Homeward bound: Dee Dee Bridgewater looks to Mali

Boston Globe, October 14, 2007

The idea of returning to Africa has been an essential theme in American arts and culture ever since Africans were brought to this country. But it is a theme that has dwelt mainly at the margins of mainstream culture, whether by political choice of the artists involved or from lack of interest and commercial appeal outside (or even sometimes within) the African-American community.

For jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, making a new album in deep conversation with musicians from Mali was neither a political act nor a play for world-music market share. Rather, “Red Earth: A Malian Journey” resonates with the authenticity of a natural embrace.

Regrettably, Bridgewater had to cancel a scheduled performance of “Red Earth” in Boston this past Wednesday. But the album, newly out on the Emarcy label, stands on its own merits as the most interesting back-to-Africa project in several years. The credit goes in part to Bridgewater’s heartfelt emotional investment in a culture she’s identified as her spiritual home, and, just as important, to the personnel she assembled with Cheikh Tidiane Seck, a respected Malian musician and arranger who previously recorded an album with jazz pianist Hank Jones.

Recorded mainly in Bamako, the Malian capital, “Red Earth” combines Bridgewater’s regular Latin-inflected jazz trio with more than a dozen local players of traditional instruments such as the 21-string kora and three-string n’goni lutes, the xylophone-like balafon, and percussions such as the djembe and talking drum. Bridgewater also invited some of Mali’s top stars to take part, among them kora master Toumani Diabate and several of the country’s great female singers, including Oumou Sangare.

“Red Earth” runs from jazz items that the Malian instruments gently expand and punctuate to polyrhythmic African workouts on which Bridgewater adds lines of English lyrics or scats her way into the Bambara intonations. In between are hybrid gems like a stunning take on the Mongo Santamaria classic “Afro Blue,” where Edsel Gomez’s Latin piano and Lansine Kouyate’s balafon recapitulate black music’s trans-Atlantic history; the Mali-meets-Mississippi blues “Red Earth (Massane Cisse)”; the sisterly duet with Sangare on “Oh My Love (Djarabi)”; and the final jam, which propels the chestnut “Compared to What” into the global 21st century with Bambara rapping by one Larry “King” Massassy.

On the phone from her US base in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nev. (her primary home is Paris), Bridgewater says her early acquaintance with African music stems from friendships on the Paris scene with such stars as Salif Keita and Manu Dibango. She has also visited many African countries in her longtime role as an honorary ambassador for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

But the connection with Mali is something altogether more personal and spiritual.

“It came from the embrace of my African heritage,” she says, “and the desire to find out where in Africa I could come from.”

She is quick to explain that the feeling of home she found in Mali is not grounded in the kind of genetic analysis that is increasingly available to African-Americans who are looking to trace their ancestry prior to the slave trade. “It was a very intuitive method,” she says. “I am not a scientific person.”

She hasn’t taken the DNA test, though she might. The results, she says, won’t change the powerful sense of homecoming she experienced in Mali and the uncanny sense of recognition she found in its people, culture, and art.

“I might be from one of the other countries, but I feel a very strong kindred spirit with Malians,” she says. “I look like them. Being there, I understand why I behave the way that I do, my likes and dislikes. I’ve even found out that all my African art is Malian. I naturally was gravitating even to their artwork. And that’s pretty freaky.”

The recognition extended to the music, she says, and that inspired the album. “I just had an inherent understanding of this music that was inexplicable. I decided that I would concentrate the album on a fusion of traditional Malian instruments – the n’goni, the calabash, the kora, all the different original instruments that most of the musicians make themselves – and tie that in with jazz.”

The Malian material on the album is similarly ancient in origin. It is drawn mainly from the griot tradition – the art of praise singing and storytelling that is passed through the generations within a particular caste. “Malian standards, we could call them,” Bridgewater says, “passed down since the 12th or 13th century.”

Over the years since she emerged on the straight-ahead jazz scene in the 1970s, Bridgewater’s repertoire has been immense – so much so that she’s sometimes been considered scattered or too apt to cross over into pop. On recent albums she has channeled Ella Fitzgerald and explored the French song. She’s the host of a weekly public radio jazz program, and her musical ambassadorship and eclecticism have sometimes risked overshadowing her virtuosity.

To listen to Bridgewater sing and speak now, the encounter with Mali renders all of these considerations obsolete. “I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I found myself living there,” she says. She’s already planning her next Malian album, with a group led by n’goni player Bassekou Kouyate, one of the “Red Earth” participants. “It’s going to be even more roots,” she promises.

For Bridgewater, making “Red Earth” has been a powerful and validating experience, even if she acknowledges that not all her jazz audience will come along for the ride.

“I have my traditional fans who don’t like it,” she says. “I say I’m sorry, but I’ve moved into another area. I feel that with this album I have truly found my own voice.”