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Jamael Dean & The Afronauts

USA | OM

Jamael Dean & The Afronauts: Californian subculture with African roots

Hailing from the Los Angeles jazz circles is keyboard player, producer and composer Jamael Dean. The grandson of legendary soul jazz drummer Donald Dean has toured with Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Carlos Niño. Jamael's music reflects the dual influence of his jazz ancestors and Los Angeles contemporaries, including beats, rapping and production under his aliases Jira >< and Jasik, all coming together in a new beat-orientated spiritual jazz. Jamael is also an integral part of the legendary Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, founded by Horace Tapscott in 1961 and still active in various constellations since then.

Jamael’s grandfather, legendary drummer Donald Dean, sparked his passion for music by taking him to see live performances. After learning the keyboard by ear and subsequently taking lessons, he received a formal jazz education and learned its history. Jamael draws a thorough line between his tradition’s origins and twentieth century jazz. His playing is inspired by pianists who “broke down everything I thought music could be” — the way Hancock’s swagger, Kenny Kirkland and Randy Weston’s percussive playing. Alice Coltrane’s profound spirituality were all moving expressions of the artists’ own personalities. “I love how Alice Coltrane plays the piano like a harp and her genius compositions,” he says. 

When creating the songs that became Primordial Waters, his debut album on the legendary Stones Throw label, he both used the tools of his musical education and pushed against those parameters. Jamael is also influenced by hip-hop as jazz. On the songs “Ba’Ra’Ka” and “Orí Inu”, as Jasik (je yato si ika — to separate yourself from the wicked), Dean raps over production created under his Jira >< moniker (ji — to wake strength). He also raps on the tracks “Time” and “Oya”, which sample his own composition “Ṣàngó”.

Dean wanted to involve his music community, and invited his frequent collaborator, vocalist Sharada Shashidar, and Mekala Session to perform on the album. Dean is a seasoned collaborator: he currently leads the music collective The Afronauts, has participated in the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, and has played and performed with the likes of Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Carlos Niño.

Primordial Waters refers to the creation story of the Yoruba people, a West African ethnic group with a revered tradition. Dean explains, “I wanted to do something that would honor them.” 

The songs tell the stories of various deities and divinities: “Èṣù” tells the story of the wise ancient child-like divinity that was the first one present during creation and currently resides at the crossroads of life and one’s decisions; “Ọṣun” pays tribute to the divine feminine; “Ifá” refers to the sacred number 16, the main odu oracles that contains the stories of wisdom and traditions of ile ife. These traditional Orisha and Yoruba stories, alongside Jamael’s Los Angeles roots, are the guiding principles of Primordial Waters. “Galaxy In Leimert” is influenced by Alice Coltrane’s “Galaxy Around Olodumare” and pays celestial homage to Leimert Park, Jamael Dean’s L.A. neighbourhood, home to the Black-owned businesses Eso Won Books, Sika art gallery, Ride On bike shop, and World Stage. This district is one of the areas on the frontline of the city’s gentrification. 

Jamael says, “I wanted to do something that would honor and uplift my ancestors, and uplift myself and my community. It’s too often that we see things that keep us in a box or keep us down, and don’t allow us to fully express who we are.”

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