“Zimbabwe Nkenya is a St. Louis native and a highly regarded and creative bass player. Zimbabwe has appeared on several New Music Circle events recently and is one of our beloved performers. Sadly, he experienced a stroke earlier this past fall  . . .” Note: He recovered to perform since then.
His living and performing in Albuquerque was legendary, luminarily rich. He expanded the true bass in ranges and sonic levels rarely, if ever, heard. It was a blessing in my life in the 90’s to collaborate with him a couple times at the Outpost Performance Space.
From HYPE, Volume One, Issue One, March 1991, Albuquerque, David Clemmer, Editor. INTERVIEW: Larry Goodell, Zimbabwe N’Kenya
Bassist Zimbabwe N’Kenya and poet Larry Goodell are two mainstays of the arts in north central New Mexico. Zimbabwe is known to radio audiences as the host of KUNM’s Sunday night jazz program, “The House That Jazz Built,” and to audiences around the state as the bassist both for his own group, Jazz Culture, and for the Tom Guralnick Trio. Larry Goodell is a noted performance artist and poet-in-residence at the Living Batch Bookstore. Larry has published a book of his poetry (Firecracker Soup) and has released a tape – The Mad New Mexican – on the Ubik label. HYPE talked to Larry and Zimbabwe shortly after a recent collaborative performance at the Outpost Performance Space.
Zimbabwe. When I look at Larry I see him as an artist– and he has a certain presence, a certain thing that is his. When I first saw him at gigs at the Living Batch he wasn’t like a lot of academic poets, they got this stiff neck and attitude type thing. I’d played with poets before back in St. Louis and New York, and my wife Deborah is a published poet and I get a lot of inspiration through her. When we first met in St. Louis she was part of this poetry workshop that included Shirley LaFleur, who is a well-known poet in the Midwest. There’s a difference between just writing poetry and performing it creatively and Larry is just excellent at that: theatre, motion. Our collaboration was a natural thing.
Larry Goodell. I think collaborations are very tricky. You can want to collaborate and it may never happen because it depends on how collaborate-able you are. You need to plant the seed for it or perhaps it can just happen naturally. I’ve admired Zimbabwe’s bass playing for a long time and it crossed my mind several times that we might work together, and after time you experience each other’s work and if it seems that it might be a new experience, something exciting, that some spark might come out of it, well then, it can happen. During the San Francisco renaissance, the Beat generation, it was very common for jazz to be going on with poetry. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, Kenneth Rexroth- a lot of poets read with jazz, so there’ s a history to that kind of collaboration. I’d been thinking about that a lot lately and I wanted to get directly involved– my voice as an instrument. And today, through rap music, the media (and I mean MTV) has discovered that poetry does exist in America. It took rap to make that happen.
HYPE. How do you conceive of yourself as an artist operating in, and influenced by, this environment, having your creativity shaped by this place and these times and the circumstances that you find yourself in?
Goodell. Well, I’m a very dissatisfied person in many, many respects. I’m angry and dissatisfied by many things from the environmental situation to the government to the situation of poets in present day life. The way that I’m trying to deal with this dissatisfaction is to work with other people. I have a real concern about what other poets’ lives are like and helping people with readings and working with musicians and dancers when I can. A lot of my dissatisfaction has to do with the fact that being a poet is a pretty lonely situation: there’s you and your typewriter or you and your notepad. And then, on occasion, if you want to do it, there’s you and your audience, but I feel less isolated and less dissatisfied when I’m working with other people.
Zimbabwe. Yeah, well Larry has a valid point there– poets are pretty much a solo act. When I first came here I was stationed out here with the Air Force and I didn’t really like it. I was living at Kirtland and felt like I had been cheated– they sent me to Albuquerque as punishment (laughter). Yeah, yeah. But then what happened, it was going up in the mountains and such, and it was a gradual thing, so that by the time I left and went back to St. Louis I had this thing about New Mexico, something pulling me back– there’s this environment, this sky. Even in New York, we were getting kind of fed up with it and I told my family that we should go to New Mexico, because it was this thing out here– I can’t put my finger on it– but most of the songs that I’ve written and most of my creativity has happened here.
Goodell. I was in the Army in Southern California and I went to school at USC in Los Angeles, but other than those six years I’ve spent all of my 55 years in New Mexico. Since I’ve lived so little in other places I really don’t have too much to compare it to, to think what kind of poet I’d be if I was in New York or in Los Angeles. There is a certain sparseness to the landscape here, in spite of the fact that more and more people are moving here, so that you’re more aware of the specific artists– in all of the arts– that you particularly like and feel compatible with or who are doing interesting things. There may not be that many, but it’s as if they stand out on the landscape a little more clearly. When somebody major comes to town you really feel it, you pick up the vibes. But it’s getting less so. Albuquerque has always been verging verging verging on being a city, but without ever really becoming a metropolis.
Zimbabwe. When I came back here in 1988 it was because my daughter had been in the second grade in New York, in Manhattan, and I didn’ t like what was going on. I was starting to notice happening, things on a child’s level, and remembered how things were here and thought it would be better for her, and I remembered the Jazz Workshop and how that used to be back in ’79 and ’80 and I just took it for granted that we could come out here and it’d be okay. And it’s good, there’s this certain vibration here that allows me to create.
HYPE. You’ve got this concert coming up and it happens that this is Black History Month. How about the concept of Black History Month?
Zimbabwe. Well, on my flyer and in the press releases for the gig I made a point not to put “Black History Month”, because this country has a lot of problems, a lot of racial problems, and the things that are said during Black History Month should be said every day of the year. So, on the poster it’s Black History – period! There’s truths that have got to be spoken, and not just during Black History Month. I mean, when I was a kid, my parents were coming out of East St. Louis, which is in Illinois, you know– the Land of Lincoln– and I was writing this paper on Abraham Lincoln. I was doing some research, reading his speeches, and the things he was saying about us, about Black people, it really opened my eyes: he wasn’t the man that history has painted him to be. He hated Black people! You can’t build anything from lies, man, and people wonder why we have these problems- you got to just tell the truth!
Please leave any current information so I can pass it on. Thank you! For my collaborations with dancers please see The Dance Book. Larry Goodell / Placitas, New Mexico