Jazz-World Ensemble AJOYO To Release War Chant on May 22nd on the new Shems Records label, spearheaded by AJOYO bandleader/multi-reedist Yacine Boularès
Special guests: vibraphonist Joel Ross, trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, vocalists Akie Bermiss and Vuyo Sotashe
Celebrated bandleader and multi-reedist Yacine Boularès is excited to present War Chant, the second release by the spell-binding jazz-world ensemble AJOYO. 2015’s critically acclaimed self-titled debut AJOYO graced audiences with a vibrant eclecticism and social consciousness unparalleled in the jazz idiom. All About Jazz notes “the music exudes sophistication yet responds to a primordial pulse.” War Chant brings the same aural celebration of joy and life into a more focused call to action in the name of social and racial justice. The compositions on this release take aim at the oppression, xenophobia and greed that are running rampant in modern day America, combatting the lies and corruption being spewed from the Trump administration with an honest and refreshing musical diatribe. Boularès says: “Exposing people to our worlds and our own immigration stories develops empathy, regardless of their political views.” Alongside saxophonist/bandleader Yacine Boularès, the album features a deeply attuned working lineup with vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles, keyboardist/producer Jesse Fischer, bassist Kyle Miles (formerly with Marcus Strickland’s Twi-Life), guitarist Michael Valeanu (formerly with Cyrille Aimée) and drummer Philippe Lemm. War Chant will be released on May 22nd on Boularès’ Shems Record Label.
War Chant sees an invigorating and empowering chemistry between band members and a list of esteemed featured artists. Boularès calls upon the very frontline of modern jazz to join with him in celebration and protest. The explosive rising-star vibraphonist and Blue Note recording artist Joel Ross makes a cutting appearance on “Syzygy,” while trumpeter Takuya Kuroda lends his brassy assurance on “Assyko,” Lake Street Dive vocalist/keyboardist Akie Bermiss lays down stone soul on “Jojo’s Groove” and South Africa’s Vuyo Sotashe sings movingly alongside Charles on the poignant “Better Love.”
Celebrity Café has praised AJOYO’s melding of “old-world Cameroonian beats with traditional jazz themes,” Those energies, and a continuous creative evolution, are evident again on War Chant, which opens with the cathartic title track aimed squarely at Trump’s misrule.
“Assyko,” according to Boularès, is named for a Cameroonian rhythm and intended to evoke “pure joy and celebration of Roy Hargrove. The bridge and the effect on Takuya’s trumpet are a reference to Roy’s tune ‘Strasbourg/St. Denis.’” “Somber Joy,” based on a Moroccan chaabi rhythm, is “a reflection on mental illness, love and addiction.” “Same” is an attempt “to understand the psychological process that leads to xenophobia.”
With Joel Ross’s riveting sound and improvising prowess to animate it, the drum machine-driven “Syzygy” takes AJOYO into more electronic, abstract dance-oriented terrain. The title is a reference to “alignment of people, ideas, events,” as Boularès puts it. “Invitation” is another variation of the Cameroonian Assyko rhythm, originally a Boularès instrumental that Charles chose to adapt as a lyrical interpretation of Baudelaire’s poem “Invitation au Voyage.” And “Jojo’s Groove,” with its compelling Akie Bermiss vocal, was inspired by Jojo Kuo, former Fela Kuti drummer who took Boularès and Michael Valeanu under his wing in their early days as New Yorkers, nurturing their musical personalities on gigs at Zinc Bar. “This tune was in the works since then, but with Sarah we sat down and decided to work on lyrics celebrating Jojo. When he left New York he gave me a few gigs and said, ‘Do your own thing.’ And that’s how we started AJOYO. So this is a tribute to the guy who unwittingly got the band together.”
“Sleep,” with its electronic pulse, synth textures, bass clarinet murmurings, subtle guitar chords and all-around colorful sonics, is based on a groove by AJOYO’s former drummer Guilhem Flouzat (now living back in France). “The way it’s accented makes it really interesting and tricky to hear,” Boularès says. “Guilhem sent me the pattern and I wrote a song over it. We went again for the drum machine sound, more of an ambient aesthetic.” And “Better Love,” based on the Benskin rhythm from Cameroon, finds Charles paired with South Africa’s Vuyo Sotashe in a song asserting the need for independence within a relationship.
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Boularès and Charles began working together in 2009 soon after Boularès arrived in New York, though the founding of AJOYO came later. “We happen to have very similar immigration stories,” says the saxophonist. “Sarah is American and Haitian, and it’s through music that she has maintained a relationship with Haiti. I’m French Tunisian, and although I grew up between Tunis and Paris, it’s through music that I’ve put back together the pieces of my fragmented identity. I also have strong ties with the Haitian community as the saxophonist in Tabou Combo for the past six years. That’s had a huge influence, traveling with them to Mozambique, Cape Verde, all over the Caribbean. They’re pioneers, exploring uncharted territory. The grooves and structures are very complex and sophisticated, and that really influenced my compositional process — keeping track of many different parts, thinking about the arc of the song, the dramaturgy.”
In addition to his work with AJOYO, Boularès founded the first contemporary Arabic culture festival at Joe’s Pub in New York, coming in October 2020. He is a Fulbright Laureate, a grantee of the Brooklyn Arts Council and the Arab Fund for Culture and the Arts, and a recipient of the 2015 & 2019 French American Jazz Exchange (for his album Abu Sadiya with Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits). In November he took AJOYO on a brief tour of the American South supported by South Arts — the type of engagement that has fostered intra-band dialogue on how to make a stand and call out injustice without alienating an audience.