Heaven Belongs to Me
“Heaven belongs to me …” clap, clap, clap-clap-clap-clap … “Heaven belongs to me …”
“ I’m sitting on the carpet of a terracotta-pink Charleston parlor, my Nikon in my lap. I just shot a close-up of an African American musician’s brass clad fingers skipping across a nearly square washboard. His indigo trousers are anchored at his waist by a rope and his straw hat is tipped back on his head. His eyes are warm as honey and only occasionally glance my way—“Heaven belongs to me”—and in my heart I truly feel the song and the rhythm—the beat of the Christian spiritual.
I sing along, clapping my hands as he has instructed us, a roomful of “Music Café” folk, as he and his partner perform. Even her floor-length indigo Gullah dress brushes the threads of the carpet in time to the strumming and the singing … clap, clap, clap-clap-clap-clap … “Heaven belongs to me.”
When was the last time my heart had thrummed to a beat? I remember that thirty-three years before, as a Peace Corps volunteer on my first bus ride in Ethiopia, 1972—the driver’s assistant slid a tape into the machine: James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Who knew that by changing continents I could grow a new ear? I heard rhythm and blues like it was for the first time. The next song that time was Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.”
Up next during that ride was Alemayehu Ashete, Ethiopia’s own James Brown, a haunting voice with the horns of the band behind him. Though Ethiopians listened to American blues, the rock and roll and jazz brought to them via the U.S. army base radio station outside the Eritrean city of Asmara, they had music all their own—equally jazzy, even sexier and even more shake-your-booty moody. Their bands had been inspired by the unlikely source of a group of forty Armenian orphans from Jerusalem, adopted by Emperor Haile Selassie for their music. Those orphans played brass instruments and the Ethiopians of their adopted country fell in love with the sound of their brass band and incorporated it into their popular music. Ethiopian ears were ready to accept American rhythm and blues when it showed up on their radios.
As for me, long before that bus ride, while still in eighth grade, I had danced to Chubby Checker: “Come on, baby, let’s do the Twist.” The Twist was the first American dance where you danced alone with your partner. Dancing to Chubby Checker was a revelation, a release of pre-teen sexual energy, an introduction to using my shoulders and hips to express sensuality. Chubby Checker was born in Spring Gully, South Carolina. James Brown was born in Barnwell County, South Carolina. I didn’t realize it then, but I’d been listening to America’s southern musicians much of my life. I’d heard Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong on my father’s hi-fi.
When radio began its life in the 1920s a new kind of music found its way from New Orleans, the river towns of the American South, and African American neighborhoods in New York and Chicago to the homes of white families like my family in suburban Walnut Creek, California. Musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong became household names. The overnight celebrities were African Americans like Ellington, Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. Ellington’s band performed weekly national broadcasts from the Cotton Club in Harlem. My father welcomed African American music into our living room, and my ear was trained to listen to jazz.
That summer of James Brown on the Ethiopian bus I learned to dance to Ethiopian pop music in the Ethiopian and Eritrean manner, shimmying my shoulders to Alemayehu Ashete and Mahmoud Ahmed. While I was in Peace Corps training in a town called Shashemane, we danced Friday evenings with our Ethiopian and Eritrean trainers, swapped cassette tapes and shook our hips and shoulders to African and African American music. It was a time when American pop music still had a horn section and Ethiopians loved their horns. When our trainers danced they kept their hip and foot movement to a minimum as they shimmied their shoulders.
Like African American music, Ethiopian music has its roots in liturgical sound. A large drum, a gong, a jangly metal sistrum and the pounding of prayer staffs accompany the Ethiopian church service to maintain rhythm along with chanting. It is mesmerizing. No pews in their churches, you stand and sway for many hours, as long as you can persevere in their dark incense-scented stone rooms.
My musical African American heroes grew up singing in their churches in the South: John Coltrane, Charles Lloyd, James Brown, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, and on and on. Chubby Checker was even told he’d have to sing in a choir for a while when he was paroled from a Georgia jail. Then his musical career took off.
As a young girl, although I didn’t know at first where they came from, I sang African American spirituals in my Presbyterian church and again as a college student as part of the folk movement: “Amazing Grace,” “Go Down, Moses,” “It’s Me, Oh Lord,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
So my connection to the South has been through the music of African Americans from the South. I didn’t know “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” came from the South. It was just one of the songs we sang at summer camps, at anti-war demonstrations, and at Civil Rights demonstrations. In fact, it was published in a collection of spirituals as early as 1927 and collected by Frank Warner, an American folk song collector, from a singer in North Carolina in 1933.
Through my experiences with the Civil Rights movement, I woke up, and the lyrics themselves taught me. And now, when I think of gospel songs and spirituals I know them as southern songs that most often originated among enslaved Africans in southern states, sung while they worked and when they attended church. Many spirituals have been sung since the 1600s.
Even Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man” is accepted as an African American traditional spiritual song. Nina Simone was the sixth child of a preacher’s family in North Carolina. A famous rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” was done by Louis Armstrong, the man who trained my ear in my living room. I can hear his raspy voice: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, glory hallelujah.”
From liturgical music and spirituals, to pop music and jazz, to rhythm and blues and rock and roll, from dancing and losing yourself to the beat, to cross cultural sharing of sound and senses—music is really quite remarkable and human, and for me it is rooted in America’s south and the Ethiopian beat.
At that Music Café in that lovely Charleston home, I have a conversation with a Charlestonian about music in the South. “Music is different in the various states here in the South,” she insists, “South Carolina from Louisiana from Tennessee.”
Louisiana gave us Louis Armstrong, the grandson of slaves. Alabama gave us Percy Sledge (“When a Man Loves a Woman”), and Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas (“Dancing in the Street”, a 1964 Motown hit.) B. B. King, the son of sharecroppers, was born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. T-Bone Walker, of African American and Cherokee descent and acclaimed American blues guitarist, was born in Linden, Texas. Two more of my favorite jazz musicians, Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane, were born in North Carolina. Tina Turner was born in Nutbush, Tennessee. Her song “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” helped me through my divorce.
When I return to California from my trip to Charleston, I attend a jazz concert in San Francisco. Charles Lloyd headlines. Lloyd grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. His roots are African, Cherokee, Mongolian, and Irish. He was exposed to different music than James Brown and Chubby Checker—to Memphis’s river culture—but also, like them, to blues, gospel and jazz. That night at the jazz club he performs “All My Trials—not exactly a gospel song, but deeply spiritual.
Finally there is a white boy’s song about the South. When he sings, “In my mind I’m goin’ to Carolina . . .” it means something to me, because now I’ve been to South Carolina four times and I love being reminded of the place. “Can’t you just feel the sunshine? Can’t you just feel the moonshine? Ain’t it just like a friend of mine, to hit me from behind?” Simple lyrics, maybe, but when I hear it, I’m there.
The same is true when I hear Alemayu Ashete. I want to go back to Ethiopia. And James Brown, well, he takes me back to my youth. And Nina Simone, she takes me to my soul. Where would my spirit be without my southern musicians?
“Heaven belongs to me …” clap, clap, clap-clap-clap-clap … “Heaven belongs to me.”
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Cheryl Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area writer, photographer, certified yoga instructor, and world traveler. Her career was spent as an automation librarian in academic, public and special libraries. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia and a librarian in Istanbul, Turkey. Cheryl writes about outsiders and what they teach us about ourselves.