Guadeloupean Drummer Dolmen Goes For Gwoka At French Institute

The World Is Moving is an apt title for this special event to celebrate the cultural wealth of 'la francophonie' as parts of the planet where French is a lingua franca have been on a mighty upward curve from both a literary and musical point of view depuis toujours. Africa and the Caribbean have proved essential engines of this progress. Starting the evening with readings by renowned Haitian author and member of the prestigious Academie francaise Dany Laferriere is a coup, but the first appearance in London of Guadeloupean drummer-composer Arnaud Dolmen is a masterstroke.

His 2017 debut, Tonbé Lévé, was rightly garlanded on both sides of the Channel, and rather than be another incarnation of the non-western jazz wunderkind, Dolmen represents an embodiment of Caribbean Creole culture that is wholly challenging, inquisitive and finely-balanced between both tradition and modernity. A great metaphor for this is the customisation of his drum set – he uses the 'ka', the smaller drum to the bigger 'gwo' in the gwoka music of his birthplace as a second snare and tambour to be played with hands, and the additional range of timbres, particularly the crisp, shrill, sometimes whistling high notes, significantly broadens the sonic palette. Gwoka rhythms are a key part of Dolmen's vocabulary, though he pushes his songs into structurally complex territory that makes them fit for serious listening.

Tonight Dolmen's quartet is scaled down to a duo with pianist Leonardo Montana, but the absence of double-bass and saxophone affords as much sonic clarity and interactivity as one would hope. Montana's left-hand lines and Dolmen's kick-drum patterns both lock into skipping syncopations that are tantalisingly placed around the pulse of a song, creating the sense of the music being off-kilter, yet rhythmically engaging. It is the whole principle of 'tonbé lévé, a thrilling dance move in gwoka where the body keeps composure just as it seems to be slip-sliding and losing it. This is fully translated in arrangements that nonetheless leave enough space for both Dolmen and Montana to improvise expressively, as well as take liberties metrically. 'Tet Kolé', a tribute to Haiti, is the best original and 'Afro-Blue', taken at a stinging pace with well-slanted reharmonisations, the most memorable cover, showing how well Dolmen handles melody as well as rhythm. His stirring chants and sparkling motifs on glockenspiel underline the imagination of a young musician on the move.

Kevin Le Gendre

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