BALBALOU (Chapter Two/Wagram 3322982)
I am trying to figure something out about aging and art. I suppose it should be self-evident that artists who are firey in their youth get mellower with age. We saw it with Baaba Maal and now the great Cheikh Lô (who has just turned 60) has created an album which has flashes of his old intensity, and is produced to the highest level, but is largely easy listening. On the other hand, with age comes wisdom so a stronger distillation of an artist's early essence may become more evident. This new album from Cheikh Lô, his fifth, was recorded in Stockholm. He set the bar high with his 1999 album Bambay Gueej on the World Circuit label. That disc crackled with energy and had an all-star line-up on it, grooving from salsa mbalax to funk and soul. There were Thierno Kouyate (Baobab, Ouza) on sax and Pee Wee Ellis (James Brown, Van Morrison) on horns and arrangements, Richard Egües (Orquesta Aragón) played flute, Oumar Sow (from Super Diamono, Ouza, and Youssou's band) played guitar and other Senegalese & Malian luminaries were present. Lô puts out an album every five years, so it's safe to say he is not a trend follower, he just moves along at his own pace making great songs. He usually includes a telling cover song, such as Bembeya's "Doni Doni" on Jamm. His big influence as a young man was Cuban music but he hangs out with Youssou Ndour and Oumou Sangare, so traditional West African music is more evident in his current work. In actuality however there are only light touches of kora and sabar: it's mostly keyboards and horns with a lot of guitar. Lô is Burkinabe, born to Malian parents, but gravitated to the music scene in Senegal where he became a member of the Baye Fall brotherhood, a Sufi sect who are partly responsible for Senegal remaining a calm place. The album starts with his strongest card: a song about Amadou Bamba, founder of the Mouride Brotherhood. The mellow quotient is signaled by a track with accordion and Flavia Coelho singing, and the predominance of ballads. "Leer Gui Fall" is another religious praise song, with a big horn section and pedal steel guitar. Even a song about revolution is laid back. He often resorts to falsetto so his voice floats off between the synthesized strings and acoustic guitars. Things spark up in the middle with a cover of Sam Mangwana's "Suzanah Coulibaly," sung in French. It's a sad song about a faithless woman but shows the pan-African reach of Mangwana's influence. Then "Balbalou" features Ibrahim Malouf on trumpet. It's a sonically engaging fable in a fine arrangement. And we drift off gently into the night.
JOSE ALBERTO "EL CANARIO" & SEPTETO SANTIAGUERO
TRIBUTO A LOS COMPADRES "NO QUIERO LLANTO" (Los Canarios)
This is an all-star line-up to celebrate Cuban son music as performed by the soneros of Santiago. The big names joining up are Eliades Ochoa (last survivor of BVSC?), Andy Montañez, Ismael Miranda and Oscar de Leon, each of whom sing lead on one song. The set list is familiar but that gives everyone a chance to show off and the sound is amped up and hot. Songs of Duo los Compadre -- both Lorenzo and Reinaldo Hierrezuelo and Compay Segundo -- plus Vieja Trova Santiaguera make up the bulk of the repertoire. The first thing that comes to mind is where is Barbarito Torres and why have we not heard from him in ages? But there's overflowing talent here. I have never heard of Aymee Nuviola but she has a cheeky delivery reminiscent of Celia Cruz in her prime (& a bit of googling shows she just received a Latin Grammy nomination for best Salsa Album of 2015). The first disc ends with "Su Señoria la conga" and if there's one thing that drives me wild it's a good conga with snake-charming reeds flailing wildly over beat me daddy percussion. That track was written by Flea (no, not that Flea) and features Joaquin Solórzano on "Corneta china." If a disc of this is good, a double-disc is a real indulgence. Fans of Cuarteto Patria will love the appearance of Elaides Ochoa performing "A Georgina" on disc two, though the string quartet is not strictly necessary. The great Alejandro Almenares also features on this cut. "Amor silvestre" dispenses with guests and shows the rip-it-up sensibilities of the core group with killer bongo and hard driving cowbell urging on the singers, trumpet and coro. Every now and then a scorcher like this comes along and makes me wish I was still a DJ. You could have the dancefloor in the palm of your hand with this album. Capitalist swine in the form of MacDonalds or Starbucks may get to Cuba before me, but I feel assured this timeless music will still be there when I make it.
THE SOUL JAZZMEN
INHLUPEKO (DISTRESS) (Matsuli Music MM107)
Africa is a huge place, so when waves of influence sweep across it from outside they only impact relatively small areas. Louis Armstrong took his trumpet to Ghana in 1956; in 1971 Wilson Pickett performed there as part of the Soul to Soul review. Three years later James Brown tore it up before the big Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa. But one country remained largely immune to Western pop influences and that was South Africa, which remained apart in many ways. It was white run long after the others attained independence, exported vast quantities of goods to the rest of the continent and came under increasing scrutiny from the global community as its evil slave-like mechanism became more apparent. To prevent clever double-entendres in popular songs from subverting the system, instrumental music was about the only thing tolerated by the state, so naturally jazz held a major place in the musical mix. And it is not unusual to hear it called "defiantly modern" given the social and political climate at the southern tip of the great continent. In the late 60s the great American tenor player John Coltrane had died, but Dexter Gordon, Johnny Hodges, Pharoah Sanders and other post-bop heroes were still in the ascendancy. This album fits right into a set of those greats. The musicians came together at Soweto's jazz workshop and the tunes were composed by pianist Tete Mbambisa, and tenor saxophonist Duku Makasi, backed by Big T Ntsele on bass and Mafulu Jama on drums. There are five originals and a cover of "Love for sale." There are no noticeably South African rhythms; it could easily be an American jazz outfit. There is only a hint in the title "Dollar the great" that this is from South Africa. The title, "Distress," is a humorous reflection on the state of things, not that the band were in pain, only the producers were harassing them about the cost of studio time. Fortunately they were well-rehearsed (despite the original liner notes' suggestion they were hungry and once they had been fed and given a glass of booze, poured their hearts out in the recording) and were pleased to lay it down with a live feeling and no overdubs or re-takes. Like Monk they felt the spontaneity was lost after the first shot, so they were happy with the result, but the record company dropped the ball and the album disappeared. Not even the musicians could find copies for sale, so it has long been truly a lost gem of South African jazz and only now in this lovely, heavy vinyl reissue from Matsuli, do we get to appreciate the fine grooves therein.
World Music Network's Riverboat subsidiary has launched a new series called "Lost in..." and this one, Lost in Mali is a great start. Instead of sampling the latest albums from Bassekou Kouyaté, Boubacar Traoré, Vieux Farka Touré or others, and remixing a set that would be very familiar to our ears, they have launched forth in quest of the unheard. The result is a fabulous tapestry of the sounds of the streets and salons of Mali from Bamako to Tombouctou. While there's no obvious successor to Rokia Traore or Oumou Sangaré on here, there is Petit Goro or Barou Drame who could emerge and fill the void left by Issa Bagayogo. One of the two producers manages Anansy Cissé and Samba Touré, so is out there on a professional basis looking for the next artist to click. The other runs a recording studio and label based in Bamako. It's a solid line-up as demonstrated in track after track. The levels of quality in the songwriting, production and performance are high and renewed indications that traditions are holding strong in Mali. I'm no expert but I think I hear a hunter's song in here. There are odd hits of rock guitar but fast clipped ngoni with hand percussion and kora are still to the fore. Fine sequencing and a truly great album.
ALONE (TENERE) (OutHere OH28)
The Desert Blues played by Tuareg from Niger has turned into an Afrobeat-like fad. Every label has a band from Niger and, other than Bombino, they all sound alike to me. However I thought I had better listen to the new one from Terakaft because Mark Hudson, who knows his stuff, wrote in the Daily Telepath that "Terakaft's sound is the starkest and most compelling excursion yet into the sonic world of the Sahara." They are a splinter group from Tinariwen, their sound is pretty raw and has different rhythms on it, not just the repetitious washing machine thud and skirling guitars. It starts off with an old A-minor to E-minor vamp that lopes along with the lyrics "It is hard to remain without a camel, no water except in a deep hole." OK. The next song tells us, "Some are in the sun, some are in the shade." The vocals sound like a complaint, which would make sense if you were the one in the sun. One song ends another begins with a wiry lead guitar over the thrumming percussion. Track seven breaks out of the monotony a bit with an uptempo song about a "well-trained and nicely decorated camel." It sounds like country and western music. Justin Adams produced and adds bits of guitar and percussion. According to Wikipedia, Justin "is an English guitarist and composer who works in blues and African styles." He has played with Jah Wobble and Robert Plant, so it's safe to say he has not played with everyone from King Sunny Adé to Ali Farka Touré. I imagine if you saw Terakaft live and inhaled a lot of passive pot the repetition would be soothing, especially if the vocal mikes were turned down. Fans of "desert blues" guitar will gobble it up like stoneless dates.
PROBLEMAS (Blue Corn)
It is hard to know where to classify this new release from Austin, Texas-based Grupo Fantasma. The singers think they are fronting a Latin band, the percussionists think they are in a Columbian salsa-cumbia band, while there are rock guitarists, jazz horn players, banda trumpet guys, and other members who have their own ideas. Check out their live performance of "Burnin' down the House" on Youtube. Es muy Rock en Espanyol! After a wobbly bit they come together with a bolero based on "Because" by Lennon & McCartney from Abbey Road. On this album, they try out the currently popular psychedelic Peruvian cumbia sound as well as bits of bomba and funk, but what they excel at is a straight-forward descarga -- "Dura y Pura" as one of their titles has it. The brass and vocals roll off the timbales and there are plenty of stop-start breaks as trombone and baritone sax get up to throw down. The Chicha style returns for a Goth-cumbia called "Otoño" -- one for the Haunted House set: Link Wray guitar meets muted trumpets and clarinets from Max Fleischer cartoons. There's quite a mix of styles on offer here, but mostly resolved into a Latin groove in some way or other, with forays into jazz and rock bleeding out.
BASSWALLA (BlackSwanSounds BS0009)
I put this on and cant think of enough superlatives. I am thinking, Wow, this is gonna be on my top ten discs of the year fo' sho', and I turn it up and groove to the beat of the title cut. Shades of Nusrat as remixed by Gaudi, strong South Asian currents with drum n bass underpinnings, loops and all, but then it starts to slip from the pedestal on the second track "Sabadub (Floating Soul mix)" which goes on too long as the sampled flute turns twee over very basic synth runs. The third track is derivative (definitely trying to do a Gaudi), and it gradually slides further down 'til I am skipping ahead, ready to take it off about halfway through. Shame. It had such potential. Track 7, "Rumba dub" with surprise Armenian duduk intervention offers some variety. The website offers the tags "Deep" "Devotional" & "Dope" for this as well as "Yoga" and "Boulder." Trance dancers and drum n bass fans will like this (as well as kids at Naropa smoking pot and practicing yoga while looking at Tibetan posters) but I think it would work better as a single cut dropped into an anthology to allow some variety, or like a lot of discs, be known for a great lead-off track: a single masquerading as an album.
the year so far:
(click on maps at the top of the page to get to continent of choice)
Vincent Segal & Ballake Sissoko can be found in Mali 2
Banda de los Muertos can be discovered in the Brass Band section (Old World)
Cabruêra's Colors of Brazil is in Brazil part 2
Ravi & Anoushka Shankar's concert Live in Bangalore is filed under India
In Jamaica part 3 you will read about Studio One Dancehall as well as Rastafari: the Dreads enter Babylon
Malawi Mouse Boys and Kid and the First People are both filed under South Africa & Malawi
Quarter Street from Australia are filed under Salsa (New World)
Amadou Balaké's In Conclusion is found in Burkina Faso
Toto la Momposina's Tambolero went to Colombia
Banning Eyre's Lion Songs can be read about in the bookshelf
Kanaku y el Tigre are found in Peru
Lula All Stars are filed in Salsa
Amara Touré is found in Senegal part 2
Bomba Estéreo's Amanecer went to Colombia
Les Ambassadeurs' Rebirth is filed in Mali part 2
I don't have an appropriate world fusion category for Fatoumata Diawara and Roberto Fonseca's collab so it's filed in old world miscellany
Brian Chilala and Ngoma Zasu's new disc is filed under Zambia
Derek Gripper's album One Night on Earth has found an honorary spot in Mali part 2
Lenine's Carbono is filed in Brasil 2
Tal National's Zoy Zoy can be found in Niger
Novalima's latest is under Peru
Chico Trujillo can be found in the new Chile section
Aziz Sahmaoui went to Arabia
Bunny Lee's latest comp is filed in Jahmaica part 3
RG2BBQ Bob is found in the Blues
Ghanaian Pat Thomas is in the Nigeria/Ghana page, part 2
Ustad Dildar Hussain Khan's Sur Sangeet is filed in India & Pakistan
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba's Ba Power can be found in Mali part 2
Buena Vista's Lost & Found has been found in Cuba part 4
Mbongwana Star's from Kinshasa is filed in Congo part 3
In May I reviewed SIX digital reissues of Vercky's productions, so have created a new page for them called Congo Classics part 2
Lenine's Chão ao vivo is filed in Brasil Live
Taraf de Haidouks' Of Lovers, Gamblers & Parachute Skirts is filed in Balkans/Gypsy (Old World)
E T Mensah King of Highlife Anthology is filed in Ghana
Ndikho Xaba and the Natives went to the Southern Africa section
Samba Touré's Gandadiko and
Boubacar Traoré's Mbalimaou are both filed in Mali part 2
Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Boy Fuller and
the Rough Guide to Unsung Heroes of Country Blues are in USA
Trio Chemirani can be found in Iran, which is in the Arabian sector
Rough Guide to Psychedelic Salsa filed under Salsa (New World)
Rough Guide to African Rare Groove is filed under Miscellany (Africa)
Bamako Quintet can be found in Mali part 2
and Debashish Bhattacharya's latest is filed in India
I created a new page called Latin Essentials, and have added more to it. Found in the New World section.
My Top Ten of 2014 can be found HERE.
My Top 12 of 2013, with best reissues, etc, is online HERE.
My Top Twelve of 2012 is HERE.
My Top Ten of 2011 can be found HERE.
My Top 9 of 2010 is online HERE
Click HERE for my top 10 of 2009
Click HERE for my top 9 of 2008
Click HERE for my top 10 of 2007
Click HERE for my top 11 of 2006
MY BEST-SELLING BOOK!
"Essential reference guide to the Congo guitar king" -- SONGLINES 64 **** (four stars)
"I do not know anybody who has such immense knowledge of African music. Congratulations." -- Gerhard G (a purchaser)
BACK IN PRINT (Second edition, November 2012)
A DISCOGRAPHY OF DOCTEUR NICO
Poltroon Press, 2012, expanded to 88 pages; list price $19.95.
By Alastair Johnston
Available now. Click here for details.
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