Posts filed under 'World Music'

Arturo O’Farrill & Chucho Valdés – Familia Tribute To Bebo and Chico

La Familie
Title: Familia Tribute To Bebo and Chico

Artist: Arturo O’Farrill & Chucho Valdés

Label: Motéma Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

Familia Tribute To Bebo and Chico is an awe-inspiring collaborative album between Arturo O’Farrill and Chucho Valdez. Spanning three generations of musicians, the project is a tribute to the musical legacy of their fathers: Dionisio Ramón Emilion “Bebo” Valdés Amaro and Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill. The first half presents a blending of Afro-Cuban music genres, jazz idioms, and Haitian meringue, and overall is reminiscent of Latin jazz compositions of the 1950s-90s. The large ensemble instrumentation is a reminder of the Cuban dance bands and the jazz big band traditions, setting brass against saxes on a bed of Afro-Cuban rhythms. The second half of the album introduces the voices of the third generation (ensemble) with compositions influenced by current trends in jazz—odd meter, hip hop, funk, etc.—mixed with Afro-Cuban genres—danzón, songo, and other rhythmic patterns.

The album opens in a celebratory fashion with the tune “BeboChicoChuchoTuro,” which is a joyous Haitian meringue, beginning with an extremely rhythmic piano cadenza that sets up the carnivalesque feeling in the ensemble. The lush harmonies in the horn section create a festive feeling while the rhythm section invites listeners to dance and stomp their feet. On “Fathers, Mothers, Sons, Daughters” we encounter the meeting of the second generation, Chucho and Arturo, with the melodious and virtuosic playing of the third generation: pianist Leyanis Valdés, drummer Jessie Valdés (later on “Recuerdo”), trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, and drummer Zack O’Farrill. The improvised solos, between each soloist, display the versatility and musicality of both families.

The later “Recuerdo” adds a warm almost nostalgic sensation, with its medium tempo and surprising rhythmic superimpositions, creating an intimate space for listeners. On “Pura Emoción,” and “Para Chico,” Chucho Valdés and Arturo O’Farrill perform two heartfelt solo piano pieces filled with emotion as they pay homage to their fathers. The final song “Raja Ram” presents an unexpected twist with the addition of musician Anoushka Shankar, who plays an electrified sitar solo that doesn’t disappoint the listener.

Familia Tribute To Bebo and Chico serves as a historical marker of the legacy between the Valdés and O’Farrill families, paying tribute to both old and new influences in Afro-Cuban music and jazz.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

View review September 1st, 2017

Aruán Ortiz – Cub(an)ism

Aruán Ortiz
Title: Cub(an)ism

Artist: Aruán Ortiz

Label: Intakt

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 18, 2017

 

 

Cuban-born pianist Aruán Ortiz blends Cuban traditional rhythms with Cubist concepts and elements of free jazz improvisation in his astounding new release Cub(an)ism. This solo piano album is filled with fragments taken from both sides of the Cuban-Cubist spectrum, using the fundamental Afro-Cuban rhythmic structures as vehicles for Ortiz’s Cubist expressions. On “L’ouverture” he uses the Afro-Haitian gagá rhythm as a motif, which is developed further as the piece progresses. “Cuban Cubism,” however, begins with free improvisation, later combining Afro-Cuban 6/8 rhythmic patterns in the left hand with jazz melodic phrases in the right hand.

Cub(an)ism is a model for any aspiring musician interested in blending folkloric musics and classical structures.

Editors note: This fall Ortiz will be touring the U.S. and performing at jazz festivals in Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

View review September 1st, 2017

Betsayda Machado & La Parranda El Clavo – Loé Loá: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree

Betsayo Machado album cover

Title: Loé Loá: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree

Artist: Betsayda Machado & La Parranda El Clavo

Label: Odelia

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 14, 2017

 

Known as “the Black voice of Barlovento,” Venezuelan vocalist Betsayda Machado and her fellow musicians hail from descendants of rebel slaves who lived in clandestine villages deep in the Barlovento region of Venezuela. One of the most culturally distinctive traditions that has endured in these villages is Afro-Latin drumming, or tambor venezolano, expressed through the local genre parranda. This percussion heavy music, often performed by as many as one hundred musicians at village celebrations and funerals, has many different branches. Machado and her village band, La Parranda El Clavo, prefer to focus on the “trunk,” which she defines as the drums and vocals that form the heart of their tradition: “We are purists; we don’t worry about adding lots of melodic instruments. We defend the old ways and make our own drums.”

Though Machado has performed on world music stages in North America and with bands in Caracas, it wasn’t until recent years that efforts were made to capture her music in situ with La Parranda El Clavo. Thanks to the efforts of producer Juan Souki and Jose Luis Pardo (aka Los Amigos Invisibles’ DJ Afro), field recordings made in the village by Latin Grammy-winner Dario Penaloza were transformed into the groups’ debut album, Loé Loá: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree.

Featuring a 16 member chorus and 12 member percussion ensemble, all of the tracks on the album vibrate with the spirit of El Clavo. In particular, “Oh Santa Rosa” and “Merengada E’ Ron” perhaps best exemplify the virtuosity of the drumming, along with “No La Peles, Papá” and “La Situación” which also address current hardships and food shortages in Venezuela. The band also advocates against gun violence through the poignant song “Sentimiento,” written following the death of two of their friends:

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Loé Loá presents an intimate portrait of a centuries old musical tradition that connects a small village in Venezuela with its African roots.

Editor’s note: Betsayda Machado is touring the U.S. this fall, including performances on September 16-17 at the World Music Festival Chicago and Sept. 30 at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington, IN.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review September 1st, 2017

August Releases of Note

Following are additional albums released during August 2017—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.

Blues, Folk, Country
Altered Five Blues Band : Charmed & Dangerous (Blind Pig)
Big Joe Turner : San Francisco 1977 (Rockbeat)
Dan Zanes and Friends: Lead Belly, Baby! (Smithsonian Folkways)
Steve Howell & Jason Weinheimer: Hundred Years From Today (Out of the Past)

Classical, Broadway
McGill McHale Trio: Portraits – Works for Flute, Clarinet & Piano (Cedille)
Various: The View Upstairs (Original Cast Recording) (Broadway Records)

Comedy, Spoken Word
Tiffany Haddish: She Ready! From Hood to Hollywood! (Comedy Dynamics)

Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic
Fifth Harmony:  S/T (Syco Music/Epic)
Ghostpoet: Dark Days + Canapés (Play It Again Sam)
Peter Ngqibs: Let Me Go (Ananm Ent.)
Ronettes: The Colpix Years, 1961-1963 (Cornbread)
Van Hunt: Popular (digital) (Blue Note)

Gospel, Gospel Rap, CCM
Brinson: Thornz (GodChaserz Ent.)
Chevelle Franklyn: Set Time (N.O.W.)
Clark Sisters: You Brought the Sunshine, Sound of Gospel 1976-1981 (Kent)
Cobbs Leonard, Tasha:  Heart. Passion. Pursuit. (Motown Gospel)
Deitrick Haddon & Hill City Worship Camp: S/T (eOne)
Jared Robinson & Resurrection Worship: The Repentance
Jimmy Hicks & ACOJ: Waterway (Blacksmoke Music)
Judy Bailey: Between You and Me
Melvin Williams: Where I Started From (New Day)
Poetic Lace: King of the City (digital)
Reconcile: Streets Don’t Love You (mixtape)
Terrence Cotton: Live in Atlanta (Puretonez Productions)
The Blind Boys Of Alabama: Almost Home (BBOA Records)
TNED: Geneuslife (Royal Oath Ent)
Travis Greene: Crossover: Live From Music City (RCA Inspiration)

Jazz
Andrew McCormack, ESKA: Graviton (Jazz Village)
Brenda Nicole Moorer:  Brand New Heart (CD Baby)
Darren Barrett: dB-ish
Eclectik Percussions Orchestra:  Traces De Vie – Traces Of Life (Passin’ Thru)
Harold Mabern : To Love and Be Loved (Smoke Sessions)
Jamire Williams: Effectual (Carlos Nino & Friend)
John Vanore : Stolen Moments: Celebrating Oliver Nelson (Acoustical Concepts)
Kris Johnson Group & Lulu Fall: The Unpaved Road (Artist Centric Music)
Najee:  Poetry in Motion (Shanachie)
New Vision Sax Ensemble: Musical Journey Through Time (Zaki Publishing)
Tyshawn Sorey: Verisimilitude (PI)
Ulysses Owens, Jr. :Falling Forward (Spice of Life )
Various: Soul of a Nation: Afro-Centric Visions in the Age of Black Power (Soul Jazz)
Dial & Oatts: Rediscovered Ellington

R&B, Soul
Brian McKnight : Genesis (Independent Label Services, Inc.)
D’Angelo: Brown Sugar (expanded ed.) (Virgin/Ume)
Decosta Boyce: Electrick Soul (Vintedge)
Joshua Ledet: S/T (digital) (SoNo Recording Group)
Kim Tibbs: Kim (Expansion)
R.LUM.R  : Afterimage (PRMD)
The Steoples: From the Otherside (Stones Throw)
Thelma Houston: Summer Nights
Undisputed Truth : Nothing But The Truth (Kent)
V.Lace: What Love Does
Various: Soul of the 70s (Box set) (Time-Life)
Wilson Pickett:  Sings Bobby Womack (Kent)

Rap, Hip Hop
A$AP Ferg: Still Striving  (RCA)
Akua Naru: Miner’s Canary (vinyl reissue) (Urban Era)
Andy Mineo & Wordsplayed : Magic & Bird  (Reach)
Apollo Brown & Planet Asia: Anchovies (Mello Music Group)
Berner & Young Dolph:  Tracking Numbers (Bern One Ent)
Chip: League of My Own II  (Cash Motto)
Chris $pencer: Blessed (Perpetual Rebel)
Ea$y Money: Flyer Lansky (EA$Y MONEY)
Grieves: Running Wild (Rhymesayers)
Gunplay: The Fix Tape ( X-Ray)
Illa J: Home (Jakarta)
Japhia Life: Welcome to Heartsville (Arms Out)
Joseph Chilliams: Henry Church (mixtape)
Lil B: Black Ken (BasedWorld)
MadeinTYO: True’s World (Commission)
Mozzy: 1 Up Top Ahk (Mozzy/Empire)
Pawz One: Pick Your Poison (Below System/Dope Shit)
Perceptionists (Mr. Lif & Akrobatik): Resolution (Mello Music)
Sean Price: Imperius Rex (Duck Down Music)
Slim Thug, Killa Kyleon:  Havin Thangs 2K17 (SoSouth)
Tattoo Money : Untitled EP
Too $hort: The Pimp Tape (Dangerous Music)
Wordsworth & Sam Brown: Our World Today (Fat Beats)

Reggae, Dancehall
Alborosie: Freedom in Dub (Greensleeves)
Barry Brown: Step It Up Youthman (Radiation Roots)
IamStylezMusic: Back to My Roots (Blaze Ent)
New Kingston:  A Kingston Story: Come From Far (Easy Star)
Rico Rodriguez & Friends: Unreleased Early Recordings (Dubstore)
Roy Panton & Yvonne Harrison: Studio Recordings 1961-70 (Liquidator)
Shurwayne Winchester: Shurwayne (VPAL Music)
Spacewave: Space Dub (Megawave)
Tanya Asaki: Simply Me (Treasure Chest Prod.)
U-Roy:  Dread in Babylon (Get On Down)

World
Bro. Valentino:  Stay Up Zimbabwe (Limited ed.) (Analog Africa)
Jay-U Experience: Enough is Enough (Soundways)
Sibusile Xaba: Open Letter To Adoniah (Mushroom Half Hour)
Various: Afrobeats Hot Hits: New Urban Dance Grooves from Africa (Shanachie)
Black Boy: Sa E Nan Bouda’w
Various: Sweet as Broken Dates – Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

 

 

View review September 1st, 2017

Ilú Keké – Transmisión en la Eritá Meta

Bata drums image

Album: Transmisión en la Eritá Meta

Artist:  Ilú Keké

Label: Music Works NYC

Release date: August 10, 2017

Formats: CD, MP3

 

 

Ethnomusicologist Amanda Villepastour and Cuban producer Luis Bran have teamed up to bring the story of multi-generational religious drums, Ilú Keké, to a global audience. The 21-track album, titled Transmisión en la Eritá Meta, is a rich introduction to Yorùbá deity traditions conducted in the diasporic setting of Cidra. Resulting from the witnessed reminisces of the late Justiliano Pelladito, this musical project took both Villepastour and Bran on an iconic journey to uncover the history of Ilú Keké, one of the oldest remaining bàtá sets in the Matanzas region of Cuba.

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The musicality of the album is captivating, even to the novice. Detailed liner notes guide listeners through each selection, providing the history and purpose in addition to key visual images. Locations in and around Cidra feature as prominent backdrops for each track, adding to the presentation’s depth of cultural offering. Drifting between gritty field recordings and pristine studio production, Ilú Keké’s deep-rooted spiritual meaning is captured through powerful drumming that transmits sacred knowledge from the elders to following generations. Transmisión en la Eritá Meta ensures that Ilú Keké takes its rightful place in Cuba’s history of bàtá drumming.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

 

View review August 1st, 2017

July 2017 Releases of Note

Following are additional albums released during July 2017—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.

 Blues, Folk, Country
Jimmy Reed: Mr. Luck Complete Vee-Jay Singles (Craft)
King James & The Special Men: Act Like You Know (Special Man)
Mighty Joe Young: Live From North Side of Chicago (RockBeat)
Various: Worried Blues series (Fat Possum)

Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic
Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup: Rocks (Bear Family)
Kevin Saunderson: Heavenly Revisited (KMS)
Lafa Taylor & Aabo: Feel (Mixto)
Polyseeds: Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1 (Ropeadope)
Taveeta: Resurrection (Gladiator)
Toro Y Moi: Boo Boo (Carpark )

Gospel, Gospel Rap, CCM
Anita Wilson:  Sunday Song (eOne Music Nashville)
Anthony Brown & Group Therapy: A Long Way From Sunday (Tyscot)
Bill Moss Jr : Songbook of Praise & Worship (Salathiel)
Gene Moore: The Future (Motown Gospel)
Le’Andria Johnson: Bigger Than Me  (Verity)
Ricky McDuffie & The Family: He Changed Me (Ophirgospel)
Sho Baraka: The Narrative, Vol. 2: Pianos & Politics (Columbia)
Tauren Wells:  Hills and Valleys (Reunion)

Jazz
Ahmad Jamal : Marseille (Jazz Village)
Bryant/Fabian/Marsalis : Do For You? (Cap)
Charles Lloyd New Quartet: Passin’ Thru (Blue Note)
Cyrus Chestnut: There’s A Sweet, Sweet Spirit (HighNote)
Dezron Douglas Quartet: Soul Jazz
Douyé: Daddy Said So (Rhombus)
Eric Gale: The Definitive Collection  (Robinsongs)
Eric Roberson: Wind  (Blue Erro Soul)
Gary Bartz Ntu Troop: Harlem Bush Music (reissue) (Jazz Dispensary)
Gerald Beckett: Oblivion (Summit)
Gerald Cannon: Combinations (Woodneck)
Joe Henderson & Alice Coltrane: Elements (reissue) (Jazz Dispensary)
Russell Malone: Time for the Dancers (Highnote)
Stanton Moore: With You In Mind Songs of Allen Toussaint (Cool Green)
Yolanda Brown: Love Politics War (Black Grape)

R&B, Soul
Alfa Anderson: Music from My Heart (digital)
Aretha Franklin: Divas Live (MVD Visual)
Don’t Miss A Beat: My Destiny (digital)
Eddy Grant: Reparation (Ice)
Esther Phillips: Beautiful Friendship Kudu Anth. 1971-76 (SoulMusic)
Force M.D.’S:  Our Favorite Joints (Goldenlane)
Harvey Mason: Sho Nuff Groovin You: Arista Anthology   (BBR)
Jimmy Reed: Mr. Luck Complete Vee-Jay Singles (Craft)
LeVert: Family Reunion The Anthology (SoulMusic )
Mr. Jukes: God First (Alamo/Interscope)
Royce Lovett: Love & Other Dreams (Motown Gospel)
Sam Frazier, Jr.: Take Me Back (Big Legal Mess)
Sevyn Streeter: Girl Disrupted  (Atlantic)
Ultra Naté & Quentin Harris: Black Stereo Faith (Peace Bisquit)
Various: Complete Loma Singles Vol. 1 (Real Gone Music)
Various: Foxy Brown OST (expanded) (Motown)

Rap, Hip Hop
Aminé: Good For You Explicit (Republic)
Decompoze: Maintain Composure (Orchestrated Prods)
Dizzee Rascal: Raskit (Island)
DJ Harrison : HazyMoods (Stones Throw)
DJ Krush : Kakusei
Gensu Dean & Wise Intelligent: Game of Death (Mello Music)
Illa J: Home (Jakarta Records)
Issa: 21 Savage (Epic)
Madchild: The Darkest Hour  (Battle Axe)
Malik Turner:  Invisible Freedom  (Osceola Music Group)
Marquee: Femme Fatale (Marvel/Shinigamie)
Marty Baller: Baller Nation (916% Ent.)
Meek Mill: Wins & Losses (Atlantic)
Philthy Rich: Neighborhood Supastar 4 (dig.) (Empire)
SahBabii : S.A.N.D.A.S. (Warner Bros.)
Shabazz Palaces: Quazarz Born on a Gangster Star (Sub Pop)
Snoop Dogg: Neva Left (Empire)
Stalley: New Wave (Real Talk Ent.)
The Doppelgangaz: Dopp Hopp  (Groggy Pack Ent.)
Therman, Prod. Roc Marciano: Sabbath (Hardtimes)
Trae tha Truth: Tha Truth, Pt. 3 (ABN)
Tyler, The Creator: Flower Boy (Sony)
Vic Mensa: The Autobiography (Roc Nation)
Wizkid: Sounds From the Other Side (Starboy/RCA Records)

Reggae
Chronixx: Chronology (Virgin)
Damian Marley: Stony Hill (Island)
Delroy Wilson: Here Comes the Heartaches  (Kingston Sound)
Various: Treasure Isle Story: The Soul of Jamaica (Sanctuary)

World
Rio Mira: Marimba Del Pacifico (Aya Records)
Sibusile Xaba: S/T (Mushroom Half Hour)
XOA: Mass/Mon Ecole EP (Soundway)
Jupiter & Okwess : Kin Sonic (Glitterbeat)

View review August 1st, 2017

Bokanté – Strange Circles

Strange Circles
Title: Strange Circles

Artist: Bokanté

Label: GroundUP

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: June 9, 2017

 

The members of Snarky Puppy have attained quintessential listening status for many in jam band, jazz-fusion, and groove-rock circles. Members of this group and musicians closely associated with them tend to have a distinctive “sound,” one which draws heavily from jammy fusion and incorporates elements of world music. Strange Circles, the debut release from Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League’s new side project Bokanté  falls comfortably into the world music mold.

League swaps his bass for a baritone guitar on Strange Circles, and is joined by two Snarky Puppy band mates, Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti. The group also includes percussionists Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, and steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier. Vocalist/songwriter Malika Tirolien rounds out the group, delivering original songs she and League co-wrote. Tirolien, a native of the Caribbean island Guadeloupe, sings a veritable chorus of thickly arranged multi-track vocals in Creole and French throughout the album.

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Even though most of the album prep was completed remotely, this band’s playing is fluid.  This may be due to the musicians’ skill or the tight arrangements, but at any rate it is a testament to what real pros can do in collaboration. The percussionists create powerful layers of rhythm throughout the record and the guitar quartet complements this with complex harmonies, making guitar interplay a highlight of this album. Collier’s steel guitar playing is especially worth listening carefully to — he takes a number of compelling solos, on cuts like ¨Jou Ké Ouvé” and ¨O La,” where his pedal steel almost sounds like the many vocal layers that permeate the album. The other guitarists mostly stick to riffing, but the song “Vayan” features dueling guitar solos, on a cut that sounds like an Afrobeat reading of Led Zeppelin.

One thing that the careful listener quickly learns about with Strange Circles is that the band’s approach to creating musical interest depends on two things: scaffolding layers of vocals and instruments and Collier’s steel guitar entering at dramatic moments.  This is a winning formula, but it is systematic nonetheless — listeners will likely be quick to learn the build-breakdown-build approach that permeates most of the songs on this album. Collier ends up being the star of the show on most tracks, in part due to the timing of his entrances and in part due to his lyricism. It would be easy to draw comparisons between his fluidity on steel and blues/rock/world fusion guitarist Derek Trucks’s lyrical slide guitar. A few songs do break with the build-breakdown-build form, however: “Apathie Mortelle” burns slow, with excellent ambience playing by the guitarists, relying on chorus-drenched chords and controlled feedback to play off of the intricate layers of voice and percussion. The album’s closer, “Héritier,” is an acoustic and synth-driven ballad that stills the energy of some of the disc’s more frenetic moments.

I wish that English lyric translations were available for those listening to the digital versions of this album, particularly given the Creole dialect that many the lyrics on this album are composed in. As a monolingual English speaker reviewing the digital copy of this album, it was difficult for me to difficult to understand and thus comment on the poetry or lyrical themes. But that aside, Strange Circles is full of compelling music that is certainly worth a listen for fans of genre-bending grooves.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review July 7th, 2017

Zaire ’74 – The African Artists

Zaire 74

Title: Zaire ’74 – The African Artists

Artist: Various

Label: Wrasse

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 26, 2017

 

In conjunction with the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and concert promoter Steward Levine planned a 3-day music festival in Kinshasa, the capitol of what was then Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Held in the country’s largest sports stadium, the event included performances by James Brown, Bill Withers, the Crusaders, the Fania All-Stars with Celia Cruz and Ray Barretto, and other American stars. Also featured were the top stars of Zaire and folk singer Miriam Makeba, who hailed from Masekela’s home country of South Africa.

When the fight was delayed due to Foreman suffering a training injury, the music festival became a stand-alone event, three weeks removed from the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Both the fight and the musical performances of the American artists were previously well known, in part via the excellent documentaries. The Oscar-winning When We Were Kings documented the fight and Soul Power captured the American musical performances with some brief African musical segments, plus the behind-the-scenes story of staging the festival. Now, finally, the complete performances of the African artists have been released.

According to Masekela’s liner notes, even though all of the music performances were well recorded with modern equipment, event promoter Don King tied legal knots around releasing it. Given King’s history of, to put it charitably, non-traditional business dealings, Masekela’s version of events seems credible. In any case, most of the performances on this 2-CD set haven’t been available until now, 43 years after the event.

Miriam Makeba was already world-famous in 1974, and she put on a superb performance in Zaire. Like the other artists, she prepared a “Praise Song” for the country’s ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko. This was probably part tribute to the man who had led Zaire to independence from Belgian colonization, and partly insurance for safe passage in a country ruled with an iron fist by Mobutu.

Although all of the artists featured in the album offer something worthwhile, two bands stand out. Tabu Ley Rochereau and Afrisa present a guitar and horn-driven funk style that would be at home in the Nigeria of 1974, or opening up for James Brown. Franco and T.P.O.K. Jazz was already popular in Zaire, and they put on a flawless and fast-paced performance. In the interest of full disclosure, almost all lyrics are sung in non-English languages. The horn runs, complex beats and funky song structures are at home in any language.

This album makes a great companion to the two excellent documentaries, all mementos of a long-ago Big Event.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review June 1st, 2017

Naomi Wachira – Song of Lament

Naomi Wachira
Title: Song of Lament

Artist: Naomi Wachira

Label: Doreli Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 2, 2017

 

Between civil wars, natural disasters, environmental crisis, and refugees fighting for their lives across the globe, it is easy to feel surrounded by despair and violence. Seattle-based, Kenya-born artist Naomi Wachira certainly feels this way. On her sophomore release Song of Lament, she sings out looking for a connection by means of our mutual destruction: “I am the only one who thinks we’re gonna go up in flames?” (“Up In Flames”). Wachira, who grew up singing in gospel choirs, tries to reconcile faith and hope with insurmountable suffering on Song of Lament, which comes out June 2 on Doreli Music.

Wachira says that she was inspired to write Song of Lament when she read about 700 men, women, and children who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach a better life: “I felt so helpless watching people die needlessly, and I wanted to do something that would bring to light these issues.” The Afro-folk singer songwriter weaves empathy and a common thread of humanity through all the despair, whether questioning how people can use god to justify violence (“Where Is God?”) or urging those who feel life crashing in on them to continue fighting (“Run, Run, Run”).

Backed by acoustic guitar and bare bones percussion, for the most part Wachira’s effortless voice is in control here. A few songs have more involved instrumentation, such as “Beautifully Human,” which has an upbeat reggae beat as Wachira calls for seeing all life as sacred, tired of questions about who deserves to live:

“Don’t make me prove why I should be, why I belong, why I deserve to be here.”

“Up in Flames” also employs horns and drumset that add to the urgency and power of Wachira’s voice and desperation to find any spark of hope: “Where is kindness? Where is love?”

Though most of the tracks deal uniquely with global pain and suffering, Wachira still sees reason to seek light in the darkness. The opening and closing tracks, “Our Days Are Numbered” and “Think Twice,” are songs that beg for hope, as Wachira calls for a renewed responsibility to be kind, respect others, and show love before hate. As she says on her website, “while the sun does not discriminate between the good and the bad, fulfillment is found when we spend our days practicing kindness and wisdom.” In the end, Song of Lament is a cautionary message: evil will triumph over good if we let ourselves grow numb to the pain and suffering. Wachira wants the listener to turn into the despair instead of away from it, saying only through shared empathy will people find the energy to take action.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review June 1st, 2017

Battle of Santiago – La Migra

La Migra
Title: La Migra

Artist: Battle of Santiago

Label: Made With Pencil Crayons

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: April 28, 2017

 

Battle of Santiago blends together Afro-Cuban and Canadian influences rooted in jazz and electronic music to create their atmospheric sound. Recorded in a private Canadian studio, the band titled their album La Migra, translated as “deportation police,” not based on the current political climate, but rather on their own experiences and challenges migrating to Toronto. The sentiment extends to the related struggles in the United States all the same. La Migra is the third full-length album release on their own independent label following Full Colour (2012) and Followed by Thousands (2013) since Battle of Santiago formed in 2011.

La Migra opens with “Aguanileo,” a dedication to the deity of warriors named Oggun in a seven-minute jam that builds and falls with creative technical sound manipulation. “Rumba Libre” follows the introduction with a percussive meditation detailed with saxophone riffs. Each track vamps with consistently complex rhythms and instrumental variety, creating an album teeming with intensity. The energy exhibited throughout the music of La Migra is cumulative, drawing listeners into a deeply focused state of mind.

Particularly with “Barasu-Ayo” parts one and two, Battle of Santiago’s utilization of choral and solo Yoruba chants weave together with sustained electric guitar chords, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and carefully crafted electronic tones to produce a peculiar and entrancing listening experience. Whether witnessing La Migra performed live on stage or listening to it through headphones with eyes closed, it is interesting to imagine the varying experiential states of mind that could be induced by this pulsating music.

 

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review May 2nd, 2017

Les Amazones d’Afrique – République Amazone

Les Amazones
Title: République Amazone

Artist: Les Amazones d’Afrique

Label: Real World Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: April 28, 2017

 

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:

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review April 4th, 2017

Tamikrest – Kidal

Tamikrest
Title: Kidal

Artist: Tamikrest

Label: Glitterbeat Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 17, 2017

 

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.

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review April 4th, 2017

Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang – Build Music

Janka Nabay
Title: Build Music

Artist: Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang

Label: Luaka Bop

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: March 24, 2017

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review March 1st, 2017

Synthesize the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica from the Cape Verde Islands 1973-1988

Synthesize the soul
Title: Synthesize the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica from the Cape Verde Islands 1973-1988

Artist: Various

Label: Ostinato Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 24, 2017

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review February 1st, 2017

Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet

Hamlet
Title:  Hamlet

Artist: Royal Shakespeare Company

Label: Opus Arte/Naxos

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 1st, 2017

Élage Diouf – Melokáane

elage

Title: Melokáane

Artist: Élage Diouf

Label: Pump on the World

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 30, 2016

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review January 3rd, 2017

M.A.K.U. Soundsystem – Mezcla

maku-soundsystem

Title: Mezcla

Artist: M.A.K.U. Soundsystem

Label: Glitterbeat Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 27, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review November 1st, 2016

Lorraine Klaasen – Nouvelle Journée

lorrain-klaasen

Title: Nouvelle Journée

Artist: Lorraine Klaasen

Label: Justin Time

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 21, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review November 1st, 2016

Space Echo: The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed

space-echo
Title: Space Echo: The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed

Artists: Various

Label: Analog Africa

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: May 27, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review November 1st, 2016

Richard Bona & Mandekan Cubano – Heritage

richard-bona
Title: Heritage

Artist: Richard Bona & Mandekan Cubano

Label: Qwest

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 24, 2016

 

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”:

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review October 3rd, 2016

Wesli – Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle

wesli
Title: Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle

Artist: Wesli

Label: Wes Urban Productions

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 11, 2016

 

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.”

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review October 3rd, 2016

Debo Band – Ere Gobez

debo-band
Title: Ere Gobez

Artist: Debo Band

Label: FPE

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 20, 2016

 

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:

Ere Gobez Album Trailer from Debo Band on Vimeo.

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review October 3rd, 2016

Bob Baldwin – Brazilian-American Soundtrack

BobBaldwin

Title: Brazilian-American Soundtrack

Artist: Bob Baldwin

Label: City Sketches/Red River

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: July 1, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review September 1st, 2016

Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal – Musique De Nuit

sissoko and segal_musique de nuit

Title: Musique De Nuit

Artist: Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal

Label: Six Degrees

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 11, 2015

 

 

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.

 

Reviewed by Adolf Alzuphar

View review July 1st, 2016

Joe Driscoll & Sekou Kouyate – Monistic Theory

joe driscoll sekou kouyate_monistic theory

Title: Monistic Theory

Artist: Joe Driscoll & Sekou Kouyate

Label: Cumbancha

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 13, 2016

 

 

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:

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review May 2nd, 2016

Daby Touré – Amonafi

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Title: Amonafi

Artist: Daby Touré

Label: Cumbancha

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 18, 2015

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

 

View review May 2nd, 2016

Ram – Ram 6: Manman m se Ginen

ram 6

Title: Ram 6: Manman m se Ginen

Artist: Ram

Label: Willibelle Publishing & Sales

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: January 15, 2016

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Adolf Alzuphar

View review May 2nd, 2016

Lakou Mizik – Wa Di Yo

lakou mizik_wa di yo

Title: Wa Di Yo

Artist: Lakou Mizik

Label: Cumbancha

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: April 1, 2016

 

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.

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review April 1st, 2016

Aziza Brahim – Abbar el Hamada

AzizaBrahim

Title: Abbar el Hamada

Artist: Aziza Brahim

Label: Glitterbeat

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 4, 2016

 

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:

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review March 1st, 2016

Two Compilations of 1970’s African Pop Music

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Title: Soul Sok Sega: Sega Sounds from Mauritius, 1973-1979

Artists: Various

Label: Strut

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: January 16, 2016

 

senegal 70

Title: Senegal 70: Sonic Gems and Previously Released Recordings from the 70s

Artists: Various

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.

 

 

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review March 1st, 2016

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