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Stirring Up Passion--With Poetry

November 17, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

Maya Angelou, pop star?

You know Angelou--President Clinton's favorite poet, the author of the best-selling autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," the woman with a voice textured like rich soil and who has appeared in such movies as "Poetic Justice," and "How to Make an American Quilt."

Now she's got a record out. Collaborating with the team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson--the writers-producers behind such classics as the Marvin Gaye/Tammy Terrell duet "Your Precious Love," as well as their own Ashford & Simpson hits--Angelou has presented her musings on love and hope in a whole new context. The album, "Been Found," has just been released by Ashford & Simpson's independent label, Hopsak & Silk Records--and it's on the R&B sales charts.

It makes for a project that doesn't fit into current radio formats, but has a soul and spirit that the collaborators believe does connect with today's music--a point Angelou stresses during an interview by playfully reciting lines from James Weldon Johnson's 1892 "Negro Love Song":

See my lady home last night

Jump back honey, jump back

Held her hand and squeezed her tight

Jump back honey, jump back.

"Hip-hop, like all black music, has deep roots," she says with an earthy laugh. "What young people need to realize is that their music has roots, like, 'Oh! I didn't make this up. Somebody set the stage for me.' That would be very nice."

Of course, this album has a quite different tone from current hip-hop and R&B. Angelou, Ashford and Simpson hope that their efforts might somehow change the tide of sexualized lyrics and move the music back to a level of tenderness that's been missing for some time.

"It behooves us to show people the way," Simpson says softly in a separate interview. "The youth need to know that wooing and touching can work before you get to the wham bang!"

The project, appropriately, had its genesis in the musicians' tender friendship with the poet, whom they visit frequently at her rural North Carolina retreat.

"This record is something that just happened, and that we've been working on for about two or three years," says Ashford. "We were having a spiritual meditation with Maya in our home library, Valerie was playing piano, and Maya came in and, completely ad-libbing, began to speak aloud. She didn't know I was taping it."

Says Angelou, "A few months later they called me up and said, 'Maya, you ought to hear this.' We both liked it, and we love being around each other, and it just progressed from there."

The record is actually Angelou's second. In 1957, at the age of 27, she performed as a singer in such clubs as New York's Village Vanguard and Beverly Hills' the Keyboard and made a record for the fledgling Liberty Records titled "Miss Calypso." (It was recently reissued on CD.)

On the new recordings she doesn't sing, but instead melds her strong spoken words with Ashford & Simpson's melodies.

"It felt completely natural," Angelou says. "I've always believed that poetry is music written for the human voice. It's something that lives, and is meant to be spoken, to free it from the page. It didn't feel as if I joined another world."


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