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King of Him

Chris Berry brings Zimbabwean sounds to WOW Hall and more
Chris Berry in the studio recording King of Me Photo by Cynthia Miller.
Chris Berry in the studio recording King of Me Photo by Cynthia Miller.

Chris Berry loves African music so much that he risked his life to play it. As a teenager in California, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, who plays the WOW Hall Friday, Aug. 16, studied African drumming with master drummer Titos Sompa, then spent a decade exploring it at the source, especially among Zimbabwe’s Shona people. He learned their language, cultural history and music, including their signature instrument, the zingy metal mbira (a “thumb piano”). His Zimbabwe-based band Panjea, which blended traditional African sounds with hip hop and Afropop, earned widespread popularity there — as well as the enmity of the country’s corrupt, thuggish leader, Robert Mugabe, thanks to Berry’s anti-repression lyrics. Death threats finally forced him to escape Zimbabwe, but Berry’s really a citizen of the world, teaching (at Stanford and Oberlin, among others) and performing his African-tinged music in concerts and festivals around the globe. Now based in Brooklyn and Hawaii, he’s worked with Zimbabwean legends like Oliver Mtukudzi and Eugene’s Thomas Mapfumo, as well as jammier types like The String Cheese Incident and many others.

Berry’s new album, King Of Me, does what greats like Paul Simon, Danny Michel, David Byrne, Brian Eno have done: place a poetic pop-folk chassis over an African music engine to create a propulsive musical vehicle for his songs. He’s electrified and otherwise modified the mbira so that it can play the role of electric guitars and bass, sort of the converse of Mapfumo’s appropriation of mbira melodic lines, which he transposed to electric guitar. Further propelled by Ivorian reggae drum master Abou Diarrassouba, and guest album appearances by Brazilian Girls and others, the final result is a potent, pop-inflected fusion of African and American sounds. 

Classical music, however, still slumbers through its summer doldrums, but a brief breeze blows through the University of Oregon this weekend when Korean pianist Meehyun Michelle Ahn plays music by Tchaikovsky (an arrangement of The Nutcracker ballet music), mystical late Romantic Russian composer Alexander Scriabin and contemporary Korean composer Lee Insik on Aug. 16 at Beall Concert Hall. And on the afternoon of Aug. 18 at the UO’s intimate Collier House, flute faculty Molly Barth and Kim Pineda lead a free student performance, including Baroque works (played on period flutes) by Telemann and Couperin, as well as flute faves by Bach and modern composers.