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January/February 2006

Dakah Hip Hop Orchestra
Unfinished Symphony
Live at Grand Performances 7/2/04

Kufala

At the very least, you have to give this large ensemble an "A" for effort. While the combination of hip-hop and live instrumentation is hardly new, very few try to pull it off in such a grandiloquent style as here. Boasting a lineup that includes a 15-piece string section, 10 rappers and 14 horns, the Dakah Hip Hop Orchestra gives Greg Tate's Burnt Sugar a good run for its money. But unlike Burnt Sugar's heady melange of P-Funk, Miles Davis and Butch Morris, the erudite and the ambitious, Dakah Orchestra is more steeped in the feel-good vibe of the early-'90s acid jazz/hip-hop scene.

On Unfinished Symphony, a 12-song cycle divided into two movements, the group wraps swirling cinematic orchestral arrangements around various grooves that range from ass-gripping funk to swaying reggae. For a hip-hop perspective, none of the MCs offer any lyrical brilliance worthy of the opulent ambiance. Like many other '90s-era jazz/hip-hop ensembles, the rappers can't seem to get past the usual themes of yapping about the connections between the two genres. All of them demonstrate passable rhythmic flow, and they know how to employ jazz's call-and-response techniques admirably. Still, you wish their rhymes had some lyrical depth in the vein of Nas, Common or Jay-Z.
Dakah turns out its best effort on Unfinished Symphony when it eschews rapping and delves into R&B, as on the lovely "Adagio Asiago (Tryin II Sow My Love)," featuring Fanny Franklin's sweet alto. The song later unfolds into a swift jazz excursion, marked with sing-songy melody, a luxurious string arrangement and dazzling horn interplay.

The accompanying The Stravingus Remixes disc is as agreeable as it is anonymous. Tunes such as "Reep What You Sow," "Dankocerto" and "Invocation" sound similar to their original versions but with a deepening of the bottom end, turntablism and human beat-boxing being pushed to the fore and little Pro Tools editing. If you're looking for some high-minded remix on par with the work of Jazzanova, DJ Spinna or Bugz in the Attic, you're in for a disappointment.

Not surprisingly, the Orchestra is best heard live, as illustrated on Live at Grand Performances, which features it tackling more durable materials such as Ashford and Simpson's sunny "California Soul" and Parliament-Funkadelic's "Come in Out of the Rain." The Orchestra also gives hip-hop greats the Roots and Gangstarr a mighty pound with the engaging "Rootrilogy" and "Gang Starr Remix," better solidifying its hip-hop credentials here than the comparatively didactic Unfinished Symphony.

Originally published in January/February 2006
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