23 April 2009

Thinking Afro Blue

Afro Blue is a famous jazz tune which talks of Africa. I heard strains of it as I listened to Mosaic the other night at Hippo, but it doesn’t convey to me the complexity and richness that I was hearing. Judy Campbell’s Mosaic is a clear work of love, and the smiles and rapture of the front line make that obvious. Love of the richness of African culture, its drumming, its vocals and chants, and the lanky joyousness of sub-Saharan Africa … at least as I imagine it. I feel I know so little of Africa, other than sad stories of bad regimes or mad wars or starving villagers. There is so little else on our media that I was taken aback to hear a normal current affairs show dedicated to Africa on the BBC World Service recently. It suggested an Africa that was stronger, more educated, more positive than I’d thought. It’s embarrassing to be so ill-informed, but we are all products of our environment. (The same thought comes to me when I listen to ABC RN’s Awaye, which presents Australian Aboriginal society in a positive cultural light). In the meantime, at least we can respond to their music, and it’s an easy and entertaining step for jazz lovers.

Mosaic has a front line of three: Judy and Justine on vocals, and ex-South African Mark on saxes (tenor and soprano) and vocals. The three vocalists made for much of this joy. The voice is a sublime instrument. These three sang unison, or less commonly, harmonies on meaningful lyrics and tuneful melodies, sometimes with odd scales (at least some sounded Jewish) or rapid, jagged rhythmic passages. They also dropped into percussion of various types, especially Judy who played an array mbira, a tuned spring instrument that she played with challenging, counter-rhythmic timings. If the front line was a joy, then so much so was the rhythm section (we are talking Africa, after all). There was not a walk anywhere in sight, but strongly defining rich, deep bass notes from Karl, and some wonderfully fluent, talkative solos and long, long unison lines with piano or sax, behind vocals or other melodies. Greg, too, played some fabulous solos, moving freely through modal chords. He really was strong and satisfying in this style and the lines just flowed with joyous energy.

Then to the talking drummers: so they were. Tim Firth was wonderfully in form, playing in a style that fitted admirably within the African idiom. I pondered what study he’d done in African drumming, because it seemed convincing to me in its authenticity and a long way from standard jazz fours. I was stunned by some fills that mimicked the front line and wondered how well practiced were these guys, or was it written. And I was taken by a drum/percussion solo at the end of the night where parts was passed from Bandika to Tim, and the African rhythmic sense was maintained with aplomb. So to Bandika. He was on the other side of the stage, so I missed much of his complexity, but you could feel the loping rhythms and complex grooves of Africa, inherent and mirrored in the rest of the band and growing from the percussive richness. This is what makes for that rolling, danceable groove that we know from Africa. And the whole of the rhythm section just loped along with it. Bandika took a few solos, too, and you would not believe the volume from his djembe. Really, really loud and cutting, so Tim’s kit with sticks was left in abeyance. Were his fingers taped, like I seen on conga players? Nope; how tough must they be? Bandika also sang, and this was where I really heard another culture: fast, tangled lines of voice that sounded other worldly. Couldn’t be further from Madonna despite her adopted associated with Africa. But Bandika is a Kenyan master drummer, and this takes time and study, and the difference is inevitable, as well as fascinating.

This was intriguing and enlivening and human music, and I loved it. Give me more anytime. If world or folk festivals had more like this (and fewer Morris men and earnest singer-songwriters), you could expect to see me there. But for the meantime, I’ll just expect to hear it in jazz circles. OK by me.

Judy Campbell’s Mosaic comprises Judy Campbell (voice, array mbira and percussion), Mark Ginsburg (saxophones, voice, percussion), Justine Bradley (voice), Greg Coffin (piano), Karl Dunnicliff (bass), Bandika Ngao (percussion, voice) and Tim Firth (drums).

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