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As the open air arias of grilling cicadas and bustling barbecues mix in with the distant thumping of convertibles to announce the new solstice, what better than a hot, mellifluously ornate African chant to brush off what is left of spring and get everyone in a festive mood?
The cause of celebration? Summer, of course. But also "Yekeke," an oasis of a song to kick off the festivities to the lively African jazz concoctions of clarinetist Oran Etkin's group, Kelenia.
As soon as its first rhythms are intoned, pale shoulders might be seen loosening and locking to the beat of an acoustic bass' incessant riffing and a bubbly balafon's spry clapping, stopping only after the last hints of urban dreariness have been fully sublimated into the dance. Entrancing and joyful, entertaining yet elevating, listening to Etkin's take on this Mandingo classic reveals the depth of feeling this centuries-old tradition can conjure time and time again.
Pairing his patched, genre-blending style to the griot traditions of Malian masters Balla Kouyate on balafon and Makane Kouyate on calabash and vocals, the Israeli slides in and out of musical styles as gracefully as a cobra slithering out of a basketwork. Rounding out the tight-knit bunch is bassist Joe Sanders, as well as a slew of guestssuch as percussionist Joh Camara, guitarist Lionel Loueke and vocalist Abdulaye Diabatewho drop in throughout the session to stir up the gathering.
And that they do on "Lacy," an angular melody dedicated to saxophonist Steve Lacy. Sort of a collective improvisation around a vamped, 2-note bass ostinato, Etkin and guest Loueke trade jazzed-up lines as Balla Kouyate pulls out waterfalls of notes out of his balafon. "Nama" is also one that can stick in the head long after its initial hearing. Blowing atop the entrancing sound tapestry woven by the percussions and Sanders' repetitive bass line, the leader unapologetically flashes off his jazz chops with great gusto.
A surprise addition, Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean A Thing" is given an African treatment in the 6/8 time signature with Etkin alternating between tenor sax and clarinet.
Missing out on Kelenia would be like missing out on the joys of solstice call. So, let the festivities begin!
Track Listing: Yekeke; Nina; Kelenia; Not A Waltz; Nama; Lacy; Brink; New Dwelling; It Don't Mean A Thing; Damonzon; Kelenia Remembered.
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.