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African Jazz

Old World/New World, Part 2

By Published: March 12, 2003

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.



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