by Ian Mann
August 05, 2020
An excellent offering from Waaju, capturing the energy, excitement and drive of their live performances but combining it with considerable subtlety and sophistication & a high level of musical skill.
(Olindo Records, ORLP005)
Ben Brown – drums, percussion, Sam Rapley – saxophone, shaker, Tal Janes – guitar, Ernesto Marichales- congas, percussion, Joe Downard – bass
Waaju is young London based quintet led by drummer and percussionist Ben Brown and featuring saxophonist Sam Rapley, guitarist Tal Janes, bassist Joe Downard and conganista and percussionist Ernesto Marichales.
Brown and Janes previously worked together as part of the quintet Bahla, co-led by Janes and the Venezuelan born pianist Joseph Costi. This band blended jazz and rock with Jewish musical culture with Costi and Portuguese vocalist Ines Loubet Franco providing an additional Latin twist. Bahla’s album “Imprints” is reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann at https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/bahla-imprints
Brown, Costi and Loubet Franco were contemporaneously members of Caravela, a group singing and playing songs from the Portuguese diaspora.
Brown has also played with Alfa Mist, Dizraeli and Ashley Henry and Janes with Nubiyan Twist, Maisha, SEED Ensemble and Zara McFarlane, all acts notable for blurring musical boundaries and capable of appealing to young, hip audiences.
The international, open minded approach adopted by both Bahla and Caravela also informs the music of Waaju, another group who describe their music as being “a means of exploring hidden musical connections”.
Waaju’s primary influence is the Malian folk music of the great vocalist and guitarist Ali Farka Toure (1939 – 2006), one of the first true stars of so called ‘world music’. The members of Waaju were invited by London’s Jazz Café to re-interpret classic tracks from Toure’s catalogue at a series of sold out shows in 2018 and 2019.
“Ali was one of the best” explains Brown, “He has such a unique sound. His playing is so gnarly. His spirit and attitude are things I always think of when making music”.
The group name Waaju comes from the Bambara language of Mali and is a word meaning “to urge, to inspire, to influence, to take action”. The band released its eponymous début album in 2018 and has continued to absorb further musical influences from various areas of the globe, ensuring that “Grown” represents a highly apposite choice as an album title.
Brown further explains the rationale behind the title in his liner notes;
“This record is for the strange and unexpected ways each of us continue to grow and for learning to recognise them as essential, however painful, adverse or atypical they may seem.”
Besides the wellspring of Malian folk and blues Waaju’s influences have expanded to accommodate Afrobeat, Morrocan Gnawa, Caribbean carnival music and Latin polyrhythms. There also American influences ranging from jazz and funk to Jimi Hendrix and also sources closer to home, the Caribbean derived dub, dancehall and jungle of British dancefloors.
The members of Waaju are versatile enough to deal with these stylistic diversities and their collective credits as leaders and sidemen range across a broad musical spectrum. Downard’s recent solo album “Seven Japanese Tales” is reviewed here;
Meanwhile Rapley is busy presence on the London jazz scene, playing with a variety of different ensembles and leading his own quintet Fabled, whose full length début “Short Stories” (2018) is reviewed here;
Waaju’s high energy approach often finds them playing to standing, dancing audiences, appealing to the same young jazz constituency as Nubya Garcia, Joe Armon-Jones, Ezra Collective, Kokoroko, Steam Down etc. That said there is a good deal of intricacy and attention to detail in the music, qualities that are even better appreciated on disc.
Although Brown is credited as the leader and is also the producer of the album Waaju’s music is written collectively, with all of the pieces credited to the whole band.
Opener “Moleman” gets things off to a rousing start, percussion led and with Janes’ guitar also making a strong rhythmic contribution alongside Downard’s agile electric bass. The rhythmic interplay is both complex and infectious, drawing on elements of Afrobeat and more contemporary dancefloor sensibilities. Rapley’s sax is the main melodic instrument, moving up and down the gears and ranging from a whisper to a scream. There’s a mesmeric quality about the interlocking rhythms, with Janes’ guitar also breaking cover towards the close.
Released as a single “Looking Glasses” dives deeper into the rhythms of Afrobeat with Janes’ chiming, hi-life style guitar riff leading off the song, and again integrating well with the rhythms of the two percussionists. Rapley’s sax again plays an important melodic role as he shares the solos with the versatile Janes. The guitarist goes first, continuing to foster a jangling, unmistakably African guitar sound. Rapley adopts a harsher, honking, r’n’b influenced saxophone style on a piece that is even more upbeat and vibrant than the opener.
Marichales, the group’s Venezuelan born conganista and percussionist, introduces “Rollando”, a piece whose deep, off kilter grooves and foghorn like saxophone blasts suggest the influence of dub. But dub is just one component of an occasionally unsettling, but totally compelling, performance that draws upon a myriad of rhythmic sources and ideas. Brown and the engineering team of Alex Killpartrick and Frank Merritt also make effective use of a range of post production techniques.
The album features one clearly defined song, “Time’s Got A Hold”, written by the group in conjunction with Jordan Rakei, who also provided the lyrics. Rakei, born in New Zealand, raised in Australia and now based in London is a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter working at the interface of jazz, soul and hip hop. Marichales has worked regularly with Rakei’s band and the song was written for a live show in 2018 that featured both Waaju and Rakei.
Nevertheless despite Rakei’s involvement the song is sung by guest vocalist Will Heard, another London based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist operating in a similar musical area to Rakei. Heard’s vocals have featured on hits by Klangkarussell and Rudimental among others.
The song finds Waaju and Heard moving into more orthodox pop/soul/funk territory with the singer’s soulful vocal leading the way. Rapley weighs in with some complementary sax soloing. Janes remains an influential presence throughout while Brown and Marichales ensure that there’s plenty of rhythmic interest.
It’s all rather more ‘poppy’ than the rest of the album, which limits its appeal for me, but may ensure that it reaches out to others. Truth to tell it’s not at at all bad, Heard’s singing is more than competent, and there’s plenty of interest going on musically.
We’re back into instrumental territory with the brooding “Wassoulou”, another dub tinged excursion that establishes bridges between Africa, London and the Caribbean.
Languid, but subtly propulsive grooves underpin the solos of Janes and Rapley, with the rumble of Downard’s bass at the root of it all. There’s more judicious use of post production techniques, too.
The album closes with “Grown”, introduced by the two percussionists, the pair joined first by Rapley’s melodic saxophone sketches, and then by guitar and bass as the sound continues to expand. At the core of the piece is the dynamic interplay between Brown and Marichales, a constant throughout the album as a whole. The music begins to grow in intensity, with Janes and Rapley becoming increasingly powerful presences.
Rapley digs deep on a hard edged, echoing tenor solo while Janes draws on that aforementioned Hendrix influence. Fittingly the piece, and the album, concludes with the sound of the two percussionists.
All in all the album represents an excellent offering from Waaju, capturing the energy, excitement and drive of their live performances but combining it with considerable subtlety, sophistication and a high level of musical skill.
Waaju achieve the rare feat of making ‘party’ music sound interesting in the home listening environment, sacrificing none of their essential energy but still creating music that repays repeated listening. The group’s grooves are not only infectious they are also satisfyingly complex and detailed. The interplay between Brown and Marichales is a constant source of fascination, with Downard’s bass and frequently Janes’ guitar adding to an already heady rhythmic mix.
In his dual rhythmic and lead roles the versatile Janes impresses throughout, encompassing a wide variety of guitar styles. Rapley is equally impressive in his role as a melodicist and primary soloist, exhibiting a similarly broad stylistic range on the tenor.
Waaju’s music demonstrates the versatility, flexibility and openness of the contemporary London based musician. Rooted in the English capital the group’s music embraces influences and rhythms from all around the world and synthesises them into a music that sounds perfectly natural, organic and unforced.
On this evidence I’d wager that they constitute a pretty terrific live act, and one day I’d love to see them in this context. In the meantime this album makes for surprisingly satisfying home listening.
The album appears on Olindo Records, the recording arm of the international musical collective Colectivo Futuro, whose slogan “Music is Infinite” represents a neat summation of Waaju’s sound.
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