If ancient music, modern techniques and the spiritual, political and pragmatic motivations behind both were tangled strings in a palm, untying them would be a lifes work. Laying them out, though, letting them overlap in new ways, is something else entirely. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld found a guide for such a quest in Ghanaian percussionist Nii Otoo Annan and a place to take such considerations at a ground level in Accra, Ghana.
As a young ethnomusicologist anthropologist, Feld worked closely with the Bosavi people in Papua New Guinea. His study of their music and the rainforests inspired his continued interest in ecology and later, what his label, VoxLox, terms the Soundscape of Human Rights. In 1991, he earned a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called Genius Award, for such work. Research like Felds crosses the boundaries of academic disciplines and art, unearthing artists working in cultures outside our own who create pieces considered experimental by outsiders.
Later, Feld was studying, as he says from Rome, jazz cosmopolitanism, which meant studying how musicians linked their interests in African, African American and European art musics. The projects ranged from the way bebop, New Orleans and the black avant gardes figured in African jazz to how Handel and Beethoven were also in the picture. Annanthe Elvin Jones of West Africa, as he has been calledwas there, too, playing his tune. Annan emerged as a traditionalist compelled by a strong creative desire to play outside the norms. Despite his background in highlife and church music, he often finds himself in jazz settings. On Topographies of the Dark, for instance, a record done in concert with visual artist, Virginia Ryan, he played with Feld, multi-instrumentalist Nii Noi Nortey, reeds player Alex Coke and percussionist Jefferson Voorhees. They performed improvisations inspired by Ryans work. Annan, Nortey and Feld recorded for several years as Accra Trane Station, too, a trio devoted to the African legacy of John Coltrane.
But inspiration also comes from the sounds of nature on a dark night: For Feld and Annans 2008 recording, Bufo Variations, a chorus of common toads croaks through an Accra, Ghana, night to open the CD, unaccompanied by man or instrument. Their polyrhythmic calls showed both Feld and Annan who the real master drummers were. Annan improvised while listening on headphones to the toads (or kawkawdene in Ga, his first language). Feld then removed the toad track, leaving Annans response to those natural rhythms on gyili xylophones and an array of drumsincluding his own invention, the African Percussion Kit or APK, an assemblage of Ghanaian drums and bells with Western jazz cymbals on top. Annans slithering smoothness while keeping multiple rhythms is startling, so much so that Felds liner notes reiterate Annans solo performance: Yes, everything you hear is one person, at one time. The toad songs serve as arias bookending the variations, just as the records inspiration, Bachs Goldberg Variations, set up its structure for harpsichord.
Annan is a virtuoso of rhythms. Through his work with Feld, he turns that expert ear to listen to all the connections between music and the natural world. Its an experiment in which we can alland dotake part.
Nii Otoo Annan and Friends will play at Duke Universitys Nelson Music Room, Wednesday, Oct. 14. The show starts at 8 p.m. and is free. Additional events during Felds residency include a screening of Felds film on the funeral music of Ghanaian bus drivers, A Por Por Funeral for Ashirifie, Monday, Oct., 12, at 5 p.m. at Duke University's John Hope Franklin Center. On Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 4 p.m. Feld gives a talk on Nii Noi Nortey called "PyraSonix: From Pan-Africanism to Afrifones via John Coltrane" at Duke University's Biddle Music Building.