Jazzing it up at London's Southbank

Cutting-edge jazz music filled the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank in central London for one day only at the end of July, bringing together emerging and more established talent from across Britain.

Kokoroko - young Afrobeat Collective performing
at Jazz Re:Fest 2016 © MisBeee Writes
I am not a fan of jazz but the exposition gave me a new appreciation of the musical form and how diverse it has become.

Jazz Re:Fest 2016 is in its fourth year and is the brainchild of Jazz Re:Refreshed duo Justin McKenzie and Adam Moses.

Eight live acts performed in total, drawing on influences from West Africa, and using everything from the cello to futuristic piano compilations, all interlaced with DJ interludes.
Jazz is one of the musical forms that I can never firmly put my finger on when attempting to come up with a single definition. Its roots are clearly African-American, tied up with America’s often divisive social and political past (and present). It embodies progression and invention in a way that keeps it relevant, which is probably why it draws such a diverse mix of fans.

Sunday 31 July was no exception, it seemed everyone from all walks of life was at the Festival Hall's Clore Ballroom.... from the grey-haired bohemian woman who started dancing solo when the acts were rehearsing to the young Chinese guy who whooped and clapped with such gusto at every performance (you can hear him on the YouTube clip here).

My favourite band was the opening young Afrobeat collective Kokoroko which tore through their set, bringing the ballroom alive with their mix of brass instrumentals, singing and the familiar use of the cow bell. Maybe I was drawn to them because of those familiar West African beats or maybe it is the name Kokoroko….

In Akan, the word means ‘almighty’ and is typically associated with an appellation to God. The word has spawned a number of songs in Ghana, including Bernice Offei’s gospel classic ‘Nyame Kokoroko’.

 But for the Kokoroko collective, the name has its roots in the Urhobo language of southern Nigeria and means 'be strong'. I wonder if there is a connection somewhere......

The collective is fronted by three women  – Richie Seivwright, Sheila Maurice-Grey, Cassie Kinoshi – and backed by a guitarist, percussionist and bass players. During the performance there were some outstanding solo performances including a powerful display from saxophonist Kinoshi.
The collective’s first song inadvertently paid homage to Ghana as their rendition of ‘Kai Wawa’ - a traditional Hausa war chant sung to motivate soldiers - got people in the hall moving. The Hausa people are found across much of West Africa including modern-day Ghana and Nigeria. The song was performed by the Mercury Dance Band, who hailed from Kade in the Eastern Region of Ghana in 1973, and was released by Aduana Records, according to musical archive ‘Ghana Special – Modern Highlife Afro-Sounds & Ghanaian Blues 1968-1981.

After a musical interlude from DJ Steve Austin, the musical flavour became much more futuristic with the Ashley Henry Trio - a three-piece piano, string and drum ensemble led by pianist Ashley Henry. Henry's persona reminded me of Schroeder in the Charlie Brown cartoon simply because he seemed so consumed by his music and at times appeared to be unaware of his surroundings.

Henry's dexterity on the piano was clear as was the skill of the cellist and drummer that backed him. But at times I felt like they were playing to themselves only, and I struggled to follow the pace and arrangement of their performances. This left me feeling less of a participant and more of an onlooker.

Orchestral R'n'B
In keeping with the cello theme, 2012-nominated Ayanna Witter-Johnson entered the stage, injecting a fresher energy to proceedings and pushing the boundaries of jazz fusion further. The multi-talented songwriter and composer describes her sound as o
rchestral R 'n' B vibes and it is easy to see why. Her songs are rich in rhythm and soul, and she has a unique way of playing her cello. Instead of just making long strides with her bow on the strings, she make short and sharp angled movements or simply plucks the strings with her fingers. Witter-Johnson ended her set with an up-lifting song 'Rise up', which culminated in local choirs joining her on the stage.

Other performers included Robert Mitchell's Panacea who introduced some spoken word to his performance; the band - Native Dancer - which provided acoustic instrumentals, synthesizers and sampling to their set. Mark de Clive Lowe, who has Japanese and New Zealander heritage, added a dance party flavour to the event, while 2015 MOBO award-winning jazz act Moses Boyd introduced some jazz drumming to the proceedings. Last but not least, Taltham Mensah Lord & Ranks showcased a series of arrangements celebrating the essence of jazz. 

Fighting leukaemia
My summary of the event would not be complete without drawing your attention to the work of the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust (ACLT) and the impassioned speech by co-founder ACLT Orin Lewis whose son Daniel De-Gale eventually received a stem cell transplant after a long wait, giving him nine extra years before he lost his battle with the disease in 2008.  He had to wait long because the number of donors from people originating from Africa, Asia and those of mixed parentage are woefully low. The charity is working to increase these numbers, so check out a snapshot of his talk below. 

And to see some of the jazz performers I have mentioned above, check out this short compilation here .

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