Monday, 9 December 2013

Bagpuss: The Songs and Music - Cecil Sharp House, London

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 97, January/February 2014.

Bagpuss: The Songs and Music
Cecil Sharp House, London
20th October 2013

Oliver Postgate is arguably the king of children’s television. His shows such as Ivor the Engine and The Clangers are rightly held as classics, but probably his most fondly remembered work was a series of stories about an old, saggy cloth cat named Bagpuss. The music in Bagpuss was integral to the show and the English- and Scottish-style folk songs brought with them whimsical tales of such characters as Uncle Feedle, the ragdoll with an inside-out house; and the porcupine who sailed around in a balloon.

Indeed, it was these original songs and stories that were performed at London’s Cecil Sharp House for one of their family folk events. The concert was presented by the Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ – which comprised of the original composers and performers Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner, alongside Sandra’s daughter Nancy Kerr and her partner James Fagan (themselves a rising folk duo).

The musicians performed perfectly for their target audience, each taking on the role of a character from the TV show and encouraging all the little mice in attendance to sing, dance and clap along (which even some of the older mice couldn’t resist) as well as holding their rapt attention throughout some of Postgate’s wonderful tales.

All in all, it was a lovely afternoon of music and storytelling, and it’s encouraging to see a roomful of young children having fun and enjoying folk music. Some even knew all the words to the songs already – the next generation of folkies are starting early!

Photo: Bagbuss, by Fluffymuppet. Used under licence CC BY-NC 2.0.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Mvula Mandondo - Ambush

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 94, August/September 2013.

Mvula Mandondo
Self-released (61 mins)

Having first cut his teeth as percussionist in Remmy Ongala’s legendary Orchestre Super Matimila, Ambush represents Saidi Kanda’s first release as a bandleader. He doesn’t limit himself to percussion either, adding thumb pianos, hedungu (harp-lute) and homemade guitar into the mix, as well as vocals.

Mvula Mandondo are the fruit of a collaboration between Kanda and British multi-instrumentalist Edward Shearer, and this album presents a mix of soukous, Caribbean, Latin and even West African music, all interwoven with styles from Kanda’s native Tanzania.

Indeed, the band are at their best when the Tanzanian roots shine through most clearly. This is illustrated in probably the most effective track on the album, ‘Hinongo’. The piece is based around Kanda’s ilimba (thumb piano) and features traditional-style vocals in the ancient language of kiZalam, both of which work perfectly alongside a fast and funky reggae backing, realised through Shearer’s bass and drums.

While some of the more soukous-laden tracks end up feeling somewhat unoriginal, the salsa-inspired pieces are amongst the album’s best listening. The track ‘Tsunami’ (based on Kanda’s musings on the Bosnian civil war) starts with a groove that brings to mind Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab before picking up the pace and introducing Spanish guest singer Rafael Berrio.

At times it can seem as if the duo has tried to include too many different styles on one album, which can feel slightly lacking in cohesion. Ambush isn’t perfect, but it includes some gems and does work as a promising debut.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Africa Oyé 2013 - Sefton Park, Liverpool

First published on in June 2013.

Africa Oyé
Sefton Park, Liverpool
22nd & 23rd June 2013

Africa Oyé is the UK’s largest free African music festival. Having previously featured world-famous African musicians such as Baaba Maal, Remmy Ongala and Bassekou Kouyaté, Oyé have also presented artists from the African diaspora in the Caribbean such as Culture and Luciano, and been the stage for the UK debuts of Tinariwen, Ba Cissoko and more.

This year, the organisers had all the incentives they needed to stage a bumper edition of the festival – not only was 2013 Oyé’s 21st birthday, last year’s event got rained off and had to be hastily rescheduled and moved (in a much-reduced format) to an indoor venue. The weather was kind to the festival this year, and, while it was showery and blustery enough to make the audience a bit uncomfortable, the party went ahead as planned, in Liverpool’s Sefton Park.

Unfortunately, the first of the two days got off to a disappointing start. Marred by overly-bassy sound, the first three sets became somewhat of a chore to listen to. It was the penultimate band of the Saturday, Son Yambu, who finally managed to get the festival flowing, their old-style, trés-led Cuban son warming up the soggy crowd in time for that day’s headliner, Osibisa. The Ghanaian veterans brought their trademark mix of disco, rock and West African and Caribbean sounds, including their hit ‘Sunshine Day’ and a cover of Miriam Makeba’s ‘Pata Pata’, to finish the day on a high note.

Cape Verdean hip-hop and reggae outfit Jay opened the Sunday (without the sound problems that plagued their set the day before) to a smaller, but no less appreciative crowd. Two funky Ghanaian acts followed, Yaaba Funk and Atongo Zimba, the former presenting hip-shaking highlife, and the latter giving the crowd an updated version of North Ghanaian traditional music, with the help of former Stone Roses guitarist Aziz Ibrahim and blues collaborator Ramon Goose. Typically groovy Afrobeat from Dele Sosimi set the stage perfectly for the highlight of the festival, Mokoomba. As opposed to the Shona bands that dominate Zimbabwean music, Mokoomba sing in the Tonga language, and seem to be capable of playing any style of music, from jit, jive, isicathamiya and soukous, to reggae, blues, and even hints of heavy metal. They’ve been hailed as the ‘next big thing in world music’ and that’s hard to argue with after the show they put on, rounding off a much more enjoyable second day to the festival.

A successful weekend of great music then, somewhat marred by technical difficulties early on, but with a line-up to keep you dancing all day long - and there’s certainly something to be said for only having one stage so you don’t miss anything, too. Perhaps the festival didn’t present the stellar line-up that may have been expected, but as a charity mostly reliant on government and council funding, Africa Oyé certainly showed that they can continue to put on a great party despite low funding – a feat they will doubtless continue to recreate for another 21 years or more to come.

Photo: Yaaba Funk at Africa Oyé 2013, by Graham Morgan. Used with permission.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Orchestra Super Mazembe - Mazembe @ 45rpm, Vol. 1

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 93, July 2013.

Orchestra Super Mazembe
Mazembe @ 45rpm, Vol. 1
Sterns Music (77 mins)

Orchestra Super Mazembe may be one of the most influential bands in African music. They were one of the first exponents of the Latin-influenced Congolese rumba lingala (or soukous) to up sticks and move to Kenya, where their music evolved into what is now known as benga. This in turn crossed over to Zimbabwe, transforming into sungura and jit jive. You’d be hard pressed to find them in a record shop outside of the African continent, though.

Mazembe @ 45rpm, Vol. 1 remedies this by presenting pieces taken from 45rpm releases from the late ’70s – the most common way of disseminating music at the time. None of the tracks are shorter than six minutes long, each containing both A and B sides of the single, the two parts of the same song blended seamlessly.

The pieces reveal a wide range of moods, from the danciest grooves of ‘Okova’ to the more relaxing ‘Izabela’, but they all have the common soukous spices – interweaving high-pitched guitar melodies, effortlessly tight harmonies and an overall aural sunniness. Oddly enough, the compilation neglects what was perhaps the band’s biggest hit in Kenya, 1977’s ‘Kasongo’, but the tracks that are included are solid gold.

Another inclusion is a detailed 15-page booklet, with band biography and song explanations created with help from another soukous legend Samba Mapangala, who features on the album himself, taking vocal duties on the track ‘Mwana Mazembe’.

Although the sound reproduction can be a bit scratchy at times, this can be forgiven in lieu of the great music contained within. Bring on Volume 2!

Monday, 1 April 2013

Los Chinches - Fongo

First published on in April 2013.

Los Chinches
Movimentos Records (32 mins)

Where San Francisco-style psychedelic rock, funk and cumbia meet, that’s where Los Chinches reside. It’s not your typical cumbia though, this is chicha – a style that evolved in 1960s Lima, Peru. It combines the Latin rhythms and brass of the Colombian genre with melodies inspired by Andean music and instrumentation taken from surf rock (it was the 60s, after all).

Los Chinches are based in London, and their members hail from England, Peru, Columbia and France. This album, Fongo, is their debut, but they’ve already been around quite a bit, playing all the big festivals such as Glastonbury, WOMAD and the Big Chill.

So what’s it like then? Well, oddly, the sound is at its most attractive the more they bring in the American influences – the Farafisa-sounding organ and surf guitars really complement the Latin percussion. The album’s instrumental tracks, such as ‘Chicha Love’ and the title track ‘Fongo’, are its highlights, encapsulating the band’s own description of themselves: ‘tropical, Peruvian, cumbia, psychedelic, ska and most definitely London!’

The album can feel a bit let down by the vocals, though, which don’t feel very ‘authentic’ to this listener’s ears, although it can be seen as fulfilling Los Chinches’ ethos of bringing the chicha sound into the London soundscape. The same can be said for some of the lyrics – they’re mostly in Spanish, but when they do sing in English, it jars somewhat. Like watching the Simpsons in German.

The album as a whole sounds promising, but maybe a bit less electrifying than the recordings of occasional cohorts Ska Cubano, for example. Their sounds feel as if they would translate much better into a stonking live show, and thus these recordings, while enjoyable, may not do them the credit they deserve. One to catch live, then.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Sleepy Time Ghost - Youthman Riddim EP

First published on in March 2013.

Sleepy Time Ghost
Youthman Riddim EP
Unit 137 (18 mins)

Sleepy Time Ghost a.k.a. Harry Metcalfe is a London-based producer, and his debut EP, Youthman Riddim, seems to mark him out as one of the rising stars of dub music.

Taking its form from the Jamaican sound system tradition of playing a dubplate riddim (backing track) several times while different deejays lyricise over the top, this EP consists of four tracks all based upon the same riddim.

The first two tracks use the riddim – a real funked-out affair – as is, with deejay Ras Demo and Bristolian sound system Lionpulse contributing a track each. Both of these guests lend their own take on the track, with Ras Demo providing a lighter feel compared to Lionpulse’s rootsier offering; the latter also contains a couple of great trombone and saxophone solos.

For the second two tracks, the riddim is remixed by producers Joe Ariwa and Hylu & Jago. Joe Ariwa, who studied at the feet of the mighty Mad Professor, offers a straight up dub remix of the Youthman Riddim whereas Hylu & Jago take Lionpulse’s version to a place bordering on the realm of drum and bass.

This is a brillant EP with a really authentic feel to it. Each track has its own personality and occupies its own space in the quartet and so it’s difficult to pick one stand out piece….although this reviewer’s personal tastes marginally prefer Joe Ariwa’s remix. That doesn’t matter though – the EP’s concept works completely, and it’ll leave you itching to hear a whole album of the producer’s work.

Keep your ears open for more from Sleepy Time Ghost, but in the meantime, play this LOUD!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Salif Keita - Talé

First published on in March 2013.

Salif Keita
Universal/Proper (53 mins)

In recent years, the ‘producer-as-artist’ style of album has become increasingly popular, with the album’s credited artist seemingly delegating the creative control to the producer; arguably the most musically successful examples of this are Amadou and Mariam’s Dimanche à Bamako (produced by Manu Chao in 2005) and last year’s Dan Auerbach-produced Dr. John album Locked Down. Salif Keita’s latest album appears to very much continue this trend.

Produced by Philippe Cohen Solal of the Gotan Project, Talé seems a logical progression for Keita’s music. Having gone through the ranks of both the Super Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs singing pop music of the day – a Malian take on Congolese rumba Lingala – Keita went on to forge his solo career mixing popular Western styles with Malian music. Although he has released some ‘back to the roots’ albums, such as 2005’s Mbemba, he’s pretty much kept with the times in term of the latest musicians and styles to collaborate with and within. Thus, in Talé, Keita and Solal have created an album that, while maintaining the Malian sound, layers electronica and dubstep with jazz and hip-hop. Influence is also taken from other African cultures, most noticeably on the track ‘Samfi’, which opens with a guimbri line (later replicated on synth) and takes its limping rhythm from that of the qaraqab – both features of Moroccan Gnawa music.

The guest spots provide some of the most interesting listening on the album: Esperanza Spalding’s soaring high-pitched vocals on ‘Chèrie S’en Va’ adds a beautiful inflection over the dark and brooding backing of double bass, calabash and bass synth figures; Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango’s lengthy solo on ‘Après-demain’ is entrancing and is rendered moreso by added delay; and on ‘C’est Bon C’est Bon’, Roots Manuva’s appearance sees him take on the role of reggae deejay as well as providing his usual rap style.

The best voice to be heard on the album, however, is of course Keita’s, but it is unfortunately understated on many of the tracks, either through its place in the mix or its absence for the majority of the piece. Thus, while it is musically successful and an enjoyable listen, Talé seems very much like a “Philippe Cohen Solal feat. Salif Keita” album, and some fans may be aggrieved at the lack of Keita’s personality within the work. Perhaps the producer being given an artist’s credit would have been fairer all round.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite - Get Up!

First published on in March 2013.

Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite
Get Up!
Stax/Decca Records (40 mins)

Guitarist Ben Harper and blues harp player Charlie Musselwhite are no strangers to each other’s music. They first met when they recorded the track ‘Burnin’ Hell’ with the great John Lee Hooker, and they’ve since worked together on two albums: Harper’s Both Sides of the Gun and Musselwhite’s Sanctuary. This is the first time they’re recorded a whole album together, though, and the result is somewhat of an album of two halves.

It starts promisingly with the track ‘Don’t Look Twice’, essentially an acoustic blues duet between the two with occasional crashes from the drums and bass. This piece contains some great blues couplets, such as “You know it’s bad when your ceiling says to the floor, I’ll trade you places I can’t take it up here no more”. Harper takes vocal duties throughout the album and in this track he shows off a fragile, high-pitched tone which suits it to the ground. Unfortunately, for the first half of the album, the opener is the only one that really stands out. Of the next four tracks, there’s a pretty average ‘Mannish Boy’-esque talking blues; a waltzy, gospel-inspired piece; a passable bit of blues rock; and a laid back soul offering. None of these are offensive, as such – they’re all good songs individually – but the frequent genre-shifting leaves this set of tracks feeling a bit stilted.

Persistence is well-rewarded though, because from the brooding sixth track, ‘I Ride at Dawn’ (the only track on the album on which Musselwhite doesn’t feature), the album takes a turn for the much better. Although there’s some alternation of genre here (there’s another blues rock and a New Orleans-style boogie) this set of tracks seems to gel much better than the first lot, leading to a really enjoyable listen. It’s here that some of the best individual tracks lay too.

‘I Ride at Dawn’ is a spooky anti-war song, sung as by a soldier marching to his death. Some great slide guitar from Harper emphasises the dark texture of the bass and drums and really makes this track great. Probably the best track on the album, however, is its last. ‘All That Matters Now’ is a slow blues which really takes its time – all of the parts on this track (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano and bass) are all to some extent understated and it’s a great way to end the album on a mellow note.

It’s a shame that the peak reached during the second half of the album couldn’t have come a little earlier on, and even as little as a rearrangement of the tracks could have made this good album into a great one. As it is, be prepared and persevere through the first few tracks to get to the best bits and enjoy it for what it is – a good, if slightly stilted, blues album from two generations of the genre’s masters.

Stephan Micus - Panagia

Previously unpublished.

Stephan Micus
ECM Records (65 mins)

This album is based upon seven Byzantine Greek Orthodox prayers to the Virgin Mary – the titular Panagia. Micus uses this image to represent the ‘female energy’ that is represented in goddesses in many religions and the concept of yin and yang in Taoism, believing that this work helps to spiritually balance the male-dominated world we live in.

In his usual style, Micus performs all parts of the album himself on instruments thrown together from all over the world – here he uses plucked and bowed string instruments from Pakistan, Bavaria, India and East Turkestan, as well as the Egyptian ney (flute) and his own invention, the 14-string guitar. The styles of music he plays on these instruments are no less varied, from Greek Orthodox and Gregorian church music to elements of Indian and Chinese classical music. Micus’ vocals also play a prominent role on the album and they’re sung entirely in Greek – a language he doesn’t understand.

As pretentious as the album’s concept and execution seems, the music on it is actually not unpleasant. Most tracks display an interesting array of genres from around the world without staying overly precious to the instruments the artist has adopted. Micus’ overdubbing technique works well for the most part, especially during instrumental pieces, although it does have a tendency to get a little unsettling when vocals are involved – a chorus of 22 Stephan Micuses (Mici?) is somewhat disconcerting.

This is a good relaxing listen, and more enjoyable if you appreciate its spiritualism, or alternatively, ignore it.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - Jama Ko

First published on in February 2013.

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
Jama Ko
Out Here Records (58 mins)

For all the trouble Mali faces in its current situation, one could forgive a country becoming artistically subdued. But when you’re talking about one of the most musical nations on Earth, this simply isn’t an option.

Recorded during the March coup d’état, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba’s third album pulses with the sounds of resistance. Almost every track on the album is a call for peace or a story from the history of the Mali Empire that preaches togetherness and solidarity in struggle.

Jama Ko is probably the most varied of Kouyate’s albums in terms of overall sound. Produced by Jay Rutledge and former Arcade Fire drummer Howard Bilerman, the album certainly seems to have a more rock-based sensibility than Kouyate’s previous fare. The opener and title track ‘Jama Ko’ certainly represents this, starting with a very un-Mandé-like chord sequence and featuring a blistering wah-heavy and distorted ngoni solo from Bassekou while also retaining a typically infectious Bambara groove and the majestic and soaring vocals of Amy Sacko.

Although the album is chock full of guest musicians – often a bad sign – most seem to gel well with the band. As well as legendary Malian musicians such as Kassé Mady Diabaté, Lassana Diabaté and Zoumana Tereta, the album also showcases younger talent from the country: one of the highlights of the album is the hypnotic ‘Mali Koori (Cotton Song)’, sung by Tereta and featuring the balafon (xylophone) of rising star Basidi Koné. One track does seem to suffer from collaboration, however – ‘Wagadou’, a brooding track is leant a pretentious and artsy post-rock atmosphere by the piano and glockenspiel of Mocky.

Yet the most heralded collaboration on the album is that with American blues singer and guitarist Taj Mahal on the track ‘Poye 2’. Having previously worked with Malian musicians including kora master Toumani Diabaté, Mahal brings musical sensitivity to Kouyate’s piece while the ngoni maestro’s ability to bend towards the blues creates one of the most effective West African blues experiments to date. It’s also a rare offering of Kouyate’s vocal abilities, which suit the track’s half-spoken jam vibe perfectly.

Kouyate shows willingness to fuse Bambara music with more than American styles, however. Possibly the most stylistically striking track of the album is ‘Kele Magni’ featuring singer Khaira Arby, which revolves around a sound which is noticeably Saharan. Hailing from Timbuktu in the north of Mali, Arby has experienced first-hand the effect of the Tuareg rebellion and subsequent invasion and takeover from Islamist groups including al-Qaeda. Music is now banned in the north of Mali. Arby and Sacko duet on this track renouncing the war, and extoling that Mali should be ‘inseparable, from Kidal in the east to Kayes in the west’.

Bassekou’s latest album is his most musically progressive and perhaps his most enjoyable, although purists may balk at some of the directions taken. But his album is more than just a musical offering, it’s a message from a griot to his fellow countrymen and to the world: Malians must remain united and work together for peace in both the north and south of the country.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Voices United for Mali

First published on in January 2013.

Fatou Diawara rallies the troops to spread a message of hope in Mali

The musical hotbed of West Africa that is Mali is in turmoil. After a military coup in early 2012 and the subsequent defection of the country’s three northern states, Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, to form the Islamic Republic of Azawad, this area was then taken over by Ansar ad-Din, a separatist group with links to al-Qaeda. Due to a literalist (Salafi) interpretation of Sharia law, music is now banned in the region.

One high profile victim of this current regime is Tinariwen guitarist Abdallah ag Lamina – he was captured trying to hide his guitars. He has not been seen or heard from since. In the midst of this hardship, however, music is still playing a valuable role in the spread of both information and hope. Wassoulou songbird Fatoumata Diawara has gathered musicians from all over Mali to create a supergroup of more than forty members, named collectively as Voices United for Mali to sing for peace in the country.

Featuring many stars of Malian music, including Oumou Sangaré, Kassé Mady Diabaté, Toumani Diabaté, Bassekou Kouyaté, Vieux Farka Touré, Khaira Arby, Djelimady Tounkara, Amadou & Mariam and Babani Koné, the song ‘Mali-ko’ (meaning Peace in Mali) asks “Do we really want to kill each other? Do we really want to betray one another? Allow ourselves to be divided? We are all of one mother country”.

Fatou gave her statement of intent regarding the song at a press conference last Thursday “The Malian people look to us. They have lost hope in politics. But music has always brought hope in Mali…people are looking to musicians for a sense of direction.