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Simon Monserrat & Afro/Latin Jazz Project: Djeli (The Storyteller)

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Simon Monserrat, currently a resident of Uppsala, Sweden, has deep roots in Afro-Caribbean music, coming from a musical family and having studied for three years at Havana's Escuela Nacional del Arte. He plays a variety of drums, including congas, timbales, and bongos, but he chooses not to restrict himself to Cuban (or even New World) instruments. After convening the Afro/Latin Jazz Project in 2003, Monserrat oversaw the recording of the group's debut release one year later.

Djeli takes its name from the Bambara and Manding word for griot, also translated in English as "storyteller." While the music on the record mostly falls under the mantle of Latin jazz, it also stretches beyond. It's become fashionable in some circles to speak of the African diaspora when referring to New World styles that have developed in Afro-American communities in Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, the United States, and elsewhere. Indeed, performers like Cuban pianist Omar Sosa have dedicated much of their work to uniting elements from these different traditions, all deeply rooted in West Africa.

Like Sosa, Monserrat views the various musical offspring of the African diaspora as a common family, and he brings various styles together in unexpected and fresh ways. By stringing together chapters focused around different sounds, Djeli tells a musical story. It starts with the two-part "Morning Praise/Morning Emotions," a mellow excursion highlighting voice, piano, flute, and violin that signals the relaxed optimism of a new day. Things get funkier right away with "Linda's Boogaloo," which weaves Linda Tillery's voice and Hector Bingert's laid-back tenor sax into a percussion-rich groove spiced with occasional rhythmic interludes.

Things gradually heat up with thickly-textured mambo and spunky two-step jazz, heading directly into the aptly titled "Mama Africa," where Senegalese expatriate Mamadou Sene uses the riti (a one-stringed instrument also known as the Hausa violin) and fiery Wolof chant/song to introduce and complement an oddly soulful 13/8 groove. The juxtaposition of styles is natural and unforced.

Several dedications follow: one somber, one jubilant, and one elegantly understated. Monserrat salutes the (African/European) mixed race with a boiled-down version of danzón on "Café con Leche," then closes the recording the elegantly progressive title track (dedicated to African victims of New World slavery's lethal Middle Passage), a fiery descarga, and the oddly funky, strutting "Revelations."

It's hard to tell exactly how the record was assembled, given the enormous cast of characters involved—the core nonet is supplemented by eighteen other players—and the three recording studios employed in Sweden and California, but it sounds just fine and the liner notes are reasonably informative about the different musicians and instruments. Monserrat's onto something here, no doubt about it. It will be interesting to hear this group from a more live-sounding perspective, but this studio-crafted effort is a fresh, imaginative start.

Visit Simon Monserrat on the web for sound samples and more. This recording is available from CD Baby .


Track Listing: Morning Praise/Morning Emotion; Linda's Boogaloo; Temple Bar Mambo; El Mensajero; Mama Africa; Victimas de Media Noche; A

Personnel: Magnus Lindgren: tenor and soprano sax, flute, clarinet; Hector Bingert: tenor and soprano sax; Arnold Rodriguez: piano; Mons Ek: piano; Luis Romero: electric and baby bass; Marcus Linfeldt: double bass; Santiago Jimenez Borges: violin; Jouni Happala: drums, timbales, congas, percussion; Simon Monserrat: congas, udu, caj

Title: Djeli (The Storyteller) | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Arcoiris Productions

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