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The New Cool: Duende Libre bring African elements to their globally inspired modern jazz

Photo courtesy of Lune Studio
Seattle's Duende Libre (l-r: Farko Dosumov, Frank Anderson, Chava Mirel, Jeff Busch, Alex Chadsey)

Seattle's Duende Libre unveiled their new album The Dance She Spoke this summer. This time around, the group's pan-global musical influences have expanded to include West African rhythms. In the process, the band is becoming a more fully realized product of their own unique style.

I spoke with Duende Libre's keyboardist and composer Alex Chadsey this week about the new album, the richness of rhythmic traditions, and the complications of honoring and loving music of other cultures.

The Dance She Spoke emphasizes Duende Libre's love of rhythm more than ever. Jeff "Bongo" Busch breaks out his percussion arsenal, and the band welcomes Seattle's favorite Senegalese drummer, Thione Diop, on three songs.

Frank Anderson is the driving force behind the inclusion of traditional music of West Africa. He's learned the songs and rhythms firsthand from master teachers on his many trips to the region. Along with that critical, direct connection to this culture, Anderson also shows off his powerful singing voice on most of the album, often in harmonies with singer and Duende Libre regular Chava Mirel.

Chadsey says the band has been inspired by their collaborations with Anderson since 2018. "We asked him to play our album release show for (previous album) Drift, and pretty soon he was in the band," Chadsey said, with a laugh.

He notes that bandmate Mirel had been studying African drum and dance with Anderson, and suggested a collaboration. "Then (drummer) Jeff got excited," Chadsey says, "and we ended up starting that album release show with one of Frank's rhythms that we ended up recording for this album."

"We never planned to do an album like this," Chadsey says. "It’s a new direction for us, but also a continuation of what we’d been doing prior — taking rhythms from Brazil, Cuba… North America — and then interpreting those in our own way. It’s always been in our DNA as a band, we all share a fascination and a commitment to the groove. This album was a natural extension of that. We’re exploring another branch of the tree.”

Chadsey says the results of their jam sessions were immediately fruitful. “People got excited about the music, we were too, and we started incorporating those rhythms. Before you know it, we have enough material for an album,” he explains.

Anderson's deep knowledge of the music of Mali and the Republic of Guinea led to jamming with Duende Libre on traditional songs from the Hamana, Khasso and Wassoulou regions. These new interpretations also include lyrics sung in the Maninka language.

The album cover for Duende Libre's latest.
Credit Cover art by Jeff Busch

You don’t need to understand the words to enjoy the scintillating musical quality they have. “I also don’t understand a lot of the lyrics,” Chadsey admits, "but they really lend themselves to these rhythms, and they’re catchy.”

Complicated issues can result in a Seattle band playing African music, and a less-aware group might find themselves accused of cultural appropriation. Chadsey sees an important distinction: “A descendent is a cultural insider, born and raised or descended from that culture. A disciple is essentially a student. We see ourselves as disciples. We’re paying homage.”

“There’s a value to that,” Chadsey explains. “It’s an opportunity to educate people about the music and where it comes from, and who it represents.”

Music was meant to share, and music and dance is the most natural way to engage with other cultures. “Ultimately, people respond viscerally. They stamp their foot, they dance, they become part of the music.”

Thione Diop adds "descendent" credibility to the music, and though his parts were overdubbed at the end of the recording process, his contributions were vital. “I could see he was really listening. Everything he did — it was almost uncanny — everything else (we played) worked better… like reverse engineering!” Chadsey said.

The band has moved in a new musical direction with The Dance She Spoke. The result, though, is just more of what makes this band Duende Libre. Chadsey: “It’s an evolution. It’s the expression of this last chapter that began with meeting Frank.”

In a departure from West African tradition on the album, guitarist Jimmy James lends his impeccable soul-funk chops to Frank Anderson's politically charged blues "You Gotta Go." A potent and energized moment of musical activism, Chadsey told me it was another example of their passion for music that can make change in the world.

Chadsey's own beautiful compositions, "Hush (Dawn)" and "Hush (Twilight)" bookend the album with the trio in the spotilight. Dosumov's bass and Busch's drums both doubling as strong rhythm section partners and impressive soloists.

In the ninth month of the pandemic's crushing impact on live music, Chadsey says Duende Libre is optimistic for the future. Expect more virtual performances in the immediate future, but you can bet these globe-trotting modern jazz virtuosi are ready to hit the road as soon as possible to celebrate The Dance She Spoke with friends and fans worldwide.

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.