Mpambara–a Minneapolis, Minnesota show review

Mpambara-a Minneapolis, Minnesota gig review by Susan Budig

Leafing through the Minneapolis Summer Jazz Festival booklet I spy a new name. It’s the first time I’ve heard of Mpambara, slated to play on June 26, 2003. That evening I ride a bus downtown to Peavey Plaza with high hopes of hearing some innovative material. I arrive at the McDuff stage early, settling in a seat at a table near the front of the platform. It’s dinner time and I am looking forward to enjoying the brisk, fresh air gig of Mpambara who is performing his jazz flavored world music infused with his native country’s Ugandan rhythms and harmonies.

Six o’clock rolls around and Mpambara, or MP, as his friends call him, starts picking his Fender bass while his band mate, Siama Matuzungidi, follows suit on his trendy, angular guitar. The piece, Kamlang, is mostly instrumental with some of it sung in Lingala, a Bantu language from northern Congo. The bass line is so strong it feels like my heart is being told when to beat. Friends and Strangers regales our senses next. The title is analogous to the assortment of musicians on stage this evening. Along with MP and Siama, Rick Olson, who currently resides in Los Angeles, is Mpambara’s music mate from their days at the University of Minnesota twenty years ago. He keys the Yamaha piano. David Burk has been playing his Paul Reid Smith guitar with Mpambara for the past ten years. But the other two band members were recruited just this week and first played all together this morning. Angela Diaz on percussion and Greg Schutte on drums complete the sextet.

The next piece, Gentleman, begins with Olson on the ivories. He hands off the theme to Burk and in typical jazz style, it goes round the circle, ending with Siama. Throughout the song, Siama smiles a wide, almost naive grin, belying the sophisticated skill he employs as he fingers his guitar. This is a gorgeous tune, lasting over twelve minutes with riveting arpeggios and smooth segues from one player to the next.
Mpambara’s long, slender fingers pick out the notes on his Fender with an easy precision on this next number. Soy La Ley, a tune from Puerto Rico, translates as “I am the law.” Diaz sails along during an ambitious passage, bringing new life to his congas. At the same time, the band looks so relaxed and composed that I almost feel like I am looking at a still life painting. During this six minute song, skateboarders practice their jumps behind the stage before getting chased away. All the while, the sun keeps shining and the black clouds to our south keep spitting rain in our direction.

Accordingly, after the last song, we are treated to a Miles Davis number, You Are Under Arrest. This distinctive American jazz piece really exemplifies the value of experiencing music as it’s played live. Not only are my ears engaged with the music, but my eyes are mesmerized by the band’s interplay. Studio work can occasionally devolve into a canned sound. Not so with Mpambara and his band as they perform live. Olson, with his back angled toward the audience, interacts with the band, providing direction and emotion with his eyes and facial gestures. I can see adjustments being made as various band members respond to one another. When Burk find himself playing a particularly winning run, he is encouraged to stick with it and play it out. The individual players build one another up and close to a frenzy before finishing the tune.

Burk starts this next tune playing on Mpambara’s Fender. Over and over we hear the same five or six notes, almost as if Burk is teaching the rest of the band a new song. Suddenly, Mpambara breaks out singing and using an Algerian percussive instrument. Looking like a long, red paddle with attached bells, he hits it against his hand, suggestive of a sparrow’s rapid heart beat. Mpambara arranged this number, Nawuliranga, a traditional Ugandan piece. It’s a song found on Mpambara’s sole CD, Hail To The Chief (Bina Music, 1995) The other musicians join in and heat up the stage with this amazing number. With power and energy, the band plays Nawuliranga as if they’d known it all their lives.

A connection between all of the band’s artists truly gels in this piece.
The last song, Bolingo, is an original by Siama Matuzungidi. Siama, Mpambara, and David harmonize in Lingala, smiling all around. This song has an incredible groove. The driving beat adds an irresistible energy. I’m not sure how I manage to stay seated. It includes a staggering run by Mpambara who also brings back his Algerian percussive instrument. It’s a clever ploy by the band. It leaves me hungering for more.

By the end of the summer Mpambara hopes to finish his second CD, Eradde. I can hardly wait.