African Music Reviews

All reviews are copyright 1992 - 1995 by Cliff Furnald

They are in no particular order... you can use the regional menu to look at a specific country. Or to find a specific artist, Search RootsWorld


FRANCIS BEBEY Nandolo/ Works: 1963-1994
Original Music, 418 Lasher Road, Tivoli, NY 12583 914.756.2767

I normally don't make reissues or compilations the lead story in this column. But I have two good reasons to do so this time. Poet, musician, playwright and novelist Francis Bebey's work is rarely available in the U.S. with any regularity (his Akwaaba album on OM being the rare exception). More important, Bebey is a unique and important figure in African music, an innovator and experimenter who never loses his roots but also never becomes a victim of stylistic restriction.

Nandolo (With Love) is a collection of classic Bebey. Mostly recorded as solo songs or multi-tracked by Bebey alone, these pieces are part of a unique stream in African music, neither traditional nor pop, using elements of everything available to a modern resident of planet earth, from flamenco to folk to European classical and African contemporary. The man's an iconoclast in every sense of the word, producing music that is both reverent and satirical, beautiful and challenging. If there's one word that always comes to mind when I listen to this artist, it's "cool," that Miles Davis kind of cool that is rich in detail without ever straining to prove its complexity.

The instruments he uses are as diverse as the music he uses them on: sanza (thumb piano), classical guitar, bass, some amazing vocal tricks and techniques, African percussion, electronics, horns, pygmy flutes and piano. Each instrument is chosen for its musical character rather than its ethnic flavor, and little regard is given for anything other than the final composition. I'd offer examples, but such is the case with an album of such disparate styles and moods that any of the 18 would prove the point. But here, try ""Kapitane Mo" for humor and rhythm, "Rwanda" for ambient beauty, and "West African Suite #3" for some amazing classical guitar in an African mood.

PAPA WEMBA Emotion


Realworld/Caroline

What a voice! What a character! Wemba, zairean in the best Parisian sense of the word, has grown into a major figure in the modern journey of African music. This album takes all the things that were flaws in Youssou N'Dour's last trip out and turn them into advantages; synths, drum machines, incurable pop grooves, even a pop-style duet. Why, because he's Wemba, and there is an infectiousness to his voice, his songs and his arrangements that takes every cliche in the book and makes them seem somehow fresh. Even his turn around on Otis Redding and Steve Cropper's "Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)" is durable and right. He tries out Latin tempos, hip-hop and some off-the-wall turns and makes them his own by sheer force of talent. I usually hate this stuff, these pop-masters of Africa, but every once in a while someone gets it right, and plays it with undeniable Emotion.

BU-BACA DIOP plays a familiar strain of African pop music, the mbalax sound made famous by N'Dour and brilliant by Maal. But while they took their sound to paris for refinement, Diop has taken their paris sound and transplanted it to Australia, where it has thrived, adding a little more jazz, a bit more rock and... a dijeridoo? Yeah, let's get it over with. The ubiquitous Alan dargin adds some nice ambience with his hollow tube of full of drones. The rest of the album though, is a horn swallowed Afro- pop fest, smoother than usual but sweet, with soul and savvy.

I want to direct you to one of the best, most twisted new Afro- pop tapes I have heard in a LONG time. ABY NGANA DIOP has gathered together a strange brew of Senegalese drummers and singers, added absolutely surreal synthesizer touches and come up with a unique psycho-mbalax music on Liital (tape available for purchase only from Africassette, PO 24941, Detroit MI 48224 email: dpaterson@aol.com). This modern fusion thing can be done, and this rootsy yet contemporary music proves it. Thanks to Ian Anderson at Folk Roots for tipping me off to this one. And, by the way, if you're a netsurfer, you should check out their brand new World Wide Web pages at http://www.cityscape.co.uk/froots/.

SAADOU BORI AND MOUSSA POUSSY Niamey Twice

Stern's Music, 598 Broadway, New York, NY 10012 212.925.1648

The sound of the Sahel, the region south of the Sahara that has brought us the women of Moussoulou and the voice of the griot is still one of my musical hot spots. So when Stern's announced the release of music from Niger, one of the last uncharted frontiers of pop music in Africa, I was eager to hear it. These two singers were brought to the studios of Abidjan, and under the direction of Boncana Maiga and Ibrahima Sylla, have produced Niger's first internationally available album of contemporary music. The blend ranges far, with hints of the sounds of Mali, Algeria, and of course, the all-pervasive grooves of soukous and reggae. As with some of Sylla's bigger productions, this record survives because of the greatness of the singers, who overcome the often cliched high-tech with the sheer rhythm and melody of their voices. There are easy (and complimentary) comparisons to be drawn with the more electronic recordings of Nahawa Doumbia and Salif Keita, both of whom have experienced both sides of the Sylla coin.

SALAMAT Mambo El Soudani (Piranha/Germany) - This is a small musical gem. Some of North Africa's most creative (and most humorous) musicians and singers have joined together to make some new Nubian roots music they call Al Jeel, the new generation. Fans of Ali Hassan Kuban will recognize some of these elements, and some of the musicians, in Salamat. But this band goes full tilt, mixing sinuous melodies from Cairo with a little rock, a little jazz, a touch of Caribbean rhythm here and there, and the result can only be described as enchanting. There is also an undertone of movie themes, and maybe even a little Spike Jones (consciously?) in the mix of instruments and styles in any given number.Lead singer Fathi Abou Greisha also deserves special mention, as he wields his voice in plaintiff, winding lines that evoke both sorrow and smiles. Simply marvelous. (Cliff Furnald)

JOSEPH KOBOM Xylophone Music From Ghana
White Cliffs Media, PO Box 433, Tempe, AZ 85280

The title is pretty self explanatory. Here are 25 pieces played on two different gyil, a balafon common to much Ghanian music. Kobom plays these pieces with grace and flourish, with occasional comments by the musician about the songs. The recordings are live and direct, recorded in Ghana without the detriment of studio tricks, and offer not only a glimpse into the culture but also some joyous entertainment. This album is also my way of introducing you to a special member of the world music community, White Cliffs media. They are an educational publisher, with a catalog of recordings and books on the world's music. Other recent releases include Drum Gahu, the dance music of the Ewe of Ghana and Togo, The Music Of Santeria, a display of the deity music of Cuba played on the bata drums, and a fusion of haitian voudou drums and jazz called The Drums Of Voudou. While there is plenty of pop and fusion to be found, this is a small label who looks to the roots first.

THE JUSTIN VALI TRIO The Truth (Ny Marina)
Realworld/Caroline

There was an insane discussion on some internet groups recently about how one particular artist was somehow suppressing the broadening of the Malagasy music market for Europe and America. If there hasn't been enough evidence for this moron with the release of both brilliant and boring albums by a host of artists from Madagascar (I've seen a discography of almost 50 CDs available in the West and my own collection has a special shelf just for this small country!) here comes more proof of the vibrancy, brilliance and innovative spirit that thrives in the land of lemurs.

Justin Vali takes his name from his instrument, the zither-like valiha (pronounced vah-lee), and he is a master craftsman, capable of sweet folk music and supercharged, brassy jazz riffs, all fully in the context of Madagascar's jumping rhythms and sweet melodies. The trio is slender and tight: valihas of many types (including a unique bamboo "stringed" one that is so sharp it bites), kabosy and vocals by Justin, vocals and marvelous guitar work by DouDou and more vocals, strings and percussion by Clemrass. Through a number of tracks there drones a throbbing Sicilian frame drum that rattles the speakers and shakes your bones. If you need a choice track to start you off, try the driving "Bilo" (ghosts) with its solid harmonies, striving kabosy chords and steady shakers, then move to one of the valiha showpieces like "Sariaka." This is the real stuff, direct to the heart without pretense.


TARIKA
Bibiango
Green Linnet/Xenophile

On their last US tour, the leader of Tarika explained the meaning of "bibiango." Roughly it means "hungry animals" or "roaring lemur" and refers to the contrast between the sweet, cuddly image of that Malagasy animal and what they wanted to portray in their music, a wild, aggressive energy that comes from a seemingly serene source. Tarika plays the traditional instruments of Madagascar, the valiha and marovany (small bamboo and box zithers), the mandolin-like kabosy, the sodina flute and many different kinds of percussion. But they add electric bass, a little electric guitar and accordion, and electrify the trad instruments. Adding alternately mellow and thunderous vocals, they produce enough fire to burn the house down.

Madagascar holds an interesting place on the map, and it's influences run on two lines, one from southern Africa through Indonesia and on to the small islands like Okinawa of the Pacific; the other directly from western Europe. That their music can sound African, Portuguese and Javanese all at once is the beauty of "world" music. Tarika exploit all of these possibilities, and then twist them into a new music all their own, full of acoustic nuance and pop power.


...and still more A.B. Crentsil on CD! This time it's with SUPER SWEET TALKS INTERNATIONAL in a gospel influenced, highlife drenched dance party called The Lord's Prayer (Stern's Music, 598 Broadway, New York, NY 10012 / 212-925-1648). These late 70's recordings make the case for highlife's long reign as THE influence in Africa, with their rich mix of African, American and pop influences, from Latin to gospel to funky Afro- soul. The title track is just what it says, a groovful, tuneful rendition of that most universal of Christian invocations. While Christianity may have wreaked havoc on the cultures of Africa and the Americas (and probably everywhere else, as well) it certainly had a positive musical influence as the black gospel of the Americas roamed back to Africa for a second musical incarnation. But the monster track of the album has to be "Adjoa," with its searing horns, its incessant and gripping groove (with some wild stops and punctuations) and its slyly sexual emotions. This is the real thing, strong and sweet.


KETAMA, TOUMANI DIABATE, JOSÉ SOTO Songhai 2
Hannibal/Rykodisc, 58 Pickering Wharf, Bldg.C-3G, Salem, MA 01970 / 508.744.7678

Two or three times each year a recording comes that just mesmerizes you, draws you in and won't let you go. Such is the second collaboration between Malian kora player Toumani Diabate and Spanish acoustic ensemble Ketama. The first Songhai was acoustically rich but occasionally lost its way. After 5 years and many more sessions together, these artists have found near perfection. The interplay between the Saharan sound of the Diabate ensemble with the Carmona's flamenco fusion is ripe, sweet and pungent. The acoustic guitars, acoustic bass, balafons and African strings are effervescent. The compositions reflect their increased understanding of the others musical heritage. Amazingly, some of the best flamenco sounds crop up on Diabate's pieces, while the deep roots of north-west Africa are beautifully reflected in the Carmona compositions. The brilliance of the playing is also evident everywhere, with special guests like singers Kassemady (Mali) and Aurora (Spain) and ngoni master Basekou Kouyate stealing the show in a number of scenes. This also marks the reunion of José Soto with his former band mates in Ketama, and it is to the benefit of both. Danny Thompson, one of the original members of the Songhai project, is on only a few tracks, but his substitute on the others is Javier Colina, who's own double bass playing adds a different, warmer texture. They have also added touches of percussion, violin and some great backing vocals, and in tracks like "Pozo Del Deseo" and "De La Noche A La Maana" it all comes together with grace and beauty.


MANSOUR SECK N'der Fouta Tooro; Volume 1

Stern's Music, 598 Broadway, New York, NY 10012 212.925.1648

You know his sound but you may have missed his name as he hides in the background on recordings and stands to the side, playing his guitar in concerts by his far more famous partner, Baaba Maal. But Mansour Seck has always been a part of the innovative search for new roots that is at the heart of the African music boom of the last two decades. As co-founder and the driving rhythmic force behind Dande Lenol, Mansour Seck has quietly revolutionized the music of Senegal. On N'der Fouta Tooro we finally get to hear him in the forefront, in an all acoustic recording of his own compositions and arrangements, and featuring his vocals as well as those of Mauritanian master singer Ousmane Hamady Diop, and on one track, his partner and friend of forty years, Baaba Maal.

This is one of those recordings that will grow with every listening, diverse sound created from the raw materials of guitar, kora, ngoni and percussion, and enriched by the voice of northern Senegal, the voice of the griot. Members of Dande Lenol lend their instrumental support in an album that is lightly produced and recorded in Dakar by the ubiquitous Ibramima Sylla. There is an intensity to this music that cuts through any cultural barrier, a potency that calls up the spirits of the past and the hope of the future. This is living folk music, growing and daring to expand rather than restrict the soul of the artists who make it. In the same way Baaba Maal has brought the technology of the future into the music of the past, so Seck has brought the tools of the past into music of the future.


RIMITTI Sidi Mansour

Absolute records, via Media 7, 15 Rue Des Goulvents, 92000 Nanterre, France fax: 33.47.25.00.99

I found this in a used record shop, so I'll admit to being as in the dark about the whole thing as you. But 70 year old rai goddess Cheikha ("Crazy") Rimitti's album is a gem. This must have been who all those "chebs" listened to in the 70's and 80's, a rebel with a reputation of risque performance and a voice to unnerve and excite. Sidi Mansour is a solid, high tech production that relies as heavily on electric guitars and synths as it does on darbouka and oud. Recorded in Paris and Los Angeles, it features, in addition to a host of little known North African artists, guitar by Robert Fripp, horns from the Fowler brothers, bass by Flea and drums by David Kendrick. But the production is paris rai all the way, and co-writer and producer Houari Talbi manages all the various elements with real talent. Another sure fire pop hit that retains all of its own creative, local flavor.


BAABA MAAL Firin' In Founta

Mango, 400 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10003 212.995.0202

Few African artists have the blend of visceral and cerebral that Baaba Maal has. In the last decade he has grown from a local mbalax star in the shadow of Youssou N'Dour to a creator of high caliber new music. He has explored western pop, African folk and all the various strains of each, and (with a few missteps) has forged a catalog of unique recordings that redefine "Afro-pop." While last year's Lam Tooro suffered from some flawed, homogenizing remixes, his latest seems to have found strength in both performance and production. There's a very strong acoustic current to this set of songs, with ngoni, kora and balafon playing their own parts instead of the usual Paris-synth- substitutes. Firin' In Founta also features a heavy Latin feel, with some striking piano licks and horn lines that bring together a cross Atlantic alliance and goes the next step beyond the Africando sets from Stern's last year. I don't think the Dande Lenol band has sounded better than it does here. Add special touches like Donal Lunny on bouzouki, Michael Brooke on synth-guitar, and contributions from Andy Shepard (sax), Simon Jeffes (string arrangements), Myrdhin (Celtic harp), and you have a formidable team. Finally, Maal seems to have hit his compositional stride here, with a seamless mix of old and new melodies and rhythms that make Latin, rap, mbalax and European folk all seem like centuries old soul mates. This is an album that has technological fire without sacrificing its traditional wits.

( available at cdroots.com)


Buried under the repressive idiocy of 1980's South Africa, Warric Sony, rag tag paste up artist, multi-instrumentalist and white outcast in a white man's regime pumped out a remarkable string of recordings as KALAHARI SURFERS, aided and abbetted by the likes of Chris Cutler, Ian Herman and a sampled cast that included P.W. Botha, street singers and vagabonds of every description. With a sound that precursed Negativland, praised Zappa, oozed funk and loved highlife and reggae. Politically charged, ironic, crazy and sly, the songs on Volume One: The Eighties (ReR, via Cunieform) represent albums made underground, forbidden in his home and revered in exile. They are a stew of ideology and groove, a record of a time that is better remembered as a time forgotten.


DAMA AND D'GARY The Long Way Home

Shanachie, 37 East Clinton Street, Newton, NJ 07860 201.579.7763

I have been playing this on the air so much at WPKN that I just assumed I must have written a review of it. Alas, not so, until now! This is the first outside project to directly result from Kaiser and Lindley's Malagasy adventures, and it brings singer/songwriter Dama Mahaleo and guitarist D'Gary down to Lafayette, Louisiana to meet and play with some of their musical brethren in America. Joined by Sonny Landreth, Michael Doucet, henry Kaiser and members of the Rossy band (all in town for the Festival Internationale), these two acoustic troubadours make magical scores with strings and voices. In its guitar music you find the soul of modern Madagascar, as it takes threads of European, Asian and African music and weave it into an original aural fabric. The songs run from acoustic duets on guitar and kabossy to energetic pop grooves with a whole band. Its always a natural, effortless fusion that comes from generations of living rather than a forced exercise in modernization, and the additions from the Americans are so relaxed and obvious that they enhance the music rather than jolt it.


Osibisa

Mystic Energy

Songhai Empire Records, Rockefeller Station Box 4236, NYC, NY 10185

One of the major Afro-beat bands of the 70s was Osibisa, a hard rock influenced band with a heavy horn section. While all things pass, it seems most things return, and surely the return of their funky, groove-ridden Mystic Energy was inevitable. It has its high moments (a live version of the soulful "Spirit Up Above") and its lows (an insipid, neo-disco "Celebration") but their energy was inescapable, and they paved the way for the boom in popularity for African music in the nineties. Let's hope their earlier albums soon see the light of reissue. (Cliff Furnald)


NAJAT ATABOU

The Voice Of The Atlas

Globestyle, via Rounder

Born in the foothills of the Atlas mountains, AtabouÉ has journeyed from folk singer to modern diva, and from the small Moroccan village of her youth to the metropolis of Casablanca. Her songs of liberation and modern life style have made her both a hero on the streets and an enemy of the established order... all the makings of a pop star. These tracks are a typical mix of mid-tech synths and acoustic instruments, but her voice is all bright and glorious, and the grooves are irreressible and compelling.


MANU DIBANGO

Wakafrika

Giant/WB

With the profusion of lame Afro-pop fusions to choose from these days, it is always a pleasure to see Manu Dibango appear on the scene. He manages to take all the trivia and cliches of pop fusion and mold them by a sheer act of twisted will into something bright and beautiful. In a flood of funk and soul, Manu Dibango has always attained something bigger than the concept behind his projects. Wakafrika again proves his talent for the unexpected. He has assembled some of the songs and artists who are most at the root of senseless world fusion, and showed them how to do it right. The luminaries are many: Sinead O'Conner, Peter Gabriel, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Youssou N'Dour. But here they are thrown together with musicians famed and unknown: Manu Katch and Tony Allen on drums, guitarist Vincent N'guini, a brilliant gang of percussionists led by Assane Thiam and M'Baye Gueye, and balafons, kora, ngoni, electronic drums and keyboards in surprising mixes and solid arrangements. The trademark soul makossa sound is here in abundance, on the title track, in the swirling funk grooves of "Emma" with Salif Keita on the vocals and on the jangly rhythms of Sunny Ade's guitar on "Jingo." There are also moments of strangeness, wonder and fun throughout the albums covers of popular songs. Ray Lema's contributions to "Homeless" make the song fresh and alive. The logic of Ladysmith Black Mambazo doing "Wimoweh" is obvious, but through the magic of Dibango's arrangements, they make it slithery, sultry and oh so cool. It would be a reasonable reaction on your part to pass this over as more star-studded, major label world crap, but don't do it. There is surely some trivia here, but there is so much glory, so much joy to Wakafrika that it survives the industry's best efforts to ruin the music of the world. This is pure pop with an edge, so just enjoy it!


Obo Addy

The Rhythm Of Which The Chief Walks Gracefully

Earthbeat

Perhaps one of the best known drummers in America is OBO ADDY, who has been touring and teaching with his African drums for decades. The Rhythm Of Which A Chief Walks Gracefully is a surprisingly subtle album based on traditional African drum beats and then improvised with a pair of American flute players. Contrasts and changes of mood abound here and save for the extraneous and sometimes annoying "natural sound" samples, is beautiful and earthy.


SALAMAT

Mambo El Soudani

Piranha/Germany, via Stern's Music

This is a small musical gem. Some of North Africa's most creative (and most humorous) musicians and singers have joined together to make some new Nubian roots music they call Al Jeel, the new generation. Fans of Ali Hassan Kuban will recognize some of these elements, and some of the musicians, in Salamat. But this band goes full tilt, mixing sinuous melodies from Cairo with a little rock, a little jazz, a touch of Caribbean rhythm here and there, and the result can only be described as enchanting. There is also an undertone of movie themes, and maybe even a little Spike Jones (consciously?) in the mix of instruments and styles in any given number.Lead singer Fathi Abou Greisha also deserves special mention, as he wields his voice in plaintiff, winding lines that evoke both sorrow and smiles. Simply marvelous. (Cliff Furnald)


VARIOUS ARTISTS

Ile Maurice: Séga Ravanne Mauricien/ Séga Tambour de l'Ile Rodrigues Ocora via Harmonia Mundi

Two distinctive and unique styles of folk music with common roots still thrive on the islands of Mauritius and Rodriquez. Like their western neighbor Madagascar, these islands are rich in world culture, with Africans, Arabs, Indians and Europeans all having held influence there over the centuries. The heart of séga is still the drums of Africa, and over the years it has been transformed into café music, trashy tourist music, and of course, electrified pop. But this recording looks to the roots, with songs by 3 bands of percussion and vocals, and a solo singer, Lorenza Gaspard.


The Soul Brothers

Soul Mbaqanga

Stern's

In South Africa, THE SOUL BROTHERS have been big stars for years, making a popular music that has roots in both American pop and Azanian jive. Soul Mbaqanga: The Dance Remixes takes some of their biggest hits back into the studio for a remix by Chris Birkett. The songs are really no stronger for the updating, nor do they suffer from the studio tricks. if you don't have some of their earlier recordings, these will do, but what was the point?


Various Artists

Songs The Swahili Sing

Original Music, 418 Lasher Road, Tivoli, NY 12583 914.756.2767

While the music of Zanzibar and Tanzania known as tarabu has been recently available on CD collections, no set comes close to this, the 1983 release by Original Music. Here are some of the really perfect pieces, music that has roots in Arabic classical, Indian movie music, and if you listen closely, some African sounds as well. Piano accordions, fiddles, percussion, electric guitars, some amplified into distorted oblivion are merge into a sublime sound. But the singers are thing, and their Swahili poetry will make any wedding goer swoon. Male and female vocals are all swoon and swish, and they are unique and superb.

This is a CD that proves the wonder and worth of the new era brought on by CDs and digital media. Here is a recording released originally in 1983, but because of advances in the medium, this is virtually a new release. While they have deleted a few of the tracks form the LP version (tracks that have since appeared on some Globestyle CDs), they have added some wonderful early tarab tracks and some non-professional social songs. This album defined Original Music's dedication to local music, and this reissue confirms it.


RIMITTI

Sidi Mansour

Absolute Records, via Media 7, 15 Rue Des Goulvents, 92000 Nanterre, France fax: 33.47.25.00.99

I found this in a used record shop, so I'll admit to being as in the dark about the whole thing as you. But 70 year old rai goddess Cheikha ("Crazy") Rimitti's album is a gem. This must have been who all those "chebs" listened to in the 70's and 80's, a rebel with a reputation of risque performance and a voice to unnerve and excite. Sidi Mansour is a solid, high tech production that relies as heavily on electric guitars and synths as it does on darbouka and oud. Recorded in Paris and Los Angeles, it features, in addition to a host of little known North African artists, guitar by Robert Fripp, horns from the Fowler brothers, bass by Flea and drums by David Kendrick. But the production is paris rai all the way, and co-writer and producer Houari Talbi manages all the various elements with real talent. Another sure fire pop hit that retains all of its own creative, local flavor.


KETAMA, TOUMANI DIABATE, JOSÉ SOTO

Songhai 2

Hannibal/Rykodisc, 58 Pickering Wharf, Bldg.C-3G, Salem, MA 01970 / 508.744.7678

Two or three times each year a recording comes that just mesmerizes you, draws you in and won't let you go. Such is the second collaboration between Malian kora player Toumani Diabate and Spanish acoustic ensemble Ketama. The first Songhai was acoustically rich but occasionally lost its way. After 5 years and many more sessions together, these artists have found near perfection. The interplay between the Saharan sound of the Diabate ensemble with the Carmona's flamenco fusion is ripe, sweet and pungent. The acoustic guitars, acoustic bass, balafons and African strings are effervescent. The compositions reflect their increased understanding of the others musical heritage. Amazingly, some of the best flamenco sounds crop up on Diabate's pieces, while the deep roots of north-west Africa are beautifully reflected in the Carmona compositions. The brilliance of the playing is also evident everywhere, with special guests like singers Kassemady (Mali) and Aurora (Spain) and ngoni master Basekou Kouyate stealing the show in a number of scenes. This also marks the reunion of José Soto with his former band mates in Ketama, and it is to the benefit of both. Danny Thompson, one of the original members of the Songhai project, is on only a few tracks, but his substitute on the others is Javier Colina, who's own double bass playing adds a different, warmer texture. They have also added touches of percussion, violin and some great backing vocals, and in tracks like "Pozo Del Deseo" and "De La Noche A La Maana" it all comes together with grace and beauty.


ISMAEL LO

Iso

Mango

Lo preempts the assault on his westernized pop music with this statement in his press release: "Many people think that if you are from Africa you must play kora, balafon or drums. No. If you go to France or Spain, you'll find modern music as well as folkloric music. It is the same in Africa. You can do both." It's a good argument, and a popular one as more and more major label artists from Africa seek mainstream status in the US and Europe. The problem is, just like in America, Spain or France, modern doesn't mean better. Lo proves the point by doing both mediocre modern pop and deeply moving modern folk and soul on Iso. Lo has always embraced the gentler side of Senegalese music, and even his most dynamic work with Super Diamono is warmed by his often serene vocal style. He plays the acoustic guitar and harmonica, which has brought out many pointless comparisons to Dylan, but his roots are as much in western folk-pop as they are in the sabar drums of his Wolof culture. His lyrics, mostly in Wolof, speak of politics, poverty, real life and true love. They are delivered in charged and emotional phrasing. He sings of "A Women Without Blame" in a simple guitar and strings arrangement that harkens to the best of Tim Hardin's music. "Sénégambie" heads into an mbalax-like territory, rich in rhythm and rife with synths. The album travels through overblown pop and sweet sentimental folk, each song surviving on the strength of his amazing voice, but many suffering from the inevitable mushiness of too many tracks and tricks in the studio. It's the same in Spain, France or Africa. Moments of trendiness are matched by moments of brilliance on Iso.


King Sunny Ade

Live At The Hollywood Palace

IRS

KING SUNNY ADE AND THE NEW AFRICAN BEATS have been captured Live At The Hollywood Palace (I.R.S., 3520 Hayden Avenue, Culver City, CA 90232) in a jumping new set of high energy juju and pop. All the drummers, all the guitars, and all those voices guarantee a good time, and they deliver to the max. In a dozen Paris-London-NY studio recordings there isn't as much energy as there is in just one of Sunny Ade's opening guitar phrases, and add Sunday John Akpan's second lead, Remi Abegunde's sliding and soaring bass lines, and drums of every size and description, and there is nothing stopping this party. The rhythms glide, build, soar and stop, then take off again in a continual flow of sinew and sweat. The recommended cut of the album has to be "Majo," a seven minute feast of all that is great about music; hard rhythms, sweet melody, pure energy, and then segues into a "Talking Drum" solo that refines and defines it all.

( available at cdroots.com)


VARIOUS ARTISTS

Africa Never Stand Still

Ellipsis Arts

Compilations are the marital aids of the music industry; they're nice to have when the real thing isn't available. Usually they are quick and somewhat satisfying, but they never really carry you where you want to go.

Fortunately, there are some exceptions, and the latest set from Ellipsis Arts (20 Lumber Rd., Roslyn, NY 11576 800-788-6670) is one of them. Africa Never Stand Still is the third set compiled by Brooke Wentz for them, and if somewhat safe, it is still as solid an overview of the current African pop scene as you can get on three CDs. While anyone can quible about what's not here, I can't think of many complaints about what IS here. Zimbabwe's Stella Chiwese offers her pop-mbira grooves. Tarika Sammy plays their Malagasy folk, and both Kanda Bongo Man and Loketo's soukous are choice cuts. It's an all star cast of who's hot and in the American eye these days: Thomas Mapfumo, Oumaou Sangare, Youssou N'Dour, Baaba Maal, Papa Wemba, Ali Farka Toure and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But with few exceptions, this set has songs and artists that are readily available to the curious listener. There are few tough to find tracks here. If you're already a longtime fan, this set has little to offer that you don't already know. As an introductory gift to a friend, or as a handy piece of programming material, you can't miss. Wentz has taken the roots route, and has created a pleasurable collection of Africa's best known talents.


TARIKA SAMMY

Balance

Green Linnet

With their second album Tarika Sammy proves that the Malagasy music boom is not just a fad, but an indispensable, growing part of the world's musical heritage. This brilliant quartet left no doubt with their first album of traditional songs, Fanafody, but now their roots music has grown new branches, with a parcel of original songs that make it clear that they are now a global musical force. Which is not to say they have opted for the synths and machines of some other African musicians looking for a big score. Quite the opposite is true. They use a score of the ancient instruments of Madagascar's many communities; valiha and marovany harps, percussion, fiddles and flutes. Instead of the Mustaphas' beat, they have invited a Malagasy rhythm section who add punch without ever breaking the delicate balance of the music.

Balance is just about the most exhilarating new recording I have listened to in months. It can be full of energy, driving and scraping along at warp speed on "Roba." Or it can be slow and sinuous, like the mysterious and bluesy "Anjara," with it's plucked harp melodies underscored by a languorous slide guitar and slow, humid vocals. "Bekily" brings their vocal work into full focus, four harmonies strong over heavy percussion and the scrape of the fiddle. They have also staked out the higher ground of lyrical message, using their songs not only as an invitation to the outside world, but as a broadside for madagascar. "Jijy" mixes local rhythms with a spoken word (rap?) missive on the wonders of Madagascar and the need to preserve and improve what is great and beautiful about the island. This is what their music is all about. Tarika Sammy are searching for a way to take the music of their home and make it vital again, not for the purpose of an international hit, but to remind their brothers and sisters in the Indian Ocean just how important their own corner of the world is. They do it with a rare sense of mission, a commitment to great acoustic music with a local flavor and a determination to have the world see their country as something other than an interesting crossroad waiting to be hip. Tarika Sammy's Madagascar is alive, growing and demanding respect. As is the band.


CÉCILE KAYIREBWA

Rwanda

Globestyle

Now living in Belgium, she has produced a series of cassettes over in the '80s that this CD draws from. She interprets the folk music of Rwanda with a reverence for the form, but also with a passion for the future. he singing is sweet and strong, and the musical accompaniment al;ternates between an ensemble of traditional acoustic instruments like harp, bow (much like the Brazilian birimbau) and thumb piano, to some unique all- electronic recreations of these sounds. It is to her credit and that of her arranger-musician Bert Candries that these silicon generated pieces have the some of the same flow and beauty as the all acoustic numbers. (Ms. Kidjo, take note!) Her original songs speak passionately of the life and times of Rwandans at home and abroad, and her voice is the perfect conveyance for the joy and beauty she sees in her country.


Thomas Mapfumo

Vanhu Vatema

Zimbob

Back in 1989, Illinois record store owner turned African concert promoter Bob Diener met and befriended Zimbabwe's king of chimurenga, Thomas Mapfumo. At Mapfumo's invitation, he visited Zimbabwe in 1991 and 1992, and between them decided to release albums in the US on a new label, dubbed Zimbob (PO 2421, Champaign, IL 61825/ 217-344-6878). The already recorded Hondo was released by Zimbob in 1993, and now we have a new album by THOMAS MAPFUMO AND THE BLACKS UNLIMITED that ranks among the summer's best records. Vanhu Vatema (Black People) follows Mapfumo's well worn formula, pitting the rhythms of the mbira against and pairing them with the electric guitars and kit drums in a continuous flow of music and message. Mapfumo has spent two decades bringing the sounds and voices of the Shona people to the world, taking in soukous, reggae and other "world beat" ideas, but making them uniquely Zimbabwean. His revolutionary, and post-revolutionary, messages have fueled revolution and fought for change, in a music so danceable it seems amazing it has so much to say. Such is the way of much great African music, so dance to the sparkling "Ndakura," and the incessant jump and jive of "Ndinotenda."


Madilu System

San Commentaire

Stern's

Of course, all my bitching about programmed drums and synths can be rendered moot by a voice like that of MADILU SYSTEM. Fans of Franco's T.P.O.K. Jazz band will know his voice, as melodious as a bird in the forest of Zaire, a thick, honeyed sound that bows to no amount of synthoid noodling (and believe me, they try on this production). San Commentaire (Stern's Music, 598 Broadway, New York, NY 10012 / 212-925-1648) is all about his voice, and it is such a marvelous instrument that the tracks of this Sylla-produced recording almost drifts into the background at times, occasionally pulled to the forefront by the sassy guitar licks of Syran M'Benza and a chorus that includes Shimita, Wuta Mayi and Djeffard Lukombo. Le Grand Maitre's spirit invades this record at every turn (check some of M'Benza's solos), but it never overshadows Madilu System, who is destined to be one of Franco's chief inheritors. This is soukous of the most pop, not the rumba of the master, but it is the voice that makes the music, and this voice is among the best.


Vieux Diop

Deeso

Senegalese kora player VIEUX DIOP takes the heart of west Africa into both new and all too familiar territory on Deeso (Alerbrije, PO 3247, Hoboken, NJ 07030 / 201-656- 7861). Here is a text book case against synth drums and programs. The record starts in magnificent form on "M'beguel," a rich collection of balafon, drums and harp, sung in Woloff in Diop's splendid voice. "Alin-Si-Towe" is a story song from Bambara folklore, and the interplay between the acoustic instruments is again a marvelous, sinuous blend. "Bamaba" adds keyboards and saxophones to the voice/kora mix in a lush piece not unlike some of Salif Keita's best new work. It is powerful contemporay roots music. "Tiere" welds the Senegalese groove to a nice bluesy guitar riff and makes it modern without losing its ancient sight. But there is a stiff, programmed side to this album that emulates N'Dour's hit-seeking-misssle approach, and a few tracks like "Sutura" are stiff and unsatisfying in the extreme. Most of this recording is highly recommended, with tastes of Brazil and the Caribbean tossed lightly into the mix, so keep your ears open.


LESEGO RAMPOLOKENG with THE KALAHARI SURFERS

End Beginnings

ReR

"They came in the heat of rum, to freeze the beat of my drum." That may be the best description of what invading industry is capable of doing to local culture. It is the poetry of LESEGO RAMPOLOKENG with THE KALAHARI SURFERS. Rampolokeng is a powerful South African poet in the ranks of L.K. Johnson. End Beginnings (ReR MegaCorp, 46 The Gallop, Sutton, Surrey SM2 5RY, England/ 081-770-2141/ retail distribution via Wayside) is not a circumspect view of the repression of his country, but a barrage as potent as the forces that oppose freedom there. The Kalahari Surfers are a well-known, radical white band that has brought reggae, rock and experimental pop to a world that expects jive not politics from the music of Africa. Each song is a brilliant gem, a metaphor of life in the darkness, yet utimately shedding light on the terrain. Together, poet and band stake out a territory of horror and joy, powerful hope amid utter devestation. This is a danceable groove with a message, a rare commodity in music. While American rappers spend their time talking sex and guns, these people are living the reality of South Africa, and telling the world about it, sending out not only the news, but a warning.


AMADU BANSANG JOBARTEH

Tabara

(Music Of The World, PO 3620, Chapel Hill, NC 27515-3620)

In the midst of all the fusion and hype of this month comes a record that will settle slowly and sweetly on your ears, one that relies on the most basic of ingredients: history, skill and emotion. Amadu is one of the grand masters in a long family line. Born in Mali of a jali (griot) father, he was settled with his family in Bansang, Gambia, where he was taught the kora. You may know of the other names in the family; Toumani Diabate and Sidiki Diabate, both better known in America than their elder relative. Now in his seventies, Amadu embodies the essential attitude of African music as a whole. His music is at once ancient and new, praising the heros and benefactors of his home and family, telling the history of his people, and doing it within a series of structures that leave room for individual expression through improvisation. Tabara is a set of solo kora and voice explorations, without any additional musicians. It is beautifully recorded, magnificently performed, warm and wonderful music.


ABDULLAH IBRAHIM AND JOHNNY DYANI

Echoes From Africa

Enja, via Koch International

Ibrahim has always been the proof of the essential links between jazz and Africa, both in his homage to American jazz and his work to make jazz a genuinely African music. Here, with bassist Dyani, the roots and branches are powerful and clear. Ibrahim's piano reflects the classical sense of Ellington transposed into his native South Africa's traditions. Dyani's bass, and their joint vocal work, infuse this album with a rich simplcity. They take no bows to fad or commercial necessity, playing for their own musical goals. The 1979 recording is now out on CD, and it is a welcome addition for any fan of jazz or African music.


KHALED

N'ssi N'ssi

Cohiba/Island

The now maturing Algerian cheb hits his stride on this new album. Rai being what it is, it is no surprise to find that the influences range far and wide on N'ssi N'ssi. In addition to the punkish mix of organ and drum machine in the original recipe, producers Don Was and Phillipe Eidel add two distinct, personal spices to the mix. Eidel's approach is to make a hyper- modern Persian sound, full of strings (real and imagined), ouds and reeds; a sort of Um Khalthum-goes-nineties that hangs tight to the Arab and African tones. "Alech Taadi" adds a little salsa flavor, with Khaled's accordion popping over the strings. Was takes the more bizarre approach, fusing some heavy bass-driven funk with the Afro-Arabic grooves, lots of horns and not an unfair share of humor. "Serbi Serbi" cracks the album open with a lush horn over an earthy drum mix of darbouka and silicon. Smooth, romantic, the song slithers along dreamily, with a pedal steel, of all things, adding yet another layer of froth to the cocktail. Khaled's voice has matured, as well. He's more assured and less strident, but none of the edge is missing. There's also a track recorded at Real World's studios in Box, UK, that features Michael Brook on guitar and Screamin' Hank Mustapha on violin. Maybe a 3 Khaled 3 record is next?

N'ssi N'ssi is definitely going to have its detractors. It's impure, it's over produced at times, it strives to find an "international" sound. But the world keeps turning, and the idea of purity in rai is patently absurd, given its modern lineage. Khaled and his co-conspirators have always looked far and wide, from the streets of Algiers to the night clubs of paris, for inspiration and color. This album continues that search, and it's a fun ride, so why not take it.


HUGH MASEKELA

Hope

Triloka

Perhaps the best known champion of the music of South Africa, Hugh Masekela has spent his entire career trying to find a meeting between the popular music of America and the local sounds of his homeland. Since 1968, when he recorded his first hit song, "Grazin' In The Grass," (not too long after "Wimoweh" become perhaps the first "world beat" pop record) he has weilded his horn in the defense of the music and the people of the Horn of Africa. Hope is one of those albums that you just wait to come through the door. It's a greatest hits collection, of a sort, with all new recordings of his best known or favorite songs from the last 30+ years. And most of them exceed their original recordings in both energy, honesty and roots. The current ensemble is one of his best ever, with special note going to the guitar work of Lawrence Matshiza and the bass of Bhatiki Kumalo, who lend these songs the funk and rawness they have always deserved. "Grazin' In The Grass" is as sweet as ever, Miriam Makeba's "Abangoma" is stark and beautiful, and the blend of Harlem and Soweto in "Uptownship" is one of Masekela's best moments on record.


MLIMANI PARK ORCHESTRA

Sikinde

Africassette, PO 24941, Detroit MI 48224 email:dpaterson@aol.com

The German release of this set of super songs from Tanzania has been available (barely, in the US) for many years, and it is a pleasure to find it readily available for the first time. This is a collection of songs recorded in Dar Es Salaam through the eighties by Radio Tanzania, and it features the rich, warm vocals of Hassani Bitchuka and the frenetic, high energy voice of Cosmos Tobias Chidumule, the two most famous singers of this band (and possibly, in the whole nation). The music is a blend of west African-Latin grooves, soaked in horns and pinned together by shimmering guitar lines, but all through the music is the eastern undertone of the Indian Ocean. Incredibly tight arrangementsa are their hallmark, but they never get so tight as to hold back the singers, whose songs of social ills and pleasures, love and life in east Africa are at the core of Mlimani Park's sound. Heated, sensual music with a message is what they are all about, and they deliver it in nine danceable doses, a tonic for the heat and complacency of summer.


Africando

Tierra Tradicional

Stern's Music

The first volume of this fantastic ensemble was so highly and widely praised that it is a given that the rest of the sessions recorded in 1992 would be at least almost as good. The pleasure here is it seems Sylla and company were holding out on us, and these are possibly even better. This trans-Atlantic re-fusion of Cuban salsa and three of west Africa's great singers is as energized as any music can be. Singer Ronnie Baro and some of his former cohorts from New York's infamous Orquestra Broadway are joined by Pape Seck and Medoune Diallo, two stalwarts of the African music scene, and Senegalese upstart Nicholas Menheim for another binge of pure Latin soul. You know the history from last year's Trovador, so just dig into some more great grooves; the steamy "Xale Bile" fueled by Diallo's classic Orchestra Boabab style; a hot version of "La Bamba" showcases Menheim in a wild salsa reinterpretation of the Mexican folk tune with a classic trumpet solo from Bomberito Zarzuela. Baro's "Ken Moussoul Guis Li" in Wolof and Seck's Spanish version of "Sama Thiel" make the obvious nods to one another's influences. Simply put, this is as good as music gets.


IGNACE DE SOUZA

Original Music, 418 Lasher Road, Tivoli, NY 12583 / 914-756-2767)

They call the series The Great Unknowns, a silly title for a company that has made a career of publishing recordings by artists you have never heard of. No matter, you will welcome them to the airwaves as great new discoveries even if they recorded their music in the 50's and 60's. Ignace De Souza made of career of being on the cutting edge, first with Ghanaian high life (although he was from what is now Bénin), then moving onto Congo music with its strong Cuban bent, and eventually into the American soul and psychedelic sound of Afro-beat in the late sixties. These 19 tracks cover his time with The Melody Aces, The Shambros Band, and the ever changing Black santiagos. This is an amazing collection of some of Africa's most potent performances. How did it slip by us all? Thanks go to Original Music for introducing us to even greater unknowns.


SALI SIDIBE

Wassoulou Foli

Stern's Music

Twice in just a few months, I get my biggest addiction catered to. The voices of the women of the Wassoulou are just about the most powerful and empowering voices on earth. A mixture of stark beauty and tonal richness, the music of Mali is compelling and enchanting. The voice of Sali Sidibe captures all of that range and depth. With this second release of her music, we get another unique look at this artist. Unlike From Timbuktu To Gao (Shanachie), which featured a very acoustic ensemble, Wassoulou Foli is one of those rare albums that explores all the technological possibilities of the music without every losing its rootsy grooves. It never misses a beat as it flawlessly blends the buzz of the balafon and the scratch of the fiddle with electronic keyboards and shimmering electric guitars. Even the programmed drums seem right at home with the thick pluck of the gut strings. Ibrahima Sylla and company have come closer than ever to achieving the perfect mix. All of this is course only the icing. The real treat is the voice of Sidibe, and with a cassette and two CDs at my disposal, I can honestly say she has grown to be one of my favorite singers, making the music soar as she moves through each note with undeniable grace and energetic passion. That she is still in her twenties only makes the prospect brighter; I will have more of her singing to listen to until the day I die.


ALI FARKA TOURE WITH RY COODER

Talking Timbuktu

Hannibal/Rykodisc

When you get a record like this, it is almost impossible to listen to anything else for weeks after. Two of my guitar heros, together on a full album of Malian grooves and American blues is more than you can ask for, and you get it on Talking Timbuktu. In the wake of winning a Grammy for his album A Meeting By The River (Water Lily Acoustics) with Indian vina player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Cooder makes an album even more stunning with the man often called the Robert Johnson of west Africa. This is Toure's album, to be sure. His electric and acoustic guitar emulates and praises the music of Mali, turning the phrasing of the balafon and kora into a six-string wonder of shimmering notes and luscious vocal phrases. He makes the music of tha African jali into something completely new; modern and ancient and beautiful. In the past he has collaborated with folks like American bluesman Taj Mahal, harmonica player Rory McLeod and two of the Irish tradsters from The Chieftains, so this is not a new concept.

But with Ry Cooder he may have found his most sympathetic comrade. The two play like they have known each other all their lives, and the music they make reflects a lifetime of dedication not only to their instruments, but to the music of the whole world. Toure is clearly a fan of old American music from John Lee Hooker's blues to the blue yodeller Jimmie Rodgers. Cooder may have been the first "world musician" in America, with albums going back two decades that take in black gospel and jazz, Mexican folk and Caribbean calypso. His work with Flaco Jimenez alone makes him a major contributor to the rasing of the American musical conciousness. So it is no surprise that when they met a few years ago, they were already fans of one another's music, and ready to make this recording, which they finally got to last year.

Talking Timbuktu is the result of this long fermentation, and it is a stunning brew. In addition to the brilliant guitars of Cooder and Toure, they were joined by Toure's Groupe Asco, calabash player and singer Hamma Sankare and conga man Oumar Toure. Cooder brought along some of his regular cohorts, including drummer Jim Keltner, bassist John Patitucci, and on a couple of tracks, blues fiddler Clarence Gatemouth Brown. In spite of all this instrumental prowess and power, the music never gets overwhelmed by the idea. Everybody's contributions are subtle, underpinning the music of the Niger delta, carrying it in new directions, but never spilling over the banks.

To try to pick out favorite tracks in an album of all great tunes is impossible, but I'll take two to exemplify the rest. "Soukoura" is the piece that best shows off the talents of Cooder and Toure, mixing the Malian's sinewey electric guitar with the more playful and sweet tones of Cooder on mando-guitar and a strummy little toy guitar. It is here that the music of Cooder becomes almost indistinguishable from the music of Toure, threading together Caribbean lilt, delta blues and the reverence of the jali. "Ai Du" features the full contingent of American and African artists, in a slow, nasty blues number that has Cooder sadly sliding and madly plucking, Brown scraping a dirty riff and Ali Farka Toure giving his bluesiest all on the vocals, all over a steady grind of bass, drums and African percussion. Every other track has similar magic, from the simplest traditional tune by Toure's trio to the other full-ensemble productions. Ali farka Toure has long been considered one of the major figures in African acoustic music, and with this collaboration he may not only have made some of his best work yet, but may be on the way to forging a solid reputation in the popular music world as well. This is not only a great recording, it is an important one. Instead of the silliness of the Parisian dance-hit mentality where new means synthetic and fusion is nothing more than a recapping of last year's flavor, Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder have found common ground in their different roots, and made a new hybrid that retains the old beauty while blossoming into something unheard of.


BLACK UMFOLOSI

Festival-Umdlalo

World Circuit, via Rounder

Another triumph of simplicity over technology is Umdlalo, the Ndebele (South Africa) word for festival. This eight piece group sings, and sings and sings. They take the music of the many cultures of South Africa and it's nearby neighbors and weaves it with nothing more then the thread of their voices and the occasional gilt of a drum. With a similar lineup as ladysmith Black mambazo, they have chosen a different path, one that takes their music to the people with a fierce message of pride and hope. They are politically active in their country, and they sing and speak about contemporary life; the need for pan-African community, the dangers of AIDS, as well as the day to day life of a contemporary African. They may sound traditional, but they carry their tradition as a badge of honor, not a straight-jacket. There is power and grace in this music, which is all you can ask for.


WENGE MUSICA became the darlings of the month in Britain in 1991 following a BBC appearance and a minor hit record with "Kin E Bouge." But their 1988 album Bouger Bouger (NATARI/Africassette, PO 24941, Detroit MI 48224/ 313-881-4108; fax 313-881-0260) never saw a release outside of Africa until now. This is streamlined soukous from Zaire, right on the cusp of the big change-over to higher and higher tech, with sweet ensemble vocals, fat bass and those shimmering electric guitar lines that define the style. In fact, it's Alain Makeba's guitar solos and fills that really define this recording. He sets a spark to every vocal line and his solos are crisp, almost austere in their melodic simplicity. You still have to get past the inevitable low budget synthesizers so hip in Kinsasha at the time, but the rest of the ensemble is so lush and wonderful that it is a minor chore. If you are a fan of soukous masters like the families Zaiko, then this is for you.


ZISKANKAN

Mango Records

From a place most of you never heard of comes music like little else you have heard, the music of Ziskakan from Réunion, a small island in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascarunder the "protection" of the French Overseas Office. With a population of about half a million, and an area the size of Rhode island, it's no wonder you haven't heard of it. (But then, what do they know of Rhode Island?) The music here is a wondrous mix of Indian, African and Arabic sounds. They gracefully blend them with current technology and primitive acoustics in a steamy, rich mixture of both old and new flavors.


ABDEL GADIR SALIM, ABDEL AZIZ EL MUBARAK, MOHAMED GUBARA

Sounds Of Sudan

World Circuit/Rounder

This is a collection of three great performers from the Sudan, is taken from three albums of their music put out in the late eighties. Each of these artists reflect very different approaches to the music. Salim's is a small ensemble of oud, tabla and accordion, offering a clear shot at the rhythms and melodies, and a wonderful ear-full of Salim's vocals. This is a nice contrast to the larger band he tours with now, and that I had the good fortune to hear at WOMAD in Helsinki last summer. Mubarak's current ensemble is a huge lush orchestra, but here again we hear him in an intimate setting of uod, drum and accordion. His influences are broader than Salim's were at the time these recordings were made, and his sound is little more adventurous, with traces of many other cultures slipping into his more urban interpretation. The final three tracks are solo performances by Gubara on tambour and vocal. His sharper vocal style and sparse accompaniment make for some stunning music, with an almost chilling intensity and energy.


YOUSSOU N'DOUR
The Guide (Wommat)
Chaos/Sony

I admit to having something that sits of the border of ambivalence and disdain whenever Youssou N'Dour releases another recording. It's partially a knee-jerk reaction to the homogenization of pop music around the world, partially the fact that I have such a passion for the mbalax music he made in the past. A Youssou N'Dour album is "an event" in the world of world music, and therefore impossible to ignore. Writing a review of The Guide becomes an exercise in restraint and re- examination. I thought since there's already been a glowing review of the album, I'd just ramble through some tracks and see what's up. I put the CD player on "random" and here's some of what we get:

"Leaving" starts off the record, a solid piece of pop mbalax that exemplifies all that's right about this music. Solid, unique rhythms on voice and drum, accented by crisp horn lines and some great, swirling rhythm guitar. N'dour's voice is restrained, sweet and punchy.

"Without A Smile" is a serious letdown, a schmaltzy ballad with little in dynamics to offer the ear. Nice drumming underpins a pat sax solo by Branford Marsalis.

"Undecided" is programmed out of the race. Another standard bit that would be ignored if it wasn't coming from an African source to give it some pop PC.

"Mame Bamba" goes back to mbalax in a cooler but no less driving groove. Simplicity brings strength to this tune, and the addition of good English lyrics (an improvement over the last album) gives it additional punch. "Love One Another" stays in the same vein, with some nice funky touches in the chorus to accent his voice.

"Chimes Of Freedom" (Yes, the Bob Dylan song) is given a dramatic reading by N'Dour over live drum and synth tracks (including a good accordion sample) that picks up not only Dylan's folksy sound, but echoes traces of Salif Keita and Celtic folk-rock. An excellent cut, if only for it's unique take on a great, familiar song.

"Generations" falls into the hit-seeking-missile category, with an over dose of standard pop riffs on keyboards. "Seven Seconds," a duet with Nenah Cherry, who also contributes to the writing credits, follows suit. Top 40 is Top 40, and I can't take this kind of nonsense, no matter how good the singers are. It's a fine song that gets lost in a morass of pop triviality.

The rest of The Guide goes through these paces in fifteen tracks, some lovely and original, some dull and insignificant. As in his other major label releases over the last few years, he is struggling with musical demons and angels, torn between being the innovative African musical creator and the popular international rock star. I hope for the former, every time.

( available at cdroots.com)


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