E. T. MENSAH & THE TEMPOS
KING OF HIGHLIFE ANTHOLOGY (RetroAfric24CD)
I thought the RetroAfric label was moribund: it's been 8 years since their RyCo Jazz compilation, and a decade since they updated their website. When I saw this new compilation announced I thought they were just repackaging their first two CDs which were devoted to E.T. Mensah: All for You (Retro 1CD 1986) and Day By Day (Retro 3CD 1991). While the music was good on those issues, the monochrome covers were uninspired. The last twenty-five years have seen major changes in the way music is delivered but the sound quality has not necessarily improved and one thing that now makes some labels stand out is their packaging and attention to detail (Analog Africa and Planet Ilunga come to mind). So I was pleasantly surprised to find this new package is a legible 64-page book with an nifty accordion insert at the back to hold 4 CDs. Mensah's career began in the 78 era (which had a long run in Africa), and extended into the EP and LP age. John Collins, the pre-eminent authority on Highlife music, wrote the booklet: it is the result of many days of interviews with Mensah and other musicans, conducted in 1974, and makes this the definitive work on Mensah as well as the cornerstone of any Highlife collection. But in addition to dance-band Highlife, Mensah recorded many calypsos in the 50s and 60s, as well as occasional forays into rhumba or samba. 'The Tree and the Monkey" shows the versatility of the band as well as the reach of styles here: it's a calypso sung by Juliana Okine, one of the first female vocalists on the Gold Coast; there is bongo and clave percussion and the accompaniment features muted trumpet (Mensah himself) and sprightly clarinet with a strong baritone sax solo. The "Tea Samba," another calypso, also in English, appeals strongly to me: it almost sounds like it was written as a commercial for the tea board. The guitar is in 50s jazz mode, with single string plucking. The singing is also uncomplicated: "It's refreshing as can be, you can make it easily. Hey mama, pour me out another cup of tea!" I like the English songs because they are most memorable to me. "School girl," "Because of money," "Don't mind your wife," and many others pop out insistently. But the instrumentals are equally compelling and show affinities to American jazz in the way the horns get a crack at a solo then join in unison for the chorus in the mostly under-3-minute tunes. "Mucho mambo" is one wonderful example. Their earliest recordings from 1952 are included and you will note how they leaned on imported music from other cultures, so we hear "Sly Mongoose" (first performed by Lionel Belasco of Trindad in the early 1900s) refigured as "All for You," and you will not be able to resist singing the Beach Boys' lyrics to "Sloop John B." Of course the opposite happened when Louis Armstrong came to town in 1956. Armstrong thought "All for You" was an old creole melody from Lousiana, whereas the locals argued it was an older Gold Coast melody that had gone to the new world with the slaves. The fascinating book tells the tale of break-ups, which seemed to happen with frightening regularity but somehow Mensah always managed to pull it together with new recruits. The untold story is that he was probably a tyrant or kept more than his share of the proceeds or else his band would have been happy to have the regular gig and acclaim. However this proving ground led to many other early pioneers of highlife setting up their own bands: King Bruce, Guy Warren and Saka Acquaye among the first. Subsequent bands left to form the Rhythm Aces and the Stargazers. Whenever he was on tour, it seems, sneaky club owners stole his musicians and tried to recreate his sound without him. However he toured to Nigeria regularly because it was lucrative and his music was greatly appreciated, to the extent that Nigerians soon began to develop their own form of Highlife. Rex Lawson and Victor Olaiyo both adapted Mensah's music to their own ends, with great results. Independence from Britain in 1957 should have been a great beginning, but had unfortunate consequences for Mensah. Inflation caused his club to falter, as beer prices rose 50%. He wrote a song celebrating the new era, "Ghana Freedom," and was Ssummoned to the government offices. He thought he was going to hear praise for his contribution, instead Nkrumah was pissed off that other politicians were name-checked along with him. Decca had already pressed 10,000 copies of the disc. Mensah sent them a lengthy telegram explaining the situation and the engineers managed to remaster the disc with "politically approved" lyrics that only mention Nkrumah! This song is the germ of many highlife tunes that followed, both in structure and instrumentation. There is some appalling Spanish in "Señorita," however this is one of my favorite tracks. Described as a "congo," it packs a lot into three minutes. While it's nothing a Cuban would recognize, it has great feeling and segues into "Daavi Loloto, a "cara cara" sung in Ewe that picks up the tempo but is similarly propelled by a great bass riff. This time the trombone gets to trip out. Superb musicianship packs this set from front to back. You will hear why Mensah is truly the "King" of highlife.
NDIKHO XABA AND THE NATIVES (Matsuli MM105CD)
I've been listening to a lot of Ellington and Abdullah Ibrahim lately. The Ellington because I saw a crazy and compelling French film called "Mood Indigo" that featured his music and even soundie clips from him. The Ibrahim because I was digitizing my 7 early LPs (when he was Dollar Brand) and bringing the Ellington touch to jazz piano in his native South Africa. When people say how much they love the Köln Concert of Keith Jarrett, I ask if they have heard "The Pilgrim" by Ibrahim. It encompasses all of Jarrett's ideas in one majestic piece, and is the source of that walking tenth in the bass Jarrett glommed on to. This brings me to another South African pianist, Ndikho Xaba. As his band is called The Natives I assumed it would be Zulu Jive, but it is actually jazz, in the mode of the Art Ensemble: slightly "out" but with a serious intent. Xaba moved to the US in 1969 and teamed up with African-American sidemen to create his band. Matsuli is a label you probably know from the Electric Jive blog, which keeps unearthing rare treasures from South Africa. Periodically they turn one of their finds into a vinyl or CD reissue, so this is the fifth of their discoveries. Recorded in 1971 while the leader was in political exile in the USA (The American release comes from Foothill Blvd in Oakland: the old stomping ground of the Black Panther Party!), it is a beautiful, complex and moving suite of music that was certainly progressive by the standards of 1971. It needs to be put alongside Coltrane's "Kulu se mama," though the line-up is quite different. Coltrane had Juno Lewis on hand-drums and conch shell but otherwise it was a standard jazz line-up (though I think Pharoah was probably shaking his jingle-bells by then); the Natives include bullhorn, seaweed horn (!) and other percussion. During their existence, the Natives performed at a "Free Angela Davis" rally at Malcolm X Unity House, 1553 Fulton St, San Francisco, and had a three-night stand in San Francisco, opening for Sun Ra. The first track, "Shwabada," is over 12 minutes and very impressionistic: an etherial call to the ancestors. It is not until the 4th track, "Nomusa," that you get a South African feeling in a bluesy groove with Plunky rocking out on soprano sax. Cool vibes bring this down to earth. The last track of the album, "Makhosi," fades out on a wild percussion jam. The CD has two bonus tracks, taken from a single released by Xaba as African Echoes. These show the impact of the Crusaders, or Tower of Power, as the band became part of the Bay Area groove. In 1972 Plunky formed the Oneness of Juju and moved back to New York. They reunited one last time to perform with Malombo in May 1974 at a gig at the East in Brooklyn. Definitely one for the jazz fans.
Samba Touré is a(nother) Malian guitar slinger. I liked his previous album Albala, which was recorded two years ago when the fundamentalist Islamic a**holistas had rampaged across Northern Mali while Bamako, the capital, suffered another military coup in the ensuing chaos. Samba Touré is back with a cool approach: his guitar slides in with some alternately snaky and atmospheric effects and a fine production that is best described as smoldering. His ngoni player, Djimé Sissoko is back, and this time he has added a roster of percussionists, as well as a sokou, played by Adama Sidibé -- replacing Zoumana Tereta who guested on the last album. Sidibé also plays the monostringed njurkel. Plus there's electric bass, and a guest Tuareg guitarist, Ahmed Ag Kaedi, who jumps in on the last cut, though mainly it's Samba multitracking. It's a great line-up: there's a lot happening, but it's all clearly defined. The recording was done by Philipe Sanmiguel and Konan Kouassi at Akan Studio Bamako. Touré sings about the general plight of Malians today as well as hopes for reconstruction. It is somewhat optimistic but a dark tone pervades: the title translates as "Land of Drought." The familiar context is laid-back blues guitar with some virulent Malian bursts from the ngoni and sokou in counterpoint, and the occasional twist to rock. This is the most wonderful development to come from the return of (the sound of) John Lee Hooker, Freddy King and Co to West Africa. It's a sharp and varied recording and if you are looking for some exciting new (but familiar) music from Mali, look no further.
MBALIMAOU (Lusafrica 762052)
This is Boubacar Traoré's third album on Lusafrica but the latest in a long string of hits that go back to the early days of recorded popular music in Mali when he had a big hit with "Kar Kar" in the 1960s. He did drop out for thirty years or so but came back in the 21st century as strong as ever, with his fine guitarwork, rough-hewn voice and melancholy lyrics. Now in his 70s, he took his bluesy voice into Studio Bogolan in Bamako with some much younger traditional musicians, including Oumar Kouyaté on ngoni, Babah Koné on calabash, and Yacouba Sissoko on karignan (metal guiro, or scraper). Ballaké Sissoko adds kora to a few numbers and the one-stringed horsehair sokou fiddle can be heard, played by Soumilah Diabaté on a couple of others. Then there's the French contingent: Vincent Bucher on harmonica and Fabrice Thompson who is busily excellent on percussion. If I had to use one word to sum up this album, I would say it's "stately." It's laid back with fine playing, and well recorded, but has none of the fireworks that animate the young contenders. The lyrics are included in French and English translation.
BLIND BOY FULLER
ROUGH GUIDE TO BLUES LEGENDS (RGNET1330 CD)
ROUGH GUIDE TO UNSUNG HEROES OF COUNTRY BLUES (RGNET 1334 CD)
We've heard the Roots of Led Zeppelin, Stoned Alchemy (the roots of the Rolling Stones), even The Roots of Robert Johnson, now Rough Guide seems to be doing an R Crumb-inspired series of American blues. From "Diddy wah diddy" of Blind Blake (RGNET 1303), we now get "Keep on Truckin, mama / truckin my blues away" as the lead cut on the new Blind Boy Fuller release. The 25 remastered tracks here sound (mostly) crisp and clean. Fuller was only 33 when he died in 1940 (reportedly of excessive drinking). However he was a very influential musician in the pre-WW2 era, releasing some 120 sides, including familiar titles like "Get yer Ya Yas out." His finger-picking style was influenced by ragtime and he had some of the tricks of the "hokum" artists up his sleeve too. Born in North Carolina in 1907, Fuller went blind in his teens and took to playing on the streets to survive. He had a tough time, even going to jail for shooting his wife in the leg ("Blind Man with a Pistol" indeed)! In 1935 he was spotted by a record store owner and sent to New York to record. Lines like "I aint had no lovin since my little girl been gone," "I'll give you anything in this whole round world / let me lay it on you," and "You got great big legs and little bitty feet / something about you is sweet sweet sweet" are characteristic of his work and of course survive in Robert Plant and other appropriators' work. He has much in common with Blind Blake both musically as well as in his tragic life story, with a rougher delivery, both in his hoarse vocal style and his brash approach to the National steel resonator guitar. He plays as if he wants to be sure the strings are all there but is capable of ripping out a surprising trilled and pulled ornamental flourish. There is washboard accompaniment (by Bull City Red?) on a few tracks. The style Fuller plays is known as Piedmontese or East Coast Blues, as opposed to Delta Blues. I am glad Rough Guide is pursuing this series as so far it has been a wonderful introduction to some of the lesser-known blues masters of the 1930s.
Simultaneously Rough Guide launches the Unsung Masters disc (appropriately they do not identify the subject of the cover photo!). There are 24 tracks and I had only heard of 4 of the performers before. One of them, Geeshie Wiley, I learn here, only recorded three discs! I bought the Crumb soundtrack album in order to get her sublime "Last Kind Word" blues. (The B side of that, "Skinny Leg Blues," is also on Crumb.) I have her "Eagles on a half" (1931) on a 1967 Belzona LP compilation called Mississippi Blues 1927-41 that is a fantastic introduction to the Delta. I suppose Geeshie could go in a set of artists with short but brilliant careers like Sir Lord Comic (I think I have 5 by him). This is a stellar compilation (with one or two harsh-sounding cuts) and a lot of variety, though you had probably only ever heard Hambone Willie Newbern before. Here he is with the original "Roll and Tumble Blues" from 1929. "Married Man Blues" by Blind Willie Reynolds is another classic that was covered many times in the rock era by bands like Cream, Blodwyn Pig and Canned Heat. I have it as "Outside Woman Blues" on another crucial vinyl compilation (credited to Blind Joe Reynolds!), Roots of Rock (Yazoo 1063 from 1979), which also features "Roll and Tumble" and other old favorites. I miss the expansive liner notes of the LP, but then who doesn't? These two discs contain some really great and, to me, new music from the interwar years when American "race" music was in the crucible that led to R&B and rock.
DAWAR (Harmonia Mundi HMC905273)
The new Rough Guides got me on a Blues kick, and I was listening to Skip James, Roy Smeck, Barbecue Bob and other bottleneck sliders and National steel strummers, so when I put this on, it fit right in. While it's not a twelve string, the mood of the santoor fits and the production has a big room echo (it was recorded live in a French abbey) which adds an eerieness, but the stringed instrument (and the saz which also crops up occasionally) is not the focus of this recording. It's the three drums the brothers & father play, the zarb, that sound like tablas, and the opening strings were just to get our attention. You have to imagine "talking drums" as the dialogue evolves around the lyrics of some ghazals by the famed Persian poet, Rumi. The trio have jammed with African, Iranian and Indian musicians in the past, and explored jazz and other type of fusion, but here, on Dawâr it's down to the hands of the father and sons. It's traditional, even classical, Iranian music with enough variety to keep your attention.
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