Gangbe Brass Band: an Original West African Sound

Jack Brass Band, a seven-piece New Orleans-style crew playing outside in the Cedar’s courtyard could be heard from the parking lot where I’d left my car. Their familiar honky-tonk and Dixieland tunes cued my curiosity as I wondered how the Cedar Cultural Center’s starring show, the Gangbé Brass Band from Benin, would mesh their homeland’s music with such American fare.

Minneapolis, the evening of April 14th, was starting to feel like spring with an almost balmy breeze and earthy smell in the air. The warmer weather brought out throngs of people to the streets. Eventually close to 570 of them streamed into the music venue, many not sure what to expect, not familiar with Gangbé’s sound.Season ticket holders at the Walker Art Institute were, this evening, invited to attend a performance at the Cedar. Slated to play was a band that incorporated military brass, West African Voodoun rhythms, Fela ‘s Afrobeat, and New Orleans jazz. If the resulting music could be visualized as an animal, a platypus might most accurately depict what we saw for a couple long, luxurious hours on Saturday evening. 

Each member of the octet, dressed in shimmering black tunics and matching pajama-style bottoms with bright orange accents, walked on stage, barefoot, carrying one of three trumpets, one saxophone, one slide trombone, and one tuba. A set of djembe drums and what looked like a big, blue butcher’s block balanced on weathered spindles, but was in fact a gudigbo, another style of African percussive instrument, were already in place.

Immediately, the band began to smile and play at the same time. This alone was fascinating. With cheeks bulging and muscular lips pursed against metal valves, these exuberant musicians nonetheless displayed joyful grins and dimples as they blew out their original sound.

While the tunes heard earlier in the courtyard had familiar sounding melodies, Gangbé did not play anything I’d heard before. And yet their style echoed common songs such as those played by Jack Brass Band. With the polyphonic rhythms played on drums that are critical to African music, the blend of instruments took on an original shape that has come to identify and epitomize the Gangbé Brass Band.

The conglomeration of sounds and styles held my interest. Several times during their performance, in addition to the horns and drums, the musicians slipped in some body percussion that I most often have seen with Scottish Highland dancers, but now know is also part of the step team routines that are growing in the African American communities as well as the broader high school and collegiate bodies.

Every number that the band plays is choreographed with occasional solo improvisation. The entire band’s exuberance comes out of their entire beings. Then they go a step beyond their own total immersion in the music. They invite the audience to sing with them. In an unidentified language, perhaps Fon, Ngou, or Yoruba, they introduce their listeners to a series of notes and words and bid us to sing along. Participation is enthusiastic, if not messy. But the call and response singing helps to increase the sense of a shared experience, rather than one of observation alone.

During intermission, I spoke with a gentleman who emigrated from Liberia. He told me that he’d been coming to see all of the AfricaNow series that’s been presented throughout this season by the Walker Art Institute. He found the rhythmic dancing particularly alluring. "They’ve taken elements of a wide variety of music to a higher level," he said, noting Gangbé’s compositions had influences with such West African funkmasters as Manu Dibango.

By the end of the evening, after over two hours of syncopated jazz liberally doused with African drumming and dancing, many people in the audience were on their feet and moving in the narrow aisles, including Philip Bither, senior curator at the Walker who teamed up last year with the Cedar’s artistic director, Bill Kubeczko, to bring this unique brass band to a Minnesota stage.