Of all of the utterly unique aspects of the music of Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba, some are more breathtaking than everything else. Firstly, to borrow from Amanda Villepastour’s thesis that there are “Ancient Text Messages” that emanate from the “Yorùbá Bàtá Drum”, it would appear that Miss Rosewoman has achieved something that is so rare or virtually impossible for any musician not Afro-Cuban, or Afro-Caribbean or anyone else of the Diaspora of the Yorùbá and it is this: With her epic, wordless, yet worshipful suite “Oru de Oro” she has cracked the code of that ancient text. So it follows that I can think of almost no other musician in recent (or, indeed, past) times who has been able to – in an original contemporary composition – made such masterful use of the sacred bàtá drums. Moreover, she has done this in a such as skillful manner that is so deep “in the tradition” that you would be forgiven if you thought you were listening to something “traditional”.
But, of course, when it comes to Afro-Cuban music, the music of the Yorùbá tradition, that is, Miss Rosewoman anchors herself in the ancient tradition with a view to always look forward and what a spectacular way in which to do it indeed. Now, anyone who has followed the meteoric arc of her career in music would know that as she came under the influence of musicians such as Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos and, more recently, Román Díaz – Santeria adepts more than anything else – Miss Rosewoman’s music with Quintessence and especially that with her latest ensemble New Yor-Uba took on a more profoundly transcendent and spiritual turn. This has been true of her music for 35 years, something she celebrated with her New Yor-uba ensemble, first with New Yor-uba, 30 Years: A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America (Independent, 2013) and now with Hallowed.
With this album, Hallowed, Miss Rosewoman’s music, quite simply, ascends to the rarefied realm. And yet it has all of the elements that make it earthy and accessible despite being rooted in something as spiritually and philosophically “ancient”. Moreover, because our sensibilities have become so enlightened as to absorb the lessons of the harmonic “changes” and improvisational inventions of Jazz, if we listen to the repertoire on Hallowed we will also be awestruck at the diabolical complexity of its harmonic inventions – the “changes” – which are absolutely breathtaking and come at us fast and furious, sometimes as myriad and rapidly as the works of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. Yet, make no mistake, this is a musical propitiation to the gods in the Yorùbá tradition and so – of necessity – this is music that is broadly based, as Dr. Villepastour suggests, on the codes of the “Ancient Text Messages of the Yorùbá Bàtá Drum”.
Consequently, this is what is immediately appealing about the music: the use of the bàtá drums although not simply to telegraph the messages between Miss Rosewoman and the New You-Uba ensemble and the pantheon of Yorùbá deities, but also with the mesmerizing rhythms of the trio of percussionists led by Román Díaz, to lead us in a kind of Santeria worship of those gods as well. And so led by the hallowed chatter of the okónkolo, iyá, itótele conjoined, and with Miss Rosewoman’s piano (and Fender Rhodes – an especially radiant accompaniment for the plaintive voice of Nina Rodríguez coming, as it does, after the “dark” chant by Mr. Díaz) acting as the glue between the ancient and modern percussion and the growling of contemporary brass and woodwinds we are invited to a ceremony of Lukumí worship with the bàtá drums creating an incessant polyrhythmic chatter; “toques”, “tambor de santo” or “bembé” at the Lukumi ceremony.
I can’t but help also being taken by “Oru de Oro”, which is the centerpiece of this album and the harmonic trickery of the mysterious-sounding “The Wind is the First to Know” and “Alabanza”, which is full of dissonant yet joyous abandon. But the music of “Oru de Oro” is particularly alluring and – with its web of harmonic and rhythmic changes – is especially evocative of the musical canvas of Charles Mingus. Miss Rosewoman, of course, has an acutely singular voice and it shines with its own diaphanous musical canvas illuminated as if by glinting lights rippling with the stunning melodies and – more especially so – with a harmonic patina enriched by the shimmer of her pianism, rippling over the tone-textures of brass and woodwinds. But always, weaving in and out, over and under is the rumble and thunder of percussion heralded by the bàtá drums, the bass, and the drums-set as well. All of this results in a broodingly percussive and tumbling groove as the ensemble swings between the worshipfully meditative and the cinematically jazzy. The constant push and pull between percussion, piano, and blown instruments creates a dynamic tension that stretches and relaxes throughout this exquisite repertoire, drawing us in and mesmerizing our senses at will.
With judiciously placed soli – a dark baritone saxophone somewhere, or a soaring, reflective soprano elsewhere – to usher us from one ceremony to the next we find ourselves beholden to the music, between the profoundly sacred and the joyfully secular, as we might find ourselves catching – now surfacing for air, no sooner than we are plunged into a never-ending wave of the worshipful waters of the music. The recorded sound balances depth and detail with a sense of “live” warmth. Truly an album to die for…
Tracklist – 1-10: Oru de Oro 1: We Need You Now (Elegguá, Oggún, Ochosi); 2: Mountain Sky, Healthy High (Obaloke, Inte, Babalú-Ayé); 3: Forest of Secrets (Ossaín); 4: Color Clown (Osun, Dada, Oggue); 5: Hallowed (Obatalá); 6: Puntilla’s Gift (Aganyú); 7: Two Bodies, One Heavenly Soul (Orúnmila, Orisha Oko, Ibedji); 8: The Heart of It (Chango); 9: Flowers That Bloom in the Dark (Oyá, Yewa, Ochún, Oba); 10: There is Here, Then is Now (Yemayá, Oludua); 11: The Wind is the First to Know (for Oyá); 12: Alabanza (Praise)
Personnel – Alex Norris: trumpet and flugelhorn; Román Filiú: alto and soprano saxophones, and flute; Stacy Dillard: tenor saxophone; Chris Washburne: trombone, bass trombone, and tuba; Andrew Gutauskas: baritone saxophone (11, 12); Michele Rosewoman: piano, Fender Rhodes and vocals; Gregg August: bass; Robby Ameen: drums; Román Díaz: bàtá, congas and vocals; Mauricio Herrera: bàtá, congas and vocals; Rafael Monteagudo: bàtá and congas; Nina Rodríguez: lead vocals (11)
Released – 2019
Label – Advance Dance Disques (AD 0355)
Runtime – 1:09:49
Purchase CD: www.bandcamp.com