Still more reviews of music from Africa

All reviews by Cliff Furnald unless noted. Copyright 1992-96

Last year saw the release of another stunning collaboration of African and European artists and music by Spain's Ketama and Malian kora master Toumani Diabate. During those sessions, another entire album was recorded, centered on the African side, Djelika. Balafonist Keletigui Diabate and ngoni player Basekou Kouyate, both acknowledge masters of their craft with a string of credentials joined Toumani Diabate in one of those rare and splendid moments of recording, where everything seems to fit just perfectly. This is a set of traditional songs from Mali, but they are hardly confined to a traditionalist setting. These three artists (and I hesitate to commend one over the other) have lived through a decade of immense musical turmoil, have performed in the most overblown pop projects and the sparest of traditional settings. They bring all of this to these ancient rhythms and melodies to create a new vocabulary for their instruments. You can hear flamenco, jazz, hints of European folk and one or two blatant pop quotations in their work, without ever losing their hold on the ancient sound of their music. They are joined by bassists Danny Thompson and Javier Colina, each adding a distinctive voice to the tracks they play on. I rarely recommend tracks, but I have two you might consider first. "Animata Santoro" is subtlety incarnate. The title track is a rich, adventurous blend of jazz and flamenco, and the bass parts by Colina are exceptionally sympathetic.

Run, don't walk, to your phone and order a copy of Sunugal, the latest tape for Africa by BAABA MAAL. Already a hot ticket on my WPKN program, this is Maal at his best; rootsy, funky, and full of life. It's mostly an acoustic outing, with the vocals carried on percussion, flute, kora (the infamous Kawning Cissokho) and guitar (the always superb Mansour Seck). If this is the harbinger of his next major CD release in Europe and America, watch out! The tape is available by mail-order from Africassette, PO 24941, Detroit MI 48224 e-mail: [email protected].
A truly mixed bag is the latest from ALPHA BLONDY AND THE SOLAR SYSTEM. Unfortunately, I have a hard time getting into a recording that starts with the message that "abortion is a crime." Dieu (World Pacific) follows the tried and true paris Afro-pop formula, with a few nice touches of kora, steel drums and a great, funky rhythm section. Everyone's entitled to their opinions, I suppose, and there's opinions aplenty here, with songs on economics, colonialism and even the middle east. Even the opening track takes aim at the system of poverty and repression of women as part of its justification. But I'm compelled to say, contrary to Mr. Blondy, that... ABORTION IS NOT A CRIME!

Two reviews:
HEMIsphere Records/I.R.S

A showcase of modern South African roots music, Only the Poorman Feel It is a robust package of the hard-edged township music called mbaqanga and the Zulu a cappella soft-hued mbube styles. Bushi Mhlongo delivers a strong opening track ("Iziniziswa"). Condry Ziqubu's cuts will send me to the music store in search of a solo release¾"Mayibuye" and "Skorokoro" are songs with the beat and glimmer that sent Paul Simon gleaning sounds in South Africa. Try the original. The Soshanguve Black Tycoons ("Siyaya", "Thula") offer mbube-style narratives characterized by the lead of a tenor vocalist softened by baritone and bass voices. Solo cuts by Mzwakhe Mbuli ("Giya"), Mfiliseni Magubane ("Shosholoza"), Malopoets ("Intsizwa"), and Tsepo Tshola ("Madambadamba") are effective and should lead a listener on to other discoveries. This one has staying power and gets better with each listen. (Richard Dorsett - Victory Review)

Another look:
Hemishpere/EMI continues it's world music compilation project with a fine overview of current music from South Africa on Only The Poorman Feel It. It rips open with a slick, powerful song by Busi Mhlongo, a 1993 track that proves it's the singer, not the producer, who really rules. Two hard rootsy tracks by guitarist Condry Ziqubu balance nicely, with finely honed back-up vocals layed down against a scratch of fiddle and a shwoosh of synth. The high-energy mbaqanga of Soshanguve Black Tycoons moves the feet, the political poetry of Mzwakhe Mbuli touches the spirit (and is musical dynamite, as well!), and the trio Omthenjwa from the village of Kwazulu, Natal deliver a song against violence in a thundering roar of kick drum, bass and voices. There are a few go- for-the-pop throw aways, but they too indicate where things could go. Consider them a warning. (CF)

Songhai 2

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 Jos� 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 Ma�ana" it all comes together with grace and beauty.

Cape Verdean diva Cesaria Evora is the perfect tonic for a hot summer's evening. Her voice is smooth, sultry, full of nostalgic pathos and romantic whimsy. Evora honed her skills in the local bars of her native island off the coast of Senegal, staying home while many of Africa's hopeful stars had headed for the hills of Paris. She only made the pilgrimage late in life, when she was noticed by a French producer and brought to the city to record the music she had assimilated and nurtured.

And what a music she has given birth to, a wonderful mix of European nightclub torches, American blues and ragtime and various regenerations of some of the popular local styles, a fusion that has much in common with the modern music of places like Bahia in Brazil. In fact, many listeners will at first think they have stumbled on a new Brazilian sound. The Cape Verdean version of the blues, the morna, is at the heart of her music, a soulful, playful music that mixes sadness and joy in unusual combinations. Her voice carries these qualities well, and is reminiscent of Billy Holiday, Maria Beth�nia and maybe even at a stretch, Lotte Lena or Edith Piaf. The backing band is an all acoustic unit of guitars and cavaquinho with bass, accordion and reeds filling it out. The sum total is a marvelous, warm and stirring vision of life as told by a fine chantuese.

For More music from Cape Verde:

HASSAN HAKMOUN The Fire Within Music Of The World, While the initiated have had a wealth of Moroccan music tossed their way in recent years (including the recent reissue of Brian Jone's visit with The Master Musicians of Joujouka), it has mostly been the overwhelming and inspiring trance orchestras. Here is a chance to hear a stripped down version, from one of the master musicians of the country, Hassan Hakmoun. Sintir (a fat stringed box lute) in hand, he weaves a sparse, inspirational set of songs for solo and small ensemble. More subtle than some of the more recently available recordings, and removed from Hakmoun's more avant garde work, The Fire Within impassioned by its content rather than its style.

Kerestina: Guitar Songs Of Southern Mozambique 1955-1957
Original Music
If you put this music on the deck and gave your listener no warning, they might suspect you had found some immigrant culture in Nashville, playing an urbane but rootsy blend of country blues. Only the foreign language would give it away as these guitarists/singers rolled through what surely must be a blend of folk, rockabilly, blues and rock.

The fact is, these 21 tracks come from Mozambique's urban and mining milieu of the 1950's and merged the folk and popular music of South Africa and other southern African nations into a sharp, edgy urban blues with a distinctly African rhythm. It may overstate the obvious, but the cross-roots of African folk and American blues is at the heart of this music, as it blurs the distinctions between folk and pop, urban and country. Two notable tracks pull it all together for me, the frenetic call and response of Makiwani Makhuvele and the Shangaan chorus that accompanies him on one track, and the wild closing tune, a trio of guitar, mandolin and kazoo that takes you on a rhythmic roller-coaster ride that seems to find common ground in rockabilly and beguine. It's all strange and wonderful.

Joy and jubilation! The next generation of divas from Africa are beginning to spread their wings and bring us their voices. Here is one that will surely bring you into the mesmerizing music of the Wassoulou. Adama Diabate has that voice, that voice that is both earthy and heavenly, alluring and foreboding. Her phrasing is indebted to the women who went before her, Oumou Sangare in particular, but she seems to have also found her own path, with a delivery slightly more aggressive than expected, more like the blues singer than a balladeer of Mali. Equally impressive is the ensemble gathered to back her up on this album. Toumani Diabate (once a wonder kid himself) does the kora duties, Kelitigui Diabate the balafon, Chiek Tidiane Seck provides the clever and tasteful keyboards he is becoming famous for. Throughout there is electronic programming, acoustic and electric guitars and some fat, fat bass lines, but they are all part of a more acoustic- roots whole that is unique and gives rise to a new star. It just doesn't get better than this on a hot summer's night.
World music fans got to know Salif Keita through his wonderful Soro of the late 1980s. SBS {Australia's Special Broadcasting Service - a national TV channel for the ethnic communities] ran a feature on the albino singer, exploring his origins as descendant of the family of ancient kings of Mali. "Soro" featured the wonderful "Souareba" in which Keita can be seen performing with a superlative, far from unplugged band. After an early career spent fighting for acceptance as a singer - a profession traditionally barred to someone of his rank - Keita was to rule over the Malian national scene (starting in a band which played at a railroad-owned hotel in a provincial city). Then came his Francophone hits and eventually the international success of "Soro."

"Amen", which has a technically better sound than "Soro," gives us more of the hard-edged, hot vocal technique which Keita tempers very well with a creamy caf� latt� lyricism. The comprehensive album notes show us that in the Malink� language song-writing is often complex, ideological and even epic, qualities which tend to be sacrificed in the transition to French and English international viability. There is an unspeakable set of lyrics churning over the phrases je t'aime-I luvva you.

Most depressing however are the celebrity appearances of Joe Zawinul (keyboards and production) and his Weather Report sidekick, jazz demigod Wayne Shorter (saxophone). Never has New York hip sounded less sympathetic to its African ancestry. Keita's band is generally true to the sinuous, engrossing twelve-on-four Malian rhythms and the nobility and emotional power of African melodic variation. Zawinul and Shorter get it all horribly wrong, undermining the pulse and sounding, at best, cute. The result will still liven up a party. But to stay healthy you will need to go back to "Soro." - David Kelly

(Check at cdRoots)

DUNYABÉLÉ has been charting in Europe for a few months now, and their brand of West African/European rock merits your attention here in America. Tchon Tirmi/Trembling Earth (Funfundvierzig, Schmiedetwiete 6, D-23898 labenz, Germany) is aptly named, because its heady mix of Guinee-Bissau roots and Caribbean spark will keep the crowd stomping the ground and shaking the dancefloor. A pan-African sound incorporates music from all over the continent, with tastes of west, east and south permeating the bass heavy rhythms of the band. They can pull out the sweet ambiance of Salif Keita and then rumble into a bone jarring reggae throb with a township spirit. That the band is a mix of African and European musicians only speaks more highly of their dedication to a new sound with roots in the old lands.

Two years ago I discovered the African connection in Finland via Hasse Walli and Asamaan (Olarin). This week, via the Internet I came upon the Stockholm connection in the body of MAKONDE, a big band of Scandinavian and African musicians with roots in the Ugandan heritage of the band's leader, vocalist and bass player Sammy Kasule. Joined by a cast from Sweden, Zaire, Gambia and beyond, Makonde are a slick, pop oriented band with a tough sound and a rock solid percussive groove. They lean heavily on an Afro-Cuban and soukous foundation, with some tasty/nasty electric guitars to add some edge to the sweeter west African taste. There is also the warm voice of Marianne N'lemvo to make this record even finer. Ba-Makonde (Rub-A-Dub Records, Tjärhovsgatan 44, 116 29 Stockholm, Sweden / fax:46-8-714-9179; e- mail: [email protected]) is a swirl of rhythms, honest and true to the roots, yet open to the sounds of their European home and the rest of the world.

Africassette, email: [email protected]

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.

Ko Sira
World Circuit

With all the recordings of moussolou (women) from the Wassoulou region of Mali that are currently available, you may be tempted to let this one go by as "just another variation." BIG MISTAKE! Oumou Sangare may be the best of the bunch, with a voice as pure and wondrous as voices get, and with a rootsy, acoustic musical ensemble behind her that will melt hearts and burn dance floors. The rhythms are graceful, with the feel of a wild animal running free, leaving immense open spaces for Sangare and her singers to expand into a sensual rush of melodies. At the center of the band's sound is the low toned buzzing of the kamelen ngoni, a six string harp familiar to the area. Percussion instruments both throbbing, guitar, scratchy violin and some flute round out the sound, all of it underscored by some remarkable bass playing, interestingly by westerner Colin Bass. While the whole thing is very much "in the tradition" the end result is a very contemporary sound, as compelling as any syntho-derived competitor, and all the more so because of the purity of the instrumental sound.

All of this is rendered moot if not for the singer and the songs, and here is where a good album becomes a great one. Oumou Sangare has a voice that is both sensual and meticulous. It is a rich mixture that puts her in league with Billie Holiday and Um Kalthum, conjuring up emotions are powerful but somehow uncertain. Her songs speak of the struggle in the lives of African women, both social and political. It speaks of the anguish of the new wife in a land where women are second class, but it also speaks of the joys of being a women, even in the face of such odds. (All the lyrics are translated in the notes, a rare treat these days!) But even without knowing the stories, Oumou Sangare and her group convey the feelings of contemporary Africa in it's search for a balance between the old ways and the new necessities.

For sheer size there is little around to compare to the music of DOUDOU N'DIAYE ROSE as recored live in Senegal for the album Djabote (Real World/Caroline). Fifty percussionists and eighty singers can't be wrong, can they? Here is the essential strength of African music, the rhythm of the drum and the rhythm of the shaking earth fused to the voice of men and women. His arrangements are almost orchestral, building intensity of melody and rhythm with only shades of voice and beat on his pallette.

SALI SIDIBE Wassoulou Foli (Stern's) - 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.

Also on the World Circuit/Rounder label is a collection of three great performers from the Sudan, ABDEL GADIR SALIM, ABDEL AZIZ EL MUBARAK and MOHAMED GUBARA. Sounds Of 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.


While Nonesuch was the leader in exploring the roots of the world's music a few decades ago, Globestyle Records, and especially its musician/producer/explorers Ben Mandelson, David Young and Roger Armstrong, is in the forefront of preserving this generation's roots music. Their 1989 trip to Mozambique has already produced two stunning albums by individual artists, and now with Mozambique 1 they finally offer a broad look at many of this beleaguered nation's great musical styles and artists. each track is a remarkable look at a diverse country, from an eerie vocal/percussion ensemble from Ilha de Moçambique to the thundering drums and timbila of bands like Conjunto Ndzumbe. João Mate is a street musician from Maputo whose ragged guitar and wonderfully acidic vocals bring Joseph Spence to mind. Of course, almost all Globestyle recordings require an accordionist, so this set finishes off with Afron�o Balate, accompanied by guitar, singing a song about loneliness, death, moving to the city and becoming a musician, all played out with a boisterous verve and a jovial laugh.

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All material on RootsWorld is copyright controlled by the artists or writers. Reviews thoughout are copyright 1996 RootsWorld/Cliff Furnald