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Joachim Kühn, Majid Bekkas with Ramon Lopez: Kalimba

By titling their album Kalimba, pianist Joachim Kühn (born in Germany, current residence: the Mediterranean party island of Ibiza), Moroccan instrumentalist/vocalist Majid Bekkas and Spanish drummer Ramon Lopez declare straight up that it represents a handshake among neighbors. The kalimba, an African-originated thumb piano, is one of three instruments played by Bekkas here, and although it actually sees less action than his oud or guembri, both Moroccan variations of the lute, it’s a fitting image for the trio’s cross-cultural cruise. Kalimba is where flamenco bravado, traditional Gnawa blues and European jazz daring collide, and for both Kühn and Bekkas, it’s a logical next step: Bekkas played with another German, saxophonist Klaus Doldinger, on 2006’s Passport to Morocco, while 45-year veteran Kühn mixed it up last year with the Lebanese oud master Rabih Abou-Khalil on the latter’s Journey to the Centre of an Egg.

Kalimba doesn’t get off to the most auspicious start: “A Life Experience” is saddled by a ghastly, clichéd lyric-the only English-language song on the album-sung repeatedly by Bekkas. Despite the free-spirited improv that emerges, it’s a misstep of an opener. But from there it’s uphill. “Youmala” is built atop an easygoing, melodic piano lick that every so often spins off into deliciously cascading, tempo-shifting soloing and keening, desert-night vocalizing from Bekkas-the song’s primal undercurrent reminds of Ali Farka Touré’s spiritual relationship with the blues. And “Sabbatique” features a noirish lead-in that ultimately gives way to spaces of silence, during which the musicians plot their course. When they emerge, Kühn is blowing alto saxophone with foreboding abandon, Lopez is flailing polyrhythmically and furiously and Bekkas is burrowing into a trancelike chant while spilling out bass runs on the guembri. It’s here that the soul of Spain and the mysteries of North Africa leave their differences behind.

Originally Published