Wisdom of Serpents Wins the Day

By Dallas Embry

">Steve Dalton introduced Jakson Renfro to fellow artist and guitarist, Ken Lucchese.

"We got together around three or four one morning," says Renfro, "and I would lay out these melody lines for him. He would sort of fumble around on his guitar for awhile, then out would come this perfect melody line. It was unity."

Unity is the theme that also attracted the third member of the group, Musa Uthman. Uthman, who became interested in traditional drumming after a trip to Africa in 1974, was attending a Unity Day Festival in 1988 when he first saw Renfro and Lucchese.

"They were the only people there really doing unity music and I admired their heart and spirit -- and their courage. They were the only two white people at the whole festival," remembers Uthman, "and I thought it took a lot of courage to do what they were doing, so I told them so and told them that I'd like to play with them."

A few weeks later, the three of them got together on the stage at Uncle Pleasant's and all three were immediately musically simpatico. The mathematically precise structures of L.A.S.C. member Lucchese's guitar playing, evidenced while playing lead, rhythm and bass lines almost simultaneously, was a perfect complement to the percussion of Uthman on congas, bongos, a kind of African drum called jimbai, chimes and other percussion instruments, and to the melody vocals of L.A.S.C. member Renfro, who also plays temple blocks, claves, and sticks.

With their unity theme and their music as a medium for their message, they went to the New Testament in search of a name and found it in Matthew 10:16, "Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves."

Thus was born Serpent Wisdom, recent winners over eleven other bands in the original music band contest at Uncle Pleasant's.

Every Thursday from March 30 to April 20, three bands per night competed for the finals, which were held on April 27. Other bands in the contest were runners-up One Red Romeo, finalists Reaction Time and Core of Resistance, Jefferson Freeway, Wildside, Shoot the Moon, Something Big, Volcano Virgin, French TV, Necropsy, and Socket Job.

Serpent Wisdom performed their litany of "It's Time (Babylon)," "Where It Matters (Spirit)," "Sheba Come," (music by Alex Kelley), and their anti-apartheid song "It Will Be," and performed them very well. The somewhat abbreviated versions of these songs (to those of us familiar with them) flowed naturally from first song to last and the result was a well-paced, inspiring set which had the audience enthusiastically applauding, cheering and whistling for more.

Decked out in African garb from headgear to white cotton trousers and robes, the members of Serpent Wisdom really got into what they were playing. Uthman, who was once with Nubian Sunrise and did a two-year stint with Hazel Miller, was flinging perspiration as his hands flew on his drums. Lucchese, whose father Victor was a renowned guitarist, lost himself in his guitar and seemed to become one with his instrument, and Renfro seemed to be filled with the spirit as he jerked and twitched in a personal dance which lent emphasis to his lyrics.

To see them perform, keep an eye on Uncle Pleasant's schedule, because in addition to winning a four-track recorder and five hours of studio time at Allen-Martin Productions, they also won a paid gig there. They occasionally play at the open stages around town, such as the Rudyard Kipling on Mondays, Butchertown on Tuesdays, and Uncle Pleasant's on Wednesdays.