Afropop Worldwide | ‘You Never Know’ Review

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March 29, 2022
Club d’Elf and Afro-Zen Allstars Let the Instruments Do the Talking

What does it take to lure listeners out of their comfort zone to experience the musical sensibility of another culture? Obviously there’s no one answer, but perhaps the biggest obstacle is language. So one solution is to simply sideline vocals and develop a predominantly instrumental aesthetic. Two American bands have taken that approach and ran with it, creating largely instrumental repertoires that combine African and oriental music traditions with original composition, arranging and a unifying jazz sensibility. Club d’Elf out of Boston draws, among other things, on Morocco’s Gnawa music of healing and trance. The Afro-Zen Allstars of Richmond, VA, finds its deepest well of inspiration in Ethio jazz. Both groups have excellent new albums, and Club D’Elf is currently launching a U.S. tour.

Club d’Elf is a mystic jam band with deep roots in the trance music of North Africa, especially the Gnawa. Their third album, You Never Know, is a wide ranging romp, full of serenity, chaos, longing, improvisation and peerless musicianship inspired by music from India and Morocco as well as the maverick jazz of Miles Davis and Frank Zappa. The band’s founding member Mike Rivard was an accomplished bass player before he went to Morocco and encountered Gnawa music in its element. Since then he has also played the Moroccan bass lute, the guembri, which he uses to great effect as a bass even on pieces that stray far from Gnawa tradition. “Zeed Al Maal,” one of just two vocal tracks on an album that runs well over an hour, is dedicated to the late Maalem Mahmoud Gania. Brahim Fribgane plays oud here and sings in an electrifying, ecstatic voice that lifts the jam to the heavens.

Rivard’s collaborators include Fribgane, DJ Mister Rourke on turntables, drummer Dean Johnston, Paul Schultheis and John Medeski on vintage analog keyboards, and three excellent guitarists: Duke Levine, David Fiuczynski and Kevin Barry. The ensemble’s well-honed chemistry is evident throughout, whether delving into classical Indian music (“Lala Aisha in Jhaptal”); easing into a Moroccan folk mode on a cover of a Nass el-Ghiwane song (“Allah Ya Moulana”); or tackling an expansive, 11-plus-minute cover of Frank Zappa’s “King Kong.”

Club d’Elf’s cover of Miles’s “In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time” begins peacefully, with those iconic opening trumpet lines adapted on fuzz-toned electric guitar. The piece evolves toward the wildness of Miles’s next phase, Bitches Brew. And that unbridled energy continues on Rivard’s composition, “Dark Fish,” animated by squealing wah-wah guitar. Rivard’s composing chops are impressive. The album opener, “Boney Oscar Stomp” manages to roll together a guembri bass vamp, old-school r&b, soaring pedal steel guitar and more, over a groove that starts out bluesy and shifts to full-on Gnawa for the finale—all delivered with ease and finesse as if these things were born to go together.

The track that stays with me most is Rivard’s “Now Open Your Eyes,” a serene 7/8 vamp, warm and seductive as a sultry late summer afternoon. This track and the traditional Sufi meditation “Dervish Dance” offer islands of calm amid a sea of inspired, energized spontaneity and innovation.

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