Welcome to the July 2014 issue of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Archives of African American Music and Culture. Our feature this month is Bear Family’s reissue of Prodigal Son, the gospel album by former blues musician Rev. Robert Wilkins, originally released in 1964 on Dick Spottswood’s Piedmont label (the title track was famously covered by the Rolling Stones).  Also featured is the latest gospel album by Deitrick Haddon, LXW (League of Xtraordinary Worshippers), on the Tyscot label.

World music releases include the contemporary worldbeat solo project Now by bassist/vocalist Bibi Tanga, Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca’s latest fusion of Congolese and Cuban music La Rumba SoYo, and the compilations !Saoco!: The Bomba and Plena Explosion in Puerto Rico, Vols. 1 & 2.

Blues and R&B releases include Avery Sunshine’s The Sunroom, Kindred the Family Soul’s A Couple Friends, and Bobby Rush with Blinddog Smokin’ on the CD+DVD set Decisions. Under urban contemporary jazz we’re featuring saxophonist Jackiem Joyner’s Evolve and singer/songwriter/guitarist Jonathan Butler’s Living My Dream.

Other reissues and compilations include Nas’s Illmatic XX (20th Anniversary Edition), Classic African American Songsters from Smithsonian Folkways, and the DVD A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert.

Wrapping up this issue is a listing of June Releases of Note.

View review July 7th, 2014

Reverend-Robert-Wilkins-Prodigal-Son

Title: Prodigal Son

Artist: Reverend Robert Wilkins

Label: Bear Family Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 23, 2014

 

 

The prodigal son left home by himself…

An unseen light source illuminates the yellowing walls and rusting porcelain. A dirty pipe runs up the wall past messages scrawled in pencil. It’s a nasty bathroom. The oppressive stall conjures up feelings of loneliness, of desperate men. But the graffiti that covers the wall—“Heavenly King,” “Thank-U-Jesus,” ”Old Time Religion”—is oddly uplifted. In the midst of the decay, declarations of faith shine through, and it is with this dissonance that Bear Family Records sets the stage for their newest musical portrait.

By the start of the 1960s, American fervor had begun building around the crackly collections of Harry Smith and the Lomax family. The reignited interest in acoustic blues sent young white music enthusiasts scurrying, eager to find living sources of the haunting records emanating from America’s south. The early half of the decade led to the unearthing of titans. Tom Hoskins searched out the gentle plucking of Avalon’s Mississippi John Hurt, finding him alive and well. John Fahey rediscovered the lonesome howl of Skip James and the pounding rhythms of Bukka White. Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell, Reverend Gary Davis and Son House were all among those artists whose careers had peaked in the ‘20s-40s, only to find a voracious new audience waiting for them in the form of the folk revival.  A contingent of old timers from the Memphis scene also saw resurgence, including jug-stomping Gus Cannon and blues luminary Furry Lewis. Some of these quests for old bluesmen were tortuous, winding across years of obstacles and often facing hostility.  But fittingly, in 1964 when ethnomusicologist Dick Spottswood caught rumor that another Memphis musician, Robert Wilkins, was still alive, the path to finding him was straightforward and elegant. Spottswood sought out a Memphis directory from his local library and, upon finding two Robert Wilkins listed, he composed two identical letters, mailing them to both addresses. Remarkably, the only Robert Wilkins that responded was the musician in question, and a meeting was arranged. Wilkins, who had cut a small batch of 78s from 1928-1935, was known solely as a bluesman, and a damn fine one. His no frills guitar accompanied confident vocals, fusing Mississippi flavor with Memphis-borne style. Yet to his surprise, when Spottswood found Wilkins he did not find a veteran bluesman, but rather a proud man of God.

Born in the late 1890s, Robert Wilkins grew up in a poor family near Hernando, Mississippi on the storied Highway 51 just south of Memphis. He never knew his real father, a small-scale farmer named George Wilkins, who had been forced to escape the law after striking a white man during a gambling-related altercation. Instead, Wilkins grew up with a cantankerous, alcoholic stepfather named Sam Oliver. Oliver’s short fuse and drinking caused strain for the household, as drunken rage would regularly turn into violence directed at Robert’s mother, Julia. Wilkins went to school through fourth grade before picking up the family trade full time. At sixteen he received his first guitar and at year’s end he was playing like a pro. A man named Buddy Taylor taught Wilkins his first few tunes, classic repertoire like “Frisco Train” and “Casey Jones.” In 1915, after cutting his teeth at dances and fish fries, Wilkins headed for Memphis to pursue a career as a performing musician. The dream of finding that success was soon tempered due to the competitiveness of the industry, and Wilkins sometimes had to find work in other non-musical endeavors. He served in the army, returned to farming, spent three years as a Pullman porter and would occasionally work for a bakery and candy maker.

Wilkins had a stint as a recording artist, but it was a run marred by bad luck and injustice. He claimed that his rendition of “Kansas City Blues” was lifted by fellow guitarist Jim Jackson, whose rendition scored a best-selling record in 1927. The song has since become a blues standard, with Wilkins’ name far from credited (on the contrary, Jim Jackson’s rendition was entitled “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”). A year later, Wilkins got a shot to record with Victor records, but the session was far from ideal. He was given a damaged guitar whose strings had been tuned down to an uncomfortably lower key. Wilkins did find some recording success with his 1926 release “Rolling Stone,” carving out solid local sales in the Memphis market. The popularity of his song brought about a historic invitation to be the first black performer on Memphis radio, appearing on WHBQ. Wilkins had prepared a diverse set list for his on-air performance and would finally reach a larger audience with his versatility and rock solid fundamental blues. Unfortunately, another cruel twist of fate intervened. The public loved his performance of “Rolling Stone”…too much. Listener calls poured into the studio demanding encores, and Wilkins was made to repeat the song over and over for the entire remainder of the performance.

Despite the bad luck and mostly poor record sales in the wake of The Depression, Wilkins remained in good spirits, finding happiness in studying medicinal herbs and in his new wife, Ida Mae. The married couple struggled to make ends meet with a rapidly expanding family, and upon the birth of their eighth child, Ida Mae fell gravely ill. When the doctors said his wife was beyond medical help, Wilkins appealed to the heavens, pleading that he would take his wife’s health in exchange for one of the few things in his possession—his blues songs. Miraculously, Ida Mae made a full recovery, and true to his word Robert Wilkins never sang blues again. Instead, he devoted himself to religion, bringing with him the same muscular guitar work and earnest singing. He found a place in the Church of God in Christ movement, and was ordained as a minister in 1950. Wilkins continued on his path of righteousness through a decade and a half before Dick Spottswood made contact in 1964. Spottswood convinced Wilkins to hop on the surging folk revival, but again it would seem the reverend’s talents went largely underappreciated. Gospel music did not resonate with the youthful audience as much as blues would have, and his live appearance at the Newport Folk Festival that year was received with tepid enthusiasm; more unfairness for a man so deserving of a good break. It would be more than understandable if Wilkins became jaded and angry. He was good enough. He deserved better than he got. But Wilkins, forever patient and graceful, dealt with all in signature poise. He recorded a gospel LP for Spottswood’s Piedmont label (this time with a working guitar), but the release sold poorly and was quickly passed by. Wilkins quietly returned home to Memphis, living out the rest of his days in support of a loving family and adoring congregation until his passing in 1987. This new compilation from Spottswood and Bear Family Records contains the recordings from the 1964 LP in addition to four other uncollected hymns.

There is no shortage of country gospel available to us, but Wilkins unorthodox arrangements of standards and clever originals make this album essential listening. The collection opens with a four-note introduction, tumbling and descending before landing at the start of the classic “Jesus Will Fix It All Right.” Here, Wilkins grooves wonderfully as a solo performer. His alternating thumbed bass line and strumming on the offbeat create the uncanny illusion of multiple instruments. But unlike so many blues virtuosos of the time, the guitar work is utilitarian, providing only what is needed to make a bed for Wilkins powerful vocals. The proclamation that “Jesus will fix it all right” is not sung with the desperate fire of a Gary Davis, but rather a matter-of-fact confidence. It’s the confidence of a man who has experienced first hand the powers of faith in his own life. The lyrics consist of no more than the title repeated, and that’s plenty. Fitting perhaps, that for a performer like Wilkins, a declaration of faith in his lord is all that’s needed.

Wilkins’ reserved playing on the opener wastes no time in giving way to a more acrobatic style in the instrumental piece “Thank You Jesus.” The song struts and gallops, demonstrating an arsenal of various guitar licks. Wilkins’ slide guitar makes for thrilling listening as he growls up the bottom string for an ascending walk up before ducking back into a musical refrain. He then shoots up the fret board and if you listen closely, you can hear the four-syllable song title articulated brilliantly in musical notes. It’s a clinic in tension and release, with passages of dissonance giving way to welcome resolution.

“Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” while not ever credited with an original author, has largely remained constant in its arrangement and chord structures. Listeners at all familiar with religious music will know that “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” is one of the most oft-performed gospel tunes in history. You pretty much know what you’re going to get when it’s on the track list. Wilkins, however, delivers a wholly different take on the song, providing a completely different vocal melody and progression than expected. His rendition trots with a sense of adventure, like a traveler hitting the open road, equipped with little more than a guitar and an unwavering faith in God. This totally left-field take is a really fresh update to a pleasant but perhaps safe standard. The song leads nicely into a more up-tempo (but more stylistically conservative) “Do Lord Remember Me.” With a familiar southern folk melody, Wilkins acts as rough and tumble as Elizabeth Cotten, plucking out the vocal melody on guitar between vocal segments.

Wilkins continues with well-worn melodies on “Here Am I, Send Me.” “If you can’t sing like angels/if you can’t preach like Paul,” he crows “oh you can tell the love of Jesus/you can say he died for us all.” You can hear in his voice how much he buys into the song’s message. Luckily, Wilkins has the ‘sing like angels’ thing covered but for those in his congregation who couldn’t, Wilkins undoubtedly used this number to make a point— anyone can take onus and be proactive in their religious endeavors.

As the album crosses its halfway point, Spottswood makes it clear that we’ve arrived at the crown jewel: the 10-minute winding tale of “The Prodigal Son.” In 1929, Robert Wilkins penned the fantastic “That’s No Way to Get Along,” but upon pursuing religion, found the lyrical content to be inappropriate. As a solution, Wilkins kept the song structure but replaced the lyrics to make it a cautionary tale about a boy who demands that his father give him his inheritance so that he may leave home for a life of independence. Broke after quickly squandering his inheritance, the boy is forced to find work feeding swine as a famine descends on the land. Hating his menial work, the wasteful son tearfully returns to his home, praying that he’s forgiven for his actions. The father, remarkably, welcomes his son back, gathering the rest of the family to mark the joyous occasion of a family reunited. The song did not appear in Wilkins’ church services, as it was deemed not exciting enough for his congregants. Instead, the piece was reserved as a late-night solo, played for small audiences in the comfort of his living room. The quiet picking, repetitious bass note run and Wilkins contemplative drawl make for a hypnotic mix and the quickest 10-minute song I’ve ever encountered. The open tuning allows for a richer low end and frees Wilkins left hand to speak easily with his slide. This song may sound familiar to classic rock fans. Indeed, rock and roll bad boys The Rolling Stones adapted this song for their own interpretation of “The Prodigal Son,” appearing on their acclaimed album “Beggars Banquet.” Initially, it appeared this would be yet another slap in the face for Wilkins, as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards credited themselves with authorship. Luckily, on later pressings the wrong was righted and Wilkins’ name appeared in the byline. The album became one of the bands most beloved releases and the royalties generated by the sales created a solid supplementary income for Wilkins and his family in the reverend’s later years. The dilapidated bathroom featured on the cover of this compilation is actually a clever spoof of the cover for “Beggars Banquet.” It is never clarified through the liner notes if this was intended as a friendly nod or perhaps a small slice of ribbing—for once young white musicians on the other end of appropriated art.

The cavalcade of gospel continues on with “Jesus Said If You Go” and “I’m Going Home to My Heavenly King.” The former employs a technique often found in congregational gospel music, staying on the root chord while the song leader half sings, half preaches before ripping once again into the chorus. The latter is what can only be described as a powerhouse rag—a two and a half minute onslaught that starts out quaint enough before diving into a ragtime prance conjuring up echoes of Charley Patton. The tune screams for joy with its unrelenting drive and must have been such a rush for audiences to experience live.

The listener is given a short breather on “Old Time Religion.” In this song more than any other, you can hear the age in Wilkins’ voice. His timbre quavers but remains resolute as the reverend yearns for the simplicity and timeless appeal of traditional Christian living. It was good enough for his mother, it’ll be good when he’s dying, and it’s good enough for him.

“I Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down” stands as the first song Wilkins learned on guitar, and he plays it with a sure-handedness that comes from living with a song for many, many decades. A similar ease is found in his rendition of “It Just Suits Me.” It’s a sweet tune, gently pushing forward with alternating bass line and fervent singing. In classic Delta blues technique, the vocals and slide guitar find parity, with the strings sometimes finishing a line sung by Wilkins.

The final tune is “The Gambling Man,” which finds Wilkins warning against the dangers of a sinful lifestyle, embodied by a habitual gambler. The guitar drones on as the reverend paints a picture of hardship for sinners and deep sorrow for their families. Perhaps it serves as much as a reminder for himself as for his congregants. Without religion, Wilkins could have easily found himself living as an unfortunate character from his own songs, rather than working in service of the lord.

Prodigal Son is 56 minutes of some of the finest gospel music available, and it is presented with a dignity and sophistication that would have made Reverend Wilkins proud. The man who endured so many slights over the course of his career finally gets the attention and treatment his work has always warranted. Spottswood handles this collection with care—the CD booklet includes 28 pages of documentation. Over a fruitful career in ethnomusicology, Spottswood has perfected the delicate art of compilation, guiding the listener through long forgotten material, but always careful to let the performer and his work take center stage. It’s a wonderful addition to the shelves of both serious archives and the casual listener. He may have left home by himself, but at long last the Prodigal Son returns home to find music fans the world over awaiting him with open arms.

Reviewed by Aaron Frazer

View review July 1st, 2014

Deitrick Haddon - LXW League of Xtraordinary Worshippers

Title: LXW: League of Xtraordinary Worshippers

Artist: Deitrick Haddon

Label: Tyscot

Formats: CD, DVD, MP3

Release date: April 22, 2014

 

 

Long before to his rise to notoriety starring in Oxygen’s reality television show Preachers of L.A., Deitrick Haddon was a choir leader and gospel artist based in Detroit, Michigan. His work with the Voices of Unity helped launch his award winning solo career with early Tyscot releases like Come Into This House (1995). Recently, Haddon has returned to his choral roots, developing a Los Angeles-based choir called the League of Xtraordinary Worshippers (LXW) in an effort to reinvigorate the “youth choir” movement across the U.S.  Primarily comprised of young adult, aspiring gospel performers, this 100 voice unit reimagines the contemporary gospel choir with modern urban style and sounds. Their self-titled debut project also features several gospel choir icons like Ricky Dillard and Donald Lawrence.

The group’s live debut concert, captured on CD and DVD, features newly composed songs with longtime familiar themes and messages. For instance, the song “Don’t Pass Me By” led by Jessica Reedy (of BET’s Sunday Best fame) is based on the still popular hymn “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” (1870). This performance updates the song with a lighthearted, danceable groove. Similarly, LXW also performs “Tis So Sweet” based on the hymn “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” (1882). Much more reverential in tone, this selection showcases traditional gospel style with vocally robust harmonies and a repetitive vamp encouraging listeners to “trust in Jesus.”

True to Haddon’s form, LXW is an eclectic blend of traditional gospel elements (like preaching, growls, etc.) with contemporary and even so-called “secular” expressions. “We Need Your Power Lord,” led by Hezekiah Walker, draws musical influences from the iconic opening bass and lead guitar riffs in the Jackson 5 hit “I Want You Back.” This selection highlights all of the exciting and memorable elements of contemporary youth choirs including heavy-hitting vocals, energizing call and response with the soloist, and a modulating vamp that invites listeners to joyfully worship. Another example of musical blending is the reggae inspired selection, “I Wanna Know Ya.” Led by Haddon, this textually and melodically simple piece is rather laidback until a musical quotation of the praise song “The War Cry,” popularized by the late Bishop Kenneth Moales, Sr., adds a surprising burst of energy and momentum.

Perhaps one of the most contemporary songs on this project is the hit single “Great God” which features electronic synthesized sound alongside the live band, with a hip hop inspired beat. It opens with rhythmic spoken lyrics in unison and gradually builds to an invigorating call and response between the sopranos and altos and tenors that ends with a declaratory “Great God” in three part harmony.  LXW’s dynamic performance of this song landed them a spot as the opening act on BET’s yearly program Celebration of Gospel airing this past April.

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Another contemporary element of LXW is the inclusion of two “spoken word” pieces as interludes between songs performed by members of the choir. While speaking, preaching, storytelling, or “sermonizing” has been a regular feature in gospel music recordings for several decades, the poetic spoken word genre is a fairly recent inclusion in the long history of African American Christian religious oration.

While the CD provides an exciting listening experience, the live DVD is well worth viewing. Many of the songs like “Great God” feature the choir performing simple yet effective choreography which entices viewers to dance along. Similarly, the energy and physical movement which has historically been a defining characteristic of gospel music performance is celebrated here as the performers and audience interact, sing, and praise together communally. For instance, performances of songs like “We Need Your Power Lord” and “I Wanna Know Ya” were so engaging, that the recorded sections included on the DVD left me eager to see what occurred in the parts that were left out. In the same way, the League of Xtraordinary Worshippers has me excitedly anticipating what’s next for contemporary gospel choir music.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review July 1st, 2014

Bibi-Tanga-Now

Title: Now

Artist: Bibi Tanga

Label: Jazz Village

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: May 13, 2014

 

 

Now, the newest solo project by bassist and vocalist Bibi Tanga, is an energetic and layered effort from the former Malka Family collaborator. Tanga explores a number of facets of contemporary worldbeat throughout the course of this record, crafting a fresh and cosmopolitan sonic palate from a variety of musical influences.  Tanga sings in several languages (including English, French, and Sangho) throughout the course of the record and blends elements of Afrobeat, funk, reggae, and rock in order to create a sound that, while incredibly diverse, maintains a surprising degree of cohesion throughout the course of the record.

Some artists who attempt this kind of eclectic approach tend to create songs that are exercises of a particular set of token generic conventions; what Tanga does differently is find a sweet spot in which these elements intertwine. While much of the album can loosely be described as a blend of Afrobeat and funk, Tanga and company also branch off into other directions: “Love Can Bring You Pain” would fit comfortably on a contemporary rock station, “Now” is infused with a Chic-inspired disco groove, “Who’s Gonna Be Your Man” channels Mississippi Delta blues, and “Guigui So” is built around a Sanza line that foregrounds the artist’s connections to his native Central African Republic.  However, Tanga’s eclectic approach remains coherent throughout and doesn’t smack of musical tokenism—this is largely due to the strength of his band that maintains a consistent feel and rhythmic drive throughout the course of the record.  Tanga and his sidemen are musical chameleons who, even when bouncing from genre to genre, manage to maintain the “feel” of a tight-knit group that is accustomed to playing with one another.  The band’s musical eclecticism is undergirded by a strong sense of social consciousness, calling for a kind of universal human love in “Upset,” addressing the human implications of military conflict in “War,” and focusing upon themes of social uplift, complete with samples from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches (“Who Can We Trust”).

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While many of the songs on this record are sung in English, an American listener may wish for written translations or transcriptions of the songs that Tanga includes on this album, particularly as he tends towards writing socially-conscious material.  For instance, on “Money Honey,” Tanga switches between English and another language, most likely Tanga’s native Sangho. The lyric transcriptions included with the album are only of the songs that Tanga sings in French (transcribed in French), with a brief biography of the artist translated into English.  While this record may primarily be aimed at a French World Music audience, as it is released by the French Jazz Village label, it seems strange that there is no transcription or translation of the English or Sangho lyrics in the liner notes although there are transcriptions of the French songs.  Perhaps a side-by-side transcription of the aural languages and translation into French would have been a better choice for world music audiences—although this is an understandably thorny issue when the potential audience for Tanga’s brand of Afropop is the entire world.

This small critique aside, Now is an excellent effort by an artist who is equally adept in many of the musical sounds of the African Diaspora.  Bibi Tanga presents an exciting and eclectic fusion of musical genres, backed by a crack band and undergirded with a strong socially conscious message.  This album is exciting upon first hearing and holds up very well over the course of many subsequent listenings.  On Now, Tanga reminds audiences that Afropop is still a fresh and vibrant musical choice amongst many others for the cosmopolitan world music audience.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review July 1st, 2014

Bobby Rush with Blinddog Smokin’ - Decisions

Title: Decisions

Artist: Bobby Rush with Blinddog Smokin’

Label: Silver Talon

Formats: CD/DVD set, MP3

Release date: April 15, 2014

 

 

Though Bobby Rush recently celebrated his 80th birthday and has more than half a century of blues under his belt, he shows no signs of heading out to pasture. His latest release, Decisions, is a brilliant collaboration with Carl Gustafson’s 7-piece SoCal funk band Blinddog Smokin’ that also features Rush’s fellow Louisiana native, the one and only Dr. John.

The album opens with “Another Murder in New Orleans,” pairing Rush and Dr. John on a searing commentary about the violence following Hurricane Katrina, with the funky Linda Gustafson providing backup vocals. Singing about bullets flying and mothers crying, the song easily summarizes the tragedy commonplace in all too many environs. Finding inspiration in the cinematic qualities of the song, director Jennifer DeLia and producer Julie Pacino shot the video on the streets of the French Quarter, capturing the essence of the lyrics and grittiness of the delivery:

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On the introspective title track, Rush appeals to a higher power with the refrain “Oh Lordy, help us make the right decision,” punctuated by the harmonica licks of Billy Branch.  From here on in the band gets funkier and the mood lightens considerably. On “Funky Old Man,” Rush pokes fun at his age and ailments, rapping: “Do the Fred Sanford and sway your back / One hand in the air have a heart attack / Stagger around look up at the sky / Shuffle your feet like you the Superfly.”  Another highlight is “Stand Back,” a musical tour-de-force that has the band venturing off into salsa territory, punctuated by some searing rock guitar licks. But that’s not the only surprising twist. Mimicking a talk radio show, the humorous “Dr. Rush” portrays Bobby as a rapping deejay whose remedies for his callers’ spousal complaints include “a plate of beans and bacon,” “pork chops, corn pops” and “Ben and Jerry’s peanut butter chocolate fudge ice cream.”

Decisions is a fun album showcasing Bobby Rush in a wide range of styles, backed by the “fatback funk, blistering blues, uptown horns and low-down grooves” of Blinddog Smokin’ plus a host of A-list guests including Carl Weathersby, Sherman Robertson, and Shane Theriot on guitar, Mindi Abair on sax, Chuck Findley and Branden Lewis on trumpet, Alan Steinberger on Wurlitzer, and Nick Lane on trombone. The accompanying DVD features the music video “Another Murder in New Orleans” and behind-the scenes photos from the filming, as well as interviews with Dr. John and Bobby Rush.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 1st, 2014

Avery Sunshine - The Sun Room

Title: The Sun Room

Artist: Avery Sunshine

Label: Shanachie Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 27, 2014

 

 

Pennsylvania native Avery Sunshine burst onto the scene in 2010 with her self-titled debut album, her bubbly personality and unapologetically gospel musical ways in hand, ready to teach the world how to “shine” as bright as the smile she consistently dons. Since 2010 she has built a dedicated fan base, travelling all over the United States and Europe performing such songs as “Ugly Part of Me” and “All in My Head.” Her conversational songs and inviting personality have afforded her a dedicated fan base who have long awaited her next project.

The Sun Room is a collection of twelve songs including musical interludes and mediations. This album is not only full of her expected gospel crooning, but is also reminiscent of a particular era of R&B music. For example, the opening track “Love (Won’t You Try)” is an obvious nod to Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” which she vocally admits towards the end of the song, singing “try a little love and happiness.” The historical references continue in songs like “I Do Love You.”

Avery Sunshine, the ever so direct songstress and songwriter does not fail to let her message be heard on this album. Never one to hide anything lyrically, her first single “Call My Name” speaks plainly of the need to tell the one you love how much you love them. She simply states: “When was the last time you heard me call you “sweet darlin’”/ And when was the last time I heard you say “hey baby”/ It’s been such a long time since you heard me call you “sweet darlin’”/ And I just can’t remember the last time you called my name.” Straight to the point, she simulates a conversation between two people who need to be reminded to express their love for each other.

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Sun Room also embraces a variety of topics, from the general positive declaration to persevere, to her own conversation with God. A poignant example is “See You When I Get There,” a song embracing the many beliefs of people and acknowledging and rejecting, in the same line, the need for others who may believe differently: “I think they’ve got it all wrong / But who am I to judge / I’m just a singer with a song.” She plainly sings, in the chorus: “You go your way, and I will go mine / And I’ll see you when I get there.”

As with her debut release, regardless of the topic, The Sun Room never loses that brilliantly luminous personality and sound fans have come to expect from Avery Sunshine.

Reviewed by Christina Harrison

View review July 1st, 2014

Kindred the Family Soul

Title: A “Couple” Friends

Artist: Kindred the Family Soul

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 10, 2014

 

 

The Philadelphia-based duo Kindred the Family Soul, featuring singer-songwriters Fatin and Aja Dantzler, just released a new album that exemplifies their long term relationship. On A Couple Friends, they strive for positive images in their inspirational songs about love, marriage, commitments and family—something they can definitely relate to as the parents of six children. Throughout the 13 tracks they impart life lessons and provide inspiration that will appeal to any generation, but especially to those who have shared the trials and tribulations of parenthood and long-term relationships.

Opening with “Get It, Got It,” the duo lays out their personal mission to “let our light shine wherever we go” and “give respect to everyone we know.” The lessons continue in “Everybody’s Hustling” as they lambast the glorification of money in mainstream music, hip hop and the media:

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Calling upon their Philly roots, “Lovin’ the Night” and “Never Loved You More” both channel a bit of TSOP, bringing in the horns and strings for a classic soul sound.   But the songs are not all geared towards adults.  “One Day Soon” encourages youth to stay focused in their pursuit of dreams, while on the humorous “Momma Said Clean It Up” they enlist a few of their kids for the rousing chorus “the laundry, the dishes, the rooms and the kitchen” over an infectious hip hop beat (parents might wish to put this on Saturday morning rotation!). On the moving title track duet, certainly one of the albums highlights, Aja and Fatin are accompanied on piano by legendary singer/songwriter Valerie Simpson, who is given her own solo opportunity.

A 22-minute short film featuring songs from the album is said to be forthcoming.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 1st, 2014

Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca - La Rumba SoYo

Title: La Rumba SoYo

Artist: Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca

Label: Cumbancha

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date:  June 24, 2014

 

 

 

A native of Congo-Kinshasa now based in Los Angeles, Ricardo Lemvo and his band Makina Loca have become known for their fusion of Congolese and Cuban music, deftly blending rumba and soukous with son and salsa.  Fully embracing the concept of world music, their new album La Rumba SoYo was recorded on three continents and four countries—the U.S., Canada, France and Angola—and is sung in a mix of Portuguese, Spanish and indigenous Angolan languages.

A fan of Cuban music since his youth, Lemvo could often be found immersed in his cousin’s large collection of vintage Cuban LPs.  More recently he has been mastering Angolan styles and rhythms such as samba and kizomba, and these feature prominantly on three of the album’s tracks written in collaboration with Angolan songwriters: the humorous “Dikulusu” (A Heavy Cross) about a man who complains that alimony payments are ending up in the pocket of his ex-wife’s husband, the rumba “Padre George” about a man who seeks advice from his priest, and “Simone CM,” a kizomba love song similar in style to the Caribbean zouk.

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On the title track, Makina Loca aim to kick off summer celebrations with a song tailor made for partying. Drawing heavily from Caribbean merengue and Congolese soukous, the band creates infectious dance rhythms that will lift your spirits while you kick up your heels.  Other album highlights include the festive opening song “Santo António do Zaire,” blending Cuban son montuno and Congolese rumba, and the salsa “El Caburnacho” which fully utilizes the band’s terrific horn section.

Popular performers in salsa clubs from Cartageña to Tokyo, Makina Loca are touring the U.S. and Canada this summer in support of their new album. In July and August you can catch them live in California, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and London, Ontario.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 1st, 2014

saoco

Title: ¡Saoco! The Bomba and Plena Explosion in Puerto Rico Vol. 1 (1954-1966) & ¡Saoco! Bomba, Plena and the Roots of Salsa in Puerto Rico Vol. 2 (1955-1967)

Artist: Various

Label: Vampisoul

Formats: CD

Release dates: June 19, 2012 (vol.1), July 23, 2013 (vol.2)

 

Puerto Rico is not only known for it luscious landscapes and the coquí. The island is also home to two highly influential music genres, bomba and plena, both of which served as a backbone of musical experimentation during the golden era of salsa.  During the 1950s and 1960s, various Puerto Rican artists set the stage for future integrations of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms and provided a framework for the emergence of New York salsa.  Bomba and plena puertorriqueña—two highly percussive musical traditions—achieved commercial success in the field of tropical music during the 1950s and became the main precursor towards the development of Nuyorican salsa. ¡Saoco! The Bomba and Plena Explosion in Puerto Rico, Vol. 1 (1954-1966) and Bomba, Plena and the Roots of Salsa in Puerto Rico, Vol. 2 (1955-1967) are outstanding compilations of popular Boricua music.  In these volumes listeners will be pleased with the selection of hits from a pantheon of Puerto Rican musicians.

Often mentioned together, bomba and plena reflect the African heritage of Puerto Rico.  Roots of bomba lie in the African slave communities of the 17th century.  Originally a genre for percussion and voice it features Barriles—a barrel shaped membranophone much larger and deeper in sound than the Cuban conga—maracas, and an idiophone that is sometimes referred to as a catá, cuá or fuá. In contrast, plena developed one basic rhythm, features stringed instruments, and is charcterized by the Spanish lyrical poetic tradition whose typical metric combination is the décima espinela.

During a time that many Caribbean elites wished to hide their Afro-Caribbean heritage, vocalist Ismael Rivera celebrated it with his topical streets sounds direct from Puerto Rican neighborhoods.  Deeply percussive and oozing with African dialect, his vocal improvisations were virtuosic.  Competing with the soneos of his Cuban counterpart of the ‘50s, Benny Moré, no other place is his talent more apparent than his feature in “Caballero qué bomba” with Cortijo y su Combo.  Here, listeners will appreciate his skill as a bombero.

Other highlights of these volumes are the contributions of the tongue-twisting Mon Rivera.  Embodying his mayagüezana heritage, Mon Rivera introduced a new way of playing trombone; this “trombanga” sound replaced trumpets and saxophones with trombones and was key in the development of Nuyorican Salsa and Boogaloo. “Ron con coco” exemplifies this style.  The combination between the bomba rhythms and trombone moñas became popular on many of the tracks produced by the next generation of Nuyorican salsa trombone players (e.g., Willie Colon).

We have these trailblazing musical giants to thank for introducing the plena of the mixed-race, poor and working classes well as the primarily Afro-Puerto Rican vocal and percussive form, bomba, to the ballrooms of large hotels and the world stage.  Few compilation CDs like that of  that detail thoroughly the devethe ¡Saoco! volumes provide their listeners with the breadth and depth of the repertoire and valuable liner notes that detail thoroughly the development of the salsa genre—from a Puerto Rican perspective.  This extremely important set is essential for all collectors of Afro-Caribbean dance music.

Reviewed by Madelyn Shackelford Washington

View review July 1st, 2014

Jackiem Joyner - Evolve

Title: Evolve

Artist: Jackiem Joyner

Label: Mack Avenue

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 29, 2014

 

 

Sax man Jackiem Joyner, aka “Lil Man Soul,” has released a steady stream of albums for Mack Avenue and scored a slew of hit singles along the way in the contemporary jazz category.  After returning to his gospel roots on his last album, Church Boy, this time around Joyner’s goal was to evolve through an exploration of different and interesting soundscapes, stretching his vocabulary on sax as well as a host of additional instruments.

Joyner’s signature smooth jazz /urban pop sound dominates the majority of the album, but interspersed are some funkier tracks with a heavy groove such as “Double Bass” featuring a duo between Tim Bailey and a bass track programmed by Joyner, “Born to Fly” augmented by turntable scratches and the rocking guitar of Kayta Masuno, “Big Step” recorded live in the studio and featuring saxophonist Gerald Albright, and the opening track “Generation Next”:

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Evolve is another solid and creative release from Joyner that’s sure to please fans of urban contemporary jazz.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 1st, 2014

JonathanButler_LivingMyDream1

Title: Living My Dream

Artist: Jonathan Butler

Label: Artistry Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 23, 2014

 

 

Though South African-born singer/guitarist Jonathan Butler grew up living under Apartheid, he managed to break through these barriers to become the first black artist played on white radio stations in his home country. Now living in Los Angeles, he reflects on life’s struggles and blessings on his latest album Living My Dream. Whereas his previous release Grace and Mercy explored the gospel side of jazz, this time around Butler returns to urban contemporary jazz, offering 11 tracks interspersed with his soulful R&B vocals.

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Opening with the instrumental “African Breeze,” Butler reinterprets an early work featured 30 years ago in the film The Jewel of the Nile. On the contemplative instrumental “Be Still,” he enlists George Duke on piano and Marcus Miller on bass. Written by Butler and Duke and recorded just prior to Duke’s death last summer, the track bears the title of one of Duke’s favorite scriptures.  Other highlights include the love song “Heart and Soul,” the reggae influenced “Song for You,” and the sensuous “All About Love.”

Butler is currently touring the U.S. in support of the album, sharing the stage with Grammy winner Norman Brown and Alex Bugnon.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 1st, 2014

NAS_-_Illmatic_XX

Title: Illmatic XX

Artist: Nas

Label: Legacy

Formats: 2CD set, 1 LP, MP3

Release date: April 15, 2014

 

 

First released in April 1994, Nasir “Nas” Jones’s seminal debut album Illmatic rocked the hip hop world.  Widely recognized as one of the most influential hip hop recordings of all time, the album presented the twenty-year-old Queensbridge rapper as a supremely talented lyricist—a street prophet whose poetry aimed to convey “what the streets felt like, smelled like, tasted like.” Nas’s talent attracted a squad of all-star producers—Pete Rock, DJ Premier, L.E.S., Q-Tip, and Large Professor—adding to the legendary status of the album.

Now, two decades later, Legacy has released a special 20th Anniversary Edition of Illmatic. Disc one includes a remastered version of the original album, while disc two includes “Demos, Remixes & Live Radio.”  Unfortunately, the second disc is primarily remixes, none of which can be termed essential. Only the first two tracks—“I’m a Villain” with its funk samples and a 1993 aircheck of “The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show” from WKCR—are compelling additions to the Nas catalog. The remastering has also been criticized by some for compressing the dynamic range, so be forewarned if you’re expecting “improved” audio fidelity. The single disc vinyl edition only contains the original album but comes with a digital download of the bonus material.

If you’re a Nas fan you’ve probably been following the Illmatic 20th anniversary celebrations around the world. In April the National Symphony Orchestra Pops featured the artist in a special concert at the Kennedy Center to kick off their festival “One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide!” Shortly thereafter, Nas made history performing Illmatic in its entirety with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra in South Africa, and most recently he performed Illmatic with orchestra at Radio City Music Hall as part of a Dave Chappelle show. In October, Time Is Illmatic—a feature length documentary that examines the album—will hit theaters nationwide:

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In short, at least one version of this album belongs in every collection.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 1st, 2014

A Celebration of Blues and Soul The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert

Title: A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert

Artist: Various

Label: Shout! Factory

Formats: DVD

Release date: May 6, 2014

 

 

On January 21, 1989, some of the biggest names in R&B, soul and blues performed at the Presidential Inaugural Concert (aka the Celebration for Young Americans) in honor of President George H. W. Bush. Filmed with seven cameras and supplemented by a separate 24-track audio recording in anticipation of a commercial release, the tapes were inexplicably lost for more than twenty years. Now restored, re-mastered, color-corrected, and converted to HD with the soundtrack remixed to a 6-channel, 5.1 format by legendary audio engineer Ed Greene, the concert is finally available via a two hour DVD from Shout! Factory.

Though you may have already seen this concert on PBS last March, the DVD includes an extra hour of footage in addition to a 27 page illustrated booklet with a particularly interesting essay by Peter Guralnick. Invited on numerous occasions to attend the concert by Lee Atwater, Guralnick finally relented and goes on to describe “My Adventures Among the Republicans” where, despite Atwater’s enthusiasm and efforts, the likes of Bo Diddley, Billy Preston, Percy Sledge, and Sam Moore received a tepid response from the audience (SMH . . .).  A longer essay by Richard Harrington provides additional details about the concert as well as the multi-year restoration process.

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Not only does this DVD present a fascinating piece of history, but the performances are outstanding. Particularly poignant are the sections (circa 25 minutes) with Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died the following year.  You’ll never again see these musicians sharing a stage.  The complete set list is included on the Shout! Factory website.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 1st, 2014

Classic African American Songsters

Title: Classic African American Songsters

Artist: Various

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 24, 2014

 

 

In the American sense, songsters are keepers of musical tradition while at the very same time challenging and reimagining the concept. Traveling from city to city, state to state, songsters prided themselves on the ability to play music for any variety of occasion or audience. But with this nomadic lifestyle, the same attention paid to recognizing and learning traditional music was applied to more popular musics, leading to a veritable melting pot of change and reinterpretation of modern and classic standards. While for many the first and main example of this phenomenon would no doubt be the blues, Smithsonian Folkways’ Classic African American Songsters seeks to show a more complex side, full of invention and creativity beyond the music of the Delta. Featuring the likes of Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and Big Bill Broonzy, among others, the 23rd album in Smithsonian Folkways’ “Classic” series adds further insight into an often forgotten period in African American music.

Reviewed by Ian Hallagan

View review July 1st, 2014

Following are additional albums released during June 2014—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.

Blues

Andy T – Nick Nixon Band: Livin’ It Up (Delta Grooves)
Joe Louis Walker: The Best of the Stony Plain Years (Stony Plain Music)
John Primer: You Can Make It If You Try (Wolf)
Lucky Peterson: Son of a Bluesman (Jazz Village)
Mannish Boys: Wrapped Up And Ready (Delta Grooves)
Otis Clay: Truth Is (Oarfin)
Pee Wee Crayton: Texas Blues Jumpin’ In Los Angeles, The Modern Music Sessions 1948-1951 (Ace)
Selwyn Birchwood: Don’t Call No Ambulance (Alligator)
Smoky Babe: Way Back in the Country Blues (Arhoolie)
Travis Haddix: Love Coupons (Benevolent)
Vaneese Thomas: Blues for My Father (Segue)
Variou artists: Essential Chicago Blues Rarities Collection (Varese Sarabande)

Country

Linda Martell: Color Me Country (Real Gone)
Millie Jackson: Loving Arms: The Soul Country Collection (Kent)

Gospel, Gospel Rap, CCM

Andrea McClurkin-Mellini: Higher (Camdon Music)
Anita Wilson: Vintage Workship (Motown Gospel)
Bryan Andrew Wilson: The One Percent (Echo Park)
Chanel Haynes: Trin-I-Tee 5:7 According to Chanel (Obsidian)
George Dean & G4: Back to the Basics Again (Ecko)
Lee Williams & Spiritual QC’s: Tell the Angels (MCG)
Mississippi Mass Choir: Declaration of Dependence  (Malaco)
Ricky Dillard & New G: Amazing (eOne)
Tirvarrus & God’s Project: I’m Trying To Be (New Vision)
Uncle Reece: Bold (Bed Music Group)
Viktory R4:  Volume 2 (Viktorious Music Group)

Jazz

Anthony Braxton: 12 Duets (box set) (New Braxton House Records)
Anthony Braxton: Trio (New Haven) 2013 (New Braxton House Records)
Barbara Morrison: I Love You, Yes I Do (Savant)
Billie Holiday: At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival 1957 (Solar)
Clifford Brown: Brownie Speaks- Complete Blue Note Recordings (Blue Note)
Coleman Hawkins: Lost 1950 Munich Concert (Solar)
Darren Barrett: Energy in Motion- Music of the Bee Gees (DB Productions)
Darren Barrett & dB Quintet: Live and Direct 2014 (DB Productions)
Duke Ellington: Original Recordings That Inspired the Broadway Hit “After Midnight” (Legacy)
Elio Villafranca & His Jass Syncopators: Caribbean Tinge- Live From Dizzys (Motema)
Jaki Byard: The Late Show (HighNote)
Jimmy Cobb: The Original Mob (Smoke Sessions)
Johnathan Blake: Gone But Not Forgotten (Chris Cross)
Joshua Redman Trio: Live (Nonesuch)
Kate Ross: People Make the World Go Round (KimCourt Productions)
Lil John Roberts: The Heartbeat (Purpose Music Group/Nia)
Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses: Blow (Warrior)
Nat King Cole: Extraordinary (CMG)
Ralph Peterson: ALIVE at Firehouse 12, Vol. 2 – Fo’ n Mo’ (Onyx)
Sam Rucker: Tell You Something (Favor Productions)
Sharon Marie Cline: This Is Where I Wanna Be (CD Baby)

Rock, Pop, Funk, Electronic

Body Count: Manslaughter (Sumerian)
Devonté Hynes et al: Palo Alto – Music From The Motion Picture (Domino)
Jaded Incorporated: The Big Knock (digital)(Casablanca)
Kai Exos: Telegraph (VMP)
Miniature Tigers: Cruel Runnings (Yebo Music)
Nightmare on Wax: N.O.W. Is The Time (Warp)
Phox: Phox (Partisan)
Taylor Mcferrin: Early Riser (Brainfeeder)

R&B, Soul

5th Dimension: Earthbound (1st CD ed.)(Real Gone)
Ann Nesby: Living My Life (Arrow)
Carl Sims: Best of Carl Sims (Ecko)
Chanson: Chanson (expanded, 1st CD ed.)(Funky Town Grooves)
Chanson: Together We Stand (expanded, 1st CD ed.)(Funky Town Grooves)
Charles Jones: Portrait of a Balladeer (Endzone Ent.)
Denise Pearson: Imprint (Baronet Ent.)
Faith Hope & Charity: Faith Hope & Charity (expanded ed.)(Real Gone)
Jeremy Riley: Xcellent (7us Media Group)
Joe: Bridges (BMG)
Jonathan Butler: Living My Dream (Artistry Music)
José James: While You Were Sleeping (Blue Note)
Kelly Price: Sing Pray Love, Vol 1. (eOne)
Lee Fields & the Expressions: Emma Jean (Redeye)
Mali Music: Mali Is (RCA)
Mary J. Blige: Think Like A Man Too – Music From & Inspired by the Film (Epic)
Meshell Ndegeocello: Comet, Come To Me (Naïve)
Mingo Fishtrap: On Time (Blue Corn)
Salaam Remi: One- In the Chamber (Sony Masterworks)
Sebastian Mikael: Speechless (Slip N Slide/Universal)
Sweet Inspirations: Complete Atlantic Singles Plus (Real Gone)
Various artists: Chicago Hit Factory- Vee-Jay Story (10CD box set)(Charly)
Various artists: Eccentric Soul – The Way-Out Label (Numero)
Various artists: Eccentric Soul – Capital City Soul  (Numero)
Various artists: Ronn Records Story (Varese Sarabande)
Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle Funk, Modern Soul & Boogie Vol. II (Light in the Attic)

Rap and Hip Hop

¡Mayday! & Murs: Mursday (Strange Music)
50 Cent: Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire to Win (G-Unit)
Ab-Soul: These Days… (Top Dawg)
Amadeus the Stampede: Spilling Blood on the Dance Floor (Stampede Media)
Apathy: Connecticut Casual (Dirty Version)
Big Freedia: Just Be Free  (Queen Diva)
Big Mucci: Shuffle Step Slide – Line Dance Movement (71 North Ent.)
Buckshot & P-Money:  BackPack Travels (Duckdown)
Canibus: Fait Accompli (RBC)
Cash: Let’s Get It (eOne)
Cerebral Ballzy: Jaded & Faded (Cult)
CLPPNG: CLPPNG (Sub Pop)
C-Murder: Community Serive 3 (Oarfin)
Damani Nkosi: Thoughtful King (digital) (Damani Music)
DJ Fresh & J. Stalin: The Real World Trilogy (Box set)(Fresh in the Flesh)
Freres D’Or: Parole D’Honneur (Explicit)
Futuristic: Traveling Local (R Music Group)
Ghostface Killah & Badbadnotgood: Six Degrees (Lex)
Gucci Mane & Migos: The Green Album (digital) (101 Distribution)
Gucci Mane & Young Thug: The Purple Album (digital) (101 Distribution)
Gucci Mane &PeeWee Longway: The White Album (digital) (101 Distribution)
J. Rawls: The Legacy (digital) (Polar Ent.)
Jeru The Damaja: The Hammer EP (digital) (Hedspinn)
Madlib: Pinata Beats (Madlib Invasion)
Open Mike Eagle: Dark Comedy (Mello Music Group)
P.SO the Earth Tone King: Gateway To Greatness / Constellations (HiPNOTT)
Riff Raff: Neon Icon (WEA)
Skanks: Shinigamie Flowfessional (Modulor / Shinigamie)
Swollen Members: Brand New Day (Battle Axe)
The Jacka & Mdot 80: Risk Game (Double F)
The Red Gold & Green Machine: Planet Africa (digital)(Water The Plants)
Young Liifez & The World’s Freshest: The Morning Show (Sac Music Group)
Z-Ro: The Crown (Rap-a-Lot)

Reggae, Dancehall, Calypso

Alborosie: Alborosie & Friends (V.P.)
Damian Marley: Bonnaroo Live 06 (Bonnaroo Music)
Dub Club: This Generation in Dub (Stones Throw)
Hollie Cook: Twice (Mr. Bongo)
Junior Cony & Shanti D: The End (Hammerbass)
King Jammy: Dub Kings- King Jammy at King Tubby’s (Jamaican Recordings)
Popcaan: Where We Come From (Mixpak)
Roland Alphonso: Singles Collection & More (Not Bad)
Third World: Under the Magic Sun (Cleopatra)
Toots & The Maytals: Pressure Drop – The Golden Tracks (Cleopatra)
Various artists: Calypso- Musical Poetry in the Caribbean, 1955-69 (Soul Jazz)
Various artists: Natty Will Fly Again (Groundation)

World

Dexter Johnson & Le Super Star de Dakar: Live a Letoile (Teranga Beat)
Kasai Allstars: Beware the Fetish (Crammed Discs)
Optimo: Amor de Guerra (Sony Music Latin)
Paula Lima: O Samba E Do Bem (Tupiniquim)

View review July 1st, 2014

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