Monday, 15 December 2014

Hijaz - Nahadin

First published in fRoots double issue 379-380, January-February 2015

Zephyrus Music (38 mins)

It seems to be a good time for Arabic-flavoured jazz.

Hijaz is a quartet based in Belgium with members also hailing from Tunisia, Portugal and the UK. The band’s stated philosophy is to focus on the interplay between the oud, with its Middle-Eastern tuning and quarter-tones, and the piano, the traditional jazz instrument with its rigid western tunings. This album, though, shows that the group actually go further than this – all four of the players (the quartet completed by double bass and Arabic percussion) make very valuable contributions to the sound.

The jazz that Hijaz play is clean but not afraid to journey over to the verges of tonality, and Nahadin contains a good mix of ballads and more upbeat, rhythmic pieces. There’s also some downright funky sections, such as the bass and percussion intro to 'Desert Dancer', which could easily work as an intro from the classic jazz of the 1960s.

The tracks are arranged between the standard jazz structure of head-and-solos and something closer to through-composition – often, the solos will dissolve into a more open-ended exploration of the themes. About half of the tracks also feature a taqsim-like unmetred intro, often rendered in a jazz style, which is a nice touch.

The balance between the jazz and Arabic sounds is near perfect. There are also subtle Indian influences evident, and the track 'Hawa' explores these in more depth, introducing bansuri flute to the group’s line-up. The sound that Hijaz create seems crafted to worked best as instrumental, so when Arabic-style vocals (both sung and spoken) are introduced once or twice throughout the album, they do seem a little superfluous, at best.

Overall, a great album with an interesting and sometimes exciting look at the connections between the scales, rhythms and timbres of the Arabic and jazz forms. One of the best and most successful fusions of its kind.

Majid Bekkas - Al Qantara

First published in fRoots double issue 379-380, January-February 2015

Majid Bekkas
Al Qantara
Igloo Records (70 mins)

Moroccan oud player Majid Bekkas has worked his way through collaborations with many artists from many different styles, but this is the first outing of Bekkas’ Afro Oriental Jazz Trio. With Al Qantara, the group live up to their name and stay true to the influences from Bekkas’ previous collaborations.

The trio are Bekkas on oud, guimbri and vocals, Manuel Hermia on bansuri flute, saxophone and clarinet and Khalid Kouhen on tabla and percussion, and with these tools they create what is, first and foremost, a jazz album. Most of the pieces work in the jazz form, but the ‘Afro Oriental’ lens through which it is heard is what makes the album special. Both the music of the Arabic and Gnawa populations of Morocco influence the melodies here, with elements of blues and even music from the Far East seeping in. The rhythms used are largely Indian-inspired and their combination with the Moroccan jazz melodies works so well, the traditions don’t sound as if they grew thousands of miles apart.

The trio’s jazz elements echo the ‘modern’ era of experimentation, drawing especially from the Afrocentric periods of Don Cherry (whose loveletter to the Gnawa, 'Guinea', is covered here) and Randy Weston, who also provides liner notes. It’s interesting to hear Afro-Arabic jazz created by those closer to the original tradition, and refreshing that the American elements don’t sound faked either.

The last couple of tracks seem a little oddly placed – they are more introspective pieces that cause the album to ‘fade out’ rather than end with a bang. As with the rest of the album, the pieces are musically accomplished and work well on their own, but may have been more effective with a different placement on the album.

Arabic jazz has been well-covered by many artists, but Al Qantara, while not pushing many boundaries, uses the genre to good effect – there are some great tracks and the overall sound is very enjoyable. A successful album, and a promising new project.

Maïa Barouh - Kodama

First published in fRoots double issue 379-380, January-February 2015

Maïa Barouh
Editions Saravah (52 mins)

Often abstract electronica, with a strong Okinawan influence in the vocals from this French-Japanese artist. Some great jazz flute and elements from trip-hop, dub and more mainstream electronic genres. Sometimes a little too pretentiously far-out but an overall good album.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Batch Gueye - Ndiarigne

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 104, January/February 2015.

Batch Gueye
Self-released (68 mins)

In his native Senegal, Batch Gueye performed mainly as a dancer, but since moving to Bristol, he has honed his skills as a musician and singer, and has been slowly gaining more recognition, winning the World Music Network’s Battle of the Bands, playing at WOMAD and supporting Fatoumata Diawara on her recent tour.

Ndiarigne is Gueye’s first full album, and with it, he gives a good show of his abilities both as a singer and bandleader. The group manoeuvre from thoughtful pieces in praise of the Baye Fall saints (the Sufi sect to which Gueye belongs) to tracks obviously designed for a dance session, with the leader adding his unique voice all the while. There are some great performances from within his band too – an all-African affair, recorded in Senegal, as opposed to his usual British-based group – with kora, xalam and backing vocals all standing out at various points throughout the album.

A few things do need to be ironed out here – some of the tracks feel a little repetitive and the album’s changes in mood could perhaps be smoother, but these are small things, and shouldn’t take away from the fact that Ndiarigne is an impressive debut album.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Jan Fairley - Living Politics, Making Music: The Writings of Jan Fairley

First published in fRoots issue 378, December 2014

Jan Fairley
Living Politics, Making Music: The Writings of Jan Fairley
Edited by Simon Frith, Stan Rijven and Ian Christie
Ashgate (218 pages)

In 2012, world music lost one of its greatest writers. Even before the term ‘world music’ was coined, Jan Fairley was writing about the music that she loved, regardless of their place or time. Living Politics, Making Music has been compiled from Fairley’s works spanning 28 years (1984 to 2012) and it serves as a great tribute.

Although this book is presented as an academic work (and with a price that would indicate the same – ‎hardback copies are on sale for £100 or more), the collection features writings from popular journals, such as fRoots and Songlines, as well as more scholarly publications. Fairley’s writing is a good mix of the two – the more academic-leaning texts do not approach the dryness that other ethnomusicologists seem unable to escape, and the more popular articles contain an impressive depth in their brevity.

The book is divided into sections, for each of the areas Fairley covered most extensively: writings on Chile; discussions of ‘world music’; writings on Cuba, and a selection of artist interviews conducted for fRoots. The eclecticism of Fairley’s topics is also very impressive – although she mainly examines Latin American styles, she writes with equal authority, passion and imagination on topics of folk, classical or pop music, of the meanings of dance, the mechanics of radio or the workings of the music business.

This book isn’t just useful as a tribute to a great writer, it also genuinely works well along a theme. The chapters are compiled in a way that leads the reader through the most important points about music and politics in Latin America, and the role that world music and ethnomusicology can play in both. In the end, readers will no doubt be enlightened on the subjects that Fairley so eloquently explained, through a book that highlights, if it were needed, what a loss Jan’s was to the world music scene.

Moussu T e lei Jovents - Opérette

First published in fRoots issue 378, December 2014

Moussu T e lei Jovents
Le Chant du Monde/Manivette Records (2CD, 98 mins)

Well, if you need cheering up in these winter months, here’s a record for you!

The only major wave of Opérette Marseillaise lasted for just 20 years, from 1930 to 1950, but its influence is still felt in France, both within the arts and the romanticised images of Marseille and Provence. The music of these operettas was very distinct, taking as much influence from French folk styles as vaudeville jazz and opera. With Opérette, Moussu T e Lei Jovents cover twelve of the style’s classic tracks (with nine taken from the songbook of the Sarvil-Alibert-Scotto triumvirate).

Even before this venture, the band has had a varied repertoire: they perform and mix many styles, from psychedelic rock and reggae to trad jazz and country blues. In this album, they use influences from all over their past work – with 'Entre Marseille et Toulou' evoking an image of a Tom Waits nursery rhyme in French, and some lovely slide guitar giving 'Deux Grandes Yeux Noirs' a pseudo-country feel – yet somehow manage to stay very true to the original pieces. These originals are actually included here, on a bonus disc, performed by the legends of the 1930s. The band doesn’t suffer from the comparison though, the older pieces just serving to highlight the innovations of the new.

The album’s standout sound really comes from the mix of banjo and double bass (occasionally sousaphone), which together keep everything bouncing along and provide a base for Tatu to add his vocals – with which he achieves a brilliant era-specific quality. The result of all of this is a really fun and light-hearted album. It’s campy and it doesn’t take itself seriously, but at no expense to the musicianship that is clearly on show. Get this album (and its bonus disc) to be taken on a history of Opérette Marseillaise that will leave you with a big smile on your face.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Mariza - WOMEX 14 Artist Award

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2014 delegate guide.

Fado is the sound of Portugal. This music defines the country, both to outsiders and to the Portuguese themselves. It sounds ancient and earthy, but fado is no folk music – this is a music of the city, seeded in Afro-Brazilian culture but grown in the poorest areas of Lisbon, where the cultures of the Portuguese, Brazilians, Africans and Moors mixed freely. Fadistas sing of that most Portuguese of sentiments, saudade. The word has no English counterpart, but it brings to mind nostalgia – an aching, a longing. The topic of love is ever-present, of course, but fados also sing of the city, of its sea and its fisherman, of its tavernas and their customers. It is music of the people, and so it reflects the people, their lives and their histories. The style has had many shining stars – from Maria Severa at its very beginnings to the irreplaceable Queen of Fado, Amália Rodrigues. To that list must surely be added Mariza. She has brought this traditional style into the 21st century with the utmost sympathy, turning the earthy into the other-worldly and building upon Amália’s legacy by continuing fado’s spread into the worldwide consciousness.

Although born in Mozambique, Mariza grew up in the Mouraria district of Lisbon, one of the most important areas in the history of fado. Her parents ran a traditional taverna, exposing her to the true breadth of the style – workers and fishermen would start impromptu sessions during the week, and at the weekend, professional singers would come to perform. By the age of seven, Mariza was already singing in music houses across the city.

Mariza really has taken fado and made it her own – her ears face in all directions and she takes influence from the past, the present, and from all over the world. Whether her sound has a hint of country music, a breeze of morna or even a nod to pop, Mariza brings it all together to make something that could not be considered at all apart from fado, such is the depth of her understanding of the form. And this isn’t even mentioning her voice. Hundreds of words have been devoted to the beauty that emanates from Mariza’s mouth, and among them every conceivable superlative. But it’s something that defies definition and all but the most vague description. Simply, it is a voice that touches the soul. And it does so around the world – the Portuguese language no barrier. Mariza herself says “language is not a frontier, you don’t have to understand what I’m saying, because fados have the power of crossing the frontier and make you feel emotions.

There are many lists that could signal Mariza’s position as one of the most important singers of her generation: her awards and honorifics (Commander of the Order of Prince Henry, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, countless ‘Best Artist’ and ‘Best Album’ awards from all over the world); her collaborators (Gilberto Gil, Cesária Évora, Lenny Kravitz, Sting, Jaques Morelenbaum, Tito Paris...); or the stages she has graced (Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, the Sydney Opera House, the Hollywood Bowl...). But all of these are just clues, hints that this is an artist whose skill truly demands attention. Just 13 years after the release of her debut album (and 12 years since her first performance at WOMEX), we are delighted to be able to bring her to Santiago de Compostela to confer on her the highest artist honour that we can: the WOMEX Artist Award 14.

Musical excellence, popular and commercial success, innovation with a commitment to cultural roots, spreading the music of fado and the sonic world of Lusophonia to a global audience, and dedication to a musical vision without compromise: through her own art, Mariza shows us the epitome of fado, and by extension, the epitome of Portugal and its people.

“Mariza is clearly acknowledged as the top exponent of fado of the younger generation. In fact, she is as deeply loved by the Portuguese audiences as by her international audiences, which is something that hasn’t happened since the time of Amália.”
Rui Viera Nery, fado historian

“She is not only a great artist with a wide appeal, but she’s also articulate and informed about the music – which is why she was such a good subject for a documentary. As well as bringing a new and extensive audience to fado, she’s also inspired some excellent new songs written specially for her – like the song ‘Transparente’ about her Mozambican ancestry.”
Simon Broughton, Director, Mariza and the Story of Fado

“Mariza is one of Europe’s greatest singers, with an exquisite voice and a powerful stage presence to match. Her performances are infused with passion, warmth, and immense charm, taking Portugal’s urban blues, fado, to new heights.”
Lucy Duran, Presenter of the WOMEX 14 Artist Award

Photo: Mariza live at WOMEX 14, by Eric van Nieuwland.

La Chiva Gantiva

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2014 delegate guide.

They're a Colombian band, based in Belgium with members from France and Vietnam and they sing in Spanish, French, and sometimes a mix of the two (Francpañol?). Their music is no less eclectic. La Chiva Gantiva create their music from a base of traditional Afro-Colombian rhythms but from there they take the listener on a musical voyage, with ports in Latin music, Afrobeat, jazz, funk and hip-hop. Although they've only just released their second album in February 2014, their sound feels much more mature, without it losing any of its energy or letting over-thought get in the way of the fun. La Chiva Gantiva deal in dance, so don't be surprised if staying still is impossible.

Photo: A man on a mission - Mundial La Chiva Gantiva, by Michiel Bles. Used under licence CC BY-NC 2.0.

Kareyce Fotso

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2014 delegate guide.

A bio-chemist, a comedian, a cinema expert: Kareyce Fotso is all three. But the reason we're all here is, of course, her music. Fotso takes in styles from her native Cameroon as well as from around the African continent to create her sound. Add in a healthy amount of blues and you get an often gentle music but one that is nevertheless full of power. Having studied under the wing of Cameroonian star Sally Nyolo, she has represented her country in arts events all over the world and has gone on to release two albums and collaborate with such artists as Habib Koite and Dobet Gnahore. Whether accompanying her warm, heartfelt vocals on acoustic guitar or sanza (thumb piano), or dancing, with her feet providing the percussion, Fotso's passion shines through to light up the whole stage.

Photo: 2013 MMF: Kareyce Fotso, by 大大樹音樂圖像trees music & art. Used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Cover Versions - Songlines Soapbox

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 104, November/December 2014.

Well, it started out at WOMAD. I was chatting with Songlines’ dear respected editor-in-chief, Simon Broughton, and we were both watching The Jolly Boys. Lovely, sunny mento music to dance away a balmy summer afternoon. Talking about the band, Simon mentioned that “they were veterans when I started” – and indeed, they’ve been going solidly for sixty years…not too shabby! It struck me as very odd, then, that they closed their set with a cover of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’. Their most recent bout of fame has come through their cover of this song on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong: they do a lovely version, it worked well within the set and the tune lent itself to mento better than I would have expected. But while it’s understandable that artists would play their most well-known piece at the end of their set, for a band with a history of more than 60 years’ worth of original Jamaican roots music, it seemed a bit of a shame that their ‘crowning achievement’ would be a cover of a British soul song that they recorded just a few years ago.

It got me thinking about the wider use of cover versions of popular Western songs within world music. When you set your mind to it, there are loads of them, from the popular to the obscure, and from the musically successful (such as Rachid Taha’s ‘Rock el Casbah’ and Fanfare Ciocărlia’s ‘Born to Be Wild’) to the frankly terrifying (Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares’ ‘Oh Susannah’ – see above), but that’s the same across all music. When covers are done well (or at least, marketed well), they can really help their artists edge towards the mainstream, if not necessarily break into it, as can be seen in the case of Rachid Taha and even projects such as Rhythms del Mundo, which saw Western pop acts record their own songs backed by Cuban musicians, including some of Buena Vista Social Club.

It’s natural that listeners gravitate towards what they already know, and nowadays with YouTube related videos, Spotify recommendations and Pandora Radio (in the US and the antipodes), it’s so much easier for someone who would perhaps not be regarded as part of the ‘traditional’ world music target audience to latch onto something ‘the same but different’, rather than a song title in a different language from a place they’ve never heard of. The usual argument is that it helps to broaden people’s tastes, and while I’m sure that that is true to some extent, I must ask, how often does it really work? How many people only know Rachid Taha as ‘that guy who did the Arabic version of The Clash’? Rhythms del Mundo was a commercial success, but did any of the Cuban musicians gain any popular recognition as a result of it? There will be many more people who are familiar only with the cover versions than those who delved further into the other music of these artists, or even further into the traditions from which they arose.

The problem here is that these covers risk turning into ‘click-bait’ – banking on the bizarreness of a Romanian brass band playing hard rock to grab the attention of some more listeners. It’s as if the performers are being presented in the same way as a freak show – marvelling at unfamiliarity rather than substance. A telling quote comes from Kenny Young, the mastermind of Rhythms del Mundo: “the idea came to me like a bolt: musicians from Buena Vista Social Club with Western artists and good songs”. Evidently, Cuban songs weren’t good enough.

Questions need to be asked of the intent behind these tracks and whose choice it was to perform them. If the artist chooses to cover a piece because they enjoy it or think they could do something interesting with it, well that’s one thing, but if the main motivation is to gain widespread attention, isn’t that rather a sad state of affairs?

Artists from world music genres should be allowed to use the market in any way they see fit, but if this is the case, it shows the wider flaw in the way music is marketed, and effectively encapsulates the struggles that world music deals with in this market. Nor can we really say that artists shouldn’t be using their music in such a way – after all, Western artists perform covers too (although they are rarely used in the same novelty way as ‘world’ covers are) and non-Western artists playing them isn’t new either. When Western pop music started to become popular around the world, local cover bands became incredibly widespread, and were the vehicles for many world music superstars’ formative experience and exposure. If we dictate what music ‘world’ artists should play, we risk forcing the musicians into the cul-de-sac of exotic curiosity, only allowing them to play music that we in the West seem ‘appropriate’ for their cultural background, exposing an underlying neo-colonial attitude. It’s all very muddy.

I think that overall, we have to draw the same unsatisfying conclusion that we seem to come up against when approaching anything to do with world music (including the ever-lasting debate over the term itself): it’s not great, but it’s probably what we’re going to have to put up with for the moment. While playing covers of Western popular music is one of the only ways that world music acts can gain any sort of mainstream recognition in the West, the artists and their marketeers will exploit this, and it’s very hard to blame them. All that can be done, for the moment at least, is to enjoy these covers for what they are – usually good, often fun and sometimes completely bizarre pieces of music – while we come up with the magical solution to unconditionally offer our favourite musicians from around the world the attention they deserve.

Adjiri Odametey - Dzen

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 104, November/December 2014.

Adjiri Odametey
Africmelo Records (53 mins)

There are many projects that aim for a ‘pan-African’ sound; they usually rely on collaboration between different cultures. Not for Adjiri Odametey though – he does it all himself.

Ghanaian-born, Odametey’s instrumental prowess nevertheless extends across the continent, adding to his guitar and cool, deep voice, kora, balafon, mbira and kalimba and everything else on the album. His influences are equally eclectic: there’s glimpses of palmwine, Shona music, reggae, mbalax and bossa, and many tracks bring to mind the Acholi music of Geoffrey Oryema.

There’s something odd about the record, though. The production, while clean, is a bit strange here and there – there’s a distracting and recurring effect that clips Odametey’s words short, but nothing major. Maybe it’s the promotional materials and liner notes, which describe how Odametey uses ‘native African instruments’ to keep in touch with his roots, although how this decidedly pan-African sound helps with that I’m not sure.

Musically, Dzen is pleasant, although the blend of styles leaves a lot of the tracks sounding vaguely similar, meaning the album can feel a bit watered down. But if you enjoy your African music smooth and can ignore slightly awkward liner notes, this is one to try.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Various Artists - The Rough Guide to Bollywood Disco

First published in fRoots issue 377, November 2014

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Bollywood Disco
World Music Network (2CD, 137 mins)

A fun compilation of music from Indian cinema’s tackiest era. Cheese-lovers only need apply. Tracks range from the awful and embarrassing to the fairly funky. Comes packaged with The Rough Guide to Kishore Kumar as a bonus CD, which is slightly more listenable.

Waed Bouhassoun - L’âme du Luth

First published in fRoots issue 377, November 2014

Waed Bouhassoun
L’âme du Luth
Buda Musique (65 mins)

In the latest instalment of Buda Musique’s wonderful Musiques du Monde series, which has been a part of the label for over two decades, the attention is turned to Syria and its legendary school of oud playing.

One of the young guard of Syria’s classical music scene is Waed Bouhassoun. Having studied the oud at the High Institute of Music in Damascus at a time when it placed a heavy focus on Western classical music, Bouhassoun’s own style reflects the eclecticism of her teaching. Her sound is clearly rooted in the Syrian classical tradition, but this by no means restricts her playing: subtle influences from Egypt, Lebanon, Europe and elsewhere can be heard.

L’âme du Luth is a completely solo album, featuring only Bouhassoun’s oud and voice, and it really is beautiful. All the music included is written by Bouhassoun herself, and the poetry is sourced from around the Islamic world and from the 7th century to the modern day. The atmosphere throughout is introspective and calm, but from this foundation the mood delicately shifts between joy and sorrow. Both voice and oud are performed with the utmost respect and each compliments the other perfectly, each alternately working with and weaving through the other. The album’s two instrumental pieces, modelled on unmetred taqsim, work in complete sympathy to the rest of the album and are just as subtly emotional as the songs.

The production on this album is wonderful; it avoids the over-the-top reverb that gets slapped on many of this style of recording – the light reverb that is used is just enough to accentuate the music and give each note room to breathe. The liner notes that are included are okay, but most of the pieces’ titles are given in English and French only (as opposed to the ‘correct’ Arabic title) and the English translations of the texts come from the Arabic via French, allowing for deeper meanings to be lost-in-translation twice.

With L’âme du Luth, Waed Bouhassoun has created an impressive album, one that is befitting of the Musiques du Monde series, and one that announces her as a master of her style.

Ali Khattab - Sin País

First published in fRoots issue 377, November 2014

Ali Khattab
Sin País Nesma Music (46 mins)

Al-Andalus is a popular theme in the music of Arabic (especially North African) classical musicians. For more than 700 years, much of what is now Spain and Portugal was ruled under various Islamic caliphates, becoming renowned as the cultural centre of the Muslim world and attracting many visitors from the rest of Europe, creating the beginnings of Orientalism.

Ali Khattab is a flamenco guitarist from Egypt, and with Sin País, he aims to recreate the same atmosphere and passion that was experienced by those early Orientalists. Together with his group of Egyptian musicians, Khattab mixes flamenco and Arabic classical music together with a healthy amount of jazz, and it’s a project that produces mixed results. The album has some great tracks on it, but the band often tend to stray into ‘smooth’ territory, which robs the music of some of the excitement that is displayed elsewhere.

The stand-out areas of the album are those built upon the basis of the Egyptian music, with the flamenco and jazz working within the Arabic framework (such as the opener, 'Derviche'), rather than vice versa, which is where the music takes a turn towards the glossy and less interesting ('Alejandra').

This album lays promising groundwork for this fusion between flamenco and Arabic music, but in the end doesn’t quite deliver all it promises. Hopefully, this work can be built upon in further releases and result in some brilliant music. It’s not there yet though.

Various Artists - Real World 25

First published in fRoots issue 377, November 2014

Various Artists
Real World 25
Real World Records (3CD, 227 mins)

This year, Real World Records celebrates its 25th anniversary and to commemorate, they’ve released this 3CD set of tracks from their back catalogue. But where this would usually be an excuse for a label to put out a standard sampler showing off some of their best-selling material, Real World, true to form, use it as an opportunity to create something special.

Each of the three CDs has a different theme – the first a selection from the label’s ‘classic’ albums, the second explores some of Real World’s more obscure releases, and the third features tracks selected through a public vote. This works really well, giving the listener an opportunity to hear great music that may otherwise have been lost in the depths of the catalogue and giving a sense of discovery that has always been at the heart of Real World’s philosophy.

Overall, the 48 tracks (227 minutes!) of this compilation span 35 countries and from the label’s very first release to some of the most recent. The tracks themselves are, of course, of the highest quality, such is the album roster from which Real World Records have to choose. The box also contains a lovely 25-page (see what they did there!) booklet with interesting stories and notes about each track. This is a wonderful set of music and an admirable way for Real World to celebrate a quarter of a century’s worth of releases – here’s hoping for many more years of exciting records to come.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Various Artists - The Rough Guide to the Music of Palestine

First published in fRoots issue 376, October 2014

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to the Music of Palestine
World Music Network (2CD, 122 mins)

What a pertinent release. With the Israel/Gaza conflict experiencing a particularly bloody recapitulation, the World Music Network continue their fantastic series of Rough Guides with the Rough Guide to the Music of Palestine, focussing on the often overlooked culture of the troubled region.

One might expect this album to be chock-full of Palestine’s particular brand of Levantine classical music and Egyptian-inspired orchestral works that are seemingly ever-present in the Arabic world, but, while some great examples of these are included, they sit amongst a diverse line-up that includes hip-hop, punk, pop, reggae and a fair amount of jazz. Full credit should be given to compilers Nili Belkind and Nadeem Karkabi for managing to squeeze in so many styles without any sounding out of place or the album feeling too muddled. With such a range of genres, it’s quite difficult to choose particular highlights, although Sanaa Moussa’s indie-acoustic tribute to Ottoman-period Palestinian songsters on 'Wea’younha' and the driving modern jazz of Michel Sajrawy’s 'Tojann' stand out in particular.

As with most recent Rough Guide releases, the Music of Palestine comes with a bonus album – Reflections Of Palestine by buzuk player Ramzi Aburedwan. Mixing Arabic classical music with jazz, tango and French elements, this bonus is an appropriate and complimentary addition to the main compilation.

The collection’s attention to the less ‘traditional’ side of Palestine’s musical spectrum can be seen as a positive, humanising tool at a time where most images we see of Palestine are of the ruined buildings and wounded civilians of Gaza. It also serves as a reminder of some of the great culture that may well be disappearing before our eyes. Even disregarding the timeliness of such a release, however, it’s still a brilliant and varied compilation from a country that is not necessarily famous for its musical output.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Oumar Konate - Addoh

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 102, August/September 2014.

Oumar Konate
Clermont Music (58 mins)

With Addoh, his debut album, guitarist and singer Oumar Konate seeks to place himself amongst the ever-growing pantheon of Mali’s global stars. Having worked as a backing musician for Vieux Farka Touré, Sidi Touré and Khaira Arby, Konate takes things in his own direction, mixing the guitar styles of northern Mali with rock, funk, reggae and more, with some pieces even bringing to mind Senegalese mbalax.

Although the variety of styles presented on the album generally works in its favour, Addoh seems at its weakest when trying out reggae: the opening track is based on a cool reggae groove and misses the mark a bit. After that though, the album begins to pick up, and its second track ‘Bisimillah’ is probably the best of the lot, with Konate’s distorted guitar providing dramatic exclamations above a brooding blues.

Konate also introduces some interesting guests to his band: current hot-property Sidiki Diabaté brings his kora to the duet ‘Terya’ to good results and the American-Ethiopian horn section of Debo Band, though they feel somewhat underused.

Addoh isn’t a great album, but it’s certainly a good one, and one that shows promise and some exciting directions. Konate is one to keep an eye on.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Karim Baggili - Kali City

First published in fRoots double issue 374-375, August-September 2014

Karim Baggili
Kali City
Home Records (50 mins)

A Belgian of Yugoslav-Jordanian heritage, Karim Baggili has so far made his name through his blend of flamenco, tango, South American folk and Western and Arabic classical music. In this, his fourth album, Baggili gets in touch with his Levantine roots and puts down his usual Spanish guitar to return to the oud. Kali City is Baggili’s second major exploration into oud music (all self-composed), and to kick off the album, he invites the Palestinian oud trio Le Trio Joubran to join in.

The first five tracks of the album are moody duets and trios of oud between Baggili and Le Trio, with subtle percussion. Here, Baggili’s skills as both an oud player and composer can been heard as the various oud parts swirl together and swim apart, with tango and flamenco teasing their way out of the Arabic melodies.

Given the high status of these guests and their prominence in the album’s press, it’s a little strange that the album actually reaches its peak once they have taken their leave. They hand over to Baggili’s ‘Arabic Band’ to support him, and with violin, bass, kawala flute, drums and percussion, as well as Arabic vocals provided by Samia Sabri and Baggili himself. This ensemble seems to create a more exciting sonic landscape – a bustling urban environment rather than a stark desert scene. The album’s title track and the piece 'Arabic Circus', both from this latter half of the album, are probably the most enjoyable of the set, bringing to the mix flavours of jazz, classical music and even the occasional aroma of the 19th century Parisian café.

Karim Baggili does seem to have announced himself as just as proficient on the oud as the Spanish guitar and makes an entertaining album while he’s at it. It’s just a bit of a shame that the collaboration with Le Trio Joubran doesn’t quite delivery.

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.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Lamia Bèdioui & Solis Barki - Fin'amor

First published in fRoots issue 371, May 2014

Lamia Bèdioui & Solis Barki
Libra Music (55 mins)

Okay, I’ll admit it: when I first received this record I was sceptical. The surrounding publicity explains how the artists explore the ‘primal’ connection between the human voice, percussion and didgeridoo through a repertoire including traditional North African, French and Eskimo songs. I hope I’ll be forgiven for imagining a collection of new-age soundscapes with shades of cultural insensitivity and very little substance.

But I ask you, dear reader, to avoid my mistake. Greek-based Tunisian singer Lamia Bèdioui treats the traditions she draws from with the musical respect they deserve while still maintaining her own sound throughout. Although the album contains pieces from, or influenced by, a wide range of cultures, none of the tracks seem to jar with each other; instead, they work together in a style that smoothly changes and transitions throughout the duration of the album.

Greek multi-instrumentalist Solis Barki provides almost all of the instrumental backing here, including 26 types of percussion as well as didgeridoo and a few pitched instruments. With such focus on the use of percussion, it would be easy to drown vocals and otherwise delicate musical statements with a wall of power, but Barki does a good job of keeping the instrumental arrangements impressively subtle (and without resorting to the new-age soundscape), allowing Bèdioui’s vocals room to soar unrestricted. The only other musician featured is Dimitris Chiotis, who plays a modified Cretian lyra (fiddle) on one of the album’s highlights, 'Ellil Yitaouel', written by the legendary Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

Fin’amor really is a well-made and well-thought-out record. Give it a chance and don’t be put off by the blurb – it delivers far more than it promises.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Ahamada Smis - Origines

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 99, April/May 2014.

Ahamada Smis
Colombe Records (68 mins)

In his second full-length album, Marseilles-based ‘urban poet’ Ahamada Smis has pointed his musical compass towards the country of his birth, the Comoros.

Comorian music takes influences from Arabic, Bantu, Swahili and Malagsy styles, and Origines really helps shed light on this. As the culmination of Smis’ workshop tour through the Comoro Islands, La Réunion and Tanzania, the album presents a snapshot soundtrack of the Indian Ocean. It was recorded with musicians from each stop on the tour, resulting in an interesting mix of local styles, all bound by Smis’ conscious poetry.

The collaborations with Zanzibari taarab musician Mohamed Issa Matona are perhaps the strongest on the album; his use of Arabic instruments – qanun (zither) and oud (lute) – alongside their Comoran equivalents – the dzenzé and gaboussi – providing intriguing comparisons.

The traditional styles of the Comoros and surrounding cultures meld with the cool, rocky grooves of Smis’ band surprisingly well and is consistently enjoyable throughout. Smis’ poetry works perfectly within this musical landscape, whether weaving naturally with the music or standing starkly away from it.

Origines not only showcases traditional music from an oft-overlooked culture, but also helps to delve into music’s history whilst still being, most importantly, a very pleasing album.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Various Artists - Music From The Source

First published in fRoots issue 370, April 2014

Various Artists
Music From The Source
Riverboat Records (2CD, 146 mins)

As us old-timers at fRoots pass our 35th anniversary, those wet-behind-the-ears young whippersnapper new-kids-on-the-block Riverboat Records turn 25. To celebrate, they’ve put together this world-spanning two-disc compilation of music from their illustrious past and exciting present. Happy birthday Riverboat!

Monday, 17 March 2014

Various Artists - Huambo Música Sessions

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 99, April/May 2014.

Various Artists
Huambo Música Sessions
PangeiArt (57 mins)

From spicy semba to the hip club beats of kuduro, Angola’s urban music styles are often those that we hear loudest in the world music circuit. For the Tsikaya ‘Músicos do Interior’ project, however, it’s the music of Angola’s rural areas that deserves wider attention.

Tsikaya aim to create an audio archive of the sounds and music of the Angolan countryside, and in their second release, the focus is on the central province of Huambo. The seven artists featured on Huambo Música Sessions cover a range of styles and present the musical diversity in Huambo Province, from the lively female percussion and vocal choir of Grupo Katiavala, to the Congolese-inspired dance band Banda Crescente and the joyous guitar picking of Alimba Okimbo.

A striking feature of these rural styles is how far they are from the typical Lusophone sound – there’s little room for saudade here. Instead, their sound is much more similar to other southern central African styles; some of the album’s more brooding tracks even conjure up shadows of the music of Angola’s far-distant Caribbean relatives the Garifuna.

Huambo Música Sessions is an amazing album from a fantastic and worthwhile project. Open your ears to the inside sounds of Angola!

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Various Artists - The Rough Guide to Best African Music You’ve Never Heard

First published in fRoots issue 369, March 2014

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Best African Music You’ve Never Heard
World Music Network (2CD, 100 mins)

The Rough Guide to Best African Music You’ve Never Heard is the latest release to come out of the World Music Network’s popular battle of the bands competition, which aims to bring lesser-known world music acts to wider attention.

True to the compilation’s name, the musical standard here is very high, and most of the tracks are taken from recent releases by up-and-coming African artists. Also included on the album is some as-yet-unreleased material and a track by the unfortunately obscure 1970s Senegalese band La Sahel. The two most effective tracks on this album, however, are provided by red-hot kora player Noumoucounda Cissoko and Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Simo Lagnawi, giving hints as to the wide range of styles being played in the continent today. Cissoko channels a pure Senegalese funk in 'Noumou Koradioulou', whereas Lagnawi’s 'Baniyorkoy' tends to the traditional, a beautiful example of the bluesy, esoteric gnawa grooves.

Unfortunately, despite the quality of the tracks included, it doesn’t really feel as if the African continent as a whole is particularly well-represented. Although it does feature tracks from most areas of the continent, eight of its fourteen tracks are from Mandé cultures, so at times it does feel a little West Africa-heavy.

Included as a bonus disc is Junk Funk by Sotho Sounds. This Lesotho band’s light-hearted album was included in fRoots’ playlist in November/December 2012, and its playful use of homemade instruments fits well with the vibe of the record it’s packaged with.

In the end, this is a great album to listen to, and a good way to sample the next generation of African stars. If you’re not a huge fan of West African music, though, there may be better releases out there for you.

(Please note that on the album’s packaging, Simo Lagnawi is misspelt ‘Simo Lagwani’)

Various Artists - The Rough Guide to Arabic Café

First published in fRoots issue 369, March 2014

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Arabic Café
World Music Network (2CD, 113 mins)

The seventh in the World Music Network’s Café series, and the second edition of this title, the Rough Guide to Arabic Café aims to recreate the ambience that one could expect in the coffee houses of the Arabic world.

Oddly, the focus of this compilation seems not to be on Arabia but rather North Africa: the vast majority of tracks included come from this region, with only three from the Middle East. Regardless, all of the tracks from this album are very enjoyable, and there are a few lesser-known gems in there too. The order of the first few tracks, however, seems rather misjudged. These tracks are still entertaining but they don’t really convey a relaxing ‘café’ atmosphere, being fairly up-tempo and busy.

Nevertheless, from around its midpoint, the album seems to hit its stride. The rest of the tracks gel together well, and create a vibe that could be expected in the stated beverage emporium. The two tracks that work most effectively here are 'Isfahan' by Daramad and 'Tahrir' by Ramzi Aburedwan. Daramad bring a jazzy feel to Persian classical music in a sympathetic and effective manner (although their inclusion in an ‘Arabic’ compilation is rather baffling) while Aburedwan’s tight ensemble of buzuk, accordeon, oud and percussion present some positively hip-shaking Palestinian sounds.

Also packaged with this album is Jordanian folk ensemble Dozan’s 2008 release Introducing Dozan. This bonus album actually seems to fit the idea of the ‘Arabic Café’ somewhat better than the Rough Guide itself, filled with relaxed yet interesting – and actually Arabian – pieces.

Overall, this package contains some great music as well as giving some sense of atmosphere. It is perhaps let down by the order of compilation, which, given a shuffle, could well have produced an all-pervading ambience that would have made this record extra-special.