Through a decade of work in the many musical worlds that harmoniously coexist in New York, Oran Etkin has cultivated a singular voice that brings together elements of modern jazz with traditional African and Israeli music. Kelenia, his debut recording on Motéma Music, features his working group of Malian, Israeli and American musicians, along with guest appearances by vocalist Abdoulaye Diabate and Grammy Award-winning artists Lionel Loueke, and John Benitez on a collection of eleven tracks that pay true testament to the essence of "kelenia," which is the Bambara word for love between people who are different from each other.
Since first forming Kelenia in 2003, Oran and the band's other original members - Balla Kouyate (balafon) and Makane Kouyate (calabash and vocals) - have developed an almost telepathic connection that transcends nationality and genre to create music that is free and spontaneous enough to go into uncharted territories, and at the same time speak honestly from the heart. It is particularly apt that their recording debut was released on Motéma Music.
"Oran is in many ways a quintessential Motéma artist... a virtuosic player with multiple influences, who is savvy as a band leader, courageous with his compositions and inspiring in his dedication to bringing a new vision to the art form," says label owner Jana Herzen. "The infectious brew of jazz, Klezmer and traditional Malian music that Oran cooks up with Kelenia, is illuminating, uplifting, and incidentally, a whole lot of fun!"
Although many jazz musicians incorporate world elements into their music, Oran's approach has a special power born of his triple-threat fluency in the musical languages of West Africa, Jewish music and jazz. Etkin is highly respected amongst the best practitioners of all three genres due to his musical journeys to his native Israel, his time spent in Mali, and his years on the highly demanding modern jazz scene of New York City. Given the rarity of musicians who share this depth of fluency in jazz and world music, it is no surprise that Oran and Lionel Loueke were drawn to each other early on in their professional careers.
"Lionel and I began playing soon after we moved to New York," Oran recalls. "It's always fun to play with him, building off each other's melodies and sounds and letting the music lead us to a different place each time."
Oran grew up playing jazz, mentored at a young age by the likes of George Garzone, Yusef Lateef and Dave Liebman. He has been working with various West African musicians in the US and Africa for over ten years and learned their music the traditional way-by listening and playing it with the masters. For his formal training, Oran also studied classical clarinet and composition, an experience that inspired him to add a string section to one track, the sinuous "New Dweling".
"I have always loved playing clarinet with strings", explains Etkin "On this album, I decided to take that sound one step further, adding strings to Kelenia. All that sound of wood vibrating in the room-the violin, cello, bass, and also the balafon, calabash and bass-clarinet created such a warm and rich sound together."
From the spirited opener "Yekeke," which sparkles with Balla Kouyate's balafon and is buoyed by Daibate's soaring vocals, through the impassioned rhythmic title track and the cleverly Klezmer-tinged interpretation of Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing," Kelenia is an adventurous exploration into a uniquely kaleidoscopic musical landscape.
Having developed a high level of virtuosity on an instrument that for years has been absent in the modern jazz world, Oran stands out amongst a small handful of musicians who are putting the clarinet and bass-clarinet back into the forefront of modern improvised music.
“He’s a great clarinet player”, Ben Ratliff of the New York Times recently remarked on WBGO radio. “He’s got a beautiful sound… and he’s an excellent improviser”
Although Kelenia represents Oran's debut CD as a leader, he has recorded with artists as diverse as Wyclef Jean and Frank London. He has performed at venues throughout the US, Europe, Africa and the Middle East including Joe's Pub, Blue Note, the United Nations (for of Kofi Anan, Al Gore and presidents of several nations), Central Park SummerStage, Miami's American Airlines Arena and Montreal's Festival International Musique Haitienne. In his travels to Mali, Oran had the opportunity to play for the Chief of all Griots and sit in with some of the region's most respected musicians, including Toumani Diabate, Habib Koite and the Super Rail Band.
An avid advocate of the power of music education, Oran sits on the faculty of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and has developed a new method for teaching music to 2-6 year olds that has so far shown exciting results with over 400 young students.
"Ebullient swing rhythm" - The New York Times
"A hypnotic balance between straight-ahead jazz and world music" - The Boston Globe
"A woodwind maestro" - PRI's "Afropop worldwide"