ZAIRE 74: THE AFRICAN ARTISTS (WRASS 349)
The well-known shout "Ali boma ye! (Ali will kill him)" rang out across Kinshasa in 1974 as the people's favorite Muhammad (The "Champ") Ali squared up against George (The "Griller") Foreman to reclaim his world heavyweight boxing title. But the odds were definitely against Ali. Foreman was not well-liked in Zaire: he showed up with an Alsatian dog, the type the Belgian police used to bring down suspects, but he was a fierce fighter. Ali probably knew he was outgunned by Foreman but trained by running in the streets of Kinshasa and kept in shape by boning a gorgeous model, Veronica Porché. The American contingent also included an array of musical talent which can be seen in Leon Gast's fantastic 1996 documentary film When We were Kings. That Gast took 22 years to complete the film is evident in the sharp editing job he did. James Brown, B. B. King, the Crusaders, Celia Cruz & Fania All-Stars and others perform, and there is a tantalizing glimpse of Rochereau on stage because there was also a night of African music that didn't make it into the Gast film. The 2001 biopic Ali, starring Will Smith, has some fabulous music -- Sam Cooke live, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, etc -- on the soundtrack, but when they get to Africa they abandoned continuity. In Ghana, Ali runs into Malcolm X and we hear Salif Keita; then when Ali is running through the backstreets of Kin past lovingly recreated folk murals of him on the walls of shacks, they play -- more Salif Keita. This really irked me, do they think no one is aware of what African music is and how it differs wildly from country to country? I am sure they could have licensed the G.O. Malebo song about the fight and worked that into the Kin scenes to great effect. But all is not lost, because here finally we have a two-disc set preserving that night at the National Stadium before 80,000 fans when Franco, Rochereau and others got to show James Brown and B.B. King what they were capable of. Too bad the rest of the world has had to wait almost half a century to hear this.
The main attraction is of course Franco & le TPOK Jazz. Rochereau has his devotees but he always seems to be flying by the seat of his pants; the band are nervous and playing so fast that the extended B side of "Salongo" only lasts 90 seconds! Presumably the Rocherettes were shaking bootay at high RPMs also to distract the crowd. ("Seli-ja" is mislabeled "Celicia.") L'Afrisa end their brief set with "Annie" adding lyrics in praise of Mobutu. The dictator is also lauded by the next act Abeti Masikini, who fills up the rest of disc one. Her set opens with two cuts by her brother Abumba who excites with his acid-washed guitar. Abeti had just returned from a gig at the Olympia in Paris and was riding the peak of success. The following year she had Carnegie Hall in her sights but the ruler summoned her to play for his party. ("Mibali ya Kinshasa" is mislabeled "Magali ya Kinshasa," but then the Franco tracks all seem to have the wrong names: "Kinsiona" is called "Kasai," "Mabuidi" is actually "Mambu ma miondo" etc.) The Redoubtables, Abeti's band, are tight and fluid, not as wound-up as Afrisa, and one can see their appeal to Docteur Nico in his subsequent comeback (he was in a slump at this time or might have appeared; in fact only two years later he confided to a journalist that his life and band had been a shambles for the past decade).
However, a genuine live recording of Franco & OK Jazz from this era is a true revelation. They sample songs, rather than go for the full nine-minute workout we know from the singles. Several fine Simaro compositions are paraded. There's a massive horn section and the 16-track recording captures the drums & percussion cleanly. The 27 minutes of OK Jazz live make this an essential purchase for fans of Zairois music.
Next up South African-born Miriam Makeba who had been exiled to America and Guinea remembers to praise Mobutu frequently to polite applause. Then we hope James Brown stuck around to catch Lita Bembo and the Stukas, who are in fine form. Ooops, is that a certain dictator getting a shout-out? Must be on the cue cards. The album ends with the shouting and stamping of a dance performance. Quite evocative. Then a final chorus from the crowd of "Ali boma ye!"
The promoters of Zaire 74, Hugh Masakela and Stewart Levine hoped to expose African music to the world. As it transpired, only Miriam Makeba was well-known outside Africa and it would be another decade before Franco made it to the USA, though if this album had been released then it would have speeded up recognition of the incredible talent that was pouring out of the Congo in the early 70s.
Finally a note about the packaging. The booklet is machine-stitched into the center of the space between the two jewel cases. However they didn't engineer this properly: the paper is too thin, the stitches are too close and consequently it became perforated and rips out easily. Given that they made a 3-part card case for the cover they should have thought this through: even paper sleeves for the two discs (like in the Grand Kalle set from Stern's) would have worked better than the heavy plastic jewel cases glued in. The fact that the tracks are mislabeled is also evidence of poor planning. Any Franco fan could have identified the proper titles for them.
There's a brilliant travel book by Redmond O'Hanlon called Into the Heart of Borneo. He and a friend undertake a dangerous trek into the depth of the jungle, hoping to meet a tribe that have had no contact with the outside world in over 50 years. One of the Rockefellers, Michael, was allegedly eaten while trying to make contact with these people in 1961. You learn that you don't pee in the river while bathing because there's a spiny fish that loves the warm piss and will swim up the flow and lodge itself in your urethra. But when the intrepid explorers get to their destination they find natives hoping they have batteries so they can play their boomboxes again and hear the Michael Jackson tapes they love so much. For much of the twentieth century, Africa had a similar shivering-dread/romantic appeal for daredevil travelers, but by the mid-century music explorers were going armed with reel-to-reel recorders and capturing the local music made in villages. While Hugh Tracey was working his way North from Southern Africa, the French National Radio had a man on the spot in the form of Charles Duvelle who covered West and Central Africa, then the Indian Ocean, South-East Asia and the South Pacific. Duvelle grew up in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, where his father was a colonial governor. Returning to France when he was 9, he studied classical piano and began to compose, and by chance came across a collection of tapes recorded in West Africa held by radio station France d'Outre-Mer. He offered to organize them and soon had a job. He saw a chance to escape the drab motherland and get back to the bright tropics. His radio station sent him first to Niger in 1961 to help set up a radio station there and he found many badly recorded tapes, done in the studio, and told his hosts that since the music was originally played in the field, as it were, they should go and capture it in situ. He set out with the radio host, who was his entrée to the villages, and brought along a Nagra tape deck and a Sennheiser mike. With griots or small ensembles he was able to set up his mike out of the wind and capture their performance, but he also got excited by the possibility of listening in on ceremonies and capturing the sound by becoming part of the action, moving around and adjusting his set-up so, in a sense, improvising with his recording equipment. Returning to France he issued three LPs: those from Upper Volta and Ivory Coast won the Grand Prix du Disque, and not only established him as a music producer but created a market for this music among anthropologists, musicians, travelers and fans in general. Duvelle ended up in charge of the sound archives of OCORA (Office de Coopération Radiophonique), which was established in 1964. The success of these early records led to the deluxe series published by OCORA with gatefolds, cloth covers, embossing, and booklets of photographs and notes that make these discs so attractive. Duvelle returned to Africa, visiting Cameroon and C.A.R. in 62, Dahomey (Benin) and Madagascar in 63, Kenya in 65, Congo (Zaire) in 66, Senegal in 1967, and then on to New Guinea in 1974 and so on. He was involved with FESTAC 77 and, bizarrely, the soundtrack to Fellini's Satyricon. The surreal juxtaposition struck Duvelle as a brilliant idea, making the African music seem like contemporary avant-garde music. Also in 1977 his field recordings from Burundi were selected by Carl Sagan to go on the gold disc sent into deep space aboard the Voyager spacecraft. And then those recordings of Burundi drummers were appropriated by Burundi Black. He felt that some of the royalties should go back to the people who created the originals so assigned the rights to the Burundi embassy. Here, in appreciation of Duvelle, we have a book the size of an LP with 230 pages of his photographs of musicians from all over the world, plus a discography (including 94 full-color thumbnails), OCORA catalogues from 1964 to 73, notes, articles and two CDs, one of African music, one of Indian. There are a few tracks from Papua incongruously interspersed in the African side, though one or two fit into the flow. This is a celebration of a remarkable individual and, for those like me, who grew up listening obsessively to the OCORA pygmy and ritual recordings, not to mention the mesmerizing Valiha Madagascar set, this is a wonderful treat. Rakotozafy from Madagascar became a celebrity in the world music world with his home-made bicycle spoke zither and you can hear him rock out on "Samy faly (Everyone can find happiness)" here. There's a thumb piano duet, a striking (ahem) xylophone piece from Gabon and another from Guinea which makes an interesting contrast. Then out of the blue we hear a bopal solo, which is a reed instrument made from a single millet stem, played by Moussa Sandé, a Peul shepherd, who just wails for 6 minutes. This Burkinabe could get up on the bandstand with Pharoah Sanders and fit in just fine. More balafons complete the African set. The second disc is a soothing collection of South Asian music including bansuri flute and drone from India and mouth organ from Laos. It's a completely different mood but rounds out the picture of this cosmopolitan and groundbreaking music pioneer.
MOGOYA (Noformat NOF36)
Oumou is not yet 50 but has already made her mark as one of the grand divas of Malian music. The daughter of Peul famers from Wassoulou, she sold water on the streets of Bamako as a small child, but soon attracted attention for her singing voice. She got gigs as a praise singer at weddings and baptisms and this led to a career with the National Ensemble of Mali and then a European tour with the group Djoliba. World Circuit launched her international career with Ko Sira in 1993 and Worotan in 1996. The anthology Women of Mali: the Wassoulou Sound also boosted her career as the hypnotic rhythms of her homeland captivated the Western audience. Her lyrics take a frank critical look at customs like polygamy and excision; on the new album she sings about suicide on the moody single "Yere faga," which features the driving drums of Tony Allen. A reggae feel permeates "Kounkoun," yet overall there is a French sheen to the production, reminiscent of the recent efforts of Rokia Traoré who has emerged as the strong young voice of Mali. But Oumou reasserts her vocals chops and adds her own secret weapon in the form of Guimba Kouyaté, a young Malian guitarist who rips out some extraordinary riffs. Her backing band is an electronic group called Trio A.L.B.E.R.T. It may be a cliché but this is an album rooted in tradition with a strong progressive thrust into the future.
KASAI ALLSTARS & ORCH. SYMPHONIQUE KIMBANGUISTE
AROUND FELICITE (Crammed Discs CRAM273)
This is a soundtrack album to a feature film by Alain Gomis that we may never see in the USA, at least not in cinemas, even though it won the Silver Bear Jury Prize at Berlin 2017. But no doubt, like La Vie est Belle starring Papa Wemba and Pepe Kalle, it will become an underground favorite. It concerns the struggles of the title character, trying to make it as a bar singer and to save her wayward son. There's no doubt she will triumph since her band is played by the fabulous Kasai Allstars, darlings of Congotronix whose amped up thumb pianos brought traditional street music into the modern age. They hit the floor running and don't let up. Their exhilarating hour-long set is broken up by three interjected pieces of symphonic music, written by the Estonian classical composer Arvo Pärt and performed by the Kimbanguiste Symphony of Kinshasa. I only need to hear these once as I am allergic to opera singers, though I presume the three parts work well in the context of the film. Otherwise there are snatches of conversation that act as breaks between the intense buzzing likembe and bass onslaughts. There is a bonus album of ten remixes, which are quite varied though one or two, such as Mo4n4's "Felicité two" or "Drowning goat" by Isa, are of the "listen then discard" variety. Fortunately these are at the end of the second disc. But never mind that, the main disc is a feast.
My Argentine section is notably sparse and, truth be told, Juana Molina could be from anywhere, Brazil, Spain, Colombia. Her latest album (No 7) is another chapter in her stylish exploration of treated voice over synthesizer and rhythms built from electronic disjecta membra. Wind turns into an electronic wail, and garbage drum sounds from a Roland Sampling drum pad build as live traps, cymbals and guitars (Molina herself via loop) ride along. It's engaging and offbeat enough to keep you wondering where it's going. The closest I can come up with musically is Robert Wyatt. Trying to describe it puts me in mind of a client I once did a printing job for: I had her pick it up from the record store where I worked, Round World Music, which specialized in world music. Do you work here? she asked. Yes, I said. Well, that's nice ... if you like that sort of thing, she replied. Words to live by. So if you like this kind of thing: breathy Spanish pop vocals about "icy feet" over a mysterious sometimes atonal backing track that builds to a peak then evaporates like smoke, then go for it. The "Halo" of the title refers not to sanctity but to the mysterious lights that float above ground at night and scare travelers. In concert the synth player, Odin Schwartz, who likes the pitch bend wheel a bit too much, doubles on bass and guitar and adds backing vocals.
ROUGH GUIDE TO JUG BAND BLUES (RGNET1358)
I'm so glad Rough Guide are continuing their in-depth exploration of the American blues, plus they have done a great job of sound restoration on these pre-1930s Depression-era tracks. The jug bands are the latest category in their anthologizing impulse, and these comprise folks with home-made instruments, like big ceramic jugs you blow into or washboards you scrape like a guiro. The buzzing bomp of the big jug gave a solid backbeat to the performers who were often African-American vaudeville or medicine show acts covering ragtime and jazz as well as blues. Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers are best known but out of the Memphis Jug Band came Memphis Minnie. To spread the joy the Memphis Jug Band recorded under other names on different labels, including the Picaninny Jug Band, the Carolina Peanut Boys and the Memphis Sheiks, whose "He's in the Jailhouse now," leads off the set. (Their "Stealin', stealin'" was later covered by the Grateful Dead.) Slide guitar ace Tampa Red came out of the Hokum Jug Band (who deliver the goods on "It's tight like that," later popularized by Louis Armstrong), while the Birmingham Jug Band produced the harmonica virtuoso Jaybird Coleman. In addition to the Dead you can hear a clear echo of Country Joe & the Fish's "Fixin' to die," in Whistler's "Jug Band Special." Banjo is not frowned upon, indeed it is celebrated in the wild blowout "Banjoreno" by the Dixieland Jug Blowers. The jamming "Beale Street Breakdown" by Jed Davenport blurs the lines between jazz and a hoedown, I guess it's too early to call it Rhythm and Blues. A great varied set, almost all of it unknown as far as I know. I'm glad, I'm glad, I'm glad.
I balk when I see albums on the second hand market listed for $100 or more, but not until I looked up this album on discogs did I see one that regularly sells for eight hundred dollars. Apart from the fact that second-hand dealers unscrupulously list everything as "VG+ in a VG+ sleeve" when it has been trampled by herds of marauding wildebeest since it left the pressing plant, it is encouraging to see a reissue that you know is going to be mint and actually sound clean. Analog Africa has done the music community a great service by putting it back in print, not so much to cut down the marketing rogues as to let us decide for ourselves if it is really all that good and worthy of this legendary (albeit monetary) status. Since Samy created the cult of T.P.O. Poly-Rythmo it is appropriate he be the one to champion their legacy in this populist way. Because of their close association with the Socialist president of Benin, the band were ostracized in neighboring countries, but a sensational showcase at FESTAC 77 soon raised their profile in West Africa. Ahehehinnou was their soul singer but the producer Adissa Seidou resented Ahehehinnou and threatened to kill him, even performing Voudou rituals to bewitch him. So Ahehehinnou quit and, traveling to Lagos on business, met up with the Black Santiagos, and asked them to back him on a solo disc recorded at Decca studios. The opening cut, "Best woman," is in English and has wobbly brass to match the vocals. Fans of Ignace de Souza will appreciate his contributions on trumpet. He also did the arrangements on this set of Afro-funk, ballads and Highlife. There is some fine guitar interplay on the B side opener "Maimouna Cherie," and a bright solo from De Souza. Buy this album from Analog Africa and you can take that $800 you saved to buy yourself a nice musical instrument.
Vampisoul are making good on their promise to deliver the works of Fruko to us in their original form. Fruko (Julio Estrada Rincón) was the bass-player and leader of his own group who eventually became the biggest act on Discos Fuentes, the label that brought cumbia, merengue and porro to Colombian fans from 1934 on, and salsa, in its local form, when it peaked in the 60s and 70s. He discovered Joe Arroyo and Piper Pimienta Diaz. As a youngster he was tapped to play in Lisandro Meza's group and their tour to New York gave him exposure to the hot salsa scene there in 1968. Two years later he formed his own group and this incendiary album is their debut. I don't know if it was intended for dancing, but I sure couldn't keep up -- Fruko works out on his bass, with congas and timbales, piano and horns all feeding the fire. It's hard to believe it's their debut album, it is so assured in its delivery. The consensus is that the inherent swagger was copped from Willie Colón's posturing as a bad-ass in New York's salsa scene. In addition, the intense rhythms which drive the whole thing could be from the hard hands of maestro Ray Barretto. I am partial to Colombian salsa, mainly because of the Fruko and Latin Brothers albums I have heard, and since this is new to me it's a real treat.
¡VAMOS A GUARACHAR! (Glitterbeat)
Here is a versatile outfit that can generate the electronic cumbia sound of Colombia as well as post-punk ska and even mambo. Based in Tucson, Arizona they started out as a cover band doing the lively poppy Perez Prado mambo repertoire until their rock 'n' roll instincts took over. Their leader Sergio Mendoza grew up on both sides of the Mexican border, so can reach into the Latin bag for merengue and ranchera flavors. Salvador Duran adds vocals to the moody "Misterio," in which I hear a wild whistling -- can it be a theramin? It's bombast with tongue-in-cheek, reminding me of Question Mark and the Mysterions and even the highly accomplished Dengue Fever when they delve into a retro-rock sound. Their horn man plays both trombone and clarinet, the keyboard player doubles on accordion. I can't place "Caramelos" but it reminds me of something on Latin-American kids television; however they turn it into a rave-up that recalls Paul Revere & the Raiders' "(I'm not your) Stepping stone." Clearly a great band to catch live: their versatility shines forth as the six men switch instruments and styles with panache.
MICHEL CAMILO, GONZALO RUBALCABA, CHUCHO VALDES
IN CONCERT: Tribute to Ernesto Lecuona, SF JAZZ 25 May 2017
SF Jazz staged a major event, bringing three masters of Cuban piano to town and sitting them at two Steinway pianos (which led to some amusing musical chairs). Their fierce, classically honed chops were on display as they tore through the repertoire of the great Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963), quoting Rachmaninov or Rimsky-Korsakov with abandon. How do they learn to play like that? someone asked during the intermission. They start when they are 5 and if they play a wrong note they get rapped on the knuckles, I ventured. Michel Camilo, seemingly the academic of the group, led off the evening. He explained, in English, that Lecuona was a huge figure in his day, playing at Aeolian Hall in New York in 1916, a decade before Gershwin, in fact the two not only became friends but Lecuona's influence on "Rhapsody in Blue" is well demonstrated. Camilo is the professorial type and one would love to take classes from him. His technical skills were on display as he performed "San Francisco el grande," followed by more familiar zarzuelas, danzons and comparsas, including the big hit "Siboney." Lecuona's father was an immigrant from Tenerife and married a Cuban woman which explains the Andalusian and classical Spanish strains in his music (the composer also lived in Spain for a number of years). But what puts the meat on the bones is the Afro-Cuban rhythms which emerge in the left hand figures. This requires a left/right brain separation from performers who need to keep a driving rhythm going on the left while producing vastly intricate runs on the right hand side. Try this at home, by all means, and good luck. The filmic side of the composer was showcased with "Siempre en mi corazon (Always in my heart)," which was nominated for an Oscar in 1942 (but lost out to "White Christmas"). (Incidentally, IMDB shows that his music was used regularly in American films from 1931 on, but mostly uncredited.) After a spirited duet with Rubalcaba, Camilo left the stage to the shorter man. I only bring up his size because he explained that it really requires big hands to manage some of the musical figures. His hands were a blur as he drove rhythmically into the complexities of "Andalucia" and "Rapsodia Negra." He in turn brought out the gigantic Chucho Valdés (who must be 6'7 or 8") and the two dueted and improvised on another excerpt from Lecuona's Afro-Cuban suite. After an intermission Valdés returned solo, spoke unapologetically in Spanish, and showed the packed house why he is one of the greats, alongside his father Bebo and indeed Gonzalo's dad, Guillermo Rubalcaba. While there was a fair amount of showboating (beating fast trills on one hand then moving his other hand across the keyboard to replace the first, seamlessly, while carrying on with cadenzas), there was lyricism and humor in his playing. Chucho got a few plums, such as "Mario la O," to deliver, which he did with gusto and not a small dose of romantic lyricism. He received five standing ovations. The other two musketeers returned and did a lot of shtick running from one keyboard to the other and soloing or pairing up, switching chairs (since Chucho needed a smaller stool to get his legs under the keyboard) and finally all three ended up playing on 88 ivories, reaching around and over one another, while never losing the beat. Gonzalo started some rubato fills that sounded like horn lines; Camilo decided to showboat too and showed his lightning fast action in a triumphant flourish, but the other two wouldn't give in so easily so the evening ended with one after another grandstanding while the others kept the beat going, Rubalcaba with machine-like intensity, and Chucho adding melodies on top of driving bass runs.
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A DISCOGRAPHY OF DOCTEUR NICO
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