This project is built on a paradox: the idea that a large-scale African landscape can best be expressed musically in the most Germanic of media, the full romantic orchestra. Schnyder employs a sonic palette closely associated with Bruckner, Mahler and Strauss. It works because Ibrahim's eclecticism extends far beyond his African roots and encompasses American jazz and blues, Arabic influences, English choral and European romantic music. (Schnyder points out that, as a master of suspense and musical space, Ibrahim is a great "rest composer" in the tradition of Bach and Beethoven.) It also works because Schnyder's arrangements are deeply in touch with Ibrahim's belief in the hypnotic, cathartic, healing power of music. The huge ensemble never overwhelms or intrudes. It surrounds Ibrahim's trio (with Marcus McLaurine on bass and George Gray on drums) with airy, translucent elaborations that add scale and texture and fascinating detail to this varied fabric of incantations.
Casting its documentary net even wider than Ken Burns's Jazz series, American Roots sets its sights on more of the nation's quintessential styles and musical pioneers - affording context and continuity for viewers turned on by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. In this four-hour, soul-stirring gumbo, just about every root gets its due, including bluegrass (Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe); blues (B. B. King, Charley Patton, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson); country (Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Hank Williams); gospel (Mahalia Jackson, Thomas A. Dorsey); folk (Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt); Cajun and zydeco (Clifton Chenier); Tejano (Valerio Longoria, accordion master Flaco Jimenez); and Native American (Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman).
The phenomenal success of the 1977 ABC miniseries Roots all but demanded a sequel to writer Alex Haley's epic story of his African and African-American forebears. Debuting February 18, 1979, Roots: The Next Generations picked up where its predecessor left off, with Haley's slave ancestors winning their freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War. Even so, life for black Americans was wrought with hardship and oppression thanks to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the staunch refusal of the white power structure to pass anti-lynching laws, and the formation of the dreaded Jim Crow laws which legalized racial segregation in the South (and much of the North). Covering the period from 1882 to the mid-1970s, the miniseries first focuses on blacksmith Tom Harvey (Georg Stanford Brown), great-grandson of Kunta Kinte (the protagonist of the original Roots), and his family.