Acoustic guitarist Terre Roche, Guinean djembe drummer Sidiki Conde, and bass guitarist Marion Cherry are members of the group Afro-Jersey, whose music includes equal parts West African and American folk music, with lyrics in both English and Mandigo.
Photo by Jim Bessman
She's released her own album, and her sisters Maggie and Suzzy have also done various projects apart from The Roches. But Terre Roche's new project is a big departure from the beloved Roches' delightful folk-rock.
With "musical soulmate" Guinean djembe drummer Sidiki Condé, acoustic guitarist Roche has formed the group Afro-Jersey, which also includes bass guitarist Marlon Cherry--and other instrumentalists on occasion. The concept is to borrow from both American and West Africa's Mandinka people's music traditions in creating a unique sound.
"I write my vocal parts out phonetically after Sidiki tapes them," says Roche, noting that Condé's lyrics are in his native Mandingo language. "He taught me how to pronounce the words--though he also knows French, among eight languages."
The multilingual Condé, who also performs in his traditional West African group Tokounou Dance Company and teaches West African drumming, singing and dancing, came to America in 1988. Although he had lost the use of his legs at 14 due to polio, he was still able to dance--thereby attracting Roche's attention initially.
"I had bought a djembe drum, for [the benefit of] my guitar students," recalls Roche. "People hate metronomes, and I thought if I played a hand drum it would help."
Not knowing anything about the big goblet-shaped djembe hand drum, she went online and found an instruction book, and an African dance/drum school in Manhattan.
"The book was written by a white guy in Minneapolis, who said if you really wanted to learn you had to learn from African people," continues Roche. "So I took a few classes, and then looked at the dance class through the window and suddenly saw Sidiki flying on the dance floor, dancing on his hands!"
She started drum lessons with Condé 12 years ago. Then a year ago they conceived Afro-Jersey.
"The premise was rather than I sing in his African band, or he play drums to my music, let's see if we could write together in both musical styles and languages," says Roche, who was born in New York but grew up in New Jersey.
"'Afro-Jersey' sounded better than 'Afro-New York,'" she adds, by way of explanation. But both Roche and Condé come from the tradition of storytelling through music--despite the differences in geography and language.
"We'll start talking about something in the news, like Captain Sully landing the plane in the Hudson, for example," notes Roche, who now lives in New York a few blocks from where Sully's plane floated by. "That's how we wrote 'Captain Sully.'"
But Afro-Jersey music also comes out of "feeling," notes Condé, and can originate with a Roche guitar part or his djembe rhythm. The djembe, he relates, is a Mandinka tribal instrument used "to bring everybody together--sometimes for healing, for weddings, baby-name ceremonies [and other] rites of passage."
And while they come from such different backgrounds, Condé and Roche have developed a creative relationship reminiscent of the Roches.
"We have a lot of fun together, and we both like to rehearse a lot," says Roche. "It's very much the way the Roches were: We get together and go through our repertoire, or else just sit around and talk or write songs."
They're also both inspired by the partnership so far--with Roche even trying to learn Mandingo.
"To sing English and Mandingo--and French [the official language of Guinea]--is not easy, but if you do it with some rhythm, I think people can listen," says Condé. "It's easier to pass the message with the two different languages [English and Mandingo]."
Of course the real message is the music, notes Roche.
"There's a lot going on in the songs if you let your mind go with it," she says. "They can mean different things to different people."
Afro-Jersey has so far been frequenting Lower East Side club the Living Room while growing its fan base. They've also produced a video introduction to the band featuring songs and conversation.