Rafiki Jazz – Har Dam Sahara

Album Review | Riverboat Records | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 4/5

Things change as they travel, all things are broadened by travel and music is infused as it crosses the world. So Township Jazz of the 50s and 60s, filtered Post Bop through an African bounce and lightness of touch. Gambia’s Bembeya Jazz National band synthesised Jazz, Cuban rhythms and Rock n Roll to make their own music.  The guitar itself travelled in an early form up through Europe and across into America, then back again with its 20th Century electric form re-pollinating the desert blues of Saharan Africa and Zimbabwean Jit among many others.  Shakespeare, in Ariel’s Song from The Tempest talks about the seas ability to create mystery changing the ordinary over time into “something rich and strange”.  People are so diverse that they do that, as musical ideas flow back and forward like migrating birds, changing ordinary into new and exciting.  Today music and musicians that remind us of everything that we have in common, while at the same time exploring the richness that comes when you cross cultural and geographical boundaries are a well needed breath of fresh air.  Formed in Sheffield in 2006 Rafiki Jazz began as a physical and musical meeting of regional roots and jazz musicians with migrant and refugee artists.  Eleven years later founding member and bass player Tony Koni remains at the helm, steering and co-producing. This album was recorded as much as possible with a live sound, with musicians playing together.  The result, as you will hear, is a natural sound with a sense of a room full of musicians listening to and sparking off each other. You can hear the grins the nods and the sense of togetherness.  The album opens with a big swirl on a resonant Kora played by Kadialy Kouyate a Senegalese player from the great line of Kouyate musician songwriters or Griots.  Sarah Yaseen’s Sufi inspired vocals meditate on the inevitability of death.  “Sunno”, the duet track resonates with emotion and power.  “Saya” is an arrangement of a track by legendary Gambian band Ifang Bondi, who as The Super Eagles can trace their roots back to the 60s.  Rafiki Jazz take the funky reggae tinged afro-mandingo sound of “Ifang Bondi” and turn it into hypnotic, lovingly crafted devotional music.  Percussion and Tony Koni’s rock solid bass lay down a groove, guitar and kora flourishes weave in and out, while Sarah Yaseen, Mina Mikhail Salama and Avital Raz’s vocals just soar over the top.  The whole band contributes a trance like chorus that is simply divine.  “Tasbih” has an Arabic or North African feel, with some of the juxtaposition that Rafiki Jazz excel in.  Arabic percussion and an Oud create a strong atmosphere through Mina Salama’s arrangement of three Coptic praise songs.  Mina Salama’s vocal is compelling and cinematic in the way it creates an atmosphere.  As with the previous track Salama’s breathy kawala flute adds another layer of texture like richly scented incense smoke.  Juxtaposition makes it sound like you are adding opposing elements to create contrast, but rather when the Kora and steel pans appear they add to the expansive atmosphere rather than jar.  “You Are Light” is based on an 11th century Hebrew poem.  Avital Raz’s breath taking vocal and tanpura drone invokes a beautiful Hindi raag, which Cath Carr’s sensitive steel pan work emphasises, with a sitar like feel, rather than goes against.  Fans of those unclassifiable ECM records recordings that straddle Jazz and international music, or the spiritual music of Stephan Micus or Sheila Chandra, will find much to appreciate on this album.  “Har Chand Sahara” recalls Pakistani playback singer Nayyara Noor, with lyrics based on the poetry of Shohrat Bokhari.  The opening tanpura and Vijay Venkat’s evocative violin wind around each like mist and smoke forming into vivid pictures.  The voices of the vocalists blend beautifully, again adding to the rich melange of delicate guitar, kora and flute.  A sense of the spiritual lyrics throughout the album is given by Sarah Sayeed’s English spoken piece in “Jhooli Laal Qalandar”.  “Cheikh Amadou Bamba (Serigne Touba)” closes the album as it opened with Kadialy Kouyate’s Kora rippling behind beautiful vocals with everything buoyed along by the lightest flickering percussion.  All music is a mix of borrowed and combined elements.  What makes Rafiki Jazz and Har Dam Sahara so special, is the skilled way they blend the elements to make something beautiful.  The skill of Rafiki Jazz, is in their lightness of touch, nothing sounds forced, and the way that they make a musical masala where your ears fizz with individual sounds but nothing is overpowering or out of place.  A physical reminder of the interconnectedness of everything and the fact that when you put people from different backgrounds, traditions and cultures in a room together they make something that is spiritual, uplifting and simply beautiful.​