Sunday, 18 September 2016

The pot bubbling: Cousoumeh by Akinola Sennon – a Review¹

Steelpan player and Siparia Deltones musical director, Akinola Sennon has released a new album of pan jazz on the independent Ropeadope Records label. The album, Cousoumeh, is a mix of effective songwriting and performance and a daring leap into a new way of hearing improvised music from the Caribbean.

Ropeadope Records—an increasingly important record label in the US that is home to jazz pannists Leon Foster Thomas and Jonathan Scales—remarks openly that the record, “is an interpretation of jazz where the heritage of the island [Trinidad] and the full sense of the African diaspora collide, sometimes in a polished way and sometimes with a raw undercurrent.” In recognising that simultaneous pattern of up and down production value, one is effectively exposed to two sides of the musical adventure that Sennon has pursued in the making of this album.

On the one hand, Sennon along with percussionist Tambi Gwindi works with four young Boston-based musicians, drummer Shane Dahler, pianist Chris McCarthy, bassist Cole Davis and trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius Ryan Jr. on half the tunes on the eight-song album. Americans all, this aggregation approaches the idea of the Caribbean and Sennon's music with adroit solos and converses musically in a language that speaks to a proficiency of jazz improvisation while still searching for the Afro-Caribbean aesthetic.


On this group of songs, a stand-out track is “Doh Fight Meh” that features a spoken word promulgation by Persis Caesar that recounts the horror and tragedy of Black skin in the world—“...melanin has just been declared illegal”—challenging listeners to disagree, but “doh fight meh!” That juxtaposition of vernacular spoken word and jazz music is reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron's jazz poetry. The piece exposes a fissure between local voice and American music that—while not unassailable—points to the distance our expression has to go before global consumption.

On the other hand, the four songs that exclusively feature the local ensemble find the “beat of the drum” and gel convincingly, and that it is reflected in the ease of performance and the response of Sennon as soloist. His bold gestures of confident playing—unencumbered by his apparent awe of the musical responses of the Boston-based American quartet—showcase a touch that is both dynamic and subtle. In these pieces we actually hear what the intention of the Cousoumeh project is all about: a fusion exercise that responds to the multiplicity of influences and focuses it in the steelpan. Both “Quinam Beach” and “Legacy House” in this song group support Sennon's new metaphysics, one that suggests, in his explanation, "that plural becomes singular, pieces become whole, the individual becomes the collective." What others may call syncretism, we understand from the music on this record as a New World fusion possible only in Trinidad and Tobago, that melting pot society of "languages and experiences; French and African, oppressor and oppressed, colonialism and independence."

In Trinidad, we have created indigenous philosophers. One is reminded of one of Sennon's mentors, LeRoy Clarke's El Tucuche philosophy that articulates the supreme idea of man's metaphoric ascent to El Tucuche—El Aripo, the highest, is the Godhead—from the decrepitude of Douendom to celebrate movement beyond the perceived negativity in the local society. Akinola Sennon, with this album has begun his symbolic definition of his own Cousoumeh philosophy: "Cousoumeh is a period of becoming." Alluding to the local cooking tradition of simmering the pot as the contents “boil down” and impart the myriad flavours to create the new, the pannist has begun a journey of supplanting the notion of the “tossed salad” with a “callaloo.” Both men are suggesting an evolution, or a revolution in this case, in our sound and in our music.

Metaphors aside, this new album also adds to the growing catalogue of jazz fusion records that local artists have been experimenting with for years and have been slowly moving towards the mainstream. The idea of calypso jazz has been part of the local music scene since the beginning of recorded music a century ago. Early local music recordings—some five years before the first jazz record—revel in the improvised performance of instruments to give kalendas, paseos and calypsos a spirit of freedom associated with jazz; freedom from rigid music transcription, freedom to swing. The later codification of the calypso jazz as a definite fusion exercise in the 1960s created influences for musicians that endure still. Sennon comes almost full circle in redefining the "definition of calypso jazz" more so than redefining the genre. In 2016, a new generation of musicians is searching for new pathways to make a sound that we can call our own. Cousoumeh is on the right path.
  1. A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian published as, “The pot bubbling.”

© 2016, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved