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.
José James has always been known for blending jazz together with hip-hop, but on his latest album Love In A Time of Madness, he takes it to a whole new level. Always one to try something new and daring, the album is a modern spin on the classic R&B themes of love, lust, and longing.
Skilled vocal sampling, a slow hip-hop rhythm, and heavy bass lead into James’ smooth voice on the first single for the album, “Always There.” Sensually singing about his devotion to his woman, James’ style is reminiscent of modern R&B stars such as Miguel or Usher, and could easily be heard on the radio:
Originally meant to be an album dealing with both love and “societal madness—a response to the systemic and often physical violence perpetrated on U.S. citizens of color,” James felt that the madness side of the album was spiraling out of control. Overwhelmed by the daily acts of violence, he decided to focus on the love part, creating an album of healing which provides a temporary respite from the madness.
This idea that love can be felt even in a time of despair can be heard on songs such as “Let It Fall,” which features Mali Music. Slow and melancholy, James and Mali Music sing,
“No one really likes when the rain comes because that’s the same time that the pain comes crashing down And that’s the same way that your love comes pouring down.”
This juxtaposition of rain as bringing both the realization of pain and a sign of new growth expertly shifts from soft jazz-infused vocals to a deep hip-hop beat with a drop around the three-minute mark.
Though many songs (“You Know I Know,” “Last Night”) are heavily electronic, the album also features a live band that adds flair to James’ brand of contemporary R&B and showcases his jazz influences. With Takeshi Ohbayashi on keys, Solomon Dorsey on bass and vocals, and Nate Smith on drums, “To Be With You,” a rhythmic jazz ballad, and “I’m Yours,” an intimate, gospel-infused declaration of commitment and love featuring Oleta Adams, particularly benefit from this live instrumentation.
The upbeat “Live Your Fantasy” brings the funk to the album, and certainly fulfills James’ hope to make the listener want to dance through the night. “Ladies Man” continues this vibe, as James tests out his falsetto in a George Clinton-esque psychedelic track. Despite these many styles, the music is all grounded in James’ velvet voice, making In A Time of Madness feel cohesive. It is clear that genre is fluid for José James, and there’s no telling what he will take on next.
Les Amazones d’Afrique describe themselves as the “first all-female supergroup of West Africa,” a group of women with unique backgrounds and voices making music and fighting for gender equality. Their debut album, République Amazone, is out at the end of the month on Real World Records. Produced by Liam Farrell, who has worked with such artists as Tony Allen and Mbongwana Star, the album is edgy with industrial, electronic sounds and vocal effects interwoven with traditional instrumentation and a variety of languages (English, French, Bambara, and Fon).
Of the seven members, all hail from Mali where the Les Amazones d’Afrique project began, with the exception of Benin native and multiple Grammy-award winner Angelique Kidjo and the young soul singer Nneka from Nigeria. The name of the group is inspired by the Dahomey Amazons—“a legendary sub-Saharan band of female warriors highly-trained and armed to defend the Kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now modern-day Benin,” according to the extensive liner notes by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, a writer and the opinions editor at gal-dem, a feminist magazine produced exclusively by women of color.
Though Les Amazones d’Afrique are most certainly warriors for women, they use the album’s first single, “I Play the Kora” to directly ask men to join them in the fight for equality:
You men must support us For we women need you We are tired to fight alone
The title of the track is symbolic, since women were traditionally not allowed to play the kora (a harp-like instrument native to West Africa). True to their stated mission, all the proceeds from the single will benefit The Panzi Foundation, a foundation and hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has served more than 40,000 women, over half of whom are survivors of sexual assault. The moving song, featuring members Rokia Koné, Mamani Keita, Nneka, and Mariam Doumbia can be heard below and viewed with English subtitles:
Issues of ongoing violence against women, sexual abuse, unequal access to land and education, and practices of female genital mutilation are present not just in Africa, but throughout the world. Les Amazones d’Afrique fight the idea of Africa as a monolithic culture, but aim to unite many countries and cultures in West Africa in the fight for gender equality.
The powerful female group is bold not only in their politically charged lyrics, but in the mix and use of many different technologies, musical instruments, and languages. Songs such as “Dombolo” (featuring the group’s most famous member, Angelique Kidjo) and “Le Dame et Ses Valises” (in which an internal conversation asks, “Woman, don’t you know you are a queen?”) have an industrial, contemporary sound, overlapping many soulful voices, high and low vocal timbres, and pulsating, electronic sounds. The hazy vocals in “Wedding” sound like they are coming out of a fuzzily recorded cassette, while the accompanying Malian blues guitar gives the song a relaxed, easy listening feel.
Most the songs on République Amazone reside in this space between the old and the new, the electronic and the acoustic, using varying technologies to push the boundaries of genre and rejecting the false impression that West African music is uniform. As the liner notes state: “We are swirling about in several decades simultaneously – filthy backwards or wah wah guitars, distorted thumb piano, dreamy, jazzy chords and soulful singing over a pneumatic beat.”
The format of the music matches the group’s intent, challenging stereotypes and conventional norms of what it means to be a musical collective from West Africa, and more importantly, what it means to be a woman living in West Africa and in the increasingly globalized world. République Amazone is an impressive debut from Les Amazones d’Afrique, a group that is undeniably talented and relentlessly passionate about women’s rights and global equality.
Kidal is a city in Northern Mali, on the southwestern edge of the Sahara. In this city in the desert, the Tuareg people live. Though nomads, the Tuareg briefly had a home after rising up and declaring the intendent state of Azawad in 2012, but less than a year later al-Qaeda swept in, then the French military. In this city torn by fights between governments and corporations, the rock band Tamikrest began in 2009. Now on their fifth album, Kidal, named after that city where it all began, the group still sings about the suffering and resistance of the Tuareg people with music powered by an insistent groove, snaking bass lines, and melodies blending influences of Sahel Africa, the Maghreb, and the West.
Tamikrest wrote the majority of Kidal while in the desert, making sure they depicted and remembered the struggles of their people accurately. As in all of life, they witnessed both joy and pain, and the songs draw from these various emotions. Some tracks, such as “Wainan Adobat,” “War Toyed,” and “War Tila Eridaran” are more energetic and rock oriented, with driving percussion by the drumset and interweaving electric guitars that favor restraint and control over face-shredding solos.
Many of the other songs are contemplative ballads. “Atwitas” is slow and intentional, with lead singer Ousmane Ag Mossa’s vocals about as deep and low as they get. With a faster tempo but entirely made up of acoustic guitars, vocals, and a soft, eerie background noise, “Tanakra” is the rawest song on the album, full of sorrow and foreboding. The final track, “Adad Osan Itibat,” has a much happier feel, with background percussion made up of soft clicks and snaps. Ag Mossa’s vocals are in a much higher register, and the accompanying acoustic guitar is plucked in a melodious, hopeful pattern with only occasional chords thrown in.
Tamikrest often talks about struggle, war, and the threats by companies and governments to the desert and the Taureg people, yet it is on this optimistic note that they end Kidal, hoping to bring change through defiance, resistance, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Crowned the “Queen of Detroit Blues” in 2015, Thornetta Davis is a blues singer and songwriter with a big voice and a passion for all things blues, rock, and soul. Though she’s worked with labels like Sub Pop in the past, her latest release Honest Woman is a self-released project full of passion.
Honest Woman starts rather untraditionally, with Felicia Davis singing her sister’s praises like a spoken word poem over back porch Delta blues: “When my sister sings the blues, she moves her hips swaying to the beat / Snapping her fingers and stomping her feet.” She compares her sister to Bessie Smith and Sippie Wallace, two of the most famous black blues singers from the 1920s. This celebration of black women in music and the blues reverberates throughout the entire album, as Thornetta Davis draws inspiration from artists such as Denise LaSalle, Etta James, Sarah Vaughn, and Big Mama Thornton.
The theme of honoring women is echoed on the second track, “I Gotta Sang the Blues,” which is a powerful duet with harmonica virtuoso Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbids. The songs talks about singing the blues not to get rich or famous, but rather to persevere when “living the blues gets too rough.” At the end of the song, Davis evokes the names of more famous blues women, singing on the outro,
I ain’t gon’ stop singin’ the blues Big Mama Thorton sang the blues Koko Taylor sang the blues Etta James sang the blues.
On “Sister Friends Indeed,” Davis celebrates the female friendships in her own life. The bluesy Americana track is an ode to sisterhood, discussing how all the women who have supported her throughout life are her sisters, whether they share blood or not:
The rest of Honest Woman doesn’t celebrate blues women as explicitly, but it cements Davis as a part of that history. Her smooth voices oscillates between a number of styles. She sings contemporary upbeat rock blues on songs like “That Don’t Appease Me” and “I Need A Whole Lotta Lovin to Satisfy Me,” followed by effortless soul on the heartbreak ballad “(Am I Just A) Shadow,” and sexy R&B vocals on “Can We Do It Again.”
Davis’ mixture of black music genres stands out particularly on “Set Me Free,” a modern funk and blues spiritual featuring the Larry McCray Band. Though it may be easy to view the raunchy aspects of blues as the opposite of gospel, Davis’ plea for the Lord to come down and set her free pairs perfectly with the blues singer’s themes of struggles and the pain of working.
The final song on the album, “Feels Like Religion,” is another gospel song which celebrates Davis finding happiness and confidence in herself. The song even has a call and response section as Davis sings, “I wanna dance! (dance) Shout! (shout) Show you what it’s all about!” The steady beat of the drum set completely shifts after this call and response as the music transforms into foot-stomping, hand-clapping gospel that completely takes the listener to church. This celebratory, thankful song encapsulates what Honest Woman is all about—an album full of joy and gratitude for the black blues women who influenced Davis’ music, her sisters, her God, and herself, the “Queen of Detroit Blues.”
With a career spanning over 60 years, Harry Belafonte is perhaps most famous for bringing Caribbean music into American pop culture. His 1956 breakout LP Calypso became the first album ever to sell more than a million copies, solidifying his spot in pop culture and music history.
Now, Legacy Recordings is celebrating his 90th birthday with the newly released compilation When Colors Come Together…The Legacy of Harry Belafonte. Belafonte himself chose the track list for the album, which includes one new recording alongside many classic and well-known Harry Belafonte songs. His son, David Belafonte, produced the album and wrote the liner notes. He appears with Harry discussing the album below:
A year after Calypso was released, Belafonte appeared in the film Island in the Sun, which explored racial tensions and interracial romance. A re-interpretation of a song from the film, “When Colors Come Together (Our Island In the Sun),” is the first track on the album and is sung by a children’s choir. The song is full of joy and optimism as the chorus of kids sing “Dark skin, light skin, brown eyes, blue / It’s what inside that should matter to you” while upbeat bongos resound behind their voices. In his liner notes, David Belafonte states that they reinterpreted the song “[using] the voices and performances of children to make the case that there is no human gene for racism; that what has been learned must be unlearned if the world is to ever truly know peace.”
Belafonte’s famous recording of the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” also makes an appearance, as well as the buoyant dance song “Jump the Line.” Other classic Belafonte songs on the compilation include “Jamaica Farewell” and “Try to Remember.”
At a time when racial tensions continue to reign and protests rise up around the country, another folk song recorded by Belafonte, “All My Trials,” rings especially poignant. Used during social movements and protests in the 1950s and 1960s, the song is a testament to Belafonte’s activism during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as his friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Belafonte has continued this passionate call for social justice throughout his career, advocating for causes such as the anti-apartheid movement and USA for Africa. He also served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and is currently the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues. His social justice organization Sankofa.org has been involved with a number of important causes, most recently participating in a “Justice for Flint” benefit concert and working with Usher on his “Chains” music video and racial justice campaign.
When Colors Come Together…The Legacy of Harry Belafonte is a celebration of everything that Belafonte has accomplished in his wide-ranging career and life. Though prominently featuring the Calypso music that he became so well known for, the album also honors his career and legacy of social justice work through song choice and the re-recording of “When Colors Come Together (Our Island In the Sun).” It is clear that both Harry and David Belafonte are still passionate about addressing issues of racial prejudice and violence, and this compilation shows they are determined to continue embedding Harry Belafonte’s legacy in a whole new generation.
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.
There’s something about Memphis-based band Southern Avenue that feels undeniably raw and authentic. Their intermingling of soul, blues, and gospel music has been talked about in Memphis for years and is now available for everyone to hear on their debut self-titled album. The band’s impassioned vocals, emotional songwriting, and guitars that rollick between easygoing blues and hard rock provide a lively glimpse into the Southern aesthetics and musical traditions of Memphis.
The first seeds of Southern Avenue were sown when guitarist and Israel-native Ori Naftaly competed in the 2013 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. After briefly touring with his own band, he met singer Tierinii Jackson, who grew up in Memphis singing gospel music in church. The two hit it off, and after gathering other members including Jackson’s sister as their drummer, formed the band Southern Avenue. In less than a year, they were signed to Stax. As a Memphis native, Jackson takes this responsibility seriously, determined to honor and build on the history of the legendary label and the renowned music that the name Stax evokes.
The first track and single on Southern Avenue is the hopeful “Don’t Give Up.” Starting off with acoustic guitar, hand claps, and gentle vocals, Jackson leads a call and response, singing “When it hurts real bad” while a chorus responds “Don’t give up.” Soon, drumset and electric guitar come in, building the energy and urgency. Jackson changes her call throughout the song, also singing “When you feel there’s no hope” and “Don’t give up,” building her melisma through a crescendo until the song culminates with a rocking electric guitar solo and then fades out over organ chords:
The rest of the album is a mix of R&B songs—such as the romantic, pleading “Love Me Right” and sexy “Wildflower”—and the upbeat blues rock of “No Time to Lose” and “Rumble.” The group’s gospel influences can also be heard in the harmonies of “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” a much softer, soothing song that emphasizes the soulful qualities of Jackson’s vocals. “80 Miles from Memphis” draws on both blues and country music traditions, as Jackson sings about being away from home and “crying her blues away.” Naftaly’s guitar is a highlight of this song, showing his immense passion and skills for playing the blues.
Southern Avenue’s mix of cultures and genres reflects and honors the diversity of cultures and music in Memphis. Even the group’s name pays homage to the musical history of the city, as Southern Avenue is a Memphis street that runs from the eastern city limits all the way to the original home of Stax Records in Soulsville. Southern Avenue is an impressive debut, which showcases the impeccable songwriting and musical talent of its member and transforms Southern traditions into a modern sound.
Corey Henry was raised in the birthplace of jazz—New Orleans’s Treme neighborhood. Inspired by his environment and musical family, Henry started learning trombone at the age of 10, and by age 16 he was hired to play with the Treme Brass Band. Since then, he’s become a vital part of the New Orleans jazz scene, performing with his Little Rascals Brass Band and the nationally touring jam band Galactic. Last September, Henry released his solo debut, Lapeitah, out on Louisiana Red Hot Records. Produced and co-written by Brian J., Lapeitah includes nine originals and one cover that showcase modern New Orleans funk at its finest.
There are a number of guest stars on Lapeitah, including alto saxophonist Greg Thomas (George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic). Thomas plays on the exuberant “Muddy Waters” (below) and the soulful “We Got the Funk,” both of which share vocal choruses straight out of 1970s funk scene. Thomas is also featured on the instrumental “Get Funky,” which displays the connections between jazz and funk in a playful call and response between varying soloists and the rest of the musicians.
The album also features a number of guest vocalists, such as Corey Glover (Living Colour) on an impressive hard rock cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9.” Glover’s gritty vocals, which at times dissolve into rock star shrieks, are echoed by the timbre of Henry’s raw, relentless trombone solo. Nowhere is Henry’s New Orleans origin more evident than on the original “Baby C’mon,” featuring vocals by Cole “Ms. Cake” Williams. This funky, upbeat second-line pride song is perfect for Mardi Gras celebrations in Henry’s hometown.
The fusion of jazz and funk makes Lapeitah a joyful, celebratory outpouring of two of New Orleans’ most famous musical cultures. While the songs may sound carefree, the carefully curated songwriting and talent that Corey Henry and Brian J bring to the album prove that Henry is a force to be reckoned with in the New Orleans jazz and funk world.
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.
On the 2-disc set Basically Baker, Vol. 2, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra celebrates the big band legacy of the late David N. Baker. The celebrated performer/composer founded the Jazz Studies program in 1968 at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he was a beloved mentor to countless students over the decades—some of whom are featured on this project. The first Basically Baker volume was recorded in 2005, and though trombonist Brent Wallarab said Baker talked to him for quite some time about a second volume, Baker’s death this March at the age of 84 gave the project the momentum it needed. For Wallarab, “the project was a way we could all channel our grief into something productive that honored David’s wishes to care for his music after he was gone.”
Basically Baker, Vol. 2 is remarkable because it features music that was previously performed almost exclusively at Indiana University. Contributing to the challenge of honoring Baker’s legacy are many of Baker’s students and protégés, such as Wallarab, saxophonist Tom Walsh, trumpeters Mark Buselli and Pat Harbison, and pianist Luke Gillespie, who form the main jazz orchestra. Special guests also appear on the album, and according to Wallarab, “many musicians cancelled or rescheduled other commitments already on the books to participate.” Trumpeter and multi-Grammy winner Randy Brecker, an IU alum, and IU jazz faculty guitarist Dave Stryker play on Baker’s composition for his granddaughter, “Kirsten’s First Song,” and IU jazz faculty trombonist and Patois Records label founder Wayne Wallace is featured on “Honesty.” A version of “Honesty” performed at the IU Jacobs School of Music can be seen below:
Basically Baker, Vol. 2 is not just a monument to Baker’s music, but also to his legacy and accomplishments. David Nathaniel Baker was born in Indianapolis in 1931, when the country was racially segregated, and jazz was a new, controversial form of music. Much had changed by the time of his death in 2016, and Baker contributed to these transitions through his jazz and classical compositions, his mastery of the trombone and cello, and his role as a pioneering jazz educator. In fact, many of the compositions featured on this album are from his extremely prolific first decade at IU. Baker loved using blues, popular song, and bebop in his jazz compositions, and even worked with Dizzy Gillespie for his arrangement of “Bebop,” the only non-Baker composition that appears on the album.
Through compositions such as “25th and Martindale” and “Harlem Pipes,” Baker honored his home, his family, and the global jazz community. Now on Basically Baker, Vol. 2, Baker’s own work and life is honored. The album posthumously furthers David Baker’s mission “to create, to swing, and to teach,” and cements his legacy by preserving his music for generations to come.
Editor’s note: One of Baker’s early projects at IU was the edited volume The Black Composer Speaks (1978). Interviews and research materials used for the production of the book are housed at the IU Archives of African American Music and Culture and described on this collection finding aid.
The Blind Boys of Alabama’sGo Tell It on the Mountain is a mix of traditional Christmas songs and hymns that earned the group their third Grammy Award in 2003. Just in time for this holiday season, Omnivore Recordings released an expanded edition of the album that includes a new essay by writer Davin Seay (co-author of memoirs by Al Green and Snoop Dogg) and two bonus tracks: live versions of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Amazing Grace,” which can be seen below:
The album features a multitude of musical stars including Mavis Staples, Michael Franti, and even George Clinton on an arrangement of “Away in A Manger.” Energy-filled tracks such as “Last Month of the Year” are balanced with tranquil tracks such as their a capella version of “Joy to the World” featuring NOLA R&B singer Aaron Neville. With this star-studded cast and a ton of holiday cheer, Go Tell It On the Mountain is sure to brighten your December.
Omnivore has also released an expanded edition of The Blind Boys’ 2005 album Atom Bomb, featuring gospel standards such as “Faith and Grace” along with more contemporary songs like their cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” The expanded edition features instrumental versions of seven songs plus a new essay from Seay.
Any Blind Boys of Alabama fan will enjoy the new insights and commentary offered in Seay’s essays and the additional versions of their classic hits.
Another December brings another batch of holiday albums from artists across a variety of genres. Though there are fewer new releases this year, we’ve compiled a short list of the most interesting projects featuring new arrangements of classics as well as original songs composed for the season.
Kenny Lattimore seamlessly merges contemporary R&B with contemporary Christian music on A Kenny Lattimore Christmas. Original songs such as “Real Love This Christmas” and “Everybody Love Somebody” are full of energy and hip hop beats, with lyrics about the importance of community and faith. Lattimore includes many classic Christmas songs on the album, such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and a grand, symphonic arrangement of “O Holy Night.” He also adds worship songs such as “I Cry Holy” and the gospel-chorus backed “We Want to See You.” Overall, it is a marvelous holiday album for any gospel music fan looking for something that combines tradition and innovation.
On the five track EP Merry Christmas from Andra Day, the jazz/R&B chanteuse breathes new life into holiday classics with her highly distinctive, instantly recognizable voice. Opening with the Stevie Wonder duet “Someday at Christmas,” the two singers present an upbeat, optimistic song that immediately captures the season’s spirit with themes of peace and harmony:
Day then segues into a swinging arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” followed by a sumptuous rendition of “Winter Wonderland.” Guitarist Chris Payton contributes to “Carol of the Bells,” providing an acoustic accompaniment to Day’s supremely soulful arrangement that renders this chestnut nearly unrecognizable, in the best possible way. Closing with “The First Noel,” Day takes a more straight forward approach, using a simple arrangement with keyboard, but adding enough modulations and embellishments to keep things interesting.
While Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr. has quickly risen to fame this year as the rapping Aaron Burr, his classically trained Broadway voice stays steady and velvety smooth on his first holiday album Simply Christmas. Odom does not stray from the typical Christmas repertoire, except for adding a version of Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Winter Song.” Otherwise, with tracks ranging from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to “The First Noel,” this is a traditional Christmas album full of easy listening holiday cheer.
Great for any contemporary jazz enthusiast on your Christmas list, pianist and composer Bob Baldwin’sThe Gift of Christmas adds his spin to holiday classics such as “This Christmas” and “Greensleeves/What Child Is This?” Baldwin combines tradition with modern styles on tracks such as “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful / Celebrate the Son Remix,” which mixes electronic beats, vocals from gospel artist Corvina Nielsen, and a soulful keyboard solo. Nielsen also guest stars on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “We Three Kings / Yonder Star Remix,” with her soaring, soulful vocals adding a unique dimension to the album. Ending on the beautifully calm and melancholy track “December 25th,” Baldwin returns to a more traditional smooth jazz sound. On The Gift of Christmas, Baldwin constantly challenges our expectations of what Christmas songs should sound like through surprising arrangements and delightful collaborations.
If you like non-traditional Christmas songs, R. Kelly’s12 Nights of Christmas is perfect for you. Kelly combines his signature R&B vocals and sensual lyrics with lush orchestral arrangements on holiday themed songs such as “Snowman,” “Flyin’ On My Sleigh,” and “Mrs. Santa Claus.” Though some of these tracks may be borderline “not safe for work,” there are also more innocuous songs such as “My Wish for Christmas” and “Home for Christmas”—his modern day twist on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”:
If you’re looking for something naughty but nice for your holiday party, look no further than this 5 track EP from the bounce queen of New Orleans. A Very Big Freedia Christmazzz offers some very unique takes on holiday classics such as “Rudy the Big Booty Reindeer” who knows how to twerk, and “Jingle Bell Rock” which will get you on your feet to “shake the night away.” Freedia’s “Twas the Night” is a hip hop version of the classic Christmas story with a NOLA twist:
Twas the night before Friday and all through the club, They were drinking and smoking and tearing it up, It was a cold night but the place was lit, It was packed wall to wall no room to sit . . . Chorus: All I want for Christmas is the beat, beat
All I want for Christmas is the beat, beat
Original tracks include the highly infectious “So Frosty” that’s sure to heat up the dance floor, and “Santa is a Gay Man” sung to the tune of “Mr. Sandman” (definitely not safe for work).
Reviewed by Anna Polovick and Brenda Nelson-Strauss
Pigeon John honed his musical skills by performing during open mic nights at the Good Life Café in his home state of California. Even though he’s experienced much success, he’s kept this DIY approach and indie aesthetic central to his music. In fact, this new CD was crowdfunded through the website Pledge. Good Sinner is Pigeon John’s seventh album and features many genres, from his characteristic indie rock songs to covers of the Beastie Boys.
The first single, “That’s What I Like,” is a catchy song about chasing a hard-to-get lover. It features hand claps, hearty brass, and an undeniably pop chorus singing “Na na na, hey.” “Stick Up” is a similarly upbeat, pop song that sounds akin to Pigeon John’s most popular hits such as “The Bomb.”
Pigeon John emphasizes his indie rock side on songs such as “Rebel Rebel,” which is driven by heavy yet simple beats on the drum set and features a catchy whistling section that is sure to be stuck in your head for days. This edgy vibe continues on “Gravity,” a foot-tapping song with an electric, urgent chorus featuring synthesizer.
Though he stays true to his own style, Pigeon John also explores the intersection of indie rock with other genres. He raps on “Shake It Down,” an extremely funky track featuring shouts and jingling bells in the background. His love for this mix of rock and hip hop can also be heard in his mellow cover of the Beastie Boys “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).”
Taking the exploration of genres even further, Pigeon John’s vocals in “Take Off” lay somewhere between melodic country twang and a slow rap that discusses fights, visiting penthouses, and taking off in a beautiful car. The way the vocals are manipulated in “Knock Out” is Beach Boys-esque, with fuzzy harmonies throughout the track. Growing up in California, it seems very likely that Pigeon John was inspired by Beach Boy era love songs, as he sings, “My pretty knockout, you drive me batty like Hollywood.”
Good Sinner explores love and rebellion through a number of genres, though Pigeon John still finds himself most comfortable situated between indie rock and pop. The album is upbeat, and more often than not seems focused on making fun, catchy music. With the varying styles and appealing nature of pop choruses and beats, anyone who listens to Good Sinner will inevitably find themselves humming a chorus hours later.
Immigration has been a theme in music for centuries, as people who relocate try to remain connected to their roots, and attempt to relate past experiences to the present. However, themes of immigration seem to be especially poignant in the political climate of 2016, as boundaries and immigration policies are pushed and pulled throughout the world. Many musicians are speaking out about their personal immigration experiences in this year of contention, in particular addressing humanitarian issues. That’s what M.A.K.U. Soundsystem does on their fourth album, Mezcla. The eight-piece Colombian to New York City band combines traditional Colombian beats, grooves from West Africa, and Moog synthesizers from the ‘90s club scene to bring all of their experiences—both musical and personal—into a comprehensive album.
The opening track, “Agua,” addresses income inequality through the melismatic voice of lead singer Liliana Conde. Two minutes into the almost six minute song, she switches to spoken word poetry: “With so many walls going up around the world trying to separate us, trying to divide us, we want to come together and sing in unison of the things that bring us together and unify us.” A full chorus then joins in, singing about how the oceans cannot be separated and water flows through all of our veins, regardless of race or country. It is a powerful and upbeat song, featuring a fast beat maintained through a variety of percussive instruments and ornamented by the horns.
Another standout track is “Let It Go,” a rhythm-driven song that focuses on instrumentals over vocals. Starting with a heavy West African beat, the song blends Afro-Caribbean roots with improvising horns that edge into a jazz feel. Three minutes into the song, voices enter in unison saying, “Let it go and let the music take you.” These words repeat for the rest of the song, building with the music as it becomes faster and new instruments join in to create a satisfying climax.
A slow waltz, “De Barrio,” takes the listener on a journey of an immigrant from Latin America to the United States. It is sorrowful yet warm, and reflects the complications of the bittersweet trip. According to bassist and singer Juan Ospina, this tone is meant to reflect how immigrants put their lives at risk, and emphasizes that borders are created by men: “Look down from space and you won’t see them.” Harmonious notes held out near the end of the song echo unbridled cries of emotion, though whether they are cries of sorrow or hope is left to each listener’s interpretation.
In “La Inevitabile,” M.A.K.U.’s hope for the future is clear, as they sing in Spanish, “when in mixing and coming together they represent the rhythm of our beating hearts.” This message of mezcla, or “mixing,” is central to the album. Mixing of music old and new, mixing of people from different cities and backgrounds, all come together on Mezcla as this group of Colombian artists create music that combines their past experiences with their present lives in New York.
South Africa native Lorraine Klaasen learned how to perform on the world’s stages by tagging along with her mother Thandie Klaasen, a highly respected jazz singer. This allowed Klaasen to launch her career at an early age, and after successfully touring Europe, she decided to settle in Montreal. Since then, she’s been involved in musical theatre, won a JUNO award, and released three albums. On her latest project, Nouvelle Journée, she pays homage to her homeland by singing in the many languages of South Africa—specifically Tsonga, Sotho, isiZulu, Xhosa, English, and French—and by creating her own form of Township music.
Most of Nouvelle Journée focuses on having a “Township music feel,” reflecting the music created by the Bantu people in South Africa, particularly during segregation and the Apartheid. Klaasen’s decision to focus on this genre and South African languages came after reconnecting with her family and particularly her mother, in South Africa. The title track, “Nouvelle Journée,” is about this new experience and phase in Klaasen’s life, as she sings about having a new, fresh start and letting go of past mistakes:
The album was co-produced by Ntaka and recorded with musicians from all over the world, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti. Though the main style is Township music, these various musical influences and textures weave together throughout the album, from the funk of “Make It Right” to the jazz ballad “Where To Now.”
The exceptionally heartfelt “Polokwane” is a piano driven song with lyrics describing how one’s birthplace is a “sacred place,” a place that can never be forgotten or replaced. Klaasen pours out her soul, and it is evident that her homeland will always occupy an important and irreplaceable place in her heart and in her music. Nouvelle Journée is a physical manifestation of that, as Klaasen celebrates and honors South Africa and the many experiences and perspectives it brings to her music.
Detroit native JJ Thames trained in jazz and classical music from the age of 9 and added blues to her repertoire by the time she was 18. Since then, she has been entrenched in a number of genres, including soul, rockabilly, reggae, roots, and ska. Her sophomore album, Raw Sugar, is a collaboration with Mississippi guitarist Eddie Cotton, who co-wrote twelve of the thirteen tracks and is the lead guitarist on the album.
In an attempt to jumpstart her musical career, Thames moved down to Jackson, Mississippi and performed with “Chitlin’ Circuit” superstars such as Marvin Sease. This Southern influence is present on “Hattie Pearl,” as Thames sings about greens, fish and grits, and sipping tea on the back porch. The music is also irresistible—a mix of funk and blues with a twinge of gospel that resounds with horns, a killer keyboard solo, and Thames’ soulful singing complete with growls and shouts.
Thames’ sound harkens back to a different era, embodying the power and vocal quality of legendary ‘60s and ‘70s soul women such as Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight on tracks like “I’m Leavin’” and “Leftovers.” The accompaniment effortlessly evokes this time period as well, from the varied instrumentation to the tight arrangements that leave no room for imperfection.
As the album progresses, Thames explores the other genres that she has perfected over the years. “Woman Scorned” takes a modern rock turn, as Thames sings with a rollicking electric guitar and heavy dose of drums. “Hold Me” is a passionate, lyrical ballad that slows things down and is backed by harmonizing vocals. “Don’t Feel Nothing” is a rockabilly jam full of twanging guitar that’s perfect for dancing. “Raw Sugar” is straight ahead blues, which Thames growls, croons, and moans directly from the soul while Cotton adds an incredible blues guitar solo.
Legendary R&B singer Dorothy Moore has referred to JJ Thames as “the future of the blues.” On Raw Sugar, Thames certainly shows she is an artist who is determined to make her mark. Her voice is strong and confident, whether rebuking a man who has treated her wrong or expressing emotional vulnerability in a ballad. Thames channels many African American musical genres and influences, but remains distinctively herself—a powerful singer from Detroit who is living in Mississippi and securing her own place in the music world.
Known for his smooth vocals and soulful R&B style, Javier Colon became famous when he won the first season of “The Voice” in 2011. After working with Universal Republic Records and touring Mexico and South America with Maroon 5 (Adam Levine was his coach on “The Voice”), Colon said he was ready to make an album without “walls or boundaries.” This led to his debut album for Concord Records, Gravity, which tackles traditional R&B themes of love, loss, and recovering from heartbreak.
The album starts off with “Close to You,” a love song in Colon’s signature style, combining his acoustic guitar work with upbeat percussion and his harmonious R&B vocals. The track has the feel of a 1990s R&B group or boy band, reminiscent of early Usher. This is followed by “Clear the Air,” a ballad about trying to make up after a fight. Colon’s voice soars throughout the song, as he exclaims “How did we get to this place / how do we get away?”
The title track and first single off the album, “Gravity,” is an emotional song that showcases the expressive quality of Colon’s vocals, as well as their power on high notes, riffs, and runs. The lyrics convey the anguish of dealing with a breakup where he was “the enemy,” and struggling with the feeling of inevitability: “I knew I’d let you down eventually/ it’s gravity.” The video is dramatic, starting with accusations of cheating by a girlfriend, followed by Colon’s efforts to deal with overwhelming emotions:
Though many of the songs are emotive, slow songs about romance and heartbreak, Gravity includes a number of more upbeat tracks. “For A Reason” features guest singer Nikki Leonti, whose vocals playfully intertwine with and interrupt Colon’s. The song claims that “all things happen for a reason,” and its optimism that “someday sun’s gonna shine again” is emphasized by joyful horns throughout.
Javier Colon referred to his first album after “The Voice” as an “arranged marriage” that made him realize how much he values creative control. Gravity is the result of that realization, an album where Colon wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 15 tracks, and plays his acoustic guitar on almost all the songs. Colon said he was “willing to fight for” this album, and that sincere passion is evident in every track as he bears his soul and sings his heart out.
Michael Franti & Spearhead are known for their brand of upbeat, socially conscious pop and hip hop-infused reggae. In their ninth studio album, Soulrocker, they continue to experiment with genre and beat, introducing electronic music to their repertoire. Though most of their records have been largely self-produced, they worked on Soulrocker with Jamaican producers Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor, known for his dancehall sensibilities, and Swayne “Supa Dups” Chin Quee, who has worked with artists such as Bruno Mars and John Legend. Despite the new producers and beats introduced on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead continue to find innovative ways to keep their organic instrumental and reggae sound that fans have come to know and love.
In a single more akin to past hits “Say Hey (I Love You)” and “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like),” the upbeat anthem “Once A Day” is about unexpected moments in life, whether they are beautiful moments or “unexpectedly challenging.” Featuring Sonna Rele and produced by Supa Dups, this reggae jam is an infectious celebration of life and all its ups and downs. Franti wrote on YouTube that the song originally stemmed from how his family came together in the wake of his son’s diagnosis of a rare kidney disease, and hopes the song and video (below) can help people rise up, sing, and dance:
“My Lord,” “We Are All Earthlings,” and “Get Myself to Saturday” play with heavy EDM beats and synth, inspired by Franti’s love for Kraftwerk since he was seven years old. “Get Myself to Saturday” embodies the main message of the album, that throughout life’s struggles and personal longings for success, true happiness is found in giving back to the community and working for the greater good. The track is full of determination and hope, as Franti sings, “There is a part of me that can’t go on today/and there is a part of me that finds a way.”
Michael Franti & Spearhead have never been afraid of making political statements and being forthright about social issues, true to the messages of peace and nonviolence that come from Rastafari beliefs and from reggae legends like Bob Marley. “Good To Be Alive Today” is an acoustic guitar driven track that tackles everything from climate change and police brutality to drone strikes and ISIS. True to form, Franti infuses this sorrowful song with hope, asking people to remember the little “moments of victory” in life.
A personal favorite on the album is “Crazy for You,” a song about the power of loving someone amidst a seemingly crazy world of violence and political difference. The romantic declaration is accompanied by bright, staccato horns and a full unison chorus, and is made sweeter by Franti’s reference to the song as an ode to his wife.
Though some may be wary of the EDM elements on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead have always pushed the boundaries of reggae styles and popular music, and this album is no different. From joyful declarations of love to thought-provoking songs, Soulrocker at once fully feels the weight of a world prone to violence, misunderstanding and hate, while recognizing that joy and hope keep people motivated to create change. Franti’s hope is that everyone can become a “soulrocker,” what he calls someone who “lives from the heart with compassion for all, and who’s got tenacious enthusiasm for music, life, and the planet.”