The Aaron Thurston Trio Set Kampala on Fire

Philip Songa By

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The Aaron Thurston Trio was in Uganda on 14 and 15 September, performing in Mbale and at the National Theatre in Kampala and, boy, did they set the theatre on fire! Back in July someone mentioned to me that there is nothing like the live jazz experience – and he was absolutely right. The three lads Aaron Thurston, Adam Scone and Kevin Louis certainly are born to perform and they thrive on it.
Together with Herman Ssewanyana’s Percussion Discussion Africa (PDA), the trio brought the folks in the theatre to their feet applauding. The two-and-a-half hour show started off with PDA setting the tone for the evening. To see the PDA on stage is truly unique. The ndingidi (tube fiddle) and the adungu (African harp) side by side with the shiny saxophones and drum kits. The xylophone and the bass guitar in the background, and the traditional drum ensemble raring to talk to you.
Couple that with the high energy, talent, spontaneity and creativity of the 15 PDA musicians and you have a divine result. PDA fuse traditional rhythms, folklore and instruments with their modern western counterparts with startling effect. On Sunday night they took us through a number of songs off their album Omubala, such as Maureen and Twabalamusa. Herman Ssewanyana on drums and Peter Mugarura on ndingidi/ adungu/ xylophone provided some of the more memorable moments of the night, not forgetting the lead singer and the intrepid male dancer in black shirt and trousers with a bark cloth ballet tutu. Appearing at times as if inebriated or entranced by the reverberating rhythms, he too deserves mention for executing his moves to the letter – and without falling off the stage either.
After a short break the jazz trio took over the stage and launched into a blasting jazz number. So eager were they that even before the curtains were fully up, Kevin Louis was at it, blowing that trumpet like his life depended on it. And he has such finesse, style and attitude that he easily won the hearts of the audience, something evidenced by the applause that he got after each trumpet solo performance. No surprises there, Kevin is from New Orleans, where even the street musicians are professional!)

There are a number of other reasons why he stood out; his skin colour draws attention, being the only Black in the trio, he was the only one free to walk about and dance and “play foot stomps and handclaps” as Aaron later teased. He came across as a free spirit, wandering, sharing, inspiring and generally enjoying what he was doing. And a part of that rubbed off on us too.

His style of play is quite something too. To give you an idea, imagine him standing askance, one foot slightly ahead of the other, trumpet held like a soldier aiming his gun, trumpet mouth pointed slightly upward and aiming tremendous blasts into the auditorium. Unlike the soldier though, Kevin kills you softly with the alternating sheer energy and smokiness of his playing. One would have bee forgiven for thinking that this was the Kevin Louis trio!

But the other two were not taking things lightly either. Adam seemed to share a lot with his Hammond B-3 organ, including a name perhaps, for it was clearly emblazoned ‘SCONE’. And he seems to treat it as an extension of himself, the way his right hand cajoled, caresses and pressed those keys, literally flying from side to side and producing sounds unimaginable from an organ. Not to be outdone, Aaron showed why he is the leader of this trio and why he is considered such a swinging drummer. His style is not too bang and bash, but to stare down quite intently at the drums, as if willing them to play by themselves, and then slowly but steadily tapping and poking at them to produce all kinds of rhythmic percussion sounds.

On Sunday night the trio performed their takes on jazz standards such as Sweet Georgia Brown and You Are My Sunshine, giving all a distinct personal touch. With traditional jazz performances, every member of the band gets a chance to showcase their instrument, and that was no exception with this trio; each of them had their turn to wow us with their impressive talent.To cap a night of great showmanship, PDA and the Aaron Thurston Trio took to the stage together jointly performing a rendition of one of the songs that that the trio had earlier performed (sadly I forget the title). Kevin on trumpet combined well with Saidi Kasule and compatriot on saxophones, Aaron’s drum kit struck a familiar chord with Ssewanyana’s African drum ensemble and Scone’s organ constantly wove in and out. Later they switched, with Thurston taking Bakisimba lessons from Ssewanayana, and Louis trying his hand at the drum kit. I must say the two groups combined excellently musically and enjoyed a lot of on-stage camaraderie, the whole episode bringing the auditorium to its feet with resounding applause.

All in all it was a wonderful performance, a shining success for cross-cultural interaction and credit is due to the organizers, particularly for mooting the idea of sharing the performance with a local group of PDA’s caliber. It was also gratifying to see that about half the audience was African and that there were a number of twenty-something Ugandans there to enjoy the music too.

Many thanks to the American Center in Uganda, and we look forward to next year’s jazz ambassadors.


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