Monday, 19 May 2014

Various Artists - The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 100, June 2014.

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali
World Music Network (2 CDs, 136 mins)

So, just how does one represent such a musical powerhouse of a nation as Mali into just one CD? Well, this Rough Guide has a fair go of doing just that. Big names are included, such as Oumou Sangaré, Bassekou Kouyaté and Ali Farka Touré, but other superstars (Salif Keita, for one) have been bravely left out to showcase less well-known artists, which helps keep the album feeling fresh and exciting.

Pieces from a wide range of cultures from all corners of Mali are included on this compilation, from traditional Mandé jeli music in the south to Tuareg rock in the north. Unfortunately, although the compilation is stylistically varied, only music from the last 18 years is featured, with none of the legends from the 1970s making an appearance. The popular music of today’s Malian youth is also absent: there are no hip-hop or R’n’B artists here.

Taken on its own, this is a collection of great music. It’s a stonking listen, covers a good range of Malian music and comes with a bonus CD by Samba Touré. It just seems as if it may be impossible to do justice to such a musical country in only 70 minutes.

Sousou & Maher Cissoko - Africa Moo Baalu

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 100, June 2014.

Sousou & Maher Cissoko
Africa Moo Baalu
ARC Music (56 mins)

Africa Moo Baalu means ’big people of Africa,’ and the album effectively reads as an open letter to leaders in Africa and around the world, following the increasingly familiar narrative of calling for peace across the troubled continent.

Hailing from a venerated griot family in Senegal, Maher Cissoko feels it his duty to spread this message through his songs. Sousou Cissoko, on the other hand, despite being trained in classical and folk music in her native Sweden, points out that this album is not a blending of Senegalese and Swedish music, but rather the duo exploring their own music together. In practice, however, aside from occasional verses in English or Swedish, the album is very much Senegalese, often leaving Sousou’s European-style guitar sounding fairly redundant.

Maher’s performances here are more than proficient, especially when he gets a chance to shine on the solo kora (harp-lute) piece ‘Maki’, but the arrangements on this album do seem to stifle his playing and, as a result, it is hard to tell if he is playing to his full potential.

This is inoffensive stuff but pushes no boundaries, and in the end it does feel like it’s all been done before. A nevertheless pleasant and listenable album.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Amira Kheir - Alsahraa

First published in fRoots issue 372, June 2014

Amira Kheir
Sterns Music (52 mins)

As a Sudanese-Italian living in London, Amira Kheir takes influence from many different cultures and musical styles. In her debut album View from Somewhere, she dotted between Sudanese traditional, Arabic classical music, jazz, soul and even hints of pop music and sang in three different languages.

However, in her second album, Alsahraa (meaning 'the desert'), Kheir shows an increasing maturity and decisiveness in her sound. Fewer genres are blended here – the main attention is to the melding of Sudanese music with soft jazz – and she only sings in Arabic and Italian. As a result, the album feels much more focussed; with a more concentrated style, the tracks of this album blend very well, often leading to the sensation of an overall flow underneath the album.

The high points of Alsahraa come when Kheir is at her most contemplative, such as the tracks 'Ma’assalama Rafiqi', a duet with Senegalese singer Abdoulaye Samb, and 'Fil Teyf', a quiet number backed only by the oud. A more up-tempo highlight is the bossa-inspired celebration of womankind, 'Ya Mara'. The album also contains some exciting instrumental interplay: an interesting relationship is formed between Kheir’s smooth and floating voice and the double bass of Michele Montolli, each seeming to compliment the other perfectly, the individual timbres being almost equal yet opposite.

The overall smoothness of the album can at times lead to it feeling rather bland, though. Through the length of the album, the tracks always feel as if they’re leading up to an explosive finish that never quite comes. But if you have a read of Kheir’s intentions for the album, it begins to make sense. The aim of the album is to make the listener feel ‘overwhelmed in the barren landscape of the desert’…and when you think of it that way, the unrelenting smoothness seems to portray the undulating dunes and oppressive yet beautiful silence of an empty desert.

L’Hijâz’Car - L’Hijâz’Car

First published in fRoots issue 372, June 2014

Buda Records (46 mins)

Okay, let’s get this clear right at the beginning: this album is probably the best I’ve heard so far this year. L’Hijaz’Car are a French quintet that cast a modern-day jazz eye over the Middle East, mixing Arabic, Turkish and Persian classical music with jazz that wanders between the mellow and brooding to the far-out and the very nearly free. Although the group have been playing since 2000, this eponymous album is their first widely-available release without a solo vocalist – and it’s well worth the wait.

The instrumentation of the group is unusual but inspired. The double bass is the only ‘traditional’ jazz instrument and it’s joined by oud and Arabic percussion which add to the band’s Eastern credence. It’s the other two instruments that take the ensemble into rather uncharted territory. The versatile tarhu spike-fiddle sounds anywhere between a frenetic violin, a soulful cello and a haunting duduk oboe, and the group is completed by the oft-overlooked bass clarinet. This instrument is perhaps the most striking sound on the album and its timbre suits the music to a tee: more domineering than the standard clarinet but with a fragility that a saxophone can’t provide.

Throughout L’Hijâz’Car, all five musicians show their prowess as soloists while still being able to join together in composed sections seamlessly, with unexpected but perfectly timed squeaks and honks, deliciously jarring dissonances and eerie, almost anguished pauses. It’s hard to pick any specific highlights from this seven-track whole, but 'We All Scream for Ice Cream' has a corker of a tarhu solo (don’t get to say that very often) and 'Igor Noir' sounds as if it could accompany a film noir spy sneaking around before infiltrating a salsa night in Damascus.

Really, this is just a superb album, and one that I’ve not been able to stop playing since it came through my door. Give it a listen, and you may find yourself subject to a similar fate. Lucky you.