Articles & Reviews

From The Portland Phoenix

Jordan's crossing

African drummer Benissan continues to bring the old world into the new

BY SAM PFEIFLE

Like the Christian missionaries who once infiltrated his continental homeland, West African drummer (and more) Jordan Benissan is converting Maine listeners one at a time. Making some serious hay during his summer holidays away from his gig teaching music at Colby College, Benissan has worked the festival circuit hard, playing just about every town square and outdoor gathering spot in Central Maine over the past few years. Heck, after getting one look at our 2004 Best Music Poll event, Benissan quickly asked if he could play it in 2005. And there he was this past May, hammering an African drum and strumming some kind of wire hooked up to a tin can and electrified on a stage in front of every rocker and punk in the Portland music scene ? who enjoyed every minute of it.

Benissan is a missionary for his music and his culture, that much is clear, and his passion explains his productivity. Who else in Maine can say they're releasing their fourth full-length album in five years?

On October 18, Benissan will play a large part in Deering High School's West African Culture through Arts, Literature, and Music ? a production that ought to be just what it says it is ? and introduce his latest work to Portland. /Fame Without Fortune/ is a cheeky title for a serious album, the latest in Benissan's meldings of Western and African sounds and rhythms. Like the rest of his outputs, the best thing about the disc is that it can be enjoyed for its own sake, and not just as some kind of cultural lesson.

Take the opener, "Naa Yere Bo." The central theme features a call and response, one of your standard universal songwriting techniques, executed for maximum effect, the studio-created chorus of Benissan and frequent collaborator Sorcha infusing energy and harmony into the melody line. And while you can't escape /Graceland/ thoughts, think also when you hear this of the last Widespread Panic show you saw, or Grateful Dead drums breakdown. The talking bell rings out notes in threes, with the fourth beat elongating just a bit, creating the rush any good drummer will try to instill in a jam crowd.

"Ve Novi Wo" -- the liner notes say it celebrates the birth of twins -- is in the same vein, yet seems initially more accusatory and angry, before entering into a long contemplative stretch where the drums just roll and roll, building tension while the bell does a 1-2-3, 1-2 rhythm like you might find in math rock or intelligent metal.

But "Children of God" is a major departure from the album?s introductory tunes. It opens with a violin laying out a gypsy melody, aided by some nakedly plucked strings. Forget jam bands -- this is art rock, like what you'd get out of Cerberus Shoal or Barbez. And those Christian missionaries I was talking about? Well, "If you believe that we were all created in the image of God/ Why can't you just love your neighbor?" Benissan's voice drops in the mix a bit for the second delivery of the first verse, like the sentiment he's expressing is fading away, before the song simply fades out entirely.

Which points to one thing I'd like to see on future Benissan's works: more attention to arrangement. He employs the studio fadeout often, and many songs follow the pattern of "Nakie," building from spare instrumental start into vocals after about 10 seconds, then strapping on some more sound for the body of the piece. Some crisper and more creative starts and finishes would improve the flow of the album immensely.

The most daring effort here is the title track, which begins unexpectedly with Alan Crichton's sax and Brian Bernardini?s piano tag-teaming on jazz riffs, echoed by vocal scat work from Benissan, then opens into full-on swing. This is really out of nowhere. It almost feels like an intermission on the album, the go-out-and-get-some-snacks music of a drive-in double feature from the 1950s. But then it breaks down at the 2:30 mark with the introduction of off-beat drum entrances, Benissan scatting a bop-bop, hand claps, talking bells. All the big band feel is dropped in favor of a halting repetition of riffs, like dueling banjos, but between a saxophone, a piano, and an African drum. There's nice clean finish here, though.

With a nod to "Brenya and Kennebec," a cool melding of West African and Native American elements, the best song here is "Ima Abasi," which, according to liner notes, features a young man begging his lover not to treat him so badly. What I like is Benissan's simple "la, la, la, la" kind of a pop entrance and the tune's gentle sway, like riding a musical swing. You can't exactly bop your head to it, but it's the kind of song you can sing along with before it's even over.

That's no small feat, considering it's in a foreign language.