Sunday, 22 July 2012

Dotsax - Tenor Saxophonist Dotun Bankole

Dotun "Dotsax" Bankole
Currently featured in the tenor sax spot in Femi Kuti's Positive Force band is 36-year-old hornman Dotun Bankole, aka Dotsax. The band just returned from its summer tour of England, France, and Spain and I had the chance to catch up with Dotsax at the Africa Shrine in Lagos last Thursday during Femi's rehearsal.

We spent a couple of hours jamming on Saturday afternoon and in between the music I was able to explore Dotun's musical interests and background, on top of jamming on one of his original tunes, Coltrane's Africa, some blues and some free explorations.
The Silver Mark VI

Dotsax started on trumpet rather late in life, at age 19 or 20, and played until his trumpet was stolen at age 24. He switched to sax because he had access to one, and learned it by practicing 12 hours a day for six months. His interests started with highlife but he found himself fascinated by jazz after fellow musicians introduced him to the sounds of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Sonny Rollins. He's played with Nigerian masters like Peter King and attributes his current sound to the music he heard in his village growing up plus his fascination with jazz improvisation. Over the past decade he fronted his own band with his brother on keys, although the jazz scene in Nigeria is rather limited. Around nine years ago word was that Femi Kuti was looking for him, and four years ago he finally joined Femi's band full time. He's been touring and recording with Femi ever since and you can catch him and his silver Mark VI on stage at the Shrine on Thursdays and Sundays. 

In addition to his regular gigs backing Femi, Dotsax wants to develop his own original music with a group of his own that offers more room for improvisation. At our jam Saturday he showed easy fluency on tenor and instinctive harmonic knowledge, no problem ripping off interesting and coherent unaccompanied solos. He and I discussed a shared idea of recording a further fusion of jazz and afrobeat and I hope that can come to fruition in the next year. Listen to Dotsax perform a couple of his original compositions here on his MySpace site, which also contains a detailed bio.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Femi Kuti - Caught In The Act of Creation

I was fortunate last night to witness an act of musical creation, on hand while Femi Kuti composed a new tune and he and his musicians worked out the arrangement and backing parts live on stage. 

I came to the New Africa Shrine at about 7:30 pm to watch Femi and band rehearse. Previous Thursday night rehearsals have been more of an informal show than a working session, but last night was different. I arrived to hear Femi working out a line on keys and his horn players rushing to match the line and scribble notes on paper. I knew something was up because the band plays without scores and it was the first time I had seen anything being written down. 

Femi's keyboard line was a 4-bar ascending figure over a bass vamp, quite simple in itself but built into a compelling whole through repetition, layering, and dynamics. The band worked on it for about an hour and a half, saxes, trumpets, and rhythm section each figuring out their parts while Femi directed. The lion's share of time was spent on the bass line and bass/drum coordination. With parts sketched out, Femi walked out into the audience to listen intently from the dance floor and the mixing booth. 

Femi played keyboards almost exclusively last night although I did see him he pick up his tenor for the first time since I've been in Lagos. He blew it for a short while, facing the band rather than the microphone as if he was figuring out how to approach his solo on the new tune. 

After working out the arrangement to his satisfaction, Femi took a short break at around 9:00 pm. When the band came back, they performed the new tune for the first time. It sounded as if it could have already been in the book for a year. The process of musical creation is fascinating and it was a privilege to be present at the premier performance of this piece of music, which we may find in Femi's regular repertoire in the near future. Here is an audio snippet.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Femi's Back in Town

Femi Kuti and band completed their European summer tour and returned to Lagos this week. Last night, Femi was back in action at the New Africa Shrine for the first time in a month. He seemed mellow and relaxed compared to the weeks before the tour, with all the build-up to his 50th birthday celebration now over. 

I walked into the Shrine during the warm-up set in the middle of an extended tenor solo by Dotun Bankole on his silver Mark VI. At this point the staff of the Shrine know me pretty well, to the point where I don't even need to tell them what I want to order. Showboy met me and a few minutes after we sat down, he was called up on stage after it was announced that the composer of African Soldier was in the house. 
Rilwan "Showboy" Fagbemi

That led to two extended tunes with Showboy fronting the Positive Force band for about half an hour. Something is in the air, as you might recall that last month Showboy played with Femi's band for the first time ever, 15 years after Fela's death. When Showboy finished I kidded him that he now has a second gig (in addition to being musical director of Seun Kuti's Egypt 80). He laughed and said that he hadn't been at the Shrine at all since we were last there together in mid-June. Showboy's two tunes got a rise from the typically stoic crowd since long-time fans recognize him from his days with Fela. 

Showboy and Femi's Dancers at Rehearsal
Femi came out on trumpet and then displayed his considerable prowess in circular breathing on both soprano and alto. 

I'm back in Lagos now and within easy striking distance of the Shrine. More to come in the next few days. Here are a couple of photos of Showboy from last night, in the meantime.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Bill of Goods

I will be heading back to Africa soon and will have some more interesting things to post. In the interim, I am writing one of my periodic musings (i.e. rants) about the music scene. Here goes...

We have been sold a bill of goods that music is perpetually evolving. Today's is better than yesterday's, more advanced. It's not true. I learned the conventional wisdom in school, that you can trace the evolution of jazz in a straight line from Armstrong to Parker to Coltrane. An overall trend towards ever-increasing sophistication in rhythm and harmony. You could fill a library with books analyzing the history of the music from New Orleans to Swing to Bop to Cool to Hard Bop to Modal to Freedom as if one style follows directly, naturally, from its predecessor and obviates the need to go back. In reality, things stagnated after Ornette, Trane, Ayler, Taylor, and the Art Ensemble, and the creative scene of my younger days has long ago been snuffed out by musical Reaganomics. Today you need a Master's Degree in performance to play jazz so your fellow musicians won't give you "the ray", and the University of the Streets has been shuttered for all intents and purposes. 

I was listening to Sam Rivers on my iPod the other day and had an epiphany of sorts. Listening to Sam play his tenor on Fuschia Swing Song (tunes written as far back as the late 50's), I heard him play so much music on his SML in 1965 that I realized NOBODY HAS EVER GOTTEN BEYOND THAT. Listen to Ellipsis. SHEEE-IT. Sam himself never got beyond that. 

My recent experiences in Africa reinforce the plateau state of yet another musical style, Afrobeat. Fela Kuti has been gone for 15 years and the music has not advanced much since then. Yes, there has been a Broadway play cheesifying his life and there are Afrobeat revival bands in the US, Europe, and Japan, but who wants to listen to a revival band made of copyists who learned their instruments in school when you can go back and listen to one of Fela's original records or his original band and offspring? His son Femi has been flirting with rap and hip-hop which I hope is just a way to make money and not a serious musical direction - because that music just can't compare. By my reckoning hip-hop has dominated commercial pop music longer than rock 'n roll at this point, even in Fela's home country of Nigeria, and musically I can't figure out why. Can't be about the music. Must be about the commercial. 

The conclusion from all this is that music definitely does not evolve in a straight line, and at present the creative music world is at a plateau. The result of obsession with too much technology - the hardware and not the software. The lack of live gigs has driven performing musicians into academia where they teach what can be documented, reproduced, and tested - that's why so many of today's horn players sound like John Coltrane ca. 1960 and none sound like Ornette or Ayler; originality is dissed rather than respected. Can you play your horn at Grade 8? Who cares? Did Tina Brooks pass his exam before recording True Blue? Music cannot be separated from its social context and that is why creative music has stagnated. The social milieu that created Bird and Trane no longer exists; we can only listen to their recordings, transcribe, analyze, and reproduce the sound. A society that measures your worth by how fancy your hand phone is doesn't have much space for musical innovation. 

One thing I have learned is that making music is actually a social process and something big is missing if you only concentrate on the technical. Music cannot be separated from its environment. Did you download that from the cloud and play it on your iPad? Was that a D7m5 or did Diz use another enharmonic spelling? Was that an E natural or an F flat? Do your ears care?