“Drumming, drumming... just for the joy of it” – and much more besides.
Batagraf was launched in Oslo in 2002 as a “private research forum” rather than “a band”, with four drummers plus Jon Balke – on percussion – exploring a more flexible approach to rhythm playing which might “bypass the metric, rigid grooves of the computer age”. Just a group of friends working on musical problems in rehearsal rooms and around coffee tables: “No gigs booked and no plans or ambitions other than to understand more,” as Jon Balke explains. With the introduction of bata drums – from Cuba via the Nigerian Yoruba tradition – Balke and friends began thinking about the question of how a message can be encapsulated in sound: West African tradition holds that bata drummers were able to recite poems, prayers and sermons literally, sharing syllables between the group of drums used for this devotional practice. Balke: “The idea triggered the project in two directions: the inclusion of literal meaning in the sound itself and focus on the rhythm and musicality of spoken language.”
“All this happened against the backdrop of the Iraq War and the use and abuse of language in media and propaganda added to the understanding that language is a huge and ever-changing landscape. On its borders, music begins.”
The priority, then, is to reintroduce meaning, poetry and fluency into rhythmic ideas. On “Statements”, some well-known associate Batagrafers – Sidsel Endresen, Miki N’Doye, Arve Henriksen – all make colourful contributions, but the core is the ensemble comprising the four drummers plus Balke plus young Norwegian saxophonist Frode Nymo.
“Batagraf takes its name from the Latin verb battere – beat and graph, meaning, writer or writing. Thus, one may deduce a will to strike the wordless poetry of the sound-waves, to hammer phonetics in the open air, to write the sound waves in beating” – Jon Balke.
Out of a “deep respect” for the bata tradition and its practitioners, Balke and company make no attempt to duplicate “this noble form of music”: “The only link is the setting, people gathering in a circle to explore the universe of sound”.
The drummers “drumming for the joy of it” are from different backgrounds. Helge Andreas Norbakken and Kenneth Ekornes have both been associated with Sami singer Mari Boine. Ingar Zach is recognized as one of the important young drummers on the free improvised music scene (his discography includes recordings with Derek Bailey, Philipp Wachsmann, Jim O’Rourke, Barry Guy) – and he and Norbakken are both members of Balke’s Magnetic North Orchestra (refer to the riveting “Diverted Travels”). Harald Skullerud plays with Niko Valkepaa and Solo Cissokho, and has a long and proven affinity with African music.
Jon Balke made his ECM debut in 1975, as pianist with Arild Andersen’s group. He was a founder member of Masqualero and the leader/composer/arranger of Oslo 13 before founding Magnetic North. He has long been recognized as one of Scandinavia’s most original musical thinkers. He emphasizes that Batagraf is not “his” band but a real collective. “The ‘Statements’ CD is definitely my production, but Batagraf remains more a forum than my personal art music project. It will continue to be a flexible, constantly changing constellation that might work with a poet one day, a children’s choir the next, in the theatre the next day and so on. It will also work without my participation.”
On Statements “Batagraf” often feels like an environment to be entered. The listener is invited into a world of sound inside the circle of drums. Miki N’Doye’s text recital – in Wolof – is a call for peace in a language that seems “musical” to uncomprehending Western ears – especially when interlaced with Nymo’s sax. Noises of the street, the forest and the media overlap. Birds call, frogs croak, a baby gurgles contentedly. Balke: “A Brazilian woman shouts everyday phrases, but her words are processed in mid-sentence.” Is there a message in the intonation of the spoken phrases? Is the intent behind spoken phrases, a message that speaks by itself? Vocal percussion becomes news-broadcasts. News clips, newspeak from the media in context with bata drums beating, citations of politicians’ speeches, time-stretched into abstraction, becoming percussion, figures that develop into a song...”