When Jeff Klein went to Africa for the first time in January this year, after playing African drums all over the United States for more than 20 years (Klein’s originally from Coney Island in New York), he experienced culture shock—but not the kind you might expect when traveling to one of the poorest countries on earth. It wasn’t the poverty that stunned him, it was the richness of the culture and the deep, joyous respect for music—his music—which was greater than anything he’d imagined.
“They were so, so happy to receive me,” Klein remembers. “I arrived in this village and they immediately started playing music in my honor. I’d never experienced that before, not ever, and the support was more than anything I’ve felt here, honestly. The culture shock was so heavy that when I came back, I didn’t even go out of my house for a week.”
Jeff Klein started Africa Brass seven years ago. The group now consists of five illustrious players: Mario Abney on trumpet; Troi Bechet on vocals; Jake Gold on piano; Owen Callahan on sax, clarinet and fulani flute; and Jeff Klein on drums. Six years in a row, Africa Brass has applied to play at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and six times, the band has been turned down. If you’re curious about the Africa Brass sound, you’ll need patience as well. There are no planned local performances at the moment.
”I’ve asked around about gigs to sort of welcome us back after our Mali trip this December,” Klein says. ”The best I got was a ‘maybe.’ But people don’t have to give us gigs. They can hire whomever they want. I have no animosity. This is just how the music business is. So we don’t have any gigs before we leave, and we don’t have any when we come back.”
As a fellow band leader, Abney (of Mario Abney & The Abney Effect) knows how hard it is to keep a band together without steady gigs—especially when the material is new and challenging and requires musicians to show up to many unpaid rehearsals.
”You can create gigs for yourself, but there are financial demands that you have to satisfy for the musicians that you hire,” Abney says. ”I’m in the same boat as Jeff right now with my group. Sometimes you can only do what you can do. This gig is feast to famine sometimes.”
”Playing this music takes a lot of preparation,” Klein continues. ”It’s not a songbook that every jazz musician knows. Almost every song we do, most musicians do not know how to play it. It takes extra work.”
When Jeff Klein traveled to Mali in January it was by invitation from the Danish government that was putting on a festival in Bamako, the capital of Mali, for young bands. Once there, he met the chairman of the local music conservatory, Souleymane Dembele, who’d helped put together Mali music at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival a long time ago.
”I didn’t even know this when I met him,” Klein says. ”I invited him to come back to New Orleans to stay with me for a month and Africa Brass played with him at the Congo Square Festival this year. He was so impressed by our local jazz scene that he went back and said, ‘We have to do a jazz festival here in Bamako.’ And he put it all together and we were lucky to get invited to play. So our audience may really be in Africa. It may be in France, or in Europe. We’re about to find out.”
Other than Klein, no one in the band has been to Africa before.
”We’re honored to make this connection back to Africa,” singer Troi Bechet says. ”It’s been on my bucket list. My husband [Ron Bechet, Art Department Chair at Xavier University] has been several times, but I’ve never been. And to be there performing, in a place of my ancestors, is the pinnacle. There’s a spiritual connection with this music that I’ve not felt singing classical and R&B and jazz—gospel, yes—but it’s almost indescribable. This is what I love performing with Africa Brass. The fact that we connect African music with jazz and local, New Orleans-based music.”
Abney, originally from Chicago, agrees:
”I’ve never been to the motherland before, so I’m very excited. New Orleans is really my port to Africa. As a person of African descent, I’m going to get a chance to feel different vibrations, and I look forward to fusing that with my own musical interpretations. If you listen to Dizzy Gillespie or some of the other trumpet players who traveled the world, how it influenced them on their musical journeys. Dizzy wrote ‘A Night in Tunisia.’ Maybe I’ll write ‘Two Weeks in Bamako.’”
In Bamako this December, Africa Brass will perform with two Mali musicians, Mariam Koné and Cheick Tidiane Seck (who Klein describes as the Duke Ellington/Stevie Wonder of Africa), who also headlines the Apollo on December 5. The band is currently raising money to be able to bring instruments with them to give as gifts to local music schools.
”They barely have enough to teach their students,” Klein says. ”The guitar strings they use are from China and they break after playing one time. They can’t get anything decent.”
”It’s tragic,” Bechet continues. ”This is the place where this music came from, and these people are now struggling to get the things that allow them to continue this music.”
One trip at a time, Africa Brass hopes to change that. To donate, go to youcaring.com and search for ”Africa Brass.”