Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Kalmunity/Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, 02/13/2008

There is a love for tribal art in Montreal. The Sunday ritual of Tam-Tam drum circles in Parc Mont-Royal have thrived for two decades here; we have a small but powerful Afrobeat scene. We also host many émigrés from other parts of la Francophonie, including Cote D'Ivoire and Haiti. The historical motives for this passion are something I'm unaware of, but fascinate me, and were manifest in last Wednesday's double bill at La Sala Rossa.

The Kalmunity Vibe Collective is an assemblage of musicians, poets, MCs and singers that congregate every Tuesday at Sablo Café, a tiny hub in the middle of residential Little Italy. Helmed by drummer Jahsun, the band initiates grooves for the wordsmiths to freestyle on or read over. Over their five-year existence, they've had a shifting core of musicians and have diversified from the hallmark R&B and reggae to include jazzers like Andres Vial (keyboards), Martin Heslop (bass) and Jason Sharp (saxophones). It was this jazz side of the collective that was the musical foundation for the Sala Rossa hit, while vocalists Fredy V, Malika and Odessa "Queen" Thornhill wove soulful background melodies behind trumpeter/poet Jason "Blackbird" Selman, MC Preach Ankobia and Kalmunity stalwart Fabrice Koffy. As with anything improvised (and anything involving large numbers of people), nights can be hit and miss, but when they hit there's a magical sort of communion that happens in the room. Last week, it was pretty much all "hit," aside from some minor pitfalls surrounding the ability of everyone to hear the grand piano onstage. Fabrice's new work is rhythmic and incisive, and all the MCs/poets navigated the syncopated structures well. Andres, Martin and Jahsun have achieved a really tight hookup over the past year or so, and I haven't heard Jason Sharp in a long time. He's now specializing in baritone saxophone and fujara, an overtone flute which he achieves non-traditional, haunting sounds.

Kalmunity was the perfect complement to Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, a group that achieves the same sort of spiritual unity on a much smaller scale. Percussionist and bandleader El'Zabar moved between electrified kalimbas, his hand-built "earth drums" and drum kit over the course of the night, and vocalized bass lines as well as lyric mantras in a gruff baritone. Sometimes the vocalizations struck me as a more purposeful Keith Jarrett, and in his stronger moments sounded like a preacher in the throes of a sermon. The group is rounded out by saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins and trumpeter Corey Wilkes. Dawkins appeared as the elder, clad in a dashiki and surrounded by a table of small percussion that he and Wilkes shared. Wilkes is of the hip-hop generation, with a swagger and mannerisms not unlike Roy Hargrove, and he balances showmanship with musicality. They opened the set with a meditative version of "All Blues," with El'Zabar holding down the famous ostinato on kalimba and vocals while Wilkes and Dawkins soared overtop. Both Wilkes and Dawkins can switch from greasy, gritty blues to more outward bound invention on a dime, all the while retaining a grounded soul to their playing. Even the most showy portions of the set - both Dawkins and Wilkes playing two horns simultaneously in "Mama's House," Wilkes' circular breathing during "There is a Place" - never got in the way of the music. The closing "There is a Place" seemed to drag, being such a spare tune with spare instrumentation and repetitive lyrics, but the simpatico between the three musicians on stage, and the rapt attention of the audience, was a thing of beauty. A power stronger than itself.

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