Kekele: Putting the Afro back in Afro-Cuban

Zairean supergroup Kekele will perform at Club Helsinki on Sunday, May 2

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 29, 2004) – Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, years before Afropop was all the rage, cosmopolitan central Africans danced to the international sound of the “Congolese rumba,” a style of music that made explicit the Afro in Afro-Cuban. Eventually Congolese rumba evolved into soukous, the wildly popular dance music of the 1970s, popularized by artists like Franco, Kanda Bongo Man and Papa Wemba -- music that in turn influenced open-eared Anglo-American musicians including Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and David Byrne in the 1980s.

Congolese rumba might sound old-fashioned to contemporary Congolese youth, but as heard on Zairean supergroup Kekele’s latest CD, “Congo Life” (Stern’s Africa), it’s a timeless style of music that combines the best of Africa and Cuba. It boasts the circular melodies of the former, rendered here subtly on acoustic guitars, and the jazzy textures and polyrhythmic percussion of the latter. One also hears hints of Tex-Mex in the accordions, Jimmie Rodgers in the guitars, Memphis r&b in the saxophones, and Gypsy jazz in the violins and clarinets.

But in the hands of Kekele, Congolese rumba is primarily a choral music, with four-part harmonies and unison singing that takes advantage of the characteristics of the different voices of Bumba Massa, Loko Massengo, Nyboma Muan’dido and Wuta-Mayi, all of whom have been mainstays of Zairean music for several decades. Fans of Cuba’s “Buena Vista Social Club” will recognize Kekele’s Congolese rumba as a close musical cousin. Kekele stops at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington on Sunday at 8.

John Pizzarelli does bossa nova

Speaking of musical cousins, in a related vein, jazz guitarist.singer John Pizzarelli sets his metronome to a Brazilian pulse on “Bossa Nova” (Telarc), released earlier this week. Pizzarelli -- best-known for his Nat “King” Cole-style trio work, upbeat swing and standards -- recaptures the sound of Rio with five classics by composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, including “The Girl from Ipanema,” on which he is joined by Jobim’s grandson, Daniel Jobim. The album, meant in part as a tribute to Brazilian vocalist and guitarist Joao Gilberto, the premiere interpreter of bossa nova, also includes bossa-inflected versions of Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face.” Pizzarelli’s trio, including pianist Ray Kennedy and brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass, is augmented on the recording by drummer Paulinho Braga, percussionist Jim Saporito, and saxophonist Harry Allen among others. The perennial crowd-pleaser performs at the WAMC Performing Arts Studio in Albany on Tuesday, May 4, at 8.

William Parker

As heard on his latest album, “Raining on the Moon” (Thirsty Ear), William Parker makes jazz of an entirely different sort. The bassist, composer and bandleader, who worked extensively with Cecil Taylor in the 1980s, draws on all of jazz history, including blues, spirituals, New Orleans, boogie-woogie, swing, standards, bebop and funk, for a mixture that is highly structured and melodic one moment and then open and free the next. The resulting music, which stems from and speaks deeply to the African-American experience, is at once avant-garde and accessible. Parker, founder of the Improviser’s Collective and the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, also integrates poetry into the mix, working with vocalist Leena Conquest, who will join Parker along with saxophonist Rob Brown, trumpeter Lewis Barnes, drummer Hamid Drake and cellist Shiau-Shu Yu on Thursday, May 6, at 8, when Parker’s quintet offers a program called “Rocket to the Moon Has Just Injured the Rain God” in the Bertelsmann Campus Center’s multipurpose room at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

New England folk

Folk fans are well-served this weekend, with several concerts of New England folk royalty in the region, beginning on Friday at 9 with a triple-bill at Club Helsinki headlined by Kate Taylor of the famed Taylor clan (as in James, Livingston, Alex, Hugh, Sally and Ben). Also on hand are longtime folk-rock mainstays John Coster -- best known for his work with Coster, Welling and Walach, Jacob’s Reunion and the Medicine Band -- and Joel Zoss, who recorded a solo album for Arista Records in 1975 and who had several tunes recorded by Bonnie Raitt.

When Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen got married in 1989, they united two of contemporary folk’s most prominent talents. Since that time, the couple -- who had their first date at the Iron Horse in Northampton and who now call North Bennington, Vt., home – have toured and recorded together widely. Mangsen is best known for her work as a folk balladeer, especially with the trio Herdman, Hills and Mangsen, singing rich, traditional material. Gillette wrote the modern folk classic “Darcy Farrow,” and continues to reap the dividends of country-flavored hits he has written for the likes of Garth Brooks, John Denver, Kenny Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot and Jiminy Cricket. The couple are at Common Grounds Coffeehouse at the First United Methodist Church, 55 Fenn St., in Pittsfield on Saturday at 8.

[Common Grounds Coffeehouse, First United Methodist Church, 55 Fenn St, Pittsfield, Mass, 413-499-0866; Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, 413-528-3394,; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.; 845-758-7456; WAMC Performing Arts Studio, Albany, N.Y., 800-323-9262.]

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 30, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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