Friday, 10 February 2012

African Sax Players (Mostly Central and West Africa)

There are some great African tenor sax players out there, some well known, others under-recognized. But that is the case with horn players in general. Probably the best-known African horn players are Fela Kuti and Manu Dibango. Fela is gone but Manu is still around. 

Fela had a rough life and in the great American tradition, was recognized by a Broadway musical long after he passed away. Fela’s music speaks for itself and practically established a whole genre, Afro-beat, which is undergoing a revival of sorts in the West (shades of jazz repertory) although it is difficult to find in his native Nigeria any more since hip-hop is just so much better (nudge nudge, wink wink). There are easily more than 50 Fela albums available through various sources. Two of his sons, Femi and Seun, carry on the tradition with bands of their own that play respectable updated Afro-beat, although they can’t shake a stick at Dad even if their audiences are bigger, kind of like Joshua Redman and Dewey Redman. 

I keep coming across posts on sites like Sax On The Web where people dis Fela’s playing, not technical enough I suppose, too much emotion and not enough chord substitutions. I don’t get it. You don’t listen to Fela’s band and expect to hear the Johnny Carson Tonight Show Orchestra. Fela actually was a trained musician who created a unique playing style rooted in rhythm; it wasn’t an analytical style by any means but it sure does connect. I’d rather listen to Fela play tenor than Warne Marsh any day. 

Manu Dibango is best known for Soul Makossa which was a pop radio hit in the US back in my high school days. We didn’t know what the heck it was back then. Jonny, my Nigerian sax playing friend and bandstand mentor, puts Manu #1 on his list. There are plenty of Manu’s recordings available and I particularly like CubAfrica

Five other tenor sax greats who are lesser known but definitely worth seeking out if you are interested in hearing original styles not cloned out of the conservatory are Jean Serge Essous, Dexter Johnson, Verckys, Issa Sissoko, and Getatchew Mekurya. The last three are still alive and the last two are still musically active.

Issa Sissoko is the saxophone player in Orchestre Baobab from Senegal. Baobab has undergone a revival on the world music circuit and if you are lucky and live in a major urban area, it is still possible to see them perform without watering down their music in any way, fortunately. Amazing stuff. Getatchew Mekurya is from Ethiopia and likewise has seen his fortunes revive recently. 

Verckys is apparently still around although he hasn't been making music for a while. He was with Franco in TPOK Jazz and then formed Orchestre Vévé. Some of his recordings with Vévé are just wild; check out Vivita.

From the past, virtually anything played by Essous or Johnson is worth hearing. Like Verckys, Essous is from Congo and is primarily associated with the Latin-based rumba and proto-soukous music that came out of Central Africa in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Essous played with Franco’s early OK Jazz and then with Les Bantous de la Capitale and Rock-A-Mambo. Dexter Johnson is mostly known for his work with Senegal’s Super Star de Dakar, the band that spawned Youssou N’Dour. Why the saxophone went out of style in Central and West Africa is baffling; by the 70s saxophones were becoming rare and there are hardly any recordings from the 1980s that feature other than guitars (and then the dreaded synth arrived…). 

Check these guys out; as much as I love Trane and compatriots it does a lot of good to hear great tenor sax players who have developed in another equally valid tradition, whose music deserves to be more widely known and incorporated.

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