Mastering the beat
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