Thursday, April 26, 2007
It’s a long, long way from Chicago to Casablanca, but Southside-raised trumpeter Khalil Shaheed and Moroccan-born multi-instrumentalist Yassir Chadly have created the perfect vehicle to bring their musical worlds together.
While Chadly grew up playing traditional string instruments like the gimbri and Arabic lute known as an oud, Shaheed started his career backing blues great Buddy Guy and hanging out with Jimi Hendrix. The Mo’Rockin Project reflects both of their musical upbringings, seamlessly weaving together nostalgic North African melodies, jazz improvisation and surging soul horn charts. The results, captured on the 2006 album >>Sahaba (Companions), is one of the most powerfully realized cross-cultural collaborations in recent years.
“Both of us are diving into the melody itself, forgetting ourselves, just thinking about the melodies and how to work them out together,” said Chadly during a recent interview with Shaheed at a Berkeley cafe.
Mo’Rockin performs on Saturday at CSUMB’s World Theater as part of the Ninth Annual Heritage Music Festival. This year’s event is a tribute to New Orleans, and sharing the bill with the Mo’Rockin Project is the brilliant New Orleans clarinetist/composer Alvin Batiste, an avant garde patriarch who has influenced several generations of musicians. He performs with the Jazzstronauts, featuring bassist Max Moran, pianist Conun Pappas, drummer Joseph Dyson, and his wife, spoken-word artist Edith Batiste.
In addition to Shaheed’s clarion trumpet and Chadley’s vocals and oud, Mo’Rockin brings together some of the finest jazz, blues and traditional North African musicians on the West Coast, including pianist Glen Pearson, bassist Ron Belcher, drummer Deszon Claiborne, Bouchaid Abdelhadi on oud, violin and dumbek (frame drum), and powerhouse saxophonist Richard Howell, who also co-produced the album with Shaheed.
In many ways, Mo’Rockin fulfills a lifelong musical dream for Chadly. Growing up in Casablanca, he was weaned on traditional Moroccan music, which is woven in the fabric of everyday life. At just about any family gathering or social occasion, drums are hauled out to accompany call and response vocals as part of the celebration. A child of the 1960s, he also soaked up the sounds of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd, while also hearing a good deal of European classical music on the radio. Even at an early age, he realized that while he could perform Western music on the oud, European musicians couldn’t join him playing Moroccan melodies.
Chadly moved to the United States in 1977, and settled in the Berkeley area the following year, drawn to the region by its cultural diversity and open-minded atmosphere. As his musical reputation spread, he became a highly valued resource, hired to compose and perform Moroccan themes for Alonzo King’s Line Ballet and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
He’s been most sought after in jazz circles, where he’s recorded and performed with masters such as pianist/composer Randy Weston, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, alto sax conceptualist Steve Coleman and most recently Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. But it’s only in Mo’Rockin that Chadly feels he’s found a jazz artist willing and capable of fully engaging in an East/West meeting of minds.
“In the other projects, with Omar Sosa or Pharoah Sanders, I’m the decoration, like a raisin in their dish,” Chadly said. “They’re great musicians, but they don’t have time to take my music and mix it together and bring out something new. But now it’s different, I’m bringing something and Khalil’s bringing something and we’re cooking together.”
Shaheed has been building bridges as a vital part of the Bay Area music scene for 40 years, performing and recording with giants in jazz, rock and R&B, from Taj Mahal and Jimi Hendrix to drummer Billy Higgins, trumpeter Woody Shaw, altoist John Handy and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.
Long interested in blending jazz and R&B with African musical forms and rhythms, he’s gained respect as a producer, composer, bandleader and educator.
The seeds for Mo’Rockin were planted when Chadly returned from a trip to his homeland with a head full of traditional melodies that he absorbed while growing up. The two East Bay residents started talking about using the themes as inspiration to compose and arrange material together. The Mo’Rockin Project was born when they recruited some of the region’s finest musicians to join them.
“It really wasn’t hard, since most of them had been playing with me in Big Belly Blues Band,” Shaheed said, referring to the horn-laden 13-piece R&B ensemble that he’s led for years. “I knew when we put this together that they were open enough and certainly masterful enough on their instruments to make this work.”
Both men cite their Islamic faith in explaining that the music isn’t an end in itself. Chadly, an associate professor at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley and imam at the Masjid al-Iman mosque in Oakland, hopes that Mo’Rockin will help foster understanding of Islam as a faith that spreads love by fostering mental discipline.
“We are sincere people that have love and respect for everyone,” Chadly said.
THE 9TH ANNUAL HERITAGE MUSIC FESTIVAL featuring the Mo’Rockin Project and Alvin Batiste and the Jazzstronauts takes place at CSUMB’s World Theater on Saturday, April 28, at 7:30pm. Call 582-4580, or visit music.csumb.edu.