Udé, Udé O is a crazy little piece, based on an even crazier song. In a class with Anthony Kelley, I was exposed to "Dynamite," an early calypso recording by Attila the Hun. I was struck by just how raw this song was, in more ways than one. The recording quality, the singing style, and the lyrical content -- the opening lines of the song are, "He cut she neck with a razor first, then he blow he head wi'the dynamite" -- are nothing like what you would be likely to hear from Harry Belafonte or other more Americanized calypso musicians.
I was curious to hear what had happened to calypso since the '30s, so I went to the library and checked out a compilation CD of a songs by contemporary calypsonians. At first, I was disappointed; none of the songs were grabbing me the way "Dynamite" had. But then I got to "Congo Man," by the Mighty Sparrow, and I was hooked from the start. The song opened with some dark synth sounds and a heavy beat, over which Sparrow shouted and cackled. He then delivered a spoken monologue, with sharply defined rhythms and contours:
THIS is the story, LAdies and GENtleMEN, about TWO LOVELY WHITE WOMEN, travelin' all the way to AFrica, AFrica, AFrica...
I was so entranced by his delivery that it scarcely registered to me that these "lovely white women" had been captured by a cannibal, the eponymous "Congo Man." And all of a sudden, the dark synth sounds were replaced by guitar and bass, and Sparrow started singing a very upbeat song about the cannibal and his victims, full of raunchy double-entendres. His lines were continually interspersed with shouts and growls and scat singing, in a parody of the Western caricature of African "mumbo-jumbo." It's a wonderful song, though I'm sure Tipper Gore would throw a fit if she heard it.
There were so many wonderful moments in "Congo Man" that I felt impelled to harvest them, and write my own piece involving them. Not that I thought I would be bettering the original or anything, just translating it to my own native musical language. I wanted to emulate a lot of the great vocal effects, so I decided to write for tenor and baritone saxophone, two instruments that have long been used in jazz to evoke the timbral and expressive range of the human voice, with a piano to back them up. I started out by reconstructing the introduction to the song, beginning with Sparrow's declamation on the syllables "Oo-day, Oo-day Oh-o," which became the title of the work. I passed bits of Sparrow's monologue between the two saxes, and the cross rhythm of the repeated "AFrica, AFrica, AFrica" started to evolve into a trinkle. This seemed appropriate, as the pounding rhythms of the trinkle were well suited for this pseudo-pseudo-pseudo-African style. In the original Trinkle Dance, the poor pianist has to play a relentless stream of eighth notes in the left hand without a break, but with two saxophones, I had the flexibility to pass the motoric ground rhythms between instruments. I filtered the first verse and chorus through an abstract lens, stretching and distorting the rhythms, and adding dense polytonal layers to the harmony. I started mixing up material from different sections of the song, sometimes combining them with two tempo streams going simultaneously. Somewhere along the way, I get the feeling that I ran out of steam, and hurried to end the piece. I wasn't entirely sure what I had wrought, and I buried Udé, Udé O deep in my hard drive.
Three years later, I had the opportunity to unearth Udé and bring it to life. The featured artist for the Tufts composer concerts that semester was saxophonist Philipp Staüdlin, and while I had too many current projects to write a new work for saxophone, I decided to take a peek at the dusty digital score. I was quite surprised at what I had written; where I thought I had hurried to end the piece in fact sounded manic and frenzied, and not at all out of place. I had apparently written something so wild that it took me three years to get used to it. I did a little editing, mostly cosmetic alterations, and put the music in the able hands of Philipp on tenor sax, as well as my advisor John McDonald on piano, and my classmate Marco Visconti-Prasca. It's not an easy piece to learn -- the instruments are constantly bouncing off one another rhythmically, and changing gears at a moment's notice -- but I imagine it's a wonderful thrill ride for the performers. Udé, Udé O may be crazy, but I think it's a good kind of crazy.