On a fine but chilly day in January 2016, I took the train from Christopher Street in the West Village to Hoboken for a cup of coffee with Steve Lehman, the alto saxophonist and composer whose octet I was hoping to present at JazzFest Berlin later in the year. I’d seen them in Amsterdam and they’d confirmed the impression created by their albums that here was a band with a rare ability to use highly sophisticated compositional techniques as a vehicle for a group of superlative improvisers.
Lehman did indeed appear with the octet in the formal surroundings of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele that November, but something he said during our conversation on the western shore of the Hudson River led to a second gig the following year. When I asked what else he was up to, this tall, thin, bespectacled, generally studious-looking man, who studied the “spectral music” of Olivier Messaien in France, has lectured at the Royal Academy of Music in London and was about to head west to take up a post as a professor of music at the California Institute of the Arts, mentioned that he was working with a couple of MCs, one of whom rapped in English, the other in Wolof, the language of Senegal and the Gambia.
That project turned into a band called Sélébéyone, whose first album came out in 2017, shortly before Lehman brought them to Berlin to appear at the old Lido cinema in Kreuzberg as part of a two-night prelude to the main festival which also featured Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones, Shabaka and the Ancestors, and Heroes Are Gang Leaders. They were brilliant. And now their second album — Xaybu: The Unseen — continues their remarkable exploration of ancient and modern.
Sélébéyone are the MCs Gaston Bandimic and HPrizm, who write and rap in Wolof and English respectively, the drummer Damion Reid and the soprano saxophonist Maciek Lasserre, who shares the compositional duties and the instrumental solos with Lehman. The 15 tracks of Xaybu are as carefully constructed, intricately detailed and richly textured as the music of the octet, making extensive use of electronics to modify and layer the source sounds. Lehman’s alto improvisations, always bearing the thoughtfully metabolised influence of his teacher and mentor Jackie McLean, fit beautifully between the spoken words and Reid’s endlessly creative beat-making, as do Lasserre’s citrus-flavoured soprano solos.
The words you catch strike home, and it’s worth reading the translation on the record label’s website to find something like this: “Kou dakoroul sin Ou yalla ndogale clamel god / Kou goki gokk tere nelaw goudi blamel mboot (If you don’t agree with God’s decisions, complain to God / If the frog’s sound keeps you up at night, complain to the frog).” Not your usual hip-hop message. Not your usual hip-hop music, either, or even your usual jazz/hip-hop fusion, but something deep, distinctive, urgent and often exhilarating.
* The photograph of Steve Lehman performing with Sélébéyone in Berlin in 2017 is by Camille Blake. Xaybu: The Unseen is on the Pi Recordings label. Lyrics: https://pirecordings.com/selebeyonelyrics/