Ancient to the Future: The Wisdom of Juba
The overall concept of the project emphasizes the importance of Dance and Groove in creative music. Dance music can incorporate many styles and approaches to creative expression and improvisation. The elders tell me that bebop in the beginning was as much a dance music as it was a listening music. The people were open to all the innovative complexity the music that Dizzy, Bird and Monk created. It was appreciated as much for the thought of the music as it was for the groove. Creativity is about being open to the possibility. We in JUBA have been fortuitously informed by our past and are looking forward to the endless possibilities in our future. That is why we say “Ancient to the Future”. A power stronger than itself.
—Kahil El’Zabar, March 2002
House, hip-hop, jazz, and spoken word. Real Chicago house, real modern jazz, real hip-hop (with humour and something to say), plus a smattering of meaningful poetry. All on one session, played live over digital samples. What can I say? Buy it before it disappears, that’s what. This record doesn’t just cross boundaries, it tears them to pieces. So much so that, sadly, it will probably prove too demanding for househeads, too arty for hip-hop enthusiasts, and too danceable and funky for jazz buffs (poetry lovers won’t ever hear of its existence). Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be proved entirely wrong and to see, late in December, this album in Downbeat‘s jazz album of the year list, one track, “Papa’s Bounce”, having already become a club anthem from San Francisco to Ibiza.
Unlikely, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, I have not been so intrigued or fascinated by a contemporary dance-derived project since Moodymann’s Forevernevermore. Where that Detroit maverick reminded the ravers of techno’s African-American origins and used familiar beats to subvert and unsettle musical and political prejudices, Juba Collective have a less clandestine and covert agenda. Everything here is overt, upfront, and the prevailing mood is positive rather than bleak. The complexities, interconnectedness, and expressivity of African-American musical culture are gathered together, given a good stir and then served up to the listener, whose response will/should be to dance, think, reflect and then be duly overwhelmed. This is no linear museum piece, it is a living montage of sounds, totally now but historically acute—this is an ongoing culture and this enterprise belongs firmly in the new millennium, despite its historical awareness. As the group’s rappers say “It’s Juba Now”.
So, apart from sublime, what does the music actually sound like? The overall concept is something that the Sun Ra Orchestra or the Art Ensemble of Chicago might have come up with, had either grown up with hip-hop and early house. Juba Collective musicians are not as free and chaotic as those earlier experimentalists, relying more on musical quotations, vocal interplay, and club-friendly beats. However, although the house and hip-hop vibe generates the initial surprises, jazz still provides the dominant discursive mode. The song structures are loose and fluid, as themes and motifs are taken up, shifted and dropped in ways that would terrify the average 4/4 dance music producer.
The tempos, which range from upfront dancers (“Papa’s Bounce”, “Where Do You Want to Go”) to gentle-paced ballads (“Song of Myself”) with a ‘70s soul/funk groove making up the balance, are also liable to the same sudden shifts. Yet the session remains more rhythmically consistent than is the modern jazz norm. Only on “Now’s the Time” does El’Zabar’s drumming venture into free jazz territory and even then the music retains a strong (and irresistible) pulse.
The Art Ensemble connection is hard to ignore. Juba are also Chicago-based and their producer/spokesperson is master percussionist Kahil El’Zabar. El’Zabar had the rare teenage experience of being part of the influential AACM jazz co-operative (which had strong links to the Ensemble) while also working on arrangements for house originals such as Marshall Jefferson and Darryl Pandy. El’Zabar currently works with such luminaries as Hamiett Bluiett and in a number of experimental groups. He is also the author of two books on African-American culture. His technical skills are formidable but his ideas and compositional talents are what count here.
If El’Zabar is the driving spirit, the other performers are not to be thought of as mere bit-players. Each one deserves mention, not least because they have a strong track record of their own, much of which you will want to chase up after hearing this offering. Check out their full biographies at Premonition’s website and you will get some sense of the diversity and range of the projects involving these artists. If you want to counter claims of the current one-dimensionality of African-American music you need look no further than the Collective’s fascinating CVs. For the record, the rest of the Collective are Frank Orrall (electronica), Ari Brown (saxes/piano), Fareed Haque (guitar), and Robert Irving (keyboards). Tree and simeon (together known as the primeridian) are the rappers; Tamara Love and Susana Sandoval are the poets but also sing. Dzine, as the group’s visual artist, completes the line-up of this talented and multi-faceted group.
The set’s opening track, “Return of the Lost Tribe” is urgent and appealing, as well as embodying much of Juba’s “envelope pushing” propensities. At first hearing it raises the possibility of a hip-house revival (own up, who remembers hip-house?). However, the rap is too witty, socially conscious and idiosyncratic and the playing too improvisational to be held within that short-lived, hybrid term. By the time the rappers step aside to allow one of the female poets to deliver a Rucker-like lyric, first in English and then in French (over an increasingly jazzy vibe), all categorical strivings fall apart. Five minutes into the album and you know you are in very unusual territory.
The familiar made unfamiliar, the Ancient rendered Futuristic—this is Baraka’s changing same with a vengeance. Confirmation of which comes with “This Little Light of Mine” and “Now’s the Time”. The former is built upon the traditional spiritual, but uses that foundation to explore almost every “black” musical style imaginable. Very soulful and rootsy, but playful too. “Now’s the Time” is perhaps the perfect illustration of what Juba are about. This tune is the famous Charlie Parker blues riff, which he used to launch one of his most famous and convoluted bebop solos. The riff itself went on to become Paul Williams’ “The Hucklebuck” and a massive late ‘40s R&B jukebox hit. In barely changed form, it then turned up in various honking rock ‘n’ roll breaks. Zabar plays with this history and the song’s title, sending the tune in both avant-garde and popular directions. This is done effortlessly, with great enthusiasm and with not the slightest whiff of the academic or the history lesson about the adventure.
For that’s what is going on here—a glorious, polyrhythmic adventure. Whether it’s in the Afro-Latin rhythms of “Venus”, or the late night balladry of “Song of Myself” (a beautiful, sad tune and perfect balance to the upbeat tracks that surround it), each number suggests an unbroken but not yet fully explored link between past, present, and future. The playing, particularly keyboards and sax, is inspired but it is that sense of mission that gives this record its unusual cogency.
Juba is a word that is used to connote and carry West African dance (and hence an unbroken and indomitable culture) across the Atlantic, and then from Congo Square to Chicago. It is a powerful trope—part mythical, part historical reality. It brings with it a host of associations, suggestions, and accretions (including the spiritual “Jubilee” and that tradition’s utopian thrust). El’Zabar, in his own writing turns it into an acronym—Joined Universal Breath Ascending. Juba, like the record, is deep but exhilarating, articulate but (acronym notwithstanding) surprisingly unpretentious.
As one final bonus, in (the too short at nine minutes) “Papa’s Bounce” this disc contains just about the finest jazz house track you’ll ever hear. Not jazz/house in the cool, cafe bar sense but jazz/house in the full and equal exuberance of either term. Any album that had that track on would already be an essential purchase. Juba Collective has seven other similarly persuasive pieces.
Premonition have always been one of the most innovative of dance labels, but even they have not previously come up within anything that matches this set. Profundity you can dance to and a delight from first note to last, please do not ignore the exceptional and exciting Juba Collective.