Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Feb 5th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
So how did the locals react? "They didn't know," says Reid. That's because he didn't tell them. "That's why I was able to fit right in. That's why I was able to work so much over there and fit in."
Telling the African musicians about his credits would make them defer to him, he feared. He didn't want them hung up on his roots. He wanted to absorb theirs. And absorb he did, playing with everyone he could in the course of a three-year stay in West Africa, including Kuti himself, before returning to New York and, after serving time for draft evasion, bringing his African experiences to some key American music from the hit 'Popcorn,' by James Brown (arguably the crucial Western influence on Afrobeat), to avant-garde jazz classicist Sun Ra (whose extended flights parallel much of Kuti's music). He then spent much of the next few decades living in Europe, playing with a variety of artists.
When he returned a year ago for the first time since that original stay, though, it wasn't as a musical tabula rasa. "I wanted to learn the first time, and this time I wanted to go and bring them something," says Reid. "I originally went to learn about the drums -- that's the source of it, source of rhythm, source of man. This time I wanted to go back and bring them some of my experience from the other side of the water. And it turned out that way."
Accompanied by his very international collaborators -- Russian keyboardist Boris Netsvetaev and Anglo-Indian electronics manipulator Kieran Hebden (a.k.a. Four Tet), with whom he's teamed on several recordings and numerous live projects -- he landed in Dakar on the eve of his 63rd birthday, in January 2006. Having consulted ahead of time with guitarist Jimi Mbaye (a longtime associate of Youssou N'Dour), he convened a group that included trumpeter Roger Ongolo, bassist Dembel Diop and percussionist Khadim Badji, all top players on the Dakar circuit. The ensemble set up in a local studio and turned to Reid for instructions.
"They said, 'What do you want to do?' I said, 'Just play'" he says, letting loose the hearty laugh that marks his fittingly free-flowing conversation style. "They were confused. They weren't used to the concept. But they got it after two minutes." And another big laugh.
And that's what he brought to Africa on this trip. "All my stuff is spontaneous, man. Life is spontaneous, in other words. Only two things repeat themselves: seeding time and harvest time. Yeah, that's the constant cycle, man, you know? And it's love. That never stops. And when you get away from it, that's when things go haywire."
This went anything but haywire, though it was a pretty crazy schedule: For three largely sleepless days, the group, dubbed the Steve Reid Ensemble, played clubs and parties at night (including one gig opening for the venerable Orchestra Baobab) and recorded in the daytime. The result is the new album 'Daxaar' (from the original spelling of Dakar), an audio chronicle of the meetings of these cultures -- though it starts firmly on African turf, with the opening 'Welcome' featuring the voice and harp-like korah of Isa Kouyate in a very traditional-style invocation. From there, though, traditions mix and match fluidly, at times when Ongolo's airy trumpet takes the lead evoking the 'Fourth World' music Jon Hassell created with Brian Eno in the '70s, itself building heavily on Miles Davis' revolutions of the 'Bitches Brew' era. (Reid, in fact, played on Davis' 1986 album 'Tutu.') It was not a conscious thing, he insists, but the organic mix of the musical and cultural personalities.
"That's what I've always involved in my career, mixing different music with people who wouldn't ordinarily do it." he says. "I can do it easily since I play the drums, which is in everything. And now we're into this rhythmic age, and the rhythm is the controlling factor now that world music is rising up. I think this is great for the people."
And it's the free flow of music and musical ideas that marks the greatest progress between the African visits for Reid. On one hand, the stark deprivation he saw in Senegal, even among musicians who have little in the way of equipment, was a reminder of "how one must keep this simple." On the other hand, the communication channels are wide open -- evidenced in part by the very fact that 'Daxaar' is being released by the English label Domino Records, home to such current rock forces as Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand but with a solid track record of reaching well beyond the mainstream.
"Thanks to young people and the Internet, people are getting a bigger musical menu, and this is what is important," Reid says. "There's so many different kids of music out there and people should be exposed to as much as possible. It's like medicine. The crazy people we have operating the world -- but we have the real literature and music and art, something solid."
Meanwhile, Reid won't wait decades before another return to Africa. And he's already looking for other places for similar sessions.
"I would like to check out some Latin American stuff, some really ethnic stuff there," he says. "And I'm trying to get Kieran to take me to India, because he's Indian -- his mother's from India."
Wherever he goes, it's a good bet it will be rewarding. "I'm happy to have drumsticks in my hand. And even when I don't, I'm happy now. Just a positive vibe."
And with that, another deep laugh.