Janah's world-beat rock
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 24, 2002) – About halfway through their set of dynamic, exotica-rock at Club Helsinki on Tuesday night, the members of Janah played the lead phrase from the Beatles’s “Norwegian Wood” before launching into a multi-layered, multi-textured, raga-drenched version of “We Can Work It Out.” It was an intriguing choice, meant as much to remind listeners that in addition to everything else they accomplished and influenced, the Beatles were perhaps the original world-beat band.

The Georgia-based sextet Janah borrows from that tradition, as well as the eastern-metal exotica of Led Zeppelin, the raga-rock of George Harrison, and other influences, including more than a little Irish-influenced rock of U2. The result is a distinctive blend, heavily powered by the muscular percussion of Rick Shoemaker, who favors congas, timbales, dumbek and concert bass drum, and drummer Ron Cochran, whose trap kit is filled with African drums like djembe.

Frontman/guitarist Keith Johnston put together this world-rock outfit after a multi-year sojourn in Israel, Egypt and Greece, where he picked up the sounds and modalities of Mediterranean and Afro-Asian music. Johnston and his bandmates combine traditional forms and melodies with state of the art technology, so that ancient acoustic flutes, recorders and digeridoos leaned up against stacks of computerized amplifiers and processors.

To the group’s credit, the technology rarely overwhelmed the group’s organic sound. And what could have easily devolved into an amorphous, kitschy mess of exotica instead was distinctively colored by Johnston’s anguished melodicism. One tune, which Johnston said was about the freedom of the nomadic way of life, was fueled by a Bo Diddley beat, with Johnston crashing angular rock guitar chords and Robert Plant-like vocals against the dreamy flute lines of multi-instrumentalist Bill Douglass, with midi-guitarist Michael Martin laying down sitar-like raga lines.

Douglass played an electric sitar on a number which had a British Invasion-feel pop melody atop its “Tomorrow Never Knows”-like arrangement. Another tune grafted an Arabic-like chant atop the foundation of Seattle grunge-rock, as if instead of ending his life, Kurt Cobain had found nirvana in the east.

Janah’s solos were tight and adhered closely to the songs’ melodic and formal structures. The musicians eschewed the sort of long, ponderous jamming that sucks the life out of many like-minded groove outfits, favoring bite-sized excursions on the Orient Express to the long dark journey into the eastern night.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 26, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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