The rubbery resonant sound of the “talking drum” can sometimes be distinguished over the percussion while Nigerian band Liberty Jazz performs at the River Hall at Sawy Culture Wheel on Friday.
Closely imitating the intonations of spoken language, talking drums were once used to convey messages over distances. According to the Yoruba belief system in Nigeria, the patterns and rhythms of drums are linked to spirits.
While Liberty jumped into the songs without providing much background, it was still fitting that the talking drum accompanied songs about mythical beings.
Their first song, “Joromi,” was a cover of the number by Nigerian music icon Sir Victor Uwaifo. Originally the name of a warrior from Bini myths, “joromi” has now come to represent the jazzy brass-and-guitars form of music popularized by the Uwaifo.
“Guitar Boy and Mamiwater,” was another song about a spirit. Uwaifo claims he really encountered a “mami water” or mermaid. Hence, the lyrics, “Guitar boy, if you see mami wata, never, never you run away.”
But that was not the impression that Liberty keyboardist and composer Ben Toye had. “If you see the mami water, you better run,” he told Daily News Egypt.
Despite a modest turnout, Liberty Jazz gave a spirited and lively performance. The regular thumping of the percussion and eke — the talking drum — along with the non-stop marching dance of the lead vocalist Ossi kept the audience swaying, and some were even up on their feet.
While the vocalist/marching-dancer Ossi occupied center-stage, it was clearly keyboardist Toye who was in the lead. Having jammed together for around a year, the six-person band first made their debut at Cairo Jazz Club this July.
Toye may not agree with Uwaifo’s advice to musicians to cultivate art rather than wealth. For the upcoming Liberty Jazz, money seems to be a pressing concern, something that speaks louder perhaps than the talking drum.
Music, said Toye, “comes naturally, without tensions, without straining my brain, without stressing my body.”
As music director at a church in Maadi, Toye composes for the choir on a weekly basis. “It’s part of me. It doesn’t take anything to write,” says Toye, who has been playing music for the past 20 years. “It is in the blood.”
While performing “mostly for fun,” there is one aspect that keeps work from being fully liberating.
“Music is not money-fetching in Cairo,” says Toye, “We’re still hoping that things with change.”
The band also earns its keep by playing at many private celebrations. Following a successful audition at the Cairo Jazz Club, it has also played at the venue earlier in July. “It was wow!” said Toye about their gig, and hopes to play at more clubs.
Some Liberty songs — one among them titled “Get up Everybody” — is well suited to a club atmosphere rather than the sit-down comfort of El-Sawy.
“People want to hear the songs they’ve known before,” said Toye, explaining that their repertoire included many popular Nigerian songs.
Introducing another popular Nigerian number by Lagbaja, asking men in the audience if they had heard the refrain of their next song from women, Toye began “Nothing from you.” If so, Toye promised the woman would hear their plaint.
Liberty also sang some original numbers. “Echimeze” springs from a Nigerian proverb, said Toye, “When you use right hand to [discipline] a child, you use left hand to bring him back.”
Save for a sparkle of scatting from Toye, the “jazz” in the band was limited to the keyboard synthesizer and guitars. The vocal talents of Ossi and Toye, it seemed, were not fully exploited. And the powerful mythical background of their songs is not fully explored as Toye categorizes his music as being about “love, encouragement, and cheerfulness.”
Work on an album of their folk jazz is also underway, Toye revealed. The band is also hoping to have more regular gigs rather than “jumping from one club to another.”
If the local scene does not prove fruitful, Toye said the band may be looking to other shores. “Let’s hope Cairo pays well, musically.”
The sound of Liberty has all it takes to earn its keep. While money may do a lot of the talking, one can still hear faint echoes of the talking drum, touched by myth and mystery.
Originally published online at Daily News Egypt on July 25, 2010.