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by Opiyo Oloya

March 1996

There are few music that grab you by the throat, shake you like a dog shakes a doll and toss you in a heap, spent but thirsty for more. Sarala (Polygram), a cross-cultural collaboration between Jazz Hall of Fame inductee Hank Jones and Mali's brilliant music director Cheik Tidiane, fits that description. Sarala works because Hank Jones enters the sacred realm of Mandingo griots with the utmost respect for the ancient Malian music. He allows his keen jazz sensibilities to be guided by the highly talented cast of Malian musicians including Cheick Tidiane, Manfila Kante and Ousmane Kouyate (all three have worked with Salif Keita). The project also features some of the best Mandinka vocalists including Kasse Mady, Fatoumata "Mama" Kouyate, Assitan "Mama" Keita and Tunisian import, Amina Annabi. But the man who steals the show is Peul flutist, Aly Wague. His dazzling and spirited performance gives one the distinctly eerie sensation of being in a deep forest where, once in a millenum, all kind of musical instruments meet (without their human owners) to play, dance and have fun. The human voice is an added icing on this delicious cake. Sheer magic.

Mansour Seck, the blind Senegalese griot who co-founded the band Dande Lenol with Baba Maal, has finally achieved overdue recognition with the solo release titled N'der Fouta Tooro, Volume.1 (Stern's Africa) and now, N'der Fouta Tooro, Volume. 2 (Stern's Africa). As on the first volume, Seck's intensely passionate voice is held aloft by the warmly resonant guitar picking style not heard since the heyday of legendary John Bosco Mwenda in the 1950s. Here, the guitar and Seck's voice trade places; the instrument becomes the storyteller even as Seck's voice becomes the instrument. Hanging on the tail of this emerging star is the talented Mauritanian griot Ousmane Hamady Diop whose debut on both albums promise great things to come.

Salif Keita, long proclaimed the golden voice of Africa, has finally released his long awaited album, Folon (Island Records). As on earlier albums, Keita is still backed by a crack team of musicians including Cheick Tidiane (keyboard), Ousmane Kouyate and Diely Moussa Kouyate (guitars), Moriba Koita (kora) and Lansine Kouyate (Balafon). But Folon, compared to the three ealier albums in which Keita's voice is pure fire and brimstone, is mostly sweet gentle melody. Simply put, it is a move away from the slickly rich layers of sound that characterised Amen (Island Record).In fact, listening to the signature tune "Mandjou", you are thrown back to the 70s when Keita was starting out with the Rail band of Bamako and then Les Ambassadeur. Still, for Keita fans (and I am one of them) this is a must have album.

The history and mythology surrounding the twenty-one stringed Kora and the balafon go far back to the 12th Century at the founding of Mali Empire under Soundjata Keita. Centuries later,especially in the hands of the Three Balladeers; Dembo Konte, Kausu Kuyateh and Mawdo Suso, these ancient instruments are alive and kicking. The trio have released Jaliology (Green Linnet), a follow up to the successful Jali Roll (Rogue Records). With musicians like them, the Kora and Balafon should last another nine hundred years. Listening is believing. - Opiyo Oloya


B & W, the makers of high-end British speakers, went one step better. The company has produced great music to go along with their speakers. The project known as South Africa '95 had a simple mandate; bring into the studio a bunch of South African and western musicians, then watch and see what happens. Among others was Brazilian master percussionist Airto Moreira, Sao Paolo born guitarist Jose Neto, South African bassist Sipho Gumede and Pop Mohammed. After two weeks of spontaneous recording sessions in Jo'burg and Cape Town, Presto! Out came not one but three albums dubbed the Outernational Meltdown Series.

Of the three, Free at Last (B&W 076) is driven purely by that invisible spirit that enables musicians who have never played together to produce something akin to magic. Airto Moreira whips the drums into motion and the rest follows. Throughout the album, there is great inventiveness, a willingness to experiment with sound to make joyful melody. What you get is brilliant flashes of Jazz, a dose of traditional chant, and a fantastic free-for-all percussion. The track The Long Walk to Freedom is long enough (15:17) to lose your head into. But then again who can resist that simmering guitar on the track Sanibonani?

Healers Brew (B&W 077), the second album in the series, is just that, a collection of traditional healing chants, percussions and church hymns. This is a worthwhile album if only for the three tracks of raw acappella by the church group Intethelelo Yabazalwane Choir. My favourite is Mangibe Nawe Baba sung by the full choir (I played it fifteen times straight first time around). The last track Togetherness unites everyone for a wild jam with percussion and wind instruments-and what fun that was.

Jazzin' Universally (B&W 078) combines funky horns, galloping guitar played in the township style, well packaged percussions and feather-touch piano thrown in for good measure. In fact the blaring of horns touch the sky on the tracks Phambili and Nikiwe. Moses Molelekwa, meanwhile, burns the grand Yamaha piano and then some on the track Bo Molelekwa. This is the brave new sound of Jazz in South Africa in the 90s. Overall, this is the strongest album in the series mainly because the talented musicians have space to let it all hang out. Highly recommended.

Zairean vocalist Tabu Ley Rochereau is celebrating the 35th anniversary of music making with the special retrospective Africa Worldwide (Rounder). Backed by his famous band, l'Orchestre Afrisa Internationale, Tabu Ley explores some of his greatest hits from the 60s and 80s. Tabu Ley, whose distinctive sweet pleading voice is a trademark, demonstrates that he remains in top form on titles such as Cafe Rica, Kimakango To Libala, Christina and Marie Clara. Huit Kilos Nseka is hot on the lead guitar. There is only one problem though: Tabu Ley (who has composed more than 2000 songs ) wrote these tunes for the romantic era of Zairean music in the 60s. Here his voice still woos but the new arrangements fail to capture that faraway time when even the angels stopped to listen to the legendary African singer.

AfroDisc: October 1995 African Music Review

With two new spring albums, U.K based Stern's Africa has further reinforced its image as the record company in tune with what's going down in African music (I wish other major record companies would wake up and take note). Let's start with the album from Ghana: The Lord's Prayer

Almost sixty years after insinuating itself as the staple spice of everyday life in Ghana and inspiring a multitude of musical styles throughout Africa, highlife music remains as sweet as fresh palm wine- what's more, this bubbly music gets better with age. The enduring formula of this genre is most evident in the "The Lord's Prayer" by the group Sweet Talk International led by Ghana's indomitable songwriter/musician A.B Crentsil (he of "Sweet Elizabeth" fame). First released in 1979 and now reissued by Stern's Africa, the cult classic album packs clever (and even funny) lyrics wrapped in simmering guitars. The lead title track "The Lord's Prayer" is exactly what it claims to be, but boy can it get you doing some crazy numbers with your toes. Check out Crentsil's songwriting genius in "Adjoa" a dance tune that combines scratchy horns, frolicking guitars and raunchy lyrics to induce the inevitable dance euphoria.

Crentsil, a veteran musician who has played with just about every great and small bands in Ghana, effortlessly throws around biblical and moral references while retaining a driving rhythm preordained to get everyone dancing. And that, in a nutshell, explains why highlife has survived so many sunrises- clean fun music that makes everyone happy, even the clergy.

Stern's own state of the art technology also plays a part in the great appeal of the Lord's Prayer. The sound quality is greatly enhanced without compromising the original ambience of the album. Watch this album become a collector's item on the international scene. Rating (out of 5 possible stars) *****

AfroDisc: November 1995 Review

Bu-Baca Diop
Stand (Stern, 1995)

Senegalese Bu-Baca Diop who grew up on Goree Island infamous for its dark link to the slave trade, cut his musical teeth with some of Senegal's most distinguished pop bands including the famous Etoile de Dakar. Young and ever restless to get his own voice, he moved first to Paris, then to Sidney, Australia. It was down under that he discovered the ingredients for his potent music. His 10 piece employs an array of traditional and modern instruments ranging from Senegalese djembe, Australian didgeridoo, modern electric guitars and keyboard. And of course a line-up of musicians willing to push music beyond traditional horizon.

On this debut album, Diop's rich Wolof voice soars against the deep response of the didgeridoo while funky horns cut bright swath across the intricate mbalanx drums. The result, not surprisingly, is a highly cosmopolitan sound that is pleasing both to the jazz enthusiast as it is to the ardent fan of traditional mbalanx sound.

The fact that the funky horns are at times overplayed might raise the hackles of some African music purists who believe the African drum must forever remain indomitable. Even so, Bu-Baca is easily the most impressive young Senegalese musician since Youssou N'Dour and Baba Maal became household names five years ago.

Adama Diabate
Jako Baye (Stern, 1995)

The voice of Adama Diabate on this debut album is akin to the diamonds you behold when the early morning sun strikes droplets of dew that settled on a blade of grass overnight. Brilliant. That raises the question: How could such a powerful voice escape notice for so long? This newest Malian star, as it turns out, is not new to music. She in fact has been singing all her life, partly because she was born into a musical family. More important, she was betrothed and married at an early age to Makan Tounkara, a celebrated master of the seven stringed n'goni. She would learn her craft from the best including famous singers like Ami Koita and Kandia Kouyate.

On Jako Baye, Adama Diabate has two clear advantages over the competition. First, she is a very talented singer whose clear voice shoots hot arrows at the listener. Secondly, she is backed by the very elite of Malian's music industry. Check out Toumani Diabate on kora, Keletigui Diabate on balafon, Cheick Tidiane Seck (Salif Keita's keyboard player), guitarist Zoumana Diarra (formerly with Super Biton, Super Djata and the Rail Band of Bamako) and, needless to say, her husband Makan Tounkara on the n'goni. Count this among the top five albums of the year.

reviewed by Opiyo Oloya

Cultural writer and host of Karibuni on CIUT 89.5 FM

AfroDisc: December 1995 Review

Lambarena: Bach to Africa (Sony) is supposed to illustrate shared musical kinship by blending indigenous African sounds with a fully dressed European chamber orchestra. David Fanshawe did a similar album titled African Sanctus back in 1973. Now, as then, the resulting melody is as united as water is to oil. In other words, the album juxtaposes two excellent musical traditions, but fails to unite them. For instance, there are many glorious patches of music from Gabon only to have the whole thing trampled upon by a Cello in E-Flat Major. And for what, really? Still, if you enjoy your Bach interspersed with some serious African drums, this is for you.

There is an African saying which goes: The Fig tree bears even sweeter fruits in the second season. And so Tarig Abubakar and the AfroNubians continue to explore the limitless horizon of African music in The Great Africans (Factor), their second album in as many years. More than anything, this album has firmly placed the Toronto-based band as a serious, most innovative and ambitious African band in North America today.

In just two years, Tarig Abubakar and the AfroNubians have transformed the Toronto African music scene from a basement proposition to an international one. On this album, the Nubians are on a quest to capture the rainbow that best defines African sound today. Up front, Tarig's deep voice belts out tunes in Kiswahili, English and Arabic. Meanwhile, the background is colourfully peppered with West African percussions and frolicking guitar style from East and Central Africa. This is wholesome music that truly unites the different genres of African music like Taarab, Makossa, Mbaqanga, Soukous, and highlife.

The Juju king lives as King Sunny Ade wakes up after a ten year slumber to recapture his crown with the latest album E Dide (Mesa/Blue Moon). Ade who signed a long term contract with Blue Moon has not lost the touch; the guitar still dances and the percussive power is as dazzling as ever. But Ade who employed as many as twenty five musicians for the album, has deftly avoided swarming his listener with too much action. What Ade has done differently, and to his credit, is write playful lyrics meant to wow first time listeners of the Juju sound while retaining loyal fans. Here we actually get to hear the interplay between shekere shakers, talking drums and the omele drums, each used sparingly so as not to overshadow the others. The keyboard is thrown in there for good measure.

The result is gentle Juju that speaks volume about Ade's artistic maturity and one destined to get the fans swaying again.

Mouth Music's latest album Shorelife (Rykodisc) is supposed to be about the sweetness of the human voice. It certainly is that and much more as this Scottish crew employs an ear for other worldly tunes. One discerns African drumming, even as South American flavoured bamboo flute floats gently in the mix. That and the angelic voice of Jackie Jones makes this a bountiful feast for the listener who enjoys mystical music that has travelled many centuries through Gaelic lores.

Opiyo Oloya E-Mail: [email protected]

Host, "Karibuni" on CIUT 89.5 FM Toronto
Saturday, 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM

The current edition of Afrodisc is available.