African Recording Archive #8
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Lightning Over the River
Music Club

The genre called soukous (from a French word meaning 'to shake') originated in The Congo, but has dominated West African pop for years. Its merengue-like beat is insistent and tireless, yet it's sweet and lighter than air. Its slickness can sound one-dimensional, but the better players -- particularly the genre's stellar guitarists -- can make the music absolutely sparkle.

On the dance floor, I have always found soukous easy to lose oneself in, what with all those polyrhythms and layer upon layer of silky sounds. At home, though, I'm not often engaged for a whole CD's worth of soukous. The good news about this collection is that it is budget-priced and, more importantly, assembles an excellent array of tunes and top performers. Whether you want to occasionally pop on a few juiced-up tunes, or get charmed into the album's full 67 minutes, starting or expanding your soukous collection has rarely been easier. - Marty Lipp


Bellemou Messaoud
C'est Pas Ma Faute
Welt Musik/Wergo (www.schott-music.com/cds/labels_e.htm)

He has never been called "Cheb." For as long as he has been around, it seems, Messaoud has always been "Le Pere du Rai," a trumpeter in a singer's genre, an innovator of sound rather than lyrical content. This album breaks no new ground and doesn't have to. Recorded at SFB radio in Berlin, Messaoud and his band are smooth, direct and mesmerizing, following the single basic groove of rai through to the end. The singer (there has to be a singer, after all) is the marvelously understated Ourad Houari. The band is two trumpets, electric guitar, percussion (drums and metal castanets) and the requisite cheesy electronic keyboard. The traces of cha cha cha, jazz and 60's pop-rock still survive, although more and more Messaoud's rai has developed into its own identifiable sound. If there's a strange aspect to the recording, it is the subservience of the trumpets to the over-all sound. It's always there, but always lurking in the background, so those of us who were attracted to him for that sound are going to be a little disappointed. But as rai goes, this is still some of the best; unpretentious, easy and true to the spirit of the original folk roots. - CF


Baaba Maal
Live at Royal Festival Hall
Palm Pictures / Rykodisc (www.rykodisc.com)

Recorded July 13, 1998 in London, Live at the Royal Festival Hall captures Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal live for 41 minutes of tunes from his recent solo albums Nomad Soul and Firin' in Fouta. Chipping in are Ernest Ranglin (with the number "Koni" from his CD In Search of the Lost Riddim) and other international stars such as Ira Coleman and the Screaming Orphans. Maal is a consummate performer and it shows on this four-song album from one of the first live concerts filmed, recorded and mixed specifically for DVD. The Latin-based "African Woman," clocking in at 11 minutes, is a wonderful taste of Maal and his tight band, Daande Lenol. While the Nomad Soul tunes are flatter and perhaps more rock-influenced, taken out of the studio and into the Festival Hall they are greatly enhanced by the solo performances of Maal and his guests. - Craig Tower


Habib Koite and Bamada
Muso Ko
Label Misslin/France 1995
US Reissue Alula 1999 (www.alula.com)

Solid electric roots-rocking music from Bamako, Mali comes in this fine package of 11 steamy tracks, spurred on by the vocals and guitar of Koite and soaked in that reverbed ambiance that the west Africans alone seem to be able to get away with. There's a fine mix of acoustic instruments (including some beautiful guitar work and some sublime balafon touches). While most of the world is looking for the next big fusion, this band knows its roots of the music, digs in and makes it blossom. - CF
1999 comments: this record is still fresh and solid 5 years later. Koite is a roots master and this still stands as his best effort to date. (CF)


Habib Koité and Bamada
Ma Ya
Putumayo - US (www.putumayo.com)
Contre-Jour - Europe (www.contrejour.com)

Habib Koité's latest represents an evolution and an emergence. When he first hit the scene in Bamako, Mali, it was for the explosive "Cigaretti A Bana" ("No More Cigarettes") which had the dual attraction of a powerful reggae beat and a controversial social theme. Ma Ya is more introspective on both a personal and a cultural level yet continues to show Koité's concern for Manding society in the larger world. Aurally, his contemporaries are troubadours like Ugandan Geoffrey Oryema, Burkinabé Gabin Dabiré, and Cameroonian Henri Dikongué, who are proving successful at making subtle modern music based on traditional rhythms with a mix of electric and acoustic instrumentation.

Ma Ya opens with the rumba-influenced "Wassiye", an intriguing tune with a restrained power waiting to explode. The yearning of the acoustic guitar lines and Koité's tender vocals draw the listener in immediately, and by the end of the first refrain and the introduction of the rhythm section the song has captured you. Like much of the album, "Wassiye" is vaguely familiar, like a forgotten lover's visit in a dream. "Bitilé" has Koité working hip-hop and evocative talking drums into a song of encouragement to young Africans to see the strength in their own culture as they confront the world.

"Foro Bana" has guitar lines borrowed from the kora and a slow, almost plodding melody reminiscent of traditional Mandingue griot music. "Kumbin" (which translates roughly to "meeting" or "coalescence") is the only song in English. The lyrics are slightly awkward but heartfelt for their mournfulness - Koité relates his love for the convenience of technology and his fear for the destruction of Mandingue culture. It's a beautiful song, an expression of the ambiguity of living in a world that is becoming smaller yet at times more differentiated than one could ever imagine. It's also a fair representation of Ma Ya as a whole; a compelling record from an emerging star that deserves repeated listening. - Craig Tower


Alpha Yaya Diallo
The Message
Wicklow Records (www.wicklowrecords.com)

Diallo's third album shows that innovative African music doesn't come solely from Paris. One of a new generation of expatriate Francophone musicians to abandon the traditional African musical capital, Diallo is in the good company of Tabu Ley Rochereau, Ricardo Lemvo, Samba Ngo, Majek Fashek and Hassan Hakmoun who have set up shop in North America.

On The Message, Diallo, a Guinean, continues to prove that African musicians can thrive musically in the New World. While his last record Aduna was stronger overall, it compiled the best of his first two albums. The Message is all new material with the exception of a reprise of the gentle "Fatumata Diallo" in a fuller but less deft arrangement augmented by kora and balafon.

The best tune is "Badenma", or "Friendship", which begins with an interlacing of stacatto balafon and electric guitar lines, followed by the spare driving kit drums and cymbals similar to Zimbabwean chimurenga. Diallo's insistent tenor brings it all together and keeps things moving for five intense minutes. Equally strong is the instrumental "Kakande", an original melody of the Kakande people of Guinea. In Diallo's adroit hands, guitar lines reflecting both classical and Spanish influence interweave over spare bass, balafon, and percussion.

Interesting tunes that don't work quite as well are "Duniya", "The World", which mixes a lilting kora line with bouncy American rock-influenced bass, Breton violin, and new agey keyboards, and "Vancouver Venez Voir", a soukous invitation for strangers to come and see Diallo's adopted hometown for themselves. Who knows - with more strong albums like The Message he might convince some more African stars to join him on this side of the Atlantic. - Craig Tower


Various Artists
African Salsa
Stern's/Earthworks (www.sternsmusic.com)

Though it is called African Salsa, the tracks are virtually all from Senegal. The musical call-and-response between Cuba and West Africa goes back to the days of slavery, but in 1992, the connection was 'rediscovered' with the formation of Africando, a studio ensemble of Senegalese singers and New York salsa musicians. To everyone's surprise, the group's eponymous debut produced a U.S. dance floor hit, 'Yaye Boy,' and the ad hoc amalgam has been reconstituted for three encore discs.

A remix of 'Yaye Boy' is on this compilation, but the other tracks will sound distinctly 'foreign' to stateside salseros. That is because the songs are actually the hybrid music being played in recent years on Dakar's dance floors; music that blends Latin clavé rhythms with the galloping Senegalese style called mbalax. The songs generally don't have Latin-style brass sections, can trade timbales for talking drums, and often put synthesizers higher in the mix. Uniquely Senegalese, the songs can be reminiscent of Colombian cumbia, Cuban guarijo or charanga, but they have a rawer sound unlike the more polished commercial salsa.

This dance floor-targeted disc is an beguiling examination of contemporary Senegalese pop. Latin fans with a taste for adventure could very well find themselves being seduced -- again -- by the rhythms of Africa. - Marty Lipp


Gabin Dabiré
Kontome
Amiata (www.amiatamedia.com)

This composer and musician from Burkina Faso produces a bright African pop music that is firmly rooted in the acoustic guitar. It travels a pan-African road full of small surprises and pleasant side trips. The album is a series of songs dedicated to "Kontome," African "guiding spirits." In that role, the pieces are mostly gentle, reminiscent of a lot of Francis Bebey or Pierre Akendengue's work, with sounds from all over Africa and Europe striking a balance between tradition and the modern world. Dabiré's voice and guitar hold center stage in this production, but there is a lot of aural depth supplied by classically inspired strings, funky bass lines and jazz influenced reeds, in addition to African folk instruments like harp and sanza. His use of vocal arrangements is also a notable sound on the record, whether it is a pop style back-up group or a church-like chorale. On "Mariam a ne Awa" he finds common ground for these voices and an ensemble of moody Baroque woodwinds, creating a European art music with a clear lineage to western Africa. While Kontome has a few sparkling, up-tempo numbers, this is really one for the fan of the subtle side of popular folk music. - CF


Salamat
Ezzayakoum
Piranha (www.piranha.de)

In the early 1960s, the second Aswan dam flooded out the Nubian communities of the Upper Nile, creating a urbanized Nubian diaspora in Egypt and Sudan. Displacement transformed village song traditions most strikingly in the cultural crossroads of Cairo, where cassette culture can rapidly disseminate the passionate voice of a new arrival on the scene. This is Salamat's fourth Piranha release, led by master percussionist Mahmoud Fadl. The album introduces four Nubian vocalists whose cassette releases have made them enormously popular in Egypt and Sudan, but little heard abroad: Sayed Khalifa, Hassan El Saghir, Hassan Abdel Aziz, and an emerging female star, Salwa Abou Greisha. A combo of oud, accordion, keyboard, tenor sax, violin, guitar, electric bass and folk percussion creates the pentatonic foundation for the fiery Arabic and Nubian vocals, comprising the rhythmically complex, assertively romantic, traditionally tinged topical music of Cairo's ethnic wedding circuit and youth market. - Michael Stone


Sedhiou Band
Africa Kambeng
Africassette (www.africassette.com/~rsteiger/)

Africa Kambeng (Africa Unite) is a good example of the current Latin roots revival in world music. A small-town band from Sedhiou in southern Senegal, the group never reached the prominence of Orchestre Baobab, but through constant touring and competing in musical contests has achieved some notoriety in West Africa. Stylistically, the band is closer to the older Manding swing groups of Guinea and Mali such as Bembeya Jazz, Afro-Jazz de Segou, and the Rail Band than they are to younger Senegalese mbalax artists like Youssou N'Dour and Super Diamono. The reasons are partly generational, partly cultural - mbalax is essentially rooted in Wolof culture - and partly demographic, for the Sedhiou Band caters less to the urban cosmopolitan crowd than the Dakar-based bands. The band lacks the extreme polish of these groups, but makes up for it with well-orchestrated arrangements and rich percussion.

For those familiar with Manding swing, the Sedhiou Band's sound will not come as a surprise. It is not extravagantly produced nor do they have a vocalist with the incredible suppleness and power of stars like Salif Keita, Mory Kante, or Oumou Sangare. The vocal duties are instead shared on Africa Kambeng by four different singers using three different languages - Spanish, Manding, and Jola. The instrumentation is excellent. "Lansana," with its long instrumental groove, is reminiscent of songs like Les Ambassadeurs' classic "Mandjou."

Typical of the Manding swing style, the vocals share the limelight, with brief interjections of saxophone. The guitar lines are restrained and in nice tension with the peppery percussion. This production makes particularly judicious use of the kit drums, allowing the diverse battery of congas and talking drums to shine. And though they play two Cuban tunes ("El Carretero" and the very strong "Combinacion"), the CD is not a retrospective or revival of the 70's Afro-Latin style in the vein of Africando or Ricardo Lemvo. Africa Kambeng is an excellent album for anyone who wants to go beyond the major label stars and stiff overproduction of much current African pop. - Craig Tower


Etoile de Dakar, featuring Youssou N'Dour, Mar Seck and El Hadji Faye
Volume 4: Khaley Etoile
Sterns Africa (www.sternsmusic.com)

The fourth and last volume in this reissue series of classic Senegalese pop is the historical foot note to the band, coming just before N'Dour broke into the international spotlight with his Super Etoile in 1982. This is the real roots mbalax sound that was later to get the international wash down, so revel in these 6 harsh, absolutely irresistible tracks of Latin soaked, fuzz guitar riddled, horn punctured, tama driven dance tunes, fronted by some of Africa's great vocalists. A tight but chaotic sound rules here, with the vocalists clearly in competition on a number of cuts, each trying to get the edge as the band disintegrated once again into a host of Etoiles and Star Bands. These four CDs are a treasure trove of innovation, imitation and the brilliant tension that comes when so many powerful artists try to collaborate; a golden period in Senegalese pop. - CF


Djeli Moussa Diawara
FlamenKora
Melodie / France

Kora player Djeli Moussa Diawara (the artist previously known as Jali Musa Jawara) has a rich family history to lean on. He is the son of traditional musicians, brother to infamous kora fuser Mory Kante and cousin to the sublime guitarist Kante Manfila. He is renowned for his traditional work in the music of the griot, and also for innovative fusions of electronics, pop, jazz, salsa and other popular add-ons to the west African musical palette. Contrary to what the title might imply, FlamenKora is not one of those flamenco fusion records that have littered the marketplace of world music, but an energetic, contemplative and introspective look at the African roots of flamenco, and flamenco's more current return influence on the music of west Africa. It is performed in the studio by Diawara alone, on a simple array of acoustic instruments including kora, voice, small percussion and possibly some guitar (or some great kora playing that imitates it). The title track is a superb piece of flamenco-like kora and voice, full of subdued passion. "Kana Mone" features an a capella surprise as the layers of voices give the Manding melody of the piece an intense feeling. FlamenKora ranges from deep Manding roots music to rich flamenco, but it is at its best as it wanders between the two, delivering music that is original and fresh without a trace of forced cleverness or empty innovation.- CF


Rachid Taha
Diwan
Island

For his second album, Algerian-born, Paris-based Rachid Taha has shed his blond hair and electronic sound -- in both cases going back to his roots. On 'Diwan,' Taha conjures up a sound that is thoroughly Middle Eastern, but juiced up with Western touches such as string sections and the occasional guitar or synthesizer. Again the songs lean to the long side, making the disc close to 70 minutes, but individually they use their time to build up an infectious momentum.

At his recent concert at Central Park Summerstage, Taha played a hard-rocking funk, as if he were trying to meet Led Zeppelin halfway between cultures. On his disc, however, Taha leans more heavily on traditional instruments, such as the oud, and sinuous strings.

Taha's husky voice is serviceable, though the appeal here is his creation of vibrant songs that kick it with a distinctly Arabic flavor. Taha's success abroad is a reminder that the urge to rock may be more universal than we Americans think. - Marty Lipp


Neba Solo
Kenedougou Foly
Cobalt (africolor@hol.fr)

It's 4 am in the village. The tower of the mud mosque is visible in the moonlight beyond the full square, and the imam would normally be getting up to prepare himself for the call to prayer, except he hasn't gotten any sleep tonight. Half the village is out in front of his house on the square, dancing like there's no tomorrow, kicking up a dust storm the likes of which hasn't been seen since the last drought. The young girls clot in giggling knots while the guys, dressed in the latest flashy rayon shirts and knock-off Raybans circle in twos and threes, alternating between cool distance and energetic teasing. And animating the scene is the balafon orchestra, four or five young men playing drums or the long handmade xylophones with resonating gourds underneath, the overcharged speakers blaring with the amplified sound of the buzzing instrument and the singer's melody, which just drowns out the sound of the gas generator that the imam hopes will run out of fuel before morning prayers are to start...

Souleymane Traore, a.k.a. Neba Solo, was born the son of a great balafonist in the Kenedougou area of the Sikasso region of Mali, West Africa. True to his Senoufo heritage, he was raised a farmer in the village of Nebadougou, but when not farming he practiced on the balafon with his father and other youth in the village. His talent at playing the balamba ("large balafon") at a blistering pace led to increasing notoriety. Offers to play festivals throughout the region became offers to play throughout the nation and after recording best-selling cassettes his group eventually claimed the title of the "band of the year" in Mali in 1996. A well-deserved reward and an unusual selection in a country that tends to favor the music of the Muslim north over the that of the animist south, and the more cosmopolitan sound of modern orchestras and Wassoulou divas over the rough rural sound of village boys like Neba Solo.

What sets this recording apart from that of other balafonists is its warmth and originality. While other master balafonists have recorded CDS, they are most often of the polished, classical instrumental variety of the Guinean master El Hadj Djely Sory Kouyate. It's like the difference between a string quartet and a bluegrass fiddle band. Solo's sound is genuine, filled with the warm buzz of the instruments, which consist of two balafons and four percussionists, and Solo's wonderful tenor, which soars just over the music but never drowns the instruments in nasal whine. Best of all, this is dance music at its most basic and unstoppable. When Solo breaks it down, the lines become truly trance like, slowly mutating like the best modern techno from theme to theme in a seamless blur. The sound is so full that sometimes you have to stop and remind yourself that these are all acoustic instruments with the exception of Solo's amplified voice. The best part is that Solo plays real village dance balafon without a lot of window dressing and overproduced gewgaws.

It is rare to encounter such genuine music that's also so accessible. You'll never get closer to a real Malian village dance party than this. - Craig Tower


Fantcha
Criolinha
Tinder (www.worldmusic.com)

Born Francelina Durao Almeida in Cape Verde, Fantcha began singing at ten. As a young teen, Fantcha was invited on stage by Cesaria Evora. She eventually she recorded an album in Lisbon, and eventually settled in New York City. After ten years of peripatetic gigging, she has recorded her second album, 'Criolinha.'

While Evora is famous for her singing the melancholy style called morna, Fantcha explores the upbeat 'coladeira' of Cape Verde. She opens and closes the album, however, with two beautiful mornas, using the opportunity to showcase her deep, richly expressive voice. Fantcha takes on the light swing of coladeira with inventive arrangements and a palpable feeling of joy. The album's gentle, insistent rhythms should appeal to Brazilian music fans, but it's easygoing charms may win her a much wider audience and reinvigorate Fantcha's desultory musical career. - Marty Lipp


Cesaria Evora
Miss Perfumado
Nonesuch (reissue)

Don't get me wrong, here. I have loved the music of Cesaria Evora for a long time, right through her recent American releases. But I doubt I have ever written a review where I didn't wax eloquent about the fact that they all have had to measure up to Miss Perfumado. And I know I am not the only writer to continually recommend this import album to our readers. Now you can get the album readily on a US label.

This is the album to own for anyone who has fallen in love with the slow, graceful sound of morna, the Cape Verde blues, if you will. And Evora is the queen of morna. It is a rich, languishing music, full of inferences to jazz, blues, Brazilian pop and Portugal's fado. Driven here by caviquinho and guitar courtesy of Paulino Viera, with lush piano, sweet violin and percussion, the music is both warm and sad, and altogether wonderful. You can read more about Cesaria Evora on the web pages. Start with John Cho's introduction: (http://www.rootsworld.com/rw/feature/cho_cesaria.html) and then follow the links to other reviews of this remarkable singer's recent recordings. - CF


Yan Kuba
Kora Music From Gambia
Music of the World (www.MusicoftheWorld.com)

It's not that I mind technological advances so much, but sometimes it's such a pleasure to hear a master of this west African instrument in unadulterated form, sans gizmos, fuse boxes and Euro-clutter. The 50-something Yan Kuba Saho is a true griot, a student and now master of the Mandinka tradition of songs and music of praise. This recording is simple and beautiful. The kora stands up front, with Yan Kuba and his wife Bintu Suso on voice. She also adds sparse percussion by tapping the side of the kora as he plays. Recording simply and cleanly by Daniel Janke (himself an accomplished player of the instrument), this recording is a way back to the roots of the music. - CF


Babatunde Olatunji
Love Drum Talk
Chesky Records (www.chesky.com)

For a couple of decades now, Babatunde Olatunji has been delivering his "Drums of Passion" to succeeding generations. They have ranged from touristy albums to fire-brand recordings of powerful African music, each one exploring a different aspect of universal human life or emotion. This time it's "love" in its many splendors. Don't expect any deep or moving lyrics here, with songs like "Tell Me Your Number" and "Long Distance Lover" striking no new themes. But this is a fine recording of his west African hybrid of traditional drumming, highlife and pop, with a twist of jazz thrown in for good measure. While the recording may seem a bit subtle to fans of African drumming, it is fitting to the theme that the music is a bit more laid back on Love Talk Drum. It's certainly not lacking in top flight musicians in a large ensemble of drummers, drummers and drummers, with a small band of bass, guitars and kit drums to fill out the more lyrical aspects of the songs. - Cliff Furnald


Waldemar Bastos
Pretaluz (Blacklight)
Luaka Bop / Warner

Because he is from Angola, you will hear Portugal (where he now lives) as well as central Africa in the mix. Because the world is so small, you will hear the rest of Africa and Brazil in the music, too. Because this man is such an amazing singer, you will hear the world in his phrasing, whether it is warm romance or chilly warning.

Bastos made his recording debut with Chico Barque and Martinho Da Vila in Brazil in the 80s. This is now his fourth, recorded in the US under the production guidance of Arto Lindsay, whose light touch on this mostly acoustic recording is a pleasure to listen to. Instruments are limited to guitars, bass and percussion, with a minimal contribution of keyboards. The songs are a varied group of love songs, social observations and political commentaries sung in Portuguese (translations are provided). The quirky moments essential to a Lindsay production are very subtle on Pretaluz, wrapping the singer in a loving and protective blanket of pan-African sounds, Brazilian nuances and contemporary urban grooves that never smother the essential beauty of his voice. - CF



African Recording Archive #8
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