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 melodicplus his inclusive world view, and the regular involvement of easily recognizable jazz elementsset 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.