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Don Cherry was born in 1936 in Oklahoma City, where he was surrounded by music from an early age. Both his mother and grandmother played piano, and his father owned The Cherry Blossom Club, a venue that hosted some of the great swing bands of the time as they traveled through the Great Plains. In 1940, the family moved westward to Los Angeles, where Cherry’s father worked at the Plantation Club, an essential jazz spot in the Watts neighborhood of South L.A.
In the early 60's, he left his wife Carletta and two young children, Jan and David, placing them in the care of his mother in Los Angeles and taking off on his first European tour, to make good the early promise of his work with Ornette Coleman. When he finally came back, he had acquired a new family.
Don Cherry had met Moki in Stockholm on a tour with saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Moki had an unusual approach to life: in the '70s, while many artists challenged the establishment rebelling against in, she focused on more experimental projects and seemed more interested in promoting values she deemed worth protecting and fighting for. Throughout her life she tried to present other ways of living, coming up with projects about counter urbanisation and subsistence-farming, and organising art projects for kids or interdisciplinary creative practices.
Moki, who was a percussionist, encouraged Don Cherry to study ethnic music, and among other instruments he took up the doussn'gouni, a hunter's guitar from Mali. Moki and Don lived in a utopian and alternative world: Don would play his flute to the birds in the woods outside Stockholm and wander in town still playing while children followed behind. Together Moki and Don played festivals and exhibitions, organising happenings, creating music, art, posters and album covers.
They also came up with the concept for Movement Incorporated (later Organic Music) and founded the Octopussteatern project for kids and teenagers. In 1970, the family moved to an old school house in Tågarp, Skåne, where they lived according to the motto "the stage as a home, and the home as a stage". By 1975, the family was dividing its time between the schoolhouse and a loft in Long Island City, Queens.
History can judge the value of these popular explorations. For the time being, it looks as if Cherry's biggest contribution to the American pop scene was letting his stepdaughter loose in London in the late 70's. Neneh had dropped out of school in Sweden at 14. At 16, she set out on a musical expedition to England with her stepfather. Through his global network of colleagues, she fell in with London's arty, late-punk crowd.
Later, she returned on her own, had her first child, Naima, and recorded albums with bands known primarily to aficionados and record-company people: Rip, Rig & Panic; The Slits; Float Up CP.
As the daughter of a Swedish artist and an African musician, and the stepdaughter of a black American jazzman, Neneh has within her at least a couple of different tribes clamoring for expression. Just before the pivotal trip to England, Neneh had made her peace with her African self, in Africa, where her father had invited her to attend a family reunion in Sierra Leone. ''You can't help but find your roots there,'' she says. ''That's like going back to the old soul.''
Cherry burst onto the music scene in the summer of ’89 with her hip-hop/dance stylings on the smash single “Buffalo Stance” off her album “Raw Like Sushi”. An attractive female with a social conscience who was rappin’ and singin’ on her records (at the same time) four years before Lauryn Hill blessed the mic (and seven years before L-Boogie became a star), Cherry got Grammy nominations (including a nod for the memorable 1989 Best New Artist prize that eventually went to legends Milli Vanilli) and much critical acclaim.
Cherry’s 1992 follow up album “Homebrew” came harder with both the MC skills and the social commentary, and despite intriguing lyrics, fantastic production (courtesy of Cherry and Cameron McVey AKA Booga Bear, who Neneh more commonly calls “my husband”) and guest appearances from superstars of rock & hip-hop, the album didn’t chart, and Cherry immediately dropped off the pop music radar, at least in the U.S.
The second single off the album, “Buddy X” is a funkier jam that sets it’s laser sights on a formerly-dreadlocked rock singer by the name of Lenny Kravitz (at least according to rumor). Neneh was apparently incensed at the way that he was treating his soon-to-be-ex-wife Lisa Bonet (Neneh and Lenny were labelmates, and I’m sure a corporate request was made at some point for the two of them to work together), and the lyrics attack “Buddy X” for creating a false family image and hiding his dalliances with other women. It’s worth it for the way Neneh spits out the like “there’s a hypocrite that lives in you”. It’s also worth noting that the “Buddy X” remix marked one of the earliest recorded appearances by a young Notorious B.I.G.
Although Raw Like Sushi got the props (and the sales), Neneh’s follow-up is a much more fully realized album. Equal parts Alanis Morissette, Janet Jackson & MC Lyte, Neneh was (and still is) an exceptional talent.
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