latter-day beliefs in Hindu traditions, heavenly desire, and the Holy Spirit. The Coltrane project, released on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, comes from cassettes released between 1982 and 1995 on a label devoted to Vedic teachings from her home in Agoura Hills, Calif., where she built an ashram and welcomed devotees.
The album moves in mysterious ways to find its peaceful mountaintop, sense of nirvana, and occasional restless religiosity.
Surya Botofasina, a jazz musician raised on Alice Coltrane's ashram, says that he's never had a day "without Swamini" and that it was not until his teens that he was allowed to participate in a bhajan chanted in the Coltrane mandir. "In our ashram, kids had the blessing of being in a utopia of happiness," says Botofasina. "Playing keyboard next to her as she was playing a bhajan, will always be one of the greatest highlights of my life. Her spiritual dedication, practice, and devotion was the best example of such I've ever witnessed."
Of how he believes Coltrane spoke to the gods and Coltrane's version of praise music connects the dots between other religions, Eastern and Western, Botofasina says that though this album may be new, its songs are sacred and ancient holy sounds no matter one's faith.
"We chant, we sing, and we do it with gratitude, devotion, and joy," he said. "The values of kindness, peace, love for all I feel are universal. Plus, we were always taught that all forms of worship are beautiful and to be respected. Western, Eastern, Southern, Northern. ... All areas of our beautiful planet always seem to benefit from love and joy via devotional songs."
Rev. Sekou's In Times Like These with Luther and Cody Dickinson, progeny of session great Jim Dickinson (Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin), is activist blues, from torrid tracks such as "Resist" onward. Even when he's singing of romance on "Loving You Is Killing Me," it is tinged with devout, daring, and literary universality.
"That's a love letter to the nation, about how black people still love their democracy, even though it is killing them," he says sternly. "The spirits touch activism as well as the passion of man."
With that, Sekou – an opera-trained vocalist and student of comparative philosophies at Manhattan's New School – comes from a lineage of "firebrand blues preachers," with everything he does touched by that spirit. Mention to Sekou the preaching and sound of the Northern-based Tribbett and he states that the difference between himself and the New Jersey singer comes down to influence. "My record is not gospel, but there are always gospel's chord structures, use of flats and minor chords to create a sonic landscape. That's part of everything I do."
Ask him to connect dots between Western and Eastern philosophies, and Sekou says all spiritual music is tied together. "Music occupies and articulates to its own spiritual dimension as well as speaking to who we all are," he says.
Beyond that, however, Sekou's Delta-dusty blues is meant to blur the lines between the sacred and the secular. "Those lines are strictly artificial, created by elites: the clergy. Look, church folk go to clubs and clubgoers attend church. In my world, the players work both ends of the stick, playing in black churches as well as nightclubs. If you don't be careful, you might even hear some secular music while at church," he says with a devilish laugh.