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.