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Cheryl Ann Bolden’s personal soundtrack

In her quest for memories, Cheryl Ann Bolden has never forgotten the music that accompanied her throughout her journey. This is her mantra playlist, songs that have been central to her story. The Keeper is a documentary that focuses on her as an artist, available to watch here.

How does music contribute to your work on memory?

I should have been a dancer. I’m always thinking about dancing and music, but I’m suffering because of my knee (I have two new hips and a knee), so I’m thinking about music that I want to dance to … maybe in old women burlesque style, but for seniors (she laughs). Somehow, we think about music as transmission: for example gospel music, I was in a Baptist church. Even though I was in Catholic school, the Black church was much more interesting to me because of the music and, in fact, Whitney Houston’s mother was my choir director when I was 13/14 years old, so it’s kind of in my blood. Gospel and spiritual, for me, is very important as well as what it meant for people who were enslaved, how they were able to keep that culture in their soul without letting the slavemasters know. And so that whole tradition … everytime I look at something I can pick a genre of music that is connected to what was going on at a particular time: like in the sixties and the seventies with rnb, James Brown’s “Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Curtis Mayfield … How can I possibly choose 10 tracks????

Mongo Santamaria – Afro Blue

For dancing, it’s just a very sensual, African-oriented music. When I’m listening to it I feel like I can float, like I’m flying, so really it’s a spiritual thing: the body! I love this mixing of Africa and the African diaspora.

Johne Coltrane – A Love Supreme 

Coltrane again, with his idea of love. It’s very simplistic, but we need love, love is supreme. He was, I believe, an angel: the kind of music he was doing, the whole aspect of drugs, and the fact that he passed over so young … When you listen to it, it’s like a chant, it works like a mantra for me. A positive mantra. Like “Love supreme,” you repeat it over and over again, it’s vibration.

Aretha Franklin – A change Is Gonna Come

Everytime I listen to this one I start to cry. Again, this idea comes from the gospel tradition: when you are about to die and you’re going to another place that’s going to be better, this idea of ‘I’ll fly away, so a change is gonna come.’ It takes an African-American perspective – that one day we’re going to have a different life, things are going to be better for us … you have to always think that tomorrow is going to be better… and change has come! This song is like a mantra, also, like many songs I like. It’s very moving.

What do you mean by “a change has come?”

I think that the pandemic and watching Floyd being killed by the police on TV … It was nothing new, but now with social media and with all these images, these photographs, and people writing and talking about it, change is coming because people are starting to say “really, this is happening?! I didn’t know.” Now everyone can see it. Now, it’s not my problem, it’s a national problem, it’s even an international problem that people are suffering and starving. There’s no reason for it to be the case in my country – we are supposed to be the richest country in the world and yet people are still suffering and starving. It’s not possible. Change is happening because people are becoming more conscious about the poverty that is going on, they understand there is a real problem. So yeah, I think there is a change coming.

Janis Joplin – Mercedes Benz

I used to babysit for a mixed race couple in the 70’s and they were listening to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and I got really interested in that music, really really great music. She was doing social commentary, talking about being materialistic. She’s asking God for things and it’s a very materialistic-capitalist attitude, so that’s what I liked about her commentary.

Pharoah Sanders – The Creator Has A Master Plan

The masterplan: a cliché of living in harmony. If we think about a creator, it doesn’t have to be a man or a woman, it doesn’t have to be religion, we are talking about something that’s greater than ourselves. That’s the problem I think – people thinking that you have to have a religion in order to believe that there’s something greater than yourself. You don’t have to go to church: just try to live in harmony. I think that’s the masterplan (it could be other things, too), but that’s why I like this song.

Nina Simone – To Be Young gifted and Black

I feel for her, she wanted to be a classical musician, but because of the color of her skin she wasn’t able to pursue it. All her life she was a genius but she was angry, she was pissed off. I love this song: if you think about the U.S. and you’ve been treated like dirt and you’ve been told that you are not gifted and that being Black is not good, it’s important to know that you are young and you have gifts and you are black, and it’s a wonderful thing! People needed to hear that again: Afromation. If you know that you are young, gifted and Black, you are able to transcend, to do things in the world.

Chick Corea – Return to Forever

It’s travelling. When you listen to this kind of music you actually do travel to another place and he was a genius. He was able to play with anybody and he was incredibly fast!!

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

What’s going on? This is crazy, people trying to kill each other for money. What’s going on when you see the recent attempted coup in the US, for example. What happened?! And you had people saying “oh they were just angry people”… but wait a minute, that was an attempted coup, you didn’t see that? And we know that if they were all Black people, the police would have shot them down, so somebody opened the door and let those people in, and that’s White supremacy.

Fela – Zombie

He was a genius, Nigeria is a rough country. He talked about politics, the way people are treated. He had a message and he suffered for it. I went to his Shrine, it was like being in a church, very positive and very high energy. It was simply great music …

Bobby McFerrin -Don’t Worry Be Happy

Another mantra. If you really sing that song over and over again, sitting in the bus, your attitude will change, you’ll get lighter!

Abbey Lincoln – Throw It Away 

I met Abbey Lincoln. I knew her music a long time ago and she came in my gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I hung out with her, and we drank lots of Cavasier (a brandy). “Throw it Away” says throw all the negative stuff away, keep your hands wide open, so positive things will come. Keep your hands open for new things to come in. It’s a real important song for me.

Essie Mae Brooks – Rain in your life

It’s a spiritual – this idea that you’ve got to have a little rain, you have to have some bad things happen to you for you to see the sun. For me its like travelling: I used to hitch-hike, I lived in the cold and learned to survive … I think it helps to have a little bit of pain just to move forward.

Alice Coltrane (feat. Pharoah Sanders) – Journey in Satchidananda

I became interested in Buddhism and I believe that in one of my past lives that I was a Tibetan nun. When I went to the Himalayas to climb, I really liked the sound, the sound of meditation, that kind of Indian and Tibetan chanting, it’s healing music. And getting young people to hear that kind of music … it slows things down: what is the music trying to transmit? Alice Coltrane was a saint, and to play the harp … it’s just a gorgeous instrument.

Luther Vandross – Searching

In New York I was a real party girl. In the seventies I was very lucky to live there because you had the feminist movement and the gay movement and the gay bars, and then you had house music and the gay crowd was a way for people to mix, Black and White, people just having a good time and being free. So of course i’m connected to Luther Vandross, and house music … I partied a lot, I’m surprised I graduated high school … but I was a good girl (final laugh).

Read Cheryl Ann Bolden’s and Mariette Auvray‘s interview, director of the documentary The Keeper.

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