September 2006

Ash Dargan’s Unity Trio
Presented by Small World Music
September 28, 2006 Lula Lounge Toronto
An Utterly Ab-Original Journey Through Global Sound
by Sebastian Cook with photos by Roger Humbert
This eighth night of the Small World Music Festival brought Dargan to Lula Lounge again, “birthing” as a live performance ensemble Ash Dargan’s Unity Trio. This simple handle indeed captures the essence of the band as a unifying expression: of cultures extending from Ash’s native northern Australia around the world; between ancestry, history, the present and future; of music from ancestral tradition to centuries-old Asian ceremonial works to free-jazz and dance-floor breakbeat; and above all between humanity and the physical & metaphysical environs that uniquely shape every human culture.

Dargan introduced his newly formed Unity Trio, and spoke to the pride he took in wearing the Australian aboriginal flag emblazoned on his shirt. He welcomed his friends: “my uncle” Mandaza, who had traveled from the bush of Zimbabwe, and his aboriginal brother from the Cree nation, Les Harper, who spoke to the beauty and power of people and language before leading the first percussive chant of blessing and prayer.

Dargan introduced the lyrics of the first song as a prayer in his native tongue. For a time he stood utterly motionless, absorbing the band’s chant and delicately building percussion. His didgeridoo made a grand entrance into the soundscape, clasped in one hand, while the other waved counterclockwise before settling on the mouth of the instrument as if to coax out its tone. Expertly played didgeridoo is always a rhythmic satisfaction; the stunning tonal and harmonic nuances and hypnotic high-low pitch transitions set Dargan’s playing on a level of its own.

Electronica came into the dialogue in the form of the sounds of birds in the desert with drum and bass style beats, followed by an interlude of what sounded like North American aboriginal chanting. The crickets came out in song, like a rave in the desert, and then Dargan’s didg emitted a dramatic high-pitched howl as he raised it aloft and the song came to a close.

Ash Dargan

Larry Mahlis
Percussionist Larry Mahlis opened “Primal Stomp” with a thunderous Oriental cymbal crash, and then set up shop on his 3-drum tablas for the first time. For about two minutes his precise rhythm gathered steam until Dargan joined in, followed by woodwinder Gary Stroutsos with a flute melody reminiscent of the theme to “Mission Impossible”. Dargan’s percussive didg created a sublime call-and-response breakbeat, discernable with both of his bandmates. A free-jazz vibe was in the air, along the lines of Coltrane’s “Africa Brass” or Pharaoh Sanders. Once again, the song climaxed with a staccato high-pitch burst.

Dargan introduced “Goanna” with a nod to his native Northern Australia with its two seasons, “hot and real bloody hot” which drew gales of laughter from the crowd hunkering down for our colder seasons, and a meditation on the power of lightning. As the name suggests, this song had a dance-floor friendly tribal house beat.

Inspired by the scintillating colours of the scorching desert landscapes in the midday sun, “Wirruna” opened with a haunting didg solo, moving into a psy-trance beat and then Dargan’s rhythmic chanting; backed by didg samples and some beautiful mid-range flute work from Stroutsos.

Leading into “Karkania”, Dargan described the band’s technological enhancements as “Australia in a box, made by the Japanese” and spoke to its many and varied practical benefits in the recording process. He then introduced the lyrics as the Lord’s Prayer in his native language. This seemed to be a courageously forgiving irony, and brought to my mind the Ivorian reggae star Alpha Blondy who is known for singing in Hebrew to Islamic audiences and Arabic to Jewish crowds. The prayer built up as a chant, Stroutsous’ flute sounding like the call of desert birds, with a segue back to a chant which slowed down as the song drifted to a close.

Speaking to the crowd for the first time, Stroutsos introduced himself as “just a Seattle guy”, and the song “Future Primitive”, as derived from classical Chinese court music with influences from early jazz flute players such as Roland (Rahsaan) Kirk and Yusef Lateef. His instrument for this song was a Chinese flute called a xiao. Mahlis offered a hauntingly beautiful crescendo of rhythm on the tablas. Dargan moved to a standup position on the didg for the first time, with the electronic chorus of birds again joining the sonic fray.

“Sacred Ground” was the first song of the evening to feature English lyrics, starting with “If we approach wisely, we will feel the warmest fire”. “This is a sacred place” was repeated several times as Mahlis struck the Chinese tambourine. In spoken-word style, Dargan told the tale of how all species originated from a single organism, running in all four directions and shapeshifting into ever-changing realities of perception. His animalistic hand gestures drew out Dargan’s most spectacular display of tonal range from his didgeridoo all evening, with a gutteral breathing tone at the end as he again lifted it skyward.

“Mandaza” was evidently a spontaneous creation. The Zimbabwean healer who Dargan met here in Toronto made his way wide-eyed to the stage. He said, “I am not a musician at all” and then delivered a profound lesson of human language as music with his call of, “All people embrace, rejoice, celebrate”. The didgeridoo entered soft and nuanced, and Stroutsos played an entrancing melody on a piccolo-like wood flute. The sound of a baby’s curious cry from the audience fit perfectly into the song as it drew to its end. As Mandaza headed off the stage, Dargan followed him to give the shy man a heartfelt embrace.

Gary Stroutsos

Commencing the final song of the set, entitled “Sushi”, Dargan posed the question “It’s a world tour. Where are we going?” Stroutsos’ Japanese flute provided the answer, followed by Dargan bursting into a beatbox chorus of “Di-di-didgeri-da-da” using his instrument as a microphone as the audience clapped along enthusiastically. Musically, this joyous improv brought a stunning journey of a concert full circle. After a brief break, Dargan returned to the stage for a solo encore.

To start the show, Small World Music Festival director Alan Davis had introduced Dargan as one of the few artists to play return festival engagements. Perhaps this is because he feels the connection to and power of place in Toronto that is so foundational to his music.

Unity Trio
Ash Dargan – didgeridoo, vocals, beats & samples, stick percussion
Gary Stroutsos – woodwinds
Larry Mahlis – percussion

“Uncle” Mandaza – spoken word
Les Harper – intro MC & chants
We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
• • • • • •
Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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