MALI KOURA (6 Degrees 657036 1151 2 5)

Issa's fourth album, his first album since 2004, is cause to rejoice. He brought Malian traditional music into the modern era with a deft touch of electronica. Yves Wernert is back at the controls but the success of the sound is uniquely Issa. The rhythmic loops are based on his kamale ngoni; what makes it memorable is his brusque half-spoken delivery in a language few people speak. If you thought he could not improve on his solid catalogue of sounds, think again: he now adds jazz horns and organ, reminding me of Cheikh Tidiane Seck and the Mandinkas' collaboration with Hank Jones, a high mark in the history of cross-cultural fusion. West Africa is best known for its guitarists -- from Mali, Guinea, Senegal and Togo -- and outstanding among them is Mama Sissoko, who, in a distinguished career -- beginning with National "A" and Super Biton de Ségou -- made a stellar solo album SOLEIL DE MINUIT and has toured with Vieux Farka Touré. He has also played with Issa from the start. The production of this album differs from Issa's previous three efforts. First, no studio was involved. Issa recorded his tracks either outside Wernert's Bamako house or in the kitchen, not in the studio. Ba Diallo, flautist with the National Ensemble of Mali, added flute, and the great djembe player Adama Diarra contributed his licks to keep it real. Then, instead of consulting with Issa on the overdubs, Wernert flew back to his home in Nancy, France, where Gael Le Billan contributed guitar, bass, keyboard and accordion, again in a casual atmosphere without a formal studio. There are sympathetic vibes at work here and of course trust, as both producer and star know what they are aiming for. The result is sublime.

DEVOTION (Six Degrees bar code 657036 1142-2)

When I got back from India at the end of 2007 I was craving two things: steak and a glass of robust California Cabernet. Afterwards I didn't feel so good: my stomach was not up to the sudden influx of rich fatty food and while I believe we should eat cows, not worship them, I know I would be healthier if I abstained. I also did not want to hear any more Indian music for a while, but there was an advance copy of Cheb i Sabbah's new disc DEVOTION waiting for me and I immediately put it on. Of course the first thought is to compare it to Gaudi's recent DUB QAWWALI remix of Nusrat, but that is unfair. Nusrat is unparalleled in the history of recorded music and Gaudi created a traditional dub album to accompany his Sufi devotional singing (I took that disc to India and asked our driver to play it: he was so taken with it that it stayed in his deck in constant rotation for days on end, being turned up or down as the mood arose!). Chebi-ji does include Sufi music on here but the main sound is Hindi. The sexagenarian Algerian Sabbah made recordings in India of Hindu religious singing and added layers of sound in his urbane way. This is his seventh album and "Chebi" really has become the master mixologist & orchestrator. As a result, DEVOTION is stunning.

Cheb i Sabbah used to be a concert promoter (he booked Nusrat's first American tour, brought Khaled, Cheba Zahouania, a wild sold-out show of Khaled & Hakim, etc) and deejay (KPFA radio & Nikki's BBQ, a club on Haight Street in SF), though he was a cut above, and would often synch a North African drumming track with a West African song to give it more oomph, so it was inevitable he would start making his own albums from scratch. I got to know him when we worked together at Round World Music in the 90s but I may have encountered him in the 60s, because he was part of the legendary Living Theater company of Julian Beck. I remember in 1968 they staged Frankenstein at the Roundhouse in London and I was terrified when they started dragging people out of the audience to be included in some weird experiment that was happening on stage. Theatre is in his blood but Cheb i Sabbah has successfully found a niche combining electronica with folk music that appeals to a wide spectrum of listeners. The top song in India this year (according to a Desi poll) was "Dhoom machaday dhoom," an awful piece of filmi pap, sung in English. I think the Indians are ready for an Algerian to re-educate them about what's good about their music.

Like its predecessors, SHRI DURGA and MAHA MAYA, DEVOTION sets a mood and with trancelike insistence takes you on a little musical journey for an hour. Yes, he hits the tourist spots of Goa and Mumbai, but Chebi-ji also plunges into the madness of the Kumbh Mela in Allahbad with 70 million other devotees, disguised as a naked sadhu. Nusrat appears, in spirit, on "Kinna sonna," sung by Master Saleem and "Qalanderi" sung by Pakistani Riffat Sultana, which goes out with a hint of "Chole ki peeche." Crumbling dub of the first order comes riding in on monster bass on "Haun vaari haun varaney." At ten minutes long it seems incessant, and with loads of reverb and mystery it has what can only be described as an opiated aura. There's a fake-out ending and "slight return." The album builds in strength till the spiritual transcendence of "Aaye Bhairav Bholsanath," and its mantra-like lyrics sung by Anoop Jalota. After this we drop down to Varanasi for a little ritual cleansing: some temple bells, ambient sounds and a bit of decompression from our aural trip to Mother India. Not something you would relax to and probably only endure if you were in a Hindu temple with the incense & accompanying visual stimulation, but in the context of DEVOTION it is the perfect coda.


I had to justify this one to the Duchess. She objects to hearing a lot of new music, accusing me of doing my homework in her earspace. It's like 60s rock -- Country Joe or the Doors -- filtered through a postmodern sensibility -- like Beck, I said. Oh, I forgot you like rock and roll, she said. I think she suspects me of having something for the singer, Ch'hom Nimol, who is also an Asian beauty. The rest of the band, Dengue Fever, on the other hand have that grungy LA look that we associate with the top session men who only come out at night. They could all be refugees from The Mothers of Invention by their looks, not to mention their chops. They have a unique sound, with the ethereal voice of Ch'hom Nimol floating over it, though as Big Steve says facetiously they have ruined Cambodian pop for all time: we will always think it's them! I am sure the spirit of Barry Melton (Farfisa organist with Country Joe & the Fish) hovers over this sound, but I had the opportunity to talk to their keyboardist, Ethan Holtzman, and he assured me he had never listened to Country Joe and the Fish. Maybe it's an LA vs. SF thing, but how can you not know the "Fixing to Die" album which was huge at the time of Woodstock, Monterey Pop, etc. But then that dates me and younger musicians may like the general sound of the late 60s without knowing specific artists' identities. The opening cut, "Seeing hands" is a knock-out, and recapitulates some of the feverish ambience of "Sleepwalking through the Mekong," the stand-out track from their second album. "Tiger Phone Card," a number in English about trans-continental relationships evokes the Doors as well as Question Mark and the Mysterians, with their bouncy Vox Continental sound. "Sober Driver" opens with a hint of Grace Jones. There's one really wet ballad "Tooth and Nail," but otherwise a great set from this hot band on the pop, er world fusion, er alternative music scene.


This time out the Kings of Balkan Brass show a different side of their sound. We now have jazz and funk to the fore and the gypsy swing apparent but not the dominant sound. It's the youngster's doing, and it bodes well for the future of this group to break out of their category and be recognised for their musical skill in any context. There's also a video clip that seems to be the trailer for a feature film, GUCHA (Distant trumpet), with young Marko as the star. There's many flavours present and they coast on a wild "Bubumara" medley. I turned the CD case over to see if there was some snappy quote I could crib for a review and there was my own praise of their last album. I was chuffed, even though I was thwarted in my attempt to find someone else's thoughts to bounce off, but suffice it to say, I think this is as good as their last outing, better perhaps. "Sina Nari" is a remake of another song. I am not good at Balkan song titles, but I can hear vocals in my head. It sets me dreaming: we are driving through Yugoslavia, isn't it? Loping and bumping along, but we don't have a flat because we are on a tractor. This is how Soviet heros travel. We are riffling through the parallax of endless furrowed fields, like a rotoscope. I am surprised to see watermelons growing. It is summer, after all. The air is still. We stop and cut faces in the melons, like at Hallowe'en, and eat the wedges we excise. A man with a trumpet is hitch-hiking. It is the young Herb Alpert. He flags us down. He is wearing a military tunic from a long time ago. The Ottoman Empire? With frogging and a big shako with a feather. He looks imposing. The musicians dance in a circle and get bigger and smaller rapidly like in a cartoon, puffing up then deflating as they exhale into their brass alter egos. How long can this sobriety last?


"Ah-ha! Le retour en force des Amazones de Guinée!" Thus begins this wonderful outing by the great all-woman band from Guinée's Military Police force, Les Amazones. The story of all-women groups is not particularly distinguished and mired in bands that are only fronted by women for the sake of merchandising. (There's the Bangles, the Donnas, Bananarama, the Dixie Chicks, the Gogos, the Shaggs, the Spice Girls, the Twelve Girls Band of China, the nazi teen twins of Prussian Blue, Puffy Ami Yumi among a host of J-Pop outfits, etc. Wikipedia lists dozens more but it makes sad reading & would make a worse playlist.) While it's novel, it's silly to celebrate Les Amazones as an all-woman band, but let's appreciate the fact that they are a long-established band and can still kick out the jams. This is only their second album: their first Au coeur de Paris (Bolibana, 1983) made it to my African TOP 50 with Balla & ses Balladins, Bembeya Jazz and Djeli Moussa Diawara. Pretty exclusive company. They were formed in 1961 as the Women's Orchestra of the Guinée Militia -- not a very inspiring name -- but as soon as they took the stage (out of their fatigues) they were called "goddesses" or "tigresses" and wowed audiences all across Africa. So a more glamorous name was called for. About 1985 they were supposed to tour the USA. I heard they were to play at Manyatta, a small Kenyan-owned nightclub in Oakland. I called the owner and confirmed. I hyped the show like crazy on the radio, playing the album all night, giving away tickets to ecstatic fans. But on the night the sad truth dawned, they weren't even in the country; it was all a dream. 25 years later they are better than ever. There's a great spontaneity to the playing. The rhythms chug, the horns accentuate, everyone knows their part so well. They are confident in call and response vocals, call and response guitar and horns. But it's more than military discipline, it's collective intuition from years of playing together. The chef d'orchestre is bass player Commander Salématou Diallo. She recruited some new members as the lead guitarist died four years ago and other members have retired after their years of military service. Lead singer M'mah Sylla and guest vocalist Aminata Kamissoko add a glossy sheen; Commandant Djenabou Bah and Mariama Camara give a whole new meaning to "military brass" while Capitaine Mato Camara on timbales, Capitaine Elisabeth Camara on congas and Mamade Cissé on drums keep a beat that is stirring rather than merely martial. Guest percussionist Adama Diarra throws in some blasting djembe and there's a couple of guest guitarists, including Sekou Kante who did the arrangements. Yaya Kouyaté on solo guitar and N'Sira Tounkara on rhythm outstrip their cohorts in the other national ensembles. The set is diverse, there's even a birthday song and they end with a sweet little salsa number.


Not a moment too soon, here comes the big hit of the summer. This is the fourth Sidestepper album but the first one to cross my path. It's the brainchild of Richard Blair, an English mixologist who worked with the legendary Toto la Momposina, and went to Columbia in pursuit of those elusive blackbeats. He ended up putting together a band that comprised Latino musicians from the town with Black musicians from the hinterland. Normally the two races don't mix. Blair, formerly an engineer for Peter Gabriel's RealWorld label, has the necessary credentials and patter to get these people to join forces and produce a smoking set. This is hot. You remember how Tom Tom Club took the Sugarhill Gang sound and made it palatable to white kids in the 80s? Well, now that same sound has been revamped for the modern dancefloor on "Deja soft." But let's rewind a bit. We start with a bit of distortion, like a song from the radio taped on a warped cassette to suggest something vital and barely grasped from the air. Then the flanged sound warps into a background fill as bass, drums and electronica fight their way to the top with some snatches of vocal, for a catchy number called "Mas papaya" (Lightning Head remix). Somewhere in there we hear a Columbian melody. This slides into "Que sera," a wickedly catchy song with accordion samples and a persistent reggaeton-like chorus. It all flows beautifully into the big moment, "Deja soft," which starts out tentative and dreamy, half-resolved, then a minute in we get the Tom Tom Club/Sugarhill A-minor to F vamp, simple and seductive. Headbangers rejoice! Towards the end, things chill a bit: "Hoy tenemos" has some great piano, with snatches of Gershwin & Bacharach. One caveat: don't go looking on YouTube, because the Sidestepper videos suck. They are so depressing you will be put off the music!

DOUGA MANSA (World Village 468082)

There are kora discs and then there are kora discs. Kora is like classical guitar: there are musicians like Andres Segovia who have their devotees, whereas others prefer John Williams, Manitas de Plata or Julian Bream. I like Alhaji Bai Konte and Jali Musa Jawara. It's a matter of taste, but the repertoire doesn't vary much. And unless you are a fanatic you don't really need a lot of kora records, the way you absolutely need a lot of Congolese rumba records, say. Mamadou Diabate grew up in a Mande griot family (his father Djelimory was one of the founders of the Instrumental Ensemble of Mali) and has been playing the 21-stringed instrument all his life. When he was 22, Mamadou moved to the USA (after defecting from a successful Instrumental Ensemble tour) and became more exposed to jazz, blues and pop, collaborating with Randy Weston, Taj Mahal, and Angelique Kidjo, among others. For his fourth album, his second solo, he has gone back to the traditional repertoire. Mamadou attacks the strings with passion and his fingers fly. To me he is a superior talent and I would rank him above Foday Musa Suso or his famous cousin Toumani Diabate. But I prefer Red Garland to Art Tatum, so again make up your own mind. But you just have to hear this album to realize he a brilliant creative artist. And despite his move to North Carolina there is no fusion or borrowing in this set. It's all recorded in one take, without overdubbing, the liner assures us, because otherwise we wouldn't believe it, so sweeping is the flood of scales, the torrent of fluid riffs.


Kasai Allstars are well-known in the Congotronics realm because of their unusual make-up. I dont mean their body paint! I mean the composition of the group. They are traditional Kasaian musicians but they come from five different ethnic groups, not all of whom get along (to put it diplomatically). Kasai is in the Heart of the Congo and rich in diamond fields. The members came to the big city looking for fame and fortune and eventually made Kasai Allstars out of five separate bands who came from Songye, Lulua, Luba, Tetela and Luntu peoples. Two of the smaller bands, Basokin and Masanka Sankayi, appeared on Congotronics 2. Each group has its own culture and language but together they are a super jam group to beat the band. While Konono no 1 is essentially an electric likembe ensemble, Kasai Allstars include a xylophone played by Tshilumba "Baila" Luamba the acknowledged master, and two electric guitars. There are also buzzing likembes, frame drums, a lokole or slit log drum, rattles, and other percussion. The guitar makes a big difference: it is not played in a recognisable style, but used to augment the likembe patterns. There is a rhythmic pulse to the music, like breathing, that quickly gets inside your head and takes over your own respiration. The overall effect of this album is trance-inducing with occasional moments where you are reeled in by a guitar or vocal refrain. It's wonderfully meditative and rich.

LONJI (Times Square FQT-CD-09)

Light, summery music from Tcheka. Most pleasant. How come suddenly Cabo Verde is producing the best new crop of musicians in Africa (since Mali)? Tcheka comes on the heels of the divas Lura and Sara Tavares, and with his Portuguese lyrics reminds me of Lenine, the brilliant Brasilian singer-songwriter. I was mightily disappointed when Lenine's summer tour was canceled, so this will have to satisfy me for now. In my review of Tcheka's debut album I said it reminded me of Lenine, and sure and begorrah the mighty one graces this outing with his presence. Even when he is just playing triangle, he is all over it! He also plays second guitar and sings backup vocal. The cuica and caxixi percussion also bring Brasil to mind. Other percussive interludes are provided by rain and telephone book! The title track is really lovely: Tcheka's wistful voice balanced against his acoustic guitar and a susurration of Brasilian percussion makes it fresh. Accordion is brought in for "Tuti Santiagu," along with some stirring snare drumming. Trumpet, trombone and a smattering of effects are also brought to bear on the compositions, without being over-produced. However the projector noise on "Primeru bes kin ba cinema (First kiss at the cinema)" is a bit of an irritation.