MALAWI GROOVES 1950, '57, '58 (Sharp Wood SWP051)
THE KANKOBELA OF THE BATONGA (Sharp Wood SWP05o)
One cannot understate the importance of Hugh Tracey to African music. He knew back in the 1950s that the music was evolving and many styles were in danger of being lost, but he also delighted in hearing what fresh ideas performers brought to the traditional music of their homeland. His series of albums are the cornerstone of any serious African music library. Two dozen have been restored to us in expanded form by SWP Records. Originally they appeared in many formats and different configurations from LPs to radio transcript acetates. SWP have revisited the archives and found unissued tracks to expand our understanding and enjoyment of the many wonderful kinds of music recorded by Tracey. Michael Baird of SWP spent 8 years going through those archives, listening to everything. Tracey's dedication and determination still has not been matched by later ethnomusicologists, who now jet about the continent looking for old vinyl or, in the rare case of Michael Baird still go into the bush looking for musicians in the wild to record in their natural habitat. Tracey's achievement was even more impressive when you realize that he took electricity along with him to run his recording gear. This meant a convoy of jeeps and trucks, one to carry gasoline and a generator, and when he had set up his reel-to-reel deck and microphones, the generator truck was parked behind an anthill to deaden the noise! From his base in South Africa he would set off across the veld in a Northerly direction and made it to Malawi, Zambia (Rhodesia), Mozambique, even Kenya, Uganda, and the Congo in his musical excursions.
Michael Baird the presiding genius behind SWP's series not only follows in Tracey's footsteps, bringing us sharply observed music (he is a drummer and so has a musician's ear) with fine discernment, he is also actively recreating the Tracey archives as recording technology improves and it becomes possible to get clearer sounds out of old vinyl or tapes. Of Malawi, Baird says, "Despite Madonna's adoptive meanderings, Malawi is still not fashionable." For Malawi Grooves, the vinyl issue, Baird has revisited two albums in his series: Southern and Central Malawi (SWP 013) and Northern and Central Malawi (SWP014) which were field recordings made in the 1950s on three trips by Tracey and his crew. Eight of the 15 tracks feature the bangwe board or raft zither, a 7-string instrument, there are also a tuned drum ensemble, a magical xylophone duet, a big band of kazoos and a capella singing by both men and women, for variety. The board zither has a wooden sounding board, the "raft" model sits on a bed of papyrus reeds so gives a different sound. The strings buzz and hum so it seems appropriate that the remastering was done by someone with the curious name hEuzzz. One of the performers has lost or broken a string, while Afredi Phiri has tuned his into a dissonant key that gives his piece a "twilight zone" quality that I find entrancing. This is nicely juxtaposed with a driving piece in a more familiar tuning, with the lyrics, "Money is the devil." The magical xylophone duet I mentioned is one of Hugh Tracey's greatest hits, in my opinion. It is "the Cry of the Hornbill" by Lonesi Chewane and Joni Hetara. I think they are both playing the same instrument, a wooden clack in the bass resembles the call of the title bird.
The Kankobela of the Batonga is another vinyl reissue drawn from two previous CDs recorded in Zambia and Zimbabwe in 1996 and 2008. Like Tracey, Baird made several trips to ensure he found the best exponents of the style: here thumb piano players who perform on this small portable device that is ideal for carrying about and amusing yourself. The rhythmic patterns set up by the performers are mesmerizing and the resonators rattle adding a layer of percussive friction to their playing. In some cultures bits of metal are wrapped around the tines to buzz, but here there is a spider-web membrane stretched over the sound hole which creates a buzz.
Systema Solar are one of the great electronic party bands from Colombia, sadly their new album is merely an abridged repackaging of their first two albums. They couldn't even come up with a title for it. It is good to be reminded of their hit, "Ya Veras," and their dubby ambient techno beat, equal parts house and cumbia, in trancy tracks like "Oyé," or tradi-modern ones like "Fayuguaya,"but it's definitely time for some new material from them. The new disc ends with one new track "Tumbalamurallas," but that's no reason to put your fist through a wall or drop 89 cents on amazon. If you don't have their discos, they have a great summery feel, with odd moments of darkness & gloom (like Bay Area summers in fact).
LA DESPEDIDA (Hope Street)
My image of Australia is of a white culture a lot like Texas with big hats and a peculiar drawl, and the last thing I would expect is a storming hot salsa band. But then back in the 1990s we were blown away by Orquesta de la Luz who gave us salsa caliente from Japan. And I suppose Australia is changing as more immigrants from Latin America are making it their home. San Lazaro are Chileans and Cubans with big appetites. They have digested salsa romantica, cumbia, son, funk and psychedelic rock. The result is a wonderful, beautifully recorded and mixed cornucopia of sound delights. They start quietly with a traditional rumba, adding a tres in dialogue with the hard hands. From there it continues to raise a notch for each new selection. In "Hielo Azul" there's an acoustic guitar playing a changui style riff while the electric guitar goes into a chicha mode and big horns on echo punch through, and it works. I am sure there's a story behind their being named for the man raised from the dead, but their debut disc is alive and kicking. Or they may be named for the old Lazaro of Cuban lore, also known as Babalu Ayé, lord of pestilence. I am sure the cover art holds the clue, and it's great art, even if the Duchess sniffed at it and dismissed it as a "guy thing." There are quite a few guests on here, notably trumpet and baritone sax on "Amor de despedida (love farewell)" -- they are not credited plus the liner notes are illegible, but then the design is not up to the quality of the art, or the music.
ECHO EN MEXICO (Vampisoul)
First there was Chicha Libre from Brooklyn and now we have Money Chicha so it seems like this historical style is no longer a novelty for the retrocurious deejay but a full-blown revival. And a good thing too! There's a lot to be said for electro-cumbia with psychedelic overtones. The newest contender is an Austin Texas-based remix of members of Grupo Fantasma and the funk band Brownout, both of whom have impressed us. Driven by congas, cowbell and timbales we get a cheesy fondu of old synths, electric organs and effects-laden guitars that is both danceable and melodically delicious. The period from 1966 to the mid 70s was a great one for music globally and this proves there's more to investigate than R&B and James Brown covers. This is a great album and I have it in heavy rotation, because of the variety of approaches and diversity of sounds, it's a really fine effort.
MAMADOU BARRY & AFRO GROOVE GANG
TANKADI (Label Bleu)
I put this on, and at first I thought this was gonna be yet another African funk thing with a popping bass and a highlife-down-low rhythm: it's very smooth and has strong jazz sax over the R&B bass and drums on the opening track "Saramaya." But then a more classic sounding Guinean groove enters and the vista expands. Barry paid his dues with Kaloum Star, which he founded in 1969, and then with Les Amazones and Bembeya Jazz before creating the Afro Groove Gang in 2009. There's a hopped-up cover of Coltrane's "Afro Blue" which another Guinean saxman, Momo "Wandel" Soumah also performed. Soumah's version with balafon accompaniment has the edge. On surer ground they rip out a new version of "Felenko" which was the title cut on the outstanding Kaloum Star album which came out in 1996 on Buda. The vocalist on here sounds like Momo Soumah, an odd coincidence? One Swiss (?) site says Mamadou inherited his mantle, which tells us that Momo is probably dead, and explains why Mamadou looks like he is wearing prison garb on the cover. Not really. I am being driven to distraction by a wonky samba track called "Café café." The bass keeps on a-poppin, to be sure we notice him. I have no idea who is on here, there's no info on line, Label Blue's website has no info and doesn't appear to be maintained. The title track is understated, and is very much in the Bembeya Jazz mode, featuring Mamadou on flute. The next cut "Soumbara" has a New York Latin pulse to it, and Mamadou on flute again, then sax. It catches fire with a great djembe drum solo to end. "Kankalabé" has a pleasant reggae groove, not a typical lame African Alpha Blondy one, as the album coasts along with a lot of ideas on display.
THE YOUNG MAN'S HARP (Stern's STCD1127)
Ali Farka Touré named his son, Vieux, or "Old man," which seems a strange name for a lad and one assumes that he will grow into it. Vieux Kanté, however, never got to be a respected elder, dying unexpectedly aged 31 in 2005. He had spent a decade mastering the kamalé ngoni and when he became proficient on it, he decided to expand it by adding more strings. After adding two he added a few more until he had 12 strings on his instrument making it more like a kora. He also worked on his technique, bending notes like a blues guitarist, popping the strings like Larry Graham and damping the strings to create bell-like tones. He could even make them squeak like a cuica! He was well-known in the club scene in Bamako with a regular hotel gig that usually ran into the wee hours, but never got to taste the rewards of international recognition that so many of his countrymen achieve when they are discovered and their music promoted outside Mali. Now posthumous recognition should be his with a fine set of original traditional music performed with a small group comprising electric bass, a djembe drummer and a vocalist, Kabadjan Diakité from the Orch National de Guinée and Super Diata Band of Zani Diabaté, who sings on three tracks. Kanté was born blind and spent a lot of his childhood sitting home with the radio on. He discovered his brothers had a kamalé ngoni (or young man's harp) in their room and soon took to recreating what he heard on the radio on this instrument. I did not know (prior to reading Banning Eyre's liner notes) that this instrument was invented in the 1960s as a smaller version of the hunter's harp, the donson ngoni. As Eyre says, "No Wassoulou music album offers such a variety of rhythms and textures as we hear here." And it is to Eyre's persistence and Stern's action that we can now appreciate this brief gem by a master of Malian music, one who created an instrument to match the music in his head.
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(click on maps at the top of the page to get to continent of choice)
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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My Top Ten of 2011 can be found HERE.
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