Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Bite-sized World Music

Here are several world music artists in single album review format. They are - Manu Dibango; Salif Keita: Super Rail Band; King Sunny Ade; Tony Allen: Hugh Masekela; Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens; Bellita; Angélique Kidjo and Ananda Shankar....  

Manu Dibango - Wakafrika (1994)
This was an album on which Cameroonian saxophonist and songwriter Manu Dibango resisted many of his old songs with the help of other "world music" artists, like Youssou N'Dour, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ray "Graceland" Phiri, King Sunny Ade, Salif Keita, Papa Wemba, Sinead O'Connor and Peter Gabriel.

His "signature tune", Soul Makossa, from 1972, is best known for its use on Michael Jackson's Wanna Be Startin' Something. Here, it is given a huge, funky, bass makeover and Youssou N'Dour joins Dibango and what I think is an excellent version - fuller, warmer and slightly bassier (but not much) than the admittedly iconic original. Actually, on reflection, the original is better! Peter Gabriel's Biko is atmospherically covered with some portentous drums and strong vocals. The title track features some excellent jazzy saxophone from Dibango, funky, shuffling "hi life"-style drums and a sublime bass line.

Emma features Mali's Salif Keita and a gloriously laid-back groove with an infectious deep-voice vocal from Dibango and Keita's trademark higher-pitched nasally Sufi-influenced vocal. It is full of intoxicating rhythms and excellent brass and guitar. Dibango's saxophone interjections are, of course, sumptuous. Homeless from Paul Simon's Graceland is given a lively, tenor saxophone-driven melodic makeover that I have to say I prefer to the slower, a capella original. Fela Kuti's Afro-Beat number, Lady, is still dripping in Afro-Beat rhythm, but some jazzy saxophone and soulful vocals are added. 

is also Afro-funky, as you would expect, but again is given a real jazzy flavour, together with some gently lilting, infectious guitar parts. It is thoroughly delicious. 
Wimoweh is pretty unrecognisable from The Lion Sleeps Tonight refrain, it is a slow-paced groove with some ululating South African-style vocals and a thumping bass line. 

Ami Oh! is beautiful - an intuitive blend of acoustic guitars, seductive saxophone and an almost reggae skanking feel to it. Haiti's Papa Wemba adds some distinctive high-pitched vocals to it. King Sunny Ade joins Dibango for the rhythmic Jingo which appears based to be based loosely around the Santana song. I just checked - it is the same song. The vocals on here are African, of course. Pata Pata has a South African township feel about it, while Diarabi is full of the laid-back, wailing sounds of Mali and Senegal. It has a shuffling, insistent rhythm. The lengthy Ca Va Chouia has an Eastern-influenced orchestrated riff that almost has hints of Argentinian tango in its beat too. It is an odd composition, full of all sorts of styles and is certainly adventurous. For me, though, it doesn't quite work in places (although it does in others) but that doesn't detract from what has been a truly excellent, enjoyable album.

Salif Keita - Soro (1987)
This is very much a "crossover" world music album from Mali's Salif Keita, who had cut his teeth with the rhythmic Super Rail Band De Bamako before re-locating, as many West African musicians did, to Paris, in the 1980s. The album blends traditional Malian sounds of female backing vocals, lilting, slightly skanking guitars and rhythmic percussion with the curse of eighties music - synthesisers and programmed drums. The latter is one of my least favourite styles of music, but it works here because Keita's nasal, distinctive voice soars atmospherically over it, and seems to even enhance it. It provided the perfect album for trendy wine bars in the eighties/nineties who wanted to show how turned on they were to "world music". It certainly got a lot of people interested in this sort of music and sales of the album were huge. Either way, it is an evocative, addictive album although I have to say the eighties instrumentation does date it somewhat. I prefer my Malian music to be more authentically ethnic, leaving out the synthesised European backing. That said, There is still a lot of appeal to this album. The sound on it is superb too.

The Super Rail Band - Mansa (1995)

The Super Rail Band were a conglomerate of Malian musicians originally based at the Hotel de la Gare in Bamako, Mali, adjacent to the railway station. Their most famous ex-member is Salif Keita who went on to have considerable solo success with the best-selling SoroTheir music is an intoxicating mix of traditional Malian "griot" (a sort of preacher-poet-singer) devotional vocals, usually delivered in a high-pitched nasal style, and West-Central African rhythms, percussion sounds and melodic lilting guitar. All underpinned by an infectious, melodic bass. The upbeat, shuffling Silinadé provides a perfect example of that, while the more laid-back Mansa is superbly slow burning groove, packed full of great guitar, drums and that infectious West African atmosphere. If you want to get an instant flavour of what West African music is all about, you can't go far wrong with listening to this track. It is superb. The sound quality is excellent too. When the Nigerian "hi-life"-influenced brass section kicks in, then the griot's voice, followed by the female backing vocals it is just so characteristic of West African music.

The delightful Kamalimba, however, evokes the spirit of South Africa and also Congolese music in its lively, totally addictive, lilting guitar picking sound. It is very much in the style of Ray Phiri, who featured on Paul Simon's Graceland. There is a lot of that album in this track. It is just an effervescent pleasure to listen to. Try keeping still.

Niamatoutou Kono is a return to the slow-paced groove of Mali with a beguiling vocal and, once again, a truly superb bass interjected with some sumptuous brass. Near the end the beat picks up a bit and it is just wonderful. When the saxophone comes in - oh yes. 
Just check out that groovy bass-drum-brass intro to Tolonté Sebessa. The horn charts on here are simply sumptuous. The guitar too. The music of the Gods. Dounia is an effortless piece of rhythmic slow shuffle, with some sublime saxophone. The guitar in the gracefully seductive Kanou Salé is marvellous too. Fourou Kolon has another captivating insistent beat to it. I will run out of superlatives soon. No wonder so many Western musicians look to this music for influence and inspiration. Superb.

King Sunny Ade - King Of Juju
This is an intoxicating album compilation of the best of
 Nigeria's "King Of Juju"King Sunny Ade. Apparently he has released over one hundred albums. This album provides an excellent introduction to the music known as "juju", based around West African "talking drums" and a lilting, melodic guitar sound that underpins pretty much every track, along with the drum rhythm of course. Where it differs from, say, the Afro-Beat of Fela Kuti is that it doesn't centre around the interjections of saxophone in the same way. Also the guitars are higher pitched, more tuneful than Kuti's regular, insistent strum. Ade's guitar sound is almost South Africa township in its tuneful sound.
The iconic Syncro System kicks the album off with someseriously delicious percussion sounds, irresistible guitars and Ade's high pitched but honey-sweet voice. 365 Is My Number showcases the afore-mentioned guitar sound perfectly. Just check out the drum/guitar part a few minutes in. Effortlessly brilliant. The sound quality is superb too, as well as the music. Ade also uses a Hawaiian-style guitar in places too, which is quite unique. 

Ja Funmi is more laid-back, intuitively seductive. That Hawaiian sound comes into this one. These tracks you can just put on and let them wind their rhythmic way all around your room, they get into a groove and they just seem to keep going, like Fela Kuti, but there is something more mellifluous in Ade's music than Kuti's. It is less militant, I feel. Although I don't understand the lyrics, I imagine Ade is singing about the beauty of a girl as opposed to complaining about governmental corruption (not that there's anything wrong with that!). Asi returns to a hypnotic groove that has a superb drum and bass sound. Basically, each track is pretty much in the mould of the ones already described - rhythmic and exhilarating - an absolute joy to listen to. This is irrepressible West African musicianship at its very best.

Tony Allen - No Accommodation For Lagos (1978)/No Discrimination (1979)

Tony Allen was the drummer for Fela Kuti's band(s) for many years. This is a double release of albums from the late seventies.

The backing band is Kuti's Africa 70 outfit. Just as on Kuti's recordings they get into a groove using that insistent guitar repetition underpinning the whole thing. There is plenty of Kuti-style saxophone and, of course, Allen's powerhouse drumming. The two tracks on the first album are No Accommodation For Lagos, a seventeen-minute groove about the housing shortages in Nigeria's capital city and African Message which features another infectious Afrobeat rhythm and some killer drumming from Allen.

The second album contains four tracks and utilises a slightly more synthesised backing, but still full of funk and punchy Afrobeat horns. It is my favourite of the two albums. 

No Discrimination is a totally addictive number with a wonderful bass line and a laid-back but pugnacious beat. I am sure Talking Heads used this for inspiration for their 1980 Remain In Light album. This pre-dated many of the rhythms used in contemporary dance music. Albums like these are comparatively little-known but you would be surprised at just how influential they were. Listen to some of those bass lines, guitar grooves and drum fills. Great stuff.

Just listen to that impossibly catchy drum, bass and guitar rhythmic bit in Road Safety and try and keep still. The bass on Ariya, the lilting guitar and the funky, spacey keyboards are just "out there" as they say. The intoxicating, keyboard-y riff, together with the drums on Love Is A Natural Feeling is simply breathtaking. This is a seriously good album set. Highly recommended.

Hugh Masekela - African Breeze: 80s Masekela
This is an excellent compilation of totally infectious music from the legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, well known for his work with Paul Simon and his championing of many human rights causes. He was known as "the father of South African jazz" and most of his material in the 1980s was delivered from a rhythmic jazz perspective, as opposed to say Graceland-style South African "township jive", although this does appear on this album in places. A fine example of this modern jazzy feel is African Breeze, which blends Masekela's sumptuous trumpet with some pounding tribal drums and some infectious jazz guitar, backed by swathes of eighties keyboards.

Zulu Wedding is a delicious laid-back celebration, with more great trumpet and some typical Zulu "ululating" high-pitched female backing vocals. As with all the tracks on the album, it features a top notch trumpet solo. The Seven Riffs Of Africa - The Lion Never Sleeps gives us some classic township jive - all lilting guitars, shuffling beat, killer trumpet and addictive backing vocals. The track goes on for twelve minutes and the good-time groove never lets up. Lady is a slice of eighties-style jazzy groove lifted above the synthesised backing by Masekela's superb trumpet and the deep West African funk-style vocals. 

The Rainmaker features one of those totally infectious township bass lines, a pounding drum beat, uplifting backing vocals. This one is very much the sound of Soweto. Don't Go Lose It Baby is a powerful, largely instrumental, very danceable funky groove. The highlight of the album is Coal Train which tells of the migrant miners and the harsh life they lead below ground in the gold mines of Johannesburg. It is a slow burning, soulful number with evocative vocals and, of course, superb trumpet. If you can get hold of this album, it is highly enjoyable and recommended.

The Best Of Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens

Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens were one of the leading exponents of the South African townships' mbaqanga style of music. It has its roots in Zulu culture and blends tribal call and response backing vocals, tribal insistent drum grooves with Western instruments such as bass guitar and punchy brass sounds Of course, some lilting South African-style electric guitar comes into it too. Mbqanga is a type of cornmeal porridge so the music is like the "daily bread" of township life. A bit like roots reggae in Jamaica. Simon "Mahlathini" Nkabinde had probably the most famous voice in the sub-genre. He was known as "The Groaner" due to his gruff, growling vocal style. The closest artist I can think of to compare him to is reggae's "toaster" vocalist/DJ Prince Far I. Mahlathini sings/growls/croaks his vocals over an infectious beat like a preacher, while the melodious stuff is provided by the exhilarating backing vocals of the Mahotella Queens.

Madlamini is a bassy thumper that exemplifies the heavy, rhythmic side of their music, while the impossibly infectious, uplifting, sheer joy of Lilizela Mlilezeli will ensure you don't sit still. It's bloomin' marvellous. 

I'm In Love With A Rastaman
 explores the South African love for reggae (personified in their main reggae artist, Lucky Dube), with a gentle skank given that unique township feel. The refrain is pure Lucky Dube. Flutes kick in, brass, skanking guitars, Mahlathini's growl, the wailing Queens. It is as if you are at a Zulu wedding. Great stuff.

Just listen to
 Jive Motella or the shuffling Makhomabhaji, with its killer organ solo, if you want your spirits lifting. Indeed, put any of this album on at any time and it will get you going. When township musicians hit that lilting groove, it is the music of the Gods. Need any more proof? Try Sengikala Ngiyabaleka and its intoxicating saxophone riff and that typically township, rumbling bass line. Wonderful.

Bellita y Jazztumbata (1999)

Bellita is a Cuban jazz musician (full name Lilia Exposito Pino). She plays piano and sings in her band, Jazz Tumbata, which merge a melodic, laid-back, contemporary jazz style with traditional Cuban rhythms. It makes for a thoroughly intoxicating mix. The sound quality is breathtakingly excellent too. This was her debut album, I believe. She is still playing and releasing music as I write in 2019.

Check out the sumptuous, deep bass lines and infectious Cuban percussion on Onelo Sonar, which perfectly exemplifies the whole jazz-traditional Cuba fusion thing. The whole sound of it is marvellous, from the rhythm to Bellita's samba-style vocal. It sounds very Brazilian, vocally, but the percussion is unmistakably Cuban. Sometimes "scat" style vocal jazz improvisation irritates me, but Bellita's is actually a perfect accompaniment to the similarly inventive, ad-hoc sounding piano, bass and percussion interplay. Man, that bass solo near the end. Top quality.

Motivos De Amar definitely sounds Brazilian with its sensual Samba-influenced groove. It features an enticing "cheese-grater" backing sound. Danzon A Mima has some lovely, nonchalantly entrancing piano and more inviting rhythms. The vocal that appears half way through is very Cuban. The piano quality continues on the appealingly syncopated Gitana and its improvised, high-pitched vocals. Once more, the bass is superb. The pace increases in tempo for Juegos, a Santana-esque instrumental, minus Carlos's guitar, of course. Glenda is similarly irresistible, upbeat and seductive. The Cuban feel on this one is palpable. Jazz Tumbata is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most "jazz" of all the tracks, with jazz piano and bass taking centre stage. The final track, Relax, has another of those bass lines all over it. So, there we are, forty-odd minutes of top notch jazz and Latin fusion. Forty minutes is probably sufficient, but it is certainly a highly recommendable forty minutes.

Angélique Kidjo - Remain In Light (2018)

Angélique Kidjo was born in Ouidah, Benin. Her father is from the Fon people of Ouidah and her mother from the Yoruba people. She grew up listening to Beninese traditional music as well as South Africans Miriam Makeba. and Hugh Masekela, James Brown, Manu Dibango, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Osibisa and Santana. Her influences, therefore, are multifarious. By the time she was six, Kidjo was performing with her mother's theatre troupe, giving her an early appreciation for traditional music and dance. She has released many albums, but the one I have covered here is an unusual one, covering an iconic new wave-post punk recording. As someone who bought Talking HeadsRemain In Light upon release in 1980 and is virtually familiar with every note, this is certainly a most interesting release (I have reviewed the original album in detail on the Talking Heads page). Here, Benin artist Angélique Kidjo covers the entire album from an African perspective, which highlights the very West African, Afrobeat rhythms that inspired David Byrne and the band in the first place. The whole album is intoxicatingly rhythmic, with Hi-life, Afrobeat sounds pulsating throughout from beginning to end. Legendary Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen is one of many musicians to contribute to a huge, punchy, horn and percussion-powered non-stop groove and Kidjo's vocals are euphorically rousing. She never lets the huge backing get the better of her. It is a wonderful piece of Afro/rock fusion that takes a classic album and respectfully enhances it. Kidjo has said that she remembers listening to the original album and immediately recognising aspects of her native music within, at a time when not too much Western rock/new wave music contained such clear "world music" influences. What she and her team have done is recognise all those West African influences, kept them there and built on them, considerably. This is not like an orchestra re-working a rock album, unconvincingly, it is West African musicians taking a Western album that was considerably influenced by their own indigenous music and creating something very special, using that very music. It doesn't sound remotely forced, anything but. It is a joy. Be prepared, though, the sound is thumpingly loud and you need to lower the sound on your system to appreciate it at its best.

The old "side one" of the original album, the rhythmic trio of Born Under Punches, Crosseyed And Painless and The Great Curve are, unsurprisingly, the tracks which are the most convincing. They were the most obviously African and lend themselves perfectly for this sort of project. As on the original album, the rhythm and beat doesn't let up for a minute. The searing rock guitar of the original hasn't been neglected either. All the African elements are embellished, coming even more to the fore at the expense of the Brian Eno-inspired electronic, ambient textures that merged with the African rhythms on the original album. This work is full-on African, which, of course, the skeleton of the original album was.

One track that doesn't quite come off for me, however, is Once In A Lifetime. The album's most commercial track and my least favourite doesn't quite get there, sounding a bit too fussy and cluttered. Also, the thing that gave the song a lot of is appeal was David Byrne's vocal, paranoid quirkiness. Kidjo has none of that in her delivery. That is splitting hairs a little, however, as it is still eminently listenable, more for its music than its lyrics, whereas the original was the other way around. The beguiling Houses In Motion is given a staccato, bassy and different makeover, featuring some ethnic language parts (Yoruba?). This one works well, with a completely infectious rhythm-beat. Listen to those authentic West African horns too. 
The lyrically mysterious, spoken Seen And Not Seen is given a vibrant, thumping new life by Kidjo. The David Byrne spoken bits, perplexing as they are, now sound hauntingly voodoo-esque in Kidjo's hands. The album's cover has echoes of that too. The end of the song breaks out into an uplifting glorious piece of choral majesty. The same can be said of Listening Wind. As on all of the tracks, all the vocal call-and-response is there, but emphasised even more. The vocals are truly amazing throughout, check out the bass and addictive percussion on here too. These three tracks are all really impressive. The sombre, always incongruous post-punk gloom of The Overload is another that doesn't quite come off, though. It has no need for Kidjo's rousing vocals. Still, six out of eight corkers ain't half bad.

This had the potential to be a disaster, attempting to cover such an iconic, unique album like this, but it is the very opposite. It is a refreshing triumph. It is possible for both albums to co-exist, bouncing off each other but they can also flourish separately and that says it all.

Ananda Shankar (1970)  

From the mid-late sixties, popularised by The Rolling StonesBrian Jones and The BeatlesGeorge Harrison in particular (Paint It, Black and Within You Without You being the classic examples, of course), it was fashionable to utilise traditional Indian-Eastern instruments such as the sitar, the tabla and the harmonium and/or employ Indian musicians to play them on albums. This album was one of the first extensions of the Eastern music-psychedelic rock fusion, making a whole album of it - merging traditional Eastern sounds with rock ones. It is quite a heady mix and the album was a success. Here we had Shankar's sitar combining with moog synthesiser and Eastern-influenced, often frantic percussion. It started a trend in what became known as "raga-rock".  
The opener is a now-iconic cover of The Rolling StonesJumpin' Jack Flash, featuring madcap sitar playing and an infectious moog backing. Personally, I can't get enough of it. It's great. Snow Flower is a dreamy, hippy-ish number that would now be referred to a "chill-out" fare. It is deliciously "ambient". The album's other rock cover, of The DoorsLight My Fire is also wonderful too, and is far more than just a novelty. The sitar takes the place of the guitar and the whole thing is pretty credible, far more arty than it is cheesy.

Mamata (Affection)
is a quietly reflective, meditative and extremely melodic number, while the upbeat Metamorphosis features some infectious drum sounds. It is probably the most psychedelic-sounding track on the album. The album's old "side two" is traditional stuff. The thirteen-minute Sagar (The Ocean) is certainly that, but it is also very hippy-psychedelic, man. Despite that, it is the closet track on the album to the classical Indian style. The final two cuts, Dance Indra and Raghupati are traditional Indian folk-dance tunes and are lively and upbeat.

"Side one" can be viewed as more of the "fusion" side, while "side two" was the more traditional one. Some have argued that it is the traditional stuff that should have populated the whole album. Personally, I think that misses the point. I love Jumpin' Jack Flash and Light My Fire done in this way.

Check out these artists and compilations too, including the legendary Fela Kuti (click on the images) :-
Fela Kuti
Brazilian Music
Rough Guides

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