|Dee Dee Bridgewater by John Whiting
I was at the fourth and final show of Bridgewater’s two-day stay at the Dakota. I had seen her perform twice before—in 2002, during her tour for her Kurt Weill CD, This Is New, and again in 2006 for J’ai Deux Amours, her Grammy-nominated album of French love songs. The Dee Dee who walked on stage two nights ago was not the same Dee Dee I remembered from either previous time. Wearing pleated gold silk and velvet, head shaved, surrounded by musicians she loves, performing music that makes her spirit soar (her words), she was radiant, resplendent, and infectiously happy.
She told us what the evening would bring: that as a result of her journey to find her African ancestry and reclaim her roots, she would be merging the tradition of Mali, “where in my heart I know I come from,” with the tradition of jazz. We would, she promised, “experience the similarity between African-American culture and African culture.” The Dakota stage was crowded with her colorful band and their instruments, many made by hand.
Along with her regular trio of pianist Edsel Gomez, bassist Ira Coleman, and drummer Minino Garay, they included musicians from Mali and Senegal: Cherif Soumano on kora (precursor to the harp), Lansine Kouyaté on balafon (precursor to the xylophone), Baba Sissoko on tamani (talking drum, held under the arm) and ngoni (precursor to the banjo), Moussa Sissokho on djembe (hand drum) and congas. They would be joined during the set by two ethereal Malian vocalists, Kabine Kouyaté and Mamani Kéita. All of the African musicians, Bridgewater explained, are griots: storytellers, historians, keepers of tradition. Back when Mali was a kingdom, before colonization and coups and crushing poverty, griots were advisors to kings.
Bridgewater’s first journey to Mali was as an ambassador to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in 1999. She returned in 2004, drawn back to the place she had come to believe was her ancestral home. Her original plans were to record a CD of jazz and Malian music in France, where she now lives, with musicians who had emigrated there from Mali. Instead, she went to Mali again in 2006. Most of Red Earth was recorded there; it was appropriate—and incredibly lucky for us—that she brought Malian musicians along on her limited U.S. tour of only five stops also including the Blue Note in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
The CD’s opening track is Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” and that was the song Bridgewater began with at the Dakota. Standing among her musicians, wrapped in polyrhythms, singing “shades of delight/cocoa hue,” she glowed. Then the majestic Kabine Kouyaté joined her for “Sakhodougou” (The Griots), a song of celebration for a successful hunt. After an introduction by Soumano on the kora, Bridgewater sang in English, Kouyaté in Bambara; when he sang, she sat at his feet. Rising, she scatted. And it all fit and flowed together: instruments, languages, voices, cultures. This was not jazz laid on top of African music, or jazz performed against a backdrop of African music, or even jazz side-by-side with African music. It was not Paul Simon’s Graceland. (Aside: I love Graceland, and without it, the West would probably not know Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but Graceland is Paul Simon’s music laid on top of African music.) Bridgewater and the Malians had merged into something lucid and joyous and whole. I would use the word “fusion” if it didn’t evoke Spyra Gyra and the Rippingtons.
When Kabine Kouyaté left the stage, Mamani Kéita entered for “Djarabi” (Oh My Love), written by Malian diva and women’s rights champion Oumou Sangaré, who sings it with Bridgewater on the CD. What began as a tender ballad of alternating Bambara phrases and English interpretations (“All my life I have searched and searched for someone like you to love”) escalated in intensity—vocal and instrumental—until Bridgewater was giving us a taste of over-the-top soul singing, a bit of Mary J. Blige, and it still all fit. At the end of the song, her head was perspiring.
By now, the room was electric, and the energy continued to rise. Kéita stayed for “Dee Dee,” a song written for Bridgewater by talking drummer Baba Sissoko. “This is the first and only song ever written for me,” Bridgewater said, pulling out a YSL-monogrammed towel to wipe her head. As Kéita sang to Bridgewater in Bambara, the two women faced each other on the stage. Bridgewater stood very still and listened, attentive and serious, as if Kéita were saying something of great importance to her alone. Near the end of the song, they embraced. We all had shared the emotion of a deeply private moment, and if that’s how it felt when Bridgewater went to Mali, no wonder she returned. She told us what most of us already knew: “It’s a blessing for me to share the stage with these musicians. There’s so much love.”
Kabine Kouyaté came back, even handsomer than before, to join Bridgewater and Kéita for “Massane Cissé” (Red Earth), the CD’s title song. Bridgewater sang of growing up in Tennessee and the connection she felt as a child with the red earth there—how she rolled in it until her hair turned red. It’s a big, loose blues. “The blues,” Bridgewater insisted, “is nothin’ but a branch on the tree of Malian music.”
The final song was on the horizon. It was late, two hours since the set had begun. Then someone on the audience requested Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” and Bridgewater said, “We cannot refuse.” Soumano re-tuned his kora, Coleman opened with a powerful bass solo, and Bridgewater tore the house down with Simone’s scathing, bitter mini-epic about four African-American women whose lives are affected by subtle differences in their skin color. When Bridgewater danced and shouted the song’s end, “My name is Peaches!” (following a splendid piano solo by Gomez), we couldn’t imagine that she or the band had any energy left. We were wrong.
“Compared to What” is a funky ’60s anti-war soul song made famous by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. It actually includes the archaic phrase “Sock it to me now!” but other lyrics are timely in a horrid, history-repeats-itself way: “The president, he got his war/Folks don’t know just what it’s for/Nobody gives us a rhyme or reason/Have one doubt, they call it treason.” Kora, balafon, and tamani, Malian beats, and chants in Bambara wove through and around the piano, bass, drums, and English, and once again, it all made sense and formed a perfect whole. At the start of the song, Bridgewater ordered us to stand up, and we did; had she asked us to storm City Hall with scythes and torches, we probably would have done that, too. The stage filled with people dancing, an ecstatic and exuberant salute. It was, in fact, the last song. No one could have asked for more.