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African Jazz

West Africa: Different Standards

By Published: November 15, 2003
This column has regularly strayed from any strict definition of jazz, with the goal of representing creative improvised African music in all its forms. To be honest, if one were to make a list of African musicians playing jazz in a strict sense, it would be very short indeed. Almost all of those musicians would come from South Africa, which has the longest and most deeply embedded jazz tradition on the continent. (Hint: stay tuned.) Even there, the mix has a generous share of indigenous features. So there's no sense in being a purist.

Sure, a few detours into tribal tradition now and then may seem like indulgence, but for like-minded listeners who appreciate the double-ended concept of the African diaspora, New and Old World traditions have more in common than either tends to appreciate.

All that brings us to two West African artists who play the real thing.

But only some of the time. Ah, such is life... their music is certainly all the richer for it!

Master drummer Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng hails from Ghana, where drums are a very serious matter indeed. For Afrijazz he recruits a band of international musicians who are uniquely able to stretch across the distant reaches of the diaspora. His version of "'Round Midnight"—a duet between bass clarinet and talking drum—is worth the price of admission alone. Saxophonist Abdoulaye N'Diaye hails from Senegal, and he too mixes it up. Roughly half of Taoué represents him in a traditional West African ensemble, and the other half in a traditional jazz quintet. It's quite interesting to compare the different (but not so different) approaches he uses with mbalax and swinging standards.


Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng
Afrijazz
Innova
2003

It's a sure sign when you can identify a musician's country of origin a mere twenty seconds into a recording. Especially when the opening consists of only bells and wood blocks! Well, maybe that's not such a big deal here, since interlocking drums (or what Westerners might call percussion) are the signature feature of traditional music from Ghana.

Ghanaian drummer Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng has a very expansive view of his place in the African diaspora, drawing from New Orleans, Jamaica, Brazil, Cuba, and New York as much as his homeland. The range of styles on Afrijazz testify to his open-mindedness. About half are pure drums (or drums with vocals); the rest expand to more typical jazz instrumentation.

The first three pieces firmly establish Obeng's identity on the drums. The solo "Greetings" lays down a peppery three-way conversation that plays with pitch and timbre; "Oprenten #6" challenges the listener to find the melody and harmony Obeng channels through the so-called "talking drums," exploiting their flexible musical language. To my ears, a tuned drum is worth ten of the other kind. Finally, "Message" expands to a percussion quintet with proportionally thicker texture and a heavy Brazilian influence.

When the jazzy "Kids-Konko-da" hits, horns immediately signal a turn toward the Caribbean. The calypso introduction blends a horn fanfare with criss-crossing guitar riffs. Taylor Ho Bynum steps to the front with a heavily vocalized cornet solo that dashes in and around, growling and whispering, riding across the beat. Whatever changes the piece may endure over its ten minute duration, it retains a strong dance-worthy character. Obeng's solo near the end is eerily melodic.

Later on the leader nods obliquely to Monk on "Round Midnight," with the most unusual combination of bass clarinet and talking drum. Paul Austerlitz's clarinet playing is refined and paced; Obeng balances him with an intuitive combination of rhythmic and harmonic elements. "Worship" takes seven musicians on the road to holy Mount Zion, relatively low in energy despite the mass of the assembled crowd. The trance-like lyrics: "I really really love to worship Jah!" Any questions, mon?

Given that Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng is the kind of master drummer who sees a role for his instruments in almost any setting, Afrijazz is pure rhythm from start to end. But the leader's continual efforts to keep his percussion melodic—plus his inclusive world view, and the regular involvement of easily recognizable jazz elements—set this record apart. Five years since his first record (the solo disc Awakening), he has expanded his sound dramatically. I highly doubt we have heard the end of this story.

Visit Innova Recordings on the web.


Abdoulaye N'Diaye
Taoue
Justin Time
2003

To the extent Senegal has a jazz tradition, it's all mixed up. Around the time West Africa picked up jazz, other New World styles were busy seeping in, including varieties from the Caribbean and Brazil. The hybrid offspring that shot off never really locked into any specific sound.

And that's basically a good thing. Senegalese saxophonist Abdoulaye N'Diaye is equally at home playing with a kora or a piano, something he demonstrates over and over again on Taoué. He aims here to integrate his instrument within two contexts: the American jazz quartet and the West African string ensemble.

The 29-year old hooked up with David Murray in 1999 while the tenor veteran was producing Dieuf Dieul's Salimata (Justin Time, 2001). Murray, it seems, developed a taste for Senegalese music in the '90s; he helped pull Taoué together in Dakar with the help of seven African and three other American musicians.

Abdoulaye N'Diaye's debut has an interesting split personality: three tunes utilize a traditional jazz approach (with American instruments); three cut down the middle (with traditional West African instruments); and one shoots the wad with everyone on board. Interestingly, they appear in the reverse order.

The opener, "Aduna," derives its name from an ancient Mande word which simultaneously implies "life," "the world," and "the universe." That's suitably enormous for the polyphony assembled here, which comprises four drummers and a surprisingly compatible array of six other instruments. Senegalese star Tidiane Gaye lends high-energy Wolof vocals to give the piece thrust and emphasis; djembe player Seydina Djiba perks things up to full-blown mbalax levels. And when Edouard Mohammed Manga rips his kora apart in rapid clusters and runs, all hell breaks loose.

Then three pieces follow with N'Diaye leading an African ensemble. His lyrical alto voice runs along a coursing stream, bubbling up now and then but always moving forward. Instead of punching out tight units or contrasting phrases, he emphasizes continuity. It makes for an interesting contrast with Manga's densely knotted and strikingly virtuosic kora solos.

Within a stricter jazz context, Abdoulaye N'Diaye adopts a decisively swinging affect, moving fluidly through changes with the same momentum that he emphasized earlier. He introduces more dynamics into his phrases, relying on the strengths of the rhythm section to keep things moving along. In all fairness this band is excellent, perhaps because its members are serious out- jazzers who retain the ability to play within the lines without breaking a sweat. David Murray keeps his yelping and shouting under control, making it hard to resolve the two horns at times.

Rather than try to turn traditional West African instruments toward a strict jazz idiom, N'Diaye has wisely chosen to integrate his horn within an over-reaching framework of improvisation. The straight-ahead pieces on Taoué are solid, but the Senegalese tunes are downright brilliant. That makes sense, really, given the who and what involved. Play those first four tracks over and over again.

Visit Justin Time on the web.




Tracks and Personnel


Afrijazz

Tracks: Greetings; Oprenten #6; Message; Kid's-Kondo-Da; Akampa; 'Round Midnight; Ghana Gumbo; Fine Fine Baby; Worship; Thank You.

Personnel: Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng: drums, percussion, vocals (all tracks); William Lowe: trombone (4,9,10); Jay Hoggard: xylophone (7), vocals (8); Wes Brown: bass (4,9,10); Dominic Kanza: guitar (4,9); Paul Austerlitz: clave (3), bass clarinet (4,6,8,9,10), axatse (8); Michael Veal: drum set; Scott Kessel: vocals (8); Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn (4,10), trumpet (9); Rani Arbo: vocals (9,10); Jeff Penn: gankoqui (3), apentema (8); Gloria Koomson: axatse (3), clave (8); Ismail Lawal: gankoqui (3), calabah drum (5), drum set (8).


Taoué

Tracks: Aduna; Taoué; Casa Leule; Xarrit Sama; Cobb's Cat; Wakhtane; Darn That Dream.

Personnel: Abdoulaye N'Diaye: soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones; Dave Burrell: piano; Jaribu Shahid: bass; Hamid Drake: drums; Sady Faza N'Diaye, Seydina Djiba: percussion; Cheikhou Kanté: bolong; Edouard Mohammed Manga: kora; Seydina Djiba: djembé; David Murray: tenor saxophone; Tidiane Gaye: vocals.



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