Samson Kambalu is an artist, researcher and writer whose work spans a smorgasbord of mediums, including literature, performance, video and installation.

An associate professor of Fine Art at Ruskin School of Art, and a fellow at Magdalen College in his home city of Oxford, Malawi-born Kambalu has spent much of his life in academia, having himself studied at the University of Malawi, Nottingham Trent University and Chelsea College of Art and Design.

Though it’s his projects away from the lecture theatre that have garnered him the most attention of late. Last September, Kambalu’s award-winning anti-colonialism sculpture, entitled Antelope, was unveiled as the next to grace the Fourth Plinth in London’s bustling Trafalgar Square – a space it will occupy until 2024. Inspired by a 1914 photograph of Baptist preacher John Chilembwe and European missionary John Chorley, it’s this artwork, and its story and context, he’ll be delving into at HowTheLightGetsIn – a festival built around a sort of bringing together of music and philosophy, hosted in literary haven Hay-On-Wye.

Ahead of his talk at the upcoming event, and inspired by some more of his current work, Kambalu talks us through eight texts from his personal bookshelves that, in their own ways, tell a story about blues music, its evolution and its trailblazers. “Blues were part of my ethnomusicology studies,” he tells us, and the blues were played around the house when I was growing up. The blues also inspired a lot of African music of the early 20th century, such as Kwela and Babatoni music”. Read on to check out the full list.

The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy

David Honeyboy Edwards (1997)

I think the blues is the mastery of the Western idiom after the Industrial Revolution, when Marx described it as, “all that’s solid melts in the air”. Edwards seems to find joy in the otherwise harrowing experience of being uprooted as a homeless man.

In this book, he describes his rootless life as a bluesman travelling from door to door, looking for a gig. Whatever challenges he meets on the road, he turns into searing blues. His slide guitar sounded like the searing contact of the train on the rails. Edwards’ lesson is that life should be affirmed in whatever has been thrown at us.

Edwards triumphs, despite all the severe challenges set upon him by the precarious existence of an artist. Edwards even got to meet Robert Johnson and was there when the legendary musician was poisoned by the jealous husband of the woman he was having an affair with. One learns from Edward’s worldweary voice that beauty is everywhere.

Song of Solomon

Toni Morrison (1977)

You know, Toni Morrison is my spiritual mother. The depth of empathy for the human condition in her novels is unmatched. Through writing, Morrison can sing
the blues, matching the best of them in the African American tradition, such as Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. Morrison manages to extract overwhelming beauty in otherwise tragic histories of African American experience.

Go Tell it On The Mountain

James Baldwin (1953)

I read this book in high school. It made an impression on me; it didn’t read like any other book. Baldwin was more singing than writing. His moralist father is somebody I could identify with my own father, who communicated his ambivalence about religion in drunken sermons. One night, he would come in and say, “God is dead,” and went on to expand obliquely what Nietzsche might have meant by that statement.

It pleased me, actually, when I heard my father say that God is dead. It meant I didn’t have to go to Sunday school on Sunday. But it was never like that. The very man who preached to us that God is dead, emphasised to us that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. With that, he pulled us out of bed and sent us to Sunday school.

It is only now, as a grown-up person, that I appreciated the subtle sort of wisdom on his take on life. Life can only be lived by accepting contradiction. It’s possible through extreme discipline to arrive at total freedom.

Up Jumped The Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson

Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow (2019)

An otherworldly man, who manages to generate more mystery through his recordings than all the legends made up about him by his contemporaries or music scholars. Robert Johnson is otherworldly whenever he comes on record – I mean, listen to Love in Vain, for instance. Johnson’s voice doesn’t seem to be coming from the record. He sings like he’s in the room with you. The blues idiom does not get better than Robert Johnson.

Bird Lives!: (The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker

Ross Russell (1973)

When the blues got into the city, they became jazz. Charlie Parker embodies what a blues spirit looks like when he is divorced from its country uses. Charlie Parker is a free spirit, free as a bird out of the cage. Charlie Parker is the triumph and rapture of the human spirit among an extreme life of struggle in the urban area.

The Land Where the Blues Began

Alan Lomax (1970)

If you want to know something about the blues, this is a great place to begin. Alan Lomax sees beauty in the music tradition that was denigrated and often cast aside
as music of the devil. Alan Lomax’s studies of the blues demonstrates that where hell might lack, there also lurks possibilities of heaven.

Theory of African Music

Gerhard Kubik (2010)

The complexity of African music has always been foreboding for Western scholars, working with standard notation. The time in African music is non-linear, it does
not begin or end. Time in African music is a series of ruptures, as opposed to duration. Kubik manages to explore in depth this character of African music and
its cultural implications up and down the continent, through a sense of field research.

Ethnomusicology and African Music – Collected papers, Volume One: Modes of Inquiry and Interpretation

J.H. Kwabena Nketia (2005)

Watch this African professor play the thumb piano. It sounds like an orchestra. Professor Nketia embodies the magic of traditional African music while demonstrating how its soul can be translated into the modern world.

Samson Kambalu speaks at HowTheLightGetsIn, Hay-on-Wye, on 26-29 May


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