Either /Orchestra at the National Theatre in Kampala

Philip Songa By

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Percussionists must speak a special language because these two teased, cajoled, understood and competed in friendly fashion on the congas, bongos, bakisimba and ngalabi.
If ever there was any doubt that music is a universal language then the combination of eight Americans, one Dominican Republican, one guy from Surinam and one Ugandan playing music from Ethiopia in Uganda in moving style ought to remove the last vestiges of such doubt. That is exactly the kind of reassurance that was given at the National Theatre on the night of Monday 19 January 2004.

The 10-man Either/Orchestra led by the inimitable Russ Gershon (reminds one of Drew Carey; looks, jokes and all) performed two sets at the theatre to a full house. Sponsored by Alliance Francaise and The Jazz Music Solution ), the orchestra was here for a one-off performance, after which they returned to Ethiopia where they have been playing at the Ethiopian International Music Festival in Addis Ababa from January 12.

The night was one of great promise right from the start; the opening piece was a stunning acoustic guitar duet between Uganda's Rita Sabiiti and Kampala Jazz All-Stars leader Jim Logan. Entitled Mediterranean Sundance, the piece highlighted the awesome talent, finesse and dedication of both artists, and the Latin rhythms touched deep in the soul. Logan returned immediately after with his band playing 3 compositions from co-leader Godfrey Lubulwa; the percussion-heavy Go East, the reflective African Child and the bakisimba rhythms of Sekitulege, a local folk song that was particularly tap-inducing; the haunting flute-like synthesizer sounds played by Lubulwa on African Child were a haunting reminder of the plight of many African children.

The E/O started off with a lively Latin piece called "Soul Song" from the Afro-Cubism album that featured an awesome piano solo from Greg Burk. They quickly moved onto "Look To The Lion" (as Russ explained, it definitely makes more sense playing that in Africa) and launched into their arrangements of an Ethiopian song called "Ambassel."

One of the highlights of the night was undoubtedly the group's performance of another Ethiopian song "Keset Eswa Bichet." For this they invited local percussion hero Herman Ssewanyana on stage; the result, an exciting and spontaneous percussion discussion between Herman and E/O percussionist Vicente Lebron from the Dominican Republic. Percussionists must speak a special language because these two teased, cajoled, understood and competed in friendly fashion on the congas, bongos, bakisimba and ngalabi (simply called "The Long Drum" in English!)

The other highlight of the first set was a rollicking performance of Abdullah Ibrahim's "African Marketplace" that saw excellent solo's from Henry Cook on baritone saxophone and Joel Yennior on trombone. The festive, organised chaos of the marketplace was aptly recreated in the music and through the decision by the group to carry their instruments on a walk through the audience effectively making us an active part of that whole atmosphere. Very nice touch indeed.

The second set after the intermission saw a return to their more American sounds with Gershon's "The Modernist," "Harvey's Entrance" and the furiously paced "Fast Edd" that was absolutely made by the seemingly unquenchable sound of Jeremy Udden (small man, big-sound) on alto saxophone. The E/O's complete reworking of The Beatles "Don't Bother Me," redone as "No Me Molesta" complete with Spanish lyrics and vocals by Vicente Lebron (with backing vocals by the "San Quentin Boys Band" ' aka the other instrumentalists!) was a delight to listen to.

The performance was rounded out in resounding fashion with "The Eighth Wonder," which featured Jim Logan on guitar as well as another fabulous Herman-Vicente percussion dialogue. Other guest artists featured on percussion were Isaac and Giles on "the cowbell section."

And if Russ ever gets tired of playing jazz he could easily make a decent living doing comedy on the stage. Watch out Drew Carey!

Russ Gershon (leader) ' tenor and soprano saxophones; Jeremy Udden ' Flute and alto saxophone; Henry Cook ' Flute and baritone saxophone; Greg Burk ' keyboards; Rick McLaughlin ' upright bass; Vicente Lebron ' vocals, congas, bongos and miscellaneous percussion; Harvey Wirht ' drums; Tom Halter ' trumpet; Colin Fisher ' trumpet; Joel Yennior ' trombone

Herman Ssewanyana ' Bakisimba drum, ngalabi, congas and bongos; Jim Logan ' electric guitar; Isaac and Giles ' cowbells and miscellaneous percussion.

Set 1 - Soul Song; Look To The Lion; Ambassel; Los Ovlidados (The Forgotten Ones); Keset Eswa Bichet (She's My lady); African Marketplace. [Intermission.] Set 2 ' Ethiopian song; The Modernist; Harvey's Entrance; Fast Edd; No Me Molesta (Don't Bother Me); The Eighth Wonder.

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