It's All About The Music 



Abrace is an acapella-plus-percussion singing group, which has made it their mission to find, harmonize and perform folk songs from around the world in a context of peace, love, acceptance, and celebration of all the world's peoples and cultures. Committed to performing the songs in their original languages, they currently sing in 20 different languages and dialects. 

Abrace is comprised of five excellent women vocalists and a top percussionist from the Seattle area. They have performed in Seattle' St Mark's Cathedral, The San Juan De Fuca Arts Festival, the Bellevue Arts Fair, the Seattle Art Museum, The Northwest Folklife Festival, Seattle's Benaroya Hall, and many other venues.

Co-lead by Samia Panni and Joyce Yarrow, the group includes singers Rebeqa Rivers, Angie Bolton, and Mikaela Romero, and the  percussion  duties are anchored by Derek Learned.

The treatment of the songs is done with great precision and care, as five-part harmonies are carefully worked out and Samia and Derek work together to create a unique percussion groove for each song. As mentioned, they also have to learn to enunciate each song properly in it's original language, and there is a history that goes with each song, so it means doing research on the story/history of the song and the culture each song arises from. 

I caught them at the Bellevue Arts Fair on July 26th. Samia and Joyce were gracious to grant me an interview, so I will let them speak about the band in their own words. For myself, I have seen them perform three times, and I am always impressed not only by the musicianship, but the spirit with which they recreate these songs.

So, without further adieu, the interview:
What is the inspiration for Abrace? How did you go about translating that inspiration into the actual group that I saw at the BAM Arts Fair?

Joyce:  We started out as a study group – 4 professional singers who wanted to expand their repertoires to include songs in many languages and challenge themselves to grow musically.

After 9/11, when the world tilted radically toward intolerance, we felt that a group performing world music could help build bridges to inter-cultural understanding. At that point we became more serious about performing in public, especially at inter-faith events. Since then, we have appeared at music festivals throughout the Northwest, as well as Benaroya Hall, and the Rainier Valley Cultural Center. One highpoint was sharing the stage with a Rabbi, Bishop and an Imam who participated in an ‘Islamophobia’ conference at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. It was so inspiring to see people of different faiths come together to erase misunderstandings and grow friendships.

Samia - Another highpoint I would like to add is our World Music & Dance of Peace concerts that we performed at three events, one being Arts Gumbo,at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, in collaboration with members of MB Orchestra, George Sadak and Maurice Sadak Rouman, Brazilian dancer, Dora Oliveira,  and Middle Eastern dance ethnologist, Helene Ericksen.  I truly enjoyed rearranging a song in our repertoire in order of blend music of different cultures for these performances. For example: we took a Brazilian song, Zanzibar, in the baião rhythm and George suggested incorporating a Saudi Arabian rhythm, called khaleeji, which fit perfectly. Maurice played the introduction to Zanzibar on oud.  The blend was seamless.

What do you see Abrace's role being in the universe of world music i.e - what would Abrace's "mission statement" be like? How would you like the audience to be affected by your music? Is Abrace just about the music only, or is there a connection to, or a message about, the world we live in?

Joyce - Abráce means ‘embrace’ in Portuguese, and our motto is simple: ‘Embracing the World Through Music.”  Some of our songs convey a message – such as “Bring Peace Upon Us,” written and performed by a group of courageous Palestinian and Israeli musicians. We also sing in Ladino, a language mixing Hebrew and Spanish that was developed during La Convivencia – an era when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in relative peace. We look for positive, international connections wherever we can find them and often create medleys – for example, by combining the South African freedom song “Siph’ Amandla” with the American classic “The Storm is Passing Over,” written by the composer of We Shall Overcome.

Our production of World Music and Dance of Peace concert brought together musicians and dancers from many different backgrounds to create a border-bending mix of music and dance from Middle Eastern, Balkan, African and South American roots. This is the type of collaborative energy that we believe peace is built upon.

Abrace sings in 20 languages, many of them tribal or clan dialects. How do you find the songs? How do you go about translating the lyrics so you understand the meaning of each song? How do you make sure your pronunciation is accurate in so many different languages? Given that song lyrics often incorporate metaphors and idioms unique to the composer's culture, do you have to study a bit about each ethnic group to understand the cultural context and deeper meanings of a particular song's lyrics?

Samia -  When a new member has started with the group, we have asked them to bring in songs that they want to sing.  Therefore, a number of the songs in our repertoire have come from former and current members of the group.  Ben Black introduced us to our Japanese song, Kojo No Tsuki, Makala recently introduced us to a Polish song we recently added to our repertoire and Joyce brought our new Bengali song, Bhromor Koiyo Giya.  The Arab-Israeli peace song I found one day simply hunting on youtube, using keywords to find a song in Arabic that we could append to our Ladino song that Joyce received from a Jewish cantor.  As you see our songs have been added through various sources from all the members of the group, plus we have original compositions, such as "Saltando" that Joyce and I composed.

Regarding translations, we have been lucky to find translations online or the member who brings us the song manages to find translations.

In regards to the pronunciation, I have lived in so many countries and been exposed to so many languages when I was young thanks to being part of the diplomatic world and my anthropological studies that I am familiar with how things should be pronounced.  We also research proper pronunciation through various online and recorded resources.

I enjoy ethnomusicological research, so I will often seek out the origin, deeper meanings and cultural context of our songs, as have other members of the group.

Who is in the group? What do you see as each member's unique contribution to the group?

Joyce -Abráce includes vocalists Samia Panni, Joyce Yarrow, Makala Wengelewski-Romero, Rebeqa Rivers, and Angie Bolton – as well as percussionist Derek Learned. All of us contribute ideas and new material to the group and since we create our own song arrangements, we each bring unique ideas to the mix. Samia acts as is our ‘pronunciation police,” and her anthropological background often provides fascinating details about a song’s origins and meanings.

What's next for Abrace? What concerts do you have in the works? Are you working on a CD project? Where do we find your music?

We are currently developing a new thematic concept – freedom songs from around the world – and expanding our repertoire in that direction. We have produced a Drop Card with 6  ‘downloadable’ songs that is for sale at our performances, but no CD as yet. Our music comes from everywhichwhere - people send us suggestions, audience members make requests or an Abráce member decides to dig further into her (or his) background. Recently some Turkish friends came over to the studio and taught us a song sung during the demonstrations to save Gezi Park in Istanbul.


Written by Yogi McCaw
Jazz & World Music Editor

continued from Home Page........

The featured country at this event was Guinea, West Africa. A number of highly talented Guinean musicians live in Seattle, and Abdul was able to bring in two world famous musicians from Guinea, triple Juno Award winning Alpha Yaya Diallo, and Prince Diabate, master of the Kora, a 21-stringed instrument whose sound falls somewhere between the sonic territory of a harp and a guitar.

We were privy to five performances by Comfort Food Afro-Jazz Group, Naby Camara's Lugni Sussu, Price Diabete and Group, Alpha Yaya Diallo, and Eduard Suarez and Atlantic Melody (who invited some of the other Guinean musicians up for a grand-finale set to end the evening).

First was the Afro-jazz Fusion band Comfort Food, led by multi-instrumentalist Bob Antolin. In full disclosure here, as the keyboards player for Comfort Food, I cannot review the band's performance. Suffice it to say we were quite well received. Other band members were Jaimun Crunk on guitar, Paul Huppler on drumset, and Lennox Holness on bass. Making a guest appearance with us was master percussionist Thione Diop.

Next up was Lugni Sussu the traditional Guinean Band of Balafon maestro Naby Camara. Naby asked me to join the group on a couple of songs, as he and I have a history together doing piano/balafon duet performances. The balafon is the African xylophone, made of wood and gourds. It is a xylophone - not a marimba - and the sticking techniques and patterns are different from Zimbabwean marimba patterns. The approach to the balafon is more like a jazz vibraphone player, as opposed to a marimba player. The dance floor filled up pretty quickly, as Naby is a world-renowned master of the instrument, and gets people hopping when he plays. Besides me as a guest, joining Naby was Karim Koumbassa on doundounba, Abdullaye Silla, and Eduard Suarin on Djembes. All instruments besides my keyboard (which I set to the xylophone setting to better blend in, and played accompaniment patterns taught to me by Naby) were traditional, acoustic West African instruments.

Next up was the world-traveling, renowned Prince Diabate. Beyond being a master of the kora, Prince Diabate has blown open the musical territory traditionally covered by the kora. His original music is genre-defying, and he stands out like a true guitar hero during his performances. He also had a band full of fantastic musicians, and , like Naby, used traditional African percussion, djun-djun and djembe, instead of a drumset. In addition to his instrumental genius, Prince has a powerful voice that gives his compositions an emotional edge. He definitely brought the people together during his set, again rousing the attendees out of their seats to dance and gather at the stage. Prince's band included Becky Allen on vocals, flutes & gongoman; Bruno Coon on guitar; Brady Millard-Kish on bass; Abdoulaye Silla on djembe & Karim Koumbassa on doundounba w/ Thione Diop as special guest on tama (aka "talking drum").

Pushing the envelope of mind-blowing talent even further, the next band was Alpha Yaya Diallo's three-time Canadian Juno Award winning band. The Juno is the Canadian equivalent of an American Grammy going to the Vancouver -BC resident. Like Prince Diabate, Alpha regularly tours the world, and Naby Camara is actually in Alpha's band as well. He was joined on drumset by master drummer Eduard Suarez, Seattle resident and former member of the famous Bembaya Jazz group of the 1970s, and bassist Vegari Cendar. And as a special guest, sitting in on percussion was Ibrahim Camara of Senegal, an acknowledged master who was attending the show. Alpha does originals and traditional Guinean songs as well. He has an incredible guitar picking style, in which the guitar mimics patterns that might be played on the balafon. These kind of accompaniment patterns are also typical of the mbira (African thumb piano) as well. Where a western guitarist might try to find the chords, the Guinean/West African style arppegiates the chords in a picking style, interspersed with scale runs similar to what a balafonist might play.

Alpha's band is simply phenomenal. Although he is not as well-known as artists like Baaba Maal and Selif Keita, I would definitely put his band on the level with those top-tier groups. A joy from start to finish. And since all the members were also from Guinea, the band locked in together in a way that only happens when you have a group made up of musicians that are all acknowledged masters themselves, that have all grown up in the same tradition from the same culture, and that have played together a lot over the decades. Every song was immaculately performed, and every solo by every bandmember raised cheers from the crowd. Every note a treasure, from start to finish. I have seen Alpha's band on a number of occasions, and it's always like this - consistently the best. No wonder they keep giving him Junos.

The finale set was billed as drummer Eduard Suarez's Atlantic Melody Band. Eduard has been playing professionally sine the late 1960s, and he was a member of the seminal Bembaya Jazz group coming out of West Africa in the 1970s, a group that was pioneering a new African international sound at the same time Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade would have been developing Afrobeat in Nigeria. 

What actually happened, very organically, because so many of the musicians were from Guinea, is that Atlantic melody's set became like a re-union set for all the Guinean musicians. Alpha and Prince Diabate joined the set, and Naby, again, is a band member also of Atlantic Melody. Often Eduard sings from behind the drums, but in this case they brought in Seattle drummer Jamael Nance, maestro of jazz, soul, and world music drumming, and again, Ibrahim Camara sat in adding his expertise on African percussion as well. Comfort Food's bassist Lennox Holness, and Seattle guitarist Leif Totusek also lended their talents to the group.

The show was quite an amazing musical experience. Abdul Ndiaye, the organizer is hoping to organize another African Music Summit again next year. So let's keep our eyes open for the next one!

Yogi McCaw

This and other great music reports and reviews also appear on Yogi's own Blog which you may find HERE


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