The West African tradition of polyrhythmic drumming has found itself increasingly popular in the Afro- American tradition of jazzand especially in so-called Caribbean and Latin styles. African artists have gradually found their way onto North American records. Witness Senegalese drummer Mor Thiam's collaborations with the World Saxophone Quartet and its members; or Ghanaian drummer Asante's work with the WSQ and Paul Simon.
However, African drummers rarely have the opportunity to make their own North American recordings. In 1999, Mor Thiam recorded Back to Africa, which features drumming tracks alternating with Afro-pop. Asante got the chance to do his own thing in the summer of '92. Ohene Kesee A Ebin, the disc released eight years later, documents the results of his first solo project.
Asante comes from a family of drummers in Ghana, and he himself is a certified master drummer. Ohene Kesee A Ebin, which literally translates to "Big Chief With Shit On His Face," refers to a traditional Ghanaian legend about a drummer who saves his tribe from an evil chief. The disc is imbued with tradition. In fact, one of the highlights of this recording is that Asante simultaneously plays all five instruments of a traditional drumming group.
(One must pause here and consider the cultural implications of this assertion. In West African culture, a drum ensemble is composed of individual players who interlock rhythms and interweave them over time, often accompanied by dancers. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The notion that one man can substitute for an entire Ghanaian drum ensemble is thoroughly Western and indicates a direct step away from the African drumming tradition.)
There is no doubt at any time that Asante has a powerful, nearly superhuman, control of the ~85 percussion instruments at his disposal. The pure drumming portions of Ohene Kesee A Ebin (tracks 1-3 and 5) are beautifully executed, colorfully textured excursions into polyrhythmic space. On two additional tracks, saxophonist Plunky and pianist Doug Carns step in to join Asante. Plunky's playing, vaguely reminiscent of mid- to late-period Coltrane, tends to revolve around repeated virtuostic note flurries. While well-grounded, his contributions lack the tonal evolution which could have raised the intensity of the music to a higher level. Pianist Carns brings a bluesy feel to the last track, but he doesn't really break out either: Asante is clearly, at all times, the leader of the trio.
One final note: the sound on this record is wonderfully detailed, clear, and well-resolveda tribute to engineer Pierre Sprey's unusual talent and equipment. Asante uses the floor as a bass drum, which makes recording even more of a challenge.
Personnel: Asante: African drums, balaphon, percussion; Plunky: soprano and alto saxophones; Doug Carns: piano.