Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah’s new album, “Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning,” is his first on which he doesn’t touch the trumpet. Instead, he extends the legacy of Black masking Indians in New Orleans.
By Giovanni Russonello for The New York Times
Growing up in New Orleans, Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah was raised at the corner of two traditions. He learned to play the trumpet at the elbow of his uncle and mentor, the saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., whose career took off after a stint in Art Blakey’s band. Harrison was a true-blue jazz musician, and Adjuah — who was born, and first introduced to the listening public as, Christian Scott — seemed destined to become one, too.
But their family was also prominent in New Orleans’s tradition of Black masking Indians, rooted in the city’s history of Black and Indigenous resistance in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Africans fleeing slavery often joined with Native Americans in maroon communities. While professional musicians laid down the roots of American jazz in the late 1800s — mixing African styles with European repertoire at parades and society functions — groups of so-called Mardi Gras Indians dressed in bright regalia performed songs with a more unbroken connection to West and Central Africa, and little relationship to a commercial audience. To this day, Black masking Indians sing those old songs on Mardi Gras Day.
Adjuah now carries that history. He has become a big chief of a Black Indian group, the Xodokan Nation, just as his uncle and grandfather were before him. On July 1, in a ceremony at historic Congo Square, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center named Adjuah the Grand Griot of New Orleans.
Adjuah has worked for years to convince the world that he’s not a “jazz” musician at all: The word’s racist history is now widely acknowledged; he says “stretch music” is a more appropriate catchall for the alloy of African influences, Black American improvisation, hip-hop, indie rock and more that he has been polishing for the past two decades. But it has always been tough to hear the music he makes with his bands, and not think immediately about where it fits in the cosmology of (what most of us know as) contemporary jazz.
Adjuah’s new LP, “Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning,” is his 14th studio album, and the first on which he doesn’t touch the trumpet. Instead, he sings and plays a handful of self-made instruments: Chief Adjuah’s Bow, which blends the West African n’goni and kora with the European harp; a custom n’goni; and a Pan-African drum kit. Adjuah mixes in the odd SPD-SX drum machine or other synthesized percussion, but the album features almost nothing but acoustic percussion, vocals and the occasional sound of trees rustling or birds cawing.
Instrument-building, he said in a recent conversation with the Africana studies scholar Joshua Myers, is part of his effort to “find instruments that could work as 21st-century bridges to the older styles, so that we could go back and grab those things.”
Adjuah’s LP amounts to a paean to this legacy, and an announcement of how he plans to carry the torch forward. Joined by about a dozen longtime collaborators and close family members, he leads the ensemble in a few traditional songs and a handful of originals built on gnostic, historically grounded lyrics and drifting, driving rhythms. He doesn’t condescend to the folklore. It is his source of strength: a book of oral histories and battle rhythms, to be used in a contemporary way.
This is Adjuah’s first album that simply cannot be construed as contemporary jazz — and it’s the most compelling, undiluted LP he has made yet.
From the Black Indian canon, he covers the rousing call-and-response of “Shallow Water,” offered here in tribute to his uncle; an up-tempo version of the traditional song “Iko,” here titled “Xodokan Iko — Hu Na Ney,” with a refrain in Black Indian Creole set against Adjuah’s original verses full of references to the Orishas and American Indian iconography; and “Golden Crown,” on which the chorus’s voices salute the chief: “Adjuah got the golden crown.”
As “Golden Crown” nears its end, Adjuah’s voice fades down to sing a hopeful verse:
Meet the hunter that mornin’ gold shining bright
Say a riot this mornin’ I might incite, now
A riot of love, a riot of light
On the digital LP, an up-tempo bonus track reprises the hazy title tune. Adjuah plucks his bow in a slightly distorted pattern while the percussionist Elé Salif Howell joins him in a charging, six-beat rhythm redolent of Wassoulou music: an ancient-but-alive West African style, played mostly by women, not far from what’s known as “desert blues.” True to form, as Adjuah sings he name-checks his sources — shouting out the Wassoulous’ history of resistance to French colonization while placing them alongside a dozen other groups (“Haitian, Cheyenne and Mande, too”) that fought the same fight. “There was a man who took a stand,” he sings, “did what he can to build the world anew.”