Anouar Brahem: Stopover at Djibouti

The most striking aspect of Manfred Eicher's work as a producer may be its very invisibility. On his projects, the music invariably seems to define its own terms. Nothing is forced or contrived, and each song is given room to breathe. Other labels, in contrast, come across as heavy-handed in imposing concepts or jumping on fads or tinkering with the proceedings. The music arrives in your CD player or iPod with lots of baggage and a "story" straight from the marketing department.

One could hardly imagine Anouar Brahem showing up on a release at Verve and Concord, yet at ECM he is very much at home with a conception of jazz fusion that crosses centuries rather than genres. This absorbing track from The Astounding Eyes of Rita is a case in point. You could try to define the ingredients in familiar terms. The horn lines could, with different accompaniment, fit into a hard bop chart. The textures here would work on a soundtrack for a big budget film. The oud makes sense as one more flavor in the global village jukebox. But mix them together here, and the result is sui generis, a personal statement rather than a packaged deal from the entertainment industry. The pulse on "Stopover at Djibouti" sometimes superimposes a fast triple meter over a more deliberate duple pulse—this gives the song a chance to soar or float depending on which path it takes. At certain moments one could envision a dance arising from the sounds, but just as easily imagine them inspiring languor and a profound meditation.

In other words, this is music that doesn't jump on trends. Then again, it might just start one. And wouldn't that be something?

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Michael Babatunde Olatunji: Akiwowo

You need to find a place for this 1959 session on any list of unlikely success stories from the 20th century music business. Drums of Passion would sell five million copies in the US alone, most of them purchased by listeners who had no previous acquaintance with what we now call "world music." In one fell swoop, the minstrelized-ethnic-music of Les Baxter, Martin Denny and the other purveyors of ersatz exotica was put out to pasture, and the real thing arrived on the scene. And the general public—mirabile dictu!—was able to tell the difference.

 Les Baxter

The story behind the story is just as fascinating. A fellowship from the Rotary Foundation allows Michael Babatunde Olatunji to leave Ajido, a fishing village in Nigeria, and come to Morehouse College, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1954 he moves to New York, where he starts performing with his drumming-chanting-singing-dancing ensemble. Legendary talent scout John Hammond was so impressed with what he heard that, breaking every rule of the A&R trade, he signs Olatunji to record this music, unadorned and unadulterated, for the largest label in the land.

The late Tom Terrell has insisted, with more than a little plausibility, that Drums of Passion deserves acknowledgment as the most important recording of the last century. Honestly, just fast forward a few years and see the impact. In the 1960s, John Coltrane and a host of other jazz artists begin exploring the potential of a re-Africanization of jazz music. In rock and popular music, the drums take on a new centrality and intensity. A return-to-the-roots attitude begins to permeate blues, folk music and other genres. The musical riches of the Third World increasingly show up, either in their original form or as models for imitation, on the rosters of the entertainment mega-corporations. Drums of Passion stands out as the turning point that legitimized and accelerated these processes.

This opening track, inspired by the call of a well-known conductor in Nigeria and sound of his train, is a powerful statement of this new aesthetic vision. The immediacy and intensity of this music demands the listener's attention, but one also hears a confidence and pride that expands our consciousness beyond purely musical considerations. Yes, you can put this music on as background music (as no doubt many record buyers have done over the years) but the sensibilities is combines and the passions it contains would soon be at the foreground of modern life. One of the defining qualities of African music is its insistence on integrating music-making into the fabric of day-to-day life, and this recording symbolized a similar reorientation in its new setting. That, my friends, is making more than just a hit; it's making history.

September 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Oumou Sangare: Sukunyali

Mali, a landlocked West African nation of roughly twelve million inhabitants, stands out as one of the most vibrant centers of contemporary music. Toumani Diabaté and the late Ali Farka Touré are among the best known "world music" performers of recent times, and the band Tinariwen is one of my favorite currently active groups in any style, while I also give high marks to Rokia Traoré and Habib Koité. Now the Nonesuch label—which has brought us so much of this music—releases a dramatic CD of singer Oumou Sangare, the "Songbird of Wassoulou" (Wassoulou is a region south of the Niger river), which is an exemplary mixture of traditional and forward-looking sounds. This song, in the Soninke national language, is ostensibly about grazing goats but is a parable about African emigrants working abroad for the betterment of their native land. But you don't need to follow the symbolism to enjoy the infectious pulse, and the richly textured layers of sound and rhythm.

I am usually wary of large rhythm sections—two drummers are not twice as good as a single first-rate percussionist, and as the size of the poundin'-and-scrapin' contingent increases the beat often becomes oppressive rather than propulsive. But Sangare's work here proves that, after all, there is strength in numbers. The ensemble projects a impressive collective energy, and Sangare soars over the cauldron of aural energy with confidence and power, more an eagle than a songbird in this instance. This artist is no recent arrival on the scene, but a career of two decades has produced only five releases, and even these are hard to find (for example, the CD of her influential debut Moussolou, a bestseller at the time of its release, is not currently available in the US). I hope this new disk serves to boost her audience and signals more frequent visits to the recording studio in her future.

June 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Franco & TPOK Jazz: Alimatou

Franco maintained his supremacy among soukous bandleaders by hiring the best talent he could find, sometimes stealing it from his rivals. But the addition of vocalist Sam Mangwana in 1972 was a big coup. Mangwana ranks among the finest soukous singers of the era, and had made his own reputation, starting with his work in L'Orchestra African Fiesta a decade before hooking up with Franco. Here he sings about a married woman trying to hide her affair. Many in Kinshasa thought Franco's songs were vulgar, and a few years later he would even be jailed briefly on obscenity charges. But fans liked the spicy lyrics as much as the spicy music, and "Alimatou" proved to be a big hit for Franco and Mangwana. During this period, many other bands were trying to bring rock rhythms into the local music scene, but Franco here stays true to the African rumba style, with all his signature elements: relaxed vocal harmonies, breezy guitar with those bright, simple Congolese chords, and a light cushion of percussion, all spiced with just a flavor of horns.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Franco & TPOK Jazz: Marie Naboyi

Franco was the great master of soukous, that hypnotic Congolese musical genre that often sounds more Cuban than African. On this almost eight-minute long track, Franco starts with a typical African rumba sound, but midway through the performance the band shifts abruptly and gut-wrenchingly into a funky horn-driven groove. Yet the band abandons this experiment only a few seconds later, with an electric guitar vamp now establishing its dominance. This rhythm is also disrupted in turn for a plaintive, almost rock-oriented beat. This is nothing less than a suite in four movements, each with a distinctive quality. These types of mid-song shifts are typical of Franco's work, but rarely are they employed so starkly as on this track. "Marie Naboyi" also shows off the other distinctive qualities of TPOK Jazz, especially its conversational vocal harmonies and sweet guitar lines. It's hard to believe that this song, which sounds so lighthearted, was inspired by fraternal strife between Franco and his younger brother Bavon Marie-Marie Siongo, who would soon die in a tragic car accident.

January 08, 2009 · 2 comments


Franco & TPOK Jazz: AZDA

When this song was released in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1973, few paid attention . . . at least initially. But over time, it spread across Africa and into Europe, where it introduced many new listeners to the sound of the now legendary Franco and his band TPOK Jazz. Many assumed that this gently lilting performance was a love song. But A.Z.D.A. was actually the acronym of a Volkswagen dealership with outlets located in a number of Zairean cities. When the band starts singing Vay-way, vay-way, vay-way, vay-way vay-way, a chant that takes up about half of this lengthy track, they are simply relying on the local pronunciation of VW.

Yet there is much to savor in this song beyond the astute product placement. "AZDA" sounds deceptively simple, but the structure is intriguing. An odd call-and-response serves as the centerpiece and "hook" to the tune, and is based on a lopsided repeating five-bar structure. The call is one bar of solo vocal with four bars of harmonized response—not a pattern that you would find in Western commercial music, but it works in this context. This peculiar interlude kicks in around the two minute mark, and seems to go on forever (actually three minutes of official iPod time). When it finally ends, we get a taste of horns—but only a taste: few recordings bring along so many musicians for so little work. Then comes dessert, an electric guitar solo. But instead of the single note lines one would encounter in the West, we are treated to some classic Congolese guitar: a kaleidoscope of sound built on pinging, open chords, sometimes little more than two notes, played strong and bright. The energy level picks up, and even the hornplayers decide they need to put in some more work in order to earn those free Volkswagens (24 musicians in the band reportedly got a free car). They come back from their break in time for the fadeout as we approach the eight minute mark. Don't tell the AZDA folks, but this song is a Cadillac, pure and simple.

January 08, 2009 · 2 comments


Femi Kuti: Oyimbo

Femi Kuti, eldest son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, has made his own mark on the music world, although more listeners probably hear him through his appearance as a radio host on Grand Theft Auto IV. But the videogame-meisters might do well to put down the joystick and pick up Kuti's CD Day by Day instead. This artist has the same persuasive, conversational vocal style his father mastered, and shows a similar willingness to take on contemporary issues in his music. In the course of this song, he addresses peace, justice and the British banking industry, all in under four minutes. Yes, his music is more compact than his dad's half-hour epics, and the rhythm shifts from the trance-inducing style of his famous antecedent, instead taking on a more overtly Western dance beat. This is a welcome addition to this artist's all-too-small discography.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Ali Farka Touré: La Drogue

Red by Ali Farka Touré This record was once so rare, it seemed more a rumor than a real disk. BBC broadcaster Andy Kershaw says he "felt as a gambler must feel when he hits the jackpot" after finding a copy of the Red LP in the discount bin of a Paris record store. When he played this track on the radio, fans responded with a desperate enthusiasm, frustrated by their inability to locate the obscure release. This is magical stuff indeed, the musical equivalent of pixie dust. Touré is the master of his personal, sprightly 6/8, a groove that seems to turn in on itself under his hands. His vamps are simple, but delivered with a holistic purity that will enchant you, almost as if you looked up in the sky and saw that the clouds had started forming perfect concentric circles. A few years ago, the Red and Green releases by Ali Farka Touré were finally made available on an easy-to-find reissue. So you have no excuse for missing out on this artist. Even if you only plan to buy a handful of "World Music" CDs for your collection, this one must make your short list.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Ali Farka Touré: Sidi Gouro

Red by Ali Farka Touré Ali Farka Touré has sometimes been called the "John Lee Hooker of Africa." Such a description tells us how crazy our musical genealogies have become. After decades of tracing the blues back to Africa, we are now tracing African music back to the blues. Yes, Touré's music is somewhat reminiscent of Hooker's hypnotic solo guitar work from the late 1940s and early 1950s, but the Malian musician captures a serenity in his performances that one will never find in American blues. The Green album (original cover shown to the left) is one of Touré's masterpieces, and finally available in a widely distributed reissue after many years as a rare collector's item. This opening track is so relaxed in ambiance, despite the fast underlying 6/8 pulse, that you might not pick up the deep melancholy of the lyrics, which translate as a sorrowful tribute to a friend from Touré's youth. In translation they read: As soon as I sit down my heart begins to weep. When I start to think, my heart begins to bleed. . . . And here we do find an uncanny parallel with early blues, that troubled performance art of introspective and largely unmediated self-expression in which personal tragedy was somehow transmuted into a commercial product. If you are looking for powerful songs that disdain the slickness, the market-driven focus, the chart-seeking vanity of our times, this is a recording that you will want to have.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Rokia Traoré: Dounia

Mali is a landlocked nation that stretches from the Sahara in the north to Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso in the South. It is one of the poorest nations on earth—the average worker makes around $30 per week. But its musical riches are the rival of any other country on this sonically charged continent. This country has given us, to list a few names, Afro-pop star Salif Keita, guitarist Habib Koité, the exceptional band Tinariwen, kora master Toumani Diabaté, and the late Ali Farka Touré, in my opinion the finest of the African guitarists. But this music is sometimes cussedly difficult to track down. You might consider attending the famous Festival au Désert in Mali, but you may change your mind when you learn that you need to fly into Timbuktu, and then make the trek to Essakane deep in the desert, a trip that according to the festival web site is "difficult and potentially hazardous." Fortunately the music of Mali is increasingly available on CD. Even so, it would be worth a long trip to hear Rokia Traoré. This singer captures the hypnotic rhythms, crisp guitar playing and in-the-moment performance style that we have come to associate with the best of Malian music. This artist deserves to be far better known, and this release is a timely reminder that Mali still has musical riches to share.

December 11, 2008 · 0 comments


Toumani Diabaté: Si Naani

The stereotyped view of African music presents it as dominated by drums—you remember the old Hollywood films with the rhythmic throbbing in the background and some old geezer in explorer garb pronouncing: "The natives are restless tonight." I hate to disappoint you, but many of my favorite recordings of African music have no drums on them. In fact, one could make a case that the string tradition is the crowning glory of the continent, and the various traditional cultures present us with countless instruments that remind us, in varying degrees, of our own Western guitars, harps, banjos, lutes and the like.

The kora has a special place in the pantheon of African string instruments, at least based on the hold it exerts over the Western imagination. This 21-string harp has long fascinated outsiders with its prepossessing appearance, the fragile beauty of its music, and its social role as accompaniment to the griots who are the preservers of local tradition and history. Toumani Diabaté is the leading exponent of the kora in the current day, and has been known in the West ever since the release of his Kaira recording in 1988. But Diabaté is more than the preserver of old traditions; he also has focused on bringing the kora into the modern day. He has collaborated with various jazz, pop and blues artists, as well as played a key role on several iconoclastic "world fusion" projects. His 2008 release The Mandé Variations is more traditional in flavor, but even here Diabaté shows off his innovative "Egyptian tuning" of the kora, which gives his playing a more exotic flavor. On this track, he puts his personal stamp on two traditional works—a love song from northwest Mali and a 19th-century griot piece praising Fula warriors from central Mali—and shows that love and war can coexist, at least in the world of musical performance. This moving 10-minute track, and indeed the whole CD, will leave you anything but restless tonight. This release is an important contribution to Diabaté's oeuvre and is one of the most important recordings of traditional African music in recent memory.

December 09, 2008 · 1 comment


Orchestra Baobab: Pape Ndiaye

Fans unfamiliar with the odd twists and turns in the history of Afro-pop might be surprised by the Cuban flavor in this Senegalese band. But there is a long history of Latin idioms permeating African music styles, much of it stemming from the popularity of Franco and other Congolese musicians who developed a pseudo-rumba sound that swept the continent. Orchestra Baobab has long been renowned for its mastery of this style, which manages to combine a rhythmic fervor with a languid sensuality. This music, a modern reworking of an old griot song, is like a drowsier salsa, mesmerizing yet also relaxing. This ensemble has enjoyed a wide following since the 1970s, but disbanded for a period. Yet on this opening track from their new Nonesuch release, they reassert their mastery of a style that has lost none of its appeal with the passing decades.

June 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Abdullah Ibrahim: Water From an Ancient Well

This CD's careless packaging is unfortunate. If not for the interior notes, you might not learn from the jewel case – except for a mention in mice print on the back – that this is Abdullah Ibrahim's "Ekaya" group, one of the most significant if short-lived bands of the 1980s. Nor would you glean from the personnel list that trombonist Dick Griffin, a forceful soloist and integral to Ekaya's overall sound texture, is even a participant.

All that aside, the CD features some of Ibrahim's most noteworthy compositions. Only on the title track, however – all of 12 minutes long – does the group get to stretch out and fully show what it was capable of in a concert or club setting. From Ibrahim's enclosed poem:

          water from an ancient well
          oh beautiful Africa
          that's where I'll always dwell

Ibrahim's piano leads off with a gospel-flavored solo meditation, followed by a beautifully harmonized treatment of the hymn-like theme by the horns and flute. The solos by Davis, Griffin, Ford, Ward, and Williams, in that order, are each highly expressive, emotionally charged and craftily developed. The reprise of the theme is elevated by Griffin's improvised commentary over the melody. Hats off to Rudy Van Gelder (so what else is new?) for faithfully capturing Ekaya's sound. LP or CD, Rudy was the undisputed master.

April 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Lionel Loueke: Skylark

The song may be by Hoagy Carmichael, but the attitude here is clearly in the world fusion camp. Lionel Loueke grew up in Benin in West Africa, and he incorporates a number of distinctively African elements into his interpretation of this 1942 standard. I like his bright guitar voicings with their open, spacey sound, and his melodic sensibility, closer to Ali Farka Touré than to bebop or fusion. Other jazz players tend to take these old songs and try to make them more complicated, but pop tunes from the golden era had lots of sophistication built into them at the factory; so it is often more effective to bring a more streamlined, diatonic sensibility to this material, as Loueke does effectively here. This artist has a fresh sound, and it will be interesting to watch his career develop to see how far he can take it.

March 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Chris McGregor: MRA

In the early '70s, Chris McGregor and the members of his Blue Notes – who had fled the apartheid regime of their native South Africa, where a racially mixed band was unwelcome – had settled in London. That’s where the pianist recruited some of the best local musicians to bring his sextet to the size of a big band. This track is not only typical of the African side of the Brotherhood of Breath, it’s also a great arrangement where each section enters after another in turn, and comes back again to build a gorgeous tapestry of melodic and rhythmic layers. So much so that nobody ever has the idea to even take the slightest solo. Collective work at its best!

January 21, 2008 · 0 comments


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