The German Jazz Orchestra (BuJazzo) has rounded out its African tour, returning enriched and inspired by their experiences. The young musicians are looking for ways to host their West African colleagues in Germany.
For many of BuJazzO's 19 young musicians, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal were previously just unfamiliar patches on the map. But now, after their return from a 23-day tour through West Africa, the jazz musicians can't stop talking about what they experienced.
"We were able to play incredible music and touch the hearts of the people there," said BuJazzO project director Dominik Seidler. Music was the binding force throughout the tour. Once the instruments were put down, English was rarely spoken. French and Portuguese ruled communication. "And who can speak those languages anyway?" Seidler said with a chuckle. "But some sign language always comes in handy. And, of course, music - music was the foundation for bringing people together."
Four Senegalese and three Mauritanian musicians accompanied BuJazzo members on their tour from Saint-Louis to Dakar in Senegal, and on to the city of Bissau in Guinea-Bissau. They included balafon virtuoso Djiby Diabate, Goundo Cissokho on vocals and Ablaye Cissoko on the kora. Musicians Cheick Labbiat, Aly Ndao and Cheickou from Mauritania also spontaneously joined up with the group until the end. With all of those muliticultural influences, BuJazzo decided to dub the project and group the "Global Music Orchestra" while on tour.
A jump into the deep end
Neither the Germans nor the Africans knew exactly what to expect when they played together. "Musical scores were more or less distributed at the airport, and everyone was thrown into the deep end to see how well they would swim together," explained Seidler. Over the course of a week, the musicians got to know one another, improvised, rehearsed and then performed on stage. Their first show was during the Saint-Louis International Jazz Festival, were they won an enthusiastic reception.
The central idea of the project was to bring together African music, which commonly features three-beat cycles - with European and American jazz music, which is generally based on two beats. BuJazzO's artistic director Mike Herting was convinced that the friction between "two and three" would result in true swing. He was right. Balafon and kora melded with saxophone and woodwind instruments; the various drums vibrated in time.
Plastic drums and grilled fish
But the real magic came less during official events and more when local musicians invited the German performers to their homes for a meal. Removed from the atmosphere of official ambassadorship, the German and African musicians could spontaneously jam together in clay huts, while fish was cooking on the grill.
There were the times when plastic buckets suddenly turned into drums on a market square in Bissau, while children, seniors and the German guests danced and played together.
"Our young people were surprised by just how poor some of the African musicians are, and how much they struggle just to survive," said Seidler. "And yet, they were often invited for meals and were warmly welcomed. Those experiences will leave an impression on our musicians for life."
Music instead of politics
The German jazz orchestra did not travel to Africa for the sake of headlining shows, but rather in order to interact with fellow musicians. "We had no interest in being on display, like: 'We're here, we'll play for you, and you listen,'" stressed Seidler, adding, "On the contrary."
BuJazzO transcribed a music piece by José Carlos Schwarz in the tour bus on the way to Bissau. "No one has heard of him in Germany, but in Guinea-Bissau, he's a bit of a national hero," said Seidler. "When we played his piece, people chanted 'BuJazzO, BuJazzO!'"
This performance, say all of the musicians, was definitely more important than the one at the St.-Louis International Jazz Festival. And after the coup d'état that occurred last year in Guinea-Bissau, the residents seemed all the more pleased to see foreign musicians on an excursion to their country. Some 1,500 gathered at the Praça Che Guevara to hear them joined by African musicians. The last concert by musicians from abroad took place in Bissau 35 years ago, when Cuba's state orchestra played.
Under a full moon
The German jazz musicians were open to playing African rhythms, and learned songs by the locals, who passionately sang along during concerts - like the popular children's song "Fatou Yo," for instance. Unlike in Germany, the concert-goers in Africa rarely sat in their seats for long: they danced, sang and celebrated, prompting big smiles from the BuJazzo performers, led by Mike Herting.
All of those who participated in the project and trip now hope their experiences won't just get lost in the shuffle. BuJazzO has already made inquiries about bringing some of the West African musicians to Germany.
"The music generated something special. It doesn't need the Senagalese moonlight in order to really shine; it will work just as well in Germany," said Seidler with a grin.