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They go wherever their ears lead them

Bill Summers and Irvin Mayfield have traveled from a Trinidad temple to a Havana kitchen in search of Afro-Caribbean sounds.

June 15, 2003|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

When musicians Bill Summers and Irvin Mayfield arrived last summer in Haiti, a country known for its violence and civil unrest, they immediately asked for security tips. They had never been to the island before, the jazzmen told a desk clerk at a beautiful hilltop hotel in Port-au-Prince, overlooking abysmal poverty below.

"We want you to show us what we shouldn't do and where we shouldn't go," the visitors said. So the staff obligingly pointed out neighborhoods to avoid, especially those with no electricity at night.

"Well, that's the first place we went," Summers recalled recently by phone from his home in New Orleans. "That's where we spent the next two or three days, because that's where it's at. When I go to a community, I want to go to the heart of it. I mean, that's not where the tourists are."

Haiti was just one stop on a musical adventure undertaken three years ago by this unlikely duo, Summers the middle-aged percussionist and Mayfield the twentysomething trumpet player. They have also visited Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba and Brazil in an ongoing quest to retrace the routes of African slaves and capture their musical culture through field recordings of folk musicians.

The result has been a series of albums by Los Hombres Calientes, or the Hot Men, an Afro-Latin jazz band started casually at first by Summers and Mayfield in 1998. But they soon got serious about exploring rhythmic styles of different countries with a common thread leading to Africa, which they plan to visit this summer.

In their latest Basin Street Records release, "Volume Four: Vodou Dance," they weave raw field recordings with polished studio work into a lively, sweeping panorama of Afro-Caribbean styles. The work reflects stylistic variations forged by different colonial policies, from Trinidad, where slaves were barred from practicing their traditions, to Haiti and Cuba, where religious drumming and chants were allowed to flourish more or less intact.

Yet this volume is also the most steeped in the jazz and Creole styles of New Orleans, which Summers calls the "northernmost country of the Caribbean."

The album includes snippets from a drum session in Haiti, a 7-year-old girl singing an African chant in a Trinidad temple, and a performance with percussionist Pancho Quinto in the kitchen of his Havana home.

In Trinidad, the Hot Men arrived with no contacts and no plan. From a CD purchased at a local record store, they found an address for the Pamberi Steel Orchestra. After getting lost in a maze of unnumbered houses, they located the orchestra's compound outside Port of Spain.

There, in a large shed-like practice room, they saw more than 100 shining steel pan drums of all sizes. While local musicians got ready and Summers tied microphones to the rafters, Mayfield composed a new song on the spot, writing a chord progression on a chalkboard.

The well-schooled local musicians easily picked up the tune, playing 40 steel drums tuned to tones from soprano to bass. With some studio refinements at home, that work appears on the album as the tranquil "Trinidad Nocturne."

The next morning, a local musician led them across the rain forest to a remote area, pushing ever deeper at Summers' urging, despite the growing anxiety of his companion and even his guide. They were finally led to a priest named Babalosha Richard, who emerged from a beautiful white house on a hill.

On the album, the priest sings a short African prayer, "Yeye O, Yeye A." His only accompaniment are the birds from the rain forest chirping in the background.

For Summers, this has also been a journey of personal discovery.

"I'm a black guy raised up in Detroit with roots in Louisiana," says the veteran of Herbie Hancock's '70s fusion group the Headhunters. "Most of my [African] culture has been ripped away from me. It's been annihilated here. It's been decimated and desecrated. So for me as a black American to rediscover it, well, I feel complete.

"I can find my way now. I know who I am."

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