This month we’re continuing our “Women of the World” series with a review of Fatou by Malian artist Fatoumata Diawara, who will be featured at the upcoming Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana. Other world music releases include new projects from the Israeli reggae band Zvuloon Dub System, Brooklyn’s Afrobeat-centered band Antibalas, and the Los Angeles-based Chicano band Quetzal, plus the reissue of Paul Ngozi’s 1976 classic Zambian rock album The Ghetto.
On her debut album, Malian singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara commands the songs with a vocal force that is at once boldly expressive and tastefully understated. This comes as no surprise given the actress-turned-singer songwriter’s hard-won access to the public stage. Faced with her family’s disapproval and the severe social restrictions placed on Malian women, Diawara became a seasoned musician while overcoming her many career obstacles. On Fatou, her voice seethes, instructs, and beckons, and brings to bear the life experiences that have shaped it over the years.
The album showcases her song craft, in which she combines her traditional Wassoulou music with jazz and funk. The album’s 13 tracks lace colorful riffs played on kora and ngoni, traditional West African stringed instruments, over a layer-cake of percussion that includes congas and a calabash (a gourd drum).
The band stays tastefully restrained, though, to foreground Diawara’s vocals and guitar playing. Though she sings in her native Bambara, Diawara’s voice communicates the emotional caliber of her songs. You don’t need to read the English translation of the lyrics from “Kanou” (which are supplied in the liner notes), to know that the song is about a young woman’s grief over a love turned cold. Diawara sings with a melancholic chill over a plaintive guitar motif, giving the age-old story immediacy and perspective. On “Kele”—a song about the tragic toll of war—the Malian songstress transforms a call to arms into a bouncy rhythm and gunshots into silver darts of melody. “Bissa” features Diawara’s signature mid-tempo groove garnished with blithely plucked guitar strings and hand drums:
Though Fatoumata Diawara might be new to most listeners, her music bespeaks of a woman and musician with a world of experience. In addition to her debut album, Diawara has recorded on Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe and Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning Imagine Project. She’ll also be headlining this year’s Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana, on September 21-22, 2012.
After a 5-year hiatus from the recording studio, Brooklyn-based Afrobeat-centered Antibalas has released an eponymous album, perhaps to re-introduce themselves and their sounds to the listening public. Members of the group have been busy both writing music and serving in the pit band for the Broadway hit Fela!, about the inventor of Afrobeat music, Fela Kuti of Nigeria.
This new album will definitely satisfy those who want a new fix of Fela (who died in 1997); indeed it is so close to the sound and feel of Fela’s albums with his Africa ’70 group that one may wish for a bit of distance so as to make room for new originality. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Antibalas’s flavor of Afrobeat, just that it is heavy on the tribute-band side of things.
That said, these are very good musicians, and they have picked the best Fela riffs and runs and put them into crisp and well-formed compositions. As in African-original Afrobeat music, the beat is paramount here, and the ensemble takes precedence over the soloist, except in the case of the singer. The end result is a big and loud sound with a big beat. Like the African originators of the genre, Antibalas favors quick rhythms and interlocking guitar and horn riffs over a heavy beat. Tempos are fast and riffs and lyrics are delivered like machine gun blasts rather than slow-flowing honey. There is a soul influence but it’s not soul music.
The album’s first cut, “Dirty Money,” is also their first promotional video. It sets the tone, featuring a Farfisa organ lead and political (but not all that partisan—who’s “for” dirty money and its corrupting influences?) lyrics. The second tune, “The Ratcatcher,” is also clearly political but not partisan, more a fable/warning wrapped in a catchy beat. The other four tracks follow along the same lines.
Following is the official video for “Dirty Money” (courtesy of Daptone Records):
Like the group’s previous two albums, this one was recorded quickly at Daptone’s studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with the band clearly playing together more than not. Daptone owner Gabe Roth (aka Bosco Mann), who played guitar in the original Antibalas lineup, served as producer and engineer. The sound is an evolution from earlier efforts, demonstrating the ever-improving sophistication and quality of Roth’s analog-centric studio and production techniques. It’s not easy to capture the excitement of this large ensemble at full-tilt, and yet still maintain enough clarity to enable listeners to hear all the layers of the complex instrumental texture, but Roth succeeded well.
This is a good album for frequent rotation during your late summer festivities. It’s upbeat, exciting, and different from the usual iPod fare. Good stuff!
Tons of bloggers have published a bevy of deep, theoretical essays on Frank Ocean’s major label debut Channel Orange that analyze its homoerotic overtones and subtexts, its sense of wanderlust, the disjointed nature of social ascension that accompanies the rise to fame, and a number of other themes. For the sake of this review, I’m going to throw all that hype aside and speak to listeners who are approaching the album from a “Oh, I think I’ve heard of this Frank Ocean guy, what’s the big deal?” standpoint.
So, what is the big deal? Well, the big deal is Ocean released a creative R&B album with genre-bending pop sensibilities and a classic Stevie Wonder-style soul. Channel Orange is filled with songs like “Thinking Bout You,” something of an underground hit, that contain experimental sophistication but can also be enjoyed on their face value as catchy R&B tunes about youthful romance. That’s where Channel Orange really excels: its accessibility. While hipster critics have expounded on the surprisingly melancholic nature of Andre 3000’s guest verse on “Pink Matter,” the song is equally enjoyable to fans of Outkast who simply want to hear a good breakup song.
Following is the official music video for “Thinking Bout You” (a slightly different mix than the album version):
Depending on your perspective, this album may or may not be a big deal. It can be hard to evaluate a record that has already been contextualized by mountains of press and media buzz, whose hyperbolic reviews are almost always impossible to live up to. Taken at face value, however, Channel Orange is a really good R&B pop album with a well-curated aesthetic and relatable lyrics by a talented, engaging singer-songwriter.
As world-trekking record obsessives plunder studio vaults for patina-crusted, across-the-sea curios like Indian psychedelia, Russian funk, and Nigerian disco (and the list goes on), the novelty of such strange brews wears off amidst the heavy traffic of the reissues market. The reissue of Paul Ngozi’s 1976 album The Ghetto, however, should not be overlooked by music adventurists, lest they miss out on one of the leading figures of Zambian rock (or Zamrock as those collector types call it). While Paul Ngozi (1949–1989) stands among Zambia’s most successful recording artists, he is known to few outside the West African country. The Ghetto provides an opportunity to understand Ngozi’s local legend and to discover his broad appeal.
Much like his contemporaries Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On) and Gil Scott-Heron (Small Talk at 125th and Lenox), Paul Ngozi writes an ode to the poetics and politics of ghetto life that is most unforgettable. From a pulpit of fuzzed out guitar riffs and African rhythms, Ngozi preaches about poverty’s ills and the need for social uplift. “In the Ghetto” uses honeyed vocals over a laid-back reggae groove to tell of the tragic effects of parental neglect. In the first half of the song, Ngozi plays the observer, telling of the sad sight of “mothers drinking and fathers drinking [who’ve] forgotten about the kids starving at home.” In the second half of the song, however, Ngozi directly addresses the parents, gently imploring them “to remember [their] kids.”
In “Suicide” he plays the same instructive role, telling the people of the ghetto not to despair, saying, “No matter what folks may do to you, thou shalt not commit suicide.” And, in the same way that he sweetens the medicine in “In the Ghetto,” Ngozi tackles taboo with a ballast of rock’n’roll. The song kicks off like one of Thin Lizzy’s anthemic rockers, and drives the point home that “no matter what folks may do to you,” there’s always good music. But “Suicide” never comes close to sounding like a public service announcement or a sermon, miraculously, given Ngozi’s topicality. Ngozi’s raunchy guitar solos play over an irresistibly danceable groove, making the pill more than palatable.
Following is the album trailer:
Ngozi’s searing guitar licks on “Can’t You Hear Me” turn the song into a rhetorical question. Whether preaching or playing, Ngozi’s message is loud and clear: If the ghetto can make good music, then music can do good things for the ghetto. On the final track “Jesus Christ,” Ngozi tells a psychedelic parable that allows listeners to escape their mental trappings and imagine a different world, one of peace, forgiveness, and, most of all, hope.
On The Devil Ain’t Got No Music, blues musician Lurrie Bell pays tribute to gospel, the musical tradition in which he was raised. Bell says, “I had always wanted to make a record to show my gratitude for gospel music. I’m a bluesman but I’ve also played a lot of gospel songs for myself and for my family when I’m at home. The music gives me a sense of peace that I can’t find anywhere else.”
Although many soul and blues singers—Aretha Franklin, Etta James, B. B. King, and James Brown—first began their singing career in the Black church, Bell started off playing the blues, as taught to him by his dad, a blues harmonica player. While growing up, Bell met notable Chicago bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Eddie Taylor, Big Walter Horton, and Eddie Clearwater, who frequented Bell’s home to visit his father.
At the age of 10, Bell and his brother moved to Lisman, Alabama, to live with their maternal grandparents. While down South, Bell began playing guitar in the church at which his grandfather preached. “Once I began to play with the singers and learned about the gospel music I began to love it. I played acoustic guitar and was already very familiar with the blues so I would listen to the singers, and well, the music just came naturally to me,” he remembers. Since “the straight ahead blues” was prohibited in church services, Bell integrated elements of the blues into the gospel repertoire.
On the album, Bell is joined by a coterie of talented musicians, such as Billy Branch on harmonica in “Trouble in My Way,” Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on percussion, and New York blues and gospel musician Bill Sims, Jr. Additionally, singer, guitarist, and songwriter Joe Louis Walker adds his guitar voicings to “Peace in the Valley” and “It’s a Blessing.”
On the gospel standard “Swing Low,” Bell sings soulfully over guitar accompaniment and hand-claps, demonstrating the power of minimalism. Listeners will also enjoy Bell’s guitar playing and warm vocals on “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You.” Songs such as “It’s a Blessing” and “Don’t Let the Devil Ride” illustrate the skillful ease with which he marries blues and gospel music. Bell pays tribute to Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music, by covering his compositions “Search Me Lord” and “Peace in the Valley,” and also gives his rendition of gospel songs by the notable bluesmen Rev. Gary Davis, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
The title track, “The Devil Ain’t Got No Music,” was written by Bell and his longtime friend and producer Matthew Skoller. Interestingly, Skoller’s inspiration for the song came from a quote by Mavis Staples, lead singer of The Staple Singers. When asked if the blues is really the Devil’s music, Staples answered, “Come on, the Devil ain’t got no music. All music is the Lord’s.” Mavis’s quote distills Bell’s own attempt to blend Black secular and sacred music genres. Following is a live performance of the song at the recent Chicago Blues Fest in June 2012:
Lurrie Bell demonstrates what blues and gospel have in common: both musical styles give emotional support to those seeking to overcome life’s difficulties. The Devil Ain’t Got No Music showcases this seasoned musician’s ability to transcend genres and to give personal voice to Black traditional music.
Veteran bluesman Johnnie Bassett was a mainstay of the Detroit club and session scene in the ’50s and ’60s, where he backed artists ranging from Little Willie John, Big Joe Turner, and Ruth Brown to Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Tina Turner. A fortuitous appearance at the Detroit Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991 revitalized his career and led to an invitation to front the Blues Insurgent Band, with whom he toured extensively across the U.S. and Europe. As a solo artist he released just six recordings, beginning in 1997 with I Gave My Life to the Blues. Regrettably, Bassett passed away in August at the age of 76, just a few weeks after the release of his final album, I Can Make That Happen.
Though Bassett is best known as an electric blues guitarist who counts Albert King, B.B. King and especially T-Bone Walker as major influences, his decades as a musician during the heyday of rhythm and blues left an indelible imprint. On the album Bassett draws upon all of these influences, with reinforcement from The Brothers Groove (keyboardist Chris Codash, bassist James Simonson, and drummer Skeeto Valdez) and the Motor City Horns (sax player Keith Kaminski, trombonist John Rutherford, and trumpeters Bob Jensen and Mark Byerly).
The opening track, “Proud To Be From Detroit,” is a delightful funk jam that pays tribute to Bassett’s hometown, the darker side of which is explored in “Motor City Blues.” Several of the original songs are the album were penned by Chris Codash and his father Bob, who seemingly delight in perpetuating the longstanding blues tradition of double entendre lyrics. For example, “Spike Boy” is built around risqué train metaphors (“Baby let me be your spike boy, Let me hammer down”), while on “Love Lessons” Bassett offers to be the “home room teacher” and take his baby “back to school.”
One of the standout tracks is “Teach Me To Love” (also written by the Codash duo), featuring “Detroit Diva” Thornette Davis on vocals. “Dawging Around,” which pays tribute to the late Scott E. Dawg of the Blues Insurgents, shifts to a swinging jazz mode. Covers include “Cry To Me,” a tribute to Bassett’s favorite balladeer Solomon Burke, and Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby,” apparently a last minute replacement for Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” that was included on the pre-release (presumably permission was not forthcoming from the Hendrix estate).
Bassett was featured prominently in the PBS documentary Blues Detroit Style; in this clip he talks about the distinguishing characteristics of Detroit blues—including “more happiness and a better groove”:
Overall, I Can Make That Happen is a tight album that pays homage to one of Detroit’s favorite blues elders, who obviously spent his final days doing what he loved best, playing and promoting the blues, Detroit style.
Because so many different styles and techniques encompass jazz music these days, the fact that the following three albums fall into the genre makes for a loose connection. But that’s the point—these albums represent three very different approaches to expression and composition, yet they all swing. They are all also standout examples of fine musicianship at work on the craft of instrumental music.
David White, a trombone player based in Brooklyn, uses the familiar large-ensemble acoustic jazz band as his pallet. He is both a composer and arranger, and he is generous about spreading solos around his band. Based on his somewhat wordy explanations of his album’s contents (contained in the booklet notes), he is a sensitive man who uses music to express feelings and images that move through his mind. He notes that Duke Ellington “is the one musician I most admire and whose spirit I would most like to emulate,” and he seems strongly influenced by Ellington’s mature works.
White’s album is not great, but it’s not mediocre. The playing is fine, and the compositions mainly hold together and move along, but there are plodding moments and over-long tunes. The recording is either subtle or dull, depending on your taste. It definitely doesn’t sound very exciting when competing with road noise in a car or played softly on earbuds in a noisy urban environment. On the other hand, this approach allows for exciting dynamics and rich musical textures during the album’s best moments. Based on his album notes, David White seems interested in growing and improving his craft. This bodes well for his future work, and he is an artist worth watching.
Here is David White’s official video for “Eyes Closed”:
UK-based Dennis Rollins is a trombonist like White. That’s where the similarities end. Rollins’ album is a heavy, funky power-trio affair, with his trombone trading off melody and solo duties with Ross Stanley’s big Hammond B3 organ. Stanley also handles the bass line with his pedals. On drums is young Portuguese stick-man Pedro Segundo. The resulting sound is somewhat akin to Larry Young’s acid-jazz albums of the ‘60s, but even heavier and funkier.
Rollins describes the album’s title this way: “I honed in (sic) on a specific date on our calendar—November 11, 2011, (11/11/11)—THE ELEVENTH GATE, signaling a universal paradigm shift, an emergence into our authentic selves.” Be that as it may, listening to this album may well lead to the emergence of your bad self, for this is funky stuff!
Following is Dennis Rollins official video for “Samba Galactica”:
Chicago-based guitarist Jeff Parker combines with bassist/flutist Chris Lopes and drummer Chad Taylor to offer the most “free-form” album of the group. These trippy tunes do swing—it’s not a bunch of noise thrown up in the sonic equivalent of paintball shots against a canvas, but it’s very different from the jazz of David White or Dennis Rollins.
Parker and Lopes aren’t shy about employing effects and overdubs to thicken the sound, and they both use a Korg MS-20 monophonic synthesizer at times. Taylor’s drums keep things moving, and Parker has the discipline to keep his left-field explorations tight enough that the trio always remains on the same page. The end result is music that is interesting and, despite its exploratory nature, quite accessible. There’s also a surprising swing to it, again because of the discipline and cohesion of the trio.
Following is the Jeff Parker Trio’s unofficial video for “Change”:
Imaginaries is the latest release from Los Angeles Chicano band Quetzal. A balanced and well produced mix of different musical traditions—Mexican son jarocho, rock, R&B, jazz, and various Afro-Caribbean genres like son montuno and salsa—constitute the band’s signature sound. In this album, though, this mix is represented in a more mature and integrated form of fusion, where the jarocho elements are slightly less preponderant and meld evenly with sounds from other parts of the Americas.
Quetzal was founded in 1992 in East Los Angeles by guitarist Quetzal Flores, who was inspired by the racial uprisings and social movements in the area at that time. Quetzal East LA (the band’s full name) engages in political activism, writing lyrics that serve as a social critique and championing multiple ethnically based musical traditions that represent various aspects of Chicano cultural identity.
Quetzal’s latest release, Imaginaries, is a twelve-song album, which is put together using a variety of musical instruments that provide rich sonorities and a broad aural landscape. Besides the conventional rock band format (electric guitar, electric bass, and drumkit), the listener will enjoy other musical instruments that originate from local contexts, like jaranas (different kinds of typical Mexican lutes), cajon (a wooden percussion box, from Peru) and other kinds of Latino percussion, along with musical flourishes from bowed strings, keyboards, and a moderate use of sound effects, not to mention the incredibly soulful voices of Martha and Gabriel Gonzalez.
While the opening track (“2+0+1+2=cinco”) is a 5/4-time jarocho based song with Spanish lyrics, other tracks, like “Time Will Tell” and “Witness,” are straight-forward rhythm and blues songs with English lyrics. Others, such as “Por eso,” include a more complicated mix of funk, Cuban timba, Mexican jarocho, and salsa, which is paired with Spanish lyrics that praise difference, freedom, autonomy, and personal inspiration.
Following is the trailer for the album:
Quetzal’s Imaginaries is high quality production that reflects contemporary life in Los Angeles and many other parts of the world. It reminds listeners that national, regional, and local cultures cannot be separated anymore, and that ethnic diversity and multiculturalism should be understood in terms of richness, productivity, and vibrancy.
Chocolate Industries’ new compilation of rare and obscure early Black American electronic music is a fascinating and infinitely listenable introduction to some early pioneers (or, perhaps less generously, explorers) of experimental music, those who moved beyond the tools of traditional rock ’n’ roll.
When phrases like “compilation of rare and obscure experimental ___” are bandied about, it sometimes feels less like you are about to listen to a great album and more like you are about to listen to an “interesting” album or an album whose aesthetic and historical relevance you can “appreciate.” Personal Space, however, manages to be a great album that is, indeed, very “interesting.” Its liner notes succinctly detail each selection in such a way that you feel both informed and inspired to immediately hit up Google for more information.
The album features great tracks that flow into one another seamlessly, even though the artists often approached the new technologies in startlingly different manners. Since every song on this 16-track compilation is unique and curious in its own right, I’m going to run through a couple of highlights. These songs immediately jumped out to me and engaged me, sometimes with their funky grooves and sometimes with their unexpected experimentations.
The most amazing revelation in this compilation is, in my opinion, Key & Cleary’s “A Man.” Sylvester Cleary and Jessie Key, two Buffalo, NY natives, joined forces to create this amazing soul track with an African inspired hand-drum loop overlaid with an electronic cymbal beat. The polyrhythmic beat is infectious and entirely unexpected. On top of that, the almost spoken, soulfully recited lyrics are so minimalist and well-crafted it would not be surprising to find this song on Pitchfork Media’s New Music Radar. The beginning lyrics, “My muscles are of steel/ My mind of complex computers/Daily I struggle for understanding/And daily I breathe to be understood,” could easily be found on an album from Death Grips or any number of contemporary experimental musicians.
On the funkier side of things, there are tracks like “I Finally Found the Love I Need” by Jerry (J.G.) Green (a.k.a. The Voice Master), a member of the second iteration of famed Motown group The Contours. The song’s dark (almost humorously so), stripped down, futuristic electronic sound, layered with Motownesque vocals could have changed the face of techno if anyone would have heard it. A more spiritual experiment comes from Otis G. Johnson’s “Time to Go Home.” Johnson’s ethereal gospel track, which was recorded at home with only his voice and his urge to spread his faith through song, an organ and its factory installed metronomic pre-sets, creates a soothing, slightly off-kilter musical landscape, that occasionally features a child’s singing.
There is an earnest, outsider appeal to most of the music on the Personal Space compilation, which should be on the radar of anyone interested in music that challenges creative standards.