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Resonance for Peace in ‘Tales of Life’ by Etuk Ubong: A CD review

Tales of Life seems taller than life. Nigerian jazz trumpeter Etuk Ubong’s thoughtful album of his compositions speaks to not only Nigerian ancestral spirits, but also to the beauty of peace which our world could promote better through our humanity. Ubong’s ambition is to bring truth to music, sonic storytelling being one way. Young Ubong does just this, and exceeds expectations as he ambitiously, even conservatively, continues to explore reflective soundscapes and rhythms, in this, his second album, released in February 2017.

Tales of Life Album Cover

Tales of Life Album Cover

The opening piece, “Battle for Peace”,  honours hope, love, and peace. The drums speak with eagerness and forward-thinking, even coercion as the three horns introduce the theme of this album. All seem to cry for peace. It’s an energetic beginning, honouring what’s good.

Etuk Ubong - media

  Etuk Ubong – media

Ubong plays a staccato trumpet with a breathiness reminiscent of the early Miles Davis whom he emulates. His revealing solo in “Drawing Room” gives testimony to the serious practice he has undergone faithfully over these years of performing and perfecting his instrument along with the moods and emotions that can go with it.  Likewise, he pairs nicely with the piano of Timothy Ogunbiyi with the off-beat drums of Benjamin James, as in “Genesis”, a piece that displays obvious talents of Ubong’s bassline.

His provocative sounds are clear, simple and thoughtful, improvising to be understood. In ‘Story’, he continues his telling, like a yoga massage.  The drum silhouettes with a steady undercurrent, and the piano ends this story the way it began, pronouncing that the healing has been done.

In ‘Suddenly’, midway through the album, Ubong continues to unfold his tales with the same haunting off-beat drum and announcing piano that enters/exits, then re-enters, changing tempos and moods. This arrangement allows for a special layout by drummer James that charms. But when Ogunbiyi’s piano takes over, things become meditative and wondering. There are sudden outbursts of hyped up tempo and emotions, like questioning the purpose of life, then a whimsical return to the basic theme. This is a beautiful reflective piece, and my favourite on the album, as well as the longest song.

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This questioning leads to the boppish ‘Tales of Life’, again with Ogunbiyi’s punctured piano treble runs. The long notes of Ubong’s horn are unwavering, bringing out the melancholic undertones which characterises this album. Some notes deliberately go off-kilter, synonymous with life’s sometimes erratic journey. As in life, one must learn to listen attentively.  “The Earth Meditation” brings the listener back to reflection with the soothing near-silence of Ubong’s fugelhorn.

Ending the album, and befitting a son whose mother passed away too early, ‘Uyai Mi Margaret’ is a beautifully orchestrated song honouring Ubong’s mother, Margaret, as well as all women of this world. It’s a soulful vocal chant that adds meaning to this wonderfully inspiring album.

‘Tales of Life’ displays obvious growth of Ubong’s talents as he journeys his music far and wide, between South Africa, Nigeria (where this album was produced), and soon-to-be other worlds. Stay tuned as this innovative jazz trumpeter brings his African influences to his intriguing improvisational styles.

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Mike del Ferro’s “The Johannesburg Sessions”, a CD Review by C. Martin

Here comes another improvisational jewel of an album from Dutchman Mike del Ferro, whose piano keys, heart, and well-versed skills combine traditional South African sounds with electronic wizardry of fellow band members, all South African. Challenge Records is offering this third album, “The Johannesburg Sessions”, as part of a 10-album series that present del Ferro’s “songs inspired by wandering the globe”. His South African experience of absorbing local jazz sounds, rural and urban rhythms, and musings with traditional healers has produced another magically enlightening study in sound. Like his recent workshop “Working in Sound” at the March 2015 SAJE conference (South African Association for Jazz Education), del Ferro explores how electronic effects open up avenues for compositions which wed the traditional human and animal sounds with contemporary improvisation. More about that later.

The Johannesburg Sessions

Cover: “The Johannesburg Sessions”

The album is filled with Zulu and Xhosa vocal chants (from Zulu singer Mbuso Khoza) mixed with electronica of bassist/composer Carlo Mombelli, and punctuated with African rhythmic sounds of drummer Kesivan Naidoo and percussionist Thebe Lipere. It opens with a lilting Zulu song, “Smomondiya”, about a beautiful Zulu woman. One hears Khoza’s falsetto voice enamoured with her image. “Ntylo Ntylo” followed by “Goema on Saturday” ring familiar to the local popular song and Cape rhythms. Naidoo kicks off in characteristic goema style with del Ferro’s piano chords and phrases and Khoza’s vocal chants announcing the joyful street dances and parades reminiscent of the January Cape Carnival.
“Umlolozelo” is an absolutely beautiful traditional Zulu ballad, presented skilfully by Khoza’s gentle and wide soprano voice range as is his other slow ballad, “Imbusise” meaning ‘Lord bless the work of my hands’. An interesting 12/8 improvisation is “Twelfish” with familiar worldly percussive effects but fundamentally African. The final songs feature Khoza’s tributes to his cultural kingdoms of old, of the late 1870s Zulu King Cetshwayo’s reign with original scores by del Ferro in “Leyla” and “Mpushini”, which is a melodic del Ferro song with Khoza spoken lyrics about the river that runs next to his native village in KZN. It ends the album on a meditative note.

My favourite on the album comes in the middle: “The Mosquito Loop” is fun. The mozzie buzz is always there, glittering with the electronic effects of bassist Mombelli playing with his pedals as he enjoys doing. There is something ‘traditional’ (in keeping with the album’s otherwise African sounds) about the ever-present and monotonous mosquito buzz as the piano echoes in short phrases as the percussion taps out energy and the drum rolls crescendo (Naidoo’s signature method) just as the mozzie lands. The psychedelic electronica merges as mozzie flies away happy! This is a fascinating study in pedal loop improvisation – just make sure your stereophonic range is well tuned.

I can’t wait to hear the subsequent 7 albums yet to come in this 10-part masterful series of global sounds.

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Del Ferro is also a master of improvisation workshops as exhibited in several ‘shops’ I attended in March.  Nobuhle Mazinyane, a 16 year old Grade 11 student at Groote Schuur High School, played her own composition at Mike’s workshop “Working in Sound” on 30 March 2015.

Mike del Ferro coaching Nobuhle Mazinyane

Mike del Ferro coaching Nobuhle Mazinyane

“Try to give each note more or less the same value. The stretch of your hand – one note in the chord can make a big difference.” He explained how the electronic keyboard can guide one’s composition with the different harmonies and sounds (like scat). “With the Roland (keyboard), I play different harmonies because the overtones change. I never use the ‘piano’ sound on the electric piano. Trick is to send a note behind the bar, a syncopation….”

In his other workshop, “Self management and networking for musicians”, he advises: “It is essential for starting (and non starting) musicians to have the right organizational and networking skills in order to create a successful career in music”.” Don’t wait too late to learn these skills. Network your sounds: “….12/8 and 6/8 time – you hear this in Senegal and South Africa. There are lots of inspirations from African rhythms and traditions.”

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Mike del Ferro’s dizzying schedule of ‘wandering the globe’ can be seen on his website, www.mikedelferro.com, along with a multitude of video clips that offer armchair travelers an array of those globalized sounds ala Mike.

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