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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 musicsince 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, includingmost notablypianist 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 African Before Invasion range from seven to eleven minutes, allowing musicians and listeners alike to stretch out. No need to dwell on the lyricsjust dig the jam.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.