John Coltrane: Kulu Sé Mama, 1967

Kulu Sé Mama, from the album of the same name released in 1967, was originally recorded in 1965 with a fairly large ensemble of players that included a youngish Pharoah Sanders, the drummer Frank Butler, and clarinetist Donald Rafael Garrett, in addition to mainstays (at least up to this point) McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and the great Elvin Jones. The piece is somewhat of an anomaly in Coltrane‘s oeuvre, as it is built around a highly autobiographical vocal narrative sung arrestingly in an improvised Creole patois, by the New Orleans poet, percussionist and drum maker,  Juno Lewis, to whom the piece is credited.

Juno Lewis. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

JUNO SE MAMA came to me
through my father.
He taught me about what it is to be
Man,         Self,          Strongness,
It is a ritual dedicated to
My mother.
Upon this earth, I want her to see.
I had to understand my father’s house
before my mother’s house.
JUNO SE MAMA is a prayer for all those
Who have suffered the
after effects of Slavery.
Who are we?
It is also a spiritual for the sick
and poor, light for the blind, comfort
to the young and old,
Cradle song for babies,
Wind…for birds in trees,
The sound of thunder and lightning that
BURST out over the earth.
It is a rhythm of virtue.
When you are all alone,
Many songs come…in the night,
I am a moon child.
I come from New Orleans
the surge of the bayou.
In my young life I worked
And dreamed.
I wanted to sculpt,
to squeeze the earth
With my hands.
I talk with my hands.
Who teach me…no one.
I left my native home, New Orleans.
My people were not popular with
the Afro-arts.
I wanted to build,
to say.
A first Afro-American art center.
Young boy, with a Man’s dream,
“and a child shall lead them.”
While they were running the streets,
was listening.
a drummer born. American.
My father
a tuxedo drummer,
“once a tuxedo drummer, always a
tuxedo drummer.”
My mother’s father was a captain’s
F Company, 84th Regiment, Union Army
during the Civil war, 1863-6.
For the past 12 years I have been a
maker, designer,
a Son…..of drums.
My Afro-American Art Center will be
a home for the homeless,
Future sons of drums.
Coltrane moves in that direction
A man who knows
Directions for the future depend
On how we artists of today
cut the road.
Francis de Erdely, the famous artist
Made his contribution to my
art center.
His sketchings of me see into
and understand
Rhythm and Afro art.
The ritual, JUNO SE MAMA, begins in a
Mighty cloud burst
And the rippling of the water drum
begins beating against the
air cups of the world.
Moon children…ready to be born.
Signs of sky, earth, water.
One is born called JUNO.
His father’s house is the bird.
You can hear him teaching his son
how to fly.
Fly, till you reach the sky, Float,
Fly,                                                                    Float
till you make a boat
Be strong my son and show your arm.
I’m going to show you your MAMA’s home
She lives in the sea.
There is birth in the water
in my mother’s house.
No matter what has happened to us,
we have to sing.
There is always land ahead.
Earth is where it is happening,
It’s where we go from here.
We have to sound the cry
of the conch shell.
Blow the shell…
blow, blow
till you see.
And JUNO blowed and blowed till
he grooved
and grooved.

text arranged by jo ann cannon

Interestingly, some Youtube commenters have noted the similarities between the melody sung by Juno, and a particular old folk song known to many on the island of Haiti. The connections between Haiti, West Africa, and the cultures of New Orleans are well-established historically and anecdotally, and the fact that no mention is made of this connection in any published sources on this piece, shines a grayish spotlight on the dearth of meaningful, culturally fluent scholarship concerning the “paths of wisdom” that run through Black music.

While it isn’t known whether or not Trane or even Juno himself was aware of the origins of the tune, the sense of calling back to the ancestors that colors the vocal soon possesses the ensemble of musicians as well, producing inspired performances from each musician in turn, the summoned spirits transfiguring their instruments into the mystical conch shells of the lyric, the track’s dense percussion, clattering sticks and bones, rituals under the stars and howling winds. Pharaoh in particular uses his saxophone here to produce sounds the ferocious likes of which wouldn’t be heard again for years, until the ascendency of electronic and synthesized instrumentation. The sounds he was producing with a horn were that far out.


Besides being a transcendent joy to listen to, the album’s title track (which times out at over 18 mins) is important for prefiguring the coming overtly spiritual/astral jazz of the late 60s and early 70s of which musicians like Pharaoh Sanders and Alice Coltrane would become the standard bearers. Throughout this period of Sanders’ career, it seemed like he was constantly picking up where Trane had left off, and with the obvious exception of Sanders’ The Creator Has A Master Plan and its purposeful  musical and philosophical relationship to Coltrane’s magnum opus “A Love Supreme”, this is never more evident than in the clear connection between this project, and Sanders’ subsequent projects, like Tauhid and Summun Bukmun Umyun, which took the use of bass ostinato, hypnotic polyrhythms, harmonic openness, ascending modulations, and chanted vocals that he had encountered in his experiments with Trane and others to new levels, creating a unique, alternate sonic universe based on these principles, a universe replete with affirmations of afrocentric spirituality, which he and many others would continue to mine for truth and music, with varying levels of success, for decades.


Kulu Sé Mama, a literal prayer to the ancestors, is the last album that John Coltrane released in his lifetime; and by this cosmic incident of history, its plaintive acknowledgment of destiny or fate, its acceptance of the presence and power of the spirits in our midst, perhaps waiting their turn to take us away, and above all, its stellar improvisations suspended in fog, are rendered all the more powerful and poignant. Highly Recommended.


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