Having a weakness for exotica like non-New Age pan pipes (an affinity implanted upon hearing Urubamba on Paul Simon's LP), zen-inspired shakuhachi, the bells-n-gongs music of people like Alain Kremski and Wolff & Hennings, and suchlike, I always thought the kalimba and mbira were the sort of instruments that could be electrified and provide quite an interesting sound. Well, Chris Berry came to the same realization and has done just that (the mbira pictured in the liner of King of Me is a true work of art), the result enchanting within an Afro-American blues-native context incorporating a number of World factors beautifully. Berry also handles the vocals and then imports a couple of, as he puts it, "smoking singers", and that may well be an understatement, as especially Awa Sangho is compelling and daunting.
There's an interesting story, a grim one I'm sorry to say, behind this, though. Berry is a musical natural and, native to a land infamous for its political turmoil and simultaneously under major biological problems, after establishing himself in a big way with the platinum Panjea group, which had more than a few songs critical of the Robert Mugabe regime, and watching four members die of AIDS while dark clouds gathered politically, he fled to the deepest reaches of the forests wherein dwelt the Bayaka (Pygmy) people, to make music with and learn from them. He emerged from that refuge more the artist than ever before.
Many Have Not ("Many have died / so the rich could have more") is a powerful cut worthy of Bruce Cockburn, a social commentary aimed at the cancer of our time: capitalism (which, actually, doesn't even exist, y'all, is just a euphemism for thievery, but that's an essay for another time and another place). The idea that "We have to make property history" is not a new one, as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon stands testament to, but still a realization that has not hit home as it should, whose time has, regretfully, not yet come. "When the few have it all / and the many have not", how long before worse chaos than capitalism finds its flesh? This haunting question is central to Berry's work as a committed artist.
What he does with his vocal arrangements is mindful of another great music-maker, Joseph Shabalala, though Ladysmith Black Mambazo has nowhere near the socio-political consciousness of Berry. Still…if you dig the smooth soulful refrains of Ladysmith, could never get enough of Marvin Gaye's ambient period, and wondered what might have happened had Stevie Wonder pursued more fully the native undercurrents in his high period, you're going to fall in love with what's brought out in King of Me. More, what informs the protest sentiments is a spirituality just as powerful, and perhaps a shade more realistic, than Shabalala's. Here, though, is the surprise: the CD is just singing, mbira, and percussion, nothing more, though the atmosphere is one of a dreamy concatenation of instruments. As I said earlier, some exotic instruments are capable of much more than what's at first apprehended, and Berry has done for the thumb piano what Les Paul did for the guitar. The fullness of what that means is not realized until this CD is heard.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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