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21 décembre 2008

Soul Science rocks the Casbah

< Justin Adams (right background), Juldeh Camara (foreground) and Salah Dawson Miller create a mighty groove music on Soul Science. CREDIT: photo Gavin Matheson
John Goodman, North Shore News, Friday, December 12, 2008

Like his idol Joe Strummer, British musician Justin Adams was brought up overseas. A childhood spent in the Middle East gave him a unique perspective and an infinite number of options.

"I just read Strummer's biography," says Adams over the phone from London, grabbing a bite between soundcheck and show. "He was a total hero of mine. And I grew up very much with that Do-It-Yourself punk ethic. I value engagement and passion -- I hate confusing music with sport and showing off virtuosity without emotional content. I just don't see the point of that."

In his own music Adams combines Western rock and blues with African and Islamic traditional influences although it took him awhile to reconcile the different approaches. Going to school in England in the late '70s he was immersed in punk and post-punk culture like everybody else and started playing music during that time. "It was a very creative period," he says. "We were listening to James Brown, Fela Kuti and Public Image Ltd. I kind of forgot about my childhood."

On a trip to Turkey he heard Islamic music for the first time since his childhood and began exploring the exotic, modal sounds of his youth. "I bought myself a couple of Turkish instruments and immediately started incorporating that into my playing," he says. "Often people would say, "Why are you playing those funny scales or what are you doing?' It took a little while before I found any kindred spirits that were into that. I met up with this guy Jah Wobble and he encouraged me. As did Robert Plant further on down the line."

Adams himself is the consummate collaborator. Since the early '90s he's worked with the likes of Sinead O'Connor, Natacha Atlas, Brian Eno, Hector Zazou, Peter Gabriel, Billy Bragg and Tinariwen. For several years he was a member of Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart and more recently he has been guitarist in Robert Plant's Strange Sensations band on and off between other projects.

Plant and Adams encourage each other in their explorations of North and West African music and its connection to American blues. One listen to Led Zeppelin's Kashmir will tell you Plant has known a thing or two about non-Western music for some time. "He was playing Gnoua music and working in Morocco before I ever met him," says Adams. "You can't say I introduced him to those things but I don't think he had worked with an English musician before who was as into it as me. We're like fellow enthusiasts and whenever one of us goes to Barbesse in Paris, where the North Africans live, we always bring each other back a DVD or a CD of music. We enthuse together. A real high point in my life was taking Robert out to the Festival in the Desert and playing together. It really was an incredible thing I still can't quite believe it happened."

To repay the favour Plant introduced his guitarist to Deep South Delta Blues culture while they were on an American tour. "He took me to Clarksdale, Mississippi. We had an incredible time going round and meeting friends of his there, going to juke joints and stuff. Unbelievable."

For more than a decade Adams has been heavily involved in the North and West African music scenes as both a musician and a producer. He's made several albums with the French band Lo'Jo and through them became intstrumental in getting the word out about the brilliant Tuareg band Tinariwen.

There's nothing the least bit stuffy or academic about Adams' musical projects. All traditional sources are respected but they are also only a starting point for further exploration. Everybody at a Justin Adams session is expected to find their place in the mix and groove accordingly.

Gambian spike fiddle player Juldeh Camara is the perfect foil for Adams' unique take on music. Traditional and modern worlds come together on their new album, Soul Science, which was released earlier this year on the World Village label. The duo recorded the album in Adams' home studio with percussionist Salah Dawson Miller sitting in on many of the tracks.

Camara called Adams up out of the blue one day when he was working with Plant. The African musician was working in England and had learned about Adams from a mutual friend. They arranged to meet up but first Adams thought he'd better do some research and be prepared. "I did have a CD of Gambian music which I knew I had and there were particularly some tracks I liked so I went to those looked at the small print on the back of the CD and sure enough it was Juldeh playing on those tracks I'd been listening to for ages. What had attracted me to the tunes is that mixture of trancy, often 6/8 rhythms that you find in Moroccan music. They have that slight pained thing of the blues about them -- they're not sweet, sugary, happy tunes. The overall mood is slightly dark. You know those slightly uneasy notes that come from Islamic music or that you find in the blues. It really attracted me."

Although Camara was known primarily as a traditional musician he had worked on some Western fusion projects before meeting Adams. "I think what is maybe unusual about my approach is that outwardly it's really modern. I mean I'm into all kinds of stuff from Velvet Underground to dub reggae to hip hop and experimental Ornette Coleman and all that but I really like the old African rhythms. I love the subtle swing in them. A lot of people doing, quote 'world music', start with what is basically a 4/4 rock beat and then they add flavours on top but what I' m doing is almost the reverse. My building blocks are pretty traditional and then I'm more liable to use a flavour of rock. You think you're listening to rock music but actually any African musician can play along with it."

Adams prepared a couple of rhythms in advance before meeting up with Camara. "I'd just overdubbed some percussion instruments and I said, 'Do you think you can play to this?' And thank God my years in music taught me to record the first take. Don't think this is just a tryout and we'll do it all properly later -- record the first because you never know what is going to happen. Track one on the album is pretty much (the first thing we played). It might be a second or third take but it's certainly within the first hour of us doing anything together. I'd prepared the rhythm and he just played over the top."

All of the material on the album is credited to Adams and Camara. They constructed the songs in the studio with both written and improvisational sections and recorded them over five days. "Juldeh is a Fulani griot," says Adams. "Griot's are ancestral storytellers of their people who tell oral histories and play all the important ceremonies. It reminds me of what people say when they are analyzing Robert Johnson -- 'There's two lines here you can also find in a Bukka White song -- the second verse has nothing to do with the first verse.' The griot can improvise like a well of sayings and poems and social injunctions and that's what Juldeh's doing. Some of the time it's an actual written song but everything has an improvisatory note to it."

The whole record rocks with a vengeance. As much as Adams defers to Camara, Soul Science, wouldn't have come out the way it did without the British musician pushing the conceptual envelope at every turn. "Having worked with Robert Plant for a few years I wanted to rock," he says. "I've become less scared of rocking out and more into that primal rock'n'roll spirit. Also working with Tinariwen influenced me hugely in that trancy rhythm and that whole approach to guitar playing. I was really primed by those two experiences and I just wanted to do something that was gritty and not too glossy. That's really what I was thinking about."

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