A World of Connections
Regina Carter’s Reverse Thread
A round of applause, please, for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which had the intelligence and good taste to award violinist Regina Carter a MacArthur Fellowship (aka “Genius Grant”). Carter used part of that substantial and unexpected windfall—the grant pays out $500,000 over five years—to fund a project that had been steeping in her imagination for years: a world music album.
The project reached fruition with her stunning 2010 release on E1 Music, Reverse Thread. A spirited celebration of traditional and contemporary folk music from Africa (and Puerto Rico by way of Africa), Reverse Thread honors the beauty and the sometimes deceptive simplicity of its source material while using the vocabulary of jazz to dig deeper into the music’s richly emotional and enlightening content.
Next week, Regina Carter’s Reverse Thread—with Will Holshouser (accordion), Yacouba Sissoko (kora), Chris Lightcap (bass) and Alvester Garnett (drums)—will bring that music to the New Mexico Jazz Festival with an appearance at The Lensic in Santa Fe. (See the sidebar for the complete festival schedule.)
Growing up in Detroit, Carter credits the city’s multicultural dimensions with opening her ears to a world of music that was beyond genre. “There were so many different cultures there because of the automotive industry and Motown,” she says, “so I was exposed to music, food, art, people from everywhere.”
Carter wanted to incorporate “some of these beautiful sounds”—called “world music,” she’d learned later—into her playing. Record company executives, though, had no interest in trying to market a jazz album based in world music, so Carter shelved the project.
With the MacArthur funding, Carter decided that the world music project was at the “top of my list of what I was going to accomplish with that money.”
Her original objective was to investigate Middle Eastern music, specifically the music of the Chaldeans, or Christian Arabs. (Detroit is home to the largest Chaldean population outside of Iraq.) As she began to research the music, though, she came into contact with a variety of other material that sparked new ideas.
One day, she walked into the World Music Institute in New York City, where she’d been purchasing CDs by the truckload, when a staffer suggested an album of the music of the Ugandan Jews, the Abayudaya.
“It was one of the most beautiful, raw, natural things I had ever heard,” she says. From there, she “took a left turn without putting on the blinker,” searching in new directions opened by that recording.
Ultimately, looking over all the material she had accumulated during her long research, she found it was the music from or related to the continent of Africa that touched her most. Her final choices included traditional pieces from the Abayudaya and the Masikoro, as well as contemporary works from artists Ayub Ogada, Mamadou Ba, Habib Koité, Mariam Doumbia and others—plus an original piece of her own, co-written with Reginald Washington.
Carter commissioned several of the world’s top arrangers, such as Andy Farber and Gil Goldstein, to work up the material, and she hired an unusual collection of world-class musicians to record and tour the project.
The band, a sort of world music chamber group, draws on the instruments from African folk traditions—the kora and, yes, the accordion—and Western jazz. Like mirrors facing one another, they continually reflect these traditions back and forth, much like the musical feedback loop between the continents of Africa and the Americas that has been in continual operation for several centuries. Soaring over it all is Carter’s richly dark and resonant violin, which she plays with a precision endowed by classical training and with the passion of a gifted jazz artist.
Two years after starting her research, Carter recorded the material and shopped it to record companies until she finally found one that agreed to take the package in its entirety. (Another round of applause, please, for E1 Music.)
One discovery Carter made along the way was how the music of Africa revealed undreamed-of connections. For example, one piece she came across sounded very much like Irish fiddle music, and such similarities occurred again and again. “Hearing all these sounds in the continent and then realizing we’re all so connected—you really hear it in the music, and you see it in the artwork,” Carter says. “The human race is really connected, whether we want to be or not.”
If music reflects and sometimes creates the connections, then Regina Carter’s Reverse Thread casts a warm and welcome light on them.