ON the beat: Chris Berry @ Federal Diner: a night to remember

Chris Berry: new sounds from ancient instruments

Chris Berry: new sounds from ancient instruments

ANNABEL WILSON caught Grammy-winning Chris Berry at Federal Diner this week for an interactive night of African-infused rhythm and melody.

Amongst the dubstep and other crap currently infiltrating our airwaves, the antidote is where it has always been: in the tribal beat. The opening to Chris’ set began with the soft resonances of “the voice of the ancestors”: the mbira (Zimbabwe’s national instrument). It’s the kind of sound that can stop a conversation mid sentence and is almost impossible not to dance to. As Berry explains, the name mbira is easy to remember; just think Mmm, Beer, Ah. And to hear this played is indeed like downing a tall glass of lager on a sunny day. It reminds this listener of wide open spaces under African skies and is clearly one of the many things Chris fell in love with during his ten year stint in the land of the Sahara.

Living in the ghettos and villages of Zimbabwe during Mugabe‘s reign, Berry studied the music of the Shona people, adding to the repertoire of traditional African music he’d gained under the tutelage of master drummer Titos Sompa (one of the founders of the African drum and dance scene on the United States’ West Coast) as a fifteen year old. He became initiated by the village elders into their heritage, mastered the mbira, and learned to speak the Shona language fluently. Immersed in the culture of all-night mbira ceremonies, Chris found his voice singing among the polyrhythmic harmonies commonly found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Encouraged by his teachers to create his own compositions, he formed the band Panjea which fused funk with elements of hip hop, afro pop and traditional African music. The band quickly had number one hits on the radio, toured all over Africa, and reached platinum status on an album they recorded with Zimbabwean-based Gramma Records. As Chris Berry and Panjea’s popularity rapidly grew, Chris was warned to leave Zimbabwe due to his lyrical opposition to the oppressing government, and instructions from his teachers to take his music out to the world, but it wasn’t until four of Panjea’s band members succumbed to AIDS and attempts were made on his own life that Chris left Zimbabwe. Since then he has blasted his powerful sound around the world for over twenty years; rocking audiences from NYC’s Irving Plaza to sold out stadiums in South Africa and the Sydney Opera House. He has released over a dozen albums; scored the soundtrack for three films; and has collaborated and performed with some of the best musicians on the planet including Eminem, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Senegalese afro-pop sensation Yousoou N’dour, Cuban legends Los Munequitos de Mantanzas, jazz artist Paul Winter, Jamaican rhythm and production duo Sly (Dunbar) and Robbie (Shakespeare), and Fugees’ producer Handel Tucker.

Singing over the room-filling cross rhythms of the mbira, Chris’ unassuming charm sets the tone for an evening which encapsulates the transformative capacity of music. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” This familiar quote (originally from Marianne Williamson) was used in the 1994 inauguration speech of Nelson Mandela, whom Chris’ opening song is named after. When it’s sung several times, it becomes a chant; a meditative taizé prayer for peace.

As we nibbled on antipasto platters and supped on Central Otago wines, Chris neatly segued into his second piece by telling us “Now’s about the right time for a love song”. His lyrics use rich, elemental imagery to conjure themes about relationships, holding on to hope against the odds, physical and emotional journeys and the importance of community. As he reminded us during the song Dreamer of Dreams, much of his music is participatory. The audience are compelled to join in by singing the harmonies or dancing.

Chris’ fourth song, Love on the Mountain showcased his drumming ability over alluring lines like “They don’t know my name but I shine … I found love on a mountain … and I’m trying to bring it down to the streets. Love like a fountain and I want to bring it down to the people I meet.” His music is definitely about bringing it to the people. At this point we’re all entranced so the time is ripe for storytelling. Chris’ stage manager and good friend Robin Christie joins him on the stage to share an ancient tale of Taneakana and the Lioness; “a story from the fire tribe”. Reminiscent of the story of Māui and Mahuika, this is a traditional explanation for how fire was lost and then retrieved. Again, it’s also a story about a journey: physical, philosophical and spiritual. As Robin explains, it’s about self-belief: “Trust your journey”.

At the end of the night, Chris has most of the audience out of their seats to sway, stamp and sashay to one of his most popular tracks, Find A Way. It was the most uplifting gig I’ve been to for a while, simply because it harked back to the most basic forms of collective celebration: some people, some music, some dancing… with a bit of magic thrown in.

To appear in our Gig Guide, submit your events to our website. For further support with promotion, advertising, interviews, reviews and photography for your happenings in the Central Otago basin, contact annabel@onmag.co.nz.

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