Sankofa – The Uptown StrutPosted by Ingrid Wissink
The moment you press play (haha, anachronism!) on Sankofa‘s The Uptown Strut, you think you know what you’re listening to: country-infused blues rock. For those reacting with disgust, discard your presumptions. There are no plugs of the words ‘American’, ‘flag’, or ‘home’ in The Uptown Strut, nor any saccharine yodelling. Sankofa offers a spontaneous, raunchy barnyard romp with klezmer influences, and their goofy go-lucky twang is difficult to resist.
The Uptown Strut was born when the band was taped for Todd Kwait’s 2007 historical documentary, Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, about the preservation of 1920’s jug band legend Gus Cannon. Kwait urged Sankofa (previously named Sankofa Strings) to record at Nevassa Production, a specialized studio in Woodstock, New York. Indeed, most of The Uptown Strut‘s songs are reinterpretations of old, cherished standards such as “Jump Jim Crow” and “Don’t You Make Me High.”
The songs of The Uptown Strut are about drinkin’ and partyin’. What else is there to talk about, really? In “What’s the use in gettin’ sober”, Sule Greg Wilson asks “What’s the use of gettin’ sober when you’ll just get drunk again?” Indeed, one can imagine the pre-production for the album taking place in someone’s kitchen over a jug of moonshine. But surprise! Honking, wailing klezmer clarinet creeps in among the steel guitar and harmonica. With the clarinet trading moans with the mouth harp in “Weed Smoker’s Dream”, a seamless klezmer/country hybrid is born (a feat previously thought impossible by many). “I Can Tell the World About This” bridges the gap between hillbilly country, gospel, and soul, reminding us just how much [white] country and swing borrowed from turn of the century slave music and African American blues.
Dom Flemons (Carolina Chocolate Drops) appears in the misleadingly named “It’s a Good Thing” to warn wandering cowboys against the dangers of philandering and fooling around. The title is a bit misleading, for the song’s message stresses what a terrible thing it is to provoke the wrath of a cheated woman. The repetitious verse invokes campfire humor–the kind that happens when the kids are in bed and the adults have had too much to drink.
“Can’t Strain My Brain” uses the banjo to accompany Ndidi Onukwulu’s langourous lament on pain. The jaunty jangle provides a sublime contrast to her buttery vocals in a testament to opposites. To finish off the album on a friendly note, The Uptown Strut ends with a cover of Ray Charles’ “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” The golden voice of Onukwulu is overwhelmingly charming here, as she churns Charles’ anthem into gospel exaltation.
Sankofa takes an old, dear genre and performs it with individuality and conviction; doing what they do best,by not messing with it. It’s so refreshing to hear an unpretentious band like Sankofa on an album that has escaped over-thinking and simply offers old-time American standards recorded with today’s superior recording capabilities.