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Brooklyn, NY: Over two years in the making, world-renowned guitarist Raja Kassis will release his debut full-length record, HumanBEING, September 9, 2014, on Ropeadope.
Boasting a collective of legendary West African and New York City musicians, HumanBEING is a tour de force album spanning the music of Senegal, Mali, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Jamaica, Brazil and America.
Raja has honed his skills over 15 years of playing M'balax in the Senegalese underground across America, touring with Senegalese luminaries such as Fatou Guewel and Kiné Lam as well as performing with Assane N'Diaye in Dakar, Senegal. So, it stands to reason that the record would kick off with an epic entitled "Aduna" (The World), which invokes the M'balax approach and is Kassis' masterpiece in the genre.
The track features the longtime rhythm section of Mahanta Faye (Lemzo Diamano), Arone N'Diaye (N'Dongolo), Patrice Blanchard and Morcoumba Gueye (Sing Sing NYC) all of whom have been the first choice picks to back countless NYC based M'Balax projects. It also features the powerhouse NYC-based horn section of Morgan Price (FELA!, Duke Ellington Orchestra), Nadav Nirenberg (Streetlight Manifesto) and Sam Hoyt (Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, Jorge Ben) playing classic lines and catching the staccato sabar hits (Senegal's national drum) in between.
The album's second track, "Aiisha," travels north into Malian territory. Influenced by Raja's years of working with Malian masters in the Boston area-names such as the griots Balla Kouyaté (Balafon) and Balla Tounkara (Kora), and also enlists the great Jojo Kuo (Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Egypt 80) on drums, along with Josh Werner on bass (Matisyahu, Bill Laswell, CocoRosie), Luke Quaranta on percussion (Toubab Krewe), and Morgan Price, Nadav Nirenberg, and the addition of Jason Colby (Lee Fields and the Expressions) to fill out the horn section.
"Aiisha" begins in a sultry 6/8 with Raja's psychedelic guitar, and then opens up with the entrance of legendary cellist Dave Eggar (Frank Ocean, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons), shifting the melodic leanings towards Ethiopian Masinko. The track apexes with an expansive orchestral outro making room for a phenomenal solo closing passage by Eggar, the tension of which leaves you on the edge of your seat until the very unexpected last note.
Next up is the powerhouse track entitled "Are You Ready?", combining Nigerian Afrobeat and Guinean guitar stylings. Like a runaway train from start to finish, the track is kicked off by the aforementioned Kuo's breakneck Afrobeat drum intro, capturing the classic Afrobeat big band sound. Again, utilizing Luke Quaranta on percussion, "Are You Ready?" features Ron Johnson on bass (Greg Allman band, Warren Haynes Band), and the above-mentioned power horn section of Price, Nirenberg and Colby. Just when you start anticipating the song's climax and you can't possibly imagine the groove getting more intense, the band switches on a dime directly into a Hendrix-ian outro, unleashing the full fury of Raja' Kassis's rock guitar prowess while giving a nod to his first and foremost influence.
The album continues to travel, going into a meditative Barimbau interlude performed by one of Sao Paulo, Brazil's finest, Daniel Spirandelli, that gives way to the album's single, "Bright And Sunny Day," a Forro/Reggae/Samba song featuring a chorus of vocals chanted by Mayteana Morales (Pimps of Joytime), Domenica Fossati (U.S.A. Afrobeat), Spirandelli and Raja himself in an uplifting journey inspired by Raja's touring days in Brazil with Blitz the Ambassador.
After two more songs, both Malian and M'Balax respectively, the track "Tiger Dub" nods to Raja's jaunts to Jamaica playing Reggae music with the likes of Damian Marley, Julian Marley, Capleton, URoy, and Meta and the Cornerstones.
The album concludes with a hip-hop instrumental anthem entitled "Pops in The Barbershop," an ode to Raja's old neighborhood street, describing the chaos of a drive by shooting he witnessed while living there. Igmar Thomas (Esperanza Spalding, Rvive Big Band) adds a soaring trumpet part with a wah wah pedal to complete the sonic landscape, giving way to the outro entitled "West", Kassis's solo delta blues guitar take on Muddy Waters' "I Feel Like Going Home" to bring the listener back down to earth.
"With all the world influences, to me this a rock and roll record," Raja states of the HumanBEING repertoire. "I know most people will see it as a world music record, but if you listen carefully, you can see that rock and roll is the thread that ties it all together. With all the differences I've seen through my years of touring all over the world, I have always found we have more in common with each other than those differences. HumanBEING is simply a reflection of what I have seen and experienced through my lenses." He adds, "and as much as it's a story of me, it's also the story of you. Humanbeing!"