Bamboula 2000 — which is celebrating its 25th anniversary—and David D Omni, a Cuban multi-faceted artist, make the miles between New Orleans and the island nation vanish on their collaborative release Cuba to Congo Square. To achieve this, they didn’t physically share a studio though Bamboula’s founder, leader, percussionist and vocalist Luther Gray and musician and poet Omni, who co-produced the album, do share musical and cultural philosophies. They agree on respecting tradition while incorporating modern styles like hip hop and electronic technology.
“It’s a natural transition,” Gray explains. “Each generation moves it along—it is the evolution of the music.”
The sound of a drum naturally opens the lively title cut, written by Cuban-born Alexey Marti, Gray and rapper Ray Wimley. It lyrically stands as the theme of the CD and the only selection on which Omni wasn’t involved. “The drums speak of struggle and freedom in Cuba and Congo Square—our ancestors’ gift to the world,” sings Gray. “We are the people, we are the rhythm,” a chorus of voices joins in.
Gray first met Omni when a friend brought him to a Sunday afternoon drum circle, an event that is presented weekly by the Congo Square Preservation Society that Gray founded. “We were drumming and he danced like crazy doing these Michael Jackson spins,” Gray remembers with a laugh. “It was love at first sight.”
Omni sat in with Bamboula 2000 at the 2017 Jazz Fest. On Omni’s return in 2018, Gray gave him five CDs that Bamboula had previously released. He took them back to Cuba and by that fall he had remixed 11 tunes from the albums in his studio. They all appear on Cuba to Congo Square. The songs range stylistically from the traditional ambiance of “Way of Peace” by original Bamboula member, dancer and percussionist Jamilah Muhammad and Gray, to the African flavored, electronically enhanced “Drummer Man In Cuba” that gets a modern boost by Omni’s electric guitar.
“Moments of Love,” which first appeared on Bamboula 2000’s album We Got It Goin’ On, receives a total remake when Omni brings in a reggae rhythm, sings the lyrics in Spanish and provides all the instrumentation and effects except for the opening piano. It totally grooves skankin’ style and combines the styles of New Orleans, Cuba and Jamaica. “The man is a genius,” Gray exclaims of Omni, who also produced the graphic designs for the new album. “David creates soundscapes like a movie. He’s censored in Cuba and they [the government] really would like him to move to the United States but he wants to stay in his neighborhood.”
Drums of all sorts and sizes—congas, bata, djembe, dun dun—are core to Bamboula 2000. On the traditional “Kakilambe,” the rhythmic “drum chorus,” which includes original Bamboula member Cameron Woods, is greeted by a trumpet and samplings. Gray describes the song as having “Africa, Cuba and New Orleans stacked on top of each other.”
“The sound and the vibration of the drum are all about healing and communication,” he continues. At drum circles he suggests that the participants think about personal healing. “The feelings that we have in our minds are transferring to our souls and through the drum that vibration is coming to the universe. It brings people together in unity.”
Early on, Gray came to understand the solace that could be achieved by playing a drum. Always having an ear for rhythms, Gray found refuge and direction in his life when at age 16 he got his first conga. After a night of gang-related violence on the streets of Chicago, the teenager was wise enough to know that he should lay low for a while and “armed” himself with the conga and books including Leroi Jones’ “Blues People” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” co-authored by Alex Haley.
“I’m most proud that Bamboula 2000 has been able to continue for 25 years and put out six records,” says Gray adding that the vast majority of the material on the albums was original tunes. “That’s like 60 songs out there and everything was self-produced.”
Bamboula 2000 and the Congo Square Preservation Society have been crucial in elevating the profile of the drumming tradition of Congo Square and its importance in this city’s musical heritage.
“For 30 years we’ve been working to preserve and protect the sacred ground that is Congo Square,” declares Gray who hopes to activate all of Armstrong Park as a cultural center.
Cuba to Congo Square ends on a light, dance-friendly note with “Bamboula Crazy,” that includes electronically produced sounds resembling those of exotic birds flying high and free in a jungle. Their “calls” become a reminder of the importance the drum has played in communication throughout history. As the album’s opening song declares, “The drums speak of struggle and freedom in Cuba and Congo Square.” O
Bamboula 2000 celebrates its 25th anniversary on Sunday, November 3 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Cafe Istanbul and at the newly-combined Congo Square Rhythms Festival/Treme Creole Gumbo Festival on November 17, 2019.