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Safi by Ray Lema and Tyour Gnaoua

Regarding this album, composer/performer Ray Lema enthusiastically states, "My (life-long) dream is to play with traditional musicians without asking them to change. I am the one who must change." It is a fitting way to introduce this work, Lema’s latest effort and collaboration with Tyour Gnaoua (or Gnawa), a traditional performance group originating from the former Sudan and residing in southern Morocco.

The Gnawa’s music is a fusion of traditional African culture and Islam that accompanies ceremonies combining music, ritual, initiation, and healing rights. During a recent celebration of the French occupation of Morocco, Tyour Gnawa was invited to the Continent perform. The Mayor of Paris wanted to spice up one of the performances, so he invited Ray Lema to collaborate with the group. This chance meeting let eventually to the studio and the conception of this CD.

This project also gave Ray Lema a chance to return to his African roots. A gifted pianist, guitarist, and music writer, he was born in Zaire and as a child decided to become a Catholic priest. He spent several years in seminary, where he received keyboard training and exposure to classical piano repertoire. He eventually dropped out of the seminary and began playing guitar with local musicians. His last flirtation with a vocation other than music came in his late teens when, at his parents’ urging, he entered the University and began to study chemistry. But soon, the offers to play ended his studies and he devoted his full attention to music.

Through a variety of circumstances, Ray Lema eventually ended up residing in Paris, where he began to build an extensive discography of artistic collaborations that blend traditional African rhythm with modern harmonies and instrumentation. His associations have included projects with Courtney Pine and Stewart Copeland. Regarding his work with diverse artists, Lema says, "All those meetings, I’ve never tried to provoke them. I just followed what came to me."

It is the Tyour Gnawa group that takes the lead on this CD. Their music, based on traditional forms of chanting and repetition, creates the framework for Lema’s synth and guitar work, much in the same way that other Western collaborators such as Paul Simon have used various types of world music. The Gnawa musicians are present on vocals, a guembri (which resembles a large lute) and crotales, percussion instruments generally represented in Western music as tuned cymbals.

Lema, long with drummer Paco Sery, has created a number of interesting rythmic and harmonic backgrounds for the Gnawa. Lema also accompanies the group through improvisations on electric guitar and keyboard that compliment the overall atmosphere of the recording, and add an effective counterpoint to Tyour Gnawa’s vocals.

Although I found this CD to be pleasurable and relaxing to listen to, as a jazz reviewer I was somewhat unsure of the proper way to describe this music, since it is definitely world music and not a jazz CD in the traditional sense. But aficionados of world music, particularly music based on traditional African rhythms and chants, should find this CD very satisfying.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ray Lema and Tyour Gnaoua
  • CD Title: Safi
  • Genre: World Music
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Tinder Records
  • Rating: Four Stars
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