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African Jazz

Old World/New World, Part 2

By Published: March 12, 2003
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.

While the '60s were a nostalgic time for highlife, very few modern groups have managed to get the sound right. The West African Highlife Band does this quite convincingly on their 1998 record Salute to the Highlife Pioneers. The group marries the fundamentally celebratory spirit of highlife with sophisticated instrumental and vocal approaches. The music never loses its festivity; it retains an upbeat pulse and punchy vocals. Most importantly, it aims for wide accessibility, urging listeners to rise and dance. No extended or complicated improvisations interfere.

Part of the solution lies in the fact that these players are long-term veterans of the music: Ken Okulolo, who produced the record, played bass guitar with highlife giants Sunny Ade and Victor Olaiya. Nigerian native Adesoji Odukogbe, who was Fela Kuti's lead guitarist for five years, brings a touch of afro-beat to the music. Pope Flyne served as the lead vocalist for Ghana's Sweet Talks. And so on.

The thirteen tunes on Salute to the Highlife Pioneers, drawing from Nigerian and Ghanaian roots, include ten classics and three originals by Pope Flyne and Ken Okulolo. The opener, Rex Lawson's '60s piece "Mama Dey for Kumba," accrues energy in its introduction: light interlocked percussion leads into vocals (which harmonize), then short, criss-crossing guitar riffs. By the time the tune gets up to speed, it has snowballed into a full-on romp. "Tamuno Bo Ibroma," with its dancing bass line, incorporates a strong calypso flavor, something that appeared very early in the development of highlife.

Lawson's "So Ala Temen" really embodies the spirit of the music more than any other piece on the record. It's a gentle piece, moving lightly through cyclical harmonies with a Cuban rhythmic element. The Calibari lyrics speak honestly: "God created all humans equal, both rich and poor."

Some of the inventions of this band are a bit questionable: Flyne's keyboard playing, meant to convey the sound of horns, comes across a bit flat. The slower pieces lag a bit. But the group deserves massive praise for bringing their collective spirit to highlife. Even at their weaker moments, they still keep this vibrant music alive.

William Parker/Joe Morris/Hamid Drake
Eloping With The Sun
Riti
2003

When jazz players harness African music, it's always interesting to see what forms the musicians preserve from each style. After all, the goal of such a hybrid is to preserve elements of both traditions in order to achieve a result that is more than the sum of its parts.

Eloping With The Sun has the happy property of being such a synergistic mixture. More than any record of its kind in recent history, it captures the spirit of African music. In North Africa, from which these instruments and styles originate, traditional musical performance is often all about trance. Musicians engage in extended group improvisations (around a form, of course), utilizing relatively simple instrumentation and repetition to draw listeners into deeper awakening. It's totally pointless to look for chord changes, flowing lyrical melodies, or quite often even instruments in tune.

The trio on this record does keep its instruments in tune. In fact, you even get the pleasure of hearing Joe Morris twist the knobs a bit to keep everything right. This is very much a live performance, intimate and unfinished, though an audience is missing from the recording. The first tune, "Sand Choir," takes right off, launching into a thematic discourse which wanders freely and coherently through a series of cascading motifs. Timid listeners beware: this is not background music in any sense. It's most definitely in the spirit of the most adventurous free jazz out there today.

Morris normally plays the electric guitar, so his banjo and banjouke work is a pleasant surprise. As is his norm, there's absolutely no shortage of notes: rippling atonal flurries with jagged angularity, usually tightly clustered and following a conscious stuttering rhythm. (It is particularly hard to play this way on the banjo, given it's typically tuned in fourths.)

William Parker takes the low, four-stringed Moroccan zintir into a riffing groove most of the time, underlining the trance aspect of the music and emphasizing the relationships between blues and African music. His playing is muscular, warm, and inviting. He works incredibly well with Hamid Drake, long a student of world drumming traditions, who plays frame drums here. Drake draws on the culture and spirit behind the instrument, utilizing its definitive hollow resonance and blocky attack to advantage. As is frequent with this drummer, there's a core rhythmic unit reinforced by color and accent around the beat, combining to flesh out a pulse. Unfortunately the drums are real low in the mix.

All that said, it's essential to focus on the bottom line. Don't get caught up in the details: this is trance music at its very roots. It has a wonderful ability to transport you through time and space. And that part is real simple.




Tracks and Personnel

Africa Before Invasion

Tracks: Showtime; Lasisi; Honesty; Aorieo; A.B.I.

Personnel: Najite Agindotan: lead vocalist, congas, talking drum; Omo ogun: congas, backup vocals; Rock Samori: bembe, dun dun; N'gala: trap drums; Sherwood (Wooden Head): bass; Nat Nyema: guitar; Nate Morgan: acoustic piano; Charley: electric piano & organ; Kpapko Adu: trumpet; Phil Ramelin: trombone; Bobby Bryant: alto sax; Alaah-deen: tenor sax; Andrew Gerald: flute; Chini Kopano, Ndugu, Makida Anderson, Carol Abata: singers.

Salute to the Highlife Pioneers

Tracks: Mama Dey for Kumba; Bere Bote; Maame; Olomi Jowo; Tamumo Bo Ibroma; Omo Pupa; Taxi Driver; Hoana Nom A; So Ala Temen; Esi; Adunni; It's Time For Highlife; Kajo.

Personnel: Ken Okulolo: lead and background vocals, bass guitar, talking drum, clave, shekere, guitar; Adesoji Odukogbe: lead and background vocals, clave, lead and rhythm guitars, acoustic guitar; Pope Flyne: lead and background vocals, keyboard, shekere; Nii Armah Hammond: congas, background vocals; Lemi Barrow: lead and background vocals, trap drums, shekere. Guests: Manas Itiene, Chisa Tayari: background vocals.

Eloping With The Sun

Tracks: Sand Choir; Dawn Son; Hop-Kin; Step Dance; Dream.

Personnel: William Parker: zintir; Joe Morris: banjo, banjouke; Hamid Drake: frame drum.



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