Selene Saint-Aime “POTOMITAN”

POTOMITAN is a love letter from bassist, singer, and composer Selene Saint-Aime to her Caribbean heritage and a paean to her ancestors. Her debut, the excellent Mare Undaram, was an autobiographical ode to the moon, but her focus expands outward on this follow-up. POTOMITAN is a winding aural journey conveyed equally in hushed rhythms and tones to pure cadenced ecstasy. Saint-Aime’s compositions channel ageless folklore and genuine wonder as she pulls the curtain back on a place dear to her to let us all experience its heartbeat, pain, and wonder. 

Joined by an ensemble with a true understanding of these pieces and the vision and talent to bring them to life, Saint-Aime starts with a flourish. Opener “Arawak Uhuru” (meaning ‘freedom’ in Swahili) is a grand bèlè with polyrhythms from Sonny Troupe and Boris Reine-Adélaide moving at all angles around her hypnotic, repeating bassline. Trumpeter Hermon Méhari and tenor saxophonist Irving Acao bring added warmth to the free-flowing piece, moving in conjunction with Saint-Aime’s lilting vocals. The three beats star, though, and the tangled percussive web they generate is pure magic.

A recurring, powerful theme on POTOMITAN is the trancelike state much of this music permeates. Acao joins Saint-Aime’s vocal incantations on the reinterpretation of the traditional Martinican theme, “Béliya,” before a stripped-down, hypnotic take on Charlie Parker’s “The Bird” from Méhari twists itself through the wind. 

So many rhythmic styles carve out space on POTOMITAN and the way those techniques interact and conjoin with Saint-Aime’s bass and voice are the core that makes this album so special. “Akayé” begins with Saint-Aime singing the cadence before the ensemble kicks in, mimicking her notes and tempo. Playful string plucks give Acao and Méhari a foundation to spring into action, everything coalescing into a joyous celebration. It’s a testament to the organic nature of POTOMITAN and the fact most of these pieces were performed without a score. There’s a freedom hanging over all eleven tracks.

“Indigo Bay” is rife with dizzying strings by cellist Guillaume Latil and violinist Mathias Lévy slithering through propulsive rhythms that are choreographed seamlessly with the bass. Saint-Aime’s voice is utterly transfixing, transformative. Her range feels endless as she whispers at one moment before shifting into operatic fireworks in the next. Incredible. Late night, moonlit longing becomes an irrepressible memory on Saint-Aime’s beguiling arrangement of Debussy’s “Mélisande (à mamie Jacqueline)” where Latil and Lévy take center stage. Lulling timbres spread out like starlight reflecting on water, coming alive in the subtle movements.

POTOMITAN is a compelling sonic narrative. Closer “White Birds, Silver Tree” brings the story to a close with slow, considered movements and Saint-Aime’s first foray into English lyrics. Written in her uncle’s banana grove, the song lumbers forward, building its momentum and its staying power as it moves. It is timeless, as though it’s always existed, lost and buried, waiting to be unearthed. “I am walking now,” Saint-Aime speaks, “looking for something to write about. Looking for something to feel for.” Clearly, the story Selene Saint-Aime was searching for, she found.

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