Two bands, each led by high-profile fixtures of the Asheville music scene, came together in March to present a unique night of music. Michael Libramento’s band, Coconut Cake, pays homage to the music of 1960s African Congo, while Ram Mandelkorn’s group, Below the Bassline, explores the work of Jamaican guitarist-composer Ernest Ranglin. The two musical aggregations presented a World Music Dance Party at The Mothlight in Asheville, N.C.
While the term rumba often connotes Cuban dance music, its usage also describes a sound popular in Africa during the ’60s. The acknowledged originators of the genre — Orchestre Rock-a-Mambo and Franco Luambo’s OK Jazz — were hugely popular in the Republic of the Congo. Libramento describes Congolese rumba as featuring “lots of percussion, saxophone or clarinet and sometimes additional guitarists.”
Libramento (also of Floating Action) has long been a keen enthusiast of musical styles that aren’t widely known here in North America. He began independent study of African diasporic music around 2006, by which time he was already playing guitar and leading small groups. “I gradually grew more focused on incorporating Afro-Latin songs, melodies, rhythms and more nuanced aesthetic elements into my performances,” he says.
Libramento first discovered Congo music during a trip to Chicago. “I stumbled upon a compilation CD called Souvenir Ya L’independence,” he recalls. “That was my introduction to late ’50s and early ’60s Congolese rumba. I continued to research, and learn tunes, and incorporate them into my set lists.” Working with some of his Floating Action band mates, he launched Coconut Cake with a fluid lineup that at various times has featured local musicians Ami Worthen, Ryan Oslance and Jason Krekel, among others.
“In 2011, I decided to expand the instrumentation and repertoire to more closely match that of the great bands of ’60s Congo,” he says. Coconut Cake gigs are relatively infrequent because most all of the musicians involved are busy with other touring bands; Libramento currently tours with rock outfit Dr. Dog. “Time at home is infrequent and has its own set of priorities for each of us,” he explains. “However, the low-profile, word-of-mouth/rare performance approach seems to work well.”
Mandelkorn calls Coconut Cake “my favorite band in town” and descries its aesthetic as “Cuban music seen through an African lens. I’m not quite sure how that works,” he says with a chuckle, “but it’s very cool stuff.”
Mandelkorn (The Digs) has been working on the musical project named after Ernest Ranglin’s landmark 1996 album for nearly three years. Collaborating with three members of Empire Strikes Brass (horn player JP Furnas, drummer Nik Hope and Lenny Pettinelli on keyboards), he describes Below the Bassline as “a passion project of the four of us. JP and I have both been kind of obsessed; we’ve loved Ernest Ranglin’s style of music for years, and had a vision to do this years ago.”
Like Coconut Cake, the members of Below the Bassline rarely have free time outside of their other bands, so gigs have been infrequent. But when the group does manage to schedule a show, Mandelkorn says that the response is very positive. Below the Bassline hosted its first World Music Dance Party last year, sharing the bill with another Asheville-based group, Les Amis.
Mandelkorn first heard Ranglin’s music — a dance-flavored style related to but different from reggae —while in college, describing the musician as “a pioneer on all sorts of [Jamaican] albums that people don’t even realize. Below the Bassline was my entry point; I’ve been listening to that album for the last 15 or 20 years. It’s a good entry point to his stuff.”
Though the styles explored by the two groups are quite different, Mandelkorn says that Congolese rumba and Ranglin’s dance music do share some common characteristics. “There’s a vibe to them,” he says. “There’s a joyful, spiritual depth to both styles of music.”
Below the Bassline doesn’t limit itself strictly to Ranglin’s catalog. “We also do a bunch of music by his peers from back then, other roots-reggae pioneers,” Mandelkorn says.
The emotional depth of this “world music” is a big part of the appeal for the musicians involved. And, while The Digs remain very active, Mandelkorn says that the music of Below the Bassline is fulfilling for him in a different way. “It’s a little more groove- and trance-based; not as many crazy changes going on,” he says with a laugh. “It’s probably easier to consume for most audiences. It’s more danceable.”
While there’s certainly a cross-cultural study component to appreciation of these styles, ultimately it’s all about experiencing the groove. The upbeat and joyous feel conjured by live performance of these two musical genres is conducive to dancing. And while, so far, the World Music Dance Party has only taken place locally, Mandelkorn and Libramento hope to expand its reach. “We’re definitely going to keep doing this project,” Mandelkorn promises. “Hopefully, we’ll even get it out of Asheville and travel around with it a bit.”