Not-So-Distant Drums

Adzido – Africa: A Musical Journey
Adzido – Africa: A Musical Journey (ARC Music EUCD 2125, 2008)

Barry Van Zyl – African Heartbeat: Drums and Percussion from Southern Africa (ARC Music EUCD 2144, 2008)

Albums featuring African drumming were widely available long before the phrase “world music” was first uttered, and they remain a staple of the genre. A fair number of non-Africans have gotten in on the game, but the bulk of the many African drumming discs that get released are by artists from the Motherland. Their approach may be largely traditional, personal, experimental or some combination thereof, but as long as that basic skin-on-skin aesthetic is intact, percussion junkies are sure to get their fix.

Africa: A Musical Journey features drumming and singing traditions from ten different countries, so the album never gets mired in one particular style. All the tracks are performed by an ensemble called Adzido, who reportedly present stage shows of this stuff to Western audiences. I’d like to get a taste of their visuals and get more information about the group than what’s provided by the rather sparse liner notes, since their recorded work is smartly impressive.

The songs often shift into ever-higher gears as they progress until the instruments (strictly percussion, though I caught a bit of flute in there somewhere) and voices reach furiously fevered crescendos that get your pulse racing right alongside them. South Africa, Guinea, Ghana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Mozambique get their deepest percussive roots laid out here, and though some may not find the disc as conventionally “musical” as the title suggests, anyone who’s ever thrilled to the sort of African drumming and singing that Olatunji introduced to the wider world many years ago will love this. I know I do.

Barry Van Zyl – African Heartbeat: Drums and Percussion from Southern Africa
Not as traditionally inclined but still quite good is African Heartbeat, a solo work from Barry Van Zyl, longtime drummer in Johnny Clegg’s band. I’m not kidding when I say “solo”- Van Zyl plays all the drums and percussion on the disc with no looping or skimping of any kind involved. Each selection is inspired by Van Zyl’s South African upbringing, though his stated intention was not simply to recreate indigenous beats but to conjure up moods based on pretty much anything he felt could be expressed in polyrhythmic terms. So there’s one selection infused with the rhythms of South Africa’s Indian community, one influenced by the beats used in the worship services of the Zionist Church, one suggestive of summer rainfall, one that invokes the calmness of a particular type of birdsong, and so on.

Van Zyl has a sizable percussion arsenal at his command, and the various drums, shakers, bells, blocks, whistles, cymbals and found objects he employs create layered soundscapes that range from powerful to pristine to cleverly progressive. A great CD to play along with or just get immersed in.

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Author: Tom Orr

Tom Orr is a California-based writer whose talent and mental stability are of an equally questionable nature. His hobbies include ignoring trends, striking dramatic poses in front of his ever-tolerant wife and watching helplessly as his kids surpass him in all desirable traits.