Friday, 19 June 2020

Chouk Bwa & The Ångströmers - Vodou Alé

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 159, July 2020.

Chouk Bwa & The Ångströmers
Vodou Alé
Bongo Joe (38 mins)

Chouk Bwa were a revelation upon their debut album, 2015’s Se Nou Ki La!, a wonderful set of simple but hard-hitting Haitian Vodou religious roots made up of thumping drums and joyous harmonised vocals. Their follow-up takes things in a different direction as they team up with Belgian production duo The Ångströmers.

The result is dark, dirty and dubby. Although impactful, the production work leaves ample space for the Haitians to breathe without threatening to submerge their sound completely. It may be as subtle as the addition of a bubbling, droning underbelly to a song; the best moments come when the focus is rhythmic, the heavy synth beats mixing alongside the Vodou drums.

However, this musical meeting feels less like a hands-on collaboration than a sort of remix project, as if Chouk Bwa did their thing separately before the Ångströmers came in to chop and change and add their electronic flourishes later. As such, there’s a slight distance between performance and production that stops the project short of achieving that sublime cross-cultural connection I’d hoped it would be. Vodou Alé is a little less than the sum of its parts.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Sigurd Hole - Lys / Mørke

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 158, June 2020.

Sigurd Hole
Lys / Mørke
Elvesang (2 CDs, 80 mins)

Avant-garde bassist Sigurd Hole recorded Lys/Mørke on the island of Sørværet in the Norwegian Arctic. If it was recorded anywhere else, it would sound completely different, such is its connection to the ground from which it grew. Using only his double bass, Hole has made improvised acoustic sound-art that is intimately inspired by the sounds, colours and landscape of Sørværet. By recording out in the open, the ambient sounds of birds, rain and wind in grass become integral to the music and meanings of the album.

Dividing the double album into light (Lys) and darkness (Mørke), Hole explores the ever-important themes of ecology and the philosophical unity of humanity and nature through the language of sound. He uses the whistling sounds of the bass’s harmonics to form mimesis and mimicry, stirring reminiscences of throat-singing and Sámi joik alongside more traditional jazz and Scandinavian folk.

The atmosphere here is sparse and calm, if occasionally unsettling in its vastness. Even moments of musical turmoil are appropriate and magical elements of the sonic ecosystem. The result is so personal and introspective as to feel perhaps a little intrusive, but it serves perfectly to allow our ears to visit the cold scenery of Sørværet and to hear Hole’s soul.

Gwendoline Absalon - Vangasay

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 158, June 2020.

Gwendoline Absalon
Ting Bang (48 mins)

A vangasay is a type of mandarin orange from Madagascar and Vietnam popular in the islands across the Indian Ocean in between. It’s sweet and refreshing – the perfect name for Gwendoline Absalon’s second album.

Absalon is one of the young talents creating the contemporary culture of La Réunion. On Vangasay, she takes the music of her island on a tour around the world, accreting the most soulful styles into her global musical creole. On this journey, she takes the sounds of bossa and samba from Brazil, morna from Cape Verde, piano montuno from Cuba, bèlè from Martinique and Bollywood from India and brings them together with those of La Réunion into a breezy, feel-good pop. Top marks to pianist Hervé Calcal, whose arrangements tie all these influences together seamlessly.

The best thing about Absalon’s music, though, is her voice: clear and fragrant, a little jazzy and full of smile. The album is at its most delightful when her voice is given undivided attention, such as in ‘Binda’ or ‘La Diva de la Morna’, her tribute to Cesaria Evora that starts with a whole two minutes of beautiful solo a capella. Vangasay is a sweet treat, a light and airy listen to clear the cobwebs.

Rabii Harnoune & VB Kühl - Gnawa Electric Laune

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 158, June 2020.

Rabii Harnoune & VB Kühl
Gnawa Electric Laune
Tru Thoughts (67 mins)

This is an album that has me very much in two minds. It’s a fusion between Gnawa music from Morocco remixed for the European club dancefloor. Rabii Harnoune is the Gnawi responsible for the thumping gimbri and soulful wailing, and VB Kühl is the German producer who recontextualises it among all things electronic.

It’s not the most original idea out there – Gnawa x club fusions have been around for a long time and there are better examples of it than this. In accommodating the African groove, the club music seems tamped while the raw and heady energy of the Gnawa ceremony dissipates upon association with the frivolous beats’n’bleeps and cool R&B. And yet, and yet! There’s no denying that this album is really fun. It’s light-hearted and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The DIY nature of the production gives it a natural feel and the fusion flows on unforced.

Gnawa Electric Laune may not blow your mind with originality or sheer power, but as long as you approach with the right frame of mind – up for a good time without too much overthinking – it’s still an album that will be able to move your body to its own beat.

Hailu Mergia - Yene Mircha

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 158, June 2020.

Hailu Mergia
Yene Mircha
Awesome Tapes from Africa (42 mins)

After Awesome Tapes from Africa reissued three of his old tapes to wide acclaim, Ethiopian keys player Hailu Mergia – by then a taxi driver in Washington, DC – made his comeback in 2018 with his first new album for 15 years, Lala Belu. That album was a showcase of classy, intelligent jazz infused with the customary Ethiopian flavour. Yene Mircha does not reach the same heights as its predecessor. It has such a different vibe that it’s actually quite bizarre. While still firmly in the Ethio-jazz mould, this time around it seems to have lost all of the edge that made the last one so exciting.

The first track, ‘Semen Ena Debub’, is smooth, poppy and anodyne, and the rest of the album carries on in much the same vein. A lot of it feels akin to muzak or even, at times, a cheap karaoke backing track. A slight reprieve comes in the form of ‘Bayine Lay Yihedal’, a piece originally written by Asnakech Worku changed up into a swaggering Ethio-dub, but it’s not enough to save the whole set.

To follow an album so good with one like this is astonishing and disappointing. Hopefully it’s just an anomaly and Hailu will be back to his wizarding ways sooner rather than later.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Siti Muharam - Siti of Unguja: Romance Revolution on Zanzibar

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 157, May 2020.

Siti Muharam
Siti of Unguja: Romance Revolution on Zanzibar
OnTheCorner (36 mins)

Siti Muharam is the great-granddaughter of Siti binti Saad, the woman who turned taarab from the inaccessible music of the Sultan’s palace into the people’s sound of Zanzibar. It’s a great legacy to shoulder, and with this debut album, Muharam more than rises to the occasion.

Her voice occupies the same territory as a Bollywood diva, or Billie Holiday, or her great-grandmother; with that same easy but powerful grace. The rest of the ensemble is just as intoxicating, and together they take taarab to another level. They look back to its origins and maintain a real vintage feel while lighting a path for potential new directions for the style. The addition of bass clarinet and double bass lend a noir-jazz slinkiness, and alongside the subtlest of electronics, the feeling is of traditional music finding a comfortable home in the year 2020, rather than any self-conscious ‘fusion.’

Siti Muharam and her group are in command of a music that’s both stately and spicy, and in continuing a great taarab lineage, they’ve made something very special. Once I’d listened to Siti of Unguja, I was already excited to get to listen to it again. I just wish there was a little more of it!

Danyèl Waro - Tinn Tout

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 157, May 2020.

Danyèl Waro
Tinn Tout
Buda Musique (73 mins)

Danyèl Waro has spent the past 45 years becoming the international ambassador of maloya, the revolutionary roots music of the Indian Ocean island La Réunion. He also possesses one of the most outstanding voices in African music today, sounding somehow both fragile and powerful in equal measure. On Tinn Tout, he continues to do what he does best: a sparing, traditional version of maloya, with occasional small innovations – a Gnawa rhythm here, a Jaco Pastorius-like melodic bass there – that serve only to heighten the music’s emotional range.

One of those innovations comes on ‘Daniel Singaïny’, which explores maloya's often hidden connection to South Asian music. It starts with a short section of morlon narslon music, a shawm-and-drum style of La Réunion’s Tamil-descended Malbar community. The rest of the song is in Waro’s usual style, but that introduction changes the context in which it is heard; South Asian colours blossom forth. It’s not hard to conceive the massed vocals of maloya as distant cousins of qawwali.

Waro’s voice has a way of hitting the ear that directly touches the soul, and his respect for the past and future of maloya and La Réunion is just as clear and just as earnest – to listen to Tinn Tout is a pleasure and a privilege.