Afro Yaqui Music Collective, Maroon Futures Review
by Stamish Malcuss
Afro Yaqui Music Collective came together in response to the rapidly changing political climate, in which working immigrant communities have become under attack, and climate change has threatened peoples across the world. As part of the band’s mission, their work develops a dialogue with activists around the globe. They have performed and worked with social movement leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan, Mayan, and Yaqui communities in Mexico and Tanzania. They also performed at ASCAP’s 2018 Jazz Awards, at the Kennedy Center, and at universities. They constantly volunteer at fundraisers for immigrant rights and have also performed at the US-Mexican border to protest human rights abuses in 2017. They put “their music with their mouth is” and believe in the power of the arts to unite communities to build a movement that moves. The Afro Yaqui Music Collective is now releasing Maroon Futures. Maroon Futures is six-tracks dedicated to Russell Maroon Shoatz, known to his friends and family as “Maroon,” a political prisoner who has been incarcerated in the state of Pennsylvania for fifty years, with thirty years in solitary confinement. The album unites the sounds of Afro-Cuban culture, Chinese Opera, Indigenous languages, jazz, and hip-hop to say: our struggle is one.
The ensemble is frontwoman Gizelxanath Rodriguez on vocals that influences the music from her experience growing up in two cultures (Mexican and American) and her ancestry as an Indigenous Yaqui woman. Co-leader Ben Barson (winner ASCAP’s top award in jazz composers under 30, the Johnny Mandel prize), Charlotte Hill O’Neal (a former Black Panther and community organizer now living in Tanzania), Nejma Nefertiti (a New York-based revolutionary hip-hop artist), Hugo Cruz (one of Havana’s leading drummers and percussionists), Julian Powell (Pittsburgh’s renowned hip-hop drummer) Yang Jin (a pipa player who has toured with Yo-Yo Ma and countless others), Beni Rossman, Roger Romero, Randraiz Wharton, Samuel Okoh-Boateng, Alec Redd, and Mimi Jong.
Salvador Moreno’s tune “Nonantzin” opens the album with a fine arrangement provided by Barson. The gentle intro is filled with ambient reverb and draws the listener in with Gizlxanath’s angelic voice. The rubato time feel is finally broken by a funky baritone saxophone line by Barson. The ensemble enters, developing a rich, funky groove that Gizelaxanath floats over. The horn stabs are energetic and voiced in authentic funk voicings. The ensemble is a well-oiled machine that turns out power and energy. Barson’s arrangement is a fun adventure of textures, counterpoints, and sounds of groove.
“Ya Habibi” is a Nefertiti, Barson and Rossman original that is EmCeed by Nefertiti. The hip-hop influence is combined with a grooving funk beat with a superb horn part and vocal harmonies. The two styles are joined in a celebration of musical sounds that will lift the emotions. Roger Romero takes a rhythmically adventurous tenor saxophone solo. The ensemble flawlessly navigates all the feel changes as the sprawling arrangement veers from idyllic calm to unrestrained funk emotions and back again. It is the essence of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective’s mindset that nourishes the music into a growling musical expression that will positively impact the listener.
Afro Yaqui Music Collective demonstrates their skills through a challenging set of music with a socially conscious message on Maroon Futures. As a composer, arranger, co-leader and player, Barson proves his music is worth seeking out. Fans of jazz, fusion, blues, and hard-hitting, virtuosic jazz-funk will find this release very satisfying.