Africa’s Diaspora Explored

Few stand-out performers dominate the mainstream, straight-ahead jazz field these days. Then, there are those rare musicians like Detroit native Regina Carter, who use the spirit of jazz to create essentially genreless but engaging music. This Saturday, Carter performed with her touring quartet at the Charles Hotel’s Regattabar, and transformed what could have been a simple set into a sophisticated musical showcase. Carter, arguably the most well-known jazz violonist in the world today, used the fundamentals of jazz to create music that can’t be called straight-ahead, yet remains in the tradition by coupling improvisation and jazz rhythms and techniques to tunes and melodies borrowed from other cultures—in this case, Africa and its diaspora.

Carter’s quartet, comprised of Will Holshouser on accordion, Chris Lightcap on bass, Alvester Garnett on drums, and Yakouba Sissoko on kora—a 21-stringed West African harp lute—seemed so diverse as to border on whimsical, yet its sound was precise and carefully selected, just like the arrangements themselves. Carter opened the set with an arrangement of “N’Teri,” a song by legendary Malian guitarist Habib Koité. It began with a shimmering interplay between the kora and the violin, both plucking their strings to create a rubbing, fast-paced tonal interplay that formed the core of the piece. The accordion gently supplemented their melody, weaving the entire tonal texture together through its distinctive tone. They sounded like a band of traveling gypsies, playfully borrowing from the jazz string tradition that partially began with Django Reinhard, a Gypsy jazz violinist. However, Carter and her group maintained their own, distinct tone the entire time, creating a new kind of fusion music that defies classification in a tradition or a genre.

One of the strongest songs of the evening was Carter’s reinterpretation of “Artistiya,” a song by the blind Malian Afro-pop couple Amadou and Mariam. The original, which has a tight, pulsing guitar beat overlaid with light, almost bird-like traditional singing, is a driving, danceable tune. Lightcap opened on bass, sliding into a supple groove, which Garnett then supplemented with a popping, delicate damp beat. Sissoko, a virtuoso on the kora, frenetically plucked the strings, improvising on the vocal solos of the original to produce a glistening, rising sound. Holshouser’s accordion played off Carter’s riffs, which quickly morphed from a straight reinterpretation of the melody into a fiery, bluesy solo. The entire song was a beautiful example of what this curious group could produce—the sound melded into one pulse overlaid by Carter’s fiercely brilliant playing.

Despite Carter’s brilliance and the pulse of the tune, the group didn’t manage to pull off the original grittiness—a slightly lo-fi homespun funk—of “Artistiya.” Throughout the evening, there was always something slightly too safe about the sound, despite the unusual combination of instruments and tunes. This is perhaps due to Carter’s strict training under the Suzuki method as a child—her tone is always clean, precise and deliberate, no matter how fast-paced her playing. It’s one of her great strengths as a musician, but almost limits the reach of her group in how deep their groove and their playing can extend.

This was also evident in the musical project that the group presented that evening—the musicians were excited to be reinterpreting lesser-known African melodies, but handled them with so much respect that the fundamental spontaneity of musical cross-pollination was sometimes less apparent. Before two of the pieces—a traditional Ugandan song, “Mwana Talitambula,” whose title roughly translates to “The Child Will Never Walk,” and “Zerapicki,” a Mauritian accordion dance—Carter paused to play ‘field clips’ of the originals. The arrangements were beautiful—in particular, “Mwana Talitambula” featured Carter playing artificial harmonics on her violin with Holshouser on the accordion. Together, they produced piercing, shimmering lines of sound, like two gold threads rubbing together. Yet both pieces were enshrouded with a weighty respect and care for the musical tradition they were borrowing from—respect that is important, but almost overshadows the possibilities for creative play. To a certain extent, the strongest songs of the night were simply the ones based on the most compelling original tunes, no matter how much the group’s own improvisations shone.

In a way, Carter is responding to another musical lineage that has been gaining a lot of ground lately with the rediscovery of jazz- and funk-influenced traditional music coming out of Africa and its diaspora. One of the most well-known examples is “Ethiojazz,” prominently featured on a music series called “Ethopiques,” a compilation of jazz and funk Ethiopian music recorded by Amha Records in the 1960s and ‘70s. This kind of musical approach was found all over the world in the 1970s, extending from Ghana to the French Caribbean. These musicians borrowed from jazz irreverently and spontaneously, organically extending their understanding of sound and music. Carter, by contrast, is carrying out her project with the utmost deliberation, showcasing each tune and its tradition before demonstrating what she has done with it. On one hand, this is a great way to bring awareness to the beauty of indigenous music; on the other, the care and the planning put into the project carry the danger of making Carter’s group seem less like a jam-filled improvisational ensemble, and more like a collective of talented ethnomusicologists.

However, Carter and her group remain fantastic musicians, and their skill and musical feeling feed the project’s vitality and move it beyond potential pitfalls. In the middle of the set, Carter stepped away from her arrangements to do a more straight-ahead jazz tune, simply with bass, drums and accordion, and here the band truly came into its own. Holshouser played his instrument like a piano, starting out with short, clipped riffs that prompted Carter’s dipping violin. The playful duet almost bordered on silly at times—Holshouser somehow spread his sound to mimic a Hammond B-3 organ, underpinning the piece. Carter soulfully dipped and slid through her notes, creating a swinging melancholy that was pure jazz at its root. Garnett exploded on the drums, driving the beat forward with a virtuosic solo of snaps, crackles and syncopated beats—he yelled over his own playing, throwing out guttural groans and shouts that really made the room and the music come alive. That spontaneity, the life and movement of their playing, was the stand-out moment of the night.

Whether playing beautiful African melodies or simply quoting old standards in a new way, Regina Carter and her band were at their best when they forgot about musical tradition and simply channeled the real spirit of jazz.

—Staff writer Sophie O. Duvernoy can be reached at sduvern@fas.harvard.edu.

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