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Published: 2006/05/14
by Randy Ray

Dancemakers – Chris Berry and Panjea

Wrasse 174

Common knowledge dictates that if the intellectual explorer visits the mysterious land of the Great Unknown, one either never returns or returns as a strange and somewhat disillusioned soul who has survived. Call me Ishmael. Call me Ulysses. Call me a cab; I need a vacation from myself. Well there is also the theory that one should not stray too far from one’s own culture, God forbid one learns something. These limited ideas miss the mark when describing the American expatriate, Chris Berry, who lived in Southern Africa for over a decade, won a widespread audience and is now exporting his brand of dance hall hip-hop to the Western world. The SoCal native plays the mbiri — a thumb piano — various percussion and writes socially conscious lyrics while fronting Panjea, which features a full horn section, guitar, bass, drums and percussion.

Dancemakers begins with traditional rump shakin’ and soon hits a very high note with “Why Do We” which combines a formidable rhythm section with a political bite: "why do we kill people, who kill people, to show people, that killing people is wrong?" An update on the old adage that two wrongs don’t make a right? Perhaps, but the song is also a smart and sublime slice of acoustic funk with a powerful sense of purpose. Other clichabound without the same fortune. “Home,” is ersatz Sting without direction and “Rock it Down” is Bob Marley on cocaine and, on second glance, that may not be all bad. Elsewhere, the title track features a trippy organ, deep house music drums and a very soulful vocal from Berry although the lyrics, again, straddle the precipice between insight and the obvious comment. “Axe Forget,” however, slides along with the same bag and works because the infectious hook darts forward while the body grooves and the mind reels with the ingenious hook: "axe forgets what the fallen tree cannot."

The overall liquid hep shake vibe on Dancemakers allows creative cherry picking and a solid album experience, which is always a key sign for longevity in my house. Then again, with more sloppy sax, prickly guitar licks, raw emotion and less studio polish, Chris Berry & Panjea still have an opportunity to create a richer sound; navigate a mainline groove that isn’t wedded to the lame notion that one should stay on one’s own side of the railroad tracks — or the ocean, as the case may be. We shall see.

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