Drumming up cultural bonds in Aspen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
ASPEN – The African Showboyz, a group of four percussionists, all brothers, have been touring recently with Mickey Hart, a former drummer for the Grateful Dead. The Showboyz are from Ghana, and while they have their tribal customs – the brothers embarked on a music career when the eldest, Napoleon Sabbah, received a vision from their grandfather – they are unfamiliar with the customs of the American tribe known as the Deadheads.
Napoleon Sabbah told about seeing a fan at a show in Lake Tahoe a few weeks ago. Two nights later, he saw the same gentleman at a concert in Eugene, Ore., nearly 500 miles away.
“I thought maybe he was a sound engineer,” Sabbah said from a tour stop in Boulder. “I told security – this man followed us from there to here. He said, ‘That’s the way it is.'”
Sabbah thought they had shaken the man for good when the tour crossed the border for some dates in Canada, but since returning to the States for shows across the Rocky Mountain region – including one Saturday at 9 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen – he believes he has seen that same face in the crowd.
The ways of the Deadheads might be foreign to Sabbah, but the music, of the Dead and its successor groups like the Mickey Hart Band, was instantly familiar. Babatunde Olatunji, the late Nigerian musician, was both an associate of the Dead’s, with a prominent role in Hart’s Planet Drum projects, and also served as godfather to the Sabbah brothers. Olatunji praised the abilities of the African Showboyz to Hart, and on the other end, he introduced the Grateful Dead music to Napoleon Sabbah and his siblings. The Dead’s sound, grounded in jazz, bluegrass, rock and blues, has been called distinctly American and not prone to translating especially well outside the U.S. But Sabbah took to it easily.
Sabbah said there is a West African term – bumbumbrus – that describes the musical approach of the African Showboyz: taking a variety of different styles of putting them all together.
“It sounded like African jazz,” he said of the Grateful Dead’s music. “It’s the same as what we do. It’s like the African music.”
At the same time, Sabbah was able to pick up the uniqueness of the Dead.
“It’s also like something we never had in the world,” he said. “We loved the background of the song and the way the guitarist” – that would be Jerry Garcia – “played and sang.”
Hart first saw the African Showboyz perform in 2005 at a festival in California. The Sabbah brothers were introduced to Hart and began researching more about the curious phenomenon of Hart’s old band.
“That Grateful Dead can catch a lot of crowd, like the whole stadium. They can hold them,” Sabbah said.
Hart launched his latest post-Dead project, the Mickey Hart Band, in mid-2011 and released an album, “Mysterium Tremendum,” last year. The music is a distant cousin of the Dead’s; Hart’s band – including Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, African talking-drum master Sikiru Adepoju and singers Crystal Monee Hall and Joe Bagale – plays a mix of fusion and funk that is inspired by the sonic fallout of the big bang, some 13 billion years ago.
The Mickey Hart Band made a well-received local debut in December 2011 at Belly Up. This time through, the rhythms get even deeper: The African Showboyz open the show, and then Hart’s group joins them onstage to form a 12-member ensemble that features seven percussionists. From the beginning, with a pair of trial jams in California, it was an easy fit.
“Mickey was surprised. How can the Africans just jump in and play this music?” Sabbah said.
On the current tour, Sabbah sees that it’s not only the African Showboyz fitting in with Hart but also Hart becoming a bit more African in his musical expression.
“He’s playing, and at the same time, he’s chanting,” Sabbah said. “Which makes it more special, spiritual. In the northern part of Ghana, we chant.”