Ngoma In the House

Plastic melts down and jams up an ATM machine/
The ashes at the token booth are only a token of the sickness ...

Ngoma was spitting. Which he’s been doing before people talked about spoken-word poetry as “spitting.”

He came from his home in Harlem to New Haven last Friday night to show a new generation how it’s done. He came to headline the monthly “Free 2 Spit” open mic at the People’s Center on Howe Street.

Ngoma has been a self-described griot for over 40 years, a legend in the field before it evolved into today’s scene.

And he showed it.

Energy filled the two rooms on the lower level at the People’s Center on Howe Street, the once-a-month setting for “Free 2 Spit,” where anyone can recite poetry, sing, or “spit rhyme.”

Ngoma brought the house down—sometimes reciting verse with no accompaniment, other times playing electric violin and singing or chanting. Click on the play arrows to the videos in this story for samples of his performance.

He performed old pieces and tracks from his new CD, Poetry From A Smart Phone, a series of poems and music written during the National Poetry Month 30/30 Challenge of 2011.

When they lynched us so bad that violence doesn’t shock us anymore/
Not even death lasts forever/
As a daily diet is elusive to the many ...

“I think I have to give people information,” said Ngoma after his hour-and-a-half performance. “So many times, people don’t get the information they need, even though there’s Facebook, and all that other media out there. They aren’t getting knowledge.”

Vietnam first inspired him to perform, he said. “I promised myself that if I got out of there,” he said with a slight chuckle,” I would do this.” And he has done it since returning to the States in 1968, after a year in Vietnam. He joined Amiri Baraka’s The Spirit House Movers and Players and was one part of the duo Serious Bizness. He also is a 1997 winner of the National Poetry Slam Competition in Middletown and has been published by numerous magazines and reviews, including Yale Press. He’s been featured in the PBS spoken-word documentary, “The Apropoets with Allen Ginsberg.” Ngoma also participated in the 2009 Badilisha Poetry Xchange in Capetown, Africa. In 2011, he was initiated as a Priest of Obatala, a Yoruba religion, in Ibadan, Nigeria.

He told the audience of 40 or so at the People’s Center that he was very close to the late Zanette Lewis, one of the organizers of the Martin Luther King Family Festival of Social and Environmental Justice at the Peabody Museum. She got him involved with the poetry slam component of the celebration, and he has been affiliated with the celebration since 1995; he served as this year’s host. Ngoma doesn’t just perform vocals; he plays the electric violin, acoustic guitar, bamboo flute, and the Yidaki, also known as a Digeridoo.

No one works/
All the unions busted/
Everyone’s gone fishing/
All the fish are dead/
Even nuns have dildos/
And confessional chambers are not safe for your young sons ...

And, as with any live performance, there were a few glitches, but the audience was patient, feeling it was worth the wait. Here he plays the Yidaki, records it into his system, and plays it back to use as background for his reading.

Michelle Turner PhotoKim McMillan (in jean jacket) came to the event with her sister, Jeannine Lewis. She writes for fun. All through Ngoma’s set, McMillan and her sister sat in the front row, intently listening and watching the performance, taking it all in. She said her sister talked her into coming out, and she enjoyed herself. “I feel inspired. I haven’t picked up a pen in a while, and this made me want to go home and write,” she said,“And I enjoyed myself tonight! Who knew this was right here in my neighborhood, right around the corner from my house?!”

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