Graded on a Curve: Okonkolo,
Cantos

Brooklyn’s Big Crown label remains primarily known for soul, R&B, and funk both new, and with increasing frequency, in reissued form, but their bag also holds other stylistic treats; there’s the psychedelic rock of Paul & the Tall Trees, the psych-kissed femme-voxed pop-rock of The Shacks, and most interestingly, the Yoruban Santeria music of the New York-based Okonkolo. Led by vocalist and Yoruba Chango priest Abraham “Aby” Rodriguez, the group is powerful of voice, rhythmically strong, and through the contribution of guitarist and producer Jacob Plasse, instrumentally diverse. Blending sounds from Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and NYC, Cantos is a rich treat, out on vinyl and compact disc July 27.

Cantos might just be your first taste of Yoruban Santeria music, though perhaps you were hip to Big Crown’s 2016 release of “Rezos,” Okonkolo’s 10-inch debut. Although I’m fairly well-versed in the label’s wares, that one managed to slip by me, but as all four of the EP’s songs are included on Cantos, catching up is a cinch, and highly advisable; the insight the album provides into the music of the Santeria religion is matched by the depth and beauty in its grooves.

The religion and its music survived the transatlantic slave trade, spreading to Cuba and then through Caribbean immigrants to NYC (notably, Santeria music also has roots in Bahia, Brazil). Okonkolo at once embody this long tradition and build upon it, and in doing so easily transcend the by-now worn platitude of “giving it a contemporary spin.” If you know Yoruban Santeria music, it suffices to say you haven’t heard it like this. Of course, that isn’t an inherently good thing, but thankfully Cantos’ newness avoids both novelty and the predictable.

Along with the singing of Rodriguez, who is joined in that role (and in the Yoruba language) by female counterparts Amma McKen and Jadele McPherson, rhythm is of upmost importance, with the Bata and Coro drums played by Rodriguez, Gene Golden, and Xavier Rivera. This is the root stuff. The elements of stylistic departure (or better said, enhancement) are bass (played by Nick Movshon), guitar (played by Plasse), saxophones, clarinets, trombone, sousaphone, violins, violas, cellos, and organ (deducing from the credits for “Rezos,” in addition to producing, Plasse delivered Cantos its string arrangements).

In opener “Yemaya,” it’s the power of Rodriguez’s voice that’s immediately striking. The breadth of Okonkolo’s artistry unfolds gradually in the track, the strings and guitar initially adding color to the scheme, these ingredients growing in assertiveness as the rhythm carries forth and then rising in intensity to become integral to the landscape. The cut also welcomes a sweet clarinet redirect followed by more horns and some cool bass work as the string section finds a groove and digs in.

“Yemaya” drives home the instrumental fortitude, but “Canto Asoyin” emphasizes the stylistic diversity; as it plays I hear shades of African vocal groups, a touch of doo wop, R&B sax, Nigerian highlife, lightly psychedelic guitar, jazzy clarinet, and a return to vocal group action at the close. “Wolenche Por Chango” served as “Rezos” finale, and with its integration of Caribbean rhythms, string lushness, thoroughly non-hackneyed horn charts, a short drum workout, and additional streams of highlife guitar, it’s use as a closer makes sense. Here, it’s just a highlight.

It’s worth noting that all the way across Cantos, there’s no straining to impress. The strength of the voices is undeniable however, with the script getting flipped and the women taking the lead for both “Oba” (which also sports a killer Latin finish that should trigger a smile in any fan of Fania Records) and “Canto Por Ochun.”

Between those selections, “Ochun” (a different track) features Rodriquez’ singing in tandem with a stunning blend of African, Caribbean, and New York flavors, while “Canto Por Obatala” offers alternating lead voices (and more fine back-and-forth) before giving way to a remarkably arranged instrumental section. For “Obatala” (again, its own track), Rodriquez is back up front, and it’s possibly the disc’s most subtly soulful cut. The pizzicato strings are sweet icing.

In their press release, Big Crown draws connections between Cantos and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ravi Shankar, and Alice Coltrane, the likening not in sound but in intent. But the mention of Shankar got me to thinking about Ravi’s axe. When someone gets the bright idea to lay down a trip-hop beat underneath some sitar playing, even if it’s good (and it almost always isn’t), the act is instantaneously obvious as a combo of old and new. Here, with foreknowledge of Yoruban Santeria music or none, Okonkolo make an organic impression, and that’s a major achievement.

Speaking of Coltrane, “Elegua” includes a few glistening cascades of harp (or at least string gestures resembling the instrument), further expanding the sonic diversity in Cantos’ closing spot. It solidifies a brilliant effort by Okonkolo and deepens Big Crown’s already impeccable track record.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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