Angel Bat Dawid taps into the root of all black music | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Angel Bat Dawid taps into the root of all black music 

The cofounder of Chicago’s Participatory Music Coalition talks about the improvisation and inspiration that shaped her new album, The Oracle.

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Angel Elmore, aka Angel Bat Dawid - PHOTO BY LESLIE FREMPONG
  • Angel Elmore, aka Angel Bat Dawid
  • Photo by Leslie Frempong

In 2014 Angel Elmore quit a job selling high-end lingerie that she'd held for seven years, cashed out a 401(k) worth nearly $10,000, and moved into a coach house in Greater Grand Crossing. She was 34 years old, and she wanted to take a year to pursue a dream she'd nurtured ever since her first piano lesson at age 12: to become a musician. Throughout her 20s, that dream had seemed out of reach. She'd flunked out of the Moody Bible Institute, and during her junior year at Roosevelt University, when she was 22, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that eventually required surgery. At 27 she grieved the death of her older sister. But Elmore kept music close, even when she didn't yet feel ready to make it her life: "It's always been my best friend," she says. "It ain't ever let me down."

Elmore sings, composes, and plays keyboards and clarinet, and during the year she'd given herself to focus on music, she found the regular free-jazz sessions that Chicago saxophonist David Boykin convenes through his organization Sonic Healing Ministries. Soon she founded a community-centric collective called the Participatory Music Coalition with like-minded musicians she met there: Adam Zanolini, who's since become executive director of the Elastic Arts Foundation, and interdisciplinary installation and performance artist Viktor Le Givens.

Anytime Elmore saw an opportunity to play, with the Coalition or without it, she said yes. By taking any gig she could, sometimes with musicians she'd never met, she grew into an important player in Chicago's loose community of jazz and improvising musicians. In the years since, she's accompanied some of the city's celebrated recent exports, among them Ben LaMar Gay and Jaimie Branch, and performed in the sprawling, ambitious Black Monument Ensemble led by Eternals front man Damon Locks.

At the end of 2014, Elmore took a job at Hyde Park Records, but the fire she'd lit continued to grow. A few months ago she quit to focus on music full-time, and that part of her life could get a lot busier very soon. Next week, tastemaking Chicago-based jazz label International Anthem will release her album The Oracle, credited to Angel Bat Dawid—it's her Facebook name ("Bat Dawid" is Hebrew for "daughter of David"), and after someone put it on a show flyer a couple years ago, she ran with it.

  • The family photo on the cover of the new Angel Bat Dawid album, taken by her grandfather, depicts the artist at her baptism.

Elmore, now 39, says she's recorded several albums' worth of material, but this is the first time she's had a record come out on a label. To celebrate she's playing two concerts in three days at Elastic Arts, the first of which is on Thursday, February 7, with her band the Brothahood: Zanolini on bass, fellow Participatory Music Coalition regulars Norman Long on electronics and Xris Espinoza on reeds, Julian Otis on vocals, and Isaiah Collier on drums (Le Givens is usually part of the Brothahood but can't make the show). The second show, on Saturday, February 9, inaugurates Elmore's monthly Mothership 9 multimedia series, which includes visual art, a fashion show, and a lecture; she'll perform in a quartet with Zanolini, Collier, and Eliel Sherman Storey, owner of the studio and performance space Transition East.

The spiritual jazz songs on The Oracle are loose and flowing, with interwoven layers of voice, horn, keys, percussion, and other instruments, and Elmore played almost every note herself—the album's only guest musician, Asher Simiso Gamedze, added drums on "Capetown." She recorded the music with her cell phone, using an app that allowed her to overdub, and some tracks include as many as seven stacked layers. Often the album feels like you're somehow eavesdropping on her during a private, contemplative moment.

Elmore recorded the album over a period of more than a year, beginning with "What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black" in 2017 and finishing with "We Are Starzz," which she wrote just in time to include in her set at New York's Winter Jazzfest earlier this month. She did most of the work in a small studio space on the third floor of the Radcliffe W. Hunter House of Saint Thomas Episcopal Church, which is also home to several other art studios and a gallery at 3800 S. Michigan in Bronzeville. I met Elmore there, and we talked for nearly two hours about improvisational music, the legacy of Chicago's black south-side communities, and the inspiration for The Oracle. Her words are condensed and edited below.


Angel Bat Dawid & the Brothahood, Wyche/Packard Duo
Thu 2/7, 9 PM, Elastic Arts, 3429 W. Diversey ste. 208, $10 suggested donation, all ages

Eliel Sherman Storey, Isaiah Collier, Adam Zanolini, and Angel Bat Dawid; DJ Jamal “Jaytoo” Jeffries; DJ King Hippo
Part of the monthly Mothership 9 multimedia series, curated by Angel Bat Dawid and also featuring visual art by Xris Espinoza, a fashion show, and a lecture by Storey. Sat 2/9, 9 PM, Elastic Arts, 3429 W. Diversey ste. 208, $10 suggested donation, all ages


THE CHURCH RIGHT out this window is Saint Thomas Episcopal Church. One of the priests [Reverend Shahar Weaver], she's an artist—she's part of an art collective called Sapphire and Crystals, a women's art collective. She was like, "Well, we got this parish house that's empty on the top floor, and we're not doing anything with it—let's make artist spaces!" B'Rael [Ali Thunder] was the first one in here. When he told me, I was like, "Well, how do I get in?" He was like, "Just talk to her." She was like, "Cool, come on in!" The only thing that you have to do is do something in the community.

I proposed a workshop I wanted to lead, and this is a good way to talk about what's really important to me: improvised music. It's amazing how globally people know about AACM—Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. People know about Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the monumental contribution those musicians have made to music worldwide. The community doesn't really know; that's all a systemic thing, of putting out information and keeping it from where it's from. One of my passions is emphasizing how improvised music, experimental music, is black music too. It's not some weird "Oh, what's wrong with them," no! The root of all black music is improvisation—participatory music.

There's a workshop I do with a group, me and another friend of mine, Julian Otis, who's in the Brothahood. We've been doing "Self Care = Resistance," so we really did it for ourselves: "OK, we're always doing shows, but when do we just get to heal ourselves?" We started doing these jam sessions where anybody can come, any level of musicianship, and we play together. I want to offer sonic healing to my community.

Angel Bat Dawid recorded most of The Oracle in this small studio on the third floor of the Radcliffe W. Hunter House of Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in Bronzeville. - LESLIE FREMPONG
  • Angel Bat Dawid recorded most of The Oracle in this small studio on the third floor of the Radcliffe W. Hunter House of Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in Bronzeville.
  • Leslie Frempong

I like being right here. Another great thing about this place is the historical context—next door is Margaret Burroughs's house. This woman started a museum in her basement, 'cause she was like, "We've gotta keep our treasures. We gotta tell our narratives." South Side Community Art Center is right down the street, one of the oldest black community arts centers in the country. Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston, all of them was walking right down this block, and I feel them. The creative vibration in Bronzeville, Chicago—it's just time to reactivate all of that. That's why I'm here!

I've been doing music since I was a little girl. I always remember singing. We lived in Africa when I was seven to 12; my parents were missionaries. When we came back to the States, I was like, "Give me lessons! I want to learn piano!" I started piano first—it was really, really hard, but I kept trying at it. Then I got to the clarinet. My earliest musical experience was classical. I love Mozart. Amadeus, that movie changed my life.

I loved it, but there was a part of me that always felt like, "I don't feel like a real musician 'cause I'm stuck to a page." My hand always wanted to kind of wander somewhere else. I didn't know that there was a context for what I was doing. My dad is a big music fanatic, so he had all sorts of music, lots of jazz: Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, all that. I would listen to his CDs, and when I heard Sun Ra, I was like, "What is that?" He had the movie Space Is the Place, and we watched it. I was like, "What just happened?" It's my first recollection of, like, "There's something out there that's like me."

At the South Side Community Art Center, I ran into a bunch of artists who I still perform with now. We did a show, and David Boykin—he has these jam sessions called Sonic Healing Ministries. He said, "Come to some of my free-jazz shit." I said, "Well, what do I do? Is there gonna be sheet music? I'm nervous." Jazz has always been that holy sanctuary, where you be like, "Gotta get my chops up, 'cause somebody might yell at you if you miss a note." I went to the jam session, and I'm like, "Well, what do we play?" He's like, "Just play anything. Just play." I went to town! That was my church—I went every Sunday.

Angel Bat Dawid and her bass clarinet - LESLIE FREMPONG
  • Angel Bat Dawid and her bass clarinet
  • Leslie Frempong

I met so many friends at that session. Those friends were like, "OK, Sunday's not enough, we need to do this even more." I had a coach house at the time, and I was like, "My neighbors love live music—they love it when I play." So we started doing jam sessions at my house. That turned into me discovering about AACM. I was like, "Wait a minute! You're trying to tell me that there was a black collective of musicians who got together right around the block from me? I'm doing this music, and they've been doing it for 50 years, and I'm just now finding out about them?" I went berserk! Once you go into the avant-garde—Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future—there's no turning back.

One thing I do love about Chicago's music scene, especially this particular music scene: we're like family. There may not be a lot of money in this, and that's very frustrating. People got mouths to feed, and you want to be able to live off your art. But I've come to a lot of conclusions about that. Music can bring you money, but you can't really put a price tag on your soul. Music is my soul.

  • Angel Bat Dawid performs with Adam Zanolini and Xris Espinoza at Experimental Sound Studio's Option series in May 2018.

That year, 2014, I was learning about the scene. I was halfway through the AACM book A Power Stronger Than Itself, by George Lewis. I'm reading it, and Adam Zanolini calls me: "Angel, guess who finna be at Constellation? Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell." I was like, "What? I was just reading about them! I'm there, let's go." I had the book, and I wanted them to sign it. I go up to Muhal—he was one of the founders of AACM—I was like, "Your book is so inspirational." He looked at me, gave me a hug, and said, "If you take care of the music, it will take care of you."

I've been riding on that. Anytime I get nervous about my finances, I'd be like, "Hold up! Take care of the music, Angel. Muhal said it would take care of me. He said it!" And I believe him, because look at his life. Look at his contributions to music. It took really good care of him. He died a noble man. Goodness, the dude was tired of playing the same shit and wanted to do something different and got a bunch of black folks together to do it, and they're still doing it.

I've done a lot of music, and I was in a hip-hop group with my good friend DeLundon. He always used to say, "Angel, you remind me of the Oracle in The Matrix." That was one of my favorite characters in The Matrix—they gotta go to a sista to get the knowledge. I took that on. I think by me taking it on I actually became that; oracles get messages from the divine.

  • Hip-hop group Angel/DeLundon released this video in 2013.

All of the songs [on The Oracle] came at different points. Some of them are recorded a year ago. Participatory Music Coalition, we had the opportunity to do Music in the Parks with the Park District; that year they were focusing on Margaret Burroughs and Gwendolyn Brooks. I was like, "I should write something." I found that [Burroughs] poem, "What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black," and some other poems and I created this Margaret Burroughs/Gwendolyn Brooks suite. I've gotta find this recording—we were out in the park, and there were all these cute babies. These kids came up, and this little girl came—I got her little voice singing, "What shall I tell." Oh, it's so cute. She was so precious.

I'll travel a lot—I got the travel bug young. International Anthem, they were having this thing in London [in October 2017] with Makaya McCraven, Ben LaMar [Gay], Jaimie Branch. They're friends of mine. And Art Ensemble was actually performing on my birthday, in London. I was like, "Ben, I'm going just for my birthday." He's like, "You bringing your horn? Want to play on my set?" Then I met Jaimie Branch. She's like, "You wanna play in my set?" She wrote this part for me. I was like, "So not only am I going, I get to play with y'all?" The song "London" I actually recorded in London. My Airbnb, sweet couple—they had a piano.

South Africa was my trip last year. I love Africa so much—I didn't realize how wonderful it is just to be around so much blackness. It was like a weight was off my shoulders; I didn't even realize I was carrying weight. It's not that Africa doesn't have problems, but it was just this ancient blackness that you don't get here, because America's a very young nation. Impepho is this incense that—in the African spirituality tradition there, they burn this incense to connect with their ancestors, and there were some groups there that I met that were very intentional about that. There's also this wonderful music called gqom music. It was like house, but it was different—it had this bass. I can't claim that I'm doing any gqom, but I can hear its influence in [my song] "Impepho." It rubbed off—that's why I call myself a sonic archaeologist. I like to go to places, just like you leave fossils everywhere—hello, sonic sounds are still left there too! They rub off on you.

"Capetown," that was a jam session. Met up with this guy Asher [Simiso Gamedze]. He's like, "You want to come to my house and do a jam session?" So we went and we had this epic jam session that's on the album. It's all these kind of journeys.

I've got this collective of musicians [the Brothahood]. Everybody's fuckin' busy all the time, so I was like, "OK, you know what I'm gonna do, so that rehearsals can be like boom boom boom—I'm just gonna record for people." Some musicians I work with, there's a mix of people who can read music and can't read music. The people who can't read music—I send them something, so that they'll hear it one time and get it. So a lot of the recordings, like "What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black," all of these were meant for a band to play. So that was just me recording all the parts. But the recordings actually sounded kinda good.

I've been playing a lot in the city. [International Anthem cofounder Scottie McNiece] had been to a few shows, and he's like, "Angel, you should put out an album—you want to put something out? Send me some stuff." And I was kind of nervous because I'm like, "Well, I recorded all of these on my phone." I was worried about the quality and shit like that. I knew how to mix, because I used to be really into hip-hop production. I have a simple multitrack app—you can put as many tracks as you want in there. I sent it to him, and they were like, "You all right! We'll get our man to master it." They didn't touch my mix.

Angel Bat Dawid at her keyboard - LESLIE FREMPONG
  • Angel Bat Dawid at her keyboard
  • Leslie Frempong

You know what they say luck is—preparation meets opportunity. Being ready for the opportunity means you have to be disciplined: you gotta play music every day, it's got to be the most important thing you do, you've gotta believe in yourself more than anyone, you can't be iffy and insecure. If you don't believe it, no one will believe it. I don't care if anybody ever heard any of those songs; I like them. They're from my heart. If it was just me listening to them on my headphones, I'd be fine with that too. I like the album, and I think because I like it, others like it—because they can hear me, they can really hear my true authentic self. That's me being Angel for real—I wasn't making that for no one but me. There wasn't even anybody in the room when I made those songs, except for the one with Asher.

The best way to collect memories is to just stay present. So if you do have that moment where you do want to go back in time, you can—we can be time travelers. You go back in time all the time. If there's been painful moments, some people don't like to go back to their painful moments, but you gotta be brave sometimes and go back. I go back to those painful moments as myself now, 'cause I'm stronger, and I comfort my little girl self.

So it's very appropriate that the cover for my album, that's my baptism. My dad, he showed me a comic book and it was this picture of hell, and I was like, "I ain't trying to go there! Hell no, what do I need to do?" He's like, "You gotta get baptized." I'm like, "Next Sunday, I'm getting baptized." So you look at that picture, I'm very serious, 'cause I'm like, "I am going to heaven. I'm gonna go to heaven."

And heaven is just what I'm talking about. If you want it to be someplace in the clouds, by all means; you can believe heaven to be whatever you want it to be. But for me, it's making every moment heaven. This is heaven: we're talking about cool shit, I'm about to be in the Reader, we're in my studio. I'm in heaven right now. I will always try to go to heaven.  v

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