From Cape Town to Cairo
Any CD production dealing with Africa should include music by the great Abdullah Ibrahim. Seldom were the extremes of South Africa captured in music with such power – ranging from the misery of the townships and the brutality of apartheid to the liveliness of the people and the magnificence of the African landscape. Abdullah Ibrahim, born in Kensington, a township on the edge of Cape Town, has always striven to link the music of his homeland with the trends of European and American jazz. However, following the trend was only rarely what drove his imagination – the music of Abdullah Ibrahim is mostly about deep emotions. These emotions are clearly at work in his composition “The Mountain”, which was inspired by the Thaba Bosiu, a mountain near Lesotho. The deep, calm sounds that vibrate throughout the work reflect the majesty and everlasting peace of this natural monument. “The Mountain” is one of the most popular pieces of Ibrahim's repertoire. He has performed it hundreds of times around the world. That Abdullah Ibrahim never cared for conventions is evident in “African Market Place”, a composition that he first released in an eponymous titled album in 1980. Here, he candidly presents us with simple chord progressions, in a typical example of how the music of the white immigrants and missionaries made its way into the sounds of native African folk music. The charm of this piece lies in its very bluntness, as its luscious harmonies are presented with energetic drive and gusto.
Exuberant Sounds from Cairo
With the Egyptian Mohamed Basha, the four saxophonists of Saxofourte have engaged in a friendly collaboration. Ever since he took part in 2003 in the “Orient und Okzident Festival” in Ulm, Basha and Saxofourte have repeatedly performed together in Germany and Egypt. Basha, a percussionist, exhibits an incredible energy in his performances as well as in his compositions. “Dandourmah” – “ice cream” – was written by Basha in 2003 for Saxofourte; this was his first commissioned work outside of Egypt. “Dandourmah's” particular energy is generated by recurring elements that Basha combines in all sorts of playful ways. The composer betrays his percussionist background in his predilection for general rests. He relishes in these sudden breaks and resorts to them readily and unpredictably. The same appetite for rhythm manifests itself in “Bannoutah” – “a young girl”. The first two parts of the composition are very much influenced by western music and harmony, but in the middle section of the piece, Basha turns to his oriental origins, as the melodies become entwined and exuberantly ornamented. “A Gift from Egypt” – Basha added this quick and brisk composition as a bonus give-away with his first German commission. For Basha, this piece is merely written around a “very simple melody”. But for the uninitiated European ear, this melody is not at all so simple. This may be because in this piece, Basha also indulges in his fondness for Heavy Metal and heats up the atmosphere with deep saxophone chords. With “A Gift from Egypt”, Basha shows us how he has fully integrated European styles with the music and lifestyle of the modern Arab world.
Whoever is familiar with some of the many languages that are spoken in Ghana, will have with no doubt much to say about Obo Addy's “Horn Talk”. This internationally renowned musician based his piece on the speech rhythms of his native country. As there are in Ghana alone five official languages – along with countless dialects – it is taken for granted that a Ghanaian should grow up multilingual. Also taken for granted is the fact that the cadences and stress patterns of the individual languages should be reflected in the rhythms of folk music. The same occurs in our own musical traditions. In “Horn Talk”, Obo Addy uses several of these traditional rhythms as foundations for his composition. Insistently repeated over and over – sometimes enquiringly, sometimes affirmatively – the melodies develop their own dynamic, polyglot and wild – “Horn Talk”, as the title suggests.
Back to Egypt with “Milonga de Alejandria” by the Argentinian guitarist and composer Luis Borda. Borda, who has been playing in many different tango formations since the age of 17, is an important representative of the “tango nuevo” movement. In his compositions he often only hints at tango rhythms; his light, aphoristic and illusive works only point sketchily to a dance situation. Borda readily admits that this free handling of tango traditions has to do with the fact that he himself, as a musician, is not a dancer, but only a spectator. “Milonga de Alejandria is the product of a trip to Alexandria where Borda played for the reopening of its famous library. He was so impressed by the effervescence of Alexandria's street-life that he felt compelled to write a piece about it. The result is a kind of Arabic tango that mixes oriental melodic twists with the typical rhythms of Latin-American folk music.
“Ulla in Afrika” by the German saxophonist Heiner Wiberny has long ago become one of the standards of German wind ensembles and big band repertoire. Wiberny wrote this piece while on a two-month tour through Africa. It combines the syncopated melodies of African music with jazz-like solos. In the middle section, for example, he explores the “call and response” technique, which has long been used in jazz, but in fact originates in Africa. Wiberny, who has named this work for his wife Ulla, achieved an ideal combination between different musical cultures, long before the concept of “world-music” had appeared.
From the Townships out into the Wide World
Isak Roux grew up in Durban, South Africa. The many different cultures that are meshed in this city on the Indian ocean, with their singularities, distinctive smells, lifestyles and sounds, have stayed with him to this day – even since his relocation in Germany – and have found their way into many of his compositions. In “Diepkloof Groove”, Roux draws upon a specific South-African style, namely the penny whistle style, which he learned from one of its most famous interpreters: Jake Lerole, a native of Johannesburg. Like many children in the townships, he earned some money by playing in white neighborhoods. On cheap penny whistles, which were fashioned after Irish tin whistles, many of these children developed tremendous skills. They blended the sounds of European brass bands – which marched down the streets of Johannesburg – with the traditional music of their forefathers. Jake Lerole was one of the most talented of these musicians who traveled throughout Europe and America with their penny whistle and made its light and melodic style known to the world. The family of the late Jake Lerole now lives in Diepkloof, a suburb of Soweto, to which Roux has dedicated his piece.
It is hard to realize that Roux's “Watermelon Song” originated as a simple folksong. And yet he did in fact use for this sensitive jazz-ballad, the melody of a song which black peasants sang until well into the 20th century. The piece “Déjà vu” was originally part of Roux's gospel-cantata “Coming Home” and was arranged by him for Saxofourte. This composition is dedicated to one of the oldest musical styles that emerged from the black townships – the Marabi. This musical genre was born at the beginning of the 20th century, in the – mostly illegal – local bars, where black miners around Johannesburg would gather after a hard day's work to drink and dance. Marabi was strongly influenced by American rhythm and blues and boogie woogie. At the same time, this type of music, which would often be kept going for hours on the same rhythm, was based on traditional African songs and melodies. In the 1930s, with the emergence of native African radio stations, Marabi became extremely popular in the townships.
In the eighties, the composer and jazz trumpeter Thorsten Wollmann went on a tour through west Africa with the Regional Youth Jazz Orchestra of Baden-Württemberg. This was for him an unforgettable experience that led him to compose his “Africa Suite” for big band. A few years ago, he went back to the sketches he had written in preparation for this work and was reminded again of his fascination with the sounds of the African world. Thus originated “Westafrica revisited” for saxophone-quartet and percussion, a jazzy ballad that plays with the characteristics of African folk music. However, the undertone of “Westafrica revisited” is rather reflective and at times melancholic – a subtle indication that Thorsten Wollmann may have encountered more than the exuberant and cheerful aspects of Africa.
As with Isak Roux's “Diepkloof Groove”, Becky Steltzner's composition “Hambani kakuhle kwela” is inspired by the penny whistle of the South African townships. Here, Steltzner, a clarinetist, has captured the spirit of a penny whistle improvisation, where all the musicians play similar melodies at once. The outcome is a light and carefree composition – street-music from the heart of Cape Town, which the four saxophonists of Saxofourte reenact with brio.
(English translation: Milo Machover)