21 September 2009

When groove is king

It was infectious, steady, blissful African groove that entertained a packed audience when Tony Allen presented Secret Agent at Porgy and Bess.

I’d discovered Tony Allen a few months earlier when his Secret agent CD was the album of the week on ABC Radio National. He’s the drummer, and he leads the band with a steady but oddly punctuated tone. He also sings with the repetitive call of African chant. Repetition is all in this music, but there’s richness and movement and colour despite its few chords and simple melodies. This is a music of colour, of calls and response, of layers, of steady beats. Tony’s band is 8 piece, with two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, tenor and trumpet, and an added female singer for most of the concert along with several male harmonies. This wasn’t a performance of individualists. I liked the solos well enough, especially the bass and drums, but this was an ensemble performance. Tony’s solo expanded on the underlying groove but kept it clearly as the central and essential element. The bass solo brought the house down (as bass often does: not sure I understand why) with some call and response lines that soon morphed into a flashy and fast slap solo. That always goes down well, and the applause was mighty. By then, the lower level dance floor was undulating and the audience was well in hand. The sax explored atonality, but the other solos were essentially tonal and pentatonic. The volume didn’t lend itself to subtlety, but the solo developments were good and the audience lapped it up. It sounds like I was disappointed, but I wasn’t. Here groove was king, and I was there with it. This is music of the body and limbs and I was moving too (although there were a few on my sedate upper level with a teutonic solidity that was not for defeat).

A few issue niggled. The PA was immense, with too much doof-doof kick drum and a too tinkly top end. It may have been better on the lower level. And there was just too much volume although the PA could handle it and it wasn’t overly tiring. The band also had early trouble with foldback (this concert was properly staged, complete with a foldback mixer offstage) and Tony actually stopped the second tune to get some adjustments made. And it was so hot and sweaty by the end of the night. Certainly this was live, earthy music. The groove was central, but it was strangely unchanging. Tony must have counted in every tune at one tempo (I guessed spot on at 120) so it was good, but certainly steady!

I watched Tony for his drum style; it is self-taught and unconventional. His kick moved about, with a steady hi-hat on 2-4 or otherwise, but it was defining. His arms were strangely but most effectively flailing and seemed to often rest in mid-flight. I noticed off-beat sixteenth notes (I overheard people asking “is this funk”: it wasn’t but I guess it’s a precursor) and extended tom fills and call and response patterns and triplets of various values that delayed and punctuated the beat. In the end, I felt it was this feeling of the arrested rhythm that defined his sound. To me it said Africa and talking drums but that’s not an informed comment. The layers also helped, of course, as did the distinctly African sounding vocals and melodies.

When talking to musicians on this trip, I’ve noticed a movement away from “jazz” to other forms. People seem wary of standards and trios and traditions of the mainstream, despite the evident beauty and richness. This African cum world stream fits the bill and is immensely satisfying. Too loud, yeah, but it was a wonderfully satisfying and involving concert. Tony Allens’s Secret Agent is Tony Allen (drums, vocals), Orobiyi Adunni aka AYO (female vocals), Nicolas Giraud (trumpet), Jean-Jacques Elangue (tenor saxophone), Claude Dibongue (guitar), Kolobgo (guitar), Fixi (keyboards), Rody Cereyon (bass).

While there, I met Thenner Ralf, a local electric bass player and student at the conservatorium. It’s always interesting to hear of the local scene. Ralf is going in the studio next week and I’m looking forward to a listen.

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