Archive for September, 2011

Welcome to the September 2011 Issue

This month is devoted to Black rock, beginning with a look at the new book The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll by Preston Lauterbach, who utilized material from our collections. Several new rock-oriented albums are also reviewed, including poet-singer Saul Williams’ Volcanic Sunlight, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears’ Scandalous, and the CD/DVD sets King’s X Live Love in London, Joan Armatrading Live at the Royal Albert Hall, and Ruthie Foster Live at Antone’s. Jazz-oriented releases include Mary Lou Williams at Rick’s Café Americain, the Rebirth Brass Band’s Rebirth of New Orleans, and Knives From Heaven, a collaboration between Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and hip hop artists Hprizm and Beans. Reissues include Highlife Time 2: Nigerian & Ghanaian Classics from the Golden Years and, from the Numero Group, Willie Wright’s Telling the Truth and the long-lost album by Father’s Children Who’s Gonna Save The World.  Wrapping up this issue is the gospel rap album Rehab: The Overdose by Lecrae and A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen by reggae artist Taj Weekes.

View review September 2nd, 2011

Telling the Truth


Title: Telling the Truth

Artist: Willie Wright

Label: Numero Group

Formats: CD, Deluxe LP, MP3

Release Date: January 25, 2011


In speaking about Willie Wright’s Telling the Truth, the word “underrated” is an understatement. Released over 30 years ago, it’s a shame to think that only a few people actually heard this incredible album back in the day.  The 12 songs were recorded in less than 8 hours during the spring of 1977 at Variety Recording in New York City.  Only 1,000 copies were printed and self-sold, never to be seen or heard of again―until now.  Numero Group recently re-issued Telling the Truth in a beautiful new package, complete with a CD-size playable EP-record featuring a great cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Right on for the Darkness” (the  LP substitutes a bonus 45 rpm disc) plus a 20-page booklet replete with a mini-biography and rare photos.

With the disclaimer “This is not a disco record” printed on the back of the original jacket, one gets a clear sense of the musical climate at the time this album was released. Initially, the record was poorly received because it was somewhat ahead of its time. In the late ‘70s, no one was quite sure where Wright fit into the established musical hierarchy, so they turned their heads. Wright plays a genre bending mix of psychedelia, folk, rock, reggae, soul and funk. Check this album out, it has something for everyone. You won’t be disappointed— just try to deny Wright’s silky baritone voice and smooth guitar playing.  Standout tracks include “Indian Reservation” and the groovy “I’m So Happy Now.”

Review by Sebastian Ramirez

View review September 2nd, 2011

Who’s Gonna Save the World

Title:  Who’s Gonna Save the World

Artist:   Father’s Children

Label: Numero Group

Formats:  CD, Deluxe LP with bonus 45, MP3

Release Date: June 21, 2011

Hats off to Numero Group. The archival record label from Chicago has once again managed to dig out and resurrect a lost gem. This time it’s Who’s Gonna Save the World, the 1973 previously unreleased freshman effort by Father’s Children, which offers a brand of gritty funk-induced soul music you can effortlessly groove to.

Hailing from D.C., Father’s Children was active throughout the ‘70s, calling it quits after releasing a self-titled second album for Mercury in ’79 (billed as their “debut”). The band never managed to catch a break and stayed under the radar of commercial success.  Perhaps things would have gone differently if they’d been able to get a record deal upon completion of their actual debut recording.

Who’s Gonna Save the World is drenched in soulful harmonies, audacious electric guitar tones, and solid percussive grooves.  Lyrics about Watergate, poverty, war, religion, and hard trials permeate the songs, painting a lively portrait of life in the Chocolate City and America in the 1970s. Stand-out tracks include the title track, “Who’s Gonna Save the World,” as well as “Dirt and Grime:”

“Dirt and grime and filth and such, the story of my lifetime –
And my dirty filthy habit that /is where I got my habit at –
Of cheatin’, stealin’ never feelin’ the pain of a brother, you dirty mother –
Ha ha ha, look how far we are.

Gritty soul indeed!

Reviewed by Sebastian Ramirez

View review September 2nd, 2011


Title:  Scandalous

Artist:  Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears

Label:  Lost Highway

Catalog No.: B0015215-02

Format: CD, MP3, LP

Release date:  March 2011

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears is an Austin, Texas based soul-rock band formed in 2007. Scandalous is the follow up to their 2009 debut full length release Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is. Produced by Jim Eno and released through Lost Highway, Scandalous is twelve tracks of raw, unadulterated soul-power. Standout tracks include the funky opener “Living in the Jungle,” the rockabilly tinged “Mustang Ranch,” and the electric ballad “Since I Met You Baby.” Particularly compelling is “You Been Lyin’” which features an incredible guitar performance by Lewis and commanding background vocals by the Relatives. Lewis’s powerful and emotional vocals fuel “Jesus Took My Hand,” a swampy blues number co-driven by Matthew Strmiska’s dominant, but displaced drumming.

Overall, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears’ Scandalous is an energetic, yet soulful album whose sound reflects a hip Southern urbanity, but is universal enough to be enjoyed by a variety of audiences. Following is the official promo video:

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Reviewed by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review September 2nd, 2011

Rehab: The Overdose

Title: Rehab: The Overdose

Artist: Lecrae

Formats:  CD, MP3

Label:  Reach Records

Release date:  January 11, 2011


Soon after the release of his fourth studio album, Rehab, in September of 2010, Lecrae Moore returned with a continuation of that project titled Rehab: The Overdose. Cofounder of Reach Records, Lecrae has helped to bring a new face and energy to the increasingly popular Christian rap genre (a.k.a. holy hip hop or gospel rap). With this latest album, Lecrae continues to build on the same themes of redemption, forgiveness, and ultimately rehabilitation found through Jesus that he established in Rehab. With insightful lyrics and well-crafted beats, this project is sure to be a second dose of inspiration.

While the continuing metaphor throughout the album focuses on overcoming negative addictions and replacing them positive living, there are only a few selections that explicitly discuss issues of drug use. The selection “Blow Your High” featuring Canon, specifically addresses the ills of drug abuse as well as the negative effects of over-indulgence. Similarly, “The Good Life” featuring J. Paul, discusses the emptiness that is created by fruitless attempts at self-gratification through the acquisition of material objects. The message of these songs is simple: physical desires are often destructive and unable to be satisified. Satisfaction can be found in Jesus. Therefore, the best option is to “Consume more of Jesus. Overdose.”

In Overdose, Lecrae also addresses specific personal and interpersonal issues that may garner negative effects. For example, “Anger Management,” featuring Thi’sl, warns of the dangers of unchecked anger and encourages listeners to replace it with thankfulness. The effectiveness (and to a certain degree playfulness) of this selection lies in its portrayal of anger. The hook and verses are delivered in a decidedly intense and hostile manner reminiscent of the fierce aggressiveness that is often associated with some secular rap genres (e.g. gangsta rap). Beyond the rapping, the production of this up-tempo track with a heavy synthesized bass and driving snare drum work makes for a fun and energetic listening experience.

The beauty of this album (like its predecessor) is that it is not compiled of shallow imitations of popular secular rap songs. Rather, it displays the work of artist(s) growing and developing their craft. The selection “Chase That (Ambition)” recounts Lecrae’s early passion for hip hop. He states, “…lunch break see me writin’ sixteens over Mickey D’s/ skipping class makin’ beats over 60 keys/And I love it even tho’ I’m just chasin’ /selfish ambition…” This passion has apparently found a new focus and home as Lecrae has made several albums, each more popular than the previous, addressing Christian topics. His zeal for Jesus coupled with his love for hip hop combine to create music that is sincere, intelligent, and thought-provoking. The producers also help to add a polished dimension that until recently many Christian rap projects lacked.

Following is a brief promo video (courtesy of Reach Records):

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Overdose ultimately provides listeners with a second heaping helping of biblically based musings set in “real life” situations. While this project is not as extensive as it predecessor, it definitely whets the appetite for Lecrae’s next course.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review September 2nd, 2011

At Rick’s Café Americain

Title: At Rick’s Café Americain

Artist: Mary Lou Williams

Label: Storyville Records

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date: April 12, 2011


This concert, now released as a 2-CD set, was recorded days after Mary Lou Williams was diagnosed with the cancer that ended her life a few years later.  In addition  to the cancer diagnosis, she was also struggling with wrist problems and weight problems.  If Linda Dahl hadn’t mentioned these health issues in her liner notes, you’d not be able to guess from Williams’s performance that she was in poor shape.  Her playing is crisp and nuanced, supported well by lightning-fast bassist Milton Suggs and drummer Drashear Khalid.

While there are no throw-away tracks here, the rollicking “Caravan” and Williams’s invigorating treatment of “Autumn Leaves” are two that stand out from the rest.  Williams also slows things down well, particularly with her piano solo based on African-American spirituals that opens the album, as well as her lovely treatment of “My Funny Valentine” on the second disc.  The occasional audience noise might detract for some listeners, but hearing them respond (“Yeah!”) to Williams’s playing makes the entire set even more special for this reviewer.  More than anything, though, this album offers jazz enthusiasts more documentation of the work of an under-recorded artist, particularly during the final years of her career.  Despite the circumstances, Williams was hot at this show in March 1979 and, nearly 30 years after her death, we’re lucky to have the chance to experience it.


Reviewed by David Lewis

View review September 2nd, 2011

Live At Antone’s


Title: Live At Antone’s

Artist: Ruthie Foster

Label: Blue Corn Music

Format: CD/DVD

Release date: June 21, 2011

This live CD could have easily been called “Ruthie Foster: Cover Girl.”  The album isn’t entirely made up of covers: the versatile blueswoman does perform three of her own compositions, the rocking “Stone Love” that opens the album, the bluesy “Runaway Soul,” and “Heal Yourself.”  Otherwise, though, Foster’s song choice is eclectic: a traditional song here, a Patty Griffin song there, and even Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s classic gospel number “Up Above My Head.”  For some performers, this could have been a horrible choice, but Foster proves that it’s not the song that matters, it’s the singer.  All the songs are re-arranged in a more bluesy fashion and Foster’s gritty, fabulous set of pipes holds everything together.  Foster hits no sour notes, but the shuffling arrangement of “Woke Up This Mornin’” works especially well.

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The best moment, though, is Foster’s complete re-imagining of alt-country singer Lucinda Williams’s “Fruits Of My Labor.”  Williams performs the song as sparse and almost morose but Foster creates a bluesy ballad that is guardedly hopeful, almost in spite of itself.  Foster is still solidly a blues performer but has an accessible style and voice that translates across genre boundaries well.  This concert, especially with the bonus DVD included with the CD, is a great addition to your collection if you’re a blues lover or simply a Ruthie Foster fan.

Reviewed by David Lewis

View review September 2nd, 2011

Live at Royal Albert Hall

Title:  Live at Royal Albert Hall

Artist: Joan Armatrading

Label:  Hypertension UK

Formats:  CD/DVD

Release date: November 30, 2010

With this live concert and her most recent studio album (This Charming Life, 2010), Joan Armatrading is returning to her pop singer/songwriter roots after her career took a blues-y turn earlier in the decade.  This live recording is from a performance at London’s Royal Albert Concert Hall in April 2010.  It opens with a spirited version of “Show Some Emotion,” one of her signature tunes.  You can tell that Armatrading is on her game, and, judging from the response, the audience is with her every step of the way.

Armatrading is at her best when she’s doing fast-paced, rocking tunes: her guitar work, particularly in the latter part of the concert, is excellent.  The few less-then-stellar moments occur during slower, ballad-style numbers, like “All The Way From America” and, most notably, “The Weakness In Me.”  While the songs are written and arranged well, Armatrading’s voice falters a little too much to pull off the long, sustained vocal lines that the pieces require.  Apart from those minor issues, however, this CD, which comes with an accompanying DVD of the entire concert, is a must for any Armatrading fan.

Editor’s note: Live at Royal Albert Hall was recently released as a stand-alone CD by 429 Records.  For a sample of the DVD footage please click here.

Reviewed by David Lewis

View review September 2nd, 2011

Knives From Heaven

Title: Knives From Heaven

Artist: Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Beans, and Hprizm

Label: Thirsty Ear

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: June 2011

A fine performance by a super group, Knives From Heaven features the collaboration between experimental pianist Matthew Shipp, free-jazz double bassist William Parker, rapper Beans (a former member of legendary Antipop Consortium), and electronic musician Hprizm (a.k.a. High Priest). Together they create some of the most genre bending music you can imagine.  The result is a free-jazz glitch-electronic hip hop album from the future.

To give the album’s sound some context, imagine John Coltrane writing and recording his album Meditations in the year 2050 using nothing but a midi keyboard, and you’ll get a sense of the aural pallet. This comparison is especially applicable to the tracks “Going To Another Place” and “Might Be,” which sound like a warehouse of broken machines beating drums in a syncopated fit of decadence.

Despite the seeming cacophony in many of the tracks, Knives From Heaven manages to entice the listeners to paint their own rhythms and melodies on a wall of sound. A more accessible approach can be found in the songs “This Is For My Brother the Wind” and “Rockers HiFi.”  Here, Beans exhibits the lyricism and delivery he is well known for.  His vocals mesh well with the more avant-garde tracks laid down by Shipp and Parker, whose previous collaborations have been primarily instrumental compositions.

Overall, the album has a loose and laid-back vibe, despite the virtuosity of the music.  Take a look at this behind-the-scenes video of a recording session, which shows the general climate under which the album was recorded. Nothing better than a few music heavies having a good time and making great music.

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Reviewed by Sebastian Ramirez

View review September 2nd, 2011

Volcanic Sunlight

Title: Volcanic Sunlight

Artist:  Saul Williams

Label:  Sony Music (France)

Formats:  CD,  WAV-formatted limited edition play button

Release date:  May 10, 2011

Saul Williams, the ultra-hip beat poet, has released his first new album since the highly acclaimed 2007 collaboration with Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust.  Now based in France, Williams recorded Volcanic Sunlight in Paris with producer Renauld Letang, using a hard driving rhythm section that includes Vincent Taeger on drums and percussion, Letang on guitar and bass, and Williams, Letang, and David Sztanke on keyboards (several tracks also utilize a horn section).

Following is a short promo video:

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Though Williams is sometimes referred to as a rapper due to frequent spoken word interludes, that classification is definitely a misnomer. Volcanic Sunlight is straight up rock, or using a newer classification, Afro-punk, with a decidedly futuristic bent. The majority of the tracks are sung in a rapid fire, rhythmically punctuated delivery, with emphasis on the poetry but in a more integrated manner than previous efforts. Other songs, such as “Triumph,” are more melodic and pop-oriented.  Within that framework, there is a great deal of variety between tracks.  “Girls on Saturn” (composed with CX Kidtronic) is like an electronica take-off on “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” while “Give It Up” has undertones of ‘60s rock, and “Fall Up” floats in space with rhythmic vocalizations resembling sonar. Janelle Monae contributes background vocals to “Dance,” a hard grooving disco number with samples from the Bollywood film Khuddar that is guaranteed to get everyone on their feet, as well as “Innocence,” the one track that is primarily spoken poetry (in fact, the music fades out before the end, giving more impact to the conclusion of Williams’ poem).

Following is the first video released from the album, “Explain my Heart”:

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To date, Volcanic Sunlight has only been released in Europe, and there is no indication whether or not it will see wider distribution in the U.S., so best move quickly if you want to secure a copy of the album.


Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review September 2nd, 2011

Rebirth of New Orleans

Title: Rebirth of New Orleans

Artist: Rebirth Brass Band

Label: Basin Street Records

Catalog No.: BSR 1202-2

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: April 12, 2011

The Rebirth Brass Band dates from the early 1980s, but it has gained national visibility in recent years via appearances on the HBO TV series Treme (see my earlier review of the “Treme” soundtrack album). The band is currently comprised of tuba, two trombones, three trumpets, bass drum, snare drum and percussion, and is lead by two founding members, brothers Phil and Keith Frazier.

Rebirth’s sound is a New Orleans original sonic gumbo—second-line street band meets funk meets hip hop.  The music is beat-heavy and very danceable.  There aren’t many lyrics—this is party music to move and groove to, not concert hall music to sit and contemplate.

According to its Wikipedia entry, the band has played a long-standing Tuesday night gig at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street in the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans, described as “one of the pillars of the New Orleans music scene,” serving as “a reliable introduction to the city’s nightlife for many new arrivals to the city.”

This new album includes 11 toe-tappers, all featuring a battery of horns and a funky but light-footed beat.  Most tunes are 4 minutes or less, time to get sweaty on the dance floor but not too long to run out of beer. The tuba bass line is classic NOLA, but very different from typical funk or hip hop.  The less funky songs sound somewhat like what the very best historically black college marching bands do during football games.  For instance, “Feelin’ Free” reminds one of Grambling’s marching band, but also of the old T.S.U Toronados from Houston (heard backing Archie Bell & The Drells in the 1960s, and on the Stax single “Play the Music Toronados”). This isn’t to say that the Rebirth Brass Band sounds derivative, just to say the music has wide-ranging roots.

Following is the promo video for the album, featuring the track “Do It Again” (courtesy of Basin Street Records):

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A likely candidate for frequent rotation, this album is a winner.  Also worth mentioning is the excellent sound, recorded by Chris Finney at the Music Shed in New Orleans.  A full-tilt brass band puts out a lot of sound pressure, which Finney captured with excitement but without adding distortion.


Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review September 1st, 2011

A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen

Title: A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen

Artists: Taj Weekes & Adowa

Label: Jatta

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date:  December 7, 2010

A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen is the 3rd album by Taj Weekes and Adowa, and it further cements their status as rising stars in the realms of international reggae and ‘world music’ more generally. A truly multinational group, each member of Adowa hails (directly or indirectly) from a different Caribbean island; Weekes himself is St. Lucian, and Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and Dominica are represented as well. In addition, Weekes’ own eclectic musical influences—everything from classic reggae and calypso to American country, jazz, and blues—ensure that the band’s offerings, while firmly rooted in Caribbean structures and aesthetics, are also thoroughly international in scope.

Musically, for example, the 11 tracks that comprise A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen cover an ambitious range of sounds and styles. Though all adhere to the skank guitar pattern and one-drop drum riddim characteristic of roots reggae—with the exception of “Drill,” the hard-hitting piano ballad that closes the album—Weekes and his band skillfully incorporate bluesy harmonica licks, orchestral violin lines, winding jazz/R&B-style horn lines, and even colonial-esque flute marches into their tunes to achieve beautiful—and highly unique—musical textures. The traditional reggae structures and conventions themselves, furthermore, are frequently subject to reinterpretation and innovation; songs range from classic roots reggae instrumentation (electric guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums) to more acoustic guitar-driven numbers (such as “B4 the War”), and “Sunny Innocents” reverses the standard skank guitar pattern by putting it on the on-beats rather than the off-beats.

A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen’s compelling synthesis of roots reggae and more international influences is also reflected in Weekes’ powerful lyrics. Like the traditional calypsonians and reggae artists—as well as American country singers—he draws inspiration from, Weekes reflects insightfully on a wide range of social and political issues over the course of the album, and he certainly knows how to tell a story with his words; his purview, however, is much more global in scope than that of many of his reggae contemporaries. Indeed, Weekes devotes several of his tracks to struggles and crises far-removed from his native St. Lucia: “Janjaweed” addresses the murderous militants of the same name in Darfur, “Drill” condemns the notorious BP oil spill that occurred as the band was finishing production on the album, and “Rain Rain” and the album title itself discuss the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on US cities like New Orleans. Finally, there is Weekes’ voice. The singer delivers his lyrics in a unique warble that can be as powerful and haunting as it is soothing and delicate. For an example, look at the band’s recent video for “Janjaweed,’ one of my favorite tracks on the album:

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Overall, A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen comes highly recommended; it is a compelling, innovative, and thought-provoking album from a gifted group of young Caribbean musicians with a great deal to say about the world. It is clear, furthermore, that they are not all talk and no action, as the inspiring activist spirit that pervades Weekes’ songs is also reflected in his diligent charity work in St. Lucia and beyond. This is a band to keep an eye on for reggae and non-reggae fans alike, as A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen is clearly the product of an eclectic lyrical and compositional talent that will only continue to mature as time goes on.

Reviewed by Eric Bindler

View review September 1st, 2011

Live Love in London

Title: Live Love in London

Artist:  King’s X

Label: InsideOut

Format:  2CD/DVD (PAL/Region 0) deluxe ed. box set

Release date: November 22, 2010

Doug (a.k.a. Dug) Pinnick is one of the senior black rockers on the hard rock/progressive metal scene.  Born in 1950 and raised in Joliet, Illinois, he was influenced early on by gospel and Motown artists, but by 1969 was leaning strongly towards the rock music of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly & the Family Stone. In the early 1970s his Baptist upbringing led to an association with Christian rock bands, and he briefly joined forces with the lead singer from Petra.  The power rock trio King’s X was formed in the 1980s (also with sacred overtones but not overtly Christian), and features Pinnick on 12-string bass and vocals, Ty Tabor on guitar and vocals, with Jerry Gaskill on drums.  Pinnick has also released several solo projects (including Massive Grooves from the Electric Church of Psychofunkadelic Grungelism Rock Music under the alias Poundhound); has appeared with Van Halen, Metallica, and 24-7 Spyz; and is featured on the recent Tres Mts. (Three Mountains) project with Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Mike McCready, with Richard Stuverud (The Fastbacks) on drums.

The King’s X double CD/DVD set Live Love in London was recorded in January 2009 at the Electric Ballroom, and represents the group’s second live concert DVD filmed in London (Gretchen Goes to London, filmed at the Astoria in 1990, was released in 2008). The site of the concert is telling—the band enjoys a huge fan base in London and throughout Europe, but sadly they’ve remained largely under the radar in the U.S., despite having released at least 20 albums (including compilations and videos) between 1988-2010. The Live Love in London DVD includes a “Behind the Scenes” feature as well as two bonus videos—“Fall On Me” and “Everybody Knows a Little Bit of Something”—drawn from Gretchen Goes to London.  The CDs include 19 tracks, all of course duplicated on the DVD.

If you’re unfamiliar with King’s X, you owe it to yourself to check out this deluxe set, which provides an excellent introduction to the band’s unique brand of funky metal rock and virtuoso technique. And, if we’re lucky, perhaps they will plan a U.S. tour in the not too distant future.

Following is a link to the official promo video:

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Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review September 1st, 2011

Highlife Time, Volume 2: Nigerian and Ghanaian Classics From the Golden Years

Title: Highlife Time, Volume 2: Nigerian and Ghanaian Classics From the Golden Years

Artists: Various

Label: Vampisoul

Catalog No.: CD 129

Formats: 2-CD or 3-LP set

Release Date:  June 7, 2011


According to the liner notes of this fine collection, starting in the late 1800’s, a musical fusion began to take place on Africa’s Gold Coast, now Ghana. Tribal instruments and rhythms were blended with European instruments and structures introduced by sailors and colonial authorities, and returning former slaves from the U.S. and the Caribbean brought back their own blend of African and European musics.  By the 1920s, dance bands and orchestras were playing Africanized versions of European and American popular music and also original tunes, mostly to wealthy people in venues that did not allow in “normal folks.”  This music was called “Highlife” because of its exclusive venues, but it quickly migrated into the popular culture in the region spreading from Ghana to Nigeria to Sierra Leone to Ivory Coast. Record companies, mainly European labels, began recording African popular music in their earliest days.

In the second volume of what is hopefully an on-going series of African music reissues, the UK-based Vampisoul label focuses on Highlife music from Ghana and Nigeria.  The music here is led by the Ghanaian fusion of American jazz and Afro-Cuban influences, with the beat provided by local tribal percussion instruments.  Selections were recorded from as early as 1927 through the 1980s, but mostly concentrate on the ‘50s through early ‘80s. Some songs are sung in English but many are sung in local languages. Other selections are instrumental.

As in the “Afro-funk” music that evolved out of Nigerian Highlife music, guitars are usually used as rhythm instruments and solos are often from trumpets or keyboard instruments.  Percussion is usually a thick web of African drums and bells, sometimes combined with an American jazz-style drum kit. The older selections tend to include larger horn sections and more percussion instruments, while the music later evolved to using electronic keyboards and more Western-style drumming.

Almost all of these tunes are infectiously danceable, but your favorites will depend on how exotic your tastes run. A mainstream song like “Taxi Driver” by Bobby Benson & His Combo has humorous lyrics sung in English and sounds more Caribbean than African.  The same is true of “Sweet Mother” by Price Nico Mbarga & Rocafil Jazz; the liner notes claim it is a “timeless classic that still rocks dance floors all over the world.”

Contrasting those readily accessible tunes is “Suantsi” by George Williams Aingo, from a 1927 Zonophone 78rpm disc. Sung in native tongue, the song features a guitar played in a local tuning with an African chord progression. Also sounding more African than cross-pollinated (at least to this reviewer’s ears) is “Eyaa Duom” by Professional Uhuru Band, even though it was recorded in London in 1970. Also more African than Western is “Okwuke Na Nichekwub” by Celestine Ukwu & His Philosophers National, recorded by Philips in 1974. Here, a pedal steel guitar is played in what the liner notes describe as “juju-esque” style as the African lyrics are chant-sung.

Getting closer to Afro-funk is “Our, This Is Our Land” by Guy Warren (a.k.a. Kofi Ghanaba) of Ghana. This song sounds very modern even though it dates from 1969. The same can be said of “Ogiobo” by Sir Victor Uwaifo & His Titibitis of Africa from 1980. Time has caught up to these pioneering sounds. Tending toward American rock music is “Ilhe Chinyere” by Dr. Sir Warrior & The Oriental Brothers International from 1973. Following is the corresponding video (date unknown):

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Overall, there is something for most tastes in this collection. If you like music with a beat, you won’t be able to sit still. The excellent liner notes provide context, biographical information and interesting historical and musicological details. Sound quality is overall very good, with individual tunes varied by the age of the original recording and the condition of the source material used to make this reissue (often commercial grooved-disk releases, some in worse condition than others). Highly recommended.

Also of interest to fans of African popular music: the British Library now has online many Decca West African recordings from 1948-58.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review September 1st, 2011

The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll


Title:   The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll

Author: Preston Lauterbach

Publisher:  W. W. Norton & Company

Formats: Hardcover book (352 pg.); Kindle ed.

Release date:  July 18, 2011

The network of black clubs and juke joints in the American South and Midwest known as the “chitlin’ circuit” has been referenced countless times in music and literature.  André Benjamin’s movie Idlewild presents a fictionalized version of a juke joint, as does John Sayles’ more recent film Honeydripper. Everyone from T-Bone Walker to Little Richard, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix traveled the circuit back in the day. And while anyone with a fair to middling knowledge of black music is familiar with the term, I doubt that many have a full understanding of how it came to exist, or are aware of the central characters in the storyline. Enter Preston Lauterbach.

While writing an article on Bobby Rush, Lauterbach encountered the modern version of the chitlin’ circuit in the Deep South, which he describes as a “thriving subculture” featuring all-night blues shows that “resemble a cross between a professional wrestling event and the pimp-of-the-year contest from I’m Gonna Get You Sucka.”  Inspired to learn more, a tip from his editor at Living Blues magazine led to 86-year-old Sax Kari, who claimed to have “worked for the man who invented the chitlin’ circuit.” What journalist could resist? Lauterbach’s journey was officially launched. As he dug through the past, he discovered that the circuit was not “an unpleasant place, located in our nation’s bowels” as the name might suggest, but an “industry of intricate, far-reaching design” run by “people of vision” which he set out to document.

Lauterbach chose to focus on the circuit’s formative period from the 1930s to the mid-1950s, tracing the live music scene throughout the vibrant black sections of cities (frequently referred to as “the stroll”) stretching from Indianapolis to Memphis, and from Houston to New Orleans and Macon, Georgia. Beginning with swing and “territory” bands, the book culminates with the rockin’ R&B that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll―featuring performers such as Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, Lucky Millinder, Charles Brown, Amos Milburn and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.

What do I like best about the book? Indianapolis is actually central to the story (as the “Crossroads of America” the city is all too often just a rest stop on the road to Chicago). The chitlin’ circuit was jump started in large part by Denver D. Ferguson and his brother Sea Ferguson, who moved to Indy from Kentucky in 1931.  They began to buy up properties along Indiana Avenue, opened the Cotton Club, and gradually transformed the neighborhood into the city’s principal black entertainment district. Thus began their careers as concert promoters (with a lucrative sideline as racketeers). The rise and fall of the Ferguson brothers is a major part of the story, woven throughout the book. Along with characters such as Houston promoter Don Robey and Chicago Defender journalist and band leader Walter Barnes, they facilitated the rapid expansion of black nightclubs, secured talent, and helped to establish the network of clubs and hotels that supported black touring bands in an era of segregation.  Gradually, the bands diminished in size to combos, vocalists were pushed into the limelight, and black music began to rock.

Lauterbach’s engaging and witty writing style makes for an enjoyable read.  The book is based on in-depth historical research, as well as first hand interviews with key figures (documented in extensive footnotes). He also utilized archival resources, including interviews by Portia K. Maultsby at the Archives of African American Music and Culture (where I had an opportunity to meet him in person). Overall, the book will appeal to a very broad cross section of music fans and historians, and will be a useful supplement for classes in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, black popular music, and Southern culture.

Unfortunately, during the period of urban renewal, many of these neighborhoods and nightclubs were completely destroyed.  Following is a brief clip about efforts in Texas to preserve some of the remaining historic chitlin’ circuit clubs:

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And the following video offers a peek inside the historic Poor Monkey Lounge located in the tiny Mississippi Delta hamlet of Merigold:

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By the way, for his next book Lauterbach returns to his hometown of Memphis to chronicle the hustlers’ history of Beale Street, scheduled for release in 2013 by W.W. Norton.


Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review September 1st, 2011

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