Les Amazones d’Afrique describe themselves as the “first all-female supergroup of West Africa,” a group of women with unique backgrounds and voices making music and fighting for gender equality. Their debut album, République Amazone, is out at the end of the month on Real World Records. Produced by Liam Farrell, who has worked with such artists as Tony Allen and Mbongwana Star, the album is edgy with industrial, electronic sounds and vocal effects interwoven with traditional instrumentation and a variety of languages (English, French, Bambara, and Fon).
Of the seven members, all hail from Mali where the Les Amazones d’Afrique project began, with the exception of Benin native and multiple Grammy-award winner Angelique Kidjo and the young soul singer Nneka from Nigeria. The name of the group is inspired by the Dahomey Amazons—“a legendary sub-Saharan band of female warriors highly-trained and armed to defend the Kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now modern-day Benin,” according to the extensive liner notes by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, a writer and the opinions editor at gal-dem, a feminist magazine produced exclusively by women of color.
Though Les Amazones d’Afrique are most certainly warriors for women, they use the album’s first single, “I Play the Kora” to directly ask men to join them in the fight for equality:
You men must support us For we women need you We are tired to fight alone
The title of the track is symbolic, since women were traditionally not allowed to play the kora (a harp-like instrument native to West Africa). True to their stated mission, all the proceeds from the single will benefit The Panzi Foundation, a foundation and hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has served more than 40,000 women, over half of whom are survivors of sexual assault. The moving song, featuring members Rokia Koné, Mamani Keita, Nneka, and Mariam Doumbia can be heard below and viewed with English subtitles:
Issues of ongoing violence against women, sexual abuse, unequal access to land and education, and practices of female genital mutilation are present not just in Africa, but throughout the world. Les Amazones d’Afrique fight the idea of Africa as a monolithic culture, but aim to unite many countries and cultures in West Africa in the fight for gender equality.
The powerful female group is bold not only in their politically charged lyrics, but in the mix and use of many different technologies, musical instruments, and languages. Songs such as “Dombolo” (featuring the group’s most famous member, Angelique Kidjo) and “Le Dame et Ses Valises” (in which an internal conversation asks, “Woman, don’t you know you are a queen?”) have an industrial, contemporary sound, overlapping many soulful voices, high and low vocal timbres, and pulsating, electronic sounds. The hazy vocals in “Wedding” sound like they are coming out of a fuzzily recorded cassette, while the accompanying Malian blues guitar gives the song a relaxed, easy listening feel.
Most the songs on République Amazone reside in this space between the old and the new, the electronic and the acoustic, using varying technologies to push the boundaries of genre and rejecting the false impression that West African music is uniform. As the liner notes state: “We are swirling about in several decades simultaneously – filthy backwards or wah wah guitars, distorted thumb piano, dreamy, jazzy chords and soulful singing over a pneumatic beat.”
The format of the music matches the group’s intent, challenging stereotypes and conventional norms of what it means to be a musical collective from West Africa, and more importantly, what it means to be a woman living in West Africa and in the increasingly globalized world. République Amazone is an impressive debut from Les Amazones d’Afrique, a group that is undeniably talented and relentlessly passionate about women’s rights and global equality.
Kidal is a city in Northern Mali, on the southwestern edge of the Sahara. In this city in the desert, the Tuareg people live. Though nomads, the Tuareg briefly had a home after rising up and declaring the intendent state of Azawad in 2012, but less than a year later al-Qaeda swept in, then the French military. In this city torn by fights between governments and corporations, the rock band Tamikrest began in 2009. Now on their fifth album, Kidal, named after that city where it all began, the group still sings about the suffering and resistance of the Tuareg people with music powered by an insistent groove, snaking bass lines, and melodies blending influences of Sahel Africa, the Maghreb, and the West.
Tamikrest wrote the majority of Kidal while in the desert, making sure they depicted and remembered the struggles of their people accurately. As in all of life, they witnessed both joy and pain, and the songs draw from these various emotions. Some tracks, such as “Wainan Adobat,” “War Toyed,” and “War Tila Eridaran” are more energetic and rock oriented, with driving percussion by the drumset and interweaving electric guitars that favor restraint and control over face-shredding solos.
Many of the other songs are contemplative ballads. “Atwitas” is slow and intentional, with lead singer Ousmane Ag Mossa’s vocals about as deep and low as they get. With a faster tempo but entirely made up of acoustic guitars, vocals, and a soft, eerie background noise, “Tanakra” is the rawest song on the album, full of sorrow and foreboding. The final track, “Adad Osan Itibat,” has a much happier feel, with background percussion made up of soft clicks and snaps. Ag Mossa’s vocals are in a much higher register, and the accompanying acoustic guitar is plucked in a melodious, hopeful pattern with only occasional chords thrown in.
Tamikrest often talks about struggle, war, and the threats by companies and governments to the desert and the Taureg people, yet it is on this optimistic note that they end Kidal, hoping to bring change through defiance, resistance, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Janka Nabay rose to stardom in his native Sierra Leone during the 1990s for remixing and modernizing Bubu music (traditional music of the Temne people in Sierra Leone). Caught amid the decades-long war there, Nabay immigrated to the United States in 2003. After years of working side jobs and trying to make a life as an artist, in 2010 he crossed paths with filmmaker and scholar Wills Glasspiegel, who had recorded bubu horns. Together, they put together a touring band that eventually recorded and released their debut album En Yah Sah in 2012.
Three years later, Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang are returning with their sophomore album Build Music. This project reflects the many cultures and contradictions in Nabay’s life. He sings in Sierra Leone’s lingua franca, Krio, as well as his native tribal language Temne, English, and even bits of Arabic. Using traditional recordings and his band’s instrumentals as well as overdubs, loops, and electronic drumbeats, the result is a diversified sound that overturns the notion of static traditions while trying to remain true to the flavor and integrity of bubu music.
Bubu music is most identifiable by West African bamboo horns that the Temne people use in traditional bubu processions in rural areas of Sierra Leone during Ramadan. In the past, Nabay has mimicked the sounds of these horns on Casios. While he does use these keyboard imitations on Build Music, he also directly samples recordings of the horns that Glasspiegel recorded on a 2014 trip to Sierra Leone and includes them on the songs “Angbolieh” and “Santa Monica.”
Build Music’s title reflects the process behind the album, which was slow and intentional. Included are reimagined versions of songs Nabay recorded in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, like “Sabanoh” and “Angbolieh,” as well as tracks such as “Bubu Dub” featuring new vocals sung over original Sierra Leonean rhythms recorded by Nabay’s collaborators.
The diversity present in music styles and languages on the album is also reflected in choice of song topics and themes, which draw upon Nabay’s experiences in Sierra Leone and current incidents related to life as an immigrant in the United States. For example, “Santa Monica” is based on a tense encounter Nabay had with a police officer. These varied themes are a part of his philosophy–namely, that multiple, contradicting realities always coexist. Build Music is an example of this dichotomy, drawing from Nabay’s diverse life experiences yet keeping bubu music at the heart of it all.
Ostinato Records’ latest compilation, Synthesize the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica from the Cape Verde Islands 1973-1988, gives an “alternate history” of the electronic music that dominated popular music by the late 1990s. Rather than emerging from a big city, Synthesize the Soul begins in the archipelago 400 miles off the Senegalese coast known as the Cape Verde Islands.
After independence from Portugal in 1975, Cape Verde suffered financially while trying to fit into an increasingly globalized world. As a result, there was an intensification of immigration to Europe and the United States. As musicians began travelling back and forth between these countries and their home islands, they brought synthesizers and MIDI instruments with them. The rhythms of rural farms previously played on accordions began to be transposed to synthesizers, birthing a new era and style of music for Cape Verde.
The Ostinato Records compilation out later this month features a number of important songs and artists from this era, including Manuel Gomes and Tchiss Lopez, whose song “É Bô Problema” can be heard on Soundcloud below:
The mix of electronic disco beats, Latin-inspired rhythms, and West African instrumentation present on the album illustrate the blending of cultures and complex history that makes the Cape Verde islands so unique. Synthesize the Soul aims to firmly place the music emanating from Cape Verde into the history of popular electronic music as we know it. Ostinato describes the music as an “unknown, ultra-progressive sound” for its time, putting a spotlight on the oft-forgotten artists from the islands who brought their musical traditions with them across Europe, from Lisbon to Rome and Naples, in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Format: DVD (widescreen, NTSC, all regions; 180 minutes + 5 minutes of extras)
Release date: November 18, 2016
What could be better for Black History Month than a new production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet featuring a Black cast? The answer is a production supported by Black musicians. This recently released DVD from the Royal Shakespeare Company captures the first performance of this new production, live from Stratford-Upon-Avon on March 12, 2016. Directed by Simon Godwin, the cast features British-Ghanaian actor Paapa Essiedu in the starring role—the first black actor to ever play Hamlet in the history of the RSC.
Chief composer for this production is none other than Sola Akingbola, longtime percussionist for the British funk and acid jazz band Jamiroquai, who leads the musical ensemble on vocals and percussion. He is joined by Bruce O’Neil, the RSC’s Head of Music, who performs on keyboards, as well as Joe Archer on guitar and on keyboards; Dirk Campbell on woodwinds, nyatiti, and percussion; and Sidiki Dembélè and James Jones also contributing to the percussion ensemble. With the shift to a Black cast, Godwin also shifted the geographic focus of the play from Denmark to Africa, and Akingbola’s score perfectly encapsulates the action.
If you missed the live stream of the performance last summer, the DVD version is highly recommended. Teachers will find a wealth of information and classroom tools on the RSC website for the production.
Senegalese-born, Canada-based artist Élage Diouf released his sophomore album Melokáane in September on Pump on the World. “Melokáane” means “the reflection of a life’s journey” in Wolof (a Senegalese language), and the album explores themes of immigration, spirituality, and political resistance that have been present throughout Diouf’s life and work.
A mix of rock, soul, and folk, Melokáane starts out by paying tribute to one of the most famous resistance leaders in recent history: Nelson Mandela. “Mandela” (heard in the video below) is interspersed with actual clips of Mandela speaking and honors his courage and determination through uplifting, upbeat music and lyrics. Another standout track is “Sankara,” which features Diouf’s impeccable percussion skills and relaxed rhythms that sound like very peaceful reggaeton. The album’s liner notes say the song is a tribute to Thomas Sankara and Patrice Lubumba, two “emblematic figures of the struggle to free Africa from major Western powers,” noting that their mysterious deaths still remain unexplained.
The album was co-produced by Diouf himself and Alain Bergé, and also includes collaborations such as with multiplatinum singer Johnny Reid on “Just One Day” and guitarist Jordan Officer on “Tay.” The album is entirely in Wolof, and is a beautiful musical representation of Diouf and his many inspirations and influences, both political and personal.
Immigration has been a theme in music for centuries, as people who relocate try to remain connected to their roots, and attempt to relate past experiences to the present. However, themes of immigration seem to be especially poignant in the political climate of 2016, as boundaries and immigration policies are pushed and pulled throughout the world. Many musicians are speaking out about their personal immigration experiences in this year of contention, in particular addressing humanitarian issues. That’s what M.A.K.U. Soundsystem does on their fourth album, Mezcla. The eight-piece Colombian to New York City band combines traditional Colombian beats, grooves from West Africa, and Moog synthesizers from the ‘90s club scene to bring all of their experiences—both musical and personal—into a comprehensive album.
The opening track, “Agua,” addresses income inequality through the melismatic voice of lead singer Liliana Conde. Two minutes into the almost six minute song, she switches to spoken word poetry: “With so many walls going up around the world trying to separate us, trying to divide us, we want to come together and sing in unison of the things that bring us together and unify us.” A full chorus then joins in, singing about how the oceans cannot be separated and water flows through all of our veins, regardless of race or country. It is a powerful and upbeat song, featuring a fast beat maintained through a variety of percussive instruments and ornamented by the horns.
Another standout track is “Let It Go,” a rhythm-driven song that focuses on instrumentals over vocals. Starting with a heavy West African beat, the song blends Afro-Caribbean roots with improvising horns that edge into a jazz feel. Three minutes into the song, voices enter in unison saying, “Let it go and let the music take you.” These words repeat for the rest of the song, building with the music as it becomes faster and new instruments join in to create a satisfying climax.
A slow waltz, “De Barrio,” takes the listener on a journey of an immigrant from Latin America to the United States. It is sorrowful yet warm, and reflects the complications of the bittersweet trip. According to bassist and singer Juan Ospina, this tone is meant to reflect how immigrants put their lives at risk, and emphasizes that borders are created by men: “Look down from space and you won’t see them.” Harmonious notes held out near the end of the song echo unbridled cries of emotion, though whether they are cries of sorrow or hope is left to each listener’s interpretation.
In “La Inevitabile,” M.A.K.U.’s hope for the future is clear, as they sing in Spanish, “when in mixing and coming together they represent the rhythm of our beating hearts.” This message of mezcla, or “mixing,” is central to the album. Mixing of music old and new, mixing of people from different cities and backgrounds, all come together on Mezcla as this group of Colombian artists create music that combines their past experiences with their present lives in New York.
South Africa native Lorraine Klaasen learned how to perform on the world’s stages by tagging along with her mother Thandie Klaasen, a highly respected jazz singer. This allowed Klaasen to launch her career at an early age, and after successfully touring Europe, she decided to settle in Montreal. Since then, she’s been involved in musical theatre, won a JUNO award, and released three albums. On her latest project, Nouvelle Journée, she pays homage to her homeland by singing in the many languages of South Africa—specifically Tsonga, Sotho, isiZulu, Xhosa, English, and French—and by creating her own form of Township music.
Most of Nouvelle Journée focuses on having a “Township music feel,” reflecting the music created by the Bantu people in South Africa, particularly during segregation and the Apartheid. Klaasen’s decision to focus on this genre and South African languages came after reconnecting with her family and particularly her mother, in South Africa. The title track, “Nouvelle Journée,” is about this new experience and phase in Klaasen’s life, as she sings about having a new, fresh start and letting go of past mistakes:
The album was co-produced by Ntaka and recorded with musicians from all over the world, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti. Though the main style is Township music, these various musical influences and textures weave together throughout the album, from the funk of “Make It Right” to the jazz ballad “Where To Now.”
The exceptionally heartfelt “Polokwane” is a piano driven song with lyrics describing how one’s birthplace is a “sacred place,” a place that can never be forgotten or replaced. Klaasen pours out her soul, and it is evident that her homeland will always occupy an important and irreplaceable place in her heart and in her music. Nouvelle Journée is a physical manifestation of that, as Klaasen celebrates and honors South Africa and the many experiences and perspectives it brings to her music.
Although this album is a compilation of actual music made by real-life musicians in the 1970s and 1980s, Analog Africa chose to anchor its theme to a fantastical and somewhat bizarre myth of a ship full of electronic keyboard instruments mysteriously appearing in a farm field in the island nation of Cape Verde, located off Africa’s west coast (see the album’s webpage for the full text of the music’s “creation myth”).
Back in the realm of facts, much of the music in this single-disc compilation was either written or performed by the band Voz de Cabo Verde, lead by Paulino Vieira. This group was sort of the Motown or Stax house band of Cape Verde’s musicians, performing at recording sessions both at home and in Portugal. As with all the Analog Africa compilations, it’s worthwhile to buy the physical media (CD or 2LP set) in order to read the extensive liner notes. The booklet includes interviews with some of the musicians and an article about Cape Verde musical traditions.
The Cape Verde flavor of Afro-pop is a keyboard-heavy mashup of dance rhythms, Portuguese and Brazilian influences and native beats. It is at home at a lively party or in a dance club today. Worth a listen if you’re in the mood for something different but accessible. Belief in the ship-in-the-field “creation myth” is optional.
Cameroon musician Richard Bona took on quite a challenge with his eighth album, Heritage, tracing the roots of Cuban music back to the Mandekan empire of the 15th century. To accomplish this daunting feat, he worked with the Afro-Cuban band Mandekan Cubano to tell the musical history of the African rhythms and instruments in Cuba before the slave trade and colonization split Sundiata’s unified kingdom into so many parts.
Heritage is “a window into the years of oral stories that have been passed down and placed in the musical prowess of Bona and the Mandekan Cubano,” according to the liner notes. Bona wants to make sure those stories are heard, and that the “beautiful interweaving of multiple backgrounds” present in countries such as Cuba is not ignored, but embraced. The album reclaims and celebrates the music, dance, folklore, and rituals of the West African slave “Cabildos” in Cuba. The result is a musical masterpiece that flows from one track to the next, bound together by its theme and seven extremely talented musicians.
Richard Bona’s many musical talents highlighted on Heritage include electric sitar, bass, vocals, songwriting, and arranging. His voice sounds natural and effortless, whether he’s singing a slow ballad like “Matanga” or an upbeat Latin jazz song such as “Jokoh Jokoh”:
Though Bona’s vocals and arrangements are the star of the album, Heritage is nothing without the six incredibly skilled musicians that make up Mandekan Cubano. From harmonious backing vocals to the immaculate Latin percussion section, their expertise in Afro-Cuban music is evident in every track. Rey Alejandre’s trumpet and Dennis Hernandez’s trombone shine in tracks such as “Santa Clara Con Montuno,” and Osmany Paredes’ talents on the piano are featured on “Kivu.”
Heritage is a wonderful display of musical diversity in Cuba, threaded together by the stories and music brought by the Cabildos of West Africa. Bona aims to make music that showcases the “issues affecting the oppressed or forgotten cultures of the people who so courageously paved the way for the life we presently live.” Throughout the album, this becomes clear, as the listener realizes that “Heritage” is not supposed to suggest old music or traditions that have come and gone, but a dynamic culture and music, one that is constantly changing yet forever shaped by history.
When he was eight years old, Wesli created his first guitar out a used oil can and a nylon shoelace in his hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Ever since then, innovation and creativity have guided his music-making. Drawing from the many cultures present in Haiti, as well as those in his current city of residence, Montreal, Wesli unites Haitian traditions like vodou and rara with a multitude of genres from reggae to Acadian hip hop. On his fourth album, Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle, Wesli uses these various cultural influences to focus on what it means to be Haitian and a member of the African diaspora in the current political and social climate.
Aside from the lyrics themselves, Wesli pays homage to Haiti through his use of instruments such as the tata and boula, as well as the blending of Afro-Caribbean and creole musical traditions. The opening track, “Rara,” celebrates the style of music used in Haitian carnivals and street processions, such as those that take place during Easter. Creole accordion and violin are featured in the ode to the western region of Haiti, “Latibonit.” Wesli also honors his West African roots throughout the album, such as in his use of the kora on “Sonje.”
Wesli hopes that Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle will speak to his fellow Haitians, especially considering the significant obstacles many face in his homeland. He claims the album aims to “say something useful to society, not just entertain people.” Though the songs echo his ongoing frustration and sorrow, his music and his outlook express hope for “a better situation for Haitians and all African diasporic people.”
On their second album, entitled Ere Gobez, the Ethiopian-American pop group Debo Band uses politics and musical styles from the 1970s and 1980s to pay tribute to Ethiopia’s history and musical past. Whether it be the East Asian influences that came back with Ethiopians who served in the Korean War or imagining what Duke Ellington played during his famous African tour, Debo Band brings Ethiopian history into the present with gregarious energy and relentless dedication, which can be seen in the album trailer:
Debo Band spent the past ten years studying Ethiopian history and music cultures, but they are still learning about new styles and subcultures every day. Band leader and saxophonist Danny Mekonnen said, “We’re digging much, much deeper. We’re still unearthing new sounds after a decade.”
When they find a new style or musical culture, Debo Band transforms it, rearranging, adding new sections, and putting Amharic lyrics to songs. Their goal is to keep the original spirit of the song while adding innovative twists. For example, “Yalanchi,” which uses a traditional bass riff from a wedding song, is enlivened by a constantly shifting time signature and rowdy rock solos. Similarly, drawing from the Asian influence brought into Ethiopia after the Korean War, “Hiyamickachi Bushi” is an Okinawan song composed in 1948 for which Debo Band singer Bruck Tesfaye penned new lyrics. Their version of the Duke Ellington song “Blue Awaze” also adds new lyrics, and the music is what they imagined Ellington might have played with the Addis Ababa Police Orchestra while on tour.
Ere Gobez also features many originals, crafted by trumpeter Danilo Henriquez and electric violinist Jonah Rapino. These songs have a number of influences, from 1970s dance music to jazz. Original tracks such as “Goraw,” try to “capture the pride and resiliency of the Ethiopian people” said lyricist Tesfaye. In this track, psychedelic electric guitar works with accordion and driving drumset to both celebrate Ethiopia while acknowledging all that its people have overcome.
Mekonnen said Ere Gobez is an attempt to “reconstruct the past, not simply by discovering good songs that have been forgotten, but through the interpretation process, making songs anew.” The word gobez refers to a rallying cry, and as a son of two refugees, Mekonnen hopes the album emphasizes the need for equality and justice as hatred and xenophobia run rampant in politics worldwide. Ere Gobez is a call to be courageous and have a “passionate response” to the world, whether that means uncovering a hidden musical history or making bold new creations of their own.
Looking for more of that Brazilian music vibe featured during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro? Check out Brazilian-American Soundtrack from Bob Baldwin. The 26-song double CD blends Latin rhythms with contemporary jazz in two movements, moving from Rio-Ipanema in disc one, to New York on disc two. Recorded over a three year period in Rio, New York, and Atlanta (Baldwin’s home base), the project features an international ensemble including Brazilian percussionists Café Da Silva, Rafael Pereira, and Armando Marcal and guitarist Torcuato Mariano (guitar), with a horn section comprised of Gabriel Mark Hasselbach (trumpet), Marion Meadows and Freddy V (sax), and Ragan Whiteside (flute), plus guitarists Marlon McClain and Phil Hamilton. The multi-talented Baldwin adds keyboards, percussion, bass, strings and vocals, with additional vocals contributed by James “Crab” Robinson, Porter Carroll II, Gigi, and Zoiea Ohizep.
Most of the album’s tracks were penned by Baldwin (alone and in collaboration with other band members), who set out to honor some of the iconic artists who have influenced him over the years. These include the late composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of the originators of the bossa nova style whose work “Corcovado/The Redeemer” is featured on disc one, along with several works by Brazilian popular music songwriter Ivan Lins, including “Anjo De Mim,” “The Island” and “Love Dance” are also included.
Moving over to the second, New York half of the project, the overall vibe is on smooth grooves, though Latin percussion still provides a solid foundation. Baldwin works in several tributes to one of his musical idols, the late Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. The track “Maurice (The Sound of His Voice),” calls to mind the vocal riffs on EWF’s “Brazilian Rhyme,” and the closing track, “The Message,” includes Baldwin’s heartfelt spoken tribute to White, recorded shortly after news of his death was received.
Though summer is on the wane, this delightful project from Bob Baldwin promises to keep the tropical vibe alive well into the future.
Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal’s brilliant Musique De Nuit is the meeting and melding of two minds and musical instruments into singular musical beauty.
The title Musique De Nuit translates to either “Music For Night” or “Music Of Night.” Since the advent of 20th century pop culture, night is no longer understood by most in the US as the stuff of poetry or time for quiet contemplation. Very few Americans still “howl at the moon,” much less contemplate its magnificence. Night is now the time for Dionysian living or for staying home to rest, perhaps watching television. Maybe night is thought of differently in France and Mali, or perhaps these two musicians both believe that night should be lived differently—this album is much less about lavish living than it is about restraint and contemplation. This is music for an Apollonian night, full of work and ardor a listener would imagine working towards a grand goal. Overall, the tempos of these songs are very slow, especially “Musique de Nuit,” recalling the kind of cello playing that listeners may associate with symphonic music. We also hear the kora in all of its splendor; Sissoko’s masterful Kora playing will certainly remind listeners of the beauty to be found in acoustic music.
This is the duo’s second release, following their first entitled Chamber Music (2011). As was the case on the duo’s debut, Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal are musicians of two different races and cultures: Sissoko is a black Malian man and Segal is a white French man. Segal is a conservatory bassist and cellist and Sissoko came to playing the kora as most young griot musicians do, through his well-known griot father Djelimady Sissoko, beginning his profession at a very young age. As a griot, Ballaké Sissoko plays music that is much closer to European troubadour music than it is to classical, baroque, or any music that one imagines that a conservatory-trained cellist would be most accustomed to. Though Segal might be familiar with troubadour music, he is certainly not a troubadour.
Musique De Nuit’s most impressive track is the awesome composition “Super Etoile,” which is highly rhythmic and features amazing cello lines. “Balazando” has a phenomenal beginning and, like “Super Etoile,” its strength lies in the beauty of the composition, even though the playing of both musicians is also superb. It sometimes sounds like one is listening to more than two musicians, in part because of Sissoko’s Kora playing. How can one man playing one stringed instrument make so many sounds? The album’s opening track “Niandou” will feel the most familiar to fans of traditional Malian music, building from a quiet introduction into intricate polyrhythm. “Prelude”also amazes.
It might be useful to think of this album as representing the founding of a new musical genre, or perhaps as an etude into new music. The first jazz musicians, for example, did the same: creoles and Blacks picked up instruments and played what eventually became categorized as a new genre. There is a wideness and heaviness to the cello’s sound that is so unlike the svelte tones of the Kora; how it is that these two musicians melded the two instruments without something else—for example, a drum—is the real question. What’s worse is that one could easily imagine that these two musicians could have continued their careers without one even having met the other. That they pulled this off is the stuff of musical history: the troubadour music of traditional Malian civic life meets the cello of European art music and produces pure musical beauty. Thus, these are sounds to feel and to object to, reject, or plunge one’s self into. The final option is the best choice, and one can only hope that this duo inspires other cello and Kora players do the same.
Joe Driscoll has become famous over the past decade because of his blend of funk, folk, and hip hop music. In 2010, he met and formed a friendship with Guinean kora player Sekou Kouyate, which led to the release of their debut album, Faya, in 2014. On their second album, Monistic Theory, Driscoll and Kouyate continue to create a unique brand of music that innovatively combines their styles and displays the duos’ songwriting skills and lyricism.
Monistic Theory features a mixture of instrumental tracks with sung and rapped songs. The opening track, “Tamala,” blends gentle guitar and kora with the voice of Oren Lyons, a Native American author and activist. Her words are few but poetic, as she muses, “Water is life, water is the foundation of life.”
Songs such as “Tokira” echo this softer side of the two musicians. Composed by Kouyate, the bass (by John Railton) and percussion (by Jimbo Breen) set a solid beat that allows his impeccable kora skills to shine. Driscoll’s lyrics are introspective and calm, reflecting on what his 10-year-old self would think about where he has ended up in life:
Kouyate’s and Driscoll’s rapping skills are most evident in the title track “Monistic Theory,” an uplifting song urging today’s younger generation to stay positive despite the world’s problems that concludes with the sung chorus: “Hey, you got to believe in you and what you know is true.” Songs such as “Rising Ride” and “Wama” echo these hip hop influences.
Many songs, including “Badiya” and “Barra,” feature Kouyate singing in his native language, which adds another element of world music to the mix. They transition to funk in the final track, a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster.” Here the groove has a reggae feel, and the energized performance was drawn from a live concert recorded in Syracuse, New York.
Though there are many genres that play into Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate’s Monistic Theory, all of the songs share a common message of maintaining hope and perseverance despite the many problems people face throughout the world.
Daby Touré delights in his many identities, calling himself an “Afropean”; although he was born in Mauritania and raised in Senegal, he has now lived over half his life in Paris. Despite the wishes of some people for him to be a “traditional African artist,” he always loved listening to pop, and was inspired by Stevie Wonder, The Police, and Michael Jackson. He has made a career out of his genre-bending and –bridging music. His fifth album, Amonafi, which means “once upon a time” in Wolof, aims to show Touré’s unique vision of Africa, through embracing these multiple musical and cultural lenses.
The album traverses many topics and periods of history. The opening track, “Woyoyoye (A Cry)” describes a love story in the village Touré grew up in. “Amonafi (Once Upon a Time)” is about slavery, and how it changed a people who were once at one with nature into a nation “adrift.”
Amonafi also has many songs about the struggles of women, often discussed in Touré’s eloquent storytelling and songwriting. For instance, “Debho (Women)” is a tribute to women who he fears “bear the weight of our whole society.” “Oma (Call Me)” is about migration, but based on a story a Romanian woman told Touré near his Paris home:
These stories and masterful lyricism are coupled with powerful music that seasoned with folk flavors, soul, and Afropop. One song that Touré wrote with his father, “Khone (Enemy)” is actually an excerpt from a Black Power-inspired opera they created, with the album version of this song performed acapella.
Amonafi is another striking work of art from Daby Touré, mirroring his multifaceted world view and representing a fresh perspective on African history, life, and music.
In the Haitian musical style rasin, religious rhythms are blended with secular rhythms drawn from rock or pop. In the 1980’s, several Haitian musicians decided to play Haitian music true to what they believed were the island’s cultural roots—Vodou religion—and found a kind of bohemian success doing it.
Their movement was founded in both music and culture; rasin musicians would not only play Vodou music, but also dress and even walk in a manner closer to Haitian popular culture. In order to understand Vodou rhythms, they visited Haiti’s many Vodou Lakou temples, such as Lakou Badjo in the Artibonite, a region in Haiti known for its rice and legumes. They wore dreads but as cheve simbi, which translates to “simbi hair”—to match that of Kongo Simbi spirits transplanted to Haiti in Vodou mythology. These musicians played at very small venues, including the painter Jean Rene Jerome’s house. They mixed the rhythms that they found through their research with rhythms that they had personal affinities for, drawing from rock and other pop music styles. The very first rasin group was Foula, while the most internationally recognized today is likely Boukman Experyans. They were not the first Haitians to produce commercial music rooted in Vodou rhythms, however. In Haiti it is generally agreed that the true founder of Rasin music was Antalcidas Murat, who was a member of the group Super Jazz Des Jeunes. Like RAM, Jazz des Jeunes blended popular sounds of its day with Vodou rhythms, though the product was then called “folklore.”
With Manman m Se Ginen, RAM has released a wonderful album of 12 songs that illustrate the continued livelihood of rasin. What is perhaps this album’s defining characteristic is its copious rhythmic blending. These rhythmic layers are exactly what rasin music is all about. The album begins on a both strong and intense note with “Papa Loko,” based upon a rara rhythm and a short segment, almost a snippet, of the lyrics of the Vodou song “Papa Loko” as the basis of the song’s lyrics. Papa Loko is a Taino god, the founder of all, who made his way into the Vodou pantheon of gods. This kind of borrowing continues on the song “Jije’m Byen,” a reinterpretation of a song made famous by the great singer Coupe Cloue. In this case, the voice of Cloue, a vagabond male, is replaced by Lunise Morse, a Haitian woman with a soulful voice. Morse is joined by a rough-sounding choir singing along with heavily-processed melodic guitar in counterpoint.
“Tout Pitit” and “Kolibri Anko” are enjoyable listens though, like the other songs on this album, may not engage a listener enough who is well versed in contemporary musical styles. If it were not for the synthesizers in the song’s intro, “Kolibri Met Bwa” would be the album’s standout track. The rhythm engages a listener and the medley of instruments is both rich sounding and precise in communicating beauty and urgency. “Ogou O” is a fascinating listen, about a transplanted Yoruba god of war who is now a deity in Haitian Vodou. Perhaps it is the effect of RAM’s having fought long and hard in Haitian politics since the 1990’s that makes them sing about Ogou in such a melancholy style. “Mon Konpe Gede” is the album’s best song by far. Gede is a cultural event in Haiti and a Vodou celebration of the dead and their spirits, and “Mon Konpe Gede” is particularly well-orchestrated.
Perhaps it is because RAM is now a legendary music group in Haiti, but much of the complexity in these songs is cultural and to be explained, rather than operating under the assumption that music must be felt. It often feels like RAM is interested in producing symphonic music that requires listeners be attuned to subtle nuance as opposed to radio music made to resonate itself into popularity. Ultimately, however, that’s fine as Manman m Se Ginen is an enjoyable listen with great instrumentals and a great female singer.
Guitarist and singer Steeve Valcourt, singer Jonas Attis, and American producer Zach Niles (who worked on the documentary film that introduced Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars) began the group Lakou Mizik in Port-au-Prince in 2010, believing that music could help people recover and find positivity despite the horrible tragedy of the Haitian earthquakes. The group has grown from three to nine members who range in age from their early twenties to late sixties. Their debut album Wa Di Yo is being released April 1 on Cumbancha.
The members of Lakou Mizik each have a different story to tell, and they bring different musical styles along with their distinctive perspectives. Wa Di Yo represents the confluence of many influences within Haitian culture: African, French, Caribbean, and U.S.
The collectivity that Lakou Mizik enjoys was not always a natural fit. Originally, vocalist Nadine Remy was afraid of the vodou singer Sanba Zao due to Remy’s own evangelical Christian roots. However, Remy and Zao are now close and Remy has embraced and learned from the racine (roots) music movement.
Another uniquely Haitian genre is added through the Rara maestros Peterson “Ti Piti” Joseph and James “Ti Malis”Carrier. Rara is a traditional street music that supplies much of the rhythm that undergirds the music of Lakou Mizik. Their cornets (a simple brass horn they hope can one day be as respected as much as trombone or trumpet) can be heard on many of the songs, such as “Pran Ka Mwen” and “Wa Di Yo.”
Accordions also are foundational elements of the album’s sound on tracks such as “Poze,” “Anba Siklòn,” and “Is Ta Fi Bo.” There are also tracks without the band’s cadre of musical instruments, occasionally the band delivers such raw tracks such as “Bade Zile” and “Parenn Legba,” both traditional songs arranged by the group as beautiful full-chorus a capella songs with only slight percussion accompanying them.
In Creole, the word lakou has multiple meanings which range from a communal gathering place to home or “where you are from.” Rising from terrible national tragedy, Lakou Mizik takes pride in the many musical styles and cultural backgrounds of their members and, more broadly, of their country. One member asserts in a promotional video for the album, “the true richness of our culture has yet to be discovered.” Wa Di Yo may begin the discovery process for listeners around the world.
As the European refugee crisis sparks renewed conversations about refugees across the globe, it only seems right that Western Saharan singer/activist Aziza Brahim chimes in. Brahim grew up in a Saharawi refugee camp in the Algerian desert, and has been living in exile for over twenty years, first in Cuba, currently in Barcelona. Her latest album, Abbar el Hamada (Across the Hamada), reflects her multiple cultural identities and the political struggles that have impacted her life directly.
Hamada is the word used by the Saharawi people to describe the rocky desert landscape along the Algerian/Western Saharan frontier where many Saharawi refugee camps are located. Abbar el Hamada is Brahim’s reflection on her personal journey from the refugee camp and her country’s journey as a nation over the past 40 years of political turmoil.
The album has many different musical influences from the various places Brahim has lived and the people she has met along the way. “La Cordillera Negra” is an Afro-Cuban inspired track that evokes ‘70s recordings by the Super Rail Band, while “El Canto De La Arena” is a raw ballad that includes a soft flute. “Calles De Dajla” is described as “pulsing desert rock” and incorporates melodic blues rock guitar with West African-influenced percussion and Brahim’s emotive vocals:
Other standout tracks on the album include “Mani,” which features the Malian blues guitarist Samba Toure, and the warm, easy going yet poignant title track “Abbar el Hamada.” One of the more directly political songs on the album is “Intifada,” which is about the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that started in 1987.
Though some songs reference specific areas of the world, the final track “Los Muros” (“The Walls”) speaks of the many physical and metaphorical walls that divide countries and people, from the Berlin Wall to the sand fortifications Morocco has erected along the Western Saharan border of Brahim’s homeland.
Despite these walls and despite the tragedy in the album, Brahim remains hopeful in her music. She sings that despite all the walls rising, “Another fleeting star was seen crossing the wall tonight / undetected by the radar, unnoticed by the guard.” Abbar el Hamada encourages people to engage in conversation with each other across political, cultural, religious, and generational barriers in order to find solutions and transcend the walls that divide us.
Title: Soul Sok Sega: Sega Sounds from Mauritius, 1973-1979
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release Date: January 16, 2016
Title: Senegal 70: Sonic Gems and Previously Released Recordings from the 70s
Label: Analog Africa
Formats: CD, LP, Download (MP3, FLAC, etc.)
Release Date: November 27, 2015
Two new compilations dive deep into the 1970s music cultures of two African regions—Mauritius Island and the nation of Senegal. Geographically, these places are about as far apart as you can get in Africa; Senegal is the westernmost nation on the continent, and Mauritius is an island hundreds of miles east of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean.
Sega is the traditional music of Mauritius Island. Its roots are in the slave trade, as Mauritius was a way station for humans captured in Africa and Madagascar, and subsequently trafficked to the Americas. It’s related to American blues, which also evolved from African slaves’ music.
In the 1960s, the traditional Sega musicians began to add in Western jazz, soul and funk elements, and a danceable, electric music resulted. This is the music featured on the Strut album, which was compiled by DJ duo La Basse Tropicale (Natty Hô and Konsöle), based on the neighboring island of La Reunion. Liner notes are by Mauritian cultural expert Percy Yip Tong, and include new artist interviews.
Although the music is sung in Creole, the underlying message is universal—get out of your seat and shake it. Each of the 20 tunes in the compilation are fast driving, foot-tapping gems. Also, kudos to Strut Records’ production team for making good transfers from 45rpm singles and other sonically challenged sources, and getting nice, clear end results. Soul Sok Sega is a winner.
Senegal 70 is more tightly focused. Five of the 12 tracks are newly-released recordings from the Sangomar club in the Senegalese city of Thies. These recordings have a less-produced quality about them than the other cuts, which are mostly transfers from 70’s-era commercial singles and albums. The commercially-released tunes have a tighter feel, whereas the club recordings sometimes suffer from off-tuning and out-of-sync playing. However, the club recordings have the admirable qualities of spontaneous happenings, full of enthusiasm if somewhat raw.
The music of Senegal in this era was electrified and funky, with strong Reggae influences. Typical of African popular music in the ‘70s, complex beats and multiple layers of guitars, vocals and horns are heard throughout. Like the Sega music on the other side of the continent, Senegalese popular music of the 1970s was dance music. The dances in Senegal were likely slower and more swaying, and some tunes in the compilation show how West African music influenced Latin jazz. As with the Strut collection, the Analog Africa albums’ songs are sung in non-English languages, but this does not detract from listening enjoyment.
As has been the case with previous Analog Africa releases, Senegal 70 includes a detailed, well-crafted booklet that profiles the music scene, the artists featured in the set, and provides historical context for the scene and the music.
These two fine compilations show again how vital and varied African pop music was during the 1970’s heyday. Both are highly recommended.
Senegalese band DIEUF-DIEUL de Thiès has a long history, from their origins in 1979 to their breakup in 1983. Now the band is back together again and planning their first international tour, while also issuing previously unreleased recordings from the early 1980s.
Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2 presents the remainder of the tracks from the recording session featured on Aw Sa Yone Vol. 1, as well as three tracks from a lost 1981 recording. The combination of Mbalax (the national popular dance music of Senegal and the Gambia), Afro-Cuban, and Afro-jazz ballads creates a memorable and full-spirited album.
The horns, fuzz guitars, and tight percussion fuse traditional Senegalese melodies and instruments with electric psychedelic music. Five of the seven tracks are sung by Bassirou Sarr, whose emotional and soulful voice pairs with any genre. Also featured is a cover of the Latin ballad “Rumba Para Parejas” sung by Assane Camara. Other standout songs include “Ariyo” and “Nianky,” which are full of energy and rhythm.
Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2 includes a 16-page booklet, full of history about the band and their recordings. The album is also available in a limited Collector’s Edition double LP, housed in a silk screened sleeve with a large poster, perfect for anyone wanting to discover more about music coming out of Senegal in the 1980s.
With aggressive pounding drums and fuzzy guitar lines, the first track on Terakaft’sAlone, “Anabayou (Awkward)” completely blew away my expectation of the band’s “desert rock.” The group’s fifth album Alone presents a new side of Terakaft, bringing more uplifting and danceable music than its previous album Kel Tamasheq, which was released after the political and religious struggle in Mali in 2012.
The incursion of Islamic fundamentalists into their home region, northern Mali in 2012 cast a shadow over the members of Terakaft. “Perhaps there’s a harder edge in the music because of what happened in Mali in 2012, but it’s an unconscious thing. Our goal with this was to make the songs very danceable,” says the guitarist and singer Sanou Ag Ahmed. Now that the Islamists have gone, the message Terakaft presents on this new album is that there is vital and energetic space for music in the desert.
“Calling for unity” is a theme of the album, which is apparent in the lyrics “stop telling stories and lies” from “Karambani (Nastiness).” The album includes not only new songs but also older numbers, such as “Amidinin Senta Aneflas (My confidant),” which certainly have timeless messages for the transnational as well as Tuareg audience. As on the band’s former albums, traditional percussive rhythms and hand clapping underlie most of the nine tracks on Alone. Layered guitar lines and various sound effects add additional flavor to the music and feel as though they circulate around listeners’ bodies.
After several lineup changes in the recent years, Terakaft is currently a 4 piece band. Guitarist and vocalist Liya Ag Ablil (aka Diara) and guitarist Sanou have been joined by Nicolas Grupp (drums) and Andrew Sudhibhasilp (bass), both of whom are French jazz musicians. Here’s a glimpse of the recording process and an interview with producer Justin Adams:
The album ends with a different version of the opening track “Anabayou”; the contrast between the opening danceable version and the latter more modest version without the group’s signature percussion indicates the difference of styles as the group’s members go back and forth in their life between sound in the desert and sound on the global stage.
A former graphic designer turned full-time musician, Kuku is adept at bridging borders and boundaries. Born in the U.S. but raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Kuku returned to the land of his birth for college and a stint in the Army, then relocated to Paris where he has developed a loyal following in Europe. However, it is his African roots and Yoruba heritage that come to the forefront on his sixth release, Ballads & Blasphemy. The title references Kuku’s transition from a “believer” to a man who cites ethics, rather than religion, as his moral compass. Each of the 11 tracks express rationales for his “areligious existence,” and are subtitled with his own gospel truths. Alternating between English, Yoruba, and French, the songs are performed by Kuku on vocals, acoustic guitar and udu. Backing is provided by an ensemble of acoustic and electric guitars, double and electric bass, and percussion (cajon, congas, drums).
Opening with “Wáya,” a traditional Yoruba-styled song about finding a wife and parental pressures on marriage, Kuku is joined by legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. Allen returns on “Owó,” another song in Yoruba cautioning that the gospel of money has become the God of man. On “Evil Doers” (the gospel of divine negligence), Kuku questions those who preach love and peace yet kill in the name of religion. This theme continues in “Open Your Eyes While You Pray,” warning against false prophets who will “Take you for a ride while you sing Hallelujah.”
For the track “La Dernière Fois,” Kuku took his inspiration from the Spiritual “This May Be the Last Time,” arranging a version that encompasses his three homelands as he sings the verses in French, English and Yoruba with an African choir accompanying him on the chorus. On the video, dances enact “the incessant acts of violence that plagues humanity as well as mankind’s resilience despite the odds.”
Other songs in English include “Is It All a Game?” (the gospel of divine machination) which asks “why does evil reign–who’s to blame?” and the closing track “If There is a Heaven,” with Kuku singing “If there is a heaven how come no one wants to die / Man will stop at nothing for a shot at paradise.”
A deeply personal album, Ballads & Blasphemy takes us on a journey that questions religious dogma in the music and languages of three continents. Alternatively, Kuku seeks to establish “music, love, peace and happiness” as his “creed while on this earth.”
Portuguese singer and musician Lura got her start in music at the age of seventeen when she was invited to be a back-up singer for an album of zouk music by the Lisbon-based singer Juka. A few years later Lura recorded her debut album, Nha Vida (1996), but her real break occurred in 2004 with the release of Di Korpu Ku Alma (Of Body and Soul). The first project to reflect her Cape Verdean ancestry, Di Korpu Ku Alma became a bestseller on the world music circuit and soon Lura was touring internationally.
Lura returns to her roots with Herança, which literally translates to Heritage—an apt title for an album focused on Cape-Verdean’s up-tempo funana beat. This is exemplified in the danceable opening track “Sabi di Más,” an original song by Lura that uses the standard 2-beat rhythm and accordion accompaniment as well as percussion and guitar. “Maria di Lida,” the first single from the album, is the story of a Cape Verdean woman who struggles to make ends meet and support his family:
Several of the songs on the album were written by Mário Lúcio Sousa, founder of the Cape Verdean group Simentera that’s known for returning the music to its acoustic roots and embracing African culture as an integral part of Cape Verdean identity. A fine example of this is “X da Questão,” an up-tempo song that also features accordion and acoustic guitar. Brazilian poet and Latin jazz percussionist Naná Vasconcelos is featured on the title track ”Heranca,” a slow, trance inducing song that’s nearly a capella with only gong and percussion offering a sparse accompaniment. This is followed by a much more contemporary, jazz-oriented song ”Barca di Papel,” featuring bassist Richard Bona. Also featured is the rising Cape-Verdean singer/guitarist Elida Almeida on ”Nhu Santiagu.” The album closes with “Cidade Velha,” a very melodic song about a village on the island of Santiago accompanied by acoustic guitar.
Herança showcases Lura’s captivating voice while offering danceable beats, acoustic instrumentation, and a fine introduction to the lilting rhythms of Cape Verde.
The reissue of Ginger Johnson and His African Messengers‘ 1967 album, African Party, tells you why Ginger Johnson was a key figure in the foundation of an African-influenced music style, later called Afrobeat. Starting with the opening track “I Jool Omo,” which highlights the combination of multi-layered percussion, jazz horn lines, and lyrics in a Yoruba dialect, this album clearly displays the sounds Ginger adopted during his career in London, such as traditional West African drums and Afro-Cuban style.
Born in Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria in 1916, George Folunsho Johnson (nicknamed “Ginger”) was orphaned and raised by his older sister who reputedly introduced him to classical music as well as traditional African sounds. Joining the Nigerian navy at the age of 18, Ginger soon made his first trip to Britain. After the end of World War II, he settled in London and became an Afro-Cuban percussionist, quickly making a huge impact on the London music scene. From the late-1940s and onward, he performed and recorded with brilliant London-based artists, including British saxophone legend Ronnie Scott and the Edmundo Ross Orchestra. Not only famous as a percussionist of the jazz and Latin bands of the day, Ginger Johnson was also known as a vibrant host of African and Caribbean musicians, young Fela Kuti among them. It was during such a period of the heyday of African music in London that Ginger formed his own band, Ginger Johnson and His African Messengers, and recorded African Party. Following is the album trailer/mini documentary:
As heard in track 5, “Talking Drum,” each track in the album is prompted by lively rhythmical percussion of West-African and Caribbean origins. Yet, overlaid melodies of saxophones, trumpet, and flute provide the danceable elements of Afro-Cuban jazz.
Besides his role as a musician, Ginger was a music educator, TV personality, and owner of the Iroko Country Club in North London. It is also notable that he performed with renowned rock bands, including Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. Now 40 years from his death in 1975, African Party is the first remastered reissue of Ginger’s recordings. This reissue will lead you to Ginger’s vital sound in the 1960s London, which was the precursor to Afrobeat.
In the late 1950s, producer Ibra Kassé started a movement “blending the Cuban styles of son montuno and patchanga with local folk traditions” in Dakar, Senegal. West African and Caribbean music were brought together and musicians from all over came to Kassé’s club to listen and dance to this unique, vibrant combination of sounds. One of these musicians was the Guinean percussionist and singer Amara Touré, who joined the Le Star Band de Dakar in 1958. After ten years with the band, he went to Cameroon and formed the Black and White ensemble, with whom he performed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. For the first time, the singles recorded during this period are available on CD (and reissued on vinyl) through Analog Africa on the compilation Amara Touré 1973-1980. They display his raw, soaring voice and impeccable drumming skills on tracks such as “N’Nijo” and “Lamento Cubano” that fuse Mandingue roots, traditional Senegalese music, and Cuban sounds.
The last four tracks on Amara Touré 1973-1980 come from Touré’s time with the Orchestre Massako in Gabon in 1980. After this, Touré “virtually disappeared” and was not heard from again. All the tracks have been remastered from the original session tapes and vinyl records, and this album marks the first time Amara Touré’s entire discography has been released. Amara Touré 1973-1980 memorializes one of the most influential Afro-Cuban artists of the 1970s and will be enjoyed by any lover of world music.
Operating on the premise that Fela Kuti, the Nigerian Afro-Pop pioneer, was somewhat unknown to American audiences until the Broadway musical “Fela!” opened in 2009, director Alex Gibney weaves extensive interviews and rehearsal footage from that production with a somewhat clipped and shallow biography of the actual Fela.
The result is an over-long documentary that underplays the revolutionary impact of the real Fela Kuti, both as a musical force and a political actor. The interviews with Kuti’s children touch on how much risk and abuse he endured in a stubborn quest to use popular music to upset and perhaps unseat the military dictators in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s. Fela sacrificed everything: his mother was thrown off a second-floor balcony by soldiers raiding his home, and she never fully recovered; his compound and recording studio were destroyed; and he was arrested and beaten numerous times, finally serving several years in a harsh prison. He never gave up, but eventually contracted AIDS as a result of his free-form lifestyle, and died at age 58 in 1997.
Fela Kuti’s real life provides plenty of grist for a great documentary, but instead we get half a film documenting the rehearsals, self-aggrandizing production talk and snippets of performances from the Broadway production. While this footage is visually compelling, it’s boring compared to the real Fela.
To “find” Fela, the fim crew should have stayed in Africa, included longer segments of Fela himself speaking (he was interviewed numerous times), and letting his children tell more about what Nigeria was like while Fela was alive and trying to effect change. It’s also worth noting that many American music fans don’t need to “find” Fela because we knew all about him, as the pioneer of Afro-Pop, a known and promoted EMI recording artist, a man whose music has often been discussed and sampled in the years after his death, a known and admired political activist, etc.
Mbongwana Star began when Congolese singers Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza, formerly members of Staff Benda Bilili, heard the album Black Voices by Nigerian drummer Tony Allen with the eclectic Parisian producer Doctor L. Inspired by Allen’s different sound, they decided to leave behind their rumba days and create something new. “Mbongwana,” which means change, grew out of this transition and their desire to make more futuristic music. They reached out to Doctor L and joined together a few more players, both relatives and people they knew from their street jams, to create the band Mbongwana Star, a fusion of traditional Afro-Caribbean rhythms with modern electronic and rock music.
From Kinshasa is Mbongwana Star’s debut album and is named after the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The band describes the city on their website: “the whole continent danced to its premium musical exports: rumba and soukous. Then war, corruption and chaos bought Kinshasa to its knees.” Along with other artists, photographers, designers, technicians, and sculptors, Mbongwana Star is “refashioning waste into unimagined objects, sounds, happenings, ideas.” They have certainly succeeded in From Kinshasa, a fearless, unapologetic mix of the traditional and modern.
The single from the album, “Malukayi feat. Konono No.1,” resides somewhere in between soft rock and smooth electronica. Though woven together by a melodic guitar that almost has the timbre of an mbira, other parts of the song use distortion which Doctor L intentionally added, saying “There are three TVs going full blast. Distortion multiplies the energy.” Vocals are interspersed throughout the song, falling in and out effortlessly and functioning more as an instrument than words. The music video features “The Congo Astronaut,” who is content to wander the streets of Kinshasa in a spacesuit:
“Masobélé” and “Kala” both sound like popular songs that could be heard on the radio. The vocals in “Masobélé” resemble rapping until the end, which is thirty seconds of soulful harmonic singing. There is a soft flute in the background and even the sound of heavy breathing. “Kala” has more of a club feel, with percussion led by an upbeat drum set with electronic beeps that fade in and out of the track.
“Coco Blues,” an extremely soothing track that stands out as one of the most acoustic songs on the album, is also one of the only songs where the vocals truly take the lead. Coco and Theo’s soulful yet guttural voices are what make this track so raw and moving.
“1 Million C’est Quoi?” is the sole track that was not written or arranged by Doctor L and, like “Coco Blues,” does not have a heavy production. Allowing the raw musical abilities of Mbongwana Star to shine, the song is driven by harmonious vocals, group choruses, rocking guitar, and Afro-Caribbean production.
Mbongwana Star’s goal for their music is to “get out of the Afro-African straightjacket into which everyone tries to put African bands.” From Kinshasa achieves that goal and, while eclectic, offers a cohesive fusion of styles and sounds. Doctor L’s distinctive production style and electronic effects bring something new to Congolese music, but what makes this album most successful is that Mbongwana Star never put aside their Afro-Caribbean roots or their immense musical talent while boldly incorporating many genres into one new sound.
It is easy to adopt a reductionist view of African music as consisting mainly or even exclusively of drumming. Listening to Mali Overdrive forces one to revisit, if not totally abandon this hackneyed and groundless concept. This album is not merely another conglomerate of sounds from different guitars as has become typical of some Afro-pop (although guitars are not absent), but incorporates original Malian instruments, especially the riff producing ngoni and the mesmerizing soku fiddle, as well as the sound of the calabash. There you have it––African music with indigenous African instruments!
While the rhythm, “electrified and reenergized” under Anansy Cissé’s direction, is characteristically Fulani and Songhai, the lyrical content is generally about life. There are ten tracks in all, dealing with issues such as social living, love, dance and Malian history. The tracks in order of their arrangement are as follows: 1. Baala, 2. Fati Ka, 3. Aïgouna, 4. Sekou Amadou, 5.Wamassiheme, 6. Agobene, 7. Alhamidou, 8. Aye Woma, 9. Horey and 10. Gomni. However, more interesting is the fact that these tracks were recorded over a period five months (January to May 2013), indicating a rigorous engagement with the recording.
Cissé, whom Rachel Jackson and Philippe Sanmiguel (authors of the liner notes) describe as “a pioneer of new music that champions ancient tradition and uncharted modernity at once,” presents to a world audience a “gutsy guitar style that plays on tradition by matching it with direct influence of 1960s and 1970s psychedelic-flavored rock and roll.”
Since the early 2000s, Peruvian band Novalima has worked together to bridge the divide between the mainstream and the minority Afro-Peruvian community, which has faced discrimination and cultural dissolution for generations. Their latest album, Planetario, has a more international outlook and includes guests from Colombia, Spain, and the UK/New Zealand. The album includes a song written in honor of the legendary Peruvian percussionist and Novalima band member Mangue Vasquez, who passed away in 2014, titled “Como Yo.” He asked friends to celebrate his life rather than mourn, which is inspired the chorus “Gozen la vida como y,” which means “Enjoy life like I do.” Combining traditional Afro-Peruvian instruments such as cajon, shekere, and quijada with electronic synth and bass, Novalima creates funky Latin electronic dance music that is sure to get you moving.