Originally created to honor the memory of his deceased father, a just-released film “Song for Our People” from writer/director Mustapha Kahn is an emotional and stunningly produced documentary that is like conversations with friends over a cup of coffee.
A studio-full of talented musicians discuss their experiences as Black Americans, and is interspersed with a bird’s eye view of the production of the title song that features the golden harmonies of Jessie Wagner, Elsa Cornish and Karen Lloyd, the unrelenting and scintillating energy of tap dancer Omar Edwards, tight raps from Norman Burns, hearty vocals from Kenny Vaughan and Tashan, sizzling drums courtesy of Ralph Rolle, brassy riffs from Clark Gayton (trombone), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet) and Don Braden (sax), actor/director Gary Fritz; Trevor Allen, Gemini Hodge; sound engineer Oliver Straus, and a host of other individuals who became the ‘village’ that raised this beautiful portrayal of Black America today, imagining that their ancestors would ask of them one thing: What have you done with your freedom?
Thought-provoking, pointed and hopeful, the question hangs in the air like a hawk and won’t be denied. Interviewed below are director Mustapha Khan and trombone musician Clark Gayton.
MUSTAPHA KHAN – Creator and Director, “Song for Our People”
How long between conceiving of this project and going into production?
About six months. Before the session that is documented in the film, I had gone into a studio to do an initial demo of the song, with singer Kenny Vaughan and percussionist Danny Sadownick. Then from there we tweaked some things and went in to do a real recording of it with Danny, Kenny, and upright bass player Vicente Archer and a small choir. That version was beautiful but it was a bit solemn. So then I decided to give it a 70s power funk soul energy, and that’s when I got the whole crew involved.
How did you select the musicians?
I knew I wanted Kenny Vaughan to sing the lead. He, Charlie Ernst (keyboards) and I have been working together as a music team for 30 years. We made a lot of funky music for Sesame Street together as well for other folks. Then I knew we wanted some great female vocalists and both Charlie and I had worked with the trio of Jessie Wagner, Elsa Cornish and Karen Lloyd before and knew they’d knock it out of the park. I had also worked with rapper Normie B before, and so when I wrote the rap I was searching for the right rapper to make it come alive, I didn’t have to look very far. In regard to the horn players, I have known Clark Gayton since I was two years old. Our parents were friends and Clark and I were literally in the crib together. Clark is a monster musician and just a great guy. I knew he’d kill it. He did the original score for my last film, Rocksteady, a coming-of-age car racing movie. His original soundtrack on that film is exquisite. When I called him, he had suggested Jeremy Pelt for trumpet, and we both knew sax player Don Braden already. Don, Kenny Vaughan and I all went to college together. He and Kenny had also worked together. So the trio was a natural fit.
Kenny had also worked with Ralph Rolle (drummer) whom I had been a fan of for years. Ralph is a legend, and he selected the rest of his rhythm section, Gary Fritz (percussion), Trevor Allen (bass) and Gemini Hodge (guitar). Ralph and Kenny had both worked with singer Tashan before, and I had known of Tashan for years. I was making music videos for Russell Simmons at Def Jam back in the day when he was a solo artist there.
Finally, I wasn’t planning on having a tap dancer be part of the band but when I saw and heard Omar Edwards, I knew he had to be part of it. He was starring in a play on Broadway (Fly, about the Tuskegee Airmen) which my brother Ricardo Khan was directing, and Omar was happy to join the crew.
Does the resulting production match your initial vision for the music itself? For the film overall?
It came out better than I could ever have imagined. It far surpassed my original vision for it. It was just a magical session. Originally, I was not envisioning this as a film. I was just trying to produce the best track I could with these amazing artists. Because of what they did, it became a movie, and I am forever grateful to them all.
This was just released. What is some early feedback?
Amazing. It’s been so well-received. I am so glad people seem to be genuinely moved by the film, on all different levels and in so many different ways. It’s so gratifying to hear how the movie and the music touches people. It’s why we do this.
People watching this – Black and White – might say okay, what now? How would you respond?
I think the film is a documentation of an idyllic moment in time — an example of how things could be. In the session, we have a multicultural group of like-minded individuals respectfully working with one another to create something collectively that is greater than anything any of us could have done by ourselves. We created something together that is more than just the sum of our parts. That’s a metaphor for how our country could work, of what our society could become. I still think there are more good people in this country than there are assholes. We CAN make this work. We CAN be better. Love CAN conquer hate. This session is proof of that.
What was the single most rewarding part of creating this film and the music?
Being in one accord with all of these extraordinary artists and human beings. It is a privilege to know each one of them.
How do you feel this might be used educationally for all generations; not just upcoming, young musicians?
I think the film and music can touch people in all demographic groups. Before the pandemic, we played and performed with the film all over the country at different screenings and festivals, and no two audiences were alike. We played in Utah, Cali, London, Boston. I think the idea of honoring your ancestors and trying to live a life that would make them proud is universal.
CLARK GAYTON – Musician, “Song for Our People”
When did you start trombone and why?
I started wanting to play trombone after hearing a local funk band play Kool and the Gang and Ohio Players. I was a tuba player at the time, which I loved, but didn’t see why I couldn’t play tuba and trombone. So, I saved up for a trombone and bought one when I was around 13. Mostly taught myself at first, then just started asking questions.
Who are some of the icons that got you interested in jazz?
I always loved Basie and Ellington. I heard Frank Rosolino early on and Trummy Young.
How did you get involved in “Song for Our People”?
I go back with Mustapha over 50 years. Our parents knew each other in Cherry Hill New Jersey, back in the early 60s. We met in the Jack and Jill program and became good friends as toddlers. We caught up again in the mid 90s at the Time Cafe. I was playing into the Mingus band, and Muss was sitting in the front row watching the show. I hadn’t seen him in 30 years, but he looked exactly the same! He pulled me aside after the set, and reintroduced himself. “Of course you are,” I said.
What do you feel about the message of the film and how do you think music enhances it and serves as the delivery method of that message?
The message is a very important one. Anything that addresses culture, heritage, and musical/artistic lineage gets a thumbs up from me. This is a topic that should always be discussed, no matter how difficult it may be. Using music as a vehicle and showing the process can be very eye-opening for many viewers. The film is an invaluable document, and will hopefully create great dialogue.
What was production like: how did you get the music to practice, how did practice occur, and were you filmed in a live take or other way?
Everything was smooth. Everyone was glad to be there, and when it was time for us to do our thing, there was music prepared for us. We went over a few things and just rolled tape. I had top notch guys next to me, so I just tried to hang on and keep up. Took a few solos, dotted some I’s and we were done. Very pleasant session.
Do you think the film will have an impact?
I hope it does. Like anything, it has to get in the right hands. If that happened, if definitely can have an impact.
What are your hopes for the film?
Just like anything I’m involved in, including my projects, I always hope that people can enjoy the content, come away knowing my perspective. You don’t have to agree, but I made a contribution to the discussion.
Is jazz a unifier?
I think music in general is a unifier. Not just jazz.
Besides “Song for Our People” what are you working on right now?
I’m mixing a live record of my band, and finishing music on a new project. Both are very close to being completed. I finished a recording with Bronx Banda, and also started work on a web series.
Where are you located, and what is the scene like right now?
I’m between New York and West Virginia these days. I think venues will be up and running by late spring, in some form. At least I hope so. I’m ready to play again.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artists.
(c) 2021 Debbie Burke