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West Africa: Different Standards

AAJ Staff By

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This column has regularly strayed from any strict definition of jazz, with the goal of representing creative improvised African music in all its forms. To be honest, if one were to make a list of African musicians playing jazz in a strict sense, it would be very short indeed. Almost all of those musicians would come from South Africa, which has the longest and most deeply embedded jazz tradition on the continent. (Hint: stay tuned.) Even there, the mix has a generous share of indigenous features. So there's no sense in being a purist.

Sure, a few detours into tribal tradition now and then may seem like indulgence, but for like-minded listeners who appreciate the double-ended concept of the African diaspora, New and Old World traditions have more in common than either tends to appreciate.

All that brings us to two West African artists who play the real thing.

But only some of the time. Ah, such is life... their music is certainly all the richer for it!

Master drummer Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng hails from Ghana, where drums are a very serious matter indeed. For Afrijazz he recruits a band of international musicians who are uniquely able to stretch across the distant reaches of the diaspora. His version of "'Round Midnight"—a duet between bass clarinet and talking drum—is worth the price of admission alone. Saxophonist Abdoulaye N'Diaye hails from Senegal, and he too mixes it up. Roughly half of Taoué represents him in a traditional West African ensemble, and the other half in a traditional jazz quintet. It's quite interesting to compare the different (but not so different) approaches he uses with mbalax and swinging standards.

Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng

It's a sure sign when you can identify a musician's country of origin a mere twenty seconds into a recording. Especially when the opening consists of only bells and wood blocks! Well, maybe that's not such a big deal here, since interlocking drums (or what Westerners might call percussion) are the signature feature of traditional music from Ghana.

Ghanaian drummer Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng has a very expansive view of his place in the African diaspora, drawing from New Orleans, Jamaica, Brazil, Cuba, and New York as much as his homeland. The range of styles on Afrijazz testify to his open-mindedness. About half are pure drums (or drums with vocals); the rest expand to more typical jazz instrumentation.

The first three pieces firmly establish Obeng's identity on the drums. The solo "Greetings" lays down a peppery three-way conversation that plays with pitch and timbre; "Oprenten #6" challenges the listener to find the melody and harmony Obeng channels through the so-called "talking drums," exploiting their flexible musical language. To my ears, a tuned drum is worth ten of the other kind. Finally, "Message" expands to a percussion quintet with proportionally thicker texture and a heavy Brazilian influence.

When the jazzy "Kids-Konko-da" hits, horns immediately signal a turn toward the Caribbean. The calypso introduction blends a horn fanfare with criss-crossing guitar riffs. Taylor Ho Bynum steps to the front with a heavily vocalized cornet solo that dashes in and around, growling and whispering, riding across the beat. Whatever changes the piece may endure over its ten minute duration, it retains a strong dance-worthy character. Obeng's solo near the end is eerily melodic.

Later on the leader nods obliquely to Monk on "Round Midnight," with the most unusual combination of bass clarinet and talking drum. Paul Austerlitz's clarinet playing is refined and paced; Obeng balances him with an intuitive combination of rhythmic and harmonic elements. "Worship" takes seven musicians on the road to holy Mount Zion, relatively low in energy despite the mass of the assembled crowd. The trance-like lyrics: "I really really love to worship Jah!" Any questions, mon?

Given that Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng is the kind of master drummer who sees a role for his instruments in almost any setting, Afrijazz is pure rhythm from start to end. But the leader's continual efforts to keep his percussion melodic—plus his inclusive world view, and the regular involvement of easily recognizable jazz elements—set this record apart. Five years since his first record (the solo disc Awakening), he has expanded his sound dramatically. I highly doubt we have heard the end of this story.

Visit Innova Recordings on the web.

Abdoulaye N'Diaye
Justin Time

To the extent Senegal has a jazz tradition, it's all mixed up. Around the time West Africa picked up jazz, other New World styles were busy seeping in, including varieties from the Caribbean and Brazil. The hybrid offspring that shot off never really locked into any specific sound.


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