OLD WORLD (Asia, Arabia, Europe)
Rokia Traore in concert photos Copyright © 2013 Grace T. Gomez, used with permission
ROKIA TRAORE IN CONCERT
Rokia has gone from strength to strength as a performing artist. Her earliest shows were already quite remarkable, when she brought a group of traditional musicians, on balafon, dueling ngonis and calabash, from the arid Malian countryside to tour and back her stylish and urbane delivery. But she has grown in sophistication and after over ten years of touring says she now feels like an artist and believes she can support herself and her band with her music for at least another decade. The confidence radiates from the diminutive songstress, dwarfed by her hollow-bodied Gretsch guitar, her thin muscular legs coming out of a black designer dress that sticks out like a hoop skirt in a Velasquez portrait.
The Round World Music crew: L to R: Ian de Silva, Laura "Lulu" Yanow, yours truly, Serge El Baz, Joe Wanzala, Greg Landau; down in front: Roberto Leaver
IJ & AJ, goofing with Serge and Khaled at KUSF
Cheb i Sabbah listening party
Obituary: "Cheb i Sabbah"In November we lost Cheb i Sabbah, a bright light in the world music DJ booth. I knew Serge for 30 years and found him to be warm and witty, honest and straightforward, and only slightly befuddled by the cloud of hashish which encircled his head at all times like a halo. He was born Haim Serge el Baz in Constantine, Algeria in 1947. His parents were Jewish and, having received French passports, moved to Paris before the revolution. It was in France that Serge spent his teenage years, becoming a fan of American soul music. He moved to New York where he joined the Living Theatre, the experimental troupe founded by Julian Beck and Judith Malina. I was never so scared as when I attended the Living Theatre performance of Frankenstein at the Roundhouse in London in 1968. I was petrified when they started dragging audience members out, screaming and kicking. In New York Serge met Don Cherry the jazz trumpeter and made his first album, The Majoun Traveller, with overdubs of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry on some Gnawa music, and including snippets of Beat poet Ira Cohen's reading. He also befriended the German actor Klaus Kinski and when Serge moved to San Francisco, Kinski was living in Marin. He remarked once that suddenly there was heavy security, guys in shades with earpieces, which freaked him out, until he discovered Kinski's daughter Nastassia was in town and her entourage required the beefed-up security because of stalkers and paparazzi.
I met Serge when he came to work at Round World Music, the happy haven of world music aficionados started by Robert Leaver and Fred Hill in the Mission district in 1984. With his horn-rims, stubbly beard and thick accent, Serge reminded me of Peter Sellers playing a Russian spy. He also had a twinkle in his eye at all times. A quirk of speech was the way he said, "You know what I'm saying?" at the end of sentences, but the way he said it, it sounded like "You know I'm insane?" He began deejaying at Nickie's Barbeque and Bar on Haight Street and soon had a devoted following for his Tuesday night North African trance dance sessions, which he saw as therapy for his followers. I have no respect for DeeJays: it takes little talent to spin records, but Serge began to explore the new technology that would allow him to loop rhythms and change tempo to synch disparate elements. It was not techno in the sense of driving beats with a few musical clips but rather an organic whole that would move in and out of moods and he had the dance-floor in the palm of his hand. Don Cherry would hang out at the store, looking for Malian cassettes, and sit in with some of the acts Serge brought to town.
Suzanne, Serge's wife, was tall and waspish, seemingly very "straight," and a classic demonstration of the "opposites attract" syndrome. They had met in Paris in 1968, the year of student riots. They had two kids, Eva who wanted to be a model, and a son, Elijah, who took the stage name Opium and followed his dad into music.
To supplement his income Serge dealt hash (after all his namesake Hassan i Sabbah, the "Old Man of the Mountain," was the founder of the Hashishim cult). I gave up recreational drugs many years ago when hybrids appeared that made you catatonic from one toke, but an out-of-town friend wanted to score and so we visited El Baz in his lair. While he was in the other room measuring the deal, we looked around. He had no furniture, we sat on the carpet; his walls were covered in Indian hangings and posters of Hindu deities. Suddenly we noticed little piles of cash all over the rug. He had sorted out stacks of money like a kid playing Monopoly! But soon after he suffered a blow: two men dressed as UPS delivery men showed up at his door with a package, pistol-whipped him, tied him up and cleaned out his stash and his cash.
We thought he had retired from this dangerous game but then, when Robert was in Cuba, he stashed a lot of marijuana in the store room at Round World. Late one Friday night I got a phone call from the police saying the alarm was ringing at Round World. Robert's number didn't answer (as he was in Cuba) and Serge was out deejaying; apparently mine was the third number on the alarm company contact list. I drove over there to find two cops with flashlights outside. I opened the door and turned off the alarm. A window in the store room had been left ajar and wind had caused something to fall, tripping the motion detector. The cops sniffed the air, catching the pungent odor and looked around. I gestured at the window with a "What can you do in this neighborhood?" look on my face, and turned off the light.
Serge regularly brought acts to town and often to my radio show for promotion, so I met Cheb Mami, Cheba Fadela, Cheb Khaled and Hakim and got to see them in concert. The first Khaled and Hakim concert had been canceled because of the September 11 bombings in New York, so was rescheduled a year later. The crowd went wild, jumping on the seats of the Berkeley Community Theatre, yelling and waving huge flags of the Arab nations. Serge came on stage to ask the crowd to calm down, saying we don't want the fire marshals to shut it down. It was a riot of joy. His biggest coup was the first American tour of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for which we, his Round World posse, were the ushers and got front row seats. But his great passion was his music and he began to travel to India to record performers for the kinds of sounds he wanted to use in his discs.
He issued 7 CDs through Six Degrees Records in San Francisco. They were immensely popular, even influential on deejay culture in general. His songs were remixed by Bally Sagoo and Transglobal Underground among others. He became a celebrity and would be flown across continents to deejay one night at a private party. But it didn't go to his head: he would put the same effort into his weekly gigs in little clubs in SF as for opening for big acts. I ran into him a couple of years ago on Telegraph Avenue. He didn't look well, but laughed it off. Soon after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. All the smoking got to him. He had no insurance and he was given a month to live, but instead of giving up, he flew to Germany for treatment and then went back to India to make peace with the gods. He survived another two years and got to feel the outpouring of love and affection his legions of fans had for him, crowd-sourcing to pay his medical bills and attending benefit concerts. Not everyone gets to go out knowing how they will be remembered, but he knew he was adored and his musical legacy will continue to comfort us.
Tabu Ley Rochereau looks on as Mbilia Bel sings, London, 1985
Rochereau in MemoriamTabu Ley Rochereau as he was known to his fans was born in Bagata, southwest of Bandundu (then Banningville), Congo, on 13 November 1940 (according to Gary Stewart). He was the only one in his class who knew the answer to a question about French history (who was the general who led the resistance during the Franco-Prussian war?) which was "Denfert Rochereau." The other boys teased him and the name stuck. He sang in a church choir. As a teen he took songs he had written to the leading singer of the time, Joseph Kabasele, who recorded them and invited the youth into the group. His early hits were "Kelya," "Adios Teté," and "Bonbon Sucré." According to Ken Braun he also chauffeured Kabasele around with Patrice Lumumba, leader of the nationalist movement for independence, in his boss' Cadillac. Teté was his wife with whom he had 6 children. He also had 6 children with Jeanne Mokomo, "Miss Zaire 1969," and dozens of children with other women.
Rochereau left African Jazz with Docteur Nico at the height of their fame in 1963 to establish African Fiesta. Two years later the group splintered again into Rochereau's band, African Fiesta National and Nico's African Fiesta Sukisa. In 1966 he recorded the lovely ballad "Mokolo na kokufa (The Day I Die)" which became one of his standards. Several members of Rochereau's band, including Sam Mangwana, Guvano, Diana Nsimba and guitarists Michelino and Dizzy Mandjeku, formed Festival des Maquisards, a further splinter group led by Ntesa Dalienst quit and formed Les Grands Maquisards. African Fiesta National evolved into L'Afrisa International in 1970 as it branched out to play festivals in other parts of Africa. Flirting with pop, Rochereau made perhaps his worst recording when he covered the Beatles' "Let it Be" as "Lalabi," while "Kaful mayay" and "Aon Aon" were big hits for Afrisa. After Authenticité he became Tabu Ley and dropped his first name Pascal. He fulfilled his ambition of being the first African artist to perform at the Olympia in Paris in 1970 and the concert was released on two LPs (The subsequent single CD release left off two smoking numbers, "Salongo" and "Revolution comparaison," that praised Mobutu; see my reviews on Congo page 3). Impressed with the power of Western pop and R&B, Rochereau added trap drums to his line-up early on, and grew an afro as well as wearing bell-bottoms and James Brown-style stage costumes. Another blistering live show at FESTAC 77 in Lagos was also issued as a double LP. His band was a springboard for other musicians: the key players quit in Abidjan to form African All Stars and singer Pepe Ndombe left to form Afrizam. (The many threads of his lineage are traced in Gary Stewart's book, Rumba on the River.) His shows became spectacles with sexy women dancers, known as Rocherettes. Among them was a dancer he poached from Abeti called Mbilia Bel, who proved to be a great singer also and boosted his career as it was flagging at the beginning of the 1980s. He devoted all his resources to Bel, as he had fallen in love with her, but then he discovered she was having an affair with guitarist Rigo Star. He caught them in delicto flagrante at the swanky George V Hotel in Paris and apparently chased her through the streets with a pistol. Bel's career rose while his fell. He had one more success when he collaborated with his arch-rival Franco for a tribute album to Kabasele. Rochereau danced delicately around Mobutu, as it would be dangerous for him to do otherwise. However as the Zairois economy was in shambles, he moved to Paris then to the USA and finally settled in Belgium, not returning until after the fall of the dictator, when he was appointed vice-governor of Kinshasa. He did have a later hit when RealWorld Records made a live recording of him, Babeti Soukous, in 1989, which reprised a number of his hits, but his falsetto voice was straining and he never returned to being number one as the next generation of bands, the Clan Langa Langa, changed the style of the music from the older big bands like Rochereau's to stripped down soukous outfits. Rochereau released over a hundred albums, and thousands of singles. The cream of his output was issued in two double-CD sets by Stern's in 2007 as The Voice of Lightness.
Sonic InfidelitySonic engineer extraordinary Richard Henderson has relocated to Los Angeles and revived his blog, No Condition is Permanent.
New Dengue Fever 3-track EP streaming today only on Soundcloud
Here's an interesting morning improvisation on dobro by the American artist Henrik Drescher who lives in China and performs as Levis Persley
GigsNovalima, with supporting acts (not Bomba Estereo sadly), Yerba Buena Center for Performing Arts, San Francisco, December 7th
Bring your entire family to celebrate a wonderful end of the year musical night in Africa. The evening will feature: Baba Ken & his hot Afro-fusion band, Kotoja, a free African dance lesson with Comfort Mensah of Ghana, a community drum circle led by James Ichitey from Ghana, plus free raffle of latest CDs for ticketholders. Ashkenaz, Berkeley, Saturday December 7th.
ArtsJean-Claude Moschetti's fabulous photos of masks from Africa
ANGOLA SOUNDTRACK 2 (Analog Africa 075)
Samy Ben Redjeb of Analog Africa has an expansive vision. His Angola Soundtrack (which came out in 2011) highlighted tunes from the lesser-known but musically vibrant country of Angola, and he has returned from Luanda with a second helping, equally tasty, focussing on the 1970s, the period of transition from colonial repression to final Independence from Portugal in 1975. But joy was shortlived as the country plunged into a protracted civil war. This release does overlap with the blissful Soul of Angola (Lusafrica, 2001) double album, with the inclusion of Tony Von's "N'Hoca", Urbana Do Castro's "Kia Lomingo," Oscar Neves' "Mabele," and Os Kiezos' "Saudades de Luanda." Four duplications may seem like a high number but that older CD, which remains one of the best Angolan compilations made, is now out-of-print. While some of the names are familiar, most of these artists are only known through one track on another 5-CD compilation series put out by Buda Musique (Angola 60s to 90s), so hearing more from them is welcome. Samy also brings additional songs from his favorites: Os Kiezos, Jovens do Prenda, Dimba Diangola, Quim Manuel, Africa Ritmos and Africa Show who appeared on his first compilation. As usual with Analog Africa there is a 44-page deluxe booklet with rare photos, saved just in the nick of time from the ravages of tropical living, or gleaned from newspaper morgues. The rhythms are traditionally Angolan which have some overlap, aurally, with Brasil and the repetition of them may seem like the music is stuck in the groove to non-initiates. The guitars are picked and speedy (many guitarists started out on home-made guitars using tin cans and bicycle cables so there is a brittle metallic sound that they employ and enjoy); the percussion is generated by bongos, reco reco (also called dikanza, the local guiro), chocalho (shaker), caixa (snare drum) and other instruments normally associated with samba. When things let up, it's a wonderfully echoey dreamy track called "Meca" by the oddly-named Levis Vercky's (Is his first name a typo for Elvis or did he like denim? And Vercky's is, of course, the famed Congolese saxman, but this one is just a vocalist), then the mellow "Inspiraçao de Nito" by Africa Show 73. Angola has a strong musical identity, though there are inevitably some influences from Cabo Verde and other Portuguese diaspora countries, neighbors Southern Africa, Congo, as well as the Caribbean, and strong folkloric currents. Due to war and economic hardship there has never been much of a recording industry in Angola, only three recording companies who put out a scattering of singles (800 during the 1970s according to Samy's source), so the legacy is condensed but choice. The story of the live music scene is detailed with interviews with surviving musicians and their families and rare documents found in the National Library in Luanda. The album has a minute of silence at the end, followed by a bonus track (a trick borrowed from Gunter Gretz at PAM?), "Fuguei na escola (I ran away from school)" by Teta Lando on acoustic guitar -- his take on the "Guantanamera" tune. We are grateful to Samy for returning to Angola for another serving of this fabled music, and can only wonder where his peregrinations will take him next.
ROUGH GUIDE TO BLUES LEGENDS: BLIND BLAKE (RGNet 1303)
I wish somebody would tell me what "diddie-wah-diddie" means! That line is guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone who remembers R Crumb's ZAP comics. Crumb was famous for his love of early American folk music, he even had a band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and drew album covers and collector cards for his favorite old-timey artists. Arthur "Blind Blake" was one of the legendary American bluesmen of the 1930s. Apart from being blind, he died young (at 38), was a hard drinker and had a unique guitar style, which is often compared to ragtime piano. His voice is pleasant and although he was quite popular, recording something like 80 sides for Paramount, there is only one known photo of him (appropriately blurry!). But his songs were his ticket to fame and his style influenced the generation of the 1960s who rediscovered vintage blues, including Ry Cooder, John Fahey and others. "Good to the last drop -- like Maxwell House coffee!" he says of his own playing. It is part of an odd monologue where he discusses his music while performing "West Coast Blues," the B-side of his first record. Right from the start his picking is relaxed, his songs urbane, his delivery conversational. Though when he wants to he can rip it out, like "Southern Rag," where his delivery is astonishingly fast and complex and again he is concentrating so hard his "lyrics" are interjected comments. "I Was Afraid of That" returns to the "Diddie wah Diddie" tune, which is a dancing rag, this time with piano accompaniment. In fact most of his tunes are simple 12-bar blues so you can play along, however, his picking is complex and inventive. There are 26 sides on the Document CD, 23 on the Yazoo "Best of" CD, 23 on the Snapper UK release; there's even a 5-disc box set on JSP that includes all the alternate takes (back-to-back which I find irritating) and his sessions accompanying other singers. I guess that means the music is public domain: some labels clean up the tracks, but one of his greatest songs, "That will never happen no more," always sounds as beat-up as my Kenyan 45s. Rough Guide offer you this as a 25-song download or a 12-track LP; there is a bonus disc called Ragtime Blues & Hokum. Hokum songs are famously double-entendres about sex, like Dave Bartholomew's "My Ding-a-Ling" or songs that suggest grinding meat, boiling hambones or squeezing lemons. This is a good mixture of famous and obscure artists and you will hear familiar songs, like Robert Johnson's "They're red hot," in a new light. And how about this gem: "Say boy can you sing?" "No, I lost my voice in jail. I was always behind a few bars and could never find the key." This disc ends with Blind Lemon Jefferson, who has his own Rough Guide, also in this series (RGNET1298). The sound is so poor though I couldn't listen to it. Again there is a great bonus disc, this one Country Blues Pioneers, a sampler that includes Big Bill Broonzy, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, Robert Wilkins' "That's no way to get along," Memphis Minnie and many others.
Completing their trilogy of sightless Southern singers, Rough Guide gives us the lesser-known Blind Willie Johnson, a Texas preacher who used slide guitar to aid his message. His songs are all of a religious bent and he sings like he could use a bottle of cough syrup. His hits were "Nobody's fault but mine" (No need to mention who covered it) and "John the Revelator," notably covered by Son House. The accompanying bonus disc is less appealing to me personally, being Gospel Blues Legends. I get a little weary of songs like "Jesus' blood can make me whole," even when delivered by the great Barbecue Bob, or Charley Patton's "Oh Death." Again you will recognize the familiar "Jesus gonna make up my dying bed," which I think is called "In my time of dying" by the Zeppelins. The best of these is "Jesus is a mighty good leader" by Skip James which you doubtless already have.
SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON
LATIN NOIR (Piranha)
My iTunes is out of hand. There's over two weeks of continuous music in there and it's not all stuff I want to hear or even know (And I am not just talking about the tunes labeled "Track 01"). I ask labels not to send me links to downloads, but rather physical copies of new items, but that's becoming rarer. So I decided to start weeding. I threw out the Rough Guide to Latin Dance -- it was all over the place and incoherent: Started off badly and had many flat spots which would clear the dancefloor. There were two good tracks on there "Santa Isabel de las Lajas" by Sierra Maestra and "Jaloux Jaloux" by Mystic Orchestra from Colombia. Then I found this Latin Noir, which is just the ticket, though my copy is not all there, I seem to be missing some tracks. Either I deleted them, they didn't unzip, or they walked off. There are three overlapping artists with the RG2LD, Maurice El Medioni, the Algerian pianist who does trinkly old-style ballroom dancing salsa, accordeonista Chango Spasiuk and Watcha Clan. The main offerings are an abundance of son and rumba, such as "Todo eso" by Seguidores del Son and a lovely version of "Ruñidera" by Son de Mayabeque, new groups to me. They are modern keepers of the tradition (I suspect) like Estudiantina Invasora who are here with a rousing live "Commandante Che Guevara." The sound is crystal clear, and you can appreciate all the nuances of percussion and still hear them when the horns arrive on "Rumba para los Olu Bata" by Eddie Bobe. "Las Alturas de Simpson" is a creaky, squeaky old-time danzon by Piquete Tipico, and a pure delight. Next up Alfredo Guiterrez, oops, that's missing too. Too bad, as I suspect it's a good one. Man I hate this download crap! Drives me to distraction. How can people stand this nonsense? Anyway, Latin Noir is a good compilation, if you can manage to keep it all together. One more thing, dear folks at Piranha, can you turn off the music on your website? I hate having music from websites competing with the music I am listening to, it's most distracting. Or at least have a mute button on your homepage? Sorry to get off topic, reader, but I have now discovered that all the tracks on here are mislabeled in iTunes, so I am dumping this behemoth and going to go to VOX which is a free music player. Yes, check out Latin Noir, it might soothe your frazzled self.
SEMBEH MA FA FE (ROOTS VOLUME) (Stronghold Sound)
Here's some tribal music from Guinea, some of it raw and ready, some of it remixed with dubby bass 'n' drums by the likes of Captain Planet, Chief Boima, J Boogie and Dub Snakkr. The scorching Captain Planet remix of "Tounkan" posted on soundcloud caught my ear and made me want to check out the rest of this. It's a traditional piece with djembe and balafon and a woman (Saran?) singing. The remix is looped with an overdubbed syn bass and drums, plus some techno to give it more oomph. (Though the vocals have not been treated.) Dub Snakkr, the man behind the label, has recently done some exploration of post-revolutionary Arabia (Arab HipHop in the Wake of Revolutions) and while he was on the continent he returned to Guinea looking for old and new artists for the label's first all-African release. The dozen traditional sides are great; the four remixes come halfway through and fit in nicely. I am no purist: I like to hear white rockers jamming with Africans (if they are good). I know the planet is shrinking but I manage to block out everything that bugs me about contemporary pop music (I just discovered Eminem is white! I still don't know his music and I am sure I don't want to: I should have guess his ethnicity from his name but I try not to notice. Wait, the Beastie Boys are white too? I really have got this hippety hoppity thing all wrong then.) Anyway the return to the traditional stuff is good because then you notice the ferocity of the balafon and drums (and djembes) and realize you don't really need the added dub stuff to enjoy this, it just makes a nice change and spices up the proceedings a bit.
the year so far:
(click on maps at the top of the page to get to continent of choice)
Grand Kalle's latest reissues are filed in Congo Classics
Africando's Viva Africando is filed, for no good reason, in Senegal 2
Afrobeat Airways 2 flew off to Ghana
Etran Finatawa's Sahara Sessions is in the new Niger section
Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa is filed under Arabia
Kenya Special from Soundways
La Yegros is filed under Argentina
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba's Jama Ko is filed under Mali part 2
Mahala Rai Banda's Balkan Reggae is filed in the Balkan & Gypsy music section, Old World
Staff Benda Bilili: the movie is filed under Congo part 3
Ravi Shankar Live in concert in Escondido is filed under India & Pakistan Live
My Top Twelve of 2012, with best reissues, concerts, etc, is online HERE.
My Top Ten of 2011 can be found HERE.
My Top 9 of 2010 is online HERE
Click HERE for my top 10 of 2009
Click HERE for my top 9 of 2008
Click HERE for my top 10 of 2007
Click HERE for my top 11 of 2006
MY BEST-SELLING BOOK!"Essential reference guide to the Congo guitar king" -- SONGLINES 64 **** (four stars)
"I do not know anybody who has such immense knowledge of African music. Congratulations." -- Gerhard G (a purchaser)
BACK IN PRINT (Second edition, November 2012)
A DISCOGRAPHY OF DOCTEUR NICO
Poltroon Press, 2012, expanded to 88 pages; list price $19.95.
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