Djembe master Weedie Braimah will be on stage at the Jazz Fest with trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, trombonist/trumpeter Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, percussionists Alexey Marti and Bill Summers and the Trumpet Mafia. At least those are the artists he recalls he’ll be performing with—there could very well be others. Those hip to Braimah’s enthusiasm to play and his skill at adapting to an array of styles know he’s liable to turn up anywhere.
“I’ve always wanted to bridge the gap between African music in Africa and African music in America,” says Braimah, who was born in Ghana, raised in East Saint Louis and has been residing in the Crescent City for the last two years. “I tell people if you go to New Orleans, you can see it. African music is alive in the culture. It’s very New Orleans but it’s definitely African as well. I can’t separate the two. I always like to integrate those families back together again.”
In many regards, on moving to New Orleans, Braimah reignites the deep drum tradition that rages on the maternal side of his family. His mother, Ann Morris, who married Ghanaian drummer and composer Oscar Sulley Braimah, was a jazz drummer and the daughter of the renowned Weedy Morris who played drums behind luminaries such as Illinois Jacquet and Oscar Peterson.
“Out of all of Weedy’s children, only one was a musician and that was my mother,” Braimah points out. “And the one instrument that she picked up was the instrument that her father was known for.”
There’s a telling quote in the autobiography of Braimah’s uncle, drum ace Idris Muhammad, The Life of Idris Muhammad, about the young, then-named-Leo Morris attending his first day at McDonogh #6. The music teacher asked him, “Are you a Morris?” and on Leo’s reply, he led him to the band room and then pointing, said “There are the drums.”
Unfortunately, Weedie and Idris only played together once in East Saint Louis when the djembe player was just 14 years old, though already an accomplished professional. They met again on the street on a Carnival Day in the early 2000s when Muhammad masked Indian with the Congo Square Nation led by Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. The two kept in touch with big plans to put together a group that reflected their family’s African and jazz traditions. Muhammad died in 2014 before their dreams could be realized.
Braimah, who was named after his grandfather though the spelling differs, began playing drums at age two. A natural, he’s definitely in that number when it comes to carrying on the Morrises’ huge reputation as drummers.
Artists like those named above and others such as trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the group Tank and the Bangas, with whom he’s recorded, were quick to pick up on Braimah’s talent and his special approach to each musical situation.
“It’s unique because they want me to bring the African element to what they’re bringing to the music,” Braimah explains. “Especially Christian [Scott], he’s very open to African music and the folklore as well as implementing the African tradition as it reached New Orleans and connecting the two identities. He wants to be able to make that relationship come about on stage. It makes sense because it’s just making everything come full circle.”
“I’m not necessarily playing djembe licks,” he continues. “I’m able to create a new sound that the djembe brings to the music and what makes it a melodic instrument as well.”
Braimah plays other West African instruments other than the djembe, of which he has several. “Wow,” he replies, and then laughs when asked just how many are in his collection. “I just brought back four more.”
All his djembes were made in Africa with traditional native wood and rope turns. He’s also heard on the Batá drum and Cuba’s extension of the African drum family, congas. During Jazz Fest, Braimah will lead his own band, Weedie Braimah & the Hands of Time, at a late-night show on Sunday, April 29 at the Blue Nile and Saturday, May 5 at the Music Box. He describes the ensemble’s music as telling his “own story—both sides of his family”—and how African and djembe music has evolved. His “djembe orchestra” takes the place of a drum set in the group that includes a kora, bass, guitars and horns. People might recognize some of the members as coming from the New Orleans based band, the Fufu All-Stars. Flying in from Paris is the renowned balaphon and n’goni musician Adama Bilorou.
Braimah does sing though he confesses he can only sing in traditional West African languages. “Singing in English for me, I sound like a stuffed chicken,” he laughingly admits.
When Braimah talks of his goal of bringing the African music in Africa and the African music in America together as a way of understanding their relationship and evolution, his words sound similar to how he describes his mother’s aims.
“When she met my father, she was learning a lot about integrating the drum set with African music—highlife, afrobeat. He was like the missing piece that was gone.”
Weedie Braimah continues exploring and connecting the diaspora that remains central to his life and music.
ALEXEY MARTI: FRIDAY, APRIL 27—WWOZ JAZZ TENT, 1:35 P.M.
CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH: FRIDAY, APRIL 27—WWOZ JAZZ TENT, 2:50 P.M.
TRUMPET MAFIA: SATURDAY, APRIL 28—WWOZ JAZZ TENT, 12:15 P.M.
TROMBONE SHORTY & ORLEANS AVENUE: SUNDAY, MAY 6—ACURA STAGE, 5:45 P.M.