Tuesday night saw The Barbican host the European debut of a collaboration between revered jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and legendary Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy entitled Congo Square.
In my recent article about The Backstreet Cultural Center in New Orleans, I mentioned that the Center was close to Louis Armstrong Park, a place of enormous cultural significance as within it is the space known as Congo Square. The square was one of the only areas in 18th and 19th Century America where slaves were allowed to freely gather, play music and dance. Typically, slaves in Louisiana were given Sundays off work and between roughly 1730 and 1857 this square was the common meeting place.
It is with that (albeit grossly simplified) historical importance as chief inspiration that New Orleans born Marsalis came to co-write this two hour composition with Addy, who embodies the very soul of Congo Square. From the start, the musicians were set out in a manner that inspired intrigue. To the left sat the show’s heart, both percussively and spiritually, Addy and his group Odadaa! It was in this sense a heart that beat in a mesmerising fashion, its complex patterns moving from a calm and collective hush into a rousing rhythmic journey back to New Orleans’ African roots.
Wynton Marsalis leads the JLCO at Barbican Hall | Photograph © Mark Allan
Addy and Odadaa! were flanked by Marsalis’ slick Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, a fine testament to the jazz sound that evolved from Congo Square, moving through an array of forms. For me this experimental composition was one of great personal interest. Having been well and truly seduced by the sounds of New Orleans music and also the sense of community and togetherness that it symbolises.
The opening piece Ring Shout was in a style similar to that which I am accustomed, but quite how that would tie in with Addy’s traditional Ghanaian rhythms and timings was unclear. Whilst researching the collaboration, it became obvious that this had been the biggest challenge in the creation of Congo Square, with the patterns melodies and rhythms custom to the Ga people (Addy’s ancestral roots) so complex. By meeting in the middle though the traditional and modern sounds elegantly dovetailed under Marsalis’ watchful eye, existing as a display of perfect harmony and shared consciousness.
Addy and Odadaa! dressed in a colourful array of dashikis and hausa hats, often began compositions as you could imagine those in the square might well have. An initially simple rhythm or bell pattern soon becoming layered and gathering a complexity. Time after time the beige suited and tan brogued JLCO somehow responded with a considered repost. At times I perhaps wonder if the two sections are a little unrelated in terms of the sound, but then it seems that this is not necessarily a bad thing. The tribal percussive breakdowns from Odadaa! help both to situate the pieces within their concept and illustrate the shared musical D.N.A. between the two elements.
Yacub Addy and Odadaa! at Barbican Hall | Photograph © Mark Allan
Marsalis, usually the centre of attention spent the most part of the evening conducting the affair, at numerous points being successfully egged into dance by Odadaa! assistant leader Okoe Nunoo. He did though, find time for a couple of sublime solos after the interval but his personality was eclipsed by the meagre-framed yet larger than life Addy.
All in all this production which debuted in Congo Square in a post-Katrina New Orleans in 2006, is a joyous way of presenting two vastly different but inherently linked types of music. It is a collaboration which stands to remind us of something intrinsically important to music as Marsalis states,
“Cub (Addy) taught me many things: bell patterns, rhythms, and melodies of the Ga people. Most importantly, he taught me that music has meaning in all of our different cultures. And to lose the meaning in a rhythm or in the sound of an instrument is to lose your bearing in the world.”
Congo Square opened a two week residency from Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis at Barbican, details of which can be found here.
By Alec Dudson