ALSARAH AND THE NUBATONES
MANARA (Wonderwheel Wonder CD30)
Right in the middle of this album is the single, "Ya Watan" and it's a gem. To traditional arabic instruments like oud, trumpet and the clay drums beaten by hand are added some discreet electronic effects on keyboard. The album is a musical quest by Alsarah and her fellow Nubians to find home. Not easy in a country with shifting borders that is half the size it was a couple of decades ago. In modern times the English and French were there and created something called the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan after the French tried to grab the Upper Nile region in 1898 and were rebuffed by the Brits. I was in Juba, then Southern Sudan in 1983 as the army was planning a revolt against the North, because the country was dominated by the arab government in Khartoum and sucking up the oil resources of the South where the black Sudanese live. Consequently after a civil war, still not resolved in the South, the country was cut in half in 2011. The North is still the third largest country in Africa and does have a coast, on the Red Sea, where I did my bit to drink up the last of the alcohol when sharia law was declared. Other than Khartoum and some spectacular ruins there's not much but the Nubian desert with flocks of goats, date palms and smugglers headed to Egypt. This album creates a pleasant aural portrait with either kif or mint tea to augment your listening experience, should you choose. There are some snippets of street sound, radio tuning with static, and other touches that help weave it together into a wonderful journey. Alsarah spent her first 8 years in Khartoum then moved to Yemen and then to Brooklyn, so her quest for home is very real and has been sustained by listening to the old music of her homeland from the 60s and 70s. On tour the Nubatones have played the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, as well as headlining at WOMAD in Australia and gigs in London plus an extended residence in Morocco. There's definitely a pan-Arabic African groove, as evidenced in songs like "Fulani," and despite the smallness of the combo the lush feeling of the big band recordings of Umm Kulthum.
NOURA MINT SEYMALI
ARBINA (Glitterbeat GBCD038)
Traditional Mauretanian music in a not so traditional arrangement for the second international release by this powerhouse quartet. The producer Matthew Tinari is also the trap drummer and along with the stop-tempo bass they bring a rock sensibility to the set. And in the rare moments when her husband's electric guitar is not prominent, Seymali's voice and her ardine playing are clearly rooted in the folk traditions of the Moors. I wonder if her unaccompanied set would be as engaging to Western audiences, but I think the album's success is actually in the Western reframing. "Mohammedoun" contains a familiar riff: it's "Had to cry today" by Blind Faith (listen to the progression at 43 seconds) and throughout this album I hear echoes of other rock songs of my youth, so I assume the guitarist has a similar musical background to mine -- or else I am hallucinating -- even though he is Mauretanian and his wife is a griot, singing traditional songs. The opening cut, "Arbina," invokes the Lord above while "Mohammedoun" is about His man on the spot, known as the Prophet. At first I thought it was "Presence of the Lord," but Winwood reassured me of the right title. There's another tune or nursery rhyme from my childhood bubbling up in here, in "Richa," but so far back I am having a hard time retrieving it. My sense of Jeiche Chighaly's playing is he is more into Fairport Convention than Cream though he likes to rip out the blues riffs. "Ghlana" eases into one of the desert blues we know so well from Tinariwen and the host of others who love the jam: there's two guitars on here, maybe double-tracked since only Chighaly is credited. On "Ghizlane," Noura's voice stands out, soaring above the band in a traditional song about seeing giraffes at the oasis and imagining running after them, then realizing how earthbound we are with our awkward bodies compared to the fleet-footed giant quadruped: "I follow the footsteps to an impossible end."
KENYA SPECIAL VOLUME TWO
SELECTED EAST AFRICAN RECORDINGS FROM THE 1970s & 80s (Soundway SNDWCD084)
Now that I have resumed my old trade of disc jockey with a fortnightly podcast I have returned to thinking about the importance of sequencing. A really fine example, with a complex playlist, is the Voyager's Golden Record,
a 3-hour set that was blasted into outer space to convince aliens there is intelligent life on earth. But since this stellar mixtape was accompanied by a couple of nude selfies, the aliens will doubtless think we are creeps or worse, swingers. However, I put it on, courtesy of YouTube and was really impressed by the way Louis Armstrong sat next to shakuhachi flute and the way Bach filtered in and out of the mix alongside Javanese and African tunes. If you listen to the Soundway Kenya mix you will think it's a collection of music from all over Africa, not just East Africa. There's funk, highlife, even mbaqanga in here and it gets off to a jerky start. Track one, the Lulus Band's "I can feel it," is overmodulated and a bit shrill. Sung in English, it's about the happy end of the world. Their other entry here, "Daina" would have made a better lead-off track. Track two, Bahari Boys, has a Taarab influence, but fast with Ethiopic sax, and is followed by more shrill benga. Conga International come up, with solid Congolese rumba from Johnny Bokelo though showing a highlife influence. Props to the compiler for finding this (I have it on a SonAfric LP titled "Sana Mama" and credited to Orchestre Kouloukoko du Zaire, which apparently was done to avoid contractual obligations). Congolese music was big in East Africa in the 70s and so lots of singles were reissued in Nairobi from Zairois labels and some were pressed there during vinyl shortages in Zaire. This track "Nakupenda sana," is the first peak moment. (My favorite cut on the previous Soundway Kenya comp was also the Congolese one: Vévé Star's "Nitarudia.") But things are not building here, as we crash back to benga. Country and Western music for the Luo. The marketing hype accompanying the release (I didn't see the liner notes when writing this review) talks about "otherness" versus juvenescent club culture, and it is a load of bollocks. I really don't see young clubbers getting into this. After they burn out on the Fela clones will they discover Manu Dibango or Hugh Masakela next? I suppose the hope is they will hear Les Mangelepa or Simba Wanyika on here and create a demand for reissues of those fine acts. Mangelepa's "Nseya" is another big hitter (from their 1982 Seventh Anniversary album, celebrating their defection from Baba Gaston). About the mid-point we get to the key track: the sublime "Nakupenda (I love you)" of Simba Wanyika. Not to be confused with orch Conga's "Nakupenda sana (I love you very much)" or even Simba Wanyika's "Nakupenda cherie (I love you sweetie)" which came out on their 1992 CD Pepea, recorded in Europe and a lot slicker. "Nakupenda" is the longest cut on here and they could have used a couple more nine minute barnstormers to ground this, and ditched the 2.5 minute novelty numbers. But we return to the diverse miscellany approach with some tracks that befuddle me, as to why they were included. "Libondela" by Afro 70 is a South African cover and completely derails things; then we hear what sounds like a Bollywood movie tune "Harambe" by Mac and Party, a piece of vintage taraab. It may be a failing of sequels that they can never live up to the original, and Soundway's first two-volume Kenya Special is indeed a very special collection. Even the Eagles Lupopo track "Mrembo pesa (Miss Money)," which has a "Tighten up" vibe, gets irritating on repeated listening. But this is an interesting compilation precisely because of its diversity and while I may not listen to it all the way through repeatedly, there are definitely some gems on here worth knowing.
EAST AFRICAN MUSIKI WA DANSI CLASSICS (Stern's STCD3067-68)
I have been waiting for this release for some time. I held back my review of the Soundway's East African comp above so I could write about them together, consequently I have listened to the Soundway comp over a dozen times. On first hearing the Stern's offering one thing is clear: it's much better sequenced, the music flows logically and there's no lurching about from genre to genre with novelties thrown in to derail it. In fact the compiler says he thinks taarab deserves a separate comp and of course that is true. Some of the same groups are included, indeed some of the same tracks. A high point on both of these new compilations is Johnny Bokelo's "Nakupenda sana," which was hiding in plain sight on an LP from Editions Esperance. So, was there industrial espionage on here? "Sina Raha" which was on the first Soundway comp is repeated here. How did both comps end up with this same song, and why does Stern's include it if the compiler started off with 1000 tracks? And why does disc one end with "Dunia ni duara" by Moreno and Moja One since ALL African music fans have the recent Stern's album compiled by Doug Paterson that includes it? And this may be a good time to ask why Doug Paterson did not write the liner notes? The compiler says "Starting in the early 60s, Congolese bands flooded East Africa. Those from Northeast Congo headed for Kampala, from the southern Shaba region to Dar, and all to Nairobi to record." If that sounds familiar, it's the lede on my page on Congolese bands in Kenya: "Those from North-East Congo came to Kampala, Uganda; those from Shaba in the South came to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, but sooner or later they headed to Nairobi for the recording studios there." Despite this unimpeachable source he allows far too many typographical errors to creep in: the title is "Musiki wa dansi" which is wrong. The word he wants is MUZIKI. In Tanzania Muziki wa densi refers to secular music; also he frequently uses the term "zilipendwa" which translates as "they were loved." When referring to those songs which were loved the word is "Zilizopendwa," though "they" can be understood from the context. There are other irritating small errors in here too: Johnny Bokelo's band was Conga Internationale not Congo, Les Maquis were "du" Zaire, not "de." Still, it is readable which is more than can said for most CD packages, but then the Soundway sets have fantastic design with lots of band photos, ephemera and labels which are notably lacking here.
Now I have made it to disc two and again there is a track repeated from the first Soundway comp (as if it didn't exist): Afro 70's excellent driving "Cha Umheja." Also Sunburst's "Matatizo nyumbani" was recently reissued on Ave Africa: The complete recordings by them. Yes, these five duplications are good cuts but we could have heard some of the other 1000 singles the compiler has that have not been recently reissued. He even holds out a carrot, saying there's a great rare Super Mambo track, maybe implying if we are good there will be a second volume. The "Muziki wa densi" genre refers to Tanzania, but here is one instance where borders are permeable and there's lots of the rumba and benga flavor of Congo and Kenya, as well as the excitement of what sound like live recordings: one take, no multi-tracking. The crystal clarity is another asset of this Stern's set, most of the tracks coming from master tapes in the possession of A.I. Records. The discs should prompt you to start compiling your own set of the thousand best East African tracks.
IN HOLLYWOOD 1971 (Northern Spy Records NSPY073/EMW1015)
If you should get up with a clear head and a fresh outlook and think it's time to put on a Morning raga to focus your mind, then this is the album for you. It's a rare private recording that Ravi Shankar made at home on 12 June 1971. There's two hours of music in four movements. At Ravi's Highland Avenue home that morning some celebrities were gathered to hear the master, and Ravi, being Bengali, addressed them about the plight of the people of East Pakistan (as his homeland had become) after Cyclone Bhola had hit it and the much bigger West Pakistan had invaded it. After the cyclone the government response was so weak there were calls for independence, but the duly elected Socialist leader was prevented from taking office by a military coup, in which over a million people perished. Ravi spoke to the gathering and performed for them: his concerns motivated George Harrison to organize the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden. That morning, in addition to the Beatles and Peter Sellers, Zubin Mehta and Marlon Brando were hanging out. But there was another legendary musician present, and playing (no, sorry, not Frank Zappa), and that is Ustad Alla Rakha, Ravi's accompanist on tablas for 25 years, who gets little grunts or sighs of approval for his participation, particularly in the incendiary closer "Sindhi Bhairavi." The sound has been remastered from reel-to-reel tape and is clear; as many of the famous big stadium concerts he made at the time were in the evening, Ravi did not record many morning ragas. The four original compositions are by Shankar and the liner notes explain their inspiration (a trip to his birthplace) and musical structure (the life power of each raga is explained in philosophical terms that are most interesting). One ("Hollywood Dhun") is based on a Bengali folk tune and conjures up, as always, the lyrical black and white imagery of Satyajit Ray. You always learn something from Ravi and there is much to enjoy.
COSMIC UNITY (Soundway CD0082)
This album casts a wide net musically speaking. There are elements from all over: poetry & jazz, hippie thumb piano on reverb, calypso, steel pan, brassy beefy Nigerian funk (especially "La Humanidad"), hiphop, Colombian folklore, even a touch of Incredible String Band in "Blue Atlantic," -- so many that chaos ensues, and I have to skip about and quickly take off some tracks before they piss me off, while others lull me into a false sense that things are going well. I would have placed Family Atlantica in the Caribbean but turns out they are based in London and clearly have picked up on a lot of the international acts coming through, and studied well. I always shy away from singers who are referred to as "divas" -- to me this says vain and egotistical and not open to suggestion. But Venezuelan "diva" Luzmira Zerpa is not always to the fore and the guests include two sax legends: O.J. Ekemode, Orlando Julius himself, and Marshall Allen from Sun Ra's Arkestra. Kwame Crentsil appears on percussion, and Adrian Owusu on guitar, providing a Ghanian funk undercurrent for the more successful tracks. The diva's impression of Toto la Momposina fails to impress me and her poetry and jazz track "Visa" is so bad I could only listen to it once, fortunately I can deselect it in iTunes so I don't have to hear it again -- and the next one too, "Puerta" is unmemorable. Nevertheless the album evinces great energy and has strong percussion and agile saxophony. Surprisingly steel pan works as continuo in the West African funk bits, I think I even hear a string section in there.
KOTTARASHKY & THE RAIN DOGS
CATS, DOGS & GHOSTS (Asphalt Tango CD-ATR 5516)
Kottarashy started out as a drum'n'bass DJ with loops based on old gypsy records. His debut album Opa Hey! was really catchy. But he took his musical ideas to the next level by getting together a band and now on his third album they take on rock'n'roll, blues, jazz and what must be Balkan funk. Dimitar Liolev is outstanding on sax and reeds, joined by tenor trombone and clarinet occasionally. In addition to guitar, bass and traps there's a synth on two tracks, and Kottarashky himself, behind the curtain, with effects and samples. After some meanders we get to the excellent "Fuga," with fast drums and Bulgarian flute and some Looney Tunes stop/start breaks with xylophone and percussion. Also "September" with its moody baritone sax (or is that a bass clarinet?) and poppy keyboards clicks. Sadly there's a rap track, "Mission completed," which i will pretend did not happen. But they won't let me forget it as the rapper Nufry takes over on "The winner, the driver." Still, with two tracks deleted, the truncated album works for me.
most recent reviews:
(click on maps at the top of the page to get to continent of choice)
Changüí Majadero's debut
& Harold López-Nussa's El Viaje can be found in Cuba part 4
Richard Bona, from Cameroun, can be read about in the African Miscellany section
Paulo Flores of Angola and
Bitori's Legend of Funana are filed in Angola and Cabo Verde
Luísa Maita and
Metá Metá both have new discs, reviewed in Brasil part 2
Malawi Grooves and Kankobela of the Batonga are now in the Hugh Tracey section
Systema Solar's reissue is discussed in Colombia
San Lazaro moved to Salsa (which is filed in USA, though they are from Australia)
also puzzling, where to put Americans
Money Chicha, who can be found in Peru
on surer ground,
Mamadou Barry's Tankadi is filed in Guinea
& read about Vieux Kanté in Mali part 2
Konono no 1 meets Batida is filed in Congo part 3
Fanfare Ciocarlia's 20 went to Gypsy Brass
find Black Disco in Southern Africa
Joe Mensah is in Ghana
Dona Onete can be found in Brasil part 2
the Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz is filed in Ethiopia & Somalia
Tanbou Toujou Lou: Haiti 1960-81 is filed under Haiti
Antilles Cheries is filed under Caribbean misc
Fela Ransome Kuti & his Koola Lobitos' Highlife Jazz & Soul is filed in Nigeria part 2
Siama Matuzungidi's Rivers is filed in Congo part 3
Music of Morocco, recorded by Paul Bowles is filed under Arabia
read about Djelimady Tounkara's latest in Mali part 2
Tribu Baharu's Pa'l mas exigente bailador is in Colombia
Basel Rajoub's Queen of Turquoise is filed in Arabia
my Papa Wemba obit is filed under Congo part 3
Robi Svard is filed in Spain
Los Hacheros can be found in Salsa
Elaides Ochoa's latest is in Cuba part 4
Cortijo can be found in Salsa
Fanfare Ciocarlia are found in Gypsy Brass
Osei Korankye is filed under Ghana
Dengue Fever's The Deepest Lake can be found in "Asia"
Gambari Band's Kokuma
and Waati Sera by Adama Yalomba are filed in Mali part 2
The Rough Guide to South African Jazz can be read about in Southern Africa
Ram, Lakou Mizik and Wesli are all Haitian artists, so read about them in that section
The Rough Guide to a World of Psychedelia can be found in old world miscellany
Sidestepper's Supernatural Love is reviewed in the Colombia tab
Not sure where to file Sol Sok Sega from Mauritius, I guess Old World misc for now
Mbaraka Mwinshehe & Super Volcano's Masika 1972-4 is filed under Kenya/Tanzania part 2
Sahra Halgan Trio can be found in the Arabic tab
Siba's De Baile Solto and Daniela Mercury's Vinil Virtual are both found in Brasil part 2
Rough Guide to Bottleneck Blues is filed under Blues in the New World
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