“I just love Harlem,” gushes David Schommer, holding court in the gorgeous, hookah-laden fifth-floor apartment- and home studio he now uses to sing Harlem’s praises. “I connect with the neighborhood musically. It’s not this overt thing it wears on its shoulder, unless it’s Sunday afternoon and all the gospel churches are spilling out on the street. It’s this thing where you go into stores and you’re not hearing just Hot 97. You’re not just hearing typical stuff. I go to the corner and I listen to Dominican music, the best salsa and merengue. The vendors from Senegal and Bali, they’re playing their stuff, they’re playing their call to prayer. Then you also have gospel, and if you walk down the street, there’s also hip-hop. So you’ve got hip-hop, gospel, the call to prayer, and merengue all mixing in your skull together. That’s what Bole 2 Harlem was.”
The Bole 2 Harlem record is the first of Schommer’s planned love letters to his recently adopted homebase, a slick, stylized, and relentlessly exuberant torrent of all the sounds mixing in his skull together. Like any self-respecting multicultural aesthete, he winces at the tag “world music”; he tried to sell iTunes on the genre tag “World Crossover,” but they weren’t having it. Which is a shame, since crossover is his ultimate goal—filtering his endless international pursuits (currently he’s in a Franco phase) through Harlem’s prism of colliding sound. If the _____ 2 Harlem craze takes off, though, it’ll start with Bole (named for the biggest airport in Ethiopia), which is Schommer’s deepest obsession. “East meets West” doesn’t quite describe it—it’s more of an invasion, jaunty horns and a stomping hip-hop beat overpowering the more traditional handclaps and call-and-response chants of “Hoya Hoye,” an exuberant ode to a Halloween-esque Ethiopian holiday; that tune butts up against the syrupy and beautiful “Ensaralen Gojo,” which recasts the Muslim greeting Assalamu alaikumas a breathy come-on. The rest of Bole
is slightly less radical but no less joyous—hypnotic and catchy and innovative in equal measure. “Home” is a five-minute earworm monster.
The overall aim here is a bit bizarre: a cadre of New Yorkers—singers Tigist Shibabaw and Maki Siraj (a moonlighting I.T. guy) lead Bole‘s extensive roster—reimagining and goosing Ethiopian culture in hopes that, eventually, that culture starts to sound less American. Schommer has been there four times now to trace his father’s footsteps (Dad had helped build a major university during Halie Selassie’s education program), and found the music a touch overly familiar. “I was shocked that the newer hip-hop coming out of Ethiopia was for the most part echoing West Coast hip-hop musically,” Schommer says. “If you go to Senegal and you listen to Daara J and the hip-hop that’s happening there, that shit is a) undeniably hip-hop and b) undeniably Senegalese. It’s just a sound that they’ve galvanized—they’ve used their traditional instruments, used their traditional rhythms, and it’s really cool.”
Consider Bole a polite suggestion, then, for a culture with so much varied raw material it doesn’t really need the help, or won’t for long. Tonight Schommer, a beaming 40-year-old with a nearly half-foot-long waterfall of a goatee, is encamped in his home studio, working on a solo album for his friend Davi, a Brazilian singer and percussionist who watches bemusedly as Schommer plays back their latest track and gleefully pantomimes every instrument as it bursts through the speakers pointed directly at his head. “So we’ve got the traditional situation,” he says, as a flood of percussion kicks it off, soon joined by Davi’s half-sung/half-rapped vocals, a league of backup singers, and a touch of Miami Vice saxophone. He cracks up at a noisy drum break before the chorus and launches into air guitar when the main riff takes over. “That whole Congolese sound!” he shouts over the din of increasingly blaring synths and guitars.
“This guy, he’s a great producer,” Davi says, chuckling. “A great friend, too.” With that, he disappears down the hallway in search of some dinner, passing a few framed photos of himself and Schommer together, in PR shots for the original New York cast of Stomp.
Oh yes. Schommer was raised in Chicago and was flitting about L.A. when he hooked up with John Cusack, who invited him to New York to be his “bitch boy” on the set of the 1994 Woody Allen flick
Bullets Over Broadway. (Cusack bitch-boy duties include “reading scripts for him, making sure he went to the gym, whatever.”) Thereafter, Schommer parlayed his obsession with percussion—”I was the annoying guy who would play the table, play the dishes at the table”—into a gig with
Stomp, then a cutting-edge experimental theater project that soon evolved into the Cats-outselling juggernaut your mom now forces you to go watch with her when your folks visit you in the big city. Schommer and Davi stuck with it—”I was translating English for him, and he was translating rhythm for me”—until Schommer’s body “told me to fuck off” after three years of wanton trash-can-pounding.
Since then he’s been a producer and occasional solo artist, bouncing from underground house tracks to high-profile songwriting gigs for the Baha Men. (After the dogs had been released, of course.) Absurd rents drove him from Chelsea to Harlem and eventually to Bole, born of weekly jam sessions at the Harlem restaurant L’Orange Bleue, events that got Schommer in touch with gospel-organ maestros and faux–New Age cellists. Bole can be relentlessly viscous and sweet and slick, as though submerged in a crate of blueberry-maple syrup to sneak through customs. But, as Schommer concludes, it’s a party record for two vibrant cultures and the imaginary bridge he aims to build between them. “Especially when you go to a quote-unquote ‘third world country,’ you realize how culturally and spiritually vapid the United States is,” he says. “There’s this whole other thing which, if you are tuned into it, you just pick up on it. It’s very hard to describe, but it’s so there. It’s so pervasive. The people there are just so beautiful—I don’t mean physically, I just mean so open. There’s such a sense of community there. Such a sense of cultural awareness of who they are.”
As an homage and a reinvention, Bole has already earned approval from perhaps Ethopia’s most influential constituency: cab drivers. “All the taxi drivers know Maki’s rhymes,” Schommer boasts. When you’re trying to infiltrate a place, you gotta lock down the cabbies first. Any New Yorker knows that.