Recorded 2003 and 2004
at "Bugge's Room"
Mixed at "7. Etasje"
Mastered at "Lydlab"
Norwegian pianist Jon Balke's new band, Batagraf, is named for, according to Balke himself, the Latin verb "battere": beat and graph, meaning "writer or writing." Given that there are four percussionists in this band - five if you include Balke himself on occasional beat-mongering - all of who had been introduced to Cuban bata drums (which originated in the African Yoruba tradition), where drums and voices were synched and intuitive across a circle of players and poems, stories and other speech patterns were emulated and recited. Great idea. Balke has been looking outside jazz and even improvised jazz norms for a while now. This set employs the drummers, electronic keyboards, sound processing, saxophone, trumpet, and four vocalists either singing, chanting, or reciting poetic texts. Sounds abstract, right? Yep. Even so, it is so earthy, so utterly rhythm-driven, even somewhat curmudgeonly jazzheads would be moving their feet as they complained about its postmodern approach. Frode Nymo's saxophone playing is utterly from the Ornette Coleman school of improvising - where the saxophone uses song structures to play its part in the group dynamic. The drumming lends itself to progression and travel from within, as well as from without. Traditions blur and blend as vocals, texts, and horns enter and leave. Balke's keyboards are more atmospheric than improvisatory. They are informed by the drums and direct and paint the energy from there within the ensemble. Since most of the vocals are not in English, they too become extensions of the timeless rhythmic flow. This recording is magical, brave, and unconcerned with anything but the joy of performance. There is no deep thought at work, but there is plenty of deep feeling in these grooves. Balke is pointing in brave new directions here by using the past to create a present future tense that melds as it moves forward.
- Thom Jurek (All Music Guide)
"Drumming, drumming... just for the joy of it" - and much more besides.
Batagraf was launched in Oslo in 2002 as a "private research forum" rather than "a band", with four drummers plus Jon Balke - on percussion - exploring a more flexible approach to rhythm playing which might "bypass the metric, rigid grooves of the computer age". Just a group of friends working on musical problems in rehearsal rooms and around coffee tables: "No gigs booked and no plans or ambitions other than to understand more," as Jon Balke explains. With the introduction of bata drums - from Cuba via the Nigerian Yoruba tradition - Balke and friends began thinking about the question of how a message can be encapsulated in sound: West African tradition holds that bata drummers were able to recite poems, prayers and sermons literally, sharing syllables between the group of drums used for this devotional practice. Balke: "The idea triggered the project in two directions: the inclusion of literal meaning in the sound itself and focus on the rhythm and musicality of spoken language."
"All this happened against the backdrop of the Iraq War and the use and abuse of language in media and propaganda added to the understanding that language is a huge and ever-changing landscape. On its borders, music begins."
The priority, then, is to reintroduce meaning, poetry and fluency into rhythmic ideas. On "Statements", some well-known associate Batagrafers - Sidsel Endresen, Miki N'Doye, Arve Henriksen - all make colourful contributions, but the core is the ensemble comprising the four drummers plus Balke plus young Norwegian saxophonist Frode Nymo.
"Batagraf takes its name from the Latin verb battere - beat and graph, meaning, writer or writing. Thus, one may deduce a will to strike the wordless poetry of the sound-waves, to hammer phonetics in the open air, to write the sound waves in beating" - Jon Balke.
Out of a "deep respect" for the bata tradition and its practitioners, Balke and company make no attempt to duplicate "this noble form of music": "The only link is the setting, people gathering in a circle to explore the universe of sound".
The drummers "drumming for the joy of it" are from different backgrounds. Helge Andreas Norbakken and Kenneth Ekornes have both been associated with Sami singer Mari Boine. Ingar Zach is recognized as one of the important young drummers on the free improvised music scene (his discography includes recordings with Derek Bailey, Philipp Wachsmann, Jim O'Rourke, Barry Guy) - and he and Norbakken are both members of Balke's Magnetic North Orchestra (refer to the riveting "Diverted Travels"). Harald Skullerud plays with Niko Valkepaa and Solo Cissokho, and has a long and proven affinity with African music.
Jon Balke made his ECM debut in 1975, as pianist with Arild Andersen's group. He was a founder member of Masqualero and the leader/composer/arranger of Oslo 13 before founding Magnetic North. He has long been recognized as one of Scandinavia's most original musical thinkers. He emphasizes that Batagraf is not "his" band but a real collective. "The 'Statements' CD is definitely my production, but Batagraf remains more a forum than my personal art music project. It will continue to be a flexible, constantly changing constellation that might work with a poet one day, a children's choir the next, in the theatre the next day and so on. It will also work without my participation."
On Statements "Batagraf" often feels like an environment to be entered. The listener is invited into a world of sound inside the circle of drums. Miki N'Doye's text recital - in Wolof - is a call for peace in a language that seems "musical" to uncomprehending Western ears - especially when interlaced with Nymo's sax. Noises of the street, the forest and the media overlap. Birds call, frogs croak, a baby gurgles contentedly. Balke: "A Brazilian woman shouts everyday phrases, but her words are processed in mid-sentence." Is there a message in the intonation of the spoken phrases? Is the intent behind spoken phrases, a message that speaks by itself? Vocal percussion becomes news-broadcasts. News clips, newspeak from the media in context with bata drums beating, citations of politicians' speeches, time-stretched into abstraction, becoming percussion, figures that develop into a song..."