TANBOU TOUJOU LOU:
Meringue, Kompa Kreyol, Vodou Jazz & Electric Folklore From Haiti 1960-1981 (Ostinato Records)
Haiti always runs third behind the other big musical nags of the Caribbean: Cuba and Jamaica -- the latter became a global phenomenon in the 1970s, but Cuban music has long influenced its neighbors as well as spreading to North America and Mexico where cha cha, mambo, and salsa became huge in the last century. The influences on Haiti came the other way: from Cuba via the son as well as mambo and cha cha, Calypso from Trinidad, and from the US jazz was adapted and a craze for "mini jazz" found lots of bands with prominent horn sections, or interweaving clarinets and alto saxes (also heard in the Congo dance bands of the pre-independence era like Rock'a Mambo and Les Bantous). There is a debate as to whether the merengue is a native Haitian or Dominican rhythm since it is found in both halves of Hispaniola. One theory is it evolved from french contredanse, and the Haitian variety is sweeter and more nostalgic than the Dominican variety according to the liner notes of Haiti Chéri, a fine 1995 comp on the Corason label. I saw one of those "Hotel-folklore" groups in Haiti performing in costumes that came right out of the wardrobe for a light opera about Marie Antoinette. Merengue evolved into compas direct (or "Konpa") then into cadance ("Kadans") -- on the cover they called it "Meringue" which is a crunchy sweet made from egg whites. This new compilation casts a wide net and hauls in nineteen cuts of Haitian music, mostly what you would call Konpa, by many of the star acts, including Coupé Cloué, Tabou Combo, Les Gypsies de Pétionville, Les Loups Noir, Super Jazz de Jeunes, Nemours Jean-Baptiste, Webert Sicot, Shleu Shleu, etc. I have albums by all these artists and arguably could put together an equally engaging set, but that just shows you how consistent the music is. The advance material is promoting the compiler as an "Indiana Jones"-type hero crate-digging his way through Haiti, overcoming dust, bugs and scorn, as Samy Ben Redjeb has done in his musical forays into Africa. You can crate-dig Haitian music in New York (where Rotel Records put out loads of Haitian albums in the 70s), Paris, Washington DC, Miasmi [sic], in fact almost anywhere because lots of Haitians got the flock out of there when the Tonton Macoutes started leaving disembodied heads in the road in the 60s and 70s (the rich period covered by this compilation) and the expats brought their precious vinyl with them. Even the compiler admits, "most of the records were pressed for the U.S. market and Haitians in the diaspora, who could better afford them." But there are indeed discoveries here, and the new names are the most intriguing, from the accordion and drum opener "Lagen" by Zotobre to a couple in the middle by Super Choucoune 70 and Les Pachas du Canapé Vert. The notable Rodrigue Millien and Les Pachas du Canapé Vert were on the Strut double album that came out two years ago, Haiti Direct. The great Ibo Combo (who were also on that comp) turn in a storming track here, called "Souffrance," with two keyboards and speedy guitar licks. I am always glad to promote new Konpa compilations, and enjoy it greatly as I have fond memories of wild christmas holidays spent on the island of Hispaniola with my mad mzungu brother. The best Haiti comp for beginners that I know is Andy Kershaw's which came out on Rough Guide (RGNET1067) in 2001, but there's always room for more.
ANTILLES CHERIES (Compa/Cadence)
FOUNDATION DANCE MUSIC FROM THE CARIBBEAN (Fanon Records)
An alternative to the "fearless crate-digger" approach to music is for the compiler to be rooted in a regular broadcast, whether on the radio or in a nightclub, where you get immediate feedback and have to stay on top of the music. Thus this new compilation of "the roots of Caribbean dance music" gets straight to the golden discs without a lot of fluff about the Raiders of the Lost Wax. In fact there's one of those Eureka moments at the start: In 1969 the Congolese trio Ryco Jazz had a lengthy stand in the Antilles and brought that flavor back to African music (later evidenced in such great acts as Sam Mangwana & African All-Stars). They had a hit with a track called "Si I bon I di bon" credited to singer Freddy N'Kounkou. This new disc opens with a tune called "Si bon di bon" by Simon Jurad which is the original. This fine compilation of dance music was put together by Emile Omar from his archives of music from Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe and la Republica Dominicana. Omar is a DJ at the renowned Radio Nova in Paris who have issued some outstanding tropical comps over the years. They have instituted a label called Fanon Records (after Frantz Fanon, the famous Martiniquan Marxist author of works on the effects of colonialism and a pioneer of "Black consciousness"). Now, there is some very wanky synthesizer that characterizes this right off as late 70s dance-floor fodder, but if you can get past that (it is indeed quaint now), there's an irresistible groove, as on Experience 7's "Banzai." 1979 was in fact the turning point in the music as the little huts where these bands played biguine were wiped off the earth by the 175mph Hurricane David; when the music gradually came back it had evolved into zouk. Despite this being primarily dance music, inevitably if you cannot follow the creole you will miss the humor in the lyrics which have sexual double entendres (the coconut refers to a favorite part of female anatomy) and veiled political commentary. There is an outstanding 15 minute cut from Rodrigue Millien, who also features on the new Tanbou Toujou Lou comp reviewed above. The late great Coupé Cloué appears with his classic "Plein caille" which he recorded as Henry Gesner and Trio Select at the start of his career. This is a fine entry in the "Peanut vendor" playlist, though my pal Ken Abrams says it's a cover of "Sawale" by Rex Lawson. These chéries deliver the Antillean groove in fine style.
FELA KUTI & HIS KOOLA LOBITOS
HIGHLIFE JAZZ & AFROSOUL (Knitting Factory)
There's something about "established artists" that causes a thrill in retailers. They would rather restock someone they know and have already sold in a new package, like say The Beatles in Mono, than try a gamble on an unknown artist. It's the same in all cultural fields (art, books, movies, etc), hence we have a three-disc set of mostly unknown Fela Kuti material from his earliest days, before he got to Afrobeat, when he was just trying to find his way between Highlife, Jazz and Soul. The sonic quality is not great and some of the music is pretty predictable, but of course there are legions of Fela Zombies who will march out and add it to their collection, play it once, then shelve it. But nevertheless there are some revelations here: Fela played trumpet before he took up the sax. The liner notes tell us he was a better trumpeter, but that's open to question, based on the evidence here (& he was an annoying saxophonist). The arrangements tend to be the same throughout: a horn statement, then Fela's vocals come in over the rhythm section, then a repeated horn riff under the verse, then the trumpet solo or a sax solo, then horns in unison and a return of the vocal with a repeat chorus and fade. It's all done in under 5 minutes. At this point, 1960 to 63, Fela's band were the Koola Lobitos. They couldn't compete with the big name highlife bands like Victor Uwaifo or Rex Lawson, and also didn't fare well with jazz, since you couldn't dance to it. They tried to fuse both, as did Ghana's legendary Ramblers and Uhuru dance bands and Togo's Black Santiagos. But there was stiff local competition from Joni Haastrup as well as O.J. Ekemode; then the James Brown thing hit big when Geraldo Pino and the Heartbeats came to Lagos from Sierra Leone and swept all before them. This is likely why Fela also got into ersatz soul and funk at this time. There are some good riffs and churning rhythms here, including a live 6 track set that was issued on EP and some songs by the Koola Lobitos without Fela, but it's mostly interesting as a historical artifact.
RIVERS -- FROM THE CONGO TO THE MISSISSIPPI (siama music)
Everyone can spell Mississippi but not everyone can spell Siama Matuzungidi's last name, so he is proud bearer of a single name -- like Adele, Bono or Cher! In the history of Congolese guitar there is a distinguished line of mi-solo players: this is a style of guitar that alternates between lead and rhythm and can be the engine room of a good song. The inventor was unquestionably Mwamba Déchaud whose younger brother Docteur Nico became one of the greatest exponents of African guitar. Then there was Vata Mombasa who led Orchestre Lipua Lipua. Just as Vata Mombasa was known as "the Professor," his colleagues dubbed Siama "Mualimu" which means "the teacher," because of his intelligence on the guitar. Among the legendary Congolese bands he was part of, Siama started out in the Cavacha band of Dona Mobeti (the cavacha was a wildly popular dance in the 70s). After that band split, one faction was led by Mopero wa Maloba who created Shama Shama, but groups often fell apart on tour and Siama was asked by his friend Koko Zigo Mike to come to Kampala, Uganda, where they formed Kombe Kombe. That band got a contract at the Garden Square in Nairobi where they regrouped as Viva Makale. Further splits led to Bwambe Bwambe, Pepelepe, Shika Shika of Jimmy Monimambo, then to Moja One of Moreno, and to Lovy Longomba's brilliant work before Super Mazembe, and then to Virunga, led by Samba Mapangala. After seeing Virunga at the Starlight Club in Nairobi in 1983 I became obsessed with this sound of the expatriate Congolese bands in Kenya, and started to retroactively collect information and recordings by them. Siama's career -- as he was in many of the key bands -- is central to my research. This is his first album in many years; he is now based in Minnesota so has a cosmopolitan band featuring Indian singers and even an Indian veena, Tibetan flute, country pedal steel guitar, jazz piano, and pan-African percussion, so maybe "By Way of the Ganges" could be a subtitle to the album. His acoustic guitar is strong and the instrumentation neatly complements it without drowning him out. There's a palm wine-style song, "Yele Yele," and other West African touches. One thing about musicians like Siama is they cannot stop making music and even out of Africa he finds some sympathetic souls to join him. When the trumpet comes in on "Mpevo," I thought of Hugh Masekela -- he came from South Africa to the US but also created an Afro-beat sound when he teamed up with Hedzoleh Sounds. Among several songs Siama wrote for Shika Shika, "Sisili" is reprised here, as well as "Kueya" which he originally performed with Samba Mapangala and Virunga. This is a welcome return to the studio for one of Congo's unsung legends.
MUSIC OF MOROCCO
RECORDED BY PAUL BOWLES 1959 (Dust-to-Digital DTD-46)
Paul Bowles is best known as an American author who lived as an expatriate in Morocco where there would be no scrutiny over his homosexual lifestyle, and that of his wife, Jane (also a fine novelist: see Two Serious Ladies). He was surrounded by others who shared his attitudes, such as British author and painter Brion Gysin, and American William Burroughs, who wrote Naked Lunch while there. "Compared to Tangier," Robert Ruark wrote, "Sodom was a church picnic and Gomorrah a convention of Girl Scouts." Bowles also had Moroccan houseboys, Mohammed Mrabet and Larbi Layachi, who told him folk tales which he tape-recorded and translated into best-selling books. Gysin ran a cafe, the 1001 Nights, and had Gnawa and Joujouka musicians perform there which appealed to Bowles who had been a serious composer earlier in his career. His love of music and ability with a two-track recorder led to sixty hours of 7-inch tape which he made for the Library of Congress in 1959, and which led to their 2xLP field recording set Music of Morocco (1972). That has now been updated into this deluxe 4xCD package. I don't know why Dust-to-Digital felt it necessary to give 4pp of space to Lee Ranaldo to write an "introduction" since he basically says he cannot read Bowles and knows nothing about him. That left a bad taste and did not endear me to the fancy over-the-top booklet bound in fake leather. But it's not all flash and no substance: Philip Schuyler writes a more thorough introduction, mentioning the urgency Bowles felt in 1957, the year after independence, to capture the indigenous music before it was lost to progress, and the impinging influence of Egyptian pop. Bowles bought 78s of local music but it didn't satisfy him so he hit on the idea of making his own recordings. He even sent recordings to Bela Bartok who stole ideas for his "Concerto for Orchestra," as many European composers from Dvorak on down had done to other folk music. On a trip to the USA to deliver incidental music for Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth," Bowles visited the Library of Congress and got training on the Ampex 601 deck. There were two obstacles that stood in the way of the project: the first was electrical power since the Ampex had to be plugged in to 110 volts (American isolationism again!), and the second was official meddling and locals suspicious of whitey with a machine. This meant that often he had to set up a studio in a hotel and persuade musicians to come to him and perform. He also tried to manipulate the artists, telling them the American government wanted certain instruments to play solo and moving others he didn't like out of earshot! You don't need me to repeat the names of the different types of indigenous instruments, flutes, reeds, drums, heard here, but it is a unique and to use the hackneyed word "magical" sound. Once his six-month odyssey was completed Bowles had many hours of music (250 tracks, many over ten minutes long) and urged the Library of Congress to put out 6 albums. His friend Ira Cohen wanted to issue an LP of secular trance music but, again, Bowles wanted too much control over what this would include. There was a certain patronising "Orientalism" -- or racism to put it bluntly -- in Bowles' view of Berber music as barbaric and primitive, but he meant this is a compliment. He was looking for something pure and essential, untainted by outside influences. For this new edition the LC discs have been revised. There are eight additional pieces, and two pieces have been replaced by others of better sonic quality, so this is really an upgrade. And now all the tracks are full length instead of edited for time (forget the notion that repetition gets boring!); as Bowles wrote, "There is no quick way of listening to Berber music." I agree, and it is a delight to steep in this heady mix of mental mint tea and kif-wreathed percussion.
most recent reviews:
(click on maps at the top of the page to get to continent of choice)
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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My Top Ten of 2011 can be found HERE.
My Top 9 of 2010 is online HERE
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BACK IN PRINT (Second edition, November 2012)
A DISCOGRAPHY OF DOCTEUR NICO
Poltroon Press, 2012, expanded to 88 pages; list price $19.95.
By Alastair Johnston
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