May 2009

Africa Meets First Nations
May 22, 2009 Hugh's Room Toronto
The Afroriginal Africanishnawbe – a night of cross-cultural alchemy
by Sebastian Cook with photo by Chris Bottomley
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Toronto has been recently blessed with so many visionary cross-cultural musical projects. Ensembles such as Odessa/Havana and SalsAfrica are well-established on the city’s musical map. Jason Wilson’s Ballads, Reels & One-Drops and Delhi2Dublin have both hit the stage in the past months. Sundar Viswanathan, Brownman, CaneFire and others regularly break new ground in global jazz fusion. With the birth of Africa Meets First Nations at Hugh’s room, featuring Malagasy (by way of Moscow) guitar master and project visionary Donné Roberts and Ojibway vocal shaman Marc Nadjiwan alongside a stunningly diverse and talented band, Toronto has a new member of its fusion family, one that raises the bar ever higher. Nadine McNulty and Batuki Music have been essential spearheads of Afrocentric cultural dialogue for some time now, and this project represents a new and tremendously exciting cross-cultural direction.

While some collaborations of this nature tend to struggle with establishing a balance between their voices (similar and related though they may be), Africa Meets First Nations was in stride from the opening traditional aboriginal drum-and-chant by Gabriel of Morningstar River Band. In perfect time and rhythm, the other voices layered themselves into the chorus: gorgeously harmonic chants from Nadjiwan and Jani Lauzon, Roberts’ incredibly fluid and melodic electric guitar, the haunting and tonally rich bass of David Woodhead, Walter Maclean’s jaw-dropping percussion, a gorgeous touch of jazz and groove from the horn and flute of Rich Howse, and Celina Carroll’s maracas.

It was a beautiful experience to be able to hear, feel and ponder the common ground between the world’s First People and Canada’s First People — while remaining riveted by the music itself. The cadences of aboriginal and African chanting are extremely similar. African polyrhythms and the simple beat of the Native drum complement each other ideally, especially with a bass player of David Woodhead’s caliber rounding out the rhythm section. And the interplay between the guitar and horn melodies and the vocals brought the whole sound together. Nadjiwan and Lauzon’s harmonizing was simply entrancing and it was remarkable to watch how effortless generating such resonant vocals appeared to be for both of them. Percussionist Maclean, playing a hybrid setup comprised of congas and cymbals and alternating between hand and sticks, plays with as much as rhythmic power intensity as anyone I have witnessed here in Toronto.

Donné Roberts is a personal favourite musician and this performance afforded the opportunity to witness his gifts in a new light, especially in the vocal context. The lyrics of the title track of his solo album Rhythm Was Born say it all about the man and his purpose: when rhythm was born / everybody sang / everybody danced, everybody felt good / when rhythm was born. Highlights of the set included: his African Guitar Summit favourite “Wenge Yongo”, particularly blistering guitar work on “Mahereza” and “Hira’n’Taolo”, and the final song of the set “Sadebake.”

In fact, a visit to the song info page of Roberts’ website reveals that “Hira’n’Taolo” “…is from the ancestors of Malagasy people and aboriginal North Americans.” Three years after the album was released, we heard it in its full live fusion form the way it was intended! The genesis of “Sadebake”, which is the name of a dance that is part of a celebration called Misambatre held in Roberts’ home village in Madagascar, sheds even more light on perhaps the most inspiring common cultural ground these two great peoples share — the power of celebrations where everyone is included regardless of age, race, gender, or social status. And nothing symbolized the beauty and energy of this evening better than stunning dancer Saba Alemayehu’s foray into the crowd, coaxing people out of their listening-room headspace and onto the dance floor. Hugh’s Room breaking a sweat was refreshing indeed!

The thought of Africa Meets First Nations on the stage at Harbourfront this summer — on the shores of ancient Lake Iroquois, in front of a teeming and even more diverse crowd, dancing in brilliant sunshine — is one that should excite any music lover who believes in the magic of Canada.

The musicians
Donné Roberts: guitar & vocals
Marc Nadjiwan: vocals
Walter McLean: percussion
Celina Carroll: small percussion, vocals & kalimba
David Woodhead: electric bass
Jani Lauzon: vocals
Gabriel: vocals & percussion
Rich Howse: saxophone & flute
Saba Alemayehu: dance


We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
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