Waltons World Masters - Dee Dee Bridgewater

Dee Dee Bridgewater (2008)

Red Earth - A Malian Journey

Dee Dee Bridgewater'an astounding masterwork'
– All Music Guide

Dee Dee Bridgewater • Vocals
Kabine Kouyate • Vocals
Mamani Keita • Vocals
Edsel Gomez • Piano
Ira Coleman • Bass
Minino Garay • Drums & Percussion
Cherif Soumano • Kora
Moussa Sissoko • Djembe
Baba Sissoko • Tamani & N'goni
Lansine Kouyate • Balafon

When Wednesday, 7 May 2008, 8 pm
Where National Concert Hall
Presented by Waltons New School of Music
Supported by RTÉ lyric fm, The Irish Times, Brooks Hotel

Arminta Wallace feature (Irish Times)

Winner of two Grammy Awards, a Tony Award and the London Olivier Award, Dee Dee Bridgewater is first and foremost a groundbreaker, an artist whose projects have traversed the musical kaleidoscope - from traditional vocal jazz to searing scat interpretations. She is one of the most versatile and inspiring artists and producers of her generation.

Drawing on a deep font of talent and inspiration, Dee Dee Bridgewater's project Red Earth – A Malian Journey, is a journey both forward and back. Melding Malian voices, music and traditional instruments with American jazz vernacular and penning many of the lyrics, she has crafted one of her most important musical statements to date. In this cross-cultural concert that coincided with her Grammy-nominated CD, Dee Dee Bridgewater was accompanied by a ten-piece band comprised of her trio plus six outstanding Malian musicians. This was her first performance in Ireland.


Arminta Wallace, Mali’s Magical Musical Tour
The Irish Times, 5 May 2008

As anyone who knows anything about world music will happily tell you, Mali is where it’s at. This week, however, Dublin is where it’s at – because by a happy accident, the city is playing host to two nights of top-notch Malian music in a row. On Wednesday, Dee Dee Bridgewater will perform with a 10-piece band at the National Concert Hall, while on Thursday, Bassekou Kouyate and his n'goni quartet will be in action at The Button Factory. Wheather it’s down to coincidence or the largesse of some unknown world music god, this Mali “mini-festival” offers Irish audiences a rare opportunity to explore two sides of the contemporary world music coin; to contrast the fiery jazz-world fusion of Bridgewater’s Red Earth project with the cool elegance of the instrumental interweavings on Kouyate’s album Segu Blue.

For those who know Dee Dee Bridgewater as one of the world’s most successful jazz singers, with Grammy award-winning Ella Fitzgerald tribute CD to her credit – as well as a Tony award for her performance in the Broadway production The Wiz and a regular slot as presenter of National Public Radio’s weekly Jazzset programme – the question must be: what is she doing playing Malian music? “I went to Mali because I was trying to figure out what part of Africa my ancestors came from,” she says “I first had the idea of doing an African project in 1996, after I did a Horace Silvers tribute album. His music was so syncopated that I fell in love with rhythm and wanted to understand polyrhythms and the layering of different rhythm patterns.”

She mentioned this to her Italian agent, who said there was a talking drum player from Mali she should meet. “So he brought Baba Sissoko to one of my concerts, and Baba brought his tamani, and I invited him on stage,” she remembers. “And our connection was so strong my band was looking at me, like, ‘what’s happened to you? What’s going on here?’” It wasn’t that the members of Bridgewater’s band weren’t used to cross-cultural influences. “I have a Puerto Rican pianist. I have an Argentinian percussionist. My bass player is half-African-American, half-Swedish, was born in France, grew up in Germany and lived in Indonesia.”

But the connection with Baba Sissoko was, she says, something different. “I can’t explain it. It was like finding a brother, or a family member. It was like he knew where I was going.” At another level, perhaps he understood where she was coming from. One of the strongest musical traditions in Mali is that of the griots – families of singers whose job it is to preserve the rich tradition griot songs, some of which date back to the 11th century, but also to add new material to advance the tradition. Bridgewater was instinctively drawn to this particular musical style - which came as no surprise to her Malian collaborators. In fact, they regard her as a modern griot: someone whose life’s work has been to keep the vocal jazz tradition alive, while simultaneously moving it into the 21st century.

“So now,” Bridgewater says, “Baba is going to sing about the things that I have done so that in Africa, people will know my name. The song, Dee Dee, that he wrote for me is actually welcoming me back to my ancestral home.” It’s a hugely emotional business – but griot singing also has its mischievous side. Both Sissoko and Mamani Keita, the griot singer who sings with Dee Dee on the album, will accompany Bridgewater to Dublin. “They add more stuff to this song all the time,” says Bridgewater with a chuckle. “They change the lyrics around – I don’t know what they’re saying to me. They’ve only given me a kind of generalised translation, because they say there are some phrases which are totally impossible to translate from Bambara.” The problem of translation is a familiar one in world music – and it doesn’t just apply to words. To bring musicians from such vastly different worlds together, and make the fusion work, is a pretty tall order.

“I would say that it was easier for the African musicians to come into our world than it was for us to go into theirs,” says Bridgewater. “They play from a very instinctive place. They don’t read music; they rely on their ears and their guts. Now that’s the way I learned, because I don’t read music either. So their approach is similar to mine. But they’re so used to griot music, which is very free and improvised, that they don’t understand structure. For them, an arrangement is something foreign. It is easy for them to come in and provide Malian rhythms and everything like that. What was very difficult for them – and still is – is to respect an arrangement.”

Given these difficulties, Red Earth’s reworking of such songs as "Four Women", written in the mid-1960s by Nine Simone, is all the more remarkable. The lyrics, which sketch the lives of four African-American women, pack a powerful punch in their own right – and are interpreted with searing intensity by Bridgewater. Also woven into the fabric of the song, however, are solos from iconic instruments both of Western tradition – the piano – and of Malian tradition, in the shape of the balafon or wooden xylophone, and the 21-string African harp, the kora. It’s an evocative combination which offers a glimpse, in musical terms, of just how much of a roller-coaster this Malian journey has been for Bridgewater.

“It has blown my brain, emotionally and spiritually,” she says. “So much so, that at the end of this year I’m going to take a break. I’m going to have a year’s sabbatical. It’s just so much information, so much cultural difference and yet so many deep connections. it’s, it’s...phew!”

Born in Memphis, Bridgewater grew up in Michigan to a jazz soundtrack. “My father was a trumpeter and music teacher, and when my mother was pregnant with me, her favourite singer was Ella Fitzgerald,” she says. “She swears I could scat before I could speak.” Yet here she is putting down deep roots in the red earth of Mali – a long, long way from Michigan. Or maybe not. “I’ve met so many people in Mali who look like members of my family, or who look like people I know, that I believe a large part of the African-American community is of Malian descent,” she says.

The next step, she says, is to go the DNA route and find out for sure about her African ancestry. “Now that it’s cheap,” she adds, with another chuckle. “When Oprah Winfrey did the DNA thing it cost, like, $20,000 (€12,870). Now you can send a swab of saliva in a ziplock bag for $250 (€160) and they can trace it. So I’m gonna do that and we’ll see what happens.” In the course of her explorations and assimilations, has Bridgewater come to any conclusions about why the music of Mali, so particular a soundscape, so rooted in Africa, speaks so loudly to the urban western world? “I think it’s because the slave trade brought people to the United Stated from the region that is Mali today,” she says. “Slaves from West Africa were taken to Mississippi and Arkansas, and the Mississippi delta blues is, I believe, an extension of Malian music. When I improvise in vocal jazz, that’s an extension of the griot tradition.”

Musically and spiritually, it’s a combination of something new and something very old; a soundscape that is both familiar and excitingly different. “When people see the show and hear the music, they get the connection,” says Bridgewater. “And now that we’ve been touring together for over a year, it’s a seamless kind of connection that we’ve got. You can’t tell where the jazz ends and where the Malian music begins.”

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