Patent Medicine: Monroe Eigeman: Genius Talks of the Underground – review

Exploring the rich veins of the musical world that reach so closely from Park Slope to the West Village is much in fashion these days, from Missy Elliott and Jill Scott to Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch. But it’s among the middle-aged veterans of the African and Asian diaspora that life in American cities seems to be happening.

Proverbs Laing is a doctor of theology in Brooklyn, which means he sees lots of people in the hospital – and he knows the names of the rulers of Africa and India and Indonesia and China. It is a momentous age for global history and Laing has been up in his church on Sutter Street to hear Professor Milton Eigeman offer what you might call a rigorous, Third World show. Eigeman is a master of riffs on the Common Era, a metropolis against which human history is viewed in terms of conquest, invasion and dislocation. The elements are welcome – South, Central and North America – but it is the remains of Africa from which Eigeman draws inspiration.

So he opens with the late Mahalia Jackson’s version of a 1950s classic: “Do Not Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” a duet with Felix Mendelssohn – in which the latter sings of escaping slavery, an African escape. That’s one of the more uncomplicated versions of the song. It makes use of techniques variously lifted from a Greek or Roman wedding, often underpinned by polyrhythmic counterpoint (the “balafon” instrument played by Peruvian flutist Rubén Alonzo).

Alone with his theme, Eigeman picks up a phrase from the Matilda Tavern organ in Motown’s Hitsville USA and holds it aloft: “Too Close.” Yup, “too close,” it sounds.

The rhythm of Exodus barely seems to move through Eigeman’s concert – and the simplest of his messages is fairly complex, which is what makes the main theme seem almost simple to understand. The central episodes are drawn from those who survived slavery in 17th-century Benin or the Congo, or have staked out peoples’ shadows, and the memory of those battles has had something to do with these themes.

Laing is there to listen. And the steady gesture of his hands pointing to this or that resonates through the church. It is the sound of a deity blessed by some other power. As good a translation as any of Eigeman’s material is in English.

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