With an emphasis on the heritage side of the equation, the first weekend of the 2007 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival hosted something of a summit meeting of two notable performers displaying the intermingled French and American roots of Louisiana. One of them sang of exotic foods and dance in heavily accented Franglish. And the other was a guy from Paris.
Heritage is kinda funny that way. Onstage in front of several thousand revelers at the Louisiana Fairgrounds in New Orleans' oak-festooned Mid-City district, South Louisiana Cajun-rock legend Zachary Richard in some ways seemed more Gallic than his special guest partner, French pop star Francis Cabrel. The former comes from traditions carried by ancestors first to Nova Scotia and then, when the eponymous Scots booted them out in the late 18th century, to the unforgiving bayous of the still-French-owned Gulf region. Music served as both chronicle and release, and still does, with the personable Richard (pronounced ree-shard) one of the leaders of the generation that brought rock edge to the sounds in the '70s and '80s.Cabrel's portion of the show revealed music that took just as circuitous a route but in reverse -- from the American South through Minnesota and Greenwich Village before landing around the Eiffel Tower. Those two middle ports of call came courtesy one Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan -- clearly the biggest influence on Cabrel's poetic, romantic/impressionistic songs, and accordingly, on this day Cabrel particularly evoked the early-'70s Dylan.
A somewhat more direct heritage to New Orleans music was represented at Jazz Fest by the wonderful presence of two acts from Guinea, like Louisiana a former French colony. Ba Cissoko, playing a dynamically electrified kora (a harp-like instrument fashioned from a gourd, which is central to music of Guinea and Mali in particular) transfixed the audience at one of the Fest's 10 stages. But a clear highlight and discovery for many came in four performances by Amazones: The Women Drummers of Guinea, a nine-strong percussion, vocals and dance troupe. It's a pretty straight line, in truth, from the West African drumming to Haiti slave trade to Congo Square, the New Orleans locale where slaves and free people of color gathered to practice new variations on ancient musical traditions and, in the process, gave birth to jazz.
"We are here to give the heritage of jazz to the festival," said Fatoumata Kouyate, who plays the marimba-ish balafon, translated by group manager Laura Rich in a conversation before the group's second of four performances at the festival. "It is a gift."
It was easy to hear how the layers of rhythms of this ensemble are closely related to the percolations that back many Mardi Gras Indian chants -- arguably the most primal practice of New Orleans music. But it also reached well beyond, often with three or four interwoven streams of percussion, four women playing conga-type hand drums, two hitting rumbling bass drums with sticks in their right hands while tapping small cymbal/bells with their left. Sometimes they supplemented their sound with chanting singers and other times with Kouyate's balafon for the kind of tapestry that composer Steve Reich formalized in his intricate compositions but at once looser and more powerfully hypnotic.
For many of the fans undulating with the music, it may have been easy to overlook one aspect of the group: the fact that it's entirely made up of women. For the performers, though, that's hardly incidental. In Guinea, it seems, women are largely cut off from this heritage. Kouyate explained that she knows of no other female balafon player in Guinea at this time -- a great-aunt played the instrument, she noted, but no other until she was taught by her father, a balafon player in a long line of the griot tradition – a line of musicians with status not unlike priests.
"My family heritage is griot," she said. "There's a direct lineage back to the first balafon player, the King of Soso. It's a very spiritual instrument, a sacrament. But tradition is that it's for men. My father gave me the gift of playing the balafon, but he died and now I've been cast aside. In my country, I am expected to tend to household chores. I can only play alone. But outside of Guinea I can do it as my work."
With that in mind, the Amazones ensemble is touring various Western Hemisphere locales as well as upcoming shows booked for the Canary Islands and European sites. For more information on Amazones, check out http://www.amazoneswomandrummers.com/.