If there were a Church of Rhythm, seeing Manah play would be like taking communion. Employing a variety of Western and non-Western instruments —including tenor sax, didgeridoo, congas, bongos, djembe, and other hand drums— this Seattle quartet’s warm, highly rhythmic music has an intoxicating power.
After a three-month hiatus —in which multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Thomas Armstrong journeyed to Brazil, and percussionist Elizabeth Pupo-Walker worked on Tuatara’s upcoming record— Manah is writing new songs and preparing for a summer tour of the West Coast with shows around town. Walker, saxophonist Stephen Gauci, and bass player Bob Heinemann discussed their music over coffee last week.
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Familiar rhythms played on not-so-familiar percussion instruments are part of Manah’s attraction. Walker played in a calypso band at one time, but found lots of her inspiration in hip-hop and funk. “When I practice, that comes to me so naturally that I don’t really focus on it anymore,” she says. “I focus more on Afro-Cuban music and Senegalese music, and things that are going to make me a stronger, more dimensional player.”
Gauci, who also plays with Heinemann in the more hard-hitting jazz-funk band Sauce, spent a dozen years in New York with traditional jazz outfits like the Glenn Miller Orchestra before moving to Seattle. He didn’t find his trad-jazz background all that useful to Manah, but says Manah has been a boon for his straight jazz playing. A lot of the skill he’s gained comes from playing with a hand drummer as opposed to a kit drummer. “Most modern jazz has a freer time feel,” Gauci explains. “With Manah, there’s always a lot of small tapping, with the congas—” he demonstrates, tapping his fingers on the table. “So it’s really gotten me locked into the drums. Now when I play with a jazz group, that [sense] is always there.
“Also, I have a much freer concept of playing now. I can play anything with these guys, and if it works rhythmically, then everything else will just fall into place. So now when I approach chord changes in standard jazz tunes, I have a much freer approach—I test the limits a lot more than I would’ve before. I’ve evolved into a different kind of player.”
Though Gauci practices jazz standards all the time, his playing is definitely not traditional. Because Manah has no keyboards or guitars, Gauci can focus on melody and rhythm, two elements that usually take a backseat for a jazz sax player. “If I were playing with a straight jazz group,” he notes, “I’d be thinking more in terms of harmonic structure—certain harmonies hitting over certain rhythms at certain times. It’s more regimented.”
Manah’s self-titled record, released last year, gives a schematic idea of its sound, but what didn’t get captured on plastic was the band’s knack for improvisation. The live Manah experience relies on the songs’ flexibility. “We write a song with a certain structure, and then we open the structure up for solos,” Gauci says. “I’ve been writing a bunch of tunes for the group lately, and when I bring them in [to the band], the structure is there, the melody is there, I have an idea of what I want everybody to do, but it’s pretty open. I’m never sure how it’s actually going to sound.”
This enormous musical freedom can be both positive and negative. “We’re constantly trying to reconceptualize our instruments,” says Heinemann, “keeping their function there, but going in different directions. Sometimes, we’ll be on one idea, and it’s like, ‘What if we hit the ride cymbal for this part, or what if you go to that instrument?’ Everyone’s got pretty good ears, so they can hear possibilities—”
“There’s so many possibilities,” Gauci interjects.
“Yeah, it’s crazy… it’s so vast, and sometimes it gets hard to narrow it down.”
So how do they know when to rein in their playing and when to let it go?
“A lot of it’s just instinct,” Gauci says. “We have some landmark things that we do. If it were a more standard group, everybody would have a certain role, and everybody would know what their roles were—what they have to do to make the music work. That sense of roles is a little stronger now that we have a bass player.”
Since its music combines traditional elements and nontraditional forms, Manah can play in rock clubs, jazz clubs, dance clubs—it fits on almost any bill. “I’ve heard plenty of people who have some strange ideas of what our influences are, but they’re still attracted to our music,” Heinemann says. “One person said we sounded like a mix of lounge music and reggae. I didn’t know what to say.”
Heard live, Manah’s music can be trance-inducing. Listeners are held in thrall by the four musicians’ fluid, symbiotic playing. The experience is almost spiritual. Some of this spellbinding power, Walker believes, is simply a matter of instrumentation: “There’s something about drums. They just naturally have such a heartbeat—such a rhythm—that they’re a primal draw for people.”
But Gauci acknowledges the spiritual element of Manah’s music. “For me, it’s there,” he says. “It’s not something we talk about at all, but I’m lost in it whenever I play. On a certain level, you’re just doing what you do, but on another level, all that’s definitely there…. You can feel the music—like when we play hard, it’s the music that makes us play hard. We don’t play hard because we’re thinking, ‘This is the part where we play hard.'”
Sonarchy page: Manah soundclip