Old World/New World, Part 2

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With the massive cultural impacts of colonialism, technology, and commerce, African music has moved rapidly away from its centuries-old traditional roots. The influences of jazz and Caribbean music (particularly Cuban rhythms and calypso) were massive in West Africa during the '50s and '60s, a time when sailors brought New World music across the ocean and records began to document all varieties of music. Highlife was born, followed by Afro-beat and a thousand other shoots off the tree. Other African cultures developed similar styles, though none were as widely popular.

For more detailed information on cross-cultural fusions between African and New World music (as well as more reviews), visit the first installment.

The three records under consideration this month include modern interpretations of Afro-beat and highlife, as well as a free jazz excursion drawing from North African traditional music. Najite, a Fela Kuti veteran, brings a strong improvisational element to his music. The West African Highlife Band takes a direct approach to highlife, emphasizing its popular roots and widespread accessibility. Finally, a trio consisting of free jazz masters William Parker, Joe Morris, and Hamid Drake travels into distant trance territory.

Najite Olokun Prophecy
Africa Before Invasion
SoFa/Plug Research
2003

As many western listeners have discovered through groups like the Antibalas Orchestra , Nigerian pop star Fela Kuti's 1970's invention called Afro-beat is anything but dead. Fela started out as a jazz player, branching out to highlife as a natural extension of this music—since it represented direct fusion between West African traditions and the rhythms, instruments, and styles of the New World (especially jazz). Highlife paid the bills, and when Fela Kuti brought funk into the mix, his music reached new heights. Suddenly he rocketed to stardom. Millions of listeners followed his every move.

Enter Najite. The drummer played congas with Fela, absorbing his musical approach and the specific ways in which it could be realized. On this disc, the latest of his recordings (which for the most part are unavailable in the U.S.), the Nigerian percussionist steps forward to lead his own ensemble. His music draws much more heavily from jazz than its predecessors, which renders it particularly accessible to listeners familiar with the New World improvisational tradition. Najite is quite direct about his heritage: "If you love Africa, raise up your hands!" (Hint: check out the record's title, which is quite ironic relative to the stew of styles here.)

His group comprises 17 musicians, including four drummers. It's tight, flexible, and downright funky. The second tune, "Lasisi," takes an undulating beat, stringing it between dramatic horn heads and around solos by various instrumentalists, including—most notably—pianist Nate Morgan. Morgan travels eagerly through constantly evolving chordal voicings around a flowing theme. Najite himself goes out to lead percussionists and vocalists on the talking drum, a relatively unusual event in the old- school style. Rather than evoking all the myriad "syllables" of the instrument's flexible language, he directs it toward pitches and sonorities that reinforce the piece's theme.

The leader is not at all afraid to pursue the blend of cross-cultural traditions that have defined West African popular music for decades. "Honesty" starts out with a minor theme reminiscent of East Asian music, heading into a festive Caribbean rhythm. Its extended lilt supports an unusually jazzy evocation of beach-side abandon, with the kind of interlaced West African drumming that practically begs the listener to get up and dance. Don't mind, your mother isn't watching.

Whatever the intricate details of this recording, it's all about dance in the end. The five extended pieces on Africa Before Invasion range from seven to eleven minutes, allowing musicians and listeners alike to stretch out. No need to dwell on the lyrics—just dig the jam.

West African Highlife Hand
Salute to Highlife Pioneers
Inner Spirit Records
1998

Highlife—a music born in West Africa following the collision of New World styles like jazz, calypso, and Cuban music—integrated these approaches with traditional drumming, vocals, and strings. Ghanaian bandleader E.T. Mensah , who is credited with the first real exposition of highlife, took a distinctly jazz-oriented approach with The Tempos. As the music evolved, it tended to move away into guitar-flavored pop.


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