Keyboard Magazine: Discoveries

discoveries| March 1998 | by Titus Levi

“….the strength of Ghent’s spirit and intellect shines bright….”

We don’t think of it often, but African music permeates American music. It’s sort of in the shadows, but check it: that swinging drum beat, that shout, the energy, the feeling, the layering of the lines. Sure, you can find bits and pieces of these elements elsewhere in the world. American music is infused with all kinds of European elements (not the least of which is the whole song structure). But somewhere beneath it all the African spirit remains.

Yet that spirit has such depth and breadth that it can form the foundations of very different musics. Both of this month’s discoveries, Valerie Ghent and Tom Roady, mine this rich vein with quite different results. Ghent’s Unstoppable CD covers funk, R+B, rock, and pop in a series that snap between forms like a hiker on switchbacks; Roady’s One Tribe disc ambles across whole ranges of African-based music, from the percussive and trance-like to the danceable and the foot-stomping.

Both musicians put these discs together under unusual and taxing circumstances; both took over two years to record. Ghent, who works as an engineer and backing vocalist for Ashford and Simpson, completed her CD at nights after days in the studio with the soul duo. “The first record took so long. I don’t want to do that again. Also, by the time I was done, I felt I’d outgrown some of the songs, although some really developed over the course of the time that I worked on the recording.”

Roady, who spends his days as a percussionist in the Nashville studios with such country music luminaries as Tanya Tucker, Merle Haggard, Trisha Yearwood and Hank Williams, Jr., put this CD together as a test of the flexibility of the Zendrum. “I played no acoustic instruments at all on this CD. I definitely won’t do that again, because I really enjoy playing the other drums. And I played everything in real time. That’s a lot of why it took two years.”

In both cases the long gestation periods seem justified. One Tribe ranges from ambient pieces of ringing “percussion” and “strings” to rootsy rhumbas, sunny light jazz, toe-tappin’ rock (with the horn section of a Nashville band called Rush Hour) and music taken from the Andean highlands. Through it all, a pulse, a deep reference to the drum, and a richness of rhythm sustains and powers the pieces. Some of it comes from Africa, a lot from Illinois (where Roady used to live), and some from the American South, where he’s resided for more than 15 years.

The African spirit comes into Ghent’s music by way of musical associations with Deborah Harry (who always emphasized a certain loopy, funky blues spirit), the hard driving soul/funk/jazz outfit Defunkt, and the afore-mentioned Ashford and Simpson. And while Unstoppable veers into smoother and more laidback pop pieces, the strength of Ghent’s spirit and intellect shines bright on pieces like the title track, “Truth”, “Survive”, and “Place In This World”. On these pieces her straightforward soloing, programming skills (her Korg M1 has been totally reprogrammed for her personal preferences) and producing come together to fashion songs with impact and statement.

Now, that both of their albums are out, Ghent and Roady have had to don the hat of the huckster. After jumping all over the task, Ghent is slowing down, saying, “I’ve been re-evaluating the way my life was restructured” by trying to be a player, producer, engineer and promoter. Her recent stint as an engineer at KISS-FM in New York has allowed her to see the inside of the corporate radio world; on upcoming efforts she will probably be better equipped as a result of this experience.

Roady, on the other hand, works not only as a promoter for the album, but also for the Zendrum, the remarkable instrument that he used to realize virtually all the tracks on One Tribe. After being introduced to the instrument in 1994 by Walfredo Reyes, Jr., he acquired one and is even an investor in the company manufacturing the instruments. (You can learn more about the Zendrum at “On the CD I was able to play more melodic things, ” Roady says. “You get the sensitivity and velocity. People are just beginning to understand what I wanted to do with it.”

Through her father, Emmanuel Ghent, who worked at Bell Labs with such electronic music pioneers as Max Mathews, Valerie learned about music programming and instruments which, like the Zendrum, emerged outside the mainstream. She’s even sampled some of the old gizmos, she told me, but they sound so peculiar she hasn’t figured out a piece for them yet.

To give the Zendrum more visibility, Roady uses the instrument whenever he can: “I just played a demonstration at Waldenbooks with guitar-harp player Tom Shinness. The instrument is on the new Wynonna…Whenever people see it they’re amazed. But what I really need is to have it show up on an MTV video.”

Copyright 1998 Keyboard Magazine

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