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.