Leviticus: jazz, spirituals and fun
The quartet is called Leviticus and, if music is your thing, you’ll want to hear them play. They take traditional tunes and rearrange them, infusing bossa nova, Afro-Cuban and traditional jazz rhythms.
“We’re a jazz quartet that plays primarily hymns and anthems,” said Amoti Nyabongo, who started Leviticus back in 2010. “If Amazing Grace is your favourite song, we’re probably not going to play it the way you’re used to hearing it.
“Our basic theme is change the presentation, but don’t change the message. You may not recognise Amazing Grace when you first hear it but once it starts you can sing along; we don’t change it so much that it offends the listener.”
Along with Dennis Fox, Vernon Tucker and Cordell Warner, the bass player will take centre stage at the Berkeley Institute on Saturday at 7pm. The Fourth Annual Summer Jazz Jam is a fundraiser organised by the Berkeley Educational Society in honour of the school’s 120th anniversary.
Leviticus is one of a list of scheduled entertainers, many of whom are former students. The jazz quartet has its origins with Ebenezer Methodist Church in St George’s.
“My mother, Ada Nyabongo, was the former choir director there and that’s how I became acquainted with the congregation and the church,” Mr Nyabongo said.
“It’s a beautiful place to have functions and the acoustics are almost perfect,” Mr Nayabongo said. “A friend of the family invited me to be a part of what was to be their praise band, in 2010.”
That plan didn’t pan out as expected. The pastor at the time, a guitarist, returned to Canada and left the band short a member. “The present pastor, Cyril Simmons, asked if I could get music together for Black History Month in 2011,” Mr Nyabongo said. “We did and the congregation enjoyed it and we were asked how we could do it on the regular.”
The challenge has always been “finding good musicians that are available to play”.
“We go through a catharsis every year-and-a-half to two years — life happens. So we keep having to adapt to how life works.”
It could be argued that Mr Nyabongo had little choice when it came to whether or not he would play music.
His Bermudian mother, a former music teacher, got him started playing the violin as a young child in Brooklyn, New York. “I’ve always played music,” he said. “But around 13, I heard James Brown — I’ve never been the same.”
He started playing bass shortly after. “Learning how to play bass back then was more about who had the fancy licks; who could imitate Stanley Clarke.
“The rule of thumb across the planet is you can have all the licks but if you can’t keep the groove or the pocket, you’re not going to keep the job.”
He performed in “local pick-up bands” through high school and in his senior year at Tuskegee University, put his own together.
“That’s when I realised I like this,” he said. “I liked calling rehearsals, doing the arrangement thing. A lot of people don’t want to be bothered with the details.”
Once he graduated, however, he decided to take a break from performing. The break lasted 27 years. “I wasn’t too thrilled with the New York music scene after graduation from college.
“In college, a group of friends and I formed a band, River Side Point. We were from different cities and had different tastes in music but we loved playing and sharing so we worked through our different styles. I guess that atmosphere kind of spoilt me.
“Most of my immediate family on my mother’s side are into music, education or both.
“One of my close cousins who is a vocalist, knew I played bass and asked me to play for their church’s gospel choir. This was January in 2005 and I’ve been back on it since. Most definitely it’s better the second time around.”
He moved to Bermuda in 2009 for “two reasons”.
“There was a job opportunity here and my mom was getting up in age — she’s 92 now. I actually caught her last week giving one of the caregivers a piano lesson on the C major scale.”
He thinks the audience will be “pleasantly surprised” next weekend. “We’re performing a mix of hymns and anthems with some standard jazz tunes. If people feel like clapping their hands, go ahead; if they want to get up and dance, go ahead. It’s all about having fun.”
Tickets for the 4th Annual Summer Jazz Jam are available at the Berkeley Institute between 9am and 3.30pm, bdatix.bm and firstname.lastname@example.org. Admission is $60 for patrons, $20 for seniors and students and $30 for general seating. Tickets for the after party are $10 in advance and $20 at the door
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