High energy

The ‘Quarter to Africa’ sextet tours the country next week.

Quarter to Africa (photo credit: HAIM YAFIM BARBALAT)
Quarter to Africa
(photo credit: HAIM YAFIM BARBALAT)
They might be in the environs of Africa but, in fact, the Quarter to Africa (Reva LeAfrica) troupe culls music, beats and vibes from all over the show. Since the band first set out its stall six years ago, it has put out an intoxicating mix of high energy, brightly hued sounds that boldly and joyfully stride across jazz, Afrobeat, blues, rock, Yemenite, pop, funk and Arabic domains with gay abandon.
“We started something new,” states oud player and vocalist Elyasaf Bashari. “We call it ‘Afrarab.’”
The sextet has just released its latest single, “YeshuaTo,” which is currently accruing plenty of airplay. There are a bunch of gigs lined up around the country to mark that, and to herald the impending release of the group’s sophomore album, which is due out “in early 2020,” according to saxophonist and vocalist Yakir Sasson.
The circuit kicked off October 7, with a closed event at Tel Aviv’s Haezor venue, followed by slots at the Beer Festival at Katzrin on October 15, the Tamar Festival by the Dead Sea on October 16, at the Ashdod Wine Festival on October 17, and a show at Telalim in the Negev on October 30, with an invite to the Sarajevo Jazz Festival in November, adding to the band’s burgeoning overseas itinerary. In the summer, they wowed a jam-packed audience at the enormous Sziget multicultural music and arts festival in Hungary.
So, what’s new about “YeshuaTo?” Does the single break any new ground for Quarter to Africa, aka Q2A? Or is more a matter of just keeping pumping out those positive energies that seem to exude out of every pore of all eight members of the jumping, jiving gang? I didn’t get a clear answer to that one but, somehow, that was OK.
“There’s a whole load of new stuff in every song we do,” says Bashari without elaborating. “There is something new about this song compared with everything we’ve brought out so far.”
I venture that that “something”, presumably, can’t be put into words.
“Yes, it could be described in words but, you know, explanation kills art,” he adds impishly. Even so, he does shed a little light on the group’s philosophy. “There’s something in there that’s new and fresh and traditional.”
Sasson is a little more forthcoming. “The song is new-old from our point of view,” he says.
The reedman wasn’t just alluding to the style. It seems the material has been kicked around the block a few times over the years until it attained its current produced state.
“This song has been with us since we started as a group,” says Sasson. “It already been recorded a couple of times. And we made a video for it in India. Elyasaf and I were traveling around India at the time. It is one of the milestones of Quarter to Africa’s history.”
The second version was captured live three years ago at the band’s old stomping ground, Haezor, with a stellar guest in full view.
“Avishai Cohen, the bassist, performed with us,” Sasson says. “There’s a video of that, too.”
Both the first outings of “YeshuaTo” were typically dynamic deliveries, but with something of the on the fly vibe of the stand-and-deliver demands that naturally go with live performances. Then again, Sasson and the rest of the band felt the number deserved something of a more refined polished rendition without, mind you, losing any of the group’s trademark joie de vivre.
If you’re going to have a musical ensemble that casts its stylistic and genre net so far and wide it, of course, helps when the band members have a plethora of musical reference points. The sax player, who also moonlights as frontman of the Jaffa JazZ quartet, certainly has the requisite checkered musical backdrop.
“I come from Israeli songs,” says the Tiberias-born reedman. “My father was a singer. He had a band that played at different events, and his repertoire included ‘good old Israeli songs,’ and also folklore songs.”
That might explain Sasson’s love of pure melody. He says that, for him, writing and playing music that feeds off local cultural flows is the natural way to go about music making.
“It’s like the American jazz musicians say that, when they get down to learning the standards, it’s all there ready,” Sasson explains. “They know the tunes and the lyrics, and the whole story really well, and it just pans out from there. I had the same thing with Israeli music.”
Bashari brings a rich blend of Middle Eastern sounds, and plenty of others, to the collective fray.
“In my home we listened to [Yemenite singer] Zion Golan and also Michael Jackson,” he explains. “And I always listened to hip-hop. I still do. I also heard traditional music, pop, Jimi Hendrix, jazz, Crosby, Stills & Nash – lots and lots of stuff.”
He says he and Sasson, and the rest of the band, are a good fit on a personal and on a professional level.
“Yakir and I met six years ago. Actually, we knew of each other before that, through musical circles, but we didn’t have a personal connection at that point. We just sat down for a jam session.”
It was personal and musical chemistry at first note. “We, straightaway, had this vision of the band. It was like we knew where we were going,” Bashari says.
They also knew where their music was coming from, as reflected in the group’s name.
“We are into rhythm and beat,” Bashari says. “African music, more than any Western music, is about rhythm and beat.”
The titular fraction alludes to the latter part of the Afrarab self-definition.
“Arabic music has quartertones. We play between the notes,” Bashari explains. “But we have influences of jazz, Arabic music, funk. African music flows through all of that.”
It is very much a matter of casting all those stylistic balls in the air, and keeping on juggling. “It is a combination of the band’s lead instruments – the saxophone and oud – and the others. That, more than anything, reflects the fusion of east and west, with a background of a lot of different sounds.”
Multifarious personal sonic bedrock notwithstanding, Bashari feels we could all do with bonding with sounds from “the dark continent.”
“The foundations of African music lie at the base of all music,” he says. “We have a lot of respect for that, and we connect with the groove from there.”
It is not hard to get that when listening to “YeshuaTo,” or anything off the group’s first album, The Layback, which features an infectious, funk-driven Afrobeat number called “Like A Child,” as well as a highly personalized reading of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” which takes the late legendary guitarist-vocalist’s celebrated number off into a very different direction.
At the end of the day, the Q2A guys just want to spread and share the good word and positive vibes.
“Music and art, it’s a circle of love,” Bashari exclaims. “You can play the most avant-garde music there is, and your audience comes to see you because it appreciates what you do. There is a circle of love. Music exists by virtue of the fact that people respond to it.”
There’s little chance of people, the world over, whatever their cultural backdrop, language, or personal situation not digging the Quarter to Africa sound and undisguised joyous mien. That, Bashari says, is a given.
“The artist gives out love, and he gets it back. He can even annoy audiences. Then they’ll get annoyed, but only because they love the artist.”