During the years of apartheid in South Africa, music from the rest of the world had difficulty finding its way into the country, both due to many artists joining the international boycott of the country to protest the policy and due to the state's tight import controls on anything cultural entering the country. But with the lifting of economic restrictions in the early 90's, residents had easier access to music from the rest of the world. Since it was still difficult for many low income people to afford CDs, they would form listening clubs, pooling their resources to buy CDs of their favorite artists. One artist who made a huge impact and developed a massive fan base, unbeknownst even to him, was steel pan master Andy Narell. The government-sponsored "Arts Alive" festival invited Narell to come to Africa to perform. Both Narell and the festival organizers were totally unprepared for the crowd of 60 to 80 thousand fans who showed up. And they knew the music already.
These twelve tracks were recorded on a subsequent tour of southern Africa in April, 2000. Narell's band is made up of some of the region's top jazz talent. During their time on the road together, they jelled as a band, as you will hear on these tunes. After the musicians had learned to play Narell's tunes in their original arrangements, Narell encouraged them to develop the music further and to make it more African. A comparison between each tune and it's original recorded version (and all songs except the closing encore have been previously recorded by Narell) will reveal the development, but it really wasn't that great a leap. It becomes obvious that the intoxicating rhythms of the Caribbean still have much in common today with how music has progressed in Africa from their common African roots. This similarity probably contributed a lot to Narell's popularity in South Africa.
If you're a long-time Narell fan as I am, you'll enjoy hearing many of your favorites in these enthusiastic live versions. If you're new to Narell's music, this CD would make an excellent introduction. Some of the tunes remain rhythmically close to their original versions, although featuring different improvizations, of course. On others, it's more obvious how Narell's African bandmates have given the tunes a new foundation. For example, "Kalinda" is treated to a busier, shuffling underpinning than the laid-back original version, and it spurs the band to heated solos and fires up the already stoked crowd even more.
While I'm happy to have all dozen tunes on the two-disc set, I would recommend listening to each disc at separate sittings. Whereas most of Narell's studio releases have a bit more stylistic variety, most of these tunes are upbeat, with little change in instrumentation along the way. In other words, like eating an entire batch of chocolate chip cookies all at once, it's possible to get a little too much of a good thing.
Narell has devotedly pursued a career in promoting the resonant riches of the steel pans to the rest of the world outside of Trinidad, and is perhaps the only one to compose a large body of original music to further this cause. Like a message in a bottle that's tossed into the sea, this release is proof that he's succeeding in reaching the far corners of the world, more than even he realized. (Heads Up HUCD 3060)