Monday, 14 December 2015

Solo & Indrė - Solo & Indrė

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 114, January/February 2016.

Solo & Indrė
Solo & Indrė
One Root Music/Granvat (49 mins)

Cross-cultural kora and string collaborations have been rather in vogue for the last couple of years, and for good reason: they often yield wonderful (or at least interesting) results. The duo of Solo Cissokho and Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė is no different.

While Senegalese griot Solo brings his kora, Indrė brings the Lithuanian tradition with the kanklės, a plucked zither. The mix of Baltic and West African folk styles is an unlikely one, but the sound it creates is relaxing, thoughtful and oddly saddening, in the most beautiful way.

The two vocal traditions are very different, and so aren’t really blended here – rather, they sit beside each other, neither encroaching too far on the other. When the strings play together, however, the styles mix beautifully, with the different melodies and harmonies dancing around and between each other; it’s often hard to tell where one instrument ends and the other begins.

Maybe the album would benefit from having a few more Lithuanian-based pieces, but the tracks that are here still work together to make a great album. Hopefully this collaboration will continue to flourish into the future.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Fuck Guitars - Songlines Soapbox

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 113, December 2015.

A few pieces of wood, six strings and a handful of twiddly mechanical bits – put them together in the right order and you have an instrument that has arguably had a greater impact on music in the last 100 years than anything or anyone else.

Since the modern guitar came about in the mid-18th century, it has become the most widespread instrument in the world, being adapted to play almost every kind of music and acting as a catalyst for the development of new genres – from delta blues and reggae to flamenco and palm-wine – and of course many, many types of rock music.

2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the two guitars, bass and drums set-up, and that standard rock guitar band formula is going as strong as ever. In fact, it has become so ubiquitous that when the UK’s biggest music festival features headliner that doesn’t follow that format, more than 100,000 people will sign a petition of complaint.

It’s not hard to see how this global instrumental explosion came about – guitars are portable, they can be very cheap, it’s easy to learn the basics, and we almost all grew up listening to the guitar greats of the last century. Guitar culture is now well and truly ingrained.

Guitars are used in traditional and neo-traditional music almost everywhere, sometimes together with local instruments, sometimes replacing them – for example, Tuareg guitar bands are famous in our circles, but it’s very rare to hear a traditional tehardent or imzad. Closer to home, British folk clubs are now mostly the reserve of voice and guitar, with the wonderful array of folk instruments falling by the wayside. Well, I don’t like it. The guitar has been king for too long and it’s slowly wearing away at the world’s glorious diversity. I’m sure you all agree with me. But complaining won’t help. What we need is a plan.

Now, under my glorious leadership, I will propose a global guitar ban. I know, I know, it’s not going to be very popular, but it’s for your own good, got it? Not forever, let’s try it for 25 or 30 years and see where things end up. A guitar-free generation. Let’s make it acoustic, classical and electric guitars for now. Bass guitars would probably have to fall under the umbrella too. Non-standard guitars, including pedal steels, Mohan veenas and the like, are a bit of a grey area, and probably exempt, although further consultation would be required on this.

Guitar records are of course perfectly acceptable, it would be indecent to ban the legends; their influence deserves to live on. Hopefully, viewing the guitar oeuvre in retrospect will cause the best music and musicians to rise to the top, allowing us, as a people, to forget the most mundane output.

The idea is not to get rid of guitars because of some mean-spirited and petty gripe, it’s simply a means to an end. If all goes well, this could usher in a new dawn of musical creativity! People would no longer be shackled to the guitar and children would no longer grow up thinking that ‘musician’ means ‘guitarist’ – a world of instruments would open up to them, interest in a wider range of timbres would flourish, and with it an appreciation for more varied music.

Perhaps there would be a revival of older, less guitar-oriented styles. Folk and brass music would be reenergised in Britain. People would return to and reinvent the roots of what has become guitar music in many cultures. A cappella song would blossom all over the world. And as these other styles are rediscovered, so too a whole variety of older, dying or extinct instruments. The all-purpose guitar is out, let’s find more individual, unique and exciting instruments – there is such a wealth of sounds out there for former or would-be guitarists to embrace, so pick up something new and experiment! Bassists could switch to a double bass at a pinch, but why not opt for something more creative? How about using a guimbri, a bassoon or take the lead of Terem Quartet and take the contrabass balalaika to new heights?

With luck, by the time guitars are reintroduced, the musical landscape will have changed for good. Guitars will integrate themselves as an important but by no means necessary instrument in the newly and widely diverse scene. And then we’ll have, y’know, world peace.

As you can see, there would be absolutely no downsides to this plan. Well, maybe a few. All the experimentation will produce unexpected results, and these could be amazing! But on the other hand, we could see the guitar band replaced by spoken word recited over gamelan played entirely on electric accordions. Such is the nature of unpredictability.

Maybe guitars will just be replaced near-wholesale by another instrument – piano, perhaps – and the period of proscription would just be waited-out, the guitar and guitar music eventually continuing their global dominance for decades to come. It may even be worse: the (let’s face it) inevitable uprising and overthrow may well lead to a guitar revival, meaning even more ubiquity and homogeny.

So, do we reckon this is a good idea? Do the pros outweigh the cons? Will you join me in a global musical revolution against the tyranny of the guitar?! Well, for now, I guess we’ll have to let the UN decide…but watch this space!

Photo: Smashed Guitars, by Eva Rinaldi. Used under licence CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Umoza Music Project - Let Them Speak

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 113, December 2015.

The Umoza Music Project
Let Them Speak
Nub Country Records (41 mins)

18 musicians, separated by 18,000 km, record an album. The Umoza Music Project is a joint Malawian and British project, and many of the musicians haven’t even met in real life. Not that it shows in the music.

The first impression of this record is that of a sort of Afro-funk Beatles. The similarities are striking throughout: the guitar sounds at times as if played by a tribute George Harrison. In tracks such as ‘Upewe!’, the influence is so strong it’s distracting and it’s no surprise that when the last track comes, a sitar plays a prominent role. This track, ‘Malawi Parts I & II’, was the genesis track of the project, and is actually one of the highlights.

When not in Beatles mode, the group has a couple of reggae tracks. Their quality is fairly good, and they feel like the most honest pieces on the whole album: ‘Reggae Banta’ is probably the best track of the collection, featuring a great Chichewa-language rap.

There are moments where the group take a cheesy turn, but not offensively so. These moments can be ignored in the scope of the full album, which is fun and enjoyable…if not wholly original.

SK Kakraba - Songs of Paapieye

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 113, December 2015.

SK Kakraba
Songs of Paapieye
Awesome Tapes from Africa (33 mins)

SK Kakraba is Ghanaian, living in Los Angeles, and his instrument is the gyil. This pentatonic xylophone of the Lobi people gets its distinctive sound from the spider-web silks stretched over the sound-gourds. This creates a rasping sound and, sonically, it’s not an amazing leap to think of this as an acoustic equivalent of Konono No.1’s electric likembé. The aesthetic of the buzz is found all over the continent, especially in West Africa, but it’s becoming rarer as musicians and producers strive towards the cleanest sound possible. It’s great to hear the buzz celebrated on this album.

This is the very first original album by Awesome Tapes from Africa – unlike the label’s other releases, it is not a reissue of an African cassette, but was recorded especially for this release. Songs of Paapieye consists of six instrumentals, half an hour of solo gyil. It’s the perfect amount of time to be able to meditate on the instrument’s timbre and Kakraba’s mastery of skill.

Together, the layering of harmonics that the buzz allows and the cycles of slightly varying repetition create a hypnotising resonance that gets into your head and lets you to fall into it completely for the duration of the album.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Ramin Sadighi - WOMEX 15 Professional Excellence Award Winner

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2015 delegate guide.

Within the world music scene, Iranian music is not unknown by any stretch. From the dastgāh music system of the classical realm, to the many folk styles and music from the country’s minorities, to international collaborations; and even, in the last few years, to Farsi hip-hop, metal and electronica: all have made their impact in the West. However, the international knowledge of Iran’s own music industry has in the past been minimal due to lack of exposure and contact. This is changing.

When WOMEX felt that the independent musical and cultural communities of Tehran, and Iran as a whole, deserved formal recognition, it was obvious who the most fitting representative and ambassador should be. In recognition of the growing and empowering nature of the international music business in Iran, the WOMEX 15 Professional Excellence Award is presented to Ramin Sadighi, founder of Hermes Records.

The list of Sadighi’s achievements is truly incredible. His name crops up in any discussion of music within Iran, and his work has led to many important milestones in Iranian music. Even before he set up Hermes Records, Sadighi was instrumental in creating the first legal way for Iranians to purchase music from the West, importing albums from distributors and record labels to sell through a chain of book shops in Tehran. In doing so, he created the first international music scene in post-revolution Iran. One of the most popular albums he imported during this time was Peter Gabriel’s Passion – the original soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ – which used influences from all over the world. With this, his eyes were opened to the potential of ‘world music’ within the Iranian market.

Sadighi founded Hermes Records in 1999, its mission statement to promote Iranian music on a global scale. What style this music takes is generally irrelevant – high quality is the most important aspect, and releases tend to focus on boundary-pushing and innovation in some way. Sadighi himself describes the label’s musical output simply as ‘Hermesian’, which is probably the best way to put it. They’ve carved out their own niche. As he personally targets music away from the Iranian mainstream (avoiding ‘standard’ classical and pop styles), Sadighi and his label have released albums by artists from all over the world. Their discography encompasses jazz, traditional and folk music, rock, the classical and art music of Iran, Europe and beyond and all manner of fusions. The quality of Hermes’ releases is obvious, and has been recognised with many awards including a Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album in 2006, the collaboration between Djivan Gasparyan and Hossein Alizadeh, Endless Vision: just one of the many ground-breaking collaborations, both artistic and professional, facilitated by Sadighi and Hermes Records.

In promoting music and in order to create a healthy music industry, it is also imperative to promote the artistic and personal wellbeing of musicians. In a time where music in Iran is tightly controlled by its Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Hermes Records and Sadighi himself are known within the country for standing up for musicians’ rights of expression and for their legal rights when faced with the copyright violation which blights Iran’s industry.

Using his wealth of knowledge, experience and influence, Ramin Sadighi has helped the Tehrani and Iranian scenes in many spheres beyond recorded music. He arranges and directs numerous concerts each year, by international artists in Tehran, and by Iranian artists abroad. He was also instrumental in the set-up of Tehran’s Underground Music Competition, which really broke rock music to a wider audience in Iran.

A champion of music through the written word as well as his actions, he is a biographer of the country’s alternative and underground scenes, having written several in-depth but accessible articles on the history – both musical and political – of the Iran’s non-mainstream styles. Locally, he co-founded the monthly magazine Culture and Music and even released the first (and so far only) non-English edition of world music magazine Songlines, a Farsi edition released in 2006.

An innovator, enthusiast and passionate promoter, not only of forward-thinking alternative art music or world music, jazz and fusion, but of all music that deserves an audience, inside Iran and out, it is appropriate that in honouring the Iranian independent musical community, we at WOMEX present the Professional Excellence Award to this young godfather of the international scene in Iran.

And how does one create such a positive environment for music and musicians? For Ramin Sadighi, the key areas are simple: “friendship, devotion and belief that creative ideas have the priority over the financial matters”.

Photo: Ramin Sadighi receives the WOMEX 15 Professional Excellence Award, by Yannis Psathas.

Cheikh Lô - WOMEX 15 Artist Award

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2015 delegate guide.

A fine painting. A good book. A pint of Guinness. Some things can’t be rushed.

When Cheikh Lô releases an album, you know it hasn’t been rushed. Making his debut international album in 1996, he’s released five albums in 19 years – it’s usual to have to wait five years between his releases. He’s a perfectionist – it’s not unknown for him to scrap a fully-recorded album and start again if it doesn’t meet his standard. It’s perfection that has taken him around the world, for Cheikh Lô makes international music. Influences stream in from every corner, and find a comfortable Senegalese home in which to meld and recreate within Lô’s innovative sound. This internationalism is no surprise: it’s a pattern that echoes his life.

Born and raised in Burkina Faso, he learnt his trade playing music from Cuba and the Congo; when he moved to Senegal, the country of his parents’ birth, in his 20s, he was working with musicians from Côte d’Ivoire and France, connections that eventually led to him moving to Paris in the late 1980s.

As Lô’s rough-yet-beautiful voice gained him international recognition, it was only natural that his broad musical horizons presented themselves accordingly. By the time of his 2005 album, Lamp Fall, he was making his recordings across three continents: the album was made up of sessions recorded in Brazil, Senegal and the UK. His music has always been rooted in mbalax – he’s at the height of the genre – but throughout his career, his music has bent and moulded around to embrace so many styles. Influences from Senegal are of course in abundance, with sabar drumming, Mouride chants and hints of géwél (griot) music, but from there his influences explode over the planet, taking in funk, soul, Afrobeat, rumba, soukous, makossa, reggae, samba, flamenco…

Over the years, he’s worked with many disparate artists, many of whom are at the very top of their fields. In his own records, he has welcomed contributions from such legends as Wassoulou songbird Oumou Sangaré, Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and James Brown’s saxophonist of choice, Pee Wee Ellis. He’s also joined artists as a collaborator, contributing to works by Ojos de Brujo, Manu Dibango and Buena Vista stars Ruben González and Ibrahim Ferrer.

The musician that has arguably been most influential in his career, however, has been Youssou N’dour. While he was working as a session singer and drummer, Lô’s voice so awed the bandleader that when it came for Lô to record his first album for the world market, Né La Thiass (which was to be released on the now-legendary World Circuit Records, no less) N’dour jumped at the chance to produce it, as well as guesting on a few tracks himself.

It was also at Youssou N’dour’s personal recommendation that Cheikh Lô first graced the WOMEX stage. It was all the way back at WOMEX 97 in Marseille – only our third edition – and Lô was a rising star. He took to the stage as part of a supergroup of West Africans curated by N’dour, which also included stars Dimi Mint Abba from Mauritania and Guinean Doura Barry. In the WOMEX Guide that year, we were already talking of Lô ‘[making] headlines in Europe – and beyond’ by ‘grabbing the attention of adventurous lovers of international music and the interbreeding of its different styles’.

And he’s not stopped since. Lô stayed with World Circuit Records for 15 years and four albums, each one capturing his most individual sound yet constantly moving, evolving and refreshing – and, of course, achieving widespread critical acclaim along the way. His journey continues: after an amicable parting with World Circuit, he released his fifth album, Balbalou, on the French label Chapter Two Records earlier this year, including Lô’s usual slew of high-profile guests (this time including Brazilian songstress Flavia Coelho and Lebanese trumpet maestro Ibrahim Maalouf) and his own globetrotting compositions and spine-tingling voice.

Writers who have discussed Cheikh Lô often mention his striking looks – with long dreadlocks, patchwork robes and heavy leather jewellery, he’d certainly stand out in many crowds. But these aren’t aesthetic choices; rather, they are symbols of his Baye Fall faith. The Baye Fall are a branch of the particularly Senegalese Sufi Muslim brotherhood of the Mourides. They are a group that moves away from many traditionally ‘Islamic’ codes of practice: they worship saints, are not necessarily obliged to go to Mecca or mosque, or even to pray – they instead place their emphasis on work as prayer, and music is just as important. They work hard during the day and sing and dance their prayers at night.

Many of Cheikh Lô’s songs focus on his status and beliefs as a Baye Fall, as a Sufi, and as a Muslim. He sings praises to the saints Ibra Fall (founder of the Baye Fall movement) and Amadou Bamba, and to his own marabout (spiritual guide) Massamba N’Diaye. He has even recorded several Sufi zikr (remembrance) songs. It is one of Lô’s greatest achievements that, through his music, he has introduced knowledge of the Baye Fall around the world, international exposure, recognition and understanding of the brotherhood.

As a legend both in Senegal and across the world, for his constant and consistent innovation, for bringing the Baye Fall into wider knowledge, and, above all, his dedication to long-term musical excellence in mbalax through the embrace of all music, the WOMEX Artist Award is only fitting for this world music giant. Cheikh Lô may be in no rush, yet he refuses to slow down.

Photo: Cheikh Lô live at WOMEX 15, by Yannis Psathas.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Saba Anglana - Ye Katama Hod (The Belly of the City)

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 112, November 2015.

Saba Anglana
Ye Katama Hod (The Belly of the City)
Felmay Records (37 mins)

Born in Somalia to Ethiopian and Italian parents, and now based in Italy herself, vocalist Saba Anglana found inspiration for this album in Addis Ababa. Anglana’s musical ties with all three countries are strong, and can be heard clearly across this album. She expresses her songs in Somali, Amharic and English as her versatile voice soars confidently through the styles of her heritage, although the distinctive sounds of Ethiopian scales and rhythms seem to stand out most often.

The instrumental aspect here is also inspired: it’s a small group – Anglana is mostly backed by a trio with occasional guests – but the musicianship is superb, often sounding like a much bigger ensemble. Fabio Barovero’s accordion, especially, does a great job of bringing together the East African and southern European styles, sometimes filling the space of an Ethiojazz organ or an Italian folk organetto – even bringing hints of zydeco into the mix, as in the album’s highlight, the Somali-language ‘Ma Celin Karo’.

Ya Katama Hod serves to meditate upon and recreate the soundtrack of the big cities – particularly Addis Ababa and Mogadishu, and Saba Anglana’s voice allows us to swoop above and creep between the streets in this wonderful album.

La Banda di Piazza Caricamento - Il Sesto Continente

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 112, November 2015.

La Banda di Piazza Caricamento
Il Sesto Continente
Felmay Records (44 mins)

La Banda di Piazza Caricamento are based in Genoa, but the group are only Italian by location. With twelve band members, they represent twelve nationalities – from Senegal to Sri Lanka, Ireland to Iran, Benin to Brazil. That’s not even counting their many special guests.

The project’s raison d'être is to work for immigrant rights by showcasing Italy’s international cultures, and each member of La Banda brings influences from their own musical heritage. The problem is, like cooking a meal, if there are too many different ingredients the flavours will cancel each other out –sometimes there’s just too many fusions here and quite a few of the tracks feel oddly bland because of it.

The points where the album works best are actually the tracks that take the fewest influences: ‘Gnawa Genes’ features members of the Gnawa Bambara brotherhood and mixes the hypnotic Moroccan spiritual style with abstract electro-acoustics and jazz trumpet. It’s the standout piece, really showing what this group is capable of.

The group has potential. They’re on an admirable mission and their work leads to some exciting international fusions on this album. There’s just some areas where too many international colours mix and grey out as a result.

Ganda Boys - Mountains of the Moon

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 112, November 2015.

Ganda Boys
Mountains of the Moon
Big World Records (67 mins)

Ganda Boys are a trio of two Ugandans and an American based in the UK, and Mountains of the Moon marks the group’s third album.

Getting straight to the point, most of the tracks on this album are extremely cheesy (it’s full of synth strings, choirs and piano ballads) or else simply dull. The music mostly moves around the poppy soul and gospel spheres with hints of rock and hip-hop on occasion – there’s a couple of good raps here and there, although the liner notes don’t tell us who provides them.

A few of the pieces begin promisingly enough, their intros maybe setting up an intriguing groove on adungu harp or rumba-influenced guitar. But this interest is invariably lost when the tracks descend into overdone reverb and boring predictability.

There is no tasteful brevity here either, as the album comprises of 17 tracks and lasts over an hour. Overall, it does get better towards the end, in the last three tracks or so, but by then it’s too little too late.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Fatau Keita & the Naawuni Bie Band - Selina

First published in fRoots issue 388, October 2015

Fatau Keita & the Naawuni Bie Band
Goete Institut Ghana (49 mins)

Dagbamba singer Fatau Keita hails from the northern region of Ghana, and together with his eight-strong band Naawuni Bie (meaning ‘God’s Children’ in Dagbani), he creates a music that could best be described as updated highlife with a palmwine edge.

Although the musical basis of this album lies firmly within Ghana, Keita’s Dagbamba culture means his vocal style leans more to the Islamic West – it’s often reminiscent of Baaba Maal and he places highly within his influences singers such as Youssou N’dour, Kante Manfila and Salif Keita.

The best pieces here come about when these two spheres of influence blend most seamlessly. 'Tie Kumm' is your track for this – it’s a stripped-back, dark and hypnotic groove that could probably carry on all day if it weren’t for the fade-out. The last piece, 'Won Boraa' (labelled on the album as a bonus track), is another highlight and a bit of a contrast from the rest of the album: a lovely acoustic palmwine with just guitar, shaker and vocals.

It’s not a perfect album by any means. Most of the tracks are of a rather average quality, and in a few places it sounds as if rather heavy autotuning is used on Keita’s vocals: it’s strange, as his qualities as a singer are obvious, and the use of the autotuner serves no musical purpose.

However, for this reviewer, the album as a whole is ruined by its third track, 'Act as a Woman', which is (as its title would suggest) a rather misogynistic song imploring a woman to know her place. It’s unsavoury and, while it may be more acceptable for the local market, is rather misjudged for an international release. That’s a shame, as it puts a dampener on a mostly enjoyable album which contains a couple of stand-out tracks.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Anouar Brahem - Souvenance

First published in fRoots issue 388, October 2015

Anouar Brahem
ECM Records (2CD, 89 mins)

Look here for a lesson in subtlety and restraint. Souvenance is one of those now-rare specimens: a double album of original material; over the two CDs, the album clocks in at about an hour and a half.

Although the Tunisian Anouar Brahem is classically-trained in the oud, this album doesn’t immediately stand out as Arabic; instead, it feels like Western contemporary classical music, written and performed by jazz musicians. Or perhaps vice versa – or more accurately, both at the same time. It seems to owe some influence to Glass, and Miles Davis during his smooth period, but Brahem’s compositions are all his own. The Tunisian core of his writing becomes apparent slowly, but is indeed all-encompassing, heard in an unexpected semitone, an unfamiliar glissando or the unmistakable swoop of an Arabic melody.

Although the Souvenance is made up of eleven tracks, each piece seems to be part of one whole, both CDs of the album halves of a single work. Musical themes recur throughout – if not directly, they are hinted, similar patterns of rhythm or melody stirring some uncanny recognition. It all works together. Each composed note feels to have been meditated over, and whether the texture is focussing on sparse, singular notes or massed, arpeggiated runs, there never seems to be more or less than is needed, musically or instrumentally.

The arrangements here are for quartet (Brahem’s oud, plus piano, bass clarinet and bass) and string orchestra (the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, conducted by Pietro Mianiti). With the string orchestra at hand, it would have been all too easy for Brahem to overuse their voices and the power they can bring. Subtlety comes through yet again, however. Sound comes in well-weighted bursts and swelling waves, the orchestra often providing the soundscape for the quartet to explore and make its own, with the strings offering breezes of their own sympathetic story.

Souvenance is an impressive and intelligent work, a credit to Anouar Brahem as a composer and both the quartet and orchestra as musicians. A perfect combination of the classical styles of North Africa, Europe and African-America.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Modou Touré & Ramon Goose - The West African Blues Project

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 110, August/September 2015.

Modou Touré & Ramon Goose
The West African Blues Project
ARC Music (48 mins)

The easiest way to describe The West African Blues Project is that it does exactly what it says on the cover. The connections between West African music and the blues have been explored on record many times, although it still manages to produce delicious fruit.

British blues guitarist Ramon Goose has certainly put in his time collaborating with West African musicians, having recently worked in projects alongside Diabel Cissokho, Daby Touré, Noumoucounda Cissoko and Atongo Zimba, as well as many names from the worlds of blues and beyond. Here, Goose is joined by Senegalese rising star Modou Touré, whose capable voice works equally well in the soulful Wolof styles as it does on bluesier pieces such as ‘Casamance River Blues’. The musicians clearly gel very well, and their mutual enjoyment is easy to hear.

Some of the tracks on this album feel a little too slick and produced for this reviewer, with the highlights coming in the form of the rootsier, earthier pieces, where the blues takes centre stage and Modou’s voice is allowed to flow along with it.

This probably isn’t the most effortless of African blues albums, but nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that the blues is rarely this upbeat or uplifting.

Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble - Fire, Sweat and Pastis

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 110, August/September 2015.

Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble
Fire, Sweat and Pastis
No Problem! Music (47 mins)

In a world where collaborations bring together performers from all over the world, a project between Finnish and Beninese musicians still seems an unlikely one. In their second album, though, Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble have created a sound that feels, for the most part, unforced and free-flowing.

There’s not much in the music that screams ‘Finnish’, but the Nordic musicians do a great job in mixing the styles and rhythms brought by Beninese drummer and singer Noël Saïzonou with funk, soul and jazz.

The album is at its strongest when its sound is most African. The second track, ‘Djigbo’, is a driving Afro-funk featuring a West African horn section, and is probably the best of the set. There are a couple of pieces (including the opener) where the group go oddly indie-rock, creating a blandness that is at odds with the rest of the album. There are also a few places where the music takes a turn into full-on spacy jazz-rock, which is less bland, but still seems to lack the creative energy that is achieved in some of the best tracks here.

In general, Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble have made a fun record that contains some deep and danceable grooves.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Electro Bamako - Now

First published in fRoots issue 385, July 2015

Electro Bamako
CSB Productions (50 mins)

Phwoar! Now this is an album.

In the sphere of world electronica, collaborations with South Asian and Middle Eastern artists and musics seem to far outweigh those with West Africans, but when it is done (and done right), it can lead to some stonking tracks. Now is from a trio of a Malian (Paul Sidibe) and two Frenchmen (Damien Traini and Marc Minelli), and their collective name is pretty much apt. Electro Bamako create music that crosses through electronica, funk and underground rock, but always present are the urban Malian grooves that make the project as exciting as it is.

Bringing to the table guitars and production, Minelli has been experimenting with electroMalian music and collaborations for more than a decade now, but with the Electro Bamako trio and this album, he seems to have found the correct combination, and it’s his best yet.

As well as his unmistakably Malian vocals, Sidibe joins the party by adding his kamele ngoni (literally, the ‘young man’s harp’) to the sound. The kamele ngoni’s rattling staccato riffs, together with the karignan (iron scraper), bring the western elements together, uniting them with Wassoulou music – the non-griot style made famous in Europe by Oumou Sangaré.

The real highlight of the album comes at the end: Fentiki Ni Fentan is the last of the album tracks proper (the disc also contains three radio edits), and is really superb – it has a backing worthy of old-school hip-hop and the whole thing rolls around hypnotically, it’s a shame when it comes to a close and signals the end of a brilliant album.

Prince Buju - We Are In The War

First published in fRoots issue 385, July 2015

Prince Buju
We Are In The War
Makkum Records/Red Wig (48 mins)

Prince Buju hails from the North East Region of Ghana and plays the kologo, a two-stringed lute related to the ngoni, and sharing common ancestry with the banjo. This album is entirely solo – and it’s not one of those fancy multi-track one-man-band things, every track is a single-take affair with only Prince Buju and his kologo.

Almost all of this release is taken from Buju’s debut Ghanaian cassette, which was released in 2011 under the title Roots And Culture Music. The only newly-recorded piece here is the title track. This version of the album retains the feeling of a local-market cassette, and not only because of the soft hiss that remains behind most of the tracks: the recent trend for cassettes has brought a refreshing slew of international music that hasn’t been ‘world musicked’ and Buju’s sound is no exception.

Much of the album’s associated literature talks up Buju’s links to King Ayisoba, a fellow Ghanaian kologo player, but Buju’s music feels even more rootsy. It’s great to hear the no-nonsense, bluesy riffs with Buju’s high-pitched yet gritty voice sing about personal and local matters, which all give the record a sense of that allusive, ill-defined but most important ‘authenticity’.

The manner in which the kologo is played means that all the tracks included here from the original cassette remain in one key – it’s a rather insignificant thing, but for someone who is used to albums using a variety of keys (which, when you think about it, is kind of arbitrary) this can grate slightly, with the ear becoming tired. But this is a very small issue. Don’t expect overly much from the production values and this could be an album that you really dig.

Monday, 15 June 2015

LaBrassBanda - Europa

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 109, July 2015.

Sony Music (56 mins)

This is a re-release of the Bavarian brass-band-cum-techno-outfit’s second album, although why a record that has only been out for two years needs a re-release, I’m not quite sure.

The brass side of the group takes the most influence from Bavarian and Balkan styles, with a few hints of New Orleans brass, and although in other albums and live the band explore ska punk, reggae and other genres, here they focus more on the poppy side of techno.

Occasionally, their blend of Europop synths and drum machines with brass can produce good individual tracks, such as the stand-out ‘Frankreich’, but throughout most of the album, the fusion seems pretty unimaginative and not particularly enjoyable, either. At times the music can be literally painful too: don’t listen to the track ’Schweden’ with headphones – the heavily-panned kick drum would make anyone queasy. Frankly, this is a bit of a bizarre re-release of a recent album that isn’t the group’s best. Catch them live instead.

Djeli Moussa Condé - Womama

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 109, July 2015.

Djeli Moussa Condé
Buda Musique (43 mins)

Hailing from Guinea, living in Paris and with spiritual roots in Mali and Gambia, Djeli Moussa Condé’s experience is one that will be familiar to many West Africans (especially griots) living in France. As such, the music on this, Condé’s second solo release, reflects himself as a citizen of many countries. Condé provides lead vocals, guitar and kora backed by a French band and with several West African guest musicians. European influences sit next to and within the West African styles easily, and the album journeys through reggae, jazz and funk without ever leaving the Mandé influence behind.

The album is strongest during its more Latin phases, such as the tracks ‘La Salsa Africana’ and ‘Palma’ (an ode to the Balearic city), and the disco Afrobeat piece ‘African Bond’ is great fun, managing to be both cheesy and extremely funky at the same time.

There are no weak tracks on this album as such, but there does seem to be a fair bit of filler: pieces that are listenable but essentially unexciting. Nevertheless, this is a good album, and the stand-out tracks are worth wading through some of the less interesting ones.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Kadialy Kouyate & Leonard Jacome - Rhythms of the Atlantic

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 108, June 2015.

Kadialy Kouyate & Leonard Jacome
Rhythms of the Atlantic
Self-released (42 mins)

The premise of this album may seem a little familiar: a cross-cultural harp collaboration between Senegalese kora maestro Kadialy Kouyate and Venezuelan harpist Leonard Jacome. It’s unfortunate but inevitable that any work will now be compared to Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita’s stunning 2013 release Clychau Dibon, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this album will be the-same-but-different.

Whereas the earlier fusion revelled in the ethereal qualities of the instruments, Kouyate and Jacome use theirs to groove. The harp’s lower register provides often funky basslines that, along with the unobtrusive calabash of Mamadou Sarr, give the Mandé griot and Venezuelan Joropo melodies the ground to dance on.

Most of the pieces here are written by Kouyate (save for the cheerful ‘Kora Ralencina’ and the harp solo ‘Solo con mis Cuerdas’, both by Jacome), and it is the Venezuelan’s harp that provides many of the thicker textures and most versatile timbres – at various times sounding like a harpsichord, jazz guitar or glockenspiel – but really, to analyse each musician’s individual role feels a little disingenuous, so tightly do the two string players intertwine.

This is a great and different album – don’t be fooled into making easy comparisons.

Kala Jula (Samba Diabaté & Vincent Zanetti) - Sangoyi

First published in fRoots issue 384, June 2015

Kala Jula (Samba Diabaté & Vincent Zanetti)
Buda Musique (55 mins)

This collaboration between Malian griot guitarist Diabaté and Swiss multi-instrumentalist Zanetti is now in its fourth year, and with Sangoyi, bears its second album – the first as a strict duo.

Zanetti has worked with Sahelian music for nearly thirty years, in both West Africa and Europe, setting up a collaborative ballet along the way, and calls the Mandé lands his adopted home. This doesn’t necessarily come across in his music.

Most of the tracks contained here are unfortunately bland. Although the fusion of Malian and Western styles is pulled off quite smoothly, it doesn’t feel as if either particularly benefit from it: the music of the Mandé griots is reduced by the soft-rock folk, but the European's music doesn’t feel as if it could stand on its own, either.

When they hit into a groove, as they do in the track ‘Le Lion de Ségou’ (where they’re joined by trumpeter Yannick Barman), it seems amazing that they can keep the track from spiralling into an epic jam. It’s a little disappointing that they don’t, as these tracks finish leaving the listener wanting more.

The fact is that the majority of this album is just boring – sedate and calm enough to perhaps work well as background music, but reveals very little substance under any scrutiny…and this is even more of a shame as it containing one or two genuinely enjoyable and interesting tracks.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Manuel Diogo - Music of Angola

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 108, June 2015.

Manuel Diogo
Music of Angola
ARC Music (50 mins)

Manuel Diogo’s style is described as ‘traditional and contemporary Angolan gospel music’. In practice, this means that recognisable gospel sounds (from the harmonies of African choirs to modern R’n’B-inspired crooning) are mixed with Angolan dance music such as semba and rebita as well as with folk styles and a liberal dose of reggae here and there. The overall feel of the album is happy and light-hearted. It is very cheesy, but often endearingly so, with Casio-esque synths and drum machines aplenty, and matters of God at the forefront of most tracks.

The album has a bit of a wobble just before the end – a couple of unoriginal and uninspired international-gospel tracks with some dubious tunings – before the last track of the set gets back to form and back to Angola with a bright and soukous-like jive.

The liner notes are a little vague on whether Diogo is leading a group here or whether it’s more of a one-man-band sort of operation, but the music he creates is as unpretentious as you can get – unashamedly sunny music from a man who knows what he likes singing about.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Zomba Prison Project - I Have No Everything Here

First published in fRoots issue 383, May 2015

Zomba Prison Project
I Have No Everything Here
Six Degrees Records (31 mins)

This is a rather hard album to write about, as the quality of the music is not necessarily its main focus. It features 20 recordings made inside the Zomba Maximum Security Prison in Malawi, where most people are held for life, their ‘crimes’ ranging from murder to witchcraft, and where children born within the walls must remain until their mother’s release. But in their music, their status as prisoners (or, on occasion, prison officers) seems less significant: the album is a document of ordinary people, singing their own songs. Some sing gospel, some repentances, warnings, stories; some are guitarists, bassists or drummers. The music and song on offer here is of an understandably varying quality – these are by and large not musicians, but people brought together and surviving together.

As the whole album only comes in at a little over 30 minutes long, there are quite a few very short tracks here, and many fade out, leaving one wanting for the full piece. A stand-out example of this is the intense, all-female percussion track ‘House of the Dance’: it’s a shame that we only get to hear 16 seconds of it, especially as six hours of material were recorded altogether.

This collection brings to mind old ethnomusicological field recordings; they feel very in-the-moment and the recordings seem to exist to preserve the memory of the culture represented. With this, however, there also comes a slight uncomfortable feeling of the ‘higher power’ of the neutral (Western) producer. The material was recorded and produced by Ian Brennan, who does seem to have a knack for finding projects with world-music-friendly ‘stories’ (he’s also produced the Malawi Mouse Boys and the Good Ones) but this album does have the chance of achieving change. Resulting funds and awareness from this release are already helping those of Zomba Prison, as three women have already been released and three more having their sentences reviewed as a result.

Mohamed Abozekry & Heejaz Extended - Ring Road

First published in fRoots issue 383, May 2015

Mohamed Abozekry & Heejaz Extended
Ring Road
Full Rhizome/Jazz Village (75 mins)

Born in Egypt and living in France, the young oud player Mohamed Abozekry is not content to play only the traditional repertoire of his instrument. Instead, with the rest of his quintet Heejaz Extended – saxophones, piano, double bass and hand-percussion – he uses his instrument to initiate a whirlwind of international jazz.

All in all, the ensemble takes as much influence from Indian music as it does Arabic, Abozekry’s oud even resembling a sarod on occasion. There’s also elements from around the world: a couple of pieces are based on Cuban grooves; Ethiopian scales sneak their way into the occasional solo; and a qawwali-esque harmonium illuminates the second track, ‘Messages’.

Through all this, the one thing that remains a constant is the jazz. The styles that come to mind on the album are those of the classic late-50s/early-60s masters. You can hear Miles Davis in the harmonies, Horace Silver in the melodies and a haunting of John Coltrane throughout. Whether in the driving energy of a head or a quiet but tense, ballad-like section, the legacies of the masters come before feel respected and palpable.

Although the album is made up solely of Abozekry’s wonderful compositions and with his name on the front of the cover, it’s not his oud that takes precedence on this album; all the instrumentalists are involved in an equal way. This lets the group rid itself of the often-mishandled ‘fusion’ label and allows the music to be what it is – exciting jazz that is expertly crafted, well-executed and that will take your ears on a trip around the world.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Dorsaf Hamdani - Barbara Fairouz

First published in fRoots issue 382, April 2015

Dorsaf Hamdani
Barbara Fairouz
Accords Croisés (61 mins)

It’s a brave person who takes on the repertoires of two legendary artists, especially when they are from such different styles as Lebanese singer Fairouz and French chanteuse Barbara. Here, Dorsaf Hamdani is that person.

The liner notes to the disc imagine the album as a fictional meeting between the French and Lebanese singers, and that’s basically a perfect description of the music within. The tracks alternate between the French and Arabic, and, at the beginning of the album, sound close to the original styles. As the tracks and the ‘meeting’ progress, however, each style begins to seep into the other until, by the end, each piece presents a beautiful fusion, an Arabic chanson.

Hamdani trained to sing malouf music from her native Tunisia, but has expertise in many styles from around the Arabic world as well as French, Persian and jazz music, all of which give her the skills to work her voice around, through and between the songs and styles of her heroes with ease.

Credit should also go to the project’s musical director. Daniel Mille leads the musicians – a quartet of guitar/oud, violin/oud, percussion and himself on accordion – through the same journey as Hamdani, slowly bringing the Arab influences to the French, and the French to the Arabic in a subtle, sympathetic and accomplished manner.

It is when the styles blend that Hamdani and her musicians create their best music, and the musical creation of a hypothetical meeting between Barbara and Fairuz is what makes this album more artistic and musically interesting than just a set of covers.

The Khoury Project - Revelation

First published in fRoots issue 382, April 2015

The Khoury Project
Enja Records (64 mins)

Over the past year or so, there has been a real glut of great Middle Eastern/North African jazz albums – recent records by Hijaz, Majid Bekkas Trio and L’Hijâz’Car have set the bar high. Now, Revelation by the Khoury Project can join their ranks.

The core members of the ensemble are the Jordanian Brothers Khoury – Basil, Osama and Elia – who bring violin, qanun and oud, respectively. For this project they are joined by double bass and jazz and Arabic percussion.

The elegance of the Khoury Project’s compositions is evident from the off, with the imaginatively-titled opener 'Intro' an intricate qanun solo with Arabic melody above complex chords that bring to mind ballad-jazz pianists. As the album continues, the group’s nuance becomes apparent: all the core elements of Arabic classical music and jazz are retained, meaning that their combination with each other seems so natural that at times one can forget that the traditions are from opposite sides of the world.

There are also other themes explored throughout the album, with a couple of pieces reflecting flamenco (especially their version of Paco de Lucía’s 'Zyryab', recorded live in Paris), and these additional influences are handled with ease. It’s a difficulty to pick a highlight from this record, the pieces are consistent and all seem to have equal value to the album as a whole.

Is there something about Arabic music or jazz that make their fusions so often successful? It just seems to work. Take nothing away from these musicians though: it is a combination that requires knowledge of many musical languages as well as virtuosity, and Revelation is another great example of this.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Sonido Vegetal - Las Bases del Razonamiento

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 107, April/May 2015.

Sonido Vegetal
Las Bases del Razonamiento
Maldito Digital (40 mins)

For the most part, Sonido Vegetal seem to be part of the great line of Spanish ska-punk bands, with all the raucous energy and tones of psychedelia that that entails, but their own style also draws from Eastern European gypsy music. It’s a great combination executed with natural ease, the horn section switching freely between typical ska blasts and the pumping of Balkan brass.

As could be expected with a punk-gypsy mix, there are hints of the band’s spiritual siblings Gogol Bordello – former Bordellian Oren Kaplan makes several appearances throughout the album – but Sonido Vegetal’s dedication to Latin ska gives them their unique sound.

Every track here feels interesting and different, due to each having a slightly different twist, from the dubout of ‘El Hormiguero’ to the surf-rock of ‘De Nada’. Flamenco is also explored, with the title track examining the connections between the Spanish and Balkan gypsy styles, all in a punk-friendly timeframe of 2:40.

This album does what all ska-punk aims to do – it brings a great big noise that’s perfect to jump around to. The gypsy elements (both Balkan and Spanish) could stand to be explored more thoroughly, but an album this fun is its own reward.

The Ghana Bigshots - Tu Na Me Nsa

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 107, April/May 2015.

The Ghana Bigshots
Tu Na Me Nsa
Goethe Institut (40 mins)

The Ghana Bigshots were originally founded as the University of Ghana’s house band, and this release is supported by the Goethe Institut with the aim of preserving and continuing live music in Africa. Elsewhere, this could seem a fairly dry and academic venture, but in Ghana with the Bigshots, dry is not an option.

This 17-strong band includes musicians of many styles, but their music flows naturally. A comparison that comes to mind is that of a Ghanaian Orchestra Baobab: although most of their songs have their roots in Ghana’s folk traditions, the Bigshots’ music includes a healthy dose of Cuban son as well as their own country’s highlife. The album also has hints of Afrobeat, rumba lingala and township jive - the latter especially prevalent in the aptly-named highlight ‘Dance Music’. On top of this, the band’s two balafons add an edge to this overall sound, their harsh buzz cutting through the group’s otherwise clean tones.

While the English-language lyrics are not the most profound you’ll ever hear, and the music doesn’t break any major new ground, this is an enjoyable first album, with summery sounds and rhythms made for dancing – you can’t go wrong!

Monday, 16 February 2015

Jaume Compte Nafas Ensemble - Tariq

First published in fRoots issue 381, March 2015

Jaume Compte Nafas Ensemble
ARC Music Productions (48 mins)

So, here’s another album aiming to draw comparisons between Iberian, Arabic and other Mediterranean music using fusion. Ho hum. But wait! In Tariq, multi-instrumentalist Jaume Compte and the Nafas Ensemble have made an album that doesn’t abide by the same overused template of flamenco plus oud and darbuka. Instead, they use the various genres from around the Mediterranean as a starting point to making a style that is their own, and end up with some beautiful art music.

The album’s sound is mostly based around Western strings, which take in the Arabic, Spanish and Greek influences together with a Western classical sensibility and put out a beautiful, effortless blend of it all. These strings provide the base upon which different flavours are variously added – accordeon, Iranian kamancheh, Spanish and Catalan vocals, glimpses of Indian music and breezes of Balkan – while Compte adds guitars, oud, bouzouki and all manner of percussion and ambient sound effects to round off the textures. These interchanging layers give each piece its own identity and create what feels like a story that flows through the whole album.

It’s so refreshing to hear an album that approaches the Iberio-Arab fusion with sensitivity, class and originality. At a time when this sort of fusion seems to be very much in vogue, it is for these very reasons that Tariq and the Jaume Compte Nafas Ensemble stand out from the crowd.

Temenik Electric - Ouesh Hada?

First published in fRoots issue 381, March 2015

Temenik Electric
Ouesh Hada?
Nomad Café Productions (37 mins)

Marseille has long been known as a hotbed of North African culture in France, with many French-Arab subcultures having their genesis in the city. It’s not surprising, then, that a band such as Temenik Electric would flourish in such an environment.

With members from France and across North Africa, Temenik Electric create Maghrebi rock, but go much further than the sounds of pioneer Rachid Taha or more recent groups such as Speed Caravan by using elements of electronica, dub and blues together with many distinct North African styles from Algerian raï to Hassaniya music of the Western Sahara to create an intense but body-moving piece of work.

Although they’re often described as ‘Electric Gnawa’, the music of Ouesh Hada? does not contain too many obvious elements of the Afro-Moroccan style; there are no guimbri lutes, and rarely the sound of the metal castanets, the krakeb. However, the album’s loping rhythms and extended sections of repetition that put you into a semi-trance before you fully realise what’s happened really does create the essence of gnawa that pervades each track. Despite the use of oud, nay, heavily distorted guitars, all manner of synths, and some deep percussionscapes, the gnawa infusion feels perfectly natural – a testament to the musicians who create such a nuanced style.

Ouesh Hada? is an outstanding album: perfect to rock out to, but also to lose yourself in. Play loud and fall into the groove of Temenik Electric!

James Adams - Sin Aperture

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 106, March 2015.

James Adams
Sin Aperture
Self-released (56 mins)

Well this is a strange album. Sin Aperture is the debut album of London-based self-styled ‘adventure musician’ James Adams. It boasts 52 musicians of 16 nationalities (and recorded in 15 different countries) and brings together ‘flamenco, African blues, hip-hop, jazz, funk, Balkan, Arabia and Western classical music.’ How can such a mix work? Well…

The thing is, it does contain some properly enjoyable tracks – the opener, for example, is a lovely cello quartet with viola – and a lot of the pieces do contain some great elements – a floaty jazz singer here, a funky Balkan brass band there and a head-nodding rap somewhere else.

The problem is that there’s no consistency in the album at all. Almost every track sounds completely different and the effect is very jarring; one calm and introspective acoustic piece can give way to glitchy dancefloor electronica to the unfortunate detriment of both.

The end product is a hyperactive and quite pretentious album. A shame, because there is definite potential buried in here.

C.W. Stoneking - Gon’ Boogaloo

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 106, March 2015.

C.W. Stoneking
Gon’ Boogaloo
King Hokum Records (41 mins)

Australian bluesman C.W. Stoneking’s last album, Jungle Blues, made the international scene sit up and take notice. The mix of the old styles – blues, calypso, boogie – held together by vaudevillian wit and that straight-out-of-the-20s voice felt refreshingly real, even if his stories were tall. That was in 2008.

Since then, he’s been working on something different – with Gon’ Boogaloo, Stoneking goes electric, but this is no ‘Judas’ moment. Accompanying himself on a Fender Jazzmaster guitar throughout, he’s shifted slightly from hokum and calypso, looking instead towards the birth of electric blues, gospel and jump blues: think Elmore James, Blind Willie Johnson and Louis Jordan. His group has changed too – gone are the horns, leaving bass, drums and four female backing singers, who work to give a nice bright contrast to Stoneking’s rounded-off voice.

From the laid-back cheeriness of ‘Goin’ Back South’ to ‘The Zombie’, a piece so dark it must surely become a Halloween staple, Stoneking covers a whole range of atmospheres and emotions on the album, but with all tracks doused in the same sense of humour and mastery of the genre that makes him special.

So, after six years, does Gon’ Boogaloo live up to the wait? You bet.