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

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Bill Frisell: We Are Everywhere

Frisell borrowed an approach from himself for his 2001 foray into world music, The Intercontinentals. As he successfully accomplished with 1998’s Nashville, the guitarist surrounded himself with both his regular partners and leading players from outside genres – only to throw all common rules to the curb and encourage his players to collectively improvise their way through each composition. The musical gamble worked again, this time with guests from Brazil, Macedonia and Mali. “We Are Everywhere” is one of the longer selections on this record, giving the listener a heightened sense of the time spent developing a group rapport with both each other and the song’s structure. The first few minutes are spent presenting themes and developing mood over Sidiki Camara’s hand drums and a droning bass line. As the musicians start taking it upon themselves to push the improvisation forward, each musician must realize that they are all thinking similarly, because the tune develops in a beautifully unprompted yet cooperative manner - as if it had been played hundreds of times before.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Milton Nascimento: Nozani Na

Deep in the traditions of African music—both homegrown and transplanted to the Americas—is the implicit assumption that sound trumps theory. Artists as different as John Lee Hooker, King Oliver, Bob Marley and Ornette Coleman remind us there is a certain level of expression that cannot be fully captured in the mathematical models of music-making that we inherited from Pythagoras and the Greeks. This is my own personal interpretation of harmolodics, which I view as an anti-theory of sound creation, one all the more valuable for its unwillingness to be reduced to rules.

Which brings us to Milton Nascimento, who is one of the most subversive singer-songwriters of modern times. "Nozani Na" is a traditional song from the Mato Grosso, best known for its adaptation by Hector Villa-Lobos. But compare Nascimento's version with the classical composer's and get a lesson in the primacy of sound over notes, aural fluency as a deeper intuiting of music than the printed score. Accompanied solely by percussion and guitar, Nascimento and singer-ethnomusicologist Marlui Miranda (who spent 17 years researching Amazonian music) engage in a luminous duet. If you are a seeker after music that cuts through the noise, and resists reduction to the formulaic, this is a track you need to hear.

August 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Milton Nascimento: Pão e Água

The two Clube da Esquina double albums stand out as defining statements of Milton Nascimento's aesthetic vision, and remain key milestones in Brazilian post-bossa-nova popular music. Nascimento here is completely liberated from the previous efforts to package his music for crossover success. Instead he embraces a raw, under-produced sound, and the performances seem aimed at personal transcendence rather than radio airplay. As a result this music sounds very fresh and immediate a generation after it was recorded. "Pão e Água" features some of the finest rhythm section work you will hear on any popular recording from this era. Motown fans talk about the Funk Brothers, but the Clube de Esquina gang deserve the same degree of reverence. Nascimento is inspired, his vocal an invocation of higher powers. A glorious moment in Brazilian music—it's a shame this recording is still so little known outside of Brazil, and available in the US only as an expensive import.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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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

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Bangalore Breakdown: Song

The world-jazz movement is gaining steam every day, which can be nothing but a good thing for music and for the world. Bangalore Breakdown consists of Americans, Swiss, Indians, a Russian and a Cameroonian. (I hope I got everybody.) Co-leader keyboardist Uli Geissendoerfer wrote "Song," whose infectious melody is supported by Latin rhythms and sensibilities. But other world influences are also heard. Premik Russell Tubbs takes a far-reaching solo as the tune swings. The chorus features affecting Gino Sitson wordless vocals sung along with Tubbs's sax. Geissendoerfer offers a fine exploration of his own before the song takes flight with a series of phrases designed to carry us along. For the tune's last section, the band does indeed break things down. As the song fades away, percussionist Mathias Kunzli creatively supports the dissipating calls and responses. Bangalore Breakdown is an ensemble made from the continents, playing music that is an argument for establishing worldwide normalization of relations. Do you get my continental drift?

March 15, 2009 · 1 comment

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Bangalore Breakdown: Mukti

Bangalore Breakdown is a New York City band born from frequent nightclub world-music jam sessions featuring elements of jazz, Indian and African music. The group is co-led by multi-instrumentalist Premik Russell Tubbs and keyboardist Uli Geissendoerfer. Tubbs was in John McLaughlin's expanded second Mahavishnu Orchestra and has also worked with Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Sting, James Taylor and many more. Geissendoerfer likes to explore a cross-section of rhythms paying special attention to those of Latin origin. He has played with the Groove Collective, Tito Puente, Blood Sweat & Tears, Cirque du Soleil and many others. The rest of the band members come from the four corners of the earth.

"Mukti" is based on a traditional Bengali melody. A synthesized drone serves as a backdrop for Tubbs's beautiful bansuri flute intro. Textures and colors are added by his bandmates. The uplifting melody enters. Percussionists Mathias Kunzli and Dibyarka Chatterjee drive the piece as Tubbs offers a soaring soprano sax solo. Some wonderful unison playing separates the solos. Cameroonian vocalist Gino Sitson uses his 4-octave range to take the next turn. At one point he plays percussion on his chest, which knocks air out of his lungs creating a staccato rhythmic effect. Tabla player Dibyarka Chatterjee takes it from there, with vocalist Steve Sandberg doing a Carnatic thing. Some well-placed heavy-handed Geissendoerfer chords infiltrate the full sonic attack that the music has now become. The intricate unison playing is outstandingly entertaining. Pay special attention to bassist Nathan Peck during these sections. Each player is a life- giving tributary to one great river of music. "Mukti" is a joyous romp of world influences. Bangalore Breakdown is just the band to break things down and put them back together again.

March 15, 2009 · 1 comment

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Fareed Haque: 32 Taxis

Improvising on Ganesh Kumar's 32 quarter-note beats, Fareed Haque builds an imagery of taxis at a busy Calcutta intersection … thus the title. Kumar accentuates his kanjira beat with konnakul (a percussive vocal scatting native to South India), laying a solid subcontinental foundation for Haque. The multitalented Haque weaves rich layers of two jazz guitars and a classical guitar, creating a floating, dreamy tapestry that lumbers along while Kumar is sprinting. Listening is like watching a person on film move serenely in real time while the scenery around him is sped up. It takes a good deal of understanding music from several corners of the world to put together a song like "32 Taxis." Fareed Haque and Ganesh Kumar bring all those corners together in India's third-largest city.

March 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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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

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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

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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

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Suarasama: Fajar Di Atas Awan

Suarasama was founded in the mid-1990s by Irwansyah Harahap and Rithaony Hutajulu, ethnomusicologists at University of North Sumatra. This exceptional ensemble draws on Indonesian musical traditions from North Sumatra, flavored with a dose of commercial pop world music stylings. Fajar Di Atas Awan was recorded by Philip Yampolsky, a major force in preserving Indonesian music, back in 1997. I have a dozen or so of his stellar recordings for Smithsonian Folkways, which are absolutely the place to begin in approaching the music of this region. But this particular project was available only in a hard-to-find French edition until this 2008 release on the Drag City label. Hutajulu's voice is angelic: she is not your typical academic-turned-singer, but one of the finest vocalists you will hear on the world music scene. Harahap's accompaniment is a gentle ebb-and-flow in the background, impeccably played and sensitive to the aural atmospherics. This would be an easy recording to miss, even for those who seek out new and exotic disks from afar; but it is worth tracking down.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gjermund Larsen: ArriVals

This Norwegian trio could easily fall outside your music radar screens, but their pastoral 2008 release Ankomst is well worth tracking down. Larsen's playing meets at the crossroads where acoustic jazz and folk styles intersect, a rich field only occasionally plowed by American jazz artists these days, but with far more adherents in other parts of the world. This CD covers a range of styles, sometimes even evoking a spirited Nordic hoedown or ECM-ish currents, but "ArriVals" is a simple, heartfelt performance that I found myself listening to over and over, and sharing with others. Highly recommended!

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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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

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Kala Ramnath & Ganesh Iyer: Raga Ahir Bhairav / Charka Vaham

This collaboration between two leading Indian violinists is itself a fusion of contrasting musical cultures. North Indian Kala Ramnath and her counterpart from the South, Ganesh Iyer, bring with them their respective Hindustani and Carnatic musical traditions, beautifully merged in this 40-minute performance. The opening section "Alap" is an improvisation in free tempo, starting in the lower register and gradually ascending in a dialogue that gains passion as it progresses, but never loses its centering focus. The following section falls into more structured time, and the pace accelerates in the concluding moments of this morning raga. Throughout, Ramnath and Iyer demonstrate their rich singing tones and distinctive phrasing, a sliding calculus of tone color which moves as smoothly as a skater on pristine ice. In a world of musical sound bites, this recording takes its time and rewards listeners willing to do the same.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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