by W. Kim Heron
Faruq Z. Bey, local legend and icon of avant garde music in Detroit, has died after years of emphysema and other ailments. A friend who spoke to Bey regularly last heard from him Thursday and was unable to reach him on Friday. Her concerns lead to other friends entering his residence with police on Saturday and finding that he had died. The cause of death has not been determined. He was
around 70 years old.
(Update on funeral arrangements below.)
Bey was the leader of the group Griot Galaxy, a sprawling group into which dozens of musicians fell in and out between 1972 and the time it stabilized mid-decade and slowly distilled to a classic quintet around 1980. With saxophonists Bey, Tony Holland and David McMurray, drummer Tani Tabbal and bassist Jaribu Shahid, the group donned silver face paint and African garb, dubbing themselves a science fiction band. The name harkened to the African traditional bearers of tradition and history, on one hand, and
the reaches of space and the future, on the other.
While they were clearly rooted in the jazz avant garde – in artists like John Coltrane, Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago – the members of Griot Galaxy were extending that tradition in their own voices and in their collective sound. In fact, with their theatric edge and their penchant for hypnotic, layered rhythm, they were an avant garde group for people who didn’t particularly like the avant garde, or maybe even jazz. They were one of a kind. Sorry if that’s a cliché. But they really were.
The group made only a few recordings and was little known beyond Detroit when Bey was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. The group dissolved rancorously in the aftermath, but in the ensuing years, Bey slowly returned to playing.
By the early 2000s, his music career entered a new phase, leading his own groups and collaborating with others, particularly the Northwoods Improvisers, with whom he did at least
nine records. Griot Galaxy had released only two vinyl records back in its hey day, although the release of live Griot tapes from the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2003 made the group’s music available on CD for the first time.
Bey had been in ill health for years, his oxygen and breathing apparatus a constant companion. The news of his passing still came as a shock, a blow. Several generations of Detroiters spoke of hm in terms that had an element of reverence for what he had achieved and represented. The “end of an era,” lamented one friend and admirer who had followed his career back to the early 1970s at Cobb’s Corner.
There’ll be more later. And for those who have memories or thoughts, please add them below.
Update: Jim Gallert forwarded this link to an hour-long Detroit JazzStage podcast from 2006 featuring an interview with Faruq along with his music and poetry. More links: Griot Galaxy discography. Discs with Northwoods Improvisers.
Update: Sesheta Hanible, a longtime friend of Faruq's, and Jim Gallert both confirm Faruq's date of birth as Feb. 4, 1942. Hanible wrote in an e-mail: "As the news swirl around the community, there are people working on services. ... Faruq was very private. I hope that everyone take a moment or more and listen to his music, read a poem of his and remember the gifts that he has shared with all of us. " We'll share details as they become available.
Update: Faruq performed publicly as recently as April 5 with the Box Deserter group at
Popp’s Packing Lo and Behold in Hamtramack. Thollem McDonas, who played piano that night, uploaded this video to Vimeo. (Below, Maurice Greenia writes of playing with Faruq as recently as May 18.)
Below is a McDonas upload of the Soar Trio (McDonas, Joel Peterson and Skeeter Shelton) with Faruq as a guest from 2009.
Here’s Faruq, Skeeter Shelton and Dennis Gonzalez performing with the Northwoods Improvisers.
And here's a track, audio only, sadly, of Griot Galaxy.
Update: The funeral services for Faruq Z. Bey will be held on Tuesday, June 5, at 1 p.m. at the Muslim Center, 1605 W. Davison, corner of Woodrow Wilson. That evening, from 6-10 p.m., Pat Frisco will dedicate his Spirits Rejoice program to Faruq. The Henry Ford Community College station's signal at 89.3 FM hardly blankets the metro area, but you can listen to the stream at whfr,fm. ... Also this July's Concert of Colors was to have included Faruq in the Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue as well as in the poetry readings at the Scarab Club. Festival organizers announced Monday that a special Faruq tribute will be part of the July 14-17 event. Here's a link to Faruq's 2008 appearance as part of the revue.