Mas­ter­ing the beat

Cape Times - - Music -

Cameroo­nian drum­mer BRICE WASSY will per­form at the Pan African Space Sta­tion (PASS) fes­ti­val in Cape Town this week. He spoke to KAREN RUT­TER.

THERE are peo­ple who know how to bash their sticks on a kit. And then there are real drum­mers. Cameroo­nian Brice Wassy falls into that rar­i­fied lat­ter cat­e­gory, a mu­si­cian who seems to eat, sleep and breathe rhythm.

Watch­ing him at work, eyes closed, arms float­ing, is to ex­pe­ri­ence drum­ming in a to­tally su­pe­rior zone. The beats sim­ply flow from his body. In­deed, as he re­sponds to my ques­tion about the dif­fer­ent styles he plays, he sim­ply says: “It is my life.”

The mas­ter per­cus­sion­ist will be in Cape Town for a num­ber of con­certs as part of the Pan African Space Sta­tion fes­ti­val. He’ll be bring­ing his own band, com­pris­ing Dondieu Di­vin on pi­ano and Jo­hann Derby on bass. He says he’ll be play­ing his own style of mu­sic called “Kù jazz”, which “har­nesses the bound­less wealth of rhythms deeply rooted in Africa, fos­ter­ing a kalei­do­scope of en­coun­ters”.

Wassy started out at a young age in his home town of Yaoundé, re­port­edly bang­ing on pots and pans to the mu­sic of James Brown and Wil­son Pick­ett.

His un­cle, Moussy, gave him his first for­mal lessons on the drums. By the time he was five, he was play­ing with a 15-piece school band. In 1974 he moved to Paris with his fa­ther and sib­lings, and started to lis­ten to jazz-fu­sion drum­mers such as Steve Gadd and Billy Cob­ham. He was then snapped up by Manu Dibangu, and stayed with his band for six years, be­com­ing mu­si­cal di­rec­tor in the process. He then went on to join Salif Keita’s band in 1984, also spend­ing six years with the singer, tour­ing the world and record­ing many award-win­ning al­bums. Of his pe­riod with the two giants of African/world mu­sic, he says: “It was big chal­lenge… I have big re­spect for them.”

Apart from his work with Dibangu and Keita, Wassy was much in de­mand as a ses­sion drum­mer, play­ing with mu­si­cians such as Cuban per­cus­sion­ist Chan­guito and Brazil­ian per­cus­sion­ist Airto Mor­eira, and per­form­ing and co­pro­duc­ing with jazz vi­o­lin­ist JeanLuc Ponty on Ponty’s al­bum Tchokola.

But African mu­sic was where Wassy busted his chops, com­bin­ing com­bustible mixes of West African and jazz-fu­sion rhythms that con­sis­tently pushed the beat en­ve­lope.

It was his play­ing on Dibango’s 1981 dance hit Mangam­bolo that drew at­ten­tion to his mas­tery of a spe­cific tim­ing, lead­ing him to be dubbed “the king of 6/8 rhythm”.

Wassy smiles at this: “Yeah, it’s the name that mu­si­cians gave me be­cause I am a spe­cial­ist in African rhythms.” Even the late, great Fela Kuti was im­pressed by Wassy’s skill, say­ing he “opened our minds with the mil­i­tancy of his mes­sage and our hearts to the rhythms of Afrobeat”.

Apart from be­ing heard on nu­mer­ous al­bums by a va­ri­ety of mu­si­cians, as well as tak­ing the role of artis­tic di­rec­tor for record­ings by ma­jor names in African mu­sic, such as Anne Marie Nzi and Ou­mou San­garé, Wassy’s own com­po­si­tions and ar­range­ments are show­cased on his four CDs, Nga Funk, Balengu Vil­lage, Med­i­ta­tion and Shrine Dance. From acousti- cally mel­low to out­ra­geously funky, they pro­vide a fine over­view of the mu­si­cal spread that Wassy is ca­pa­ble of. One critic de­scribed his work as “melo­di­ous, sub­tly con­structed, com­po­si­tions built on the solid foun­da­tion of African tra­di­tion”.

When the drum­mer per­forms here this month, it will be more than a visit by a mas­ter mu­si­cian. Wassy has strong links to a range of South African artists, the con­nec- tions go­ing back many years.

He has played with Miriam Makeba, Mabe Thobe­jane and Madala Kunene, toured with Gito Baloi, and co-pro­duced with Moses Molelekwa on his Genes and Spir­its al­bum. Wassy also hooked up with Amampondo, pro­duc­ing their al­bum Drums for To­mor­row. And it was his friend­ship with the late Busi Mhlongo that led to the record­ing of award-win­ning al­bum Ur­ban Zulu. Wassy will spe­cially be re­mem­ber­ing three late friends in his Cape Town con­certs. “I would like to ded­i­cate these per­for­mances to Busi Mhlongo, Moses Molelekwa and Gito Baloi,” he tells me.

Brice Wassy will per­form at the Slave Church Mu­seum, Long Street, on Wed­nes­day and at the Al­bert Hall, Wood­stock on Oc­to­ber 1. Call Com­puticket at 083 915 8000. See www.panafricanspaces­ta­tion.co.za

RHYTHM KING: Drum­mer Brice Wassy con­sis­tantly pushes the beat en­ve­lope.

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