Michael Buckner | Frazer Harrison, Getty Images Now this is a collaboration that…
- Posted on Aug 14th 2007 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
And then there is where she found it: the town of Bamako in Mali.
That's where the one-time Broadway star of 'The Wiz' (she won a 1975 Tony Award for her role as Glinda) recorded her new album, 'Red Earth,' released by her own DDB Records through Universal Music and the reactivated Emarcy label. Subtitled 'A Malian Journey,' it's that and more. It's a very personal sojourn but one resulting in music as illuminating and satisfying for the listener as making it was for Bridgewater. The distinctive melding of Malian and jazz styles covers a full spectrum of possibilities, from the percussive, griot-style narratives of 'Bani (Bad Spirits)' and 'Massane Cissé (Red Earth)' -- derived in part from songs originating in the 12th and 13th centuries -- to the Afro-scat excursion of 'Dee Dee' to the Africanized reimaginings of two modern jazz standards: Mongo Santamaria's 'Afro Blue' and Gene McDaniels' simmering 'Compared to What' (with new rapped lyrics in Bambara by Larry "King" Massassy), which bookend the album. Working with Malian stars Oumou Sangaré, Toumani Diabaté, Ramata Diakité, Baba Sissoko and various lesser-known locals as well as her own jazz trio, Bridgewater was able to find not just common musical language but invent some new avenues of expression.
"The album really came out of a personal place, trying to find my African roots and finally deciding to embrace the fact that I do have African roots," Bridgewater says. The seed of the project came in 1995 after she'd recorded a tribute to jazz pianist Horace Silver. "Because his music is so frickin' rhythmic, I became interested in the whole percussive aspect and my scatting became more percussive after that," she says. "And I started having a lot more musical conversations with drums."
But another turn came when several years ago she cut her hair, which had been straight, and noticed some troubling reactions -- taking her place in first class on an airplane and having a businessman next to her ask to be reseated, going into stores where she had shopped before with no problems and now being ignored. That spurred research in to her genealogy and heritage, which led back to Mississippi slaves, which in turn led back to West Africa. And then the music took over.
"I was listening to different music, primarily from West Africa, and every time I head music from Mali, it struck a chord in my body, like, 'I know this music!'" she says. "And toward the end of 2003 I said to my husband, 'I need to go to Mali.'" As a guide, she enlisted Cheick Tidiane Seck, a producer and musician who had collaborated with American pianist Hank Jones on the 1995 Afro-jazz album 'Sarala.'
"He's responsible for everyone we met," Bridgewater says. But she was very particular about who was brought in to the project. "He would say, 'There's a great guitarist,' and I said, 'No, no, no. I'm not coming to Mali to work with people who play American-style music. I want the traditional instruments."
With kora great Diabaté also serving as a guide, various jams and writing sessions were organized during her first trip in 2004, and the revelations came freely -- on both sides. Bridgewater did not have a lot of models to work from. While a lot of jazz instrumentalists have made their way to Africa for such projects, she's hard-pressed to think of any singers who have done so, especially female vocalists. Only Nina Simone (whose signature 'Four Women' is reinterpreted by Bridgewater and the Malians as a centerpiece of this album and as a tribute to the strength of Malian women) comes to mind, and her leanings to Africa were more in spirit than in actual musical collaborations -- though Simone spent time in Ghana, where there's even a town named for her.
"The only thing I could do in the jams was freestyle lyrics, and they were blown away," Bridgewater says. "I could do these musical discussions with the percussionists or kora. But they'd never heard anyone scat. They didn't know what the heck I was doing."
Seck then started sending her compilations of Malian music, and nearly everything that struck her was very traditional in nature -- the griot tales and acoustic settings. With that in mind, the project started in earnest and happened very naturally. She blended well and organically with the Malian musicians, who she says took it for granted that she indeed is one of them.
"They would just embrace me," she says. "The were the ones who said, 'Yes, you are from this country, you do have Malian traits.' Everyone I worked with and even the president of Mali says I'm from the Peul tribe, a northern nomadic tribe, and when I'm in Mali, people talk to me in Bambara. They think I'm Malian."
She notes the photos of her and Malian women in the CD booklet, one in particular of her with Ramata Diakité, both of them wearing traditional head scarves, smiling broadly. They could be sisters. "It's like seeing my own family and friends," Bridgewater says.
And she'll be seeing more of them. She's been bringing as many of the Malian musicians as possible on tour with her in Europe and on an upcoming U.S. trek. And she's started groundwork for a follow-up album that will be even more roots-oriented, placing her with an acoustic ensemble of local musicians. As well, she's even looking into buying some property there and putting down some real roots. And she's continuing work she has done as an ambassador to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization to address world hunger since 1999.
Forget Oz. There's no place like Mali.