Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Staff Benda Bilili - Bouger le Monde!

First published on in September 2012.

Staff Benda Bilili
Bouger le Monde!
Crammed Discs (52 mins)

Three years after their widely-acclaimed debut album, Staff Benda Bilili are one of the most recognisable African acts in the world at the moment, for both their music and their striking image. Having toured Europe and North America several times since the release of Très Très Fort, their new album has been almost as awaited as their first. So does it live up to such hype?

The sound of the satongé, the electric one-stringed musical bow invented and played by Roger Landu, is probably the band’s most distinctive musical element, and it’s emphasised further in this album. Roger, now 21 years old, has both refined and matured his technique and sound – his solo on the track ‘Kuluna’ is simply masterful, utilising subtle wah-wah and echo as well as the usual distortion to create a sound somewhere between a Jimi Hendrix solo and a theremin. His singing, heard in live shows but not featured in Très Très Fort, makes an appearance this time around and to brilliant effect. His voice probably the smoothest out of the seven singers featured on the album, proving that this prodigy always has more to offer.

One of the most obvious changes on this album is the large influence of Latin music, most particularly the rumba Lingala that was for so long the DRC’s signature music before the ‘Congotronics’ sound came to the fore. The Latin element is probably used to best effect, and at its most noticeable, in the track ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, a highlight of the album and a much darker sounding piece than some of the more traditionally soukous-like tracks such as ‘Libala Ya Mungwa’ and ‘Mutu Esalaka’. Another addition is the electric guitar of Amalphi Masamba, most effective during its roaring solos, providing a delicious contrast to the lo-fi electro-acoustic sounds of the famous Socklo guitars of the rest of the band.

One element lacking from Bouger le Monde!, however, is the feeling of wide originality. Staff Benda Bilili’s first album was a great listen primarily because of its exciting freshness of sound – each track had its own personality that set it apart from the rest, a feeling that stretched to the album itself. Their follow-up, however, seems rather samey in comparison; most tracks feel as if they would either belong on Très Très Fort stylistically, or that they could have been played by a typical rumba band (albeit an incredibly talented one).

Taken on its own, this is a great album – in fact, of Congolese rumba, one of the best. Yet as a second album to a debut which quickly attained classic status, it falls slightly short of that very high bar. But not by much.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Jupiter & Okwess International - Momo's Kemia Bar, London

First published on in September 2012.

Jupiter & Okwess International
Momo's Kemia Bar, London
10th September 2012

Just two days after disembarking from the momentous week-long, train-bound jam session that was Africa Express, one could be forgiven for taking a well-earned rest…but for those with party in their veins, like Okwess International, that’s never an option.

The set grew into being one musician at a time: Alberto Makossa makes an abrupt cymbal crash before slipping into a typical funk rhythm on the drum kit; Cubain Kabeya joins in with Latin-tinged percussion in the form of congas and bongos; followed by Yendé Balemba on bass, Choulé Mubiayé on rhythm guitar and Richard Kabanga on lead guitar, each introducing themselves musically but with little fanfare before dropping into the groove, which has been aided by Nelly Eliya adding her shakers to the mix. Finally, a lanky, powerful-looking man walks slowly onto the stage and assumes the central position in front of a pair of yuka drums. This is Jupiter Bokonji, leader of Okwess International.

Although the band’s instrumentation is similar to that of their compatriots Staff Benda Bilili (their rhythm and bass guitars are even made by the same, increasingly famous Kinshasa luthier Socklo), their overall sound seems to owe more to the hypnotic repetition of the likembé, Richard’s lead guitar lines flitting between funk and something approaching dark soukous sounds through the typical distorted ‘Congotronic’ tone, sometimes even sounding like a particularly crunchy synthesiser.

Aside from a handful of tracks on which he takes lead vocal duty from Yendé or Nelly, Jupiter resembles a figure akin to that of a gospel reverend leading his choir – central to the band but not necessarily their music; the nucleus that gives meaning to the band’s cell.

As a venue, Momo’s Kemia Bar may seem somewhat incongruous for a central African band whose main export is dance – it’s very small, stuffy and Moroccan-themed – and perhaps a more open and relaxed vibe could have benefitted the music, but with the night’s capacity crowd (and the help of the four percussionists), the atmosphere felt perfectly intense. From their mid-tempo, groovy opener, each following track ramps up the atmosphere until, by the middle of the set, the audience was already bouncing to the track ‘The World is My Land’, and going wild by the time they tried to leave the stage for the first time.

Called back for the obligatory encore, the band proceeded to play a medley of two tracks over 20 minutes, echoing the shape of their set as a whole: starting fairly laid-back and ending in a riotous fashion.

Now in their 22nd year and umpteenth incarnation, it seems that Jupiter & Okwess International are finally beginning to get the recognition they, based on this performance at least, very fully deserve.

Photo: Jupiter & Okwess Internationalm by Pedro A. Pina. Used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Monday, 17 September 2012

Africa Express - Granary Square, London

First published on in September 2012.

Africa Express
Granary Square, London
8th September 2012

How does one even begin to attempt to review such a happening as Africa Express? A rolling, near-constant performance comprising of 6 ‘official’ gigs, tens of pop-up performances and countless hours of jamming and rehearsals in between. All featuring more than 80 musicians. On a train.

This reviewer’s experience of the tour extends only to the London date of the tour, what had been billed as the grand finale. The 5-hour performance was held at the newly-opened Granary Square behind King’s Cross Station. This was the only open-air venue for a paid-entry gig in the whole tour and, as such, there was a real festival feel to the proceedings, one not hindered by the blasting sunshine during the daylight hours of the show.

The concert opened with a (very) short welcome from the project’s co-founder Damon Albarn and then a speech from a Malian friend, regarding the crisis in northern Mali, corruption in Africa and the need to come together as a people to stop these (and all) atrocities, highlighting the significance of cross-cultural collaboration and empathy such as that we were about to witness. After a hearty round of applause, the first piece gets under way, and it’s already an exercise in ‘spot the famous musician’ with a piece lead by desert blues guitarist Afel Bocoum and featuring an ensemble including Fodé Lassana Diabaté on balafon, John Paul Jones on bass and Albarn himself on acoustic guitar. And so it continued throughout the evening, my friends and I exchanging whispers of “here comes Amadou on guitar!”, “Fatoumata Diawara is singing with the Noisettes and Eliza Doolittle, wow!” and “hang on, is that Paul McCartney on bass?”.

Musically, highlights included Nicolas Jaar ‘and friends’ (who happened to include Baaba Maal, Bassekou Kouyaté, Lassana Diabaté and Fatoumata Diawara) presenting an extended West African journey, mixing traditional music from the Mandé world with a subtle electronic background; a version of Led Zeppelin’s 'Kashmir', led by rappers Kano and Bashy and featuring Mehdi Haddab on electric oud, Rokia Traoré on typically scintillating vocals, the horn section of the Fela! musical and Led Zep’s own John Paul Jones on synth; Amadou Bagayoko leading Okwess International with Baloji on the mic; Rokia Traoré singing a hauntingly beautiful track ‘Dounia’ accompanied by, yes, the ex-Beatle, taking the bassline behind the rest of the band, unannounced…and I could go on and on and on. The stand out performer, however, was Fatoumata Diawara. She was never far from the stage, and for good reason: every time she opened her mouth, fantastic colours flew out – even when she wasn't singing, her dancing lit up the stage.

Through the evening, only three songs somewhat missed the mark – Carl Barât’s offering a bit too noisy, in the wrong way; Eliza Doolittle’s otherwise beautiful rendition of Al Green’s 'Let’s Stay Together' slowed things down a little much; and Paul McCartney’s second lead number…well, it just didn’t work too well, in my opinion – but three pieces out of five hours’ worth still leaves a very large percentage of gold. One criticism I heard from friends further from the stage than myself was that the music was so quiet that a choice had to be made between seeing the stage and hearing the music from the back up speakers halfway back in the crowd, no doubt due to the recent controversies surrounding open air music in London. Complaints raised at other Africa Express gigs, however, seemed to have been addressed here, with ensembles being introduced to the crowd before or after a song, and a five-minute change over between pieces at the very most.

Altogether, the experience was one of overwhelming musical success, and one which wasn’t nearly as shambolic as could have been expected, with the sheer number of musicians and only six days (in between other gigs) to plan almost from scratch. This wasn’t Africa Express’s first triumph, and here’s hoping it’s far from its last.

Photo: Africa Express London Granary Square 2012, by Haydn. Used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Adrian Sherwood - Survival & Resistance

Previously unpublished.

Adrian Sherwood
Survival & Resistance
On-U Sound (40 mins)

After releasing his first two solo albums (Never Trust a Hippy and Becoming a Cliché) on Real World Records, Adrian Sherwood completes the trilogy after 9 years with this release on On-U Sound – the legendary label he founded 21 years ago, home to African Head Charge, Tackhead and many other influential names in experimental dub.

While Sherwood’s previous two records placed emphasis on global beats and guest musicians, Survival & Resistance focusses on the producer’s mastery of the avant-garde dub style he helped to invent. Dubstep and ambient minimalism provide the heaviest influence in the producer’s experiments with the ubiquitous dub sound, with individual tracks displaying elements of Brazilian bossa, blues and hints of Arabic music (Kerry Ava’s cello evokes comparison with Egyptian virtuoso Emad Ashour). Together, these elements define the overall feel of the album as tastefully minimalist – the sense is that this album is to be listened to and savoured rather than skanked to.

Compared to the producer’s other solo offerings, the cast of players on this album is relatively small, with most sounds being created or sampled by Sherwood himself. Other musicians include On-U favourites Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald, Ghetto Priest and Jazzwad providing guitar, vocals and programming respectively. The stand-out guest performance, however, is Alan Glen, whose blues harp is laid bare over the dark ambience of ‘Last Queen of England’.

As is the norm in the On-U family, Sherwood’s music continues to shift and change, and the pioneer’s made another cracker. The dub adventure continues…