Los Rumberos De La Bahia – Mabagwe: A Tribute to “Los Mayores”

Magawe
Title: Mabagwe: A Tribute to “Los Mayores

Artist: Los Rumberos De La Bahia

Label: Eguin Eje Records

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: November 10, 2017

 

Mabagwe is a collaborative album between Cuban native José Luis Gómez (vocalist), Michael Spiro (percussionist and associate professor at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music), and Jesus Díaz (producer, percussionist, vocalist)—performing as Los Rumberos De La Bahia. Featuring high-spirited songs in the rumba tradition, the album displays superb performances by many featured musicians—Rogelio Ernesto Gatell Coto (vocalist), Ivan Camblor (tres guitar), Colin Douglas (percussion), Jesus Gonzalez (quinto), Jason McGuire (acoustic guitar), Beatriz Godinez Muñiz (vocalist), Fito Reinoso (vocalist), Genesie Reinoso (vocals), and Randel Villalongo (quinto)—and highlights the socio-cultural aspect of the Cuban music-making process.

As the title indicates, Mabagwe (“Remembrance” in Yoruba) honors the legacies and memories of legendary Cuban rumberos and culture bearers of Cuban folkloric music—Regino Jimenez Saez (“Omi Saide”), Esteband Vega Bacallao (“Cha-Cha”), Gregorio Hernández, Juan de Dios Ramos, Francisco Hernández Mora, Gregorio Díaz, Jesus Alfonso, Julito Collazo, Francisco Aguabella, and Pedro Aballí.

The album opens with “Siempre Viviran,” an arrangement dedicated to the legacy of the group’s mentors, featuring call-and-response dialogues coupled with toque to the orisha spirit Olokun, guaguancó rhythms, and the bata toque for the Egun (spirits of departed ancestors). Later on, “Potpourri De Boleros” treats the listener to a beautiful medley of popular boleros—“Sabor a Mi,” “Muchas Veces,” and “Y Tu Que Has Hecho”—supported by a light and sophisticated rumba.

Publicist Ron Kadish writes, “Rumba can be played anywhere—at the kitchen table, on some buckets in the patio, on a desktop—whenever and wherever rumberos decide to start playing clave and sing about what’s going on their lives.” Mabagwe is most definitely an encapsulation of this rumba tradition, capturing an image of the San Francisco community of rumberos—Cubans and Americans—as they channel the spirits of  “Los Mayores,” or elder Cuban rumberos.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

Project Mama Earth

Project Mama Earth
Title: Project Mama Earth

Artist: Project Mama Earth

Label: Provogue

Formats: CD, Vinyl, streaming

Date: November 10th, 2017

 

 

In June of 2017, five world renowned musicians came together to embark on a bold new project with no songs and no plan, but by the end of ten days they had completed a masterpiece. Both the group and their debut EP bear the name Project Mama Earth. Band members include Nitin Sawhney on guitar, Jonathan Joseph on drums, Étienne M’Bappé on bass, Jonathan Shorten on Keys, and the executive producer and lead singer, Joss Stone.

According to Stone, the idea for the project was brought to her by drummer Jonathan Joseph, who wanted to create a project based around the African bikutsi rhythms from Cameroon. In his words, “…let’s all come together and make some music with this rhythm in it.”

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Joseph and Stone have performed together since 2003 when he was drafted to accompany the young British singer on her debut album, The Soul Sessions. As they began working together to assemble their team, the choices seemed obvious. Joseph enlisted his longtime friend, Cameroonian multi-instrumentalist Étienne M’Bappé, who has played with acts spanning from John McLaughlin to Robert Ford. His heritage, rooted in rhythms, was a style they wished to tap into. That, and M’Bappé’s his shear musicality made him an obvious choice.

Next they contacted Jonathan Shorten., who produced much of Stone’s music, as well as some of the biggest hits for multi-platinum selling artist Gabrielle and other British artists.  Last but not least was guitarist Nitin Sawhney. Described as a one man musical tidal wave, he’s collaborated with musical legends like Paul McCartney and Sting, as well as the London Symphony Orchestra. These musicians all came together at Joss Stone’s home studio in Devon, England where their ten day adventure began.

Project Mama Earth contains six songs and five interludes, all centered around nature and the bikutsi rhythm. The first song on the album, “Mama Earth,” begins smoothly, prominently displaying the driving bikutsi groove as Joss Stone enters with her trade mark R&B sound and a nature inspired lyric. Stone explains that she wanted to keep her creative process separate from the four instrumentalists:  “I didn’t have any input in the music because I didn’t want to affect it— or it’d all come out hip-hop and R&B.” So when the instrumentalists finished, they would bring the song to Stone, and with the help of her mother, they wrote the lyrics and melodies.

Stone seems to stick to the theme of personifying the earth throughout the album. In an interview with Billboard magazine, she explained that her lyrics where inspired by what Mother Nature might say to her to her inhabitants if she could speak. This is especially apparent in the fourth song on the album, “What Would She Say,” as Stone speaks from the stand point of the earth, with the the lyric:

Do you think I would cry if I run out of gold?
I’d blink more than an eye if I get that old.
Well maybe you think I forget how to cleanse my soul.
As if humans could change or slow down
Only the arrogant truly know
I suppose I could just shake them off and let them go.

It’s so amazing that Project Mama Earth was competed within such a short period of time. One can only hope this musical team of Jonathan Joseph, Étienne M’Bappé, Jonathan Shorten, Nitin Sawhney, and Joss Stone will come together again to grace us with their art.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

 

 

Chicago Afrobeat Project – What Goes Up

Afrobeat Project
Title: What Goes Up

Artist: Chicago Afrobeat Project

Label: Self-released

Format: MP3

Release date: September 29, 2017

 

 

The newest release from the Chicago Afrobeat Project, What Goes Up, builds upon the group’s  strong foundation of recordings.  The already large ensemble heavily features guest artists on its latest album, including Nigerian afrobeat drummer Tony Allen (who has worked with the legendary Fela Kuti, a pioneer of the genre) as a featured artist on each of the album’s tracks.

The Chicago Afrobeat Project has always drawn heavily from funk-influenced afrobeat styles, and, as the group’s name implies, continues this basic approach on its latest album.  The 14-member ensemble features great arrangements for its full horn section on cuts like “Race Hustle,” but moves somewhat outside of traditional afrobeat expectations on other cuts, as on the extended synth intro to “Cut the Infection.” The group incorporates some jazz fusion influences on the polyrhythmic cut “Must Come Down,” interpolating wah wah guitars with African rhythms more typical of the group’s style.

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Unlike the work of afrobeat pioneers like Kuti, the lyrics on What Goes Up tend to be more pop-philosophical than explicitly political, with tracks like “No Bad News” vaguely addressing the importance of ancestors and the evils of corporate pollution, but without finding specific figures to either praise or criticize.  “Marker 48” continues in the same vein, arguing that humans cannot continue to exploit the Earth’s resources, but without addressing who is using most of these resources, who benefits most from extraction, or what could be done to change this pattern. This group is at its best on songs like “Afro Party,” when taking more of a celebratory than a critical lyrical tone. It is difficult to level poignant political critique in any kind of music, let alone music this sharply focused on creating textures and grooves. This group puts forth great effort, but ultimately lacks the specificity necessary to compellingly address social issues in most cases.

With that said, the Chicago Afrobeat Project can groove—each track feels great, and there’s exciting rhythms and melodies to go around.  This is in large part due to the strength of its members’ musicianship and their strong connections to both afrobeat music and the other genres they incorporate into their approach.  For the Chicago Afrobeat Project, the audience is What Goes Up—up out of its seat and onto the dance floor.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Antibalas – Where The Gods Are In Peace

Antibalas
Artist: Antibalas

Label: Daptone

Title: Where The Gods Are In Peace

Release Date: September 15, 2017

Format: CD, Vinyl, Mp3

 

 

Raise your hand up high if you know & are into the Brooklyn band, Antibalas. Not bad, not bad—I see a few hands and a fist or two. Now, for those who aren’t hip, let me explain exactly who Antibalas is. The group formed in 1998 with Martin Perna at the front. The word antibalas is Spanish for “bulletproof”, which lends credence to their long-lasting career in the afrobeat world—19 years and still going strong. Antibalas plays afrobeat music, paying homage to the king of afrobeat himself, Fela Kuti. Listen very carefully—you may hear Eddie Palmeri piano stylings and personally, I think I hear another echoes of another band hailing from Brooklyn, Mandrill.

Where The Gods Are In Peace could be considered a head scratcher because it’s so short. It showcases only five tracks, but in reality, it feels like ten, perhaps fifteen. To only have five tracks and still packing a serious blow is true testament to what this band is all about. Take the track “Goldrush”. It opens up with early 1970’s rock FM and fast as you can FELA, BAM! The mood shifts into afrobeat, advanced version. Brilliant! They have you thinking one thing, but accomplish another.

Antibalas is very well-schooled in pulling off feats such as this.  “Tombstone”, believe it or not, is the third, fourth and fifth track–a 3-part finale that will blow your mind. Zap Mama, the beauty from Belgium, lends her vocals on all three tracks. What can one say? Makes you wish more acts took risks like Antibalas, but they would be asking too much. Antibalas is one of a kind, folks.

Where The Gods Are In Peace. Enjoy it for what it is—an amazingly powerful punch in just a five step gig. Next time, I expect to see more hands raised when asked, “Who knows about Antibalas?” Don’t disappoint me.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Wyclef Jean – Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee

The Rise and Fall of Carnival III
Title: Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee

Artist: Wyclef Jean

Label: Legacy

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

Wyclef Jean released his Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, highlighting the 20th anniversary of his album The Carnival, and the 10th anniversary of Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant. Like the other albums in the Carnival series, the third installment incorporates music from different parts of the world, offering an outstanding conglomerate of music for the listener. According to Jean, this multi-cultural “genre-bending album is outside the box . . . It’s a celebration of what I love about music: discovery, diversity and artistry for art’s sake.

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The first thing that stands out is Jean’s inspirational words, reminding us that “we shall overcome our struggles someday.” His motivational lyrics and usage of biblical references (e.g. Zion, Golden Gates, and Psalm 23) resonate with the listener as symbols of hope, while inspiring them to pursue their goals. Another aspect of this album is Jean’s blending of polyrhythms (“Fela Kuti”), reggae (“Turn Me Good”), Afro-Cuban (“Trapicabana”), hip hop and popular music, creating a multi-cultural experience. Finally, the skillfulness and musicality displayed by each guest artist (including Jazzy Amra, T-Baby, STIX, and Emeli Sandé) adds another layer to the brilliance of this album.

Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee sustains the legacy of Wyclef Jean’s first Carnival album, spreading the message of community, hope, and love while showing the diversity of the world stage through the art within a music compilation.

Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste

¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat – Juntos

Esso
Title: Juntos

Artist: ¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat

Label: Sonic Octopus/Dist. via Bandcamp

Formats: Digital (MP3, FLAC, etc.)

Release date: September 8, 2017

 

Garnering the titles “Best New Band” and “Best International/World Music Act” in last year’s poll by the Chicago Reader, ESSO Afrojam Funkbeat is capitalizing on their local popularity with their new full-length sophomore release. Juntos, which means “together” in Spanish, is indicative of the multi-cultural ensemble that’s comprised of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Colombian, and African American musicians. Band members include Armando Perez (guitar/vocals), Kevin Miller (saxophone), Dan Lieber (drums/percussion), Ezra Lange (bass), Diana Mosquera (vocals), Puerko Pitzotl (percussion), Jess Anzaldua (percussion), Matt Davis (trombone), and Luis Tubens (vocals).

The album’s title also reflects the socially conscious nature of the project as well as band’s aspirations to unite their city. As stated by Perez, “We believe, especially growing up and witnessing the social divisions and violence in Chicago, that we can only move forward as a people, united with tolerance and understanding. Divisions are a social construct and we believe music is one of those special things that brings people together.”

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ESSO performs an infectious fusion of tropical funk and cumbiation—a blending of cumbia with reggaetón. Opening with sensuous rhythms, “Baila” is an excellent example of the band’s synthesis of more traditional Latin music interspersed with raps and electronic effects. Following is the harder, funk-driven Afrobeat song “La Calle,” about the challenges of growing up on the streets of Chicago, particularly among first generation immigrant families. Vocalist Diana Mosquera is featured prominently on her self-penned “Mariposa Negra,” while traditional Yoruban chants over several layers of percussion form the basis of “Homenaje.” Cuban-born DJ AfroQbano, now based in Chicago, programmed the beats on “Piramides,” “Meet Me Out,” and “Stone Eagle”—the latter two the only songs in English. Tracks such as “Somos Hermanos” and “Mi Gente” perhaps best articulate the group’s socio-political message of coming together as brothers and sisters and communities to strive for a better future.

On Juntos, ESSO Afrojam Funkbeats combine tight horns with an array of percussion to create infectious dance beats all while espousing the necessity of solidarity and embracing the multicultural nature of communities. This is world music fusion at its finest!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

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

Betsayo Machado album cover

Title: Loé Loá: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree

Artist: Betsayda Machado & La Parranda El Clavo

Label: Odelia

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 14, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Ilú Keké – Transmisión en la Eritá Meta

Bata drums image

Album: Transmisión en la Eritá Meta

Artist:  Ilú Keké

Label: Music Works NYC

Release date: August 10, 2017

Formats: CD, MP3

 

 

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

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

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

 

Bokanté – Strange Circles

Strange Circles
Title: Strange Circles

Artist: Bokanté

Label: GroundUP

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: June 9, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Naomi Wachira – Song of Lament

Naomi Wachira
Title: Song of Lament

Artist: Naomi Wachira

Label: Doreli Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 2, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Battle of Santiago – La Migra

La Migra
Title: La Migra

Artist: Battle of Santiago

Label: Made With Pencil Crayons

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: April 28, 2017

 

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

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

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

 

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Les Amazones d’Afrique – République Amazone

Les Amazones
Title: République Amazone

Artist: Les Amazones d’Afrique

Label: Real World Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: April 28, 2017

 

Les Amazones d’Afrique describe themselves as the “first all-female supergroup of West Africa,” a group of women with unique backgrounds and voices making music and fighting for gender equality. Their debut album, République Amazone, is out at the end of the month on Real World Records. Produced by Liam Farrell, who has worked with such artists as Tony Allen and Mbongwana Star, the album is edgy with industrial, electronic sounds and vocal effects interwoven with traditional instrumentation and a variety of languages (English, French, Bambara, and Fon).

Of the seven members, all hail from Mali where the Les Amazones d’Afrique project began, with the exception of Benin native and multiple Grammy-award winner Angelique Kidjo and the young soul singer Nneka from Nigeria. The name of the group is inspired by the Dahomey Amazons—“a legendary sub-Saharan band of female warriors highly-trained and armed to defend the Kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now modern-day Benin,” according to the extensive liner notes by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, a writer and the opinions editor at gal-dem, a feminist magazine produced exclusively by women of color.

Though Les Amazones d’Afrique are most certainly warriors for women, they use the album’s first single, “I Play the Kora” to directly ask men to join them in the fight for equality:

You men must support us
For we women need you
We are tired to fight alone

The title of the track is symbolic, since women were traditionally not allowed to play the kora (a harp-like instrument native to West Africa). True to their stated mission, all the proceeds from the single will benefit The Panzi Foundation, a foundation and hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has served more than 40,000 women, over half of whom are survivors of sexual assault. The moving song, featuring members Rokia Koné, Mamani Keita, Nneka, and Mariam Doumbia can be heard below and viewed with English subtitles:

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Issues of ongoing violence against women, sexual abuse, unequal access to land and education, and practices of female genital mutilation are present not just in Africa, but throughout the world. Les Amazones d’Afrique fight the idea of Africa as a monolithic culture, but aim to unite many countries and cultures in West Africa in the fight for gender equality.

The powerful female group is bold not only in their politically charged lyrics, but in the mix and use of many different technologies, musical instruments, and languages. Songs such as “Dombolo” (featuring the group’s most famous member, Angelique Kidjo) and “Le Dame et Ses Valises” (in which an internal conversation asks, “Woman, don’t you know you are a queen?”) have an industrial, contemporary sound, overlapping many soulful voices, high and low vocal timbres, and pulsating, electronic sounds. The hazy vocals in “Wedding” sound like they are coming out of a fuzzily recorded cassette, while the accompanying Malian blues guitar gives the song a relaxed, easy listening feel.

Most the songs on République Amazone reside in this space between the old and the new, the electronic and the acoustic, using varying technologies to push the boundaries of genre and rejecting the false impression that West African music is uniform. As the liner notes state: “We are swirling about in several decades simultaneously – filthy backwards or wah wah guitars, distorted thumb piano, dreamy, jazzy chords and soulful singing over a pneumatic beat.”

The format of the music matches the group’s intent, challenging stereotypes and conventional norms of what it means to be a musical collective from West Africa, and more importantly, what it means to be a woman living in West Africa and in the increasingly globalized world. République Amazone is an impressive debut from Les Amazones d’Afrique, a group that is undeniably talented and relentlessly passionate about women’s rights and global equality.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Tamikrest – Kidal

Tamikrest
Title: Kidal

Artist: Tamikrest

Label: Glitterbeat Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: March 17, 2017

 

Kidal is a city in Northern Mali, on the southwestern edge of the Sahara. In this city in the desert, the Tuareg people live. Though nomads, the Tuareg briefly had a home after rising up and declaring the intendent state of Azawad in 2012, but less than a year later al-Qaeda swept in, then the French military. In this city torn by fights between governments and corporations, the rock band Tamikrest began in 2009. Now on their fifth album, Kidal, named after that city where it all began, the group still sings about the suffering and resistance of the Tuareg people with music powered by an insistent groove, snaking bass lines, and melodies blending influences of Sahel Africa, the Maghreb, and the West.

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Tamikrest wrote the majority of Kidal while in the desert, making sure they depicted and remembered the struggles of their people accurately. As in all of life, they witnessed both joy and pain, and the songs draw from these various emotions. Some tracks, such as “Wainan Adobat,” “War Toyed,” and “War Tila Eridaran” are more energetic and rock oriented, with driving percussion by the drumset and interweaving electric guitars that favor restraint and control over face-shredding solos.

Many of the other songs are contemplative ballads. “Atwitas” is slow and intentional, with lead singer Ousmane Ag Mossa’s vocals about as deep and low as they get. With a faster tempo but entirely made up of acoustic guitars, vocals, and a soft, eerie background noise, “Tanakra” is the rawest song on the album, full of sorrow and foreboding. The final track, “Adad Osan Itibat,” has a much happier feel, with background percussion made up of soft clicks and snaps. Ag Mossa’s vocals are in a much higher register, and the accompanying acoustic guitar is plucked in a melodious, hopeful pattern with only occasional chords thrown in.

Tamikrest often talks about struggle, war, and the threats by companies and governments to the desert and the Taureg people, yet it is on this optimistic note that they end Kidal, hoping to bring change through defiance, resistance, and rock ‘n’ roll.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang – Build Music

Janka Nabay
Title: Build Music

Artist: Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang

Label: Luaka Bop

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: March 24, 2017

 

Janka Nabay rose to stardom in his native Sierra Leone during the 1990s for remixing and modernizing Bubu music (traditional music of the Temne people in Sierra Leone). Caught amid the decades-long war there, Nabay immigrated to the United States in 2003. After years of working side jobs and trying to make a life as an artist, in 2010 he crossed paths with filmmaker and scholar Wills Glasspiegel, who had recorded bubu horns. Together, they put together a touring band that eventually recorded and released their debut album En Yah Sah in 2012.

Three years later, Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang are returning with their sophomore album Build Music. This project reflects the many cultures and contradictions in Nabay’s life. He sings in Sierra Leone’s lingua franca, Krio, as well as his native tribal language Temne, English, and even bits of Arabic. Using traditional recordings and his band’s instrumentals as well as overdubs, loops, and electronic drumbeats, the result is a diversified sound that overturns the notion of static traditions while trying to remain true to the flavor and integrity of bubu music.

Bubu music is most identifiable by West African bamboo horns that the Temne people use in traditional bubu processions in rural areas of Sierra Leone during Ramadan. In the past, Nabay has mimicked the sounds of these horns on Casios. While he does use these keyboard imitations on Build Music, he also directly samples recordings of the horns that Glasspiegel recorded on a 2014 trip to Sierra Leone and includes them on the songs “Angbolieh” and “Santa Monica.”

Build Music’s title reflects the process behind the album, which was slow and intentional. Included are reimagined versions of songs Nabay recorded in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, like “Sabanoh” and “Angbolieh,” as well as tracks such as “Bubu Dub” featuring new vocals sung over original Sierra Leonean rhythms recorded by Nabay’s collaborators.

The diversity present in music styles and languages on the album is also reflected in choice of song topics and themes, which draw upon Nabay’s experiences in Sierra Leone and current incidents related to life as an immigrant in the United States. For example, “Santa Monica” is based on a tense encounter Nabay had with a police officer. These varied themes are a part of his philosophy–namely, that multiple, contradicting realities always coexist. Build Music is an example of this dichotomy, drawing from Nabay’s diverse life experiences yet keeping bubu music at the heart of it all.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

M.A.K.U. Soundsystem – Mezcla

maku-soundsystem

Title: Mezcla

Artist: M.A.K.U. Soundsystem

Label: Glitterbeat Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 27, 2016

 

Immigration has been a theme in music for centuries, as people who relocate try to remain connected to their roots, and attempt to relate past experiences to the present. However, themes of immigration seem to be especially poignant in the political climate of 2016, as boundaries and immigration policies are pushed and pulled throughout the world. Many musicians are speaking out about their personal immigration experiences in this year of contention, in particular addressing humanitarian issues. That’s what M.A.K.U. Soundsystem does on their fourth album, Mezcla. The eight-piece Colombian to New York City band combines traditional Colombian beats, grooves from West Africa, and Moog synthesizers from the ‘90s club scene to bring all of their experiences—both musical and personal—into a comprehensive album.

The opening track, “Agua,” addresses income inequality through the melismatic voice of lead singer Liliana Conde. Two minutes into the almost six minute song, she switches to spoken word poetry: “With so many walls going up around the world trying to separate us, trying to divide us, we want to come together and sing in unison of the things that bring us together and unify us.” A full chorus then joins in, singing about how the oceans cannot be separated and water flows through all of our veins, regardless of race or country. It is a powerful and upbeat song, featuring a fast beat maintained through a variety of percussive instruments and ornamented by the horns.

Another standout track is “Let It Go,” a rhythm-driven song that focuses on instrumentals over vocals. Starting with a heavy West African beat, the song blends Afro-Caribbean roots with improvising horns that edge into a jazz feel. Three minutes into the song, voices enter in unison saying, “Let it go and let the music take you.” These words repeat for the rest of the song, building with the music as it becomes faster and new instruments join in to create a satisfying climax.

A slow waltz, “De Barrio,” takes the listener on a journey of an immigrant from Latin America to the United States. It is sorrowful yet warm, and reflects the complications of the bittersweet trip. According to bassist and singer Juan Ospina, this tone is meant to reflect how immigrants put their lives at risk, and emphasizes that borders are created by men: “Look down from space and you won’t see them.” Harmonious notes held out near the end of the song echo unbridled cries of emotion, though whether they are cries of sorrow or hope is left to each listener’s interpretation.

In “La Inevitabile,” M.A.K.U.’s hope for the future is clear, as they sing in Spanish, “when in mixing and coming together they represent the rhythm of our beating hearts.” This message of mezcla, or “mixing,” is central to the album. Mixing of music old and new, mixing of people from different cities and backgrounds, all come together on Mezcla as this group of Colombian artists create music that combines their past experiences with their present lives in New York.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Lorraine Klaasen – Nouvelle Journée

lorrain-klaasen

Title: Nouvelle Journée

Artist: Lorraine Klaasen

Label: Justin Time

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 21, 2016

 

South Africa native Lorraine Klaasen learned how to perform on the world’s stages by tagging along with her mother Thandie Klaasen, a highly respected jazz singer. This allowed Klaasen to launch her career at an early age, and after successfully touring Europe, she decided to settle in Montreal. Since then, she’s been involved in musical theatre, won a JUNO award, and released three albums. On her latest project, Nouvelle Journée, she pays homage to her homeland by singing in the many languages of South Africa—specifically Tsonga, Sotho, isiZulu, Xhosa, English, and French—and by creating her own form of Township music.

Most of Nouvelle Journée focuses on having a “Township music feel,” reflecting the music created by the Bantu people in South Africa, particularly during segregation and the Apartheid. Klaasen’s decision to focus on this genre and South African languages came after reconnecting with her family and particularly her mother, in South Africa. The title track, “Nouvelle Journée,” is about this new experience and phase in Klaasen’s life, as she sings about having a new, fresh start and letting go of past mistakes:

The album was co-produced by Ntaka and recorded with musicians from all over the world, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti. Though the main style is Township music, these various musical influences and textures weave together throughout the album, from the funk of “Make It Right” to the jazz ballad “Where To Now.”

The exceptionally heartfelt “Polokwane” is a piano driven song with lyrics describing how one’s birthplace is a “sacred place,” a place that can never be forgotten or replaced. Klaasen pours out her soul, and it is evident that her homeland will always occupy an important and irreplaceable place in her heart and in her music. Nouvelle Journée is a physical manifestation of that, as Klaasen celebrates and honors South Africa and the many experiences and perspectives it brings to her music.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

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

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

Artists: Various

Label: Analog Africa

Formats: CD, LP, digital

Release date: May 27, 2016

 

Although this album is a compilation of actual music made by real-life musicians in the 1970s and 1980s, Analog Africa chose to anchor its theme to a fantastical and somewhat bizarre myth of a ship full of electronic keyboard instruments mysteriously appearing in a farm field in the island nation of Cape Verde, located off Africa’s west coast (see the album’s webpage for the full text of the music’s “creation myth”).

Back in the realm of facts, much of the music in this single-disc compilation was either written or performed by the band Voz de Cabo Verde, lead by Paulino Vieira. This group was sort of the Motown or Stax house band of Cape Verde’s musicians, performing at recording sessions both at home and in Portugal. As with all the Analog Africa compilations, it’s worthwhile to buy the physical media (CD or 2LP set) in order to read the extensive liner notes. The booklet includes interviews with some of the musicians and an article about Cape Verde musical traditions.

The Cape Verde flavor of Afro-pop is a keyboard-heavy mashup of dance rhythms, Portuguese and Brazilian influences and native beats. It is at home at a lively party or in a dance club today. Worth a listen if you’re in the mood for something different but accessible. Belief in the ship-in-the-field “creation myth” is optional.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Richard Bona & Mandekan Cubano – Heritage

richard-bona
Title: Heritage

Artist: Richard Bona & Mandekan Cubano

Label: Qwest

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 24, 2016

 

Cameroon musician Richard Bona took on quite a challenge with his eighth album, Heritage, tracing the roots of Cuban music back to the Mandekan empire of the 15th century. To accomplish this daunting feat, he worked with the Afro-Cuban band Mandekan Cubano to tell the musical history of the African rhythms and instruments in Cuba before the slave trade and colonization split Sundiata’s unified kingdom into so many parts.

Heritage is “a window into the years of oral stories that have been passed down and placed in the musical prowess of Bona and the Mandekan Cubano,” according to the liner notes. Bona wants to make sure those stories are heard, and that the “beautiful interweaving of multiple backgrounds” present in countries such as Cuba is not ignored, but embraced. The album reclaims and celebrates the music, dance, folklore, and rituals of the West African slave “Cabildos” in Cuba. The result is a musical masterpiece that flows from one track to the next, bound together by its theme and seven extremely talented musicians.

Richard Bona’s many musical talents highlighted on Heritage include electric sitar, bass, vocals, songwriting, and arranging. His voice sounds natural and effortless, whether he’s singing a slow ballad like “Matanga” or an upbeat Latin jazz song such as “Jokoh Jokoh”:

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Though Bona’s vocals and arrangements are the star of the album, Heritage is nothing without the six incredibly skilled musicians that make up Mandekan Cubano. From harmonious backing vocals to the immaculate Latin percussion section, their expertise in Afro-Cuban music is evident in every track. Rey Alejandre’s trumpet and Dennis Hernandez’s trombone shine in tracks such as “Santa Clara Con Montuno,” and Osmany Paredes’ talents on the piano are featured on “Kivu.”

Heritage is a wonderful display of musical diversity in Cuba, threaded together by the stories and music brought by the Cabildos of West Africa. Bona aims to make music that showcases the “issues affecting the oppressed or forgotten cultures of the people who so courageously paved the way for the life we presently live.” Throughout the album, this becomes clear, as the listener realizes that “Heritage” is not supposed to suggest old music or traditions that have come and gone, but a dynamic culture and music, one that is constantly changing yet forever shaped by history.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Wesli – Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle

wesli
Title: Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle

Artist: Wesli

Label: Wes Urban Productions

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 11, 2016

 

When he was eight years old, Wesli created his first guitar out a used oil can and a nylon shoelace in his hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Ever since then, innovation and creativity have guided his music-making. Drawing from the many cultures present in Haiti, as well as those in his current city of residence, Montreal, Wesli unites Haitian traditions like vodou and rara with a multitude of genres from reggae to Acadian hip hop. On his fourth album, Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle, Wesli uses these various cultural influences to focus on what it means to be Haitian and a member of the African diaspora in the current political and social climate.

Aside from the lyrics themselves, Wesli pays homage to Haiti through his use of instruments such as the tata and boula, as well as the blending of Afro-Caribbean and creole musical traditions. The opening track, “Rara,” celebrates the style of music used in Haitian carnivals and street processions, such as those that take place during Easter. Creole accordion and violin are featured in the ode to the western region of Haiti, “Latibonit.” Wesli also honors his West African roots throughout the album, such as in his use of the kora on “Sonje.”

Wesli hopes that Ayiti Étoile Nouvelle will speak to his fellow Haitians, especially considering the significant obstacles many face in his homeland. He claims the album aims to “say something useful to society, not just entertain people.” Though the songs echo his ongoing frustration and sorrow, his music and his outlook express hope for “a better situation for Haitians and all African diasporic people.”

Reviewed by Anna Polovick