Evolution of a Dream

Key Ingredients of African Soul release their debut album

For Mike Olson, guitarist, songwriter and percussionist for Key Ingredients of African Soul, this is the culmination of several dreams come true.

A veteran of many local bands, jam sessions and drum circles, not to mention countless spirited discussions pertaining to African rhythms and music, he has finally fostered a musical family that is supporting and satisfying his deep longing to write, arrange and perform African music.

Although Olson has more than dabbled in world music for many years, he and the 11 others who currently make up the Key Ingredients of African Soul, the group he co-founded in early 2008, are fast becoming the real deal in terms of creating and performing authentic African music.

At the heart of it all is the collaboration he has forged with Ivory Coast native Bassirima Soro, also known as K-Bass.

"K-Bass is the main reason I took whatever it was we were doing—mainly these marimba jams—to the next level," recalls Olson during a recent interview with several band members.

Although he was initially drawn to Soro because of his "star quality—a great front man and entertainer," it's been the collaborative nature of their songwriting that has given this band a mojo that Olson has long been striving for, but never quite achieved. With the imminent release of the band's debut CD, Abidjan to Bulawayo (two cities in Africa that represent the band's influences and roots), it's easy to see and hear that has changed.

But this did not happen overnight. Having come together through a series of chance meetings and informal jams, Key Ingredients has enjoyed the company of many different musicians. At times, they have played with as few as six and as many as 12 people. Now, more than three years after its first gig, the group sports a lineup—which includes guitar, bass and drums, horns, marimba, percussion and several vocalists—that is solid and stable, a quality clearly reflected on the new recording.

One of three Africans on the recording, Soro talks enthusiastically about West African zouglou music, which he describes as a style that is "everyone's song; where the words are always changing, and the more people singing, the better!" Their song "Allemba" is adapted from a traditional Ivory Coast folk song that Olson says is customarily improvised upon. In this case, it is Soro who has re-written the lyrics. He says, "This song is to thank anyone who has been a part of your life and to forgive anyone who has harmed you."

Other influences on the new recording include the music of Mali, as well as traditional West African highlife and soukous music. Additionally, the music of Zimbabwe is strongly represented. Band member Praise Zenenga is a Zimbabwe native, and his collaborations with Soro and Olson are a strong part of the album.

He was home last summer when Olson, fulfilling another dream, made a month-long trip to Zimbabwe. Although some of that is captured in his song "Zimbabwe," Olson says the overall experience was life-affirming, if not life-changing, as he spoke of traveling about the country and sharing music with the locals.

"I got to perform and jam, running all over the country with my little Steinberger guitar," he says. "People made me feel so welcome."

Although much of the album had already been written with Soro before this trip, Olson says, "I came back immersed in Zimbabwe, which gave rise to the rest of the album."

In a private interview, Olson spoke frankly about a deeper and more-profound aspect of his trip. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, he fronted the group Pulse, a tasty amalgam of desert Afro-pop, reggae and other world variants. "All those years, I was studying, emulating and adopting African music. But I never felt understood. My first true sense of validation began with K-Bass ... and climaxed with Zimbabwe. Getting to jam and interact with these musicians (in their country), and being asked to play and teach them my songs, I no longer felt like a failure or flop."

Validation or not, keeping a band of this size together, functioning and functional, is no easy task. Percussionist Joe Whitley is the self- described "band nerd" who takes on the logistical task of getting people together.

Bass player Jeff Henderson says, "It's not difficult to keep the idea going. We've gained a lot of credibility. The hardest part is the scheduling, getting the roll call out (to the band members)."

Henderson adds, "I think the public's interest has kept it going. Fortunately, we're all willing to play this music, even though (with a big band), there is less money."

Like most local bands, almost everyone has day jobs, making it difficult, if not impossible, to tour for any significant length of time.

Soon after returning from Zimbabwe, Olson and the band made plans to record. Well-rehearsed, Key Ingredients powered through its sessions at the Cavern Recording Studio, where a special guest, Fafi (aka 3Percent), an African DJ and vocalist, was invited to put his imprint on the recording. With most of the tracks performed live, including all of the lead vocals, the band feels it successfully achieved its goal of re-creating the energy of a live performance.

Olson cites a number of prominent African musicians as album influences, including Ali Farka Toure, Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi and Dollar Brand.

At the top of the list, however, is a name one might not expect: the late blues guitarist Rainer Ptacek, whom Olson says "encouraged me to play fearlessly, no matter how risky the idea."