Friday, 16 June 2017

Various Artists - Pop Makossa - The Invasive Dance Beat of Cameroon 1976-1984

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 129, July 2017.

Various Artists
Pop Makossa – The Invasive Dance Beat of Cameroon 1976-1984
Analog Africa (67 mins)

Makossa united the tastes of a divided Cameroon, not least because it was a musical style that could bend around almost anything the country’s musicians threw at it. From super-tight funk to full-on drum machine and synthesiser disco, makossa embodied it all. There were also healthy doses of rumba thrown into the mix, the Congolese influences plain to hear.

The focus of Pop Makossa – as with many releases from Analog Africa – is on rediscovery. The album presents the lost hit-makers from the genre’s defining era, who have too often fallen into obscurity – sometimes out of choice, sometimes not.

This album does a good job of spanning the diversity of the style, and even includes some gems that have never seen an official release, such as Dream Stars’ ‘Pop Makossa Invasion’, a piece recorded for a radio station and promptly forgotten until now. The accompanying booklet is also filled with great stories of the artists and the Analog Africa crew’s adventures in tracking them down.

A clue to the popularity of makossa is in its name: the word means ‘I dance’ in Duala, and when you listen to this compilation, you won’t be able to argue with that.

The Heliocentrics - A World of Masks

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 129, July 2017.

The Heliocentrics
A World of Masks
Soundway Records (46 mins)

The Heliocentrics rose to prominence through high-profile collaborations with old masters such as Ethiojazz king Mulatu Astatke, Afrobeat saxist Orlando Julius and pianist and santur player Lloyd Miller. A World of Masks sees the ensemble continue their own journey.

These collaborations haven’t been left in the past, though. The influences from these pioneers can still be heard in the group’s own sound, together with vibes of Congotronics, raga, gamelan and more from across the world. This album also introduces a new aspect for the band, as they include a permanent singer into their fold for the first time: Slovakian vocalist Barbora Patkova provides warm, dreamy melodies over the various soundscapes.

It’s all held together convincingly in the group’s own brand of jazz that mixes vintage film noir tones with bop, free jazz with Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock. It works without contrivance, because above all else, the Heliocentrics deal in atmospheres. In fact, although the medium is jazz, the way the group build up their soundworld has perhaps more in common with psychedelic rock.

The best way to enjoy this album is to lie back and let its sound wash over you – let the Heliocentrics take you to their hip island among the clouds.

Mulatu Astatke - Mulatu of Ethiopia

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 129, July 2017.

Mulatu Astatke
Mulatu of Ethiopia
Strut Records (58 mins)

Mulatu of Ethiopia is the record where the ‘Father of Ethiojazz’ really solidified his signature sound and earned himself that weighty title. Studying jazz at Berklee and splitting his time between Boston and New York, Mulatu Astatke created and honed his new style as a unique blend of jazz, Latin and Ethiopian elements.

This is a reissue of Astatke’s third album, recorded in New York in 1972. Astatke directs the action from behind his vibraphone and electric piano, with a band made up of American and Puerto Rican musicians – their identities have sadly been lost to time. Luckily the album hasn’t been, and the music slinks along, mixing playful dissonances with a solid groove and top-notch solos from all involved.

This new CD includes the album in its originally-released form, as well as a mono mix-down of the original tapes, providing two distinct experiences of the same album. The mono mixes have a drier, there-in-the-room feel, a contrast to the original’s more ethereal production. Unfortunately, there are also production errors: one track cuts abruptly at the end – it’s jarring and not a hold-over from the original album, either.

That aside, it’s a fun gaze into the origins of a style now considered one of the coolest out there.