Friday, May 29, 2009

May 29: Gangbé Brass Band, "Whendo"

Artist: Gangbé Brass Band
Album: Whendo
Year: 2004
Label: Contre Jour

While many U.S. and U.K. based musicians attempt to fuse together their own rock or jazz backgrounds with AfroBeat rhythms, it is nearly unheard of for an artist to attempt to reverse this process. For the most part, "genuine" African music follows a rather strict pattern, and "Western" instruments rarely fit the bill. However, in the case of Benin-based group, Gangbé Brass Band, this breaking of structure poses no issue, and yields amazing results. Gangebé roughly translates into "sound of metal" in the groups' native Fon language, and if you take this beyond the genre of metal, one can see how their name alone begins to separate them from a majority of their peers. The group has been making music for nearly twenty years together and, having released four records over the past ten years, their finest musical achievement is certainly their upbeat, jazzy/be-bop 2004 release, Whendo.

From the first notes of the record, it is clear that Whendo is unlike all other African albums. A bright horn section, bringing the sounds of New Orleans jazz fills the space around the more traditional African percussion work. It is on Whendo where the fusion of African and American musical styles finally come together perfectly, and the record is an absolutely stellar example of what can be achieved musically through this integration. One can also see this non-traditional approach to the African style of music to be a reflection of the rich history behind their home country of Benin. A former French colony, brass instruments were imported into the country from France and Europe, mostly for the military personal in the country. A group that is clearly aware of their roots, Gangebé Brass Band presents a fitting tribute to the one and only Fela Kuti on the aptly names, "Remember Fela." Musically, the song is a clear nod to Kuti, and the style which Kuti pioneered comes through clearly, with the horns making the track retain the groups' signature sound.

Each song on Whendo is a celebration of sound, and with nearly a dozen different musicians on each track, the sound of Gangbé Brass Band is well beyond the terms "full" and "rich." With four different musicians playing trumpet at different points, and three playing trombone (plus a saxophone and euphonium) the sound and style of each musician blends perfectly over the percussion, creating a wall of music that is a true joy to experience. It is clear that on Whendo, the group members are far more confident in both their individual sound, as well as the overall sound produced by the group as a whole. The extended solo sections are more focused and the musicians are obviously more comfortable in what they are doing, creating far more poised feel to the music. Unlike the previous efforts from Gangbé Brass Band, there is far much more musical importance placed on the percussion section, and this helps the group to finally achieve their full musical potential. The percussion is equally as varied, from traditional drums to fantastic talking-drum work, to a variety of bells and shakers throughout each track. This juxtaposition in sound is nothing short of stunning, and it gives Whendo a wonderfully unique sound and mood.

Each group member lends their vocals throughout the record, further helping Whendo to retain the key elements of African music. Whether they are signing group chants or shouting in celebration or frustration, the voices blend together in a manner that is equally as beautiful as the music itself. The deep, rich vocals are pure bliss, and it reminds one of a time when studio technologies did not exist, and pure talent was all one had with which to work. If one finds the translations of the lyrics, you will find that, no surprisingly, a majority of the songs concern the seemingly endless war and poverty that has ravaged much of Africa over the past decades. However, along with the aforementioned "Remember Fela," there are a number of more upbeat numbers, many of which are reminiscent of the sound and mood of the great King Sunny Ade. From more solemn, singular vocals to exuberant call-and-response group chants, each song on Whendo has it's own personality, and the combination of all of the different styles makes it one of the most wonderfully unique records to come out in decades.

Though something that has almost never been done before, the combination of the jazz and be-bop sounds of New Orleans brass sections along with the rich and emotional feel of traditional African rhythms is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Taking this idea and honing it to perfection, the dozen members of Benin's Gangbé Brass Band truly create some of the most uplifting, enjoyable music on the planet. With fantastic solos from trumpets, trombones, and various percussion, the songs have a great variety in sound, yet a clear, common mood runs through each and every song the group performs. Running the gamut from sorrowful and mournful to merry and carefree, each and every song found on Whendo is an absolute pleasure to experience time and time again. A group that tours relentlessly throughout South America, Europe, and Africa, their sound is beyond unique, and their live performances are said to be as moving and delightful as their studio recordings. The sensational combination of instruments and vocal talents help to make 2004's Whendo one of the most phenomenal and original albums to come out in ages, and it is an absolute essential record for every music fan.

Standout tracks: "Noubioto," "Remember Fela," and "Gbedji."

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