From the Forest and the Sea Come Stories: Matana Roberts

Pegged to her recent commission by the London borough of Waltham Forest to create a  mixed media installation about the area’s People’s Forest, Chicago-born saxophonist/storyteller Matana Roberts tells The Quietus’ Adam Quarshie how a performance like that relates to her ongoing multi-disc Coin Coin project. Concerned with the journey of shackled African Americans by ship from the slave forts of the Ivory Coast and Ghana, through their years of slavery as well as escapes through the Underground Railroad to Canada and latterly their experiences during enforced segregation in the American South, it’s a massive undertaking which takes in many situations. Besides other purposes, she explains, “forests have often acted as refuges for those escaping violence and oppression”. In fact one track on her latest CD is about a woman of color who hid from the Ku Klux Klan for months in a Tennessee forest. That woman was Roberts’ distant relative, with the story told to her by her grandparents. This linkage between her own history and the larger story of American Blacks informs all parts of Coin Coin and her life. Roberts’ love of cold water sports such as swimming and for instance, is a link to her mother’s experience swimming in segregated Chicago pools, while her 12-day cargo ship experience from Liverpool, England to Halifax, Nova Scotia recalled those months-long slave ship journeys. More hopefully, Roberts says her live shows are a way of building immediate community between people who don’t know one another. “You have people in the room that may not like each other after they leave. But in that moment, there’s love.”