Thursday, April 05, 2018

The Pocket: Cameroonian Dance Rhythms Turn Jazz Grace to Pure Joy on Ajoyo’s eponymous debut

Yacine Boulares struck up a conversation with a fellow Francophone musician at a jazz club late one night. It changed his life.

The multi-reed player made what he jokingly calls “math music,” the intellectual jazz savored by the few, when not working as a sideman and session player for the likes of Placido Domingo and Tabou Combo. But after he met drummer Jojo Kuo, the avuncular, genial Cameroonian successor to Tony Allen in Fela Kuti’s band, Boulares found himself captivated by a new set of rules: Play for dancers, put the groove first, connect with the heart. Kuo took the Parisian transplant under his wing, inviting Boulares to jam at late-night sessions and then become a regular member of his band.

“There’s a pocket to this music, that is natural to Cameroonian players,” Boulares explains. “When you’re playing with them, it’s like sitting on the nose of a jet. There is drive that can push the whole band. That’s the magic. When they play, everyone locks.”

From the locking intersection of heart and head, of groove and crystalline structure, flowed Ajoyo (Ropeadope; release: April 21, 2015), a high-flying hybrid of jazz, traditional dance rhythms from Cameroon, and just a touch of Afrobeat. Inspired by the sounds of Kuo’s native land, Boulares crafted original pieces of thought-provoking party music. Then he recruited a diverse crew of African, Afro-diasporic, and cross-cultural crack musicians to find the pocket.

The ecstatic “Chocot” brings the Cameroonian bikutsi drive to bear, giving Boulares’s soprano sax free rein to rage. “Tashikere” shimmies, as vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles’s voice leaps joyfully over complex bursts of horns. “Benskin” effortlessly combines the polyrhythms and polyphony of the best African dance music with a serious penchant for jazz depth and reflection. It’s danceable philosophy, in the perfect pocket.

Boulares came late to jazz, but rapidly made up for lost time. With heritage in Tunisia, but raised in Paris, Boulares hails from a family without any particular musical inclination, though Boulares’s father often listened to Arabic classical music like Oum Khulthum.  He gave his son a sax as a graduation present, but Boulares didn’t pick up the saxophone before college years. While studying for his MA, Boulares went from exploring the philosophical concepts behind musical expression and experience at the Sorbonne to playing music himself.

At the same time, Boulares was coming to terms with his own identity, as a young Parisian who was utterly French, yet who stood out the moment he said his name. “It was a challenge for me to understand my Arabic heritage,” remembers Boulares. He spent summers in Tunisia, and his experiences spurred him to study Arabic and decolonize his heritage. Boulares’s roots and his connection to his own African identity runs through “Houb Ouna,” a piece that combines Tunisian rhythms with sub-Saharan elements, tracing the path of slaves and migrants from the south to the north.

Boulares’s love of jazz took him west on a Fulbright to New York, and to that fateful night at Fat Cat. After several years, now part of a growing circle of Cameroonian, Ivorian, and other Francophone African projects, Boulares began composing his own pieces based on West African rhythms, to give the bands he played with more material. Kuo encouraged him, and when the drummer left New York, he insisted Boulares continue the work.

He did, gathering a trusted crew of friends around him, blending Afro-diasporas (from Cameroonian bassist Fred Doumbe to New Orleans native Linton Smith on the trumpet +barbadian percussionist Foluso Mimy ) and savvy young cross-cultural players (Guilhem Flouzat on drums, Israeli-born Alon Albagli on guitar, and Turkish-German keys player Can Olgun). He tapped Sarah Elizabeth Charles for her spot-on velvet voice, and for her ability to help crystallize Boulares’s intensely felt lyrical ideas. Working with producer Jacques Schwarz-Bart, who has played sax with everyone from Roy Hargrove to D’Angelo, Boulares let the band loose, finding new spaces for the musicians to move and expand.

It was the last step away from the math music, a next step toward an increasingly nuanced (and funky) understanding of his own origins. It brought to the fore some advice Boulares recalls from one of his early mentors: “Music exists before you and after you. You’re a vector, a door, and you have to be the widest door you can. Let it go through you.” That wide open moment points straight to the pocket.

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