Tag Archives: West Africa

Landing On His Feet: Nicolas Chourot

Listening to Nicolas Chourot‘s début album: First Landing (available on iTunes). Now, here’s someone who found his voice.

A few years ago, Nicolas Chourot played with us as part of Madou Diarra & Dakan, a group playing music created for Mali’s hunters’ associations.

Before Chourot joined us, I had been a member of Dakan for several years and my perspective on the group’s music was rather specific. As an ethnomusicologist working on the original context for hunters’ music, I frequently tried to maintain the connection with what makes Malian hunters so interesting, including a certain sense of continuity through widespread changes.

When Nicolas came up with his rather impressive equipment, I began to wonder how it would all fit. A very open-minded, respectful, and personable musician, Nicolas was able to both transform Dakan’s music from within and adapt his playing to a rather distant performance style. Not an easy task for any musician and Nicolas sure was to be commended for such a success.

After a while, Chourot and Dakan’s Madou Diarra parted ways. Still, Nicolas remained a member of the same informal music network as several people who had been in Dakan, including several of my good friends. And though I haven’t seen Nicolas in quite a while, he remains in my mind as someone whose playing and attitude toward music I enjoy.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the launch of Nicolas’s launch/show, on August 29. What’s strange is that it took me until today to finally buy Nicolas’s album. Not exactly sure why. Guess my mind was elsewhere. For months.

Ah, well… Désolé Nicolas!

But I did finally get the album. And I’m really glad I did!

When I first heard Nicolas’s playing, I couldn’t help but think about Michel Cusson. I guess it was partly because both have been fusing Jazz and “World” versions of the electric guitar. But there was something else in Nicolas’s playing that I readily associated with Cusson. Never analyzed it. Nor am I planning to analyze it at any point. Despite my music school background and ethnomusicological training, I’ve rarely been one for formal analysis. But there’s something intriguing, there, as a connection. It’s not “imitation as sincerest form of flattery”: Chourot wasn’t copying Cusson. But it seemed like both were “drinking from the same spring,” so to speak.

In First Landing, this interpretation comes back to my mind.

See, not only does Chourot’s playing still have some Cussonisms, but I hear other voices connected to Cusson’s. Including that of Cusson’s former bandmate Alain Caron And even Uzeb itself, the almost mythical band which brought Caron and Cusson together.

For a while, in the 1980s, Uzeb dominated a large part of Quebec’s local Jazz market. At the time, other Jazz players were struggling to get some recognition. As they do now. To an extent, Uzeb was a unique phenomenon in Quebec’s musical history since, despite their diversity and the quality of their work, Quebec’s Jazz musicians haven’t become mainstream again. Which might be a good thing but bears some reflection. What was so special about Uzeb? Why did it disappear? Can’t other Jazz acts fill the space left by Uzeb, after all these years?

I don’t think it’s what Nicolas is trying to do. But if he were, First Landing would be the way to go at it. It doesn’t “have all the ingredients.” That wouldn’t work. But, at the risk of sounding like an old cub scout, it has “the Uzeb spirit.”

Which brings me to other things I hear. Other bands with distinct, if indirect, Uzebian connections.

One is Jazzorange, which was a significant part of Lausanne’s Jazz scene when I was living there.My good friend Vincent Jaton introduced to Jazzorange in 1994 and Uzeb’s alumni Caron and Cusson were definitely on my mind at the time.

Vincent, musician and producer extraordinaire, introduced me to a number of musicians and I owe him a huge debt for helping me along a path to musical (self-)discovery. Vincent’s own playing also shares a few things with what I hear in First Landing, but the connection with Jazzorange is more obvious, to me.

Another band I hear in connection to Chourot’s playing is Sixun. That French band, now 25 years old, is probably among the longest-lasting acts in this category of Jazz. Some Jazz ensembles are older (including one of my favourites, Oregon). But Sixun is a key example of what some people call “Jazz Fusion.”

Which is a term I avoided, as I mentioned diverse musicians. Not because I personally dislike the term. It’s as imprecise as any other term describing a “musical genre” (and as misleading as some of my pet peeves). But I’m not against its use, especially since there is a significant degree of agreement about several of the musicians I mention being classified (at least originally) as “Fusion.” Problem is, the term has also been associated with an attitude toward music which isn’t that conducive to thoughtful discussion. In some ways, “Fusion” is used for dismissal more than as a way to discuss musical similarities.

Still, there are musical features that I appreciate in a number of Jazz Fusion performances, some of which are found in some combination through the playing of several of the musicians I’m mentioning here.

Some things like the interactions between the bass and other instruments, some lyrical basslines, the fact that melodic lines may be doubled by the bass… Basically, much of it has to do with the bass. And, in Jazz, the bass is often key. As Darcey Leigh said to Dale Turner (Lonette McKee and Dexter Gordon’s characters in ‘Round Midnight):

You’re the one who taught me to listen to the bass instead of the drums

Actually, there might be a key point about the way yours truly listens to bass players. Even though I’m something of a “frustrated bassist” (but happy saxophonist), I probably have a limited understanding of bass playing. To me, there’s a large variety of styles of bass playing, of course, but several players seem to sound a bit like one another. It’s not really a full classification that I have in my mind but I can’t help but hear similarities between bass performers. Like clusters.

Sometimes, these links may go outside of the music domain, strictly speaking.  For instance, three of my favourite bassists are from Cameroon: Guy Langue, Richard Bona, and Étienne Mbappe. Not that I heard these musicians together: I noticed Mbappe as a member of ONJ in 1989, I first heard Bona as part of the Zawinul syndicate in 1997, and I’ve been playing with Langue for a number of years (mostly with Madou Diarra & Dakan). Further, as I’m discovering British/Nigerian bass player Michael Olatuja, I get to extend what I hear as the Cameroonian connection to parts of West African music that I know a bit more about. Of course, I might be imagining things. But my imagination goes in certain directions.

Something similar happens to me with “Fusion” players. Alain Caron is known for his fretless bass sound and virtuosic playing, but it’s not really about that, I don’t think. It’s something about the way the bass is embedded in the rest of the band, with something of a Jazz/Rock element but also more connected to lyricism, complex melodic lines, and relatively “clean” playing. The last one may relate, somehow, to the Fusion stereotype of coldness and machine-like precision. But my broad impression of what I might call “Fusion bass” actually involves quite a bit of warmth. And humanness.

Going back to Chourot and other “Jazz Fusion” acts I’ve been thinking about, it’s quite possible that Gilles Deslauriers (who plays bass on Chourot’s First Landing) is the one who reminds me of other Fusion acts. No idea if Bob Laredo (Jazzorange), Michel Alibo (Sixun), Alain Caron (Uzeb), and Gilles Deslauriers really all have something in common. But my own subjective assessment of bass playing connects them in a special way.

The most important point, to me, is that even if this connection is idiosyncratic, it still helps me enjoy First Landing.

Nicolas Chourot and his friends from that album (including Gilles Deslauriers) are playing at O Patro Výš, next Saturday (January 23, 2010).

Naming Significance

Been thinking about names again.

Partly because of Lexicon Branding, a Sausalito, CA firm specialized in naming research for brands.

As it so happens, my master’s thesis was on proper names. I mainly focused on anthroponyms (personal names) and toponyms (place names), but the connection is obvious between Lexicon’s work and what I have done in the past.

In the past, I have mostly worked in a semiotic framework. The discipline of semiotics has lost some of its mainstream prominence but semiotic approaches are in fact quite common in social sciences, humanities, and marketing. My own training in semiotics has helped me integrate language sciences and music studies with symbolic anthropology and ethnographic approaches. Calling myself a “semiotician” might not seem like an excellent strategy to get a good job. But my training in semiotics can be quite useful in many contexts.

Within semiotics, I have mostly focused on names and on music. My master’s thesis was on proper names used in Malian praise-songs and my Ph.D. dissertation has involved both names and music in those same praise-singing performance contexts. As it so happens, there are clear connections (in my mind) between proper names and some musical patterns used in those praise-songs. The significance of both types of signs goes beyond some simplified explanations of meaning.

From a semiotic perspective, names are simply fascinating. As verbal signs, they are deeply significant. Not just meaningful by virtue of an arbitrary (or partially motivated) connection with an object. But significant through a more complex process of semiosis. More than other verbal signs, names can evoke a complex reality on their own. They resonate in a specific context. And they are salient across language boundaries.

In the Bamanan-speaking performance contexts I’ve observed, proper names have special significance.  For instance, those who are praised are those who have made a name for themselves. Simply calling out someone’s last name is equivalent to praising that person. Mentioning a place name in a praise-singing performance is a way to refer to events which have taken place at that location, often requiring listeners to possess some priviledged information about those events. Naming someone is a way to make that person social. Someone’s first name can have a deep impact on their character. Given the social structure, it’s often important to live up to one’s name and maintain a good name for the family as a whole.

What’s more, names (and musical patterns) are more motivated than the typical linguistic sign. As such, names can more easily participate in sound symbolism than other words. In this, names can resemble onomatopoeia and ideophones (which happen to be more frequent in African languages than in other linguistic contexts). In fact, some names share with sound symbolism the presence of non-typical morphophonological features for the language in which they are used. For instance, some English-speakers try to pronounce my first name as it is in French (/alεksãdr/), which implies a sequence of sounds which isn’t typical in English. Of course, I tend to go by “Alex” and a lot of people use the English version of my name (and spell it “Alexander”). But the point remains that even my first name can have some features reminiscent of sound symbolism, when used in a different language.

Lots more that I’ve discussed in both my master’s thesis and my Ph.D. dissertation. Going back to this fascination for names is a way for me to tie some loose ends.

Quite stimulating.

What does it all have to do with brand names? Quite a lot, actually, and it’s easy to realize. As some experts in social marketing tend to say, personal names often act like personal brands. “Branding yourself” is a market-driven approach to making a name for yourself. In Mali, people talk about the “publicity” aspect of the performance events I have been studying. In different parts of Africa (and in Brazil), people literally pay for the priviledge of being mentioned in song, because these mentions can be quite advantageous as “personal branding and marketing.”

One thing which attracts me to Lexicon specifically is the emphasis on cross-cultural communication. For very obvious reasons, Lexicon needs to make sure that the brand names it designs can have appropriate effects in a wide variety of linguistic and cultural contexts. We can all think of cases in which brand names had negative connotations in a language other than the one in which they were designed. But Lexicon’s approach seems to go much further. Beyond preventing the branding faux-pas which can have very detrimental effects on the product’s adoption, Lexicon works on the deeper integration of names in diverse cultural contexts.

Since I chersih human diversity, I’m deeply moved by examples of cultural awareness. In any context.