Out of Africa

Mixing Ghanian drumming with jazz horns, Julian Gerstin creates a bold new groove

BRATTLEBORO — Julian Gerstin of Westminster West has studied the music of Africa and the African diaspora for 40 years

But only recently has he began to write it.

Gerstin's bold, original music is inspired by the warmth of two suns as jazz horns meet the rhythmic traditions of West Africa and the Caribbean.

Two collections of his melodic and rhythmically intriguing music for jazz horns and percussion - “The Ghana Suite” and “The Martinique Suite” - will be performed May 31 at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and June 1 at the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro.

Both concerts are at 8 p.m.

“The Ghana Suite” is based on the musical traditions of the Ewe people of Ghana, and includes six horns - a tuba, a trombone, two saxes and two trumpets - plus six percussionists. The drumming is furiously polyrhythmic, with horns snaking around on top as they often imitate the percussion rhythms.

“The Martinique Suite” explores rhythms and melodies of that French Caribbean island. It uses the same horn section as “The Ghana Suite,” but features a smaller percussion group, including the Martinican tanbou, a drum Gerstein himself plays with his foot to produce subtle interior rhythms.

Gerstin is a doctoral ethnomusicologist and percussionist specializing in the music of Africa and the Caribbean. He has taught at Wesleyan University, Clark University, Marlboro College, and Keene State College, where he teaches music in the world's culture and music of Africa and the African diaspora.

At the Vermont Jazz Center, Gerstin co-leads the Latin Jazz Ensemble with Eugene Uman and runs an ensemble in the Summer Jazz Workshop. He appears with the Caribbean/Mideastern jazz group As Yet Quintet, Afrocuban dance ensemble Grupo Palo Santo, the Lil' Orphans (a Cajun band with which he plays washboard) and Brattleboro's Brass Band Project.

Gerstin's percussive explorations have led him from the folk traditions of Ghana and Cuba to popular music from Nigeria to Brazil, as well as jazz styles from New Orleans brass bands to avant-garde experimentalism.

His scholarly pursuits took him to Martinique in the 1990s and his articles on Martinican music traditions have appeared in journals and books.

After years of intensive study of this music, only in the past few years has Gerstin begun to compose himself in those traditions.

“I even dared to call myself a musician a few months ago,” he says.

“The music of Ghana and Martinique are some of my favorites,” says Gerstin. “I lived in Martinique in 1993-95, and have been back several times since. I started learning Ewe music with C. K. Ladzekpo in the mid-1980s, more recently began working with Faith Conant in Amherst, and just returned from a two-week study trip to Ghana in early January of this year.”

“I know the music of Martinique quite well. Martinican music has no melodic line, only percussion and singing. The music of Ghana also is drum-oriented and, like in Martinican music, really no more than a drum ensemble and vocalists.

“I thought it would be great to add horn ensemble to these two musical traditions. This music, plus a jazz horn section - really, what could be better? I can't imagine, so I wrote these suites.”

After working on this music for several years, he kept wondering if he would ever hear what he was writing played.

But one day he said he decided, “To hell with it, I'm going to make it happen.”

Gerstin started calling the best musicians he knew, and to his delight, most said yes.

Gerstin believes that the players he has assembled are some of the finest in the area. “It's a killer lineup of musicians,” he says.

The musician first and foremost in importance to the concert is Michael Zsoldos, who has written the horn arrangements for both suites and will be playing saxophone and flute. Zsoldos is a member of Uman's Convergence Project, and he arranges for numerous jazz and gospel ensembles.

Other performers include Latin jazz player Jon Weeks, also on sax, who plays in the Afrobeat band Alafia. On trumpets are Geoffrey Cunningham and Dave Bilodeau.

Brian Benderis, who will play trombone, is one of the most sought-after klezmer and world jazz trombonists in the country.

On tuba is Kevin “Tuba Love” Smith from Western Massachusetts.

The Ghanaian percussion section is led by Faith Conant, director of the Five Colleges' West African and Dance Ensemble. Conant has worked with Ewe music for more than 20 years, lived in an Ewe community in Togo for two years, and is president of the Renaissance Adzogbo Society, a dance troupe based in Lome, Togo.

Rafi Singer is another longtime student of Ewe music and a member of Boston's Agbekor Society. On percussion in “The Martinique Suite,” Gerstin will be joined by drummer Dave Noonan, who is creative against deceptively simple Martinican rhythms.

Gerstin says: “The music will be loud - but acoustic! - and lively; as well as, I hope, thoughtful and intriguing.”

At the upcoming concert, only a part of the music that Gerstin has composed will be performed: “Only about half the iceberg,” he says.

While he is delighted to finally have his work before the public, he confesses that he finds it a little unsettling.

“It is much less nerve wracking to play someone else's music than facing an audience with your own pieces,” he says. “But luckily, I will be surrounded by some incredible musicians who will make all seem so much easier.”

The concerts are made possible by the generosity and support of Vermont Jazz Center, Hampshire College, Larry Bergman, Eugene Uman, Michael Zsoldos, Carlene Raper, Florence Gerstin and Marvin Gerstin (in memoriam).

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