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Bengt Berger: The Epic of Cool Funeral Beer

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Bengt Berger: The Epic of the Cool Funeral Beer
Beche's Cool Funeral Beer Band - photo by J. Bergmark

First there was life; then death and then life again. Perhaps that’s because human have a natural tendency to aspire to what is beyond the bright blue – or dark grey and crepuscular – sky. The Greeks saw themselves in Olympus, The Romans in Elysium, the Vikings in Valhalla, and the Hebrews in Zion… and so on… but it was not just a mountain that swam into view, in their foresight [or hindsight]. It was the vision of a better place

But what or our earliest civilised ancestors? According to the African belief system, life does not end with death, but continues in another realm. Becoming an ancestor after death is an eminently desirable goal of every individual. But first must come Death. To prepare for the life of an ancestor requires that Death is the last phase of the elaborate celebration of the African life cycle . Death is recognised in Africa through a rite of passage that prepares the spirit of the deceased to journey on to the next realm. In many African societies, after the body is buried, the family will have a second, more elaborate funeral. 

Cool Funeral Beer - The Gruppbild - photo by J Bergmark
Cool Funeral Beer – The Gruppbild – photo by J. Bergmark

Bengt Berger, one of the pre-eminent thinking musicians among thinking musicians, thought elaborately about Death and Resurrection – but not in a Wagnerian way; or like Richard Strauss or any other Northern musician we know from Classical or Romantic times. Mr Berger made his way to the continent where civilisation – and therefore human thinking: to the continent of Africa, where all thinking about Life, Death and Resurrection was almost certainly first contemplated. And from that experience first came Bitter Funeral Beer and now Cool Funeral Beer… This demands precognition. But since we may not have the benefit of that, let’s flashback before we make a leap into what transpired after Mr Berger met the Lo-Birifor, with field recorder in hand…

And speaking of hands Mr Berger – having had his academic and practical scholarship – i.e., performance – endorsed by his ko-Gyil xylophone teacher, the great Kakraba Lobi, he then took up the wooden mallets, to lead one of the most elaborate orchestrations of African-European music ever put down on record. The first of these was Bitter Funeral Beer, which hold up a proverbial mirror to the rituals practiced upon the death of a member of the Lo-Birifor. This is now been followed by Cool Funeral Beer or what is most certainly an even more elaborate epic Afro-European Oratorio [for any other way to describe this music is wholly inappropriate]. This is what Mr Berger calls Cool Funeral Beer.

Freedom – one of the 13 episodes in Bengt Berger’s forthcoming oratorio Cool Funeral Beer

To make a deep dive into the remarkable spectacle of this music – which is being work-shopped in a series of recitals in Sweden before it will be put down on record – pity… it should have been a series of DVDs instead.

First there is life… then Death… and then there is Life…

The vivid nature of Bitter Funeral Beer – and now – Cool Funeral Beer suggests that are more “African” than we care to feel and thus to admit. I never realised that – at heart – I always considered myself African. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that we have all descended from a pair of homo-sapiens – Pithicanthropus Erectus, to be precise, who first roamed the earth under the Paradise of the African Sun. It has to do with suddenly finding myself feeling the rhythm of the earth – the brown earth of Africa, being whipped up as I walked to the long-term care home where I volunteer and – equally suddenly – becoming aware of a kind of cardiac arrhythmia that eerily aligned with the tattoo of the doundoun

I am not the only one on earth who lives outside to feel this way. Neither am I the only person of colour to feel this way. Pharoah Sanders, when Bill Laswell took him to Morocco to record The Trance of the Seven Colours with the Gnawa master musicians led by Ma’leem Mahmoud Ghania, when asked how he knew what noodling melodic line top play as soon as the recording began said: I knew this music in Arkansas…”

The Cool Funeral Beer Band winding up for an explosive performance – photo by J. Bergmark

Again, it isn’t just people of colour who discovered the African heart beating in their respective chests. Plenty of white people also do – – especially Europeans, who, atoning for past sins too find themselves seduced by the anthropological verity of men like Cheikh Anta Diop who wrote his famous treatise The African Origin of Civilisation – Myth or Reality [first published in French by Présence Africaine, Paris, 1955; translated and edited by Mercer Cook, published by Lawrence Hill Books, 1974] as a doctrinal thesis, but who, for years had his theories debunked by white-supremacist-minded peers.

And, although mystics like Hazrat Inayat Khan do not refer to the African-ness of human beings have come to the conclusion that spiritually and aesthetically we all come from a single source, which, by inference, I suppose is the descendents of the same Pithecanthropus Erectus who first stood up and walked on his hind-quarters somewhere in the Great Rift Valley. However, to go back to the atoning European: in contemporary times they have, like my own paternal grandfather felt a strong urge to go the Africa to atone [in the case of my grandfather] or – in the case of artists such as Bengt Berger, Bill Laswell, Adam Rudolph at least to experience the African Aesthetic of Foli:

In everything there is rhythm…

Bengt Berger is unique among almost all of the contemporaries. He not only spent years in Ghana to live with and learn from the ways-musicale of the Lo-Birifor. This looking outward of himself and the insularity of his Northern European-ness began, as Mr Berger told me first began to make an impression on him in 1963 when he heard –n in Stockholm – a long-playing recording of the celebrated sitar-player Pandit Ravi Shankar and the tabalchi, Pandit Chatur Lal. He was drawn to the Indian sub-continent from the early 60’s.

Bengt Berger playing ko-gyil at a performance of Cool Funeral Beer – photo by Leo Ahmed

His African sojourn came later, and has also had a lasting impression on him throughout the five decades [or more] that he has spent indulging his prodigious faculties in the creative process.  As he narrates it, “In the seventies I spent one and a half years in Ghana with my family studying Ewe-drumming in Accra and the Volta region, Brong-Ahafu-drumming in the small village of Ammasu and Lo-Birifor xylophone music with Kakraba Lobi in Accra and the north of Ghana while my wife was doing her fieldwork in social anthropology. My Ko-Gyil xylophone teacher was the great Kakraba Lobi, his teaching is behind a lot of my later work with the Bitter Funeral Beer Band. He visited Sweden in 1978 for a tour we did together in Swedish schools and some concerts together and with our Swedish music collective Ett Minne För Livet [A Memory For Life].”

From Bitter… to Cool Funeral Beer

How the production of Cool Funeral Beer cam about makes for a heartening story. And no one explains it better than the man behind both epics: the inimitable percussion colourist and narrator of both epics Bengt Berger:

 “When [the production company] Blank Forms asked me if I wanted to do the Bitter Funeral Beer Band again for the Don [Cherry] and Moki [Cherry] celebrations a couple of years back, I said no but then I said, I want to create a second part, in line with the funeral traditions even though in this case 40 years has passed. Then the pandemic [caused by the coronavirus] struck so it didn’t happen but I kept working on the music and what is happening is that we do what I call Public Rehearsals in preparation for what I hope we can perform within a year or two, three continuous days of music and stuff.

“The first one happened in Copenhagen in 2021, there are some videos from there but not professionally done, just what people took with their phones I think. You find them on the Country & Eastern YouTube channel [I think]. There we mostly worked on the first day’s music but in March this year we had the second one and then I got a very good guy to videotape it and did quite a good recording that will soon be released as Cool Funeral Beer – Day 1 – The Creation of the Final Ancestor Shrine. I will do it digitally only but with the plan that its 20 + 20 minutes so when all three days are ready I will release a nice box with three LP records, a lot of photos and other stuff. Unless I die before…”

Bengt Berger and the Cool Funeral Beer Band – photo by Lars Jönsson

The “Beer” ritual may sound obscure to the vast majority of those with little- to no know knowledge of the ancient traditions of the Lo-Birifor. Yet the revival of it – from Bitter to Cool – is not something worthy of exhumation, but the rehabilitation and unraveling of a composition bursting with imagination and gripping drama. Frankly it is hard to imagine that Bitter Funeral Beer has lain unheard of – and probably unheard too – for over 40 years old and even I spent a while wondering if it was real. 

Cool Funeral Beer is a sacred communal dialogue oratorio, in which there is no joined-up narrative but in which the soloists [and chamber ensemble, and vocalists] take roles in a sequence of dramatic tableau. The subject is Death and Resurrection and it is possible to imagine that the cast includes the living and the dead, and – in all probability God as well; or at any rate the ancestors the procession of which the dead person has now joined. Unlike Bitter Funeral Beer, where there was much proverbial wailing and gnashing of teeth, Cool Funeral Beer is a cause for celebration.

There is no equivalent in music for what Cool Funeral Beer sounds like; nothing to which it can be compared. The tone poems of Richard Strauss and some Wagnerian music are what come to mind – albeit like a dissonant musical echo that descends like a proverbial mist upon the mind before lifting and allowing the thunderous effervescence of Cool Funeral Beer to settle upon one. The musical language of Cool Funeral Beer, which includes elements of mourning and the soaring elation that sets in once all of the sadness, is willed away.

What we are left with after the terrifying conjuring of sinister death [in Bitter Funeral Beer] is the beautiful and tender love and exhilaration of Resurrection. This feeling of release from the suffering of life is a universal one, to be exact. However, under African skies there is an “otherness” about it. A hint that some ancient and celestial energy has both descended upon the realm of the dead, but by the sheer exultation of the music of Cool Funeral Beer, lifted body and soul into the rarefied, or heavenly realm.

The performers form a revolving cast, due in part because this is a rehearsal documentary – and also because of other musical commitments that did not align with Mr Berger’s production due to the fact that the thirteen movements of Cool Funeral Beer were performed with irregular intervals. However, throughout the performance – sadly we can only accommodate a couple of sections of this epic production – the artists involved, led by Mr Berger, who conducts the noble work with great authority, present a committed and compelling reading of the work. Throughout, soloists and ensemble revel in the music’s gift of freedom and dramatic expression as if they are living mirrors of the very ritual that has been set to music.

Although the thunder of two basses and a battery of ethnic drums makes a grand wall of rhythm, and although the brass and woodwinds raise the roof with their soaring exhortation of melody and harmony, and despite the eloquent and supernatural wailing of the violin of Livet Nord and the elemental cries and vocalastics from Emmanuelle Martin, I have to say that the greatest thrill is listening to the melodic and rhythmic undulation of the ko-gyil, played by Mr Berger and others. This is, after all what sets this oratorio where it rises from: the red-brown earth of the Lo-Birifor deep in rural Ghana, before ascending to a place beyond the sky where the ancestors now dwell in the arms of God.

Mr Berger says: “Cool Funeral Beer is the final rite, following Bitter Funeral Beer [both composed by Bengt Berger] that we did 40 years ago. When complete it will take three days to perform, let’s hope it’s worth the wait.”

Video: Rehearsal of Freedom from Day 2 – The Bathing of the Widows

The main thing with the second day of Cool Funeral Beer is the dancing that will end the period of mourning. After this the widows will be free to step into the everyday life and make themselves live as regular members of society again.

Musicians – Bengt Berger: ko-gyil and percussion; Marianne Nlemwo Lindén: vocal and percussion; Robin Cochrane; balaphones and percussion; Martin Jonsson: sound design and percussion; Henrik Wartel: percussion; Lise-Lotte Norelius: percussion and electronics; Peter Janson: contrabass;  Viktor Reuter: contrabass; Lars Almqvist: trumpet; Staffan Svensson: trumpet;  Lisen Rylander Löve: saxophones; Thomas Gustafsson; saxophones; Sir Thomas Jäderlund: saxophones and bass clarinet; Jonas Knutsson: saxophones Sten Källman: saxophones; Livet Nord: violin; Göran Klinghagen: guitar: Max Schultz: guitar; Emmanuelle Martin: vocal

Soloists – Emmanuelle Martin: vocal; Lisen Rylander Löve: saxophones and Staffan Svensson: trumpet

Track list for video-taped  rehearsals – Cool Funeral Beer – Day 1 – The Creation of the Final Ancestor Shrine – 1: Cool Call – Chalnut – Berserk; 2: The Widows of Kundar Village – Don’s Horn – Palaver – Todi Children; 3: My Darkest Moments; 4: Faster – Skriiik. Cool Funeral Beer – Day 2 – The Bathing of the Widows – 5: Hambo; 6: Freedom; 7: Devia Kunde Li-e; 8: Gunnar Valkare Memorial Dance; 9: Kakraba Hi Five; 10: Brotherhood Dies Today; Cool Funeral Beer – Day 3 – The Settling of the Estate – The Ordeal of the Children – 11: New Gyil; 12: Black Volta Crossover; 13: Mishra

Musicians – For the March 30th videos 1 – 13, from Dieselverkstaden these were the musicians, soloists as written in each of the videos. However, from the 30th of March, 2022 in Dieselverkstaden the following is the list of musicians:

Bengt Berger: ko-gyil and percussion; Marianne Nlemwo Lindén: vocal and percussion; Robin Cochrane; balaphones and percussion; Martin Jonsson: sound design and percussion; Henrik Wartel: percussion; Lise-Lotte Norelius: percussion and electronics; Peter Janson: contrabass;  Viktor Reuter: contrabass; Lars Almqvist: trumpet; Staffan Svensson: trumpet;  Lisen Rylander Löve: saxophones; Thomas Gustafsson; saxophones; Sir Thomas Jäderlund: saxophones and bass clarinet; Jonas Knutsson: saxophones Sten Källman: saxophones; Livet Nord: violin; Göran Klinghagen: guitar: Max Schultz: guitar; Emmanuelle Martin: vocal

Notes by Bengt Berger:

I – As we are doing the final mixes of the first album right now I am changing the titles to go better with the whole of the three movements/days. But the titles on the videos should be correct. I wanted to have it out now when we play but it’s not quite ready yet. I think I can send you almost ready recordings in one week from now.

II – The videos are from Day 1 and Day 2 plus concluding taste of Day 3 as I consider our performances as Public Rehearsals until we do the full three days that I aim at.

III – For the October rehearsal Marque Gilmore is back on percussion and Signe Dahlgren on tenor saxophone, but Livet Nord was on tour and Sten Källman was busy with the Haitian musicians that he managed to bring to Sweden for an long tour and to record Mapou. Mats Äleklint was playing sousaphone and trombone In Umeå.

IV This [rehearsal music will likely be on the first album, all from the same gig as the videos and will comprise: Side A – 1: Cool Call; 2: The Widows of Kundar Village; 3: Berserk; 4: Chalnut; 5: Don’s Horn; 6: Palaver; 7: Todi Children and Side B – 1: My Darkest Moments; 2: Mishra; 3: Black Volta Crossover; 4: Brotherhood Dies Today; 5: Faster; 6: Skriiik

V Kakraba Hi Five [is also likely to be on either Side A or B].

VI Cool Funeral Beer Public Rehearsal [II part 6] at Dieselverkstaden on March 30, 2022, filmed by Petter Berndalen

Video-recordings of all rehearsals were shared from time–to-time on social media by Mr Berger. More information is available here.

Deo gratis

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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