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A darling of a CD from Narell

Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Andy Narell

A review of Oui Ma Chérie! by Andy Narell

Andy Narell’s new album, Oui ma Chérie!, has arrived with nerve and soul, and pacing and passion. And its mystery and mastery make it all the more engaging.

Judging by the CD’s voluptuous heft, Narell doesn’t appear to be on a mission impossible—an angst to grind, old material or cliches to dig out from under the Panorama; or leftover impulses from his Savannah experience to address. No dark rum from which to take a swig over slights, real or imagined.

Instead, he delivers an operatic performance primed with a Caribbean coloratura.

The fastidious pannist employs colours that are forgotten, refracted; even rented from the imagination, to fashion a mosaic of ideas and sounds.

That the pan-calypso album comes packaged as theatre is nothing new. But its specialness is clearly formed in large part by the bravura of the performer/producer, and, to much lesser extent, the bravado of Kitchener as reprised by calypsonian Relator. Though the mercurial talents of Narell’s ensemble also bring down the house. 

Each sideman gets his due. Trumpeter Etienne Charles, guitarist Mike Stern, Guadeloupean drummer Gregory Louis and Cuban conga player and percussionist Inor Sotolongo perform their roles at full stretch. Their cohesion exalts the senses and teleports us through provocative themes as solid as pieces of Swiss chocolate that match mood and elicit emotion.

There are moments on Oui ma Chérie! that may take the top off your head, as poet Emily Dickinson would versify. They emerge from unbridled renditions on the pans that at the very least dignify Narell as a savant of music, period. 

Take the opening cut, Forward Home (arranged by Narell and Raf Robertson), featuring Thomas Dyani on djembe (a West African drum). It is evocative of composer André Tanker’s quest to shine a light on roots music, pulling strands of African rhythm and story from the guts of the earth. At one point, Narell appears to flick his sticks with perceptive playfulness during an eloquent passage in tribute to Tanker, as if to say, “This one’s for you.” 

The American expatriate who resides in France, and, some believe, frequents Trinidad as a third home, turns all this virtuosity into an extraordinary work about vision, destiny, identity, and light; though tellingly counterpointed by the crystal lines he imbues his pan family. 

A total of 25 pan parts, authored by the maestro himself, inform the basic sound of the album, each hatching the perfect note.

The instruments are something else.

Imagine the player behind the pans, his phlegmatic demeanor doused in sparkling water. The 21-minute track, Visibly Absent, an experimental work for steel band that smells the music of other countries, getting its groove on by introducing a soothing affect, soft as teardrops that fall like beaded petals on notes fashioned by Ellie Mannette; then burbling through the crevices of a composition awash with raw sensibilities of Middle Eastern and North African culture. And, just so, in mid-stream, Narell starts a tinkle on the iron; as if caressing the métier of a slow jam from the engine room of Trinidad All Stars, a band with which he once collaborated on a concert at Queen’s Hall. 

Come to think of it, perhaps in a paean to the Stars’ vaunted ‘Chaguaramas’ basses of yore, visibly present are a few throw-back lines Narell employs to complement this magnificent opus. 

Oh, his segue to the next track may be a tad jarring to some, but it’s all right now as Relator hilariously chimes in with an intermezzo, characterised by a double entendre about Lenore, a Kitchener jamette, whose well the dirty ditty is about. Such is Relator’s charismatic voice - as imposing as calypso’s Grandmaster - you find yourself longing for an encore. 

Narell then swings into the penultimate cut, The Last Word, his sparse but efficient Panorama composition that could well be ringing in the ears of Panoramaphiles (as does 1999‘s Coffee Street to this day) had Birdsong advanced to the 2014 finals. Perhaps if only the audience was acquainted with the song title’s positive connotation: The story of a guy who says, “with my wife I always have the last word, which is ‘oui ma chérie’ (yes darling).” 

Notwithstanding the classic Mannette touch (at 87, he’s still on his game, having tuned a dozen pans for the album), Narell phrases and strikes the muscular instruments in a soft style, producing an otherworldly timbre that reminds of the unmistakable ambience of Tobago, far from the madding crowd of a world that is racing at breakneck speed.

Thus has the memory of his stellar work on, for example, The Songlines (Little Secrets, 1989) and Tatoom (2007), become sublimated by this latest, surreal oeuvre in which he never appears to justify himself. No indication of old wounds to lick - no, you don’t get that vibe here, not when he’s flavoring the work with exotic salts, making occasional forays into our private universe and probing beneath emotions that range from admiration to delight. 

From the extended dalliance of the opening statement to the sentimental coda, One More Touch, also featuring Charles and Stern, Narell’s observations of his own creative landscape - a whole life spent in its construction - seem to be sifted through a keen mind that very well may be cynical about the romantic patois of the genre. Taking into consideration that the instrument, while evolving, continues to grow blessed and cursed alike, despite eminence laboriously gained around the world.

Closer to home, in the umbilical region, it is the romantic ideal that shines through. You get that in Oui ma Chérie!, which makes for good theatre and great listening. As for transmission on radio, there should be plenty to extol about the album’s casual, jazzy tone and speculative arc.

Hear French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: “The subconscious is ceaselessly murmuring, and it is by listening to these murmurs that one hears the truth.”

Well, then, let’s ponder an imponderable. Is Narell’s CD a confession of sorts, given the title is the subtitle of The Last Word, and Forward Home the first cut?
And will ”Darling” age well? 
You know what they say. The longer the rum is aged in the barrel the darker the rum will become.

Oui ma Chérie! is available at Sanch Electronix, Cleve’s, Crosby’s, Kam’s, Paper Based Book Store at the Normandie and airport outlets M and Total Local. 


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