Olu Dara at Club Helsinki (9/08/01)
by Seth Rogovoy

GREAT BARRINGTON - Most groove music is functional, intended as the soundtrack for dancing, partying or other kind of communal celebration. As utilitarian music, it doesn’t profess to hold out anything of interest to the attentive listener.

But sometimes it does. Olu Dara has been making music, both creative music and functional party music, long enough to know where one begins and one ends. He came up on the avant-garde loft-jazz scene in New York in the 1970s, and then spent the next decade playing in nightclub bar-bands.

But after three decades of bouncing from one genre to the other, Dara -- who sings and plays a variety of instruments, including cornet, guitar, percussion and wood flute - has found a way to bring the two styles of music together. Thus in a return engagement at Club Helsinki on Saturday night, his band provided the soundtrack to a great party while also making exciting, spontaneous, in-the-moment music that drew on his rich history and experience.

Part storyteller in the African griot tradition, part latter-day Delta bluesman (he grew up in Mississippi), part urban sophisticate (he’s called New York home for the better part of the last 40 years), Dara put it all together in his show at Helsinki. Dara’s band, including including a drummer, a percussionist, a guitarist and a bassist, laid down various funk, soul and African-derived grooves atop which the singer sang choruses and offered spontaneous, improvised observations about the crowd, the club, the food, the weather, his bandmates, his life and his loves.

For the song “Your Lips,” Dara free-associated thoughts about imagined lips, “the color of a Louisiana drum,” while the band played an African groove. He picked up his horn and played a mariachi figure which was well-suited to the party vibe in the club, and then egged on the partiers to take part in a “lip dance contest.” Typical of his numbers, the song morphed in shape and mood and tone during the 15 minutes or so that the band vamped, from pseudo-jazz to deep funk and back.

Dara introduced another number with an r&b riff on horn, twinned by the guitarist, and then he took off with a slow, cool, whispery solo with shades of Miles Davis, while the band played a kind of New Orleans shuffle. He sang, he talked a bit more, and then when it was time to take a break he even sang the part about intermission and CDs for sale.

When he came back, he sang his tribute to his conga player, Coster Massamba, and joined the percussionist on a duet on wood flute. On the next tune, he picked up his hollow-body electric guitar and laid down a blues-jam on one chord, singing about particular people in the crowd, inventing entire dramas about what they were doing there, how they got there and what their plans were for afterwards. Like with his horn playing, he plucked minimalist chords and notes over the groove, using them as much for punctuation and accent as for particular melodic gestures.

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