What is folk music? The easy answer -- music made by and for folks -- is just a tautology that doesn't begin to explain the difference between a Hopi chant and a House trance. Folk music, in part, is just an expression of common life -- intricate, banal and mysterious -- those long-lived-in melodies and refrains memorized like a family tree, those daily secrets of body and spirit realized in song.
Or, if that's too fancy-pants, it's the music of the St. Louis African Chorus. Begun in 1994, SLAC is the first out-of-Africa group to present and stretch the African choral tradition, to renew vernacular African song and send it spinning into jazz, blues, gospel and even classical music. Directed by Fred Onovwerosuoke, SLAC makes folk music that's as ambitious and on-the-edge as any avant-garde scene going. On A E Na O (pronounced "aah-ay-nah-oh") the Chorus' approach to African song takes the historical and instructive role of folk music, documenting the life and music of seminal Nigerian composer Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte.
Recorded live at St. Louis' Christ Church Cathedral in March, A E Na O arrests and then frees the uncanny spirituality of a capella African song, those ripe and mellow harmonies echoing over land and themes both damned and blessed -- Harcourt-Whyte was stricken with leprosy as a child and "spent all his time searching for God's purpose" -- carrying stories and dreams, terrors and prayers from culture to culture, home to home. The recording alternates between studious narration and the virginal poetry of Harcourt-Whyte's songs. "The trials of this world, the sorrows of this world," one verse holds, "they are temporal -- in a little while, everything passes." The dialect may be foreign, the stories unfamiliar, the voices as layered and dense as fractals, but the beauty and meaning are as clear and necessary as folk music has always been.