Hawai‘i is a famously mixed plate of different cultural cuisines, and on the music scene, there’s a local band that is adding in some African influences. Drawing on vibrant contemporary music from Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria, Guinea and Mali, HPRs Noe Tanigawa says Jamarek is creating a new local hybrid.
Jamarek's performance at HPR’s Atherton Studio, Saturday, July 15th is sold out but they are scheduled at the Doris Duke Theater in September. Find their CD's and updated schedule on the Jamarek Facebook page.
Kapono Ciotti is bandleader and co-founder of Jamarek, a west African band based in Honolulu. Ciotti trained in the Sabar drum tradition of Senegal and he’s got a wooden drum between his thighs right now. He says the djembe’s hourglass shape allows three distinct tones .
Ciotti: A really deep base, the thin goat skin allows a higher slap sound, and the hourglass shape with open bottom allows a round tenor tone Jamarek draws its inspiration from West Africa. The music is firmly rooted in what ethnomusicologists call polyrhythmic percussion music from the Mandang and Wolof people of West Africa. But one of the things our first drum teacher taught us was, to really own the music and to do so, we really have to create stuff for ourselves. So while we’re rooted in that tradition, we really blend in a lot of Latin music, Caribbean music, and I think you’ll hear in our HPR concert, even some Hawaiian and Polynesian music.
Ciotti: Senegal is an amazing country. Geographically, it’s not necessarily stunning but the people are amazing. It’s a rich country in personality , culture, and food and in music. People really live their music.
Ciotti: Dakkar is a huge, busy bustling city and you’ll hear some of that busy bustlingness in the music. The countryside is kind of dusty and flat, with a lot of savannah bush land.
Ciotti: There’s an ancient drumming tradition there called Sabar. Sabar is a drumming tradition where you play with one open hand and a stick. It’s very rhythmically complex tradition. In many ways the way you think about it and the way you approach sabar as a drumming tradition is kind of like how you approach Japanese taiko. Where there’s a lot of memorized, choreographed long drum breaks. There’s a lot of composition to the music and master drummers who will create very complex and long drum breaks which will be punctuated with improvised drumming solos. It’s very much like modern taiko (Japanese drum) performance or jazz where there’s structure to it and everyone knows the breaks but in between that there’s a lot of room for improvisation.
Ciotti: West African drumming is famous for polyrhythms. Multiple people playing multiple parts, there would never be one person playing a drum. You’d have an ensemble of three to five to eight to ten to twelve people playing drums all at the same time, each playing different rhythms. Each person’s rhythm coming together makes one rhythm.
This rhythmic stew is what Jamarek’s lead singer, Kahnma K, grew up with in Liberia.
Ciotti says in African bands, never one drum—there would be five, eight, ten drums playing different rhythms that layer and intertwine
It’s always the drum that you’re feeling, you know, says Kahnma K, Jamarek’s lead singer from Liberia.
Kahnma: There was always music around. My mother’s a singer and we grew up in the church so there was always singing around church. We grew up very Christian so we sang spiritual songs, gospel songs, but they would always be translated into our Basa language. But it’s just a little more depth to it when they translate it into the language because our language itself is so poetic. Something like saying “I understand” in English would translate into “I hear inside of it” in the Basa, so it’s so much more depth and I don’t know, passion in it. It’s a little different.
Kahnma: It’s hard to explain what we sang about because in regular English terms it probably won’t make too much sense or would seem too small. Because of all the stories behind everything, if you don’t know the background stories then you won’t really get what the lyrics are saying, you won’t understand the entirety of what is in the song. So we make it super chanty, with a lot of drums behind it and you get to feel it more than understand it literally.
Kahnma is talking about meaning that's embedded in continuous cultures.
Kahnma: The music was definitely a call and response kind of thing. It’s like my mother created a genre of music almost singing this gospel songs in the language. My mother would come up with a hook like a chorus part that everybody would memorize and know, then whoever is leading the song they pretty much do like a sermon in the verses, talk about Bible stories, but it’s always freestyle. There’s nothing written, it’s always whatever you’re feeling in that moment, what you know, how much you know about that topic is what you sing in the song. So you’re pretty much going with it as it’s coming through you. It’s pretty amazing! There would be drumming under it, clapping, and call and response in the verses too.
Roots of hip hop! The eight to nine Jamarek band members co-write their songs. All but three of them play percussion! Like Lori Kimata who plays doundoun and other percussion. Tirrell McGruder, plays shekere, holding the large gourd up for inspection. Held Hawaiian ipu-style in one hand, the body of the gourd echoes behind its jangly bead skirt. Bandleader Kapono Ciotti says in African bands, there's never one drum—there would be five, eight, ten drums playing different rhythms that layer and intertwine.
Spend a little time with Jamarek's influences: Nigerian Yemi Aliday is a lot of fun. Check the Okoye twins who perform Nigerian R&B as PSquare--their Bank Alert video is a study in culture, also from Nigeria, Flavour, and here's another from Flavour, Sexy Rosey . Swaying string instruments and lilting thumb pianos perk up your ears in the many slower, thoughtful pieces. Check Secouba Bambino of Guinea, here, M'bambou. Best known in the U.S., Grammy winner Youssou Ndour, Serin Fallu.