Gangbè Brass Band in Seattle

Author: Patty-Lynne Herlevi

Gangbè Brass Band
The Triple Door
Seattle, Washington
Earshot Jazz Festival
November 5, 2005 (early show)

It’s the rainy season in Seattle and many of us here are begging for a sunny
day or two. Fortunately, for us, the
Brass Band
(gong-bay) supplied us with 75 minutes of musical sunshine. With
only 11 dates on their U.S. tour, seeing Benin’s Gangbè Brass Band in concert is
like winning the lottery. This musical import from the small West African
country, Benin (Angelique
also hails from Benin), offered Seattlelites an enticing recipe of
military brass, New Orleans jazz, Afro-Beat and voodoo ritual chants, sometimes
all appearing in the same song. The band is comprised of 10 musicians. Three of the musicians Benoit Avihoue,
Crespin Kpitiki and Jean Gnonlonfoun pounded out polyrhythms on traditional West
African drums and percussion while the remaining 7 musicians including James
Vodounnon on tuba, plied the audience with a sizzling cacophony of very brassy
horns. Instead of the usual conga line, the musicians formed a horn line and at
times, they paraded around the stage as if it were the middle of carnival
season. Certainly the New Orleans jazz came in handy and these musicians doled
it out to their hungry fans in large doses.

The musicians took to the stage in their bare feet, igniting ecstatic drumming,
and polyphonic horns which alternated with call & response vocals. The audience
members for the most part already seemed intimate with the Gangbè musicians,
most likely due to radio airplay on two African music shows that grace community
airwaves in the Seattle area and a promotional effort by the folks with the
Earshot Jazz Festival. A handful of audience members, some of West African
descent seemed rather brazen climbing up on the stage and dancing with the band
members. One woman in particular climbed up on the stage several times pasting
bills onto the musicians’ foreheads. After all, this is a custom in West Africa
and one that I wish would catch on for Seattle musicians who struggle to make
ends meet. The dancer started a trend and soon, others mustered up the courage
and climbed on stage, placing bills on the musicians like children pinning the
tail on the donkey. It was a bit distracting, but the musicians seemed to enjoy
the audience response to their wildly delightful music. At least they played
along with it, never losing the glint of their gleeful smiles and never losing a
beat even when their eyes were blindfolded with money. But this band isn’t about
money. Their music is too authentic and heart centered to be about money.

GBB featured several songs from their latest recording,

(World Village) including a rousing Johodo that was followed
by a solo performance of a hypnotic ritualistic voodoo chant. I am not sure if
audience members knew what they were experiencing, but they applauded
enthusiastically nonetheless. They could have waited a few beats however before
interrupting the trance-like atmosphere the musician had created with his
musical magic. The song Glessi came off as an odd marriage between a Mexican
ranchera and a New Orleans jazz circus. I felt geographically
disorientated–we’re we in West Africa, New Orleans or Mexico?

“Awhan-Ho” featured a cappella call & response in a true tribal
fashion. However, the show stopper, “Remember Fela” was the real darling of the
evening. The tuba transformed into funky bass, the horns took on more punch than
in previous songs and the polyrhythms were pure ecstasy on this Afro-Beat
send-up. One of the vocalist even rapped in the middle of the song. This was the
song that got audience members up on their feet and moving. Certainly we were
experienced the musical climax of the set. I couldn’t stop thinking how empty I
would feel returning to my cold apartment after experiencing this sizzling
music. GBB ended the show with “Noubioto,” but I could have stayed all night
listening to this band play.

Throughout the evening, the musicians played their songs without commentary. But
at the end of the show, one of the musician spoke to us in halted English. Music
translates into any language and GBB’s repertoire translates into the language
of joy. I doubt there was anyone leaving the Triple Door without a huge smile on
their face. It will be a long time before we forget GBB if ever and this was
just the first show of the evening. The second show was sold out and the fans
standing in line were champing at the bit. Bring ’em back!

by Patty-Lynne Herlevi, Cranky Crow
World Music

[Read a CD review of Whendo:

Where there’s brass