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Sample Track 1:
"U" from King of Me
Sample Track 2:
"Sister River" from King of Me
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Chris Berry, King of Me (Kanaga System Krush) Four Fingers and a Powerful Voice: Mbira-innovator Chris Berry Lays his Africa-Honed Sound Bare

He tossed out everything else, then cut the mbira in half.

Chris Berry spent eight years in Zimbabwe, learning mbira (thumb piano) and steeping himself in its role in both rituals and festivities. He wrote hit songs, turned to lush, complex arrangements for a big brash band, and took the Zimbabwean scene by storm, only to be forced to flee after band members perished and his own life was under threat. He went to the deepest reaches of the forest, to make music with the Bayaka (Pygmy) people, teaching them to record their multilayered spontaneous compositions with a mobile studio he helped create.

But he had never dared to do what he does so strikingly: evoke a whole sonic world on a seemingly simple instrument. Now, on King of Me (Kanaga System Krush; release: June 11, 2013), Berry has stripped down his songwriting to just voice, mbira, and the drums of Ivorian powerhouse Abou Diarrassouba (The Wailers, Easy Star All-Stars, The Mighty Diamonds). He eschewed overdubs, busting out tunes live, often in compelling dialogue with Diarrassouba.

Berry sacrifices not a moment of intensity, groove, or passion, despite this spare set up. It buzzes, grips, and dances on tracks like “King of Me” and “Leave it,” whose looping vocal lines pay homage to Berry’s time with the Bayaka. With help from seasoned percussionist Daniel Moreno (George Benson, Don Cherry, Salif Keita), velvet-voiced Malian singer Awa Sangho (“Sister River”), Steve Kimock collaborator and sultry songstress Deja Solis, and with guest producers Aaron Johnson and Jesse Murphy of Brazilian Girls (the hip hop-inflected “Many Have Not”, “The Other Ones”).

“I laid myself bare,” muses Berry. “It’s easy to hide behind a rambunctious horn section. Big arrangements can take the heat off you as an artist. But now, there’s nothing to hide behind. After all I’ve done, this is who I am.”

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The mbira only seems simple at first glance. “The mbira is multilayered,” Berry explains. “You can play three different lines simultaneously. You can play polyrhythms,” the kind of intertwining, overlapping parts that shine on traditional songs like “Mudzimo Wé,” a ceremonial song expressing profound gratitude. The mbira can speak for itself, with treble and bass, with melody and percussion. This makes it a joy to play once mastered, but a real challenge to amplify.

Berry was determined to solve this problem, and wound up creating a whole new instrument. To get the electric sound Berry had always imagined, “I cut the mbira in half,” he says, “and sent one side out through a guitar amp, and another side out to the bass amp. I had to go back and redesign the mbira, as it was too tinny and live and make all the keys twice the thickness, or more. I needed a deader sound.” The way innovators like Les Paul rethought the acoustic guitar, Berry completely revamped the mbira.

Berry found new ways to work with his fellow musicians. Instead of crafting all the parts and acting as frontman and bandleader, he and Diarrassouba collaborated. Diarrassouba’s approach—which ranges from driving and groove-oriented to delicate and subtle—complemented the sound of the new mbira and could follow its shifting rhythmic expressions. “Abou’s put a lot of traditional African drum rhythms on the kit,” notes Berry. “It’s comparable to what I did with the mbira. It works so well with what I was doing. It pulled me out of old realms.”

The sound proved perfect for Berry’s new songs, dancing between the polished, warm songwriting of a James Taylor or Paul Simon and the hard and edgy buzz and rumble of a Konono No 1. The shift was guided by a fellow dedicated student and explorer of African music, and forward-thinking producer and documentarian Aja Salvatore of Kanaga System Krush. Salvatore, who much like Berry spent a decade traveling, absorbing, and documenting African musical expression, first heard Berry play electric at a club show and couldn’t believe his ears. He encouraged the mbira master to go for it, urging him to embrace the more minimal, yet far richer direction, part of KSK’s distinctive, gritty yet melodic sound.

To augment this more stripped down approach, the musicians and producer customized a variety of rich effects, widening the possibilities of the instrument. Drawing on proverbs and sayings that have stuck with Chris, songs like “Shadow of the Whip” and “U” speak to oppression, poverty, empowerment, and humanity’s arbitrary divisions, yet from deep, often introspective places.

Berry’s lyrics have deep traditional roots as well: “Samauhay” is a greeting often used during rituals, where it's believed people communicate with spirits. Berry has taken these traditions, absorbed them wholeheartedly, while tempering them with his own sense of himself as an artist, as a musician who resides in Brooklyn and yet is comfortable homesteading off the grid in Hawaii, as well as engaging with traditional torchbearers.

Berry has found himself returning to the roots that shaped him for ten years in Africa, whether he was spending time learning from masters in remote Zimbabwean villages or singing with the Bayaka. “I’m getting to get back to some of traditional sound that guided my music for so long,” says Berry. “You can do a ceremony with just one mbira, now that it’s electrified. It’s changed my writing style and expression. It’s just me and the instrument, but it’s all there, with just four fingers and my voice.”

"Having spent six years with legendary electric guitarist, Zani Diabate of the Super Djata Band, I was already a big fan of the fusion between traditional African music and electric soundscape,” explains Salvatore. "When I saw the intent behind Chris' new project and instrument I fell like I could rise to the challenge of helping him craft his artistic vision and get it out to the world."

<< release: 06/11/13 >>