Last October, my good friend Num Amen'Tehu and I went out to take photos for his latest project.
Num and I have worked together several times over the years. My photos have ended up being used for his headshots, promotional materials, and album covers.
Originally known as a percussionist, Num’s also a fantastic soulful singer who's music is able to bridge many styles and genres of music. Num has worked with a variety of artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Burning Spear, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scot-Heron, Naughty by Nature, Common, Bootsy Collins and numerous others.
He and I have developed a rhythm where we talk through the different ideas of what we want to obtain, and then in a very relaxed manner we walk around the neighborhood capturing looks. I've seen Num perform numerous times and I'm always struck by how his ebullience radiates to the audience. I've tried to not only give Num the images that he's looking for but to also capture some of that natural enthusiasm I see when he's performing.
Despite many differences, Num and I share a passion for not only music but also true soul music. Many times when trying to articulate ideas I find myself saying to him, "well the image I'm looking for looks like how this song sounds." And amazingly, he completely understands.
The first time we went out, and trying to figure the next shot we were sharing ideas and I said, "I'm looking for a basic joy that feels like Al Green's 'Let's Stay Together.'" The sun was shining and we were in front of an old gothic looking church on the corner of 127th St and 5th Ave. Num began singing a Capella 'Let's Stay Together.' His entire disposition changed. Static shots became alive as I was trying to catch him in mid-performance. Num no longer focused on the camera or me but became enraptured in the song. A small crowd gathered to watch. I believe that some of our most true shots came from that moment.
As his image has changed over the last couple of years I've noticed maturation in spirit that I hoped to capture. The first time I took Num's pictures was in the middle of summer; he had long dreads and was looking for a cover shot for his latest reggae album. However, over the last couple of years, Num has lost the dreadlocks, and has slightly thinned, giving him a very different appearance.
Riding on the 4 Train on my way to Harlem, Marvin Gaye's 'Trouble Man' started playing on my iPod. 'Trouble Man' was a song Marvin wrote for an early 70s movie of the same name. The song came out a year after Marvin's seminal album, "What's Going on" and the song clearly shows the personal creative leap Marvin made into a very adult self-aware type of soul music. Marvin played the drums and piano on the track as well as singing in a falsetto with tinges of a gospel growl. With "What's Going On" Marvin had entered a new phase of recording career that left behind the 60s and the factory type of pop music that Motown had become famous for. The music was concerned about grooves, a heavy combination of jazz, rock, soul, gospel and crooning. According to Wikipedia, Marvin called the song one of the more honest recordings he ever made.
As I sat on the train listening to the groove and song over and over again, I began to think of the ideas that I wanted to express to Num about what I'd like to accomplish. When I saw him, the reference I started with was Marvin's "Trouble Man." And I explained further how I had an idea of an experienced adult musician that can turn the energy on whenever called, in the tradition of the great blues performers like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Howling Wolf. Once again, Num completely understood what I was trying to express.
We walked to Marcus Garvey Park, down the street from where he lives in Harlem. The park has a public swimming pool, an amphitheater and is famous for having the Harlem Fire Watchtower, the only watchtower out of eleven the city had built that still stands from the 1850s.
I played around with settings and lighting. I tend to take an excessive amount of pics, figuring that since it's digital it doesn't cost anything, plus there's no fear or worrying about getting the right shot.
As we passed the amphitheater on our way up the hill, I asked Num to get on the stage. After a few far away shots, Num started to sing Marvin's "What's Going On." Once he began to sing, Num began to tap into that eternal cosmic groove.
Eventually, we ended up on top of what's called The Acropolis, the artificial plateau where the Watchtower sits. All of Harlem was before us, on a crystal clear late October afternoon, while the sun was setting over the Hudson River.
I believe that the images we captured present a musician in the prime of his creative life, completely in command of faculties, more mature and wise. I have hundreds of pics from that afternoon that captures various looks and ideas that both Num and I were attempting, but I'm sharing the pictures that emulates that groove I can hear in my head.