Juba Dance Orange

[Audio8; 2007]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: hip-hop, fusion jazz, Bossa Nova, electro funk
Others: Parliament, João Gilberto, Beastie Boys, G. Love and Special Sauce

The April 2007 issue of National Geographic features an interesting, albeit brief, exposé on hip-hop culture in today’s society. Within the article is a graphic timeline of hip-hop's evolution, titled “From Africa to The Bronx.” It’s a fairly enlightening illustration that traces the trajectory of the genre’s development, however roughly, from its African origins through the blues, jazz, and R&B idioms, and finally to its contemporary 21st Century incarnation. As an ancillary bonus, the timeline also traces the parallel development of African-influenced music in other countries, particularly the Caribbean nations and those in Central and South America.

It occurred to me upon reading the article that this graph has a great deal of relevance with regard to Orange, the Audio8 Recordings debut from the Brazilian act Juba Dance. The outfit is led by vocalist/composer/songwriter Ben Lamar (who also doubles as a horn player), a resident of Rio de Janeiro by way of his native Chicago. The lines extending from hip-hop’s African roots to modern hip-hop and those leading to Bossa Nova tend to converge in the case of Juba Dance, who combine elements of blues, jazz, and hip-hop with Brazilian and Afro-Cuban components. Orange is a compelling and painstakingly crafted release that is something of a breath of fresh air in the stagnant environment that the hip-hop world (both indie and otherwise) has become of late.

As a hip-hop record, Orange is aligned with the old school rap artists of the early- to mid-'80s, with its emphasis on the more disco-derived aspects of the genre. Lamar’s welcome sense of humor and propensity for poetic irony are something of a throwback to the halcyon days of the breakdance era as well. But what makes Orange such an intriguing release is the manner in which it traces its own origins by focusing on its numerous and varied influences throughout the course of these 13 tracks.

“Willow Blues,” for instance, is an example of primitive acoustic blues that is nonetheless of a piece with the rest of the album, inclined as it is toward latent sexuality and swaggering insistence. The Afro-Cuban/Bossa Nova fusion of “Angelo Jeanette” makes for an engaging listen as well, with Lamar’s bilingual rhymes complementing the track’s instrumentation, which careens back and forth fluidly between genres. Lamar’s background as a jazz musician is self-evident on most of these tracks, which are densely laden with jazz guitar figures and a spirited horn section and embellished with kaleidoscopic orchestrations. An element of electro-funk rears its head on several numbers as well, keeping the tempo significantly upbeat, as exemplified on “Double Dutch Hymns,” a party track of the highest order. Lamar continues to mix things up a bit with “Fisherman’s Jig,” a piece that effectively evokes the seaside atmosphere of coastal Brazil with its classical guitar strumming and Latin percussion.

The production on Orange, courtesy of Polyphonic The Verbose, is impressive and never flags despite the vastly heterogeneous nature of the proceedings. And although Lamar’s trumpet playing abilities are patently apparent on these recordings, his skills as an MC are considerable as well. As a vocalist, Lamar has achieved a chameleon-like ability to alternate between a diversity of vocal stylings, but throughout the album he maintains a confidence that shines through in the assuredness of his self-possessed lyrical flows, which are consistently strong — even despite the hilarity of the tongue-in-cheek “Hecky Naw,” which, oddly enough, is another of the album’s high points. The smoothness of the production on Orange, coupled with the album’s skillful arrangements and the infectious lethargy of Lamar’s dexterous rhymes, makes for a unique series of tracks that never ceases to grow on you.

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