Sélène Saint-Aimé: Potomitan review – earthly yet spiritual sounds from the Caribbean | Music


In Haitian Vodou, the potomitan is the central pillar that holds up the temple. At its base is where ritual sacrifices and offerings take place; along its shaft are carved the foundational images of the religion, encouraging spirits to pass through its structure and transmute into the bodies of the faithful who surround it.

It is an apt symbol for jazz bassist and vocalist Sélène Saint-Aimé’s second album. Written largely during the pandemic, when Saint-Aimé left Paris for her native Martinique to be with family, there is something deeply enigmatic and yet solidly structural about these 11 compositions.

Sélène Saint-Aimé: Potomitan album cover
Sélène Saint-Aimé: Potomitan album cover

First: structure. Guadeloupean ka drummer Sonny Troupé and Martiniquan bèlè drummer Boris Reine-Adélaïde anchor Saint-Aimé’s composition with their undulating improvisations, providing rhythmic resistance and a sense of form to her operatic soprano, along with the horns of trumpeter Hermon Mehari and saxophonist Irving Acao. Arawak Uhuru centres on the triplet structure of the drummers, while on Bezaudin, the drums even play the melody as their skins are pressed taut and then released to create bending pitches. And on tracks such as Indigo Bay and Charlie Parker cover Bird, Saint-Aimé’s bass provides a rhythmic substitute, as she chooses her notes and placement with delicate care to create a hip-swaying swing.

Sélène Saint-Aimé: Arawak Uhuru – video

If the drums and the bass are the structural object, it is Saint-Aimé’s voice that lends Potomitan its spiritual quality. Her vocals mostly eschew lyrics for a personal, improvised form of language – a kind of otherworldly scat. Switching easily from a crystalline falsetto to bassy, staccato tones, Saint-Aimé’s formidable yet deeply human range may remind listeners of Beverly Glenn-Copeland. Her warm tone draws us into whispered intimacies on the tender, yearning Mélisande (a theme from Sibelius’ Pelléas et Mélisande orchestral suite), while on Akaye, her vibrato echoes the breathy horn melody.

The title track condenses the album’s essence into 90 seconds of vocals, bass and drums, Saint-Aimé’s yearning a capella swiftly embellished with double-time, polyrhythmic drum beats. To listen to Potomitan is to be immersed in this fluid world of Saint-Aimé’s making – harnessing her Martiniquan roots to create music that is as grounded as it is malleable, as earthly as it is spiritual.

Also out this month

Ugandan rapper Ecko Bazz releases his second LP, Mmaso (Hakuna Kulala), combining jittering footwork and 808 beats with a guttural screech that would make Danny Brown proud. Turkish singer-songwriter Anadol touches on woozy pop, fragmented jazz and psychedelia on her latest, freewheeling release Felicita (Pingipung). Vocalist Somi produces a charming, starry tribute to the late South African singer Miriam Makeba on Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba (Salon Africana), featuring Gregory Porter, Seun Kuti and Angelique Kidjo.

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