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African Jazz

South Africa: Sheer Sound

By Published: December 22, 2003

Simon Chimbetu and Orchestra Dendera Kings
Sheer Sound (SLCD 041)

Along with Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo, rumba singer Simon Chimbetu has established himself as something of a star in his native Zimbabwe. Chimbetu started out with four of his siblings in a group called the Marxist Brothers, then went on to pursue a solo career with a series of records on the Gramma label. Sheer Sound has picked up Takabatana, presumably a recent recording but minus any information as to its origins.

It's great music, bursting with optimism and positive energy. The interlocking guitars and bass weave a tapestry that simultaneously recalls traditional Shona mbira (thumb piano) and West African highlife styles. The lyrics are (presumably) in Shona, so unless you're a native speaker you'll probably have to pick up the energy from Chimbetu's punchy, cascading voice, interspersed between passages of vocal harmony and rippling guitar lines. Takabatana is infectious and highly danceable stuff.

For lyrics in Shona visit

Andy Brown and the Storm
Passage of Time
Sheer Sound (SLCD040)

This Storm has been pushing forward for fourteen years and Andy Brown isn't going to quit any time soon. Passage of Time is the group's tenth record on ZMC and a sure-fire call to celebration. Like other contemporary artists in Zimbabwe, Brown uses electric instruments and modern production to update traditional Shona music. Acoustic instruments like the marimba meet up with his guitar (acoustic or electric) in swirling waves of sound, framed by horn fanfares and call-and-response vocals.

It's often hard to figure out exactly who's playing what because the notes interlock in dense syncopation, but in the end there's no point to intellectualizing the music. In the most traditional sense, it's all about trance. The instrumental figures are highly repetitive (between interludes) and the overarching rhythms are perfectly regular. The rich vocal harmonies of South Africa seep across the border, along with easy, softened production. Andy Brown's update to Zimbabwean music retains all the earthiness it needs to ground these positive, upbeat songs.

Fra Fra Sound
The African Journey
Sheer Sound (SLCD038)

Bassist Vincent Henar leads Fra Fra Sound, an international septet originally formed in Amsterdam in 1980. Between the Sound and the Big Band, these evolving groups have amassed a pile of ten records, and it would be hard to imagine a broader array of influences. Jazz improvisation forms the meat of the music, but it's sandwiched between some hefty buns. Four continents of rhythms and styles are represented here, most prominently drawing from West Africa and the Caribbean, which isn't all that surprising given Henar's roots in Surinam. Regardless, it's nearly impossible to sort out which parts go where, and in the end there's no point in chasing down all the details.

This collection includes twelve upbeat tracks from records dated 1990-99, entirely unlabeled as to their sources. "Queen of the Shebeen" comes from the 1996 release Global Village Residents. Saxophonist Efrain Truhillo offers a soft introduction before the group dashes off at a brisk pace into interlocking rhythms and swinging fanfares. Truhillo returns for a hard-blown solo that pushes hard at the boundaries imposed by the otherwise tight group. And that's as good a formula as any you'll find for this music. Fra Fra's cohesion is remarkable given the music's density and drama, but the group uses improvisation to loosen the screws just enough to make the music fun.

Visit Fra Fra Sound on the web.

Various Artists
Johnnie Walker Jazz Impressions At the Green Dolphin
Sheer Sound (SLCD 048)

First things first. Subtract the corporate sponsor from the title, put the Green Dolphin in bold, and then it's about right. Cape Town's Green Dolphin Restaurant is a regular host to local jazz talent, and this collection puts the spotlight on performances by six groups. Two names recur in the various configurations: drummer Kevin Gibson and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Lilley. Together with guitarist James Scholfield, they form the funky organ trio J.A.K., which is responsible for one helping each of Nawlins-flavored funk and hard-stepping swing. Outside more traditional jazz settings, Gibson shines. He injects some serious popping energy into these tunes.

Speaking of traditional settings, vocalist Natasha Roth leads a quintet and sextet through two limp lounge songs, including the painfully overdone "Tea For Two." I'm not one for vocalists, so maybe softer-hearted listeners might disagree. Pianist Mark Fransman leads his group through a mid-tempo soul jam straight out of the Abdullah Ibrahim songbook and then a quirky funk/blues number. All things told, this is a mixed bag as you might expect, but you should keep an ear open for the ubiquitous Kevin Gibson and Andrew Lilley, as well as Mark Fransman. There's more to come...

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