ENJOY AND PLEASE CHECK OUT THE YOUTUBE LINKS TO VIDEOS OF THIS MAN'S GLORIOUS MUSIC DIRECTLY FOLLOWING THE REVIEW...
P.S.: For intergenerational black music fanatics and cultural historians/critics everywhere, OLU DARA also happens to be the father of the legendary hiphop MC and innovator NAS)..."And we don't stop" etc. et al...
A Live Music Review
Olu Dara the Okra Orchestra
Yoshi's Jazz Club
July 17, 2000
(b. January 14, 1941)
In a riveting display of musicianship and stagecraft the great multi-intrumentalist and consummate storyteller, blues vocalist, and Jazz griot Olu Dara led his astonishing orchestral quintet in a glorious two-set, one night appearance at the exquisite Yoshi's Jazz club in downtown Oakland.
Weaving a seamless web of African-diasporic melodic, rhythmic and sonic musical traditions, Dara and cohorts absolutely mesmerized the packed house with a stunning command of a grand smorgasbord of global black musical styles: West African highlife (both trad & Fela Kuti-inspired) Caribbean reggae, calypso, dance and ska, Mississippi delta blues, fifty years worth of prime-rib Afro-American funky rhythm & blues, and an endless array of Jazz-based and inflected styles from Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington, to Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Art Blakey (and black again).
What made the event so extraordinary, aside from the incredible versatility of Dara and his band, was Dara's heraldic and bravura tone on cornet (open & muted), guitar, and blues harp, as well as a captivatingly charming, hip and even slick, stage presence. Handsome, sly, witty, sweet, sexy, tough, downhome and vulnerable all at once, Dara looks, acts, and sounds like a great novelist's, poet's or filmmaker's idea of a legendary musician. There is something positively iconic and aesthetically arresting about the way that Dara plays, sings, talks, and moves that bring to mind such adjectives as 'heroic' and 'archetypal.' He and his amazing ensemble (Kwatel Jones-Quartey on guitars and vocals, Coster Massamba on congas, Alonzo Gardner on electric bass, and Larry Johnson, drums) somehow manage to sound like a large orchestra through ingenious instrumental voicings and harmonically deft orchestrated arrangements that conjure up a density of tonalities and quicksilver textures that effortlessly slide from one sonic area of black musical history to the next.
The really eerie thing about this band is that despite its myriad of inherited forms it NEVER sounds derivative or stuck in any static nostalgia zone (take THAT Wynton & acolytes!). Its resolutely independent sound identity is so fixed and clearly enuciated that it sounds like a series of Romare Bearden, William Johnson, Bill Traylor, Thornton Dial and Jacob Lawrence paintings come to life (with J-M Basquiat dancing fiercely along the edges!). The startlingly lucid execution and collage-like structures within such a thoroughly ROOTED musical conception also reminds me of the famous Roscoe Mitchell quote of "jitterbugging with the artifacts in the sound museum." The other sublime thing about Dara is that he can really sing and play the blues, and he possesses a poet's sensibility on cornet that can be majestic, tender, celebratory, melancholic, poignant or gruffly beautiful in a way that can only be compared to Pops Armstrong & Miles in its precise attention to emotional and expressive nuance (he even played a haunting homage to Ellington's first great soloist, and musical collaborator from the 1920s, Bubber Miley).
Finally what Dara and his orchestra demonstrate is that the creative key to African American music lies not in lazily imitating or emulating, in a repertory-like fashion, the triumphs of the past, but in fearlessly engaging, and transforming, the present (like all the former greats did). The story this band tells is not of aesthetic glories locked in the glass-case museums of yesteryear, but of the profound and dynamic adventures of this very moment and those yet to come. Our only task (aside from dancing ourselves into a frenzy) is to listen and learn…
Kofi Natambu is a writer, poet, and cultural critic who loves great music and musicians.
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