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Joss Jaffe: Dub Mantra Sangha
by George Graham
(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/3/2015)
World Music fusion projects have often proven to be interesting and engaging. Cross cultural mixes can be anything from an artistic disaster to something very innovative. The interconnectedness of the world there has given us an unprecedented number of cross cultural exchanges and mixing of traditions, music and art, and people themselves, despite the bloviations of the xenophobic demagogues. And one area which has been particularly ripe for genre mash-ups is in dance music. Scientists and anthropologists have recently noted the universality of dance across almost every human culture, so even scientifically, this sort dance fusion seems almost inevitable when people get together from different cultures. And we have noted a number of these polyglot amalgamations in this album review series from Celtic- funk to bluegrass-jazz to Asian Indian with New Orleans brass bands. This week we have another interesting combination, whose creator specifically set out to mix influences. It’s by San Francisco multi-instrumentalist Joss Jaffe, and his new CD is called Dub Mantra Sangha. The title comes from the mixture of the dub style of reggae with mantras taken from different cultures in five languages. “Sangha” is a Sanskrit word for “community.” Jaffe enlists 15 different singers from different cultural backgrounds, with each providing a kind of take on the supposedly mind opening mantra chant. The musical direction is basically reggae, though it gets into other styles, and each track has some kind of instrumental twist that provides some interest or surprise. There’s an African kora, a jazzy trumpet and some very western electronic studio effects. Despite the contemplative nature of a mantra, all of the album’s tracks provide an infectious dance beat, sometimes gentle and sometimes with a more energetic component. And unlike many dance-oriented albums, there is enough substance and sonic iterest to make it worthwhile listening away from the dance floor.
Jaffe is joined by a number of musicians who have been a part of the World Music and New Age scenes, such as Jai Uttal and Donna De Lory. Jaffe plays a bunch of instruments, including guitar, tabla, and what sounds like a Malian kora string instrument. As a result you won’t find anything in the authentic styles, but almost always mixing things up, and in five different languages. While it is quite danceable, one can hear some of the underlying currents of New Age music that some of the participants have been involved with. And while the lyrics are in a number of languages, when they get into English they can be rather metaphysical.
Opening is a track called Elohim, which features a real reggae performer, Mykal Rose, as the guest vocalist. The reggae beat is combined with an atmospheric sonic approach and it turns out to work better than one might even expect. <<>>
Ganesha features Jai Uttal and Susanne Sterling, and the track combines some Indian influence with the tasteful, gentle reggae pulse. <<>>
Not all the album’s tune are straight out reggae in their sound. Jai Uttal and Donna De Lory appear as vocalists on Gayatri, which has more of an Indian or Pakistani sound, with some electronic dance ambiance and the presence of the Malian kora. It’s another piece that is surprising in the degree to which Jaffe and company get the cultures to mix and not clash. <<>>
One of the most danceable tracks on the album is called Durga which draws on the influence of African beats, from South African to Congolese soukous. <<> Trumpeter Phil Rodriguez hints at the sound of the famous South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. <<>>
Jaffe and company turn the Hawaiian universal greeting “aloha” into a mantra on the track called Aloha, and give it an easy-going reggae beat with the addition of Rodriguez’ trumpet. <<>>
There is one track in English, called Body & Mind, which has an atmospheric, vaguely African sound. The lyrics, however, sound like something that might come with a self-help video. <<>>
The one track that does not work out as well, is Amaterasu which incorporates Japanese influences. It’s a bit cliched and the vocalists are not as good as others on the album. <<>>
The CD ends with its most contemplative and atmospheric track Moola Mantra which features nice trumpet work by Phil Rodriguez. Dave Stringer does the vocal. <<>>
Dub Mantra Sangha, the new release by Joss Jaffe, is another worthwhile cross-cultural blend that shows the synergy that can happen when seemingly disparate musical styles and cultures are skillfully and tastefully brought together. The album features 15 different singers from different cultures making contributions, while Jaffe and his backing musicians provide a mainly reggae flavored atmospheric setting. With the focus on the mantra aspect, one might be tempted to dismiss it as just another New Age project trying to find some kind of higher consciousness, but this album is more than that. Since with the lyrics in five languages at least one of which almost everyone will not understand, it’s the music that drives this project and it’s quite enjoyable and tasteful.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The sonic atmospherics are done right – it’s easy to overdo the electronically-generated ambiance and reverb, but Jaffe resists that temptation. And what acoustic instruments are heard are recorded cleanly. The dynamic range, how well the recording captures the loud and soft of the music without cranking it all up loud, is above average for the current day of dumbed down audio, which helps this kind of music.
It’s become a small world with cultures exposed to each other through effortless and ubiquitous communication, so a fusion like this is bound to keep happening. In the right hands, it can make for engaging and danceable music, that is also interesting enough to listen to on its own, away from the dance floor.
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