The Gambian/Norwegian Friendship Orchestra – S/T – Odin Records – LP 06 – 1983
I love when fusions of jazz and world music work. There is a multitude of varied mash ups with varying effectiveness. The most successful seem to be those of cultures that rely heavily on improvisation and/or rhythmic devices, Indian and African music being the most prevalent. Personally, I find that I gravitate toward the music of the South African expats (most notably Abdullah Ibrahim, Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, and co.). The blend of kwela and jazz has a particularly celebratory and lively feel, which is easy to love.
That being said, I’m always open to other attempts to see if they are up to snuff. Seems that the Europeans have always been more willing to bridge the divide between cultures, especially Scandinavians. While in Norway last month, I came across this record at a cool record shop in Bergen called Samleren (wrote about it here). I’ll admit that I was a little hesitant as the early 80s were awkward years for jazz and world music. Overall, I think that this mixture of Gambian folk/drum music and European jazz works pretty well.
Norway has been a jazz loving nation ever since the music hit the European shores. Norwegian jazz musicians realized the importance of unity within their ranks early on, developing the Norsk Jazzforbund (Norwegian Jazz Foundation) in 1953 as a means to promote Norwegian jazz and creative music artists in Norway and beyond its borders. In 1980, the Jazzforbund began to receive national funding that allowed them to create a Norwegian Jazz Archive and Odin Records in 1981.
Odin was created to feature and publish the work of Norwegian jazz musicians. It was the first such label in Norway and released some great, eclectic recordings during its 13-year existence. Early releases included musicians that have since become well known through associations with creative music giant ECM, including Jon Balke, Nils Petter Molvaer and Arild Andersen. (Most of the releases can be found on CD or for digital download at www.curlinglegs.no.)
The Gambian/Norwegian Friendship Orchestra was created in 1982 under the guidance of Bergen based pianist/bandleader Knut Kristiansen and Gambian vocalist/percussionist Zahir Helge Linaae. Kristiansen had been deeply involved in the Bergen jazz scene for some time. He led a number of ensembles including the Bergen Big Band. In 1981, the Wollof Music Ensemble performed at the Voss Jazz Festival where Kristiansen met Linaae, a leading member of the ensemble.
In 1982, Kristiansen and Linaae embarked on a study trip to Gambia. There, the two traveled the country and recorded music that would be transcribed for the ensemble. In addition, some music was transcribed from other sources, including recordings made by British ethnographers in the 1940s and 1950s of Ghanaian Ewe music. The resulting collaboration used elements of the Wolof (the largest ethnic group of Senegal) and Mandinka (the largest ethnic group in Western Africa) folkloric music.
The G/NFO was organized at the suggestion of the president of the Norsk Jazzforbund, Rolf Grundesen, who then scheduled the group to perform at the 1982 Bergen Jazz Festival. With the help of the Norwegian Cultural Council, The Fund for Performing Artists and the Association of Norwegian Song and Music Organizations, the G/NFO was able to meet at Bergen’s Grieghallen on October 2, 1982 on the 10th anniversary of the Bergen Jazz Forum (the city’s largest jazz club/presenter).
The group was built around a Gambian percussion/lute ensemble that featured Ebou Secka (voice, halam, tamma), Kabirr M’Bye (sabar), Zahir M’Bye (sabar), Segou Camara (djembi), Demba Jobarteh (kora, bass drum), Miki N’Doye (djembi, sabar, congas) and Linaae (calebass, djembi, sabar). Norwegians filled in the remainder of the rhythm section and wind section. The musicians were Erik Balke (soprano, alto sax, flute), Olav Dale (soprano, tenor sax, flute), Vidar Johansen (soprano, tenor, baritone sax), Stein Holdhus (trumpet), Per Jørgensen (trumpet, cornet), Harald Halvorsen (trombone), Ole Thomsen (guitar), Sveinung Hovensjø (electric bass) and Kristiansen (conductor, piano, Prophet 5 synth, timbales).
“Prayers (Songs of Daru Rilwan)” is based on Kristiansen’s account of and subsequent recording of a Muslim New Year celebration at a Mosque in Daru Rilwan, Gambia. The music echoes the chants and singing of the ceremony. There is a definite Middle Eastern feeling as the piece remains in a minor key and the ensemble remains staid and reverential throughout the theistic sounding piece. Soprano sax emulates the musette tone and the collective horns repeat a minor motif. The piece is mostly written with only a bit of improvised trombone near the end from Harald Halvorsen. The horns build toward a rhythm section climax.