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Rafiki Jazz Rafiki Jazz
Album: Saraba Sufiyana
Label: Konimusi
Tracks: 8

The tree that is Rafiki Jazz may be growing in the UK, but the nine musicians in the band have roots that spread across the world, The Middle East, India, West Africa, South America and Europe. Powered by a rich personal archive of new and revisited heritage songs, poems and devotional texts and following on from 2017's phenomenal HAR DAM SAHARA, this is the fourth Rafiki Jazz album. SARABA SUFIYANA translates as Mystic Utopia: if this makes it sound overly cerebral and worthy, then crucially while thoughtful and reflective it is also music of the spirit and full of life, dance, emotion and laughter.

"Su Jamfata" opens with Kadialy Kouyate's light as air, sparkling kora, which soon twines with Mina Mikhail Salama's ney flute and oud. The music is sublime but the power in this song of home with its imagery of hardship and beauty is in the twining of stories and voices as Kadialy's Mandinka, Avital Raz's Hebrew and Sarah Yaseen's Urdu all sing of home. "Azadi" has a very West African groove with the kora and Tony Koni's rock solid bass. The lyrics, mystical folk music, deal with truth-seeking with Avital and Sarah urging us on whilst Vijay Venkat's masterful violin soars. Rafiki Jazz's mastery is in the arranging and blending instruments so that with repeated listens different elements shine through. "Chad Gadya" is a slow build piece, allowing you to marvel at the layering and building of instruments. Sarah and Avital have very different voices apart, but together for some of the lyrics, they blend beautifully on this Aramaic Hebrew tale of a goat and its downward spiral. Beautiful too is Mina's atmospheric oud playing. Hearing Hariprasad Chaurasia's sublime bansuri flute on Zakir Hussain's perfect 1987 MAKING MUSIC album as an open eared art student, then again on the 1967 CALL OF THE VALLEY album was life affirming and life changing for me, and whilst CALL OF THE VALLEY was a day in the life of a Kashmir shepherd, "Kashmiri Lullaby / The Waulk / Hukus Bukus" is an episodic track bringing together a Gaelic waulking song and a Sufi Lullaby. The effect is by turns hypnotic and meditative. The track opens with Vijay's bansuri flute in twisting flight with those flourishes and runs and I'm back there with Hariprasad. Avital's sublime vocal and tanpura add another layer of beautiful mist. The masterstroke is the twisting in of guest Kaitlin Ross' Gaelic vocal and Sarah's Urdu to create a enveloping lullaby of voices and of languages that is just perfection. International mouth music if you like, leading a hypnotic dance with Tony's bass providing a skanking twist. "Chitta Kukar" is a beautiful marriage, a wedding song sung by Sarah Yaseen and a meeting of Kashmiri and Mandinka music with Kadialy's kora accompanying her. "Eshet Chayil" is a dance with Mina's oud and Avital's singing demanding you move to the compelling rhythm. "Cajueiro" is a joyous surprise in the musical journey that is Rafiki Jazz. Inspired by Brazillian Portuguese slave era chant, the track opens with the evocative berimbau (triggering another 1980's memory trip into unclassifiable albums by Brazilian musician and vocalist Nana Vasconcelos), some jazz fusion steel pans and stunning vocals from Juan Gabriel Gutierrez and Sarah, delivering another intoxicating musical trip. Reminding that the whole world is shot with the rich and exotic, the final track "My Heart My Home" opens with "Shallow Brown", an English sailors song. Vocals by the Sheffield Folk Harmony Collective (Nancy Kerr, Sam Carter, Marilla Homes and Greg Russell), Avital Raz, Sarah Yaseen and the eerie throat and overtone singing from Juan Gabriel deliver the musical equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet as "Shallow Brown" blends into "Light Of Guidance" and the spiritual "Settlers Wife". The effect is intoxicating, uplifting and an expansive reminder of how many people separated by language and culture are all on the same journey and share the same concerns and goals. This album is consistently a stunning rollercoaster ride through lyrical, musical and vocal soundscapes, arranged and spun together to create something truly wonderful that manages to be informative and uplifting. Getting this down to one preview track was a real struggle. It didn't feel like I was choosing one as much as leaving out seven more. Listen to the preview track, check out the rest in the same place, then buy the album and support vital, affirming music. Producer Tony Bowring's Konimusic label has the tagline crossing frontiers and this is no fanciful or idle boast.

Marc Higgins