Posts filed under 'World Music'

Bob Baldwin – Brazilian-American Soundtrack

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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

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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

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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

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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

 

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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

DIEUF-DIEUL de Thiès – Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2

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Title: Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2

Artist: DIEUF-DIEUL de Thiès

Label: Teranga Beat / Forced Exposure

Formats: CD, MP3, 2LP Collector’s Ltd Edition (300 copies), 2LP Deluxe Edition

Release date: October 30, 2015

 

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.

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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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review February 2nd, 2016

Terakaft – Alone

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Title: Alone

Artist: Terakaft

Label: Outhere records

Format: CD

Release date: May 8, 2015

 

 

With aggressive pounding drums and fuzzy guitar lines, the first track on Terakaft’s Alone, “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.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Masatomo Yonezu

View review November 2nd, 2015

Kuku – Ballads & Blasphemy

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Title: Ballads & Blasphemy

Artist: Kuku

Label: Buda Musique

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 4, 2015

 

 

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.”

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review November 2nd, 2015

Lura – Herança

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Title: Herança

Artist: Lura

Label: Lusafrica

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 9, 2015

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

View review October 1st, 2015

Ginger Johnson and His African Messengers – African Party

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Title: African Party

Artist: Ginger Johnson and His African Messengers

Label: Freestyle

Formats: CD, MP3, Vinyl

Release date: June 22, 2015

 

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:

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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.

Reviewed by Masatomo Yonezu

View review September 2nd, 2015

Amara Touré – Amara Touré 1973-1980

AmaraToure

Title: 1973-1980

Artist: Amara Touré

Label: Analog Africa

Format: CD, MP3, Vinyl

Release date: June 23, 2015

 

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.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review September 2nd, 2015

Finding Fela

FindingFela

Title: Finding Fela

Director: Alex Gibney

Label: Kino Lorber

Format: DVD

Release Date: January 13, 2015

 

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.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review July 1st, 2015

Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa

MbongwanaStar

Title: From Kinshasa

Artist: Mbongwana Star

Label: World Circuit

Formats: CD, MP3, LP

Release Date: May 19, 2015

 

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:

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“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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Listen on Spotify here.

View review July 1st, 2015

Anansy Cissé – Mali Overdrive

AnansyCisse

Title: Mali Overdrive

Artist: Anansy Cissé

Label: Riverboat Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 27, 2015

 

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.

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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.”

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

Listen on Spotify here.

View review July 1st, 2015

Novalima – Planetario

Novalima

Title: Planetario

Artist: Novalima

Label: Wonderwheel Recordings

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: June 15, 2015

 

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.

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Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Listen on Spotify here.

View review July 1st, 2015

Brooklyn Gypsies – Sin Fronteras

BrooklynGypsies

Title: Sin Fronteras

Artist: Brooklyn Gypsies

Label: Wonderwheel Recordings

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 5, 2015

 

It’s not often that you hear a song described as a mix of “reggae blues and Russian inspired folk melodies,” but Brooklyn Gypsies isn’t like anything you’ve ever heard before. Formed in Brooklyn in 2012, this group truly represents world music, as the members represent five different countries (Spain, Japan, Russia, Italy, and the United States) and draw from the influence of many more. Their music is so hard to describe that even officially they call it “an infusion of Mediterranean, North African, Arabic themes with Electronic, Dancehall and Dub Reggae.” Somehow, Brooklyn Gypsies make all these traditions work together to create something new, something “without borders,” which is the Spanish translation of their debut album Sin Fronteras.

Despite the variety of influences, this album is connected by the band’s aim to take the listener on “a sci-fi desert journey through the Middle East and North African Sahara.” The trumpet and saxophone really emphasize this element through their Middle Eastern rifts that are easily recognizable as traditional gypsy music. But all the musicians lend a hand and have a multitude of talent. Individually, they have performed with a variety of artists such as Quincy Jones, Wax Poetic, the Roots, and Matisyahu.

The two women of the group, Tina Kristina and Carmen Estevez, have unique styles but are equally strong in their vocals. Tina sings on “Desert Moon,” which has the aforementioned inspirations from reggae, blues, and Russian folk melodies that she learned while playing in her family’s Russian/Indian gypsy band. In “Supercore,” Carmen Estevez takes the lead, demonstrating her flamenco freestyle skills in a song with an especially strong Middle Eastern theme woven throughout.

Many songs have a hip-hop and electronic feel to them, such as “Dream Snake,” which has a strong and heavy beat. “Zeina” also has a mind-blowing breakdown that takes you by surprise two minutes in, and transforms into a second, more alluring part of the track. There is also a strong EDM influence in the song “BK Gypsy Dancehall,” which features Bajah of Dry Eye Crew, the legendary hip-hop group from Sierra Leone.

Sin Fronteras is an impressive debut album, with excellent production, flawless musicianship, and a blend of many traditions and cultures. Each song takes its time and offers a new surprise, leaving the listener wanting more. Brooklyn Gypsies has shown that they have a lot to offer and hopefully they will continue bending and breaking musical boundaries as they create a new global sound.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review June 2nd, 2015

Ajoyo – Ajoyo

Ajoyo

Title: Ajoyo

Artist: Ajoyo

Label: Ropeadope

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 21, 2015

 

Truly representing world music, the members of Ajoyo herald from across the globe: Tunisia, France, Germany, and Israel. Originally the idea of French Tunisian saxophone player Yacine Boularès, the band’s debut album Ajoyo was funded through Indiegogo and is now available through Ropeadope. Boularès, though born in Tunisia, grew up in Paris and has composed and arranged music for musicians as diverse as Fela Kuti, drummer Jojo Kuo, Tabou Cambo, and Placido Domingo. Ajoyo reflects Boularès’ desire to mix the styles and instruments of Africa with those of the West. The result is an album that transcends the talented musicians and their technical skills to emulate pure joy and passion.

The first track, “Jekoro,” is full of energy, mixing African-influenced percussion and background vocals with horns and the smooth and powerful vocals of Sarah Elizabeth Charles. Singing “Nobody cares about tomorrow, no more fears or sorrow,” the lyrics implore you to be free and live life to the fullest. A short keyboard solo adds another dimension to the song, as it sounds more like an electronic synthesizer and further adds to the uniqueness of Ajoyo.

The song “Chocot’” is another lively track that exemplifies Boularès’ aim for the album: “play for dancers, put the groove first, connect with the heart.” This instrumental jam starts with the rocking guitar and keyboard of German pianist Can Olgun. It is certainly a song that inspires dancing, as seen in the live performance below. Showcasing the polished jazz skills of Ajoyo, it features solos by Boularès on soprano saxophone and New Orleans trumpet player Linton Smith.

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“Idanwo” is a slower track that starts simply with vocals by Charles and guitar picking by Isreali musician Alon Albagli. Albagli shines on this song, with an extended soft rock solo, which adds a bit of an edge to the previously chill song. The shifting of tempos and moods is effortless and beautiful. Charles adds to this with her passionate vocal runs near the end, as do the vivacious horns (Smith on trumpet and Boularès on baritone sax) that end the track.

Ajoyo proves that beyond their high energy and talent, they can (and do) create moving music. “Benskin” is particularly powerful. Based on a Cameroonian dance rhythm, the lyrics address social injustice: “I long for the day / my color, my kind / my gender, my race / won’t trouble your mind.” The way the song ebbs and flows emphasizes these words, and though accompanied by full instrumentation, it concludes with just the bongos and Charles repeating those lyrics.

Ajoyo takes musicians and influences from across the globe and creates a jazz fusion album that leaves behind technical worries and embraces life and love fully. This is not to say that musicianship is thrown aside—in fact, these musicians prove themselves to be the best track after track. Ajoyo’s debut is full of energy and promise, and will hopefully allow them to make music for years to come.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review May 1st, 2015

Razia – Akory

Razia

Title: Akory

Artist: Razia

Label: Cumbancha

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 21, 2015

 

Razia Said is a singer, songwriter, and environmental activist from Madagascar. She spent many years living abroad, but when she returned to Madagascar in 2007 she saw destruction, death, and the outcome of climate change. This moved her to write her first album, Zebu Nation, released in 2010. Now, Razia has followed up with a second album , Akory (Malagasy for “What now?”), about both the environmental and political struggles of her home country.

Razia’s passion for the environment of Madagascar and its connection to her family history is shown in “Akory Tsikaby,” which tells the story of her grandmother’s struggle to survive a cyclone and protect her children. Razia sings in Malagasy on this song and demonstrates her vocal storytelling ability. The harmonized chorus is beautiful without losing the song’s sense of urgency. The video also paints an intense picture of the lyrics that listeners from the entire world can understand:

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“Baraingo,” or “Chasing Our Tails,” has a more upbeat feel. Like most of the songs on the album, Razia uses traditional instruments, including marovany, which is a type of zither from Madagascar, and accordion. Though some of the album was recorded in New York and Paris, Razia made sure to record most the songs in Antananarivo, Madagascar with as many Malagasy musicians as possible. Though “Baraingo” has a quick tempo reminiscent of much Latin music, its lyrics do not let up on the serious message of the album, as Razia sings “Our leaders seem lost and out of touch. They cannot choose which direction to go.”

One of the slowest songs on Akory is “Ela Izy,” a ballad that the liner notes declare is about the “duality of beauty and sadness in the natural world.” Razia’s French influences are evident in this song, as the accordion sounds like something one would hear during a romantic boat ride on the Seine or outside a French café. Razia’s gentle vocals are smooth and compliment the bittersweet feeling of the song, gliding effortlessly over the guitar picking and occasional water sounds.

The album ends on a positive note, and does not forget that there is hope amid the struggles. The final track, “Nifankahita (It Was Meant to Be)” is a song about love that was “written in the stars long ago,” according to the liner notes. It features a horn section, accordion, and marovany. The rhythm section contributes an energetic beat that sounds similar to merengue. In this song, Razia shows her fun and light-hearted side, even including a few hollers here and there.

Akory shows that Razia’s passion for Madagascar and its struggles, both environmental and political, is stronger than ever. Despite her many travels and time spent living all over the world, Akory makes it clear that Madagascar is, and always will be, her true home.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review May 1st, 2015

Bala Brothers – Bala Brothers

BalaBrothers

Title: Bala Brothers

Artist: Bala Brothers

Label: Warner Classics

Formats: CD, DVD, Blu-Ray

Release dates: March 3, 2015 (CD); March 24 (DVD)

 

A scriptural verse says that “it is a trifle in the eyes of the Lord, in a moment, suddenly to make the poor rich.” This wise saying typifies the life trajectory of the Bala Brothers: Zwai, Loyiso, and Phelo. They were poor, marginalized and unprivileged. Nevertheless, according to the liner notes provided by Andrew Ousley, “the three gifted South African brothers [having been] lifted out of poverty through their sheer musical talent… promise to become one of the most exciting new vocal trios to take the world stage.” As recounted by the most senior of the Balas, Zwai, the road to their attainment of greatness started with his winning a national singing competition, a victory that would have merited him automatic admission to the famous Drakensberg Boys Choir School. But the admission was not easy to come by in the face of the apartheid institution in South Africa. However, through the help and support of his music teacher, Bunny Ashley-Botha, he was able to overcome the racial barrier of apartheid. Ipso facto, he became the first ever Black member of the previously all-White Boys School.

At present, “the Bala Brothers are household name in south Africa . . . thrilling audiences with their fusion of operatically-trained voices, rich harmonies and traditional South African melodies and rhythms” as Andrew Ousley indicates. Archbishop Desmond Tutu acclaims: “The Bala brothers are part of the good South African story. They have made it against great odds. Boy, can they sing! Wow!”  The present self-titled album, dedicated to Bunny Ashley-Botha and released in both CD/DVD formats, is a collection of songs filmed and recorded live at a performance offered by the Balas in conjunction with the Drakensberg Boys Choir at the Lyric Theater, Gold Reef City, South Africa on 24th and 25th of October, 2014. Indeed, the fantastic trio is scheduled to storm North America with their sweet melodies during their concert tour of the United States in May 2015.

The repertoire on the Bala Brothers is drawn from varied sources, and some of the pieces have unique messages. For example, the opening track “Circle of Life” is taken from the Disney musical The Lion King, composed by Elton John and Tim Rice. Needless to say, the story about the triumph of justice over tyranny in the animal kingdom could be a veiled allusion to the successful dismantling of the apartheid structure in South Africa. The same theme of resistance is metaphorically invoked in “Something Inside So Strong” an anti-apartheid anthem that was originally composed by Labi Siffre as a protest song for the Israeli occupation of Palestine:

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The dance-prone track “Under African Skies” evokes the visit of the original composer Paul Simon, a controversial visit that was nevertheless was ultimately geared towards racial reconciliation and the breakdown of racial barriers. On the gentle moving choir-like “Masibuyelane,” a Xhosa love song written by Zwai and Loyiso, as well as “Girl Without Name,” Loyiso accompanies himself on the piano with the orchestra in the background. Other tracks include “Weeping” (Dan Heymann), “Going Home” and  “Meguru” (traditional, arr. Michael Whalen), “He Lives In You” (Lebohang Morake, Jay Rifkin, Mark Mancina), “Ndize” (Mavo Solomon, Zwai Bala), “The Crossing” (Johnny Clegg), “And So It Goes” (Billy Joel), and “Pata Pata” (Jerry Ragovoy, Miriam Makeba). The DVD also includes two bonus tracks: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Rogers & Hammerstein) and “Maria” (Bernstein/Sondheim).

The crucial hermeneutic to understanding the Balas is not mainly in the compositional originality of the songs they perform. The present album does not pretend in any way to emphasize such originality. The key to interpreting the project is located in their attempt to dress these songs with a unique vocality and musical sonority, allowing them to deliver new messages with a fresh spiritual and emotional impact.

Reviewed by Jude Orakwe

View review April 1st, 2015

Jefferson Street Parade Band – Consultation with Tubby

JeffersonStParadeBand

Title: Consultation with Tubby

Artist: Jefferson Street Parade Band

Label: Self-released

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 13, 2015

 

The idea behind the Jefferson Street Parade Band started in the winter of 2008, several months after Ben Fowler finished his studies in jazz drumming at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He’d been  touring with a few rock bands, but felt tired of smoky bars and predictable music, and he particularly  missed the horns he had always played with in jazz quintets.  He decided to reach out to horn players and other musicians he knew and proposed the idea of starting a band that could march in the streets and perform. The Jefferson Street Parade Band started officially playing in the spring of 2009, and though the members have shifted and changed over time (at most there have been 16 players), they have continued to create music with Fowler as their leader.

The Jefferson Street Parade Band released their first album, Juntos, in April 2012, which featured a multitude of different styles intertwined—from Latin cumbias to West African rhythms. Their latest album, Consultation with Tubby, is no different. Fowler, who describes himself as “a rock and roll kid from Indiana with a jazz education,” says that while some bands immerse themselves in a certain culture’s music, the Jefferson Street Parade Band takes a different approach and “amalgamates it all.” Consultation with Tubby does just that, drawing from many genres and featuring both covers and original songs.

The opening track, “Party Time Excellent,” has a very fitting title: the energy never seems to die down as the band blasts you with funky horns, an electrifying guitar solo by Zach Frasier, and a soulful saxophone feature by Peter Hanson. That’s not even mentioning the solid foundation from the drumline or the soulful piano (played on a melodica in the live performance below). Somehow these many parts work together seamlessly, making a musically complex piece seem effortless and fun, as seen in the live version on WTIU below:

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“Canto de Xangô” is a Brazilian song originally written by Baden Powell. Arranged by Jefferson Street Parade Band bass player Matt Romy, it’s transformed into a very smooth piece that transports the listener to a salsa club. Though the percussion gives the song its distinctly Latin beat, the multitude of horns are also given a chance to shine when the drumline occasionally drops out.

Different pieces are composed or arranged by various band members. “Chalk” was written by trumpet player Aaron Comforty. It is one of the more laid back tracks on the album, with an effortless flow enhanced by the beautiful saxophone solo by Durand Jones.

Another favorite on the album is the title track, “Consultation with Tubby,” which was written by Fowler, who found inspiration from King Tubby, the godfather of dub reggae. As the wah-ing bass combines with bright horns and unrelenting percussion, the song is undeniably catchy. The instruments start to fade out and create dissonance around two minutes into the track, but even in the chaos the music remains tight, proof of the talent behind these musicians. Everyone then joins in a powerful chorus that concludes the song.

Consultation with Tubby showcases the talent of the Jefferson Street Parade Band, merging many genres together while creating a unique and cohesive sound that is undeniably their own. Though their roster has changed during their six years as a band, there are no signs that they are slowing down. In fact, in many ways it seems like these skilled musicians are just getting started.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review April 1st, 2015

Women of the World: Ntjam Rosie

NtjamRosie

Title: The One

Artist: Ntjam Rosie

Label: Gentle Daze

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 17, 2015

 

 

Cameroon-born singer Ntjam Rosie, who has lived in Holland since she was 9 years old, is poised to return to the international stage to promote her fourth album, The One. Taking complete creative control, she wrote the majority of the songs, served as producer, and released the project on her own label. The result is a tour de force that marks a welcome return to her soul and jazz roots, with fewer of the pop elements explored on her previous release.

The brief string intro “Metata’a (The Beginning)” opens the album with a classical styling that carries over into the contemplative “A Nye’e Fo’o Ma (He Loves Me So),” with vocals overlaying an acoustic guitar and string accompaniment. Following is the title track, sung in English, which blends a neo-soul sensibility with electronic effects in a love song that also serves as affirmation of her religious convictions:

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Rosie wrote the songs for the album shortly after her wedding last January, which obviously influenced “Forever Love,” a celebration of her vows and the “real deal kinda love” between two people. Dutch-based Afro-European MC Pink Oculus joins Rosie on “Always on the Run,” injecting spoken elements over shimmering keyboards and a pounding drum rhythm. Switching to French on “Akiba (Thank You),” Rosie brings more of a jazzy world music vibe to the song, accompanied by prominent percussion grounding a chamber group of winds and strings.

One of the album’s highlights is “Covenant,” featuring the legendary Gambian kora player Lamin Kuyateh. Another is “Dear to Me,” which draws upon Rosie’s gospel roots in the intro, then shifts into soul-jazz territory with layered vocal harmonies and prominent electric guitar. The character shifts yet again on the atmospheric “Pas de Tours,” interlaced with flute solos and riffs by Ronald Snijders, while “I’m Loved” features a languid yet intriguing interplay between jazz trumpeter Eric Vloeimans, pianist Alexander Van Popta and Rosie. The album closes with “Love to be Here,” another jazz oriented track utilizing intricate scatting vocal harmonies that give way to an improvisational midsection featuring piano and drum.

The One is a complex album that weaves together elements of jazz, neo-soul, R&B, gospel and world music in a manner that’s impossible to characterize, but greatly appealing—and the superb musicianship is the icing on the cake.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review March 3rd, 2015

Women of the World: Ibeyi

Ibeyi

Title: Ibeyi

Artist: Ibeyi

Label: XL Recordings

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 17, 2015

 

The French/Cuban twins Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz make up the band Ibeyi, which is the Yoruba word for twin. The 20 year-old sisters’ self-titled debut album, released on XL Recordings, is one of few albums produced by the head of XL Recordings himself, Richard Russell, and is a masterful mix of culture and music.

Despite growing up in France, Ibeyi sing in both English and Yoruba, and often use Afro-Caribbean instrumentation. Their interest in Yoruba culture, language, and music reflects the heritage of their late Cuban father and acclaimed percussionist, Anga Diaz. Though both sisters sing, on most songs Lisa-Kainde takes the lead vocals and plays piano, while Naomi plays the cajón and batá. However, what really makes this duo special is the joining of their voices to create ethereal harmonies.

Many of the tracks on Ibeyi are influenced not only musically by Yoruba culture, but also draw from religious traditions, particularly Santeria. They mention multiple orishas, or Yoruba spirits, such as Oya, Aggayu, Oshun, Shango and Yemaya. This is most clearly heard in the first and last tracks, “Eleggua (Intro)” and “Ibeyi (Outro).”

Like many songs on the album, “Ghosts” finds a beautiful balance between modern soul music, world music, and something other-worldly. The simplicity of the music, mainly cajon and piano, with occasional verbal sounds and hand claps, enhances the vocals of the sisters. It is their voices that demand attention, whether it is the grit of Lisa-Kainde’s soul singing or their flawless harmonies. About two minutes in, the repeated lyrics “Without love, we ain’t nothing” sung only by Lisa-Kainde with the piano, mark a change in mood, as Ibeyi switches from singing somberly about the past to singing joyfully in Yoruba. In the video, they change from being very serious to having big smiles on their faces as they end the song:

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With a much slower start, “Behind the Curtain” begins softly, as a ballad about losing a love with only piano and vocals. Their questioning lyrics try to comfort as well, as they sing “Baby, just have no fear. I am here.” Much like in “Ghosts,” percussion enters three minutes into the song, joining Ibeyi’s harmonies as they sing in Yoruba while the piano plays softly in the background, cyclically bringing the song to a conclusive end.

With a heavy beat and a previously unheard bass, “Stranger/Lover” has a more complex production than most of the other tracks, merging soul music with electronic music and replacing the usual vulnerability of the vocals with strength and boldness. It is an example of the diversity of Ibeyi and their potential to tap into many different genres while retaining their unique style.

“Mama Says,” an emotionally moving track about a woman who has lost her love, is obviously very personal for the sisters, who lost their father when they were only 11 years old. The music video draws on this emotion, featuring only Ibeyi and their mother with a simple theme of darkness versus light. This sentiment carries over to “Yanira,” written to honor the twins’ deceased older sister. While relying more heavily on percussion, including the batá and hand claps, Ibeyi’s characteristic strong harmonies are still present and vocals remain in the forefront, leaving all other instruments as merely accompaniments and accents.

Ibeyi use their connections to family and past experiences, whether despairing loss or their Yoruba heritage, to create beautiful music. They have a unique style that draws the listener in and captivates with deep emotion and interesting arrangements. Ibeyi is an exciting collision of traditional and modern cultures that showcases the incredible talent of Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz. It also bursts with potential: with such a strong debut album from such young artists, one can only imagine where Ibeyi will go next.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review March 3rd, 2015

Women of the World: Dobet Gnahoré

Gnahore

Title: Na Drê

Artist: Dobet Gnahoré

Label: Contrejour

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: January 13, 2015 (U.S.)

 

 

A native of Côte d’Ivoire, Dobet Gnahoré embraced music at an early age, courtesy of her father, master percussionist Boni Gnahoré, who trained her in multiple art forms and no doubt influenced her compelling style and stage presence. In her youth, Dobet toured Africa extensively with her father as a singer, dancer, and actor in the Abidjan-based troupe Ki-Yi Mbock – but fled to Marseille, France in 1999 after a military coup led to civil unrest and then war.

After 15 years in Europe, Dobet’s music has transformed into a fusion of Western and African elements, enabling her to garner fans worldwide. Though she’s toured the U.S. on several occasions (most recently in January 2015), she likely first came to the attention of American audiences in 2010 after winning a Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance with India.Arie for the song “Pearls” (from the Testimony, Vol 2: Love and Politics album). Like India.Arie, Dobet often takes a feminist stance, writing socially conscious lyrics about the unity of women and women as a uniting force, as well as issues affecting women: giving life, losing life, forbidden love, forced marriage, hope, and the importance of family.

Dobet composed the songs for her fourth album, Na Drê, over a four year period while touring worldwide with her band. A true pan-African effort, the album is sung in various languages of her homeland and the diaspora: Bété, Dida, Lingala, Malinké, Haitian Creole, French and English. Band members include her husband Colin Laroche de Féline on guitar, Clive Govinden on bass, and Boris Tchango on drums, with numerous assisting French and African musicians including Boni Ngahoré.

After a brief introductory praise song celebrating Allah, God, Buddha, and Lago, Dobet gets to the heart of the album on the title track “Na Drê.” Translated as “My Heart,” she sings (in Bété): “I am so sensitive, I am aware of danger / But I follow him on track, I see you and you fascinate me / O look for you, I follow you, I seek you, but why?”

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Following is “Awili,” a song about friendship which incorporates a lilting Congolese styled rumba, and Dobet demonstrates her facility on mbira in the short interlude “Gbaza.” On “Baara” (or “Work”), she encourages Africans “Let’s be ready to build a strong and solid nation / Don’t stand around doing nothing, cultivate, protect our paradise” over a piano and percussion accompaniment. One of the more overtly Western styled songs is the uptempo “Zina,” with a cheerfulness that belies the lyrics centered on abuse:  “You take advantage of her softness, she’s the target of your rage.” An album highlight is the penultimate track, “J’ai peur” (“I’m Afraid”), with Dobet lamenting the current state of her country, “People die, people cry in my Africa,” concluding with excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech. Dobet closes with “Botondi,” a song of thanks featuring a horn section grounded by Ivorian world music and jazz fusion drummer Paco Sery, who also picks up the bass and guitar, and even raps in English, building to a powerful finale.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review March 3rd, 2015

Idris Elba Presents Mi Mandela

MiMandela

Title: Idris Elba Presents Mi Mandela

Artist: Various

Label: 7wallace/Parlophone

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: December 2, 2014

 

Fans of the HBO series The Wire will forever associate Idris Elba with his Stringer Bell character. It was Elba’s recent work on the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, however, that served as inspiration for this project, and it’s not his first foray into music. A man of many talents, Elba has performed as a DJ, soul musician and rapper, releasing his own EPs and mixtapes, and also contributing to tracks by Jay-Z and Pharoahe Monch.

Mi Mandela, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, was “curated, written and produced” by Elba. After soaking up the music of South Africa during the filming of Mandela, Elba flew back a year later with a handful of musicians and producers, including Oliver Wright and the English musician known as Mr. Hudson. Once they arrived, South African hip hop and electronic musician/producer Spoek Mathambo hooked them up with other musicians, and the project was literally created in the studio over a four week period, followed by additional sessions in Mali and London.

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The album opens with the uptempo club dance track “Aero Mathata,” sung by the Mahotella Queens with backing added by the female British string quartet Demon Strings. British R&B singer/actor Shaun Escoffery takes over on “So Many People,” a freedom song he performs with the GSI Choir. On the soulful ballad “You Give Me Love,” featuring Maverick Sabre, the Hammond organ and Futury History Brass Section provide a retro vibe. Sabre also offers a wonderful cover of “Home” by Mumford & Sons (the only track not written by Elba), drawing inspiration from three continents. African musicians take over on “Thank You for Freedom,” which features the traditional London African Gospel Choir punctuated by beats from Mash-O (a.k.a. Afro tech musician Lucky Mokobane).

British spoken word artist George the Poet (a.k.a. George Mpanga) is featured on two tracks: “One” with the Future History Brass Section and “Hold On” with backing vocals by Thabo and the Real Deal. In a departure from the rest of the album, American singers Cody Chestnutt and Audra Mae contribute vocals to “Tree,” which juxtaposes African-style guitar in the intro with a lush string section in the chorus.

Stating that he didn’t want this to be considered a vanity project, Idris Elba chose to be included on only one track, “Mi Mandela,” performing with the Djigui Choir and Mr. Hudson. The song, both sung and spoken, is an often humorous account of his work on the film and its reception (“how could Mandela be played by Stringer Bell?”). Another highlight is “Nothembi Jam,” featuring the Future History Brass Section with Nothembi Mkhwebane, the ‘African Queen of Ndebele Music,’ on guitar, isidonodono and impalampala. The album concludes with “Soldiers Don’t Back Down,” performed by Djatta Music, a Mali troupe originally created to promote disability awareness and fight discrimination.

For the majority of the album, this cross-continental collaboration works brilliantly, creating a unique blend of British and African artists, instruments and genres, while mixing the traditional with the contemporary. At present the album has only been released in the UK, but the CD is still available for purchase online and is also available for streaming via Spotify.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 3rd, 2015

Tony Allen – Film of Life

TonyAllen

Title: Film of Life

Artist: Tony Allen

Label: Jazz Village

Formats: LP, CD, MP3

Release date: October 14, 2014

 

Tony Allen’s Film of Life showcases the influential 70-year old Afrobeat drummer still in prime form.  This album, composed and performed by Allen and a rotating roster of crack musicians and produced by the French trio The Jazzbastards, has any number of fresh sounds for listeners as the band explores a variety of musical styles, from funky Afrobeat to Philly soul.  This marks yet another solid release from an established artist in the process of renewing his career and artistic vision with the Jazz Village label, an imprint that has released several high-quality albums from veteran musicians in 2014.

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With Allen─a student of bebop, funk, Afrobeat, and other musical sounds of the African Diaspora (and longtime member of Feta Kuli’s band)─on the drum set, this record is full of infectious grooves throughout; when it seems as though the pocket can get no deeper, Allen and company find innovative ways to dig a bit further into a song’s polyrhythmic structure.  Eclectic as always, Allen and his band traipse through a number of musical styles throughout the course of this album, providing a nuanced treatment of each particular number and unlocking each song’s full potential.  A dramatic horn section on “Moving On” punctuates straight-ahead Afrobeat grooves, while a hypnotic bass ostinato underscores the tastefully layered arrangement of “Boat Journey.” “Ire Omo” hearkens to the days when James Brown was arguably the single most important force in the music of the African Diaspora, combining the driving dual-guitar, horn riff approach of the JBs with multipart harmony group vocals. Allen even dabbles in styles less in line with his signature Afrobeat-jazz-funk blend, collaborating with former Blur and Gorillaz singer Damon Albarn, who contributes a melodica solo on “Tiger’s Skip” and lead vocal and piano on the Philly soul-meets-My Morning Jacket number “Go Back.”

Film of Life contains some of the same conceptual and politically conscious material that defines much of Allen’s prior work; however, he delivers these conceptual threads through the means of dance-friendly party grooves. This is in contrast to releases such as Black Voices (1999), an album that experiments heavily with electronic music, or Home Cooking (2002), which might best be described as a rap-meets-roots endeavor, both of which seem to let the musical material be defined by the concepts.  Film of Life channels both Allen’s interest in experimental textures (with synthesizers and computer-generated effects appearing prominently throughout the record) and his interest in a Diasporic musical conversation into a well-rounded set of concise, danceable, and effective grooves, largely letting the music do most of the talking.

This song-driven approach pervades the record.  Even though Allen, the bandleader, is a drummer, there are no extended solos; as no particular sense of lyrical conceptualism drives this album, neither does virtuosity.  Rather, Allen and company let the music happen, finding grooves and exploring them in deep and challenging ways.  This simultaneously sophisticated and funky record is not to be missed by any fan of Allen’s prior work, any musician who wants to deepen their understanding of where “the pocket” really is, or any listener who likes to get out on the dance floor.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review November 3rd, 2014

Vaudou Game – Apiafo

VaudouGame

Title: Apiafo

Artist: Vaudou Game

Label: Hot Casa/Forced Exposure

Formats: CD, MP3, LP

Release date: September 22, 2014

 

Vaudou Game is the newest band of Peter Solo, a singer and composer born in Togo, West Africa, which is the birthplace of the Guin tribe and a major center for Voodoo culture. Vaudou Game merges these cultural traditions of the Guin with funk music to create an undeniably unique sound on their debut album Apiafo.

As the only African member of Vaudou Game, Solo taught the other five members of the band Mina, the native language of the Guin people, as well as the traditions of Voodoo culture. Intrigued by the spirituality and the challenge presented to them as musicians, they all perform and even speak in Mina.

Though in Voodoo practices there is only a capella singing, Peter and the band codified the two major musical scales found in the songs of these Voodoo rituals so they could be played on modern instruments. They also try to imitate the harmonies of the original traditions in both their vocals and instrumentation. Their exclusive use of vintage instruments also emphasizes their dedication in staying true to the nature of the traditions and customs they explore in Apiafo.

All the songs on Apiafo reflect not only African traditions, but American musical traditions as well. The vibe of the album is undeniably funk, with a sound harkening to the ‘70s soul era. The standout track, “Pas Contente,” has a funky bass line and groovy electric guitar. Solo’s shouts throughout the track are reminiscent of artists such as James Brown and Edwin Starr. The track also features Solo’s uncle, Roger Damawuzan, who was a major player in bringing soul music to Togo in the 1970s with his hit “Wait for Me.” The video for “Pas Contente” is intriguing, featuring a multitude of people offering sacrifices to an idol in a field. This is a visual representation of the Voodoo theme from Togo present throughout the album, though Solo and his uncle remain the only Africans seen in the video:

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A slower ballad, “Ata Calling,” is an invocation to a supreme divinity. The more sacred nature of this subject is shown through the song’s slower tone and drawn out vocals. Though the lyrics and the harmony can be appreciated, the music itself does sound like a typical ‘60s or ‘70s ballad, with the unchanging cymbal pattern maintaining a steady emphasis on every second beat.

“Think Positive” is a very accurate title, as the track has an uplifting feel in both music and vocals. It brings light and originality to the last segment of Apiafo. The call and response of Solo and the band is catchy and true to the African roots of the album, and the musical changes between the verses and the chorus are refreshing. The brass interludes in this track stand out, adding a bit of a jazzy flavor to the mostly funk song.

Though Vaudou Game has a distinctive and enjoyable sound, it does not stray from a formulaic approach of funk music with Mina lyrics. It will be interesting to see how Vaudou Game develops in the future, and if their music will continue to incorporate the two different cultures and explore the traditions of Togo and its people through funk music.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review November 3rd, 2014

Emma Donovan & the PutBacks – Dawn

EmmaDonovan

Title: Dawn

Artist: Emma Donovan & the PutBacks

Label: Hope Street

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 11, 2014

 

Indigenous vocalist Emma Donovan grew up singing country music with her family in New South Wales, Australia, but she always related more to the “blackfulla music” (i.e., American blues, soul and R&B) in her father’s record collection. This connection to the music is the same feeling she found when she sang with the Melbourne-based rhythm combo the PutBacks for the first time, saying, “It felt like family and most of all I felt like I could write in an honest and straight out way.”

That honesty is reflected in Emma Donovan & the PutBacks’ debut album, Dawn, in which Donovan sings about her personal life, including “domestic and emotional violence, hardship and depression.” This rawness is reflected in the live aspect of Dawn, which was recorded in one room on eight channels of analog tape. This doesn’t detract from the quality of the album, though, which has a very full sound. It draws from multiple different genres, such as country, funk, and rock, but at the heart of Dawn is Donovan’s warm, deep voice, which is full of soul.

The album starts off on a funky note with “Black Woman,” which definitely draws from 1970s era soul and funk, with the prominent wah-wah electric guitar. This is also the case in Dawn’s first single, “Daddy,” whose funk vibe is paired with percussion that sounds Latin in many of its rhythms. The electric guitar weaves in and out, bringing with it a burst of passion that goes hand and hand with Donovan’s passionate lyrics. Her vocals are full of emotion and soul, sounding both rebellious and mysterious as she sings “Ain’t no use tryin’ to set me free, I can see what you’re hiding from me.”

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On the standout final track, “Over Under Way,” the band ushers in a whole different vibe that’s more reflective and sounds akin to R&B rather than funk.  Starting out with just bongos, bass guitar, and vocal, the intro continues for almost two minutes before electric guitar, drum set, and background vocals join in. This gradual way of building up the song reflects its message, about taking time and waiting for a true love no matter what it takes, and truly allows Donovan’s beautiful vocals to shine. The same chill, R&B tone is also heard on the tracks “Dawn” and the very gentle, soulful “Come Back to Me.”

Dawn is a great album to listen to, not only because of the clear talent in Donovan’s vocals and the PutBacks’ instrumentals, but because no two songs sound the same. While still cohesive, each track stands out, adding interest to the album and leaving the listener wanting more.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review November 3rd, 2014

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