Matana Roberts in Hackney
Matana Roberts asked for “comments, questions and critiques” at the end of her remarkable performance at Oslo in Hackney last night (“Well, maybe not the critiques,” she added). That doesn’t happen at every gig. There were many questions from an enthusiastic audience, and she answered them all — whether on David Cameron’s attitude to reparations for slavery or the influence of early ’60s free jazz on her music — with conviction, insight and wit.
A genuinely extraordinary artist of our time, she pursues a vision that places her beyond category. Last night she gave us a version of her latest record, the third chapter of the Coin Coin series, in which she is exploring various aspects of American history. On Oslo’s low stage she sat in front of a screen showing a loop of film she created with the use of family ephemera and other images, and divided her time between cueing and modifying the sound bed created from all sorts of audio sources (the “panoramic sound quilting” of which she speaks) and playing brief alto saxophone passages with her fibrous tone and hymn-like delivery, singing snatches of seemingly half-remembered songs, and reading from an old, scuffed, pocket-sized Bible into which she had pasted the various texts used in Chapter Three: River Run Thee.
She is a natural actor, with a powerful presence even in repose. She can draw us in with the warmest of smiles but suddenly switch and flash her eyes with a Simone-like disdain. Her powerful voice sometimes dissolves into strange mumblings and twitterings.
Some thematic fragments recurred. “Come away with me,” she crooned. “Black lives matter / All lives matter.” “I pledge allegiance to… I pledge allegiance to… I pledge allegiance… to a flag with liberty and justice for some.” And, frequently repeated, “I like to tell stories…” That, most of all, was how it felt. In her voluminous skirt, grey shawl, face paint and wild locks, patiently thumbing through her defaced Bible, fiddling with her laptop and electronics, taking her time as the story unwound, she had brought the meaning and textures of the lives of her ancestors into her own existence — and, quite unforgettably, into ours.