In New Album, Matana Roberts Explores Black Ancestry through Probing Narrative Art

Matana Roberts’ jubilantly experimental new album Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the garden deftly weaves history, legend, and imagination using music — and, more specifically, sound — as a pathway to archival recovery. Out Sept. 29 on Constellation Records, the album is the latest installment in Roberts’ 12-part “Coin Coin” cycle, named after Marie Thérèse Coincoin, a formerly enslaved woman and a major figure in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Each album in the series is inspired by members of Roberts’ family, or by stories they told; Coin Coin Chapter Five specifically engages with a family member whose life ended too soon and tragically: an ancestor who passed away from an illegal abortion.

The roster of Roberts’ collaborators speaks to the experimental nature of the project: the musicians on Coin Coin Chapter Five include violinist Mazz Swift, multi-instrumentalist Stuart Bogie, vocalist/actor Gitanjali Jain, and drummer Mike Pride, who are all part of the new-music scene and rock bands that incorporate multiple creative disciplines.

Like its predecessors, Coin Coin Chapter Five speaks to Roberts’ interest in the historical gaps that dominate understandings of Black history. Roberts’ recovery of their ancestor’s experience is present in their use of biography, engaging with the archival residue that is not preserved via ink and paper, film or data bytes — but through embodied remembrance. Their kaleidoscopic use of musical styles like modal jazz harmonies and avant-garde narrative techniques place them in dialogue with contemporaries Tamar-kali, Nathalie Joachim, and Immanuel Wilkins, whose work blurs boundaries between classical and popular, relatable and esoteric, and communal and individualistic.

Matana Roberts -- Photo by Brett Walker

Matana Roberts — Photo by Brett Walker

While this artistic vision is not new, there is something startling and refreshing about Roberts’ use of experimentalist techniques to enact archival recovery, emotional connection, and communal remembrance. Roberts is intrigued by the potential for musical instruments to affect the body via sound; this is a series of compositions about sonic clashing, meshing, resonance, and the impact on the listener’s body, mind, and spirit.

The opening track, “we said,” makes that clear immediately with a clanging percussion ostinato and a dissonant, stepwise motive in the woodwinds, strings, and electronics. Beneath is a vocal part that is so subdued it’s nearly impossible to parse the words. There are moments when the voice rises and words poke through, but, ultimately, it is the instruments that dominate. This is made even more explicit with the introduction of a military drum pattern and a syncopated rhythm on recorders and penny whistles that call to mind a New Orleans second line, immediately transitioning to “different rings” — a brief, intense, and harsh free-jazz texture that ends almost as soon as it begins.

In “unbeknownst,” Roberts’ voice is the foreground, featuring what the credits call “wordspeak.” The use of this portmanteau is purposeful: Roberts is not speaking for themself, but for their ancestor who died too soon. They are a conduit to express the ancestor’s aspirations and possibilities, which were deferred, misunderstood, and eventually forgotten. As Roberts states in the refrain: “My name is your name, our name is their name, we are named, we remember, they forget.”

As we journey through the story of Roberts’ ancestor, we hear her dreams and setbacks: the colorism in the family of the father of her child, her work as a schoolteacher, her personality: “too loud, too bombastic, too sparkling” — a characterization familiar to people who sit outside the norm today.

Matana Roberts -- Photo by Geoff Albores

Matana Roberts — Photo by Geoff Albores

Literary and cultural references abound; track six, “a caged dance,” immediately takes me to Maya Angelou’s use of the caged bird in her first autobiography, itself a reference to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem Sympathy. “All the Pretty Little Horses,” a popular lullaby with African American origins, is turned into a haunting a capella round in “but i never hear a sound so long.” The following track, “the promise,” begins with a monophonic texture, the tonality aspirational but uncertain, which makes sense; it folds swiftly as material from the previous track returns — a horrible spiral away from a future that could have been, moving instead toward Roberts’ ancestor’s fatal end.

The sonic character of “for they do not know” is the most distinct, with electronic blips dappled in the background. Roberts takes us through their ancestor’s reflection on the operating table, what happens to her surviving children upon her death, and the aspects of her being that were released, uncontained, even when her body died.

Coin Coin Chapter Five closes the circle with “we said / different rings / unbeknownst,” a satisfying stitch of the first three tracks that subverts the bland tidiness of a linear conclusion.  This final track directly engages with the repetitive circular forms that dominate African American music genres and conjures associations with the ring shout: a musical event and communal act; a site of cultural theorizing and experience.

But “ain’t I… your mystery is our history,” the previous track, is the album’s thesis statement, clarion call, and final point. The clash of tonal tensions, the return of Roberts’ subdued but urgent wordspeak from foreground to background, and the drumline/second line ostinato from earlier reinforce the archival work Roberts articulates through “Coin Coin.” Some of us remember our history, and some actively or irresponsibly obscure it. Though separated by distance and time, we can engage. Through embodiment, we carry on our history.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or