Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on May 19th 2010 12:30PM by Steve Hochman
That's what happened to the Ivory Coast native, who after nearly a decade of living in New York and Orlando, Fla. (where he worked as a musician at Walt Disney World, of all places) started doing drum and dance workshops in New Orleans as the city started rebuilding following the 2005 flood, officially making it his home in 2008. And in that time he's become a central figure of what is becoming a surge of African musicians and music there. It's an interesting phenomenon. New Orleans music and culture, of course, is largely grown from African roots – though via Haiti, Cuba and other Caribbean capitals of 18th- and 19th-century slave trade.
The current wave is coming more directly from the Mother Continent, with Koné leading the way. At the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, he led an electrifying performance by Ivoire Spectacle, the dance-and-percussion troupe that grew out of the classes and workshops he's held since moving to town, with a lineup of enthusiastic, talented performers cutting across the city's demographic divides. And with his Ensemble Fatien, whose 2009 JazzFest set was one of the massive event's highlights, he's brought together some top names in the New Orleans music scene representing a wealth of genres, from traditional and modern jazz to zydeco to roots rock – all tied in neatly with Koné's layered Afrobeat variations. That group has just released its debut album, via fan-funded Threadhead Records, and provided another JazzFest-time highlight with an in-store performance at the essential local record store, the Louisiana Music Factory.
Most of the songs were written by Koné based on traditional melodies and forms to highlight the blend of elements. But listen to what they do with the New Orleans standard 'St. James Infirmary,' the performance of which this column last year described as "like a parade starting in Abidjan and ending at St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 across town here."
Ensemble Fatien, 'St. James Infirmary'
The song was suggested to Koné by charter Fatien member Dr. Michael White, a clarinetist who's a core presence in the New Orleans traditional jazz world as a performer, scholar and educator. For the leader, it proved a great vehicle for bridging not just Africa and New Orleans but all the facets of the band.
"I tried three different rhythms," Koné says of how the piece's evolution built around his balafon, Malian Boubacar Cissoko's djoun-djoun and the various drums of veteran New Orleans percussionist Michael Skinkus. "I had the balafon and djembe, plus what Michael played on clarinet and Jason [Marsalis – yes, brother of Wynton and Branford] on xylophone. The first one did not work. I tried another one. But the third one worked and everyone said, 'That is good.' "
Meanwhile, such other groups around town as Kora Konnection (which includes Senegal native Morikeba Kouyate and Guinea's Thierno Dioubate, along with New Orleans musicians) and Gov't Majik are delving into various sides of African music regularly in the local clubs.
Don't bother asking Koné why. You won't get an answer. He understands his own attraction to the historic music of New Orleans – the jazz, R&B, funk, blues and rock 'n' roll that he associated with the city even as a child listening to the radio back in the Ivory Coast. There was a magnetic mystique, he explains, to these sounds returning to Africa after having been transformed through the magical vortex of the port city on the Gulf of Mexico. But as to why he and others doing relatively straight African music have taken hold there now, well ...
"I'm going to interject," says his manager, Jan Bradburn, taking over the phone conversation. "I've asked the same question, meeting these beautiful people [from Africa], asking about their culture. I have asked the same thing from people in New Orleans who are academically inclined, traveled the world, historians, several friends who are ethnomusicologists. And I don't get an answer that's satisfactory."
What it may be, simply, is that while the wake of the flood has left many people grasping on to the city's traditions as emotional/cultural anchors, the changes in the community have also left many open to new approaches, new combinations, new variation. Bradburn says she saw that latter when Koné performed with his percussion and drum troupe Ivoire Spectacle – which grew out of his workshops – at the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
"It was representing traditional African music in a way that was beautiful, the music and dancing and costumes, and it was new to many people who jumped on it," she says. "The African three-beat as opposed to our and the Afro-Cuban four-beat – they picked up on it. Kids love the drum circles, so it might have to do with the influx of young people who came to rebuild. Who knows?"
Trying to describe the Ensemble Fatien is almost just as much a losing proposition. Saying it's greater than the sum of its parts is not just trite but inadequate -- though naming those parts is a good start: White is a central figure throughout and Marsalis' xylophone provides a "Western" sparring partner for Koné's stunning work on the balafon, its African antecedent. Zydeco accordionist Sunpie Barnes and blues-rocker Marc Stone (on slide steel guitar in this context) find a way to tap into African highlife and ju-ju as well as their respective roots. Bassist Matt Perrine (also one of the city's leading tuba players, and in New Orleans that means a lot!) gives fittingly slippery funk on the bottom. And singer Margie Perez weaves through the polyrhythm in a manner both soulful and intimate.
If there's a theme song for Fatien (which means "heritage" in French, by the way), it's the upbeat 'On Sen Vas.'
Ensemble Fatien, 'On Sen Vas'
"It is – how can we say? – 'We're going,'" Koné explains. " 'We're going to do something ... We're on our way.' Something like that. It's a traditional song, a song I got when I was in my village, when I was little. We'd have this song when we're going to a nice place, like another city or to see friends. Anything special. Something good. Wedding party or another village. We sing this song."
Today, it has a new context in his new home.
"We're going to have fun. Fatien is in New Orleans to have fun."
But Fatien are also about more. Koné is already planning ahead to the band going to someplace new, musically, next year for JazzFest.
"It will be something they've never seen," he promises, though declining to reveal specifics. "I want to show New Orleans a lot of African music and dance and masks. I want to show this city what is African, how to work in Africa, how to eat in Africa. My hands are open to all the people of New Orleans."