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New Album 'Songs Of Lake Volta' By Pittsburgh Band Bends Genres

Joe Sheehan
The band Kinetic.

It isn’t exactly jazz, but has its roots in jazz – and in West Africa.

That’s the fast take on the new album Songs of Lake Volta: Ghanaian Traditional Music Reimagined by Pittsburgh band Kinetic, headed by pianist and composer Joe Sheehan.

For hundreds of years, enslaved people from West Africa brought their musical traditions with them to the New World, which ultimately formed the foundation of jazz.

“I ventured off to Ghana, West Africa to study traditional music in Africa,” said Sheehan, who decided to look farther afield after hitting a creative dry spell.

Sheehan, a Leechburg, Pa. native, discovered a love of jazz in high school, eventually earning a doctorate of music in composition. He says he has a passion for the songs he learned in West Africa on an intial trip in 2009. He returned again in 2013 and 2014 and says those trips formed the basis of the record.

“In Ghana, typically songs are associated with particular traditional dances and social events and performances, but you can hear anyone singing a song on a bus ride to kill time or just to have fun together,” said Sheehan. “But often the songs are really part of a communal music-making event."

Kinetic member and Pittsburgh native Anqwenique Wingfield is a classically trained vocalist who has been a member of the group for five years. She's been involved in this project since it began and greatly appreciates the challenge of singing in other languages and dialects.

“And I really respected his process in doing that because often times you know it can be in the realm of cultural appropriation and it can be offensive at times,” said Wingfield.

Sheehan says music is a tremendous tool for understanding different cultures.

“It can break down walls," Sheehan said. "What I hope this project represents is sharing songs from a culture that maybe is not as well known for having songs. And so I hope it raises awareness of the depth and the richness of music within Ghana."

In addition to Sheehan's band Kinetic, four artists from the all-female Kassia Ensemble contributed to the album. Combining a jazz band of classical musicians and traditional folk music from another culture is complicated and initially Kassia’s cellist Katya Janpolodyan had some reservations.

“We were all concerned a little bit of course because for me specifically that was the first time collaborating with a jazz ensemble as a string quartet,” said Janpolodyan. “The way Joe wrote the music around the Ghanaian songs worked perfectly for this combination. It was very interesting, unorthodox, and beautiful.”

Wingfield agrees with that assessment.

“I thought it was perfect. I've always loved working with strings and they're woven in and now they're rhythmic and I thought was a wonderful addition to the guitar and the vocals the percussion and everything that's happening with Kinetic.”

Songs of Lake Volta: Ghanaian Traditional Music Reimagined will be performed live Wednesday night at Mr. Smalls in Millvale.