Most people associate Africa with a variety of musical styles, but in many cases, they simply can’t establish a concrete connection between African music and genres from her Diaspora. Much of the problem lies in a lack of common knowledge about authentic African music. While many listeners may recognize sound bytes, they simply lack a working understanding of West African traditional or popular music. At the same time, music from the African Diaspora generally reflects a very different personality than the sound bytes that live in most people’s consciousness. When West African citizens were brought into the New World, slavery shattered their musical foundations, and the pieces formed the basis of jazz, funk, salsa, rumba, and soul; these resultant styles only revealed traces of their African heritage. For the listener, the connection between Africa and her Diaspora remain an intangible relationship; for the musician, it becomes an artistic mystery without a simple answer. As the musician performs each of these different styles, they start to unlock different pieces of the puzzle. In order to honestly build an understanding, they need extensive experience in each style, and they often need to perform some serious research. Projects that bring these worlds together require immense dedication from all involved musicians for any chance of a successful blend. Flautist Mark Weinstein and pianist/mallet player Omar Sosa draw upon their years of deep performance experiences to build an intriguing blend of African music, jazz, Cuban styles, and more on Tales from The Earth.
Exploring Improvisational Ideas
Weinstein takes the opportunity to explore improvisational ideas over African influenced settings on many tracks. Vocalists Aho Luc Nicaise and Mathias Agbokou enter with a Santeria chant on “Invocation,” leading into an addictive groove from drums and percussion while balafon player Aly Keita improvises. As Keita settles into a steady groove, Weinstein freely creates melodies, weaving in and out of the thick texture. Sosa follows Weinstein’s statement with an assertive vibraphone solo that cleverly plays upon the percussive drive of the group. A 6/8 bell pattern segues into a melodic ostinato from Keita on “Walking Song,” as drummer Marque Gilmore changes the texture with a backbeat. Weinstein allows flowing lines to float over the active texture, creating a sense of liberty and openness to his improvisation. As Weinstein continues to explore the setting, Nicaise begins a traditional song, which creates an interesting contrast to the flute solo. Bassist Stanislou Michalak intersperses bluesy licks in between rich double stops on “Elders Speak” as Weinstein furiously improvises. The exchange between the two musicians grows more intense as they both raise the intensity of their ideas, complimented by brash percussion accents. Michalak and Weinstein reach critical mass as the percussionists join with a groove, driving the improvisations into a chaotic flight of wild phrases. A sea of bells and sparse balafon phrases provides a thin backdrop for a melodic improvisation from Weinstein on “Flirtation.” As Weinstein builds his ideas, Gilmore falls into a broken funk and Michalak infuses a rootsy blues feel into his bass line. The three musicians continue to stretch their conception, moving the music into an interesting combination of African derived aesthetics. These songs find Weinstein winding his improvisational voice around this unique setting, which inspires some impressive work.
Prominently Featuring Vocals
Several pieces feature vocals prominently, calling upon a number of traditional songs and chants within an improvisational context. Nicaise begins “River Crossing” with a strong and confident song until a flurry of percussion storms into the mix amid subtle improvising from the rest of the band. The song takes on a definitely different feel as it moves over a funky drumbeat, jazz-fueled bass fills, and repeated balafon patterns. Sosa pushes the song into a furious forward motion with the smart insertion of quick improvised lines and sharp accents on the vibraphone. A thick layer of closely intertwining percussion patterns leads into understated improvising from Weinstein, Michalak, and Keita on “Men’s Talk.” As the drummers fade into the background, Nicaise leaps into a powerful traditional song, moving forward as the band improvises around him. The group cleverly plays with texture as Weinstein makes an improvised journey through the diverse musical landscape with lush elegant lines. A Cuban rumba pattern burns beneath an impassioned improvisation from Weinstein on “Spirit Messenger.” Nicaise and Agbokou enter with repeated phrases that frame Weinstein’s solo, which quickly reaches a furious drive. The band breaks down to racing percussion and vocals, leaving the song in a traditional mode, making the connection to Africa very apparent. The inclusion of vocals on these tracks connects the work more explicitly to African traditions, making the link with music of the Diaspora even stronger.
Emphasizing Pieces Of The Diaspora
Other pieces lean the group towards implications of the African Diaspora by emphasizing different musical elements. Guitarist Jean Paul Bourelly establishes an assertive funk line over a 6/8 rhythm while Sosa keeps a steady marimba pattern on “Children At Play.” Bourelly pushes the band into high gear with a rock-tinged chordal pattern while Weinstein enthusiastically improvises. Sosa dives into an energetic statement, drawing off the band’s forward motion and inspiring some active response. Gilmore’s laid-back drum groove, Sosa’s rich vibrato chords, and Weinstein’ long flute tones infuse “Celebration” with a soulful funkiness. Weinstein plays upon this vibe with the deep rich tone of his bass flute, spinning bluesy lines full of long wandering phrases. Sosa lets the percussion ride their groove before slowly entering into a vibraphone solo, which he builds into a thick frenzy of notes. A gospel-tinged soulfulness fuels Bourelly’s Motown influenced guitar groove and Gilmore’s ultra laid-back groove on “Praise.” The group follows this groove with a hypnotic faithfulness while Sosa inserts lush shimmering chords and Nicaise improvises an inspired vocal. A syncopated balafon ostinato explodes into a massive groove on “Gratitude” as Gilmore hits a heavy funk beat and Sosa nails a catchy marimba vamp. Sosa gradually opens his line into an engaging solo, which pushes the band with a sense of addictive enthusiasm and an upbeat attitude. Both Nicaise and Agbokou interject short vocal phrases that playfully move around the band’s unstoppable groove. These songs demonstrate the vast range of African influence in several contemporary musics, and they highlight the musicians’ vision between the different genres.
Bringing The Connection Into A Clear Light
Weinstein and Sosa find organic connections between African music and styles from the Diaspora on Tales from The Earth, delivering a wonderfully creative statement of African identity. The album draws extensively upon improvised settings, wisely disregarding the notion of a composed tribute to the country. Without the crutch of a pre-composed score, the musicians draw upon their most natural musical instincts. Weinstein and Sosa gathered an interesting group of musicians that cut across African and the Diaspora; their first instincts naturally result in authentic connections to Africa, Cuba, and beyond. The improvised setting brings the best pieces of jazz improvisation into the forefront, allowing the musicians to escape the trap of complex chord changes and simply express their personal identities. Both Weinstein and Sosa appear completely at ease in this context, producing both relaxed and intense music that draws upon the organic connection and tension between Africa and the Diaspora. Keita contributes a strong connection to African music with a wealth of authentic balafon patterns that blend into the music perfectly. Michalak and Gilmore add a healthy dose of tension into the mix, emphasizing their connections to funk, soul, and jazz. Nicaise and Agbokou provide a strong bridge between musical worlds, throwing equal doses of Cuban Santeria chants and African percussion into the music. With all these pieces in place, Weinstein and Sosa let all the musical elements freely interact on Tales from The Earth, resulting in a beautiful musical statement that brings the connection between Africa and her Diaspora into a clear light.