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Birigwa Review

by Thom Jurek

Pianist and arranger Mait Edey originally issued Birigwa as a private pressing on his own tiny Boston-based Seeds label in 1972. Luke Mosling and his Porter label have reissued it as part of the initial offering of titles with help from Edey (who wrote the liner notes and produced the original sessions). Birigwa is the name of the Ugandan singer and songwriter who fronted this group and whose musical traditions inform its every utterance. While this is not pure African music in any sense of the word, it is African folk music as it meets "new thing jazz" in the early '70s. The band was made up of Birigwa who sang and played guitar, bassist Phil Morrison, percussionist Yusef Crowder, drummer Vinnie Johnson, conguero Mpelezi, and saxophonist and flutist Stan Strickland. Edey played piano on a cut and helped out on percussion, and Arthur Brooks played flugelhorn on the album's final cut. Three of the tunes here, "Lule Lule," "Njabala," and "Kanemu-Kanabili" are all folk songs, performed by Birigwa in the way he learned them with the other players all partaking in various ways, making this a "fusion" music of a very different sense of the word. These musics as they come together inform one another and therefore become something bigger, something new. The opener, "Okusosola Mukuleke," is an original written by Birigwa whose guitar opens and closes the track, but on the way there is a short but hot flute solo by Strickland that opens the tune up to soul-jazz, skittering snare work by Johnson, and killer hand drums, all of which move to the center to pick up the sense of drama before Birigwa starts stretching his vocal range and yelping and improvising, ending the track as beautifully lyrical as it began. "Uganda," another original, is played in the trance-like, gently flowing repetitive way that much Kenyan music is; it is the sound of a griot, offering a story, edifying the listener, and it doesn't matter if you cannot understand the language -- the gently rapturous tones and the shifting grain in Birigwa's voice offer you everything you need to know. The way the percussion gently moves toward and undulates away from the center, the shimmering bassline and Strickland's flute trills and fills make this a stunner, albeit a quiet one. The intricate guitar work on the folk song "Lule Lule," is as sweet as a nursery rhyme, and as lonely as the expanse of the Uganda. The deep soul shouting at the heart of the lyric is where Birigwa showcases his strengths not only as a vocalist but as a part of a lineage, a chain across space and time where emotions may be complex but they can be shared simply by the utterance of an individual who feels them too. The improvising in his voice brings the true root of the sound of a singer like Leon Thomas or Joe Lee Wilson to bear. There isn't a weak moment on this set, and the final cut, "Yelewa," is devastating in its power. Strickland, who composed it, kicks it off with his tenor, joined by an electric bass and some odd reverb sounds. Soon the percussion -- from congas, djembes, bongos, and all manner of beating noises -- come soulfully entering in with a repetitive rhythmic loop that is so utterly organic and grooved that it is intoxicating. The words sung by Birigwa are based on his poem "Mosquito Song," and everything at the musician's disposal is used here: the multi-phonic tonalities in Birigwa's voice, chanting, multi-tracked voices, a droning bassline, dynamic changes, and subtle shifts in the percussive line. This is the kind of spiritual soul-jazz that was made by labels like Strata back in the day. That this set is available again after all this time is a tiny miracle. It should be enjoyed, savored and learned from -- and hopefully somebody will be sampling the hell out of some of these drum, vocal, and guitar patterns.

Track Listing

Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
Birigwa 05:45 Amazon
Birigwa 04:57 Amazon
Birigwa 01:58 Amazon
Birigwa 04:10 Amazon
Birigwa 02:56 Amazon
Birigwa 04:45 Amazon
Birigwa 05:54 Amazon
blue highlight denotes track pick