Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Henry Arteaga and the 4Elementos Skuela - WOMEX 16 Professional Excellence Award Winners

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2016 delegate guide.

Music has always been more than just music. Communication is a large part of it, of course, whether it is communicating stories, morals, political messages, comedy or even concepts and emotions that cannot be expressed any other way. In this manner, music can cause a lot of change, personally and further afield. But sometimes, the real power of music is to create change in the world by the simple fact of how enjoyable it is to make and be around. Henry Arteaga has harnessed this power to create good wherever he can.

When Arteaga was growing up in Medellín, Colombia, the city was considered the most dangerous in the world, irrevocably connected in the international consciousness to Pablo Escobar’s infamous cartel, and to the extreme poverty that grew around their corruption. In this environment, hip-hop began to appear, being used as a tool for the young generation of Medellínos to (re)claim the space and to project their personalities within their own scene.

Inspired by this growing interest in hip-hop, Arteaga became a breakdancer, a b-boy. Known as JKE (or El Jeque, the Sheikh), his moves gained him a reputation, and he soon began informally teaching the art to local kids. The group grew and grew, becoming known as Crew Peligrosos, and eventually people started calling it a school. And so the idea stuck. Despite a complete lack of outside funding, the Peligrosos’ school went on in leaps and bounds, securing a permanent meeting-place after a local school principal saw first-hand the difference they made and offered his facilities. Together, the Crew began to rap and teach the disciplines of MCing (rapping), DJing and graffiti alongside b-boying – the four elements of hip-hop which lent the school its official name: 4Elementos Skuela.

When Henry met fellow MC, P Flavor, Crew Peligrosos were transformed into a multimedia hip-hop performance collective. Nowadays the Crew consists of a band with numerous MCs and DJs, 20 b-boys and -girls and four graffers. They have released two albums, tour internationally and have collaborated with hip-hop stars such as Afrika Bambaataa and Emicida, as well as musicians from the full spectrum of Colombian music, from traditional musicians to symphony orchestras.

And at the heart of all this – enjoyment. When he was younger, Arteaga’s father made sure to impress upon his son: “this neighbourhood is a mirror. Whatever you do, you will see reflected”. Henry certainly took that advice to heart, and shows it through his work with the Skuela. Arteaga himself has said that ‘getting kids off the streets’ is not the aim of the initiative. It has that outcome, but simply as a consequence of the positive atmosphere created within their environment. When people see the passion and pleasure that Arteaga and the Crew give to their scholars, they want to join in. Art provides an alternative. The school is now a magnet for hip-hop artists (in all their forms) from around Colombia: old hands offer to share their knowledge; prospective protégés come looking to soak it up. All the classes are free, as they always have been. The Skuela now has over 400 regular attendees, and more than 4,000 have already passed through their ranks. Not all students leave, either. Some stay on and join the ranks of tutors – this way, the Skuela is self-sustaining. As long it is wanted or needed, it will exist.

The city that Henry Arteaga teaches in is not the same as it was when he started. Medellín is not even among the 50 most dangerous cities in the world now. It has become a cultural hub of Colombia and South America, even achieving the title of UNESCO Creative City for Music in 2015. And the 4Elementos Skuela, over its 17 years, has certainly made its mark on the population by its sheer revelling in the enjoyment of music and the hard work of its founder.

It is for these reasons that Henry Arteaga is being presented with the WOMEX 16 Professional Excellence Award on behalf of the 4Elementos Skuela and everyone involved with it. The Award is not an achievement – it is simply an acknowledgement of the real achievements, which can only truly be put into words by people they have touched. These two quotes from Skuela students really tell the whole story:

4Elementos Skuela is very important for me because it has taught me many values. It has taught me to grow as a person.
Laura Ibarra

Before knowing 4Elementos Skuela and Crew Peligrosos my life was meaningless. Since I was introduced to breakdance, I haven’t stopped training because it has become part of my life, and the shelter of solace from my troubles.

Photo: Henry Arteaga receives the WOMEX 16 Professional Excellence Award, by Eric van Nieuwland.

Calypso Rose - WOMEX 16 Artist Award Winner

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2016 delegate guide.

Calypso (along with its younger offshoot ‘soul calypso’, or soca) has long been known as the sound of Trinidad and Tobago, evolving from styles brought to the Caribbean by slaves from West and Central Africa and mixing with the popular American music of the early 20th century. With a heavy focus on lyricism, comedy and double-entendre, calypsonians originally occupied a role similar to griots, spreading the important news and gossip amongst different communities. The position has evolved into a more strictly entertainment role today, but the focus on topicality remains: until recently, calypsonians were expected to write twelve pertinent songs per year.

For a long time, calypso was a man’s game, a no-go area for women. That is no longer the case, and for that, we have Dr. McCartha Sandy-Lewis, Calypso Rose, to thank.

Growing up during the ’40s and ’50s in Tobago, Rose was the class clown, making up calypso verses about her friends, teachers and the gossip of the playground. As her reputation as a calypsonian grew and she began to write full songs, her father (a Baptist minister) and the local women’s church groups objected, calling it the devil’s music. But with a personal recommendation from the ‘Father of T&T’ Prime Minister Eric Williams (“you’re good, very good! You’re going to make it in the world!”) and by incorporating religious themes and melodies into her calypso for 1963’s Hurricane Flora, their tune eventually changed. This skill, being able to meld to her audiences’ desires while remaining steadfast in her message, is precisely why Calypso Rose is such a leader in her field.

Prime Minister Williams’ prediction came true, and Calypso Rose became the most successful female calypsonian ever. After winning the title of Calypso Queen five years in a row and being stripped of the Trinidad Road March prize after the organisers could not bear the thought of a woman winning, she decided to compete for the title of Calypso King in 1978. That the competition is now named Calypso Monarch shows how momentous Rose’s win was. She was the first woman ever to win the prize, and remained the only one until 1999.

Staying true to calypso’s origins, Rose’s lyrics balance the subjects of partying and politics – often together. As well as opening the scene for women by her very presence, many of Rose’s songs sing of female empowerment and shine a spotlight on the hypocrisy and double-standards perpetuated by the male-dominated calypso world. Where women were once only viewed in relationship to men – always admiring them, nagging them or cheating on them – Calypso Rose celebrated the woman’s independence with wit, style and class. That's not to say that her subjects are not racy, or even crude; the opposite is true, they are often gleefully so and revel in this fact, the exact reason her opponents thought calypso unfit for women, yet aspects that are celebrated and loved when performed by men.

As well as social change, Rose’s music has also led to real political change: in the 1970s, her song ‘No Madame’ highlighted the plight of domestic workers in Trinidad and Tobago (the vast majority of whom were women). It gained international recognition, pressuring the country’s government to introduce new protections for such workers into law, paving the way for similar laws across the Caribbean.

She is obviously most well-known for the calypso for which she has done so much to pioneer, but Rose is not afraid to look towards other styles – from calypso’s child, soca, to punta from Belize and the now pan-Caribbean sounds of reggae and ska. It is a sign of her greatness that she excels in all. Her adaptability has led to her taking to some of the most prestigious stages in the world (including at WOMEX 06 in Sevilla!) and even to performing with world-class artists from all over the globe, from Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton to Miriam Makeba and Bob Marley.

As a calypsonian, Rose has won every award going. In fact, it’s been claimed that she is the most decorated calypsonian ever. As well as countless competition and carnival medals, she has also been honoured with national awards by the governments of Trinidad and Tobago, Belize and Liberia for her services to culture. She is truly a living legend, in terms of her composition, performance and service to fans and human beings in Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean and the world – it is an honour for us to add the WOMEX 16 Artist Award to her already heavy mantelpiece.

And with a new album, produced by Manu Chao and Ivan Durán, released this year and at least 70 shows booked for 2017 already, Calypso Rose is not slowing down. But then, she doesn’t need to: “I am bringing joy to the hearts of the people. The people are giving me energy, and I am giving them back the energy. That is why I am on stage with my hands up in the air!

Photo: Calypso Rose live at WOMEX 16, by Jacob Crawfurd.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Various Artists - The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 122, November 2016.

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz
World Music Network (55 mins)

The eclectic Rough Guide series turns its attention to the wonderful world of Ethiojazz.

The trap of focussing only on Buda Musique’s landmark Éthiopiques series has been avoided, but this leaves the genre’s golden era somewhat under-represented. Two members of the old guard – Mulatu Astatke and Getatchew Mekuria – are included with more recent projects, but many greats are missing, notably Mahmoud Ahmed.

Of the young guns showcased here, most continue the musical legacy of the master Astatke. The inclusion of Samuel Yirga’s intense and brooding piano exploration aside, it may have been fun to feature some of the more out-there young exponents.

The tracks on this album are presented in their unedited, extended forms, up to eight minutes in length. This decision is a double-edged sword: it’s a delight to appreciate the full listening experience as intended without the unceremonious fade-outs of abridged tracks; on the other hand, it means that only nine tracks are included, as opposed to the 12-18 that are usually found on Rough Guides. As such, the spectrum of Ethiojazz presented is not as broad as it otherwise could have been. One album can only ever hope to scratch the surface, but perhaps this one could have scratched just a little deeper.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Sunburst - Ave Africa

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 119, July 2016.

Ave Africa
Strut Records (2CD, 108 mins)

The 1970s were the time for dance bands in East Africa, but Sunburst weren’t one of the ten-a-penny. Hailing from Tanzania, they eventually relocated to Zambia, and gained a reputation as a red-hot crowd puller.

And red-hot they clearly were. Although the roots of the dance band explosion lie in Congolese rumba, Sunburst set themselves apart by taking more influence from rock, psychedelia and soul than Latin styles, and their recordings even show reference points from roots reggae and taarab – all held together tightly by a strong East African root.

The band was short-lived, lasting only six years from their beginnings in 1970 to their eventual drifting apart, and with this release, Strut Records manages to cram their entire recorded output (29 tracks) onto two CDs. The first disc is dedicated to their only album, 1976’s Ave Africa; the second compiles early radio sessions and singles. Released as a standalone album at the end of their career, the first disc is understandably the tighter and more sophisticated of the set, but the second still contains gems, and provides interesting comparisons to track the group’s musical development.

This is a wonderful album. Get out in the sun, relive these perfect 70s sounds and dance!

Deltino Guerreiro - Eparaka

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 119, July 2016.

Deltino Guerreiro
Kongoloti Records (42 mins)

Eparaka is the debut album from young Mozambican singer Deltino Guerreiro. It’s been two years in the making, and the final result is sweet and laid-back.

Sounds on the album come from all over, but it remains overwhelmingly Lusophone: as well as local styles, Guerreiro draws heavily from Brazilian bossa and samba, as well as elements from modern Portuguese and Angolan music. The influence of soul also hangs heavily across the band’s grooves and a sprinkle of jazz is occasionally and tastefully applied, too. Over all of this floats Guerreiro’s dulcet tones; his voice has an oddly James Taylor-esque vibe; it’s soft but assured, and full of feeling.

Electronics flow through the album – a drum machine and some programming here, a synth and some studio trickery there – but it all slots in well to the mix. Despite this, and the occasionally full arrangements, the album’s overall feel is surprisingly acoustic, as if the whole thing could be rerecorded with acoustic guitar, piano, double bass and percussion and keep the same vibe.

With Eparaka, Deltino Guerreiro has made an album that’s ideal for a chilled-out, warm summer’s night, and that gets even better with relistening.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Introducing Fantastic Negrito

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 119, July 2016.

What happens when a down-on-their-luck pop-R’n’B singer leaves the music world in tragic circumstances and turns their hand to farming (both legal and otherwise), before feeling that creative spark again? Well, if that singer is Xavier Dphrepaulezz, they re-invent themselves as Fantastic Negrito, one of the hottest talents on the American blues scene.

Back in the 90s, Dphrepaulezz’s R’n’B sound landed him a million-dollar record deal, but after a not-successful-enough first album, that deal turned into major label hell and Xavier (as he was then known) turned his back on music. 20 years later, and under the guise of Fantastic Negrito, he is making the airwaves buzz anew.

The sounds of Dphrepaulezz’s childhood were jazz, blues, classical and traditional African music – his Somali-Caribbean father forbade popular music, calling it a corrupting influence. The singer says this childhood exposure to the blues fell on unappreciative ears: “I wasn’t ready to hear it as a youngster, I thought it was terrible. But after I turned 40, and I’d buried a couple people and I’d lived through tragedies, and I’d lived life, for some reason it just resonated with me so much, spiritually – because I had lived!

The birth of Fantastic Negrito was a classic rise from the ashes. When a car crash left him in a coma for three weeks, he decided life’s too short to make music you don’t believe in. It was five years later, singing to his infant son, that he realised what music he did believe in. Since this musical rebirth, Fantastic Negrito’s music is like looking into an alternate dimension of 21st century blues, where 70s middle-of-the-road blues-rock never happened. “It’s blues but it’s got a gospel-punk delivery – some guy called me the punk rock Al Green!

I was entrenched and indoctrinated into viewing music differently from such a young age…the things I didn’t really dig as a kid really came back as an adult”. With this musical progression, Dphrepaulezz is looking back – and the link to African music is still there. Asked what sounds he’s digging at the moment, there’s no hesitation: “Songhoy Blues. They’re amazing. I met them in Australia and we jammed together. I’ve been a fan ever since.” It’s a partnership that he wouldn’t mind developing. “I like all collaborations, as long as they’re real. It would be interesting because there’s a different school of thought going on in terms of the approach to the music, it’s fascinating.

Fantastic Negrito’s first album only came out in June, but the music has already been heaped in hype: he won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest out of 7,000 entrants, provided the theme tune for hit drama series Hand of God and was personally invited to perform at Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire rally. And that’s on top of his recently-finished 43-date tour, which took in four continents over 45 days (“it was hardcore!”).

So after a life of reinvention, what’s next? “Who knows? I never knew there would be a Fantastic Negrito. It’s just happening now and I’m enjoying it. It’s not bad!

Photo: Fantastic Negrito, by Bruce. Used under licence CC BY 2.0.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Legends of Ethiogroove - Songlines Playlist

A playlist curated for Songlines Magazine in May 2016.

Ethiopia’s musical system has evolved over thousands of years and its music is some of the most distinctive in the world – the use of the characteristic qañat (five-note scales) immediately mark a piece as Ethiopian.

This unique musical culture is treasured by Ethiopians, who retain this sound even when mixing in international influences, thus creating the famed ‘Ethiogroove’. From the jazz, soul and funk of 60s and 70s Addis Ababa to hip-hop, reggae and heavy metal of the 21st century, the Ethiopian sound shines through.

This playlist aims to represent a range of Ethiogroove across three categories: the classic early recordings from the Swinging Addis era; the sounds of modern Ethiopia; and Ethiogroove as it exists outside of its motherland.

'Track title' – Artist (Album)

  1. 'Shellèla Bèsaxophone' – Getatchew Mekurya (Éthiopiques, Vol. 14: Getatchèw Mèkurya)
  2. 'Ametballe' – Bole 2 Harlem (Bole 2 Harlem, Vol. 1)
  3. 'Mètché Dershé (When Am I Going to Reach There)' – Mulatu Astatke (Éthiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale (1969-1974))
  4. 'Min Alu' – Kuku Sebsebe (Tinish Geze Sitegn)
  5. 'Eré Mela Mela' – Mahmoud Ahmed (Éthiopiques, Vol. 7: Mahmoud Ahmed (1975))
  6. 'How To Save a Life (Vector of Eternity)' – Mikael Seifu (Zelalem EP)
  7. 'Siberber' – Shewandagne Hailu (Sitotash)
  8. 'Migoten Manyawkal' – Bezunesh Bekele (Bezunesh Bekele Greatest Hits (Ethiopian Contemporary Oldies Music))
  9. 'Habdahlak' – Teddy Afro (Yasteseryal)
  10. 'Ayrak' – Jano (Ertale)
  11. 'Dewel' – Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics (Inspiration Information 3)
  12. 'If That Is What You Want (Melkam Keholnelich)' – Invisible System (Punt (Made in Ethiopia))
  13. 'Man Yawqal Yebeten' – Hirut Bekele (Éthiopiques, Vol. 3: Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music (1969-1975))
  14. 'Ambassel' – Dub Colossus (A Town Called Addis)
  15. 'Sebebu' – Aster Aweke (Aster)
  16. 'Tezeta' – Seyfu Yohannes (Éthiopiques, Vol. 1: Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music (1969-1975))
  17. 'Qen Sew (For My Father)' – Ethiopian Records (Qen Sew EP)
  18. 'Sema' – Tlahoun Gessesse (Éthiopiques, Vol. 3: Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music (1969-1975))
  19. 'Gud Fella' – Gigi (Gigi)
  20. 'Nanu Ney' – Ester Rada (Ester Rada)
  21. 'Che Belew Shellela' – Getachew Mekurya & The Ex (Moa Anbessa)
Listen to the playlist online here.

Monday, 16 May 2016

DJ Katapila - Trotro

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 118, June 2016.

DJ Katapila
Awesome Tapes From Africa (44 mins)

When Brian Shimkovitz asked Ghanaian DJ Katapila if Awesome Tapes From Africa could rerelease his 2009 tape Trotro, the DJ was surprised – that tape had never been released, but was a hit in the pirated music shops of Kumasi. So here we are.

Katapila makes electronic dance music – various different vibes can be heard here, from acid house and early techno to more modern sounds such as azonto. More subtle influences come from Ghanaian traditional rhythms and international styles such as salsa and zouk. Altogether, the sound is actually rather minimalist, which usually works in its favour. It can sometimes go a bit far, though – some tracks are barely more than a drum-machine loop.

All sounds heard on this record come from Katalipa and his electronic wizardry. But there’s an element that made the album difficult listening for this reviewer: the grating and incessant use of high, pitch-shifted vocal samples. It’s quite interesting for a few pieces, but by the end of the album it becomes very irritating.

In the correct environment – in a club, or as part of a DJ set – any of these tracks would probably go down well, but they don’t stand up as an album for focussed listening.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Oumar Konaté - Maya Maya

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 117, May 2016.

Oumar Konaté
Maya Maya
Clermont Music (CD: 49 mins; Digital: 55 mins)

Hailing from Gao and living in Bamako, Oumar Konaté is part of the new generation – the Young Malian Artists; musicians taking conflict in stride and making music with an international gaze, while never leaving their traditions out-of-reach.

Since his first album, 2014’s Addoh, with its large band and numerous guest musicians, Konaté has concentrated his group down to a trio: himself on guitars and vocals, Cheick Siriman Sissoko on bass and Makan Camara on drums. The album’s liner notes state that the group is “a power trio on the level of Cream or Band of Gypsies”. What a claim. It’s one that’s basically impossible to live up to despite the group’s proficiency, although Hendrix’s legacy can be heard very clearly in Konaté’s solos.

Over the entire album, the Malian-ness (Malinity?) seems to decrease: for the first five or so tracks the sound is very rooted in the Mandé styles, but by the end the tracks are straight-up rock. The two aren’t blended as well as they could be, leading to disappointing ‘what ifs’. A low-level reggae does permeate throughout to good effect, however.

Handy hint: if you buy the album as a digital download, you get two extra tracks.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Dizu Plaatjies and Friends - Ubuntu: the Common String

First published in fRoots issue 393, March 2016

Dizu Plaatjies and Friends
Ubuntu – The Common String
Mountain Records (58 mins)

As one of South Africa’s foremost ‘world music’ exports, an expert in the musical bow and many of his country’s traditional styles, Dizu Plaatjies is a musician who constantly strives to evolve his sound. This has led to the creation of this ‘and Friends’ album, exploring other sounds with the help of his guest musicians.

In this album, Plaatjies is once again backed by his Ibuyamba Ensemble (the band he formed after leaving the legendary Amapondo), but the sound is more formed by and focussed on the many guest musicians that he introduces, including South African classical guitarist Derek Gripper (most well-known for his transcriptions of kora pieces for guitar) and French jazz group L’Arbre Canapas.

The idea of Ubuntu is commonality, and it’s not a huge surprise that this album strives towards the pan-African. The end result is actually more pan-Southern African, although his guests provide very occasional influences from more northerly climes such as Uganda and the Mandé region.

Quite a few of the tracks here are very repetitive – and not in a trancey, circular fashion that drags you in, either. These include the opener 'Bantu Biko', which repeats the same few lines for more than four minutes and is not the best advertisement for the rest of the album. The repetition comes back with the obligatory song to Nelson Mandela, 'Mandela Afrika', a self-consciously ‘epic’ sounding track that feels a bit cheesy and out-of-place.

However, despite a few weak tracks, there are definite highlights on the album that do redeem to some degree. The maskandi-with-mbira 'Langa Ola' and the dripping-with-blues 'Phalisa', both featuring the 12-string goodness of guitarist Nthombi Thongo are prime examples, and the Derek Gripper-led 'Ukuzu kwe Langa' is particularly beautiful.

There are definitely more enjoyable tracks than not here, although there are quite a few pieces that seem less polished than they could be. It leads to an overall average-to-good album, which may stand up better to listening and downloading instead.

Damily - Very Aomby

First published in fRoots issue 393, March 2016

Very Aomby
Hélico Music (52 mins)

Is there any country so adept at bringing such effortlessly joyous and sunny music as Madagascar?

Damily is a star of tsapiky, the unique guitar style from the town of Tuléar, in the southwest of the island. As a mixture of music from several different traditional Malagasy cultures and South African dance styles, tsapiky guitar is fast, circular and, of course, made to move your body.

The France-based group travelled back to Madagascar to record Very Aomby and the end results are delightfully lo-fi; with crunchy guitars and distorted vocals, the whole album is lent an earthy and down-home vibe. Every track was recorded as-live, with no second takes or re-records, and several of the tracks were recorded in a makeshift metal tent at a party – it all lends to the atmosphere of a bunch of mates having a homemade jam just for you. The album and its production pull off the immersion perfectly.

While songs themselves talk of many subjects – in fact, most often of various unfortunate events and scenarios – the music itself never lets up in its infectious danciness. Even in its more introspective and quieter moments, the music seems to command that you at least sway along, and it’s difficult to listen to more than a few seconds of any track without feeling better about yourself.

Toumaranke - Takhaudi Dékau: Inside the Chicken’s Mouth

First published in fRoots issue 393, March 2016

Takhaudi Dékau: Inside the Chicken’s Mouth
Self-Released (58 mins)

Percussion and voice from the Guinean ensemble, led by a Brit and recorded in Gambia. Drums, balafon and gongomah (mbira-like lamellaphone) – with occasional bridge-harp and satongé sound-alike – intertwine with polyrhythms and polyphony in this as-traditional album. Good record, if mostly unremarkable.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Ortanitza - Folktron

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 115, March 2016.

Fusion Embassy (49 mins)

In the second full-length album from Bulgarian folk distorters Oratnitza, the quartet continues their quest to meld their traditional music with international rhythms and global bass, through completely acoustic means. The sound is quite old-school in many ways – harking back to the golden era of world fusion, introducing elements from drum’n’bass, electronica and dub. But they’re not afraid to let the folk styles take over.

Oddly, considering that the group define themselves as ‘ethnobass’, bass sounds are disappointingly absent. The low-end is provided by a keyed didgeridoo, which sounds great but doesn’t drop to the bowel-worrying levels that some of the pieces call for. Likewise, some sections feel like they could do with deeper rhythms than the single-drum percussion can really deliver.

There are places where the fusion really shines, though: the dark harmonies between Bulgarian singing and didgeridoo, such as in the tracks ‘Yaninka’ and ‘Beginning’, are wonderful; and guest solos of kaba bagpipes and galdulka fiddle help place the album’s musical provenance.

Alone in the otherwise all-acoustic set, the last track is a remix from drum’n’bass duo High Roll, fully bringing on the electronics and drum machines. It’s an interesting look at the other side of the fusion coin to end the album.