Growing up, I heard the term “redbone,” when my uncles and aunts referred to one of my cousin’s skin color–a soft chocolate with hints of “Injun” blood, as my Auntie Joyce would say. Since that cousin had Native American ancestry, this blood would invariably show up as a red after-glow under the smooth brown.
In my life, I’ve loved a smooth Redbone or two, and now, I might have fallen in love with another–Martha Redbone.
Accompanied by her accomplished husband, Aaron Whitby on piano, Martha Redbone mesmerized her intimate and enthusiastic audience in the Doris Duke Theatre, as part of the live performances segment of the Honolulu African American Film Festival.
At the beginning of her performance, Redbone shared some of the songs from her award-winning, theatrical work-in-progress, “Bone Hill,” a loving testament to her family’s ancestry written in blood, sweat and coal-mining landscapes.
She proceeded to captivate her listeners from center stage, in a white dress that bloomed like an upside down white tulip, as she sang, spoke, and played her intriguing assortment of percussion instruments like the shaker shaped like a bear, or the black geometric whose sound was reminiscent of small hail stones and heavy rain drops.
Redbone continued weaving a moving kaleidoscope of songs and “talk story” that honored her family’s Appalachian, Choctaw, Cherokee, Shanee and African roots. She and her husband even celebrated one of my favorite visionary British poets, William Blake, in song.
With Whitby trilling across the piano keys, Redbone bounced seamlessly between songs with disturbing topics like “Census Man, ” that examines the Racial Integrity Act which reclassified the racial designation of Native Americans in the 1920s, to sweet ballads like “The Garden of Love,” inspired by one of Blake’s 19th century poems. Divine. And each lyric was a testament of love: love of family, love of music and love of life.
Even though I had never heard Redbone’s music until that night, her songs sounded vaguely familiar, like lullabies, old R&B tunes, or zydeco dances crooned by my paternal grandmother, Mother Dear. And Whitby’s piano danced with Redbone’s voice, evoking a hoe-down, then a waltz, then a soul record, then a pow wow, then a call and response spiritual at a Southern Baptist Church.
She didn’t just perform; Redbone taught us about her family, racial pride, our American government and the different ways we love.
I couldn’t leave if I wanted to, after being so warmly invited with the rest of the audience into this husband and wife duo’s living room, er, concert space, where she reminded me of a fiery Cassandra Wilson, or a soulful Randy Crawford.
But at the end of the day, she is all Redbone. Martha Redbone.
Do your ears a favor and check her out.
See The Honolulu African American Film Festival, Feb 6-4 March at the Honolulu Museum of Art, Doris Duke Theatre, for a list of activities and performances. (www.honolulumuseum.org) (808) 532-6097.
Allison Francis is Hawaii Reporter’s Arts & Culture Editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org