Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Clifford Sylvain — Rara Machine

The first Haitian record I posted remains one of the most popular grooves on this site, and I expect this dynamic record to equally excite. This first album from what would become the band Rara Machine, this record begins with a bang. Keyboards and percussion sets it up before the bass drops, and then Clifford Sylvain rides the rhythms with his fine singing. Not all the six songs on this album are as irresistible as "Palé Avem," but it is a very solid rara workout from a prodigious musical family.

My posts are destined to be sporadic for an indeterminate while, as I am in a transition, one that requires my entire focus. Until the next time, then:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mahlathini — Ejerusalem Siyakhona (1988)

The confluence of popular music and religion has been a fecund terrain around the world, but nowhere as danceable as in African music, and in South African gospel in particular (consider Pure Gold, for example). This relatively obscure record from Mahlathini reveals its holy intent on the cover, and the fervent singing on the vinyl is right in line. Recorded before his reunion with the original Mahotella Queens for the massively popular Thokozile and Paris-Soweto albums, the dogma on this record is delivered over the characteristic thumping mbaqanga produced by West Nkosi. Produced in 1986 by Gallo Records, this 1988 pressing was released on Celluloid in the U$ to capitalize on the success of the Mahlathini/ Mahotella Queens records. Immune to the Christian messages because of my ignorance of the Zulu language, I am content to immerse myself in the upbeat music and the wonderful singing.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Al Lirvat et son Trio Antillais Wabap - Biguine Wabap (1977)

The talented trombone player and band leader Al Lirvat was born in Guadeloupe in 1916, but spent most of his life in France. Immersed in the rich jazz culture of Paris, he became a fixture in the nightclub scene. Inspired by seeing Dizzy Gillespie in the 1950s, as he explained in this 2003 interview at the age of 87, he decided to fuse the traditional beguine of his homeland with bebop. The result was beguine wabap, and this album serves as a perfect definition.

Rich in percussion and suffused with jazz improvisation, listening with headphones can place you in a cabaret. Lirvat lamented that his invention did not become massively popular as dance music, like zouk, but it is just fine music from a bygone age. I think I bought this record for its wonderful cover photo. I was not disappointed.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review: Afrobeating Myself Sensible

Last May I had the luck and privilege to be in Seattle to see the wonderful musical Fela!, during its short run there and, indeed and alas, one of its last performances. I was reminded that despite personality traits like egoism and misogyny, which many people find repugnant, Fela was rebellion incarnate. He used his creative genius to attack repressive forces at every opportunity, using words to beat the oppressors and beats to animate the oppressed. 

During the show I thought about the universality of Fela's messages, and how once it was easy to decry injustices and despotism in other countries, and struggle in solidarity with people elsewhere. Now with an income distribution in the U$ described by a mainstream economics radio program as like those typically found in "third world dictatorships," with urban police forces equipped, trained and deployed as paramilitaries to crack down on peaceful dissent, with unbridled surveillance of every communication that you or I make, by countless cloistered technicians, with municipal and commercial jails filled with pot smokers while corrupt politicians and criminal financiers smoke pot on their yachts, I realize that Fela's many songs apply to us.


Imagine my interest upon homecoming to find Femi Kuti's angry new release No Place Like My Dream waiting for me. Songs like the opening "Nothing to Show for It" begin a series of songs that describe how the world's masses are crushed under the weight of corruption, theft and poverty, with little hope for a better life. "When you see what is going on in the world today, you will agree that poverty is winning the day," begins "The World is Changing." Femi's dream is for peace and prosperity, as it is for most of humanity, but there is no place for his dream in a world where "great men" keep that dream for themselves only, through "corruption and oppression."

The outrage is clothed in urgent Afrobeat, packaged into radio friendly chunks that are easily distributed. Lovely, authentic Afrobeat that seems to channel Fela's challenge to authority. There are no long, symphonic songs — Femi wants his message to be immediate and concise. Yet with unity of theme and varied textures, the whole album is effectively a suite, though not at all sweet. One of the most satisfying songs musically is "One Man Show," which is like a mini-Fela composition that urges revolution. Take any three or four Fela albums and distill them, and you would have something approximating this tough, important release. Perhaps this is Femi Kuti's clearest statement and musical vision, but it, like his visage, is uncannily reminiscent of his father.


Much as the National Security Agency (NSA) uses one email or text message or whatever to begin tracing the infinity of connections that are obliquely linked to it, I used my monitored internet connection to order a genetically related album from Seun Kuti, released a couple of years ago. Femi's younger brother is leading the venerable Egypt 80 band on his excellent From Africa With Fury: Rise, on the Knitting Factory label like his brother's new one.

The album opens with spare instrumentation that establishes a furious rhythm until robust horns enter, along with sirens. "African Soldier" is an indictment of self-perpetuating militaries that use their armed power to secure economic and political control. "You Can Run" incorporates a wonderful funky beat and its own fury. One great song follows another, including the powerful title track "Rise." This track begins with a slower rhythm and a lament similar to Femi's, "Our ear don full for your words, Our stomach all empty," before settling into an instrumental introduction that gives Seun space for a dreamy sax solo. It develops into a plea to rise up against the multinational companies extracting resources and leaving poverty, and "all of the African rulers."

While From Africa With Fury: Rise is available on vinyl, I am glad to have the digital version because I already would have worn out the grooves on a recording I have listened to so many times in two weeks. The tenor of this album is a bit different than Femi's; both decry an unjust world, but Femi's reflects anger and despair while Seun's exhorts rebellion. Perhaps that is the difference between generations that I can feel personally. My only regret with Fury is that the songs could be longer. Sometimes they just seem to be hitting the groove when they end, though maybe I am just subconsciously expecting a Fela epic.


So to satisfy my need I queue Afro Disco Beat, and let it roll. For a number of reasons I have thought about The Beat magazine frequently lately, and while I miss writing for it, I realize that I depended on it to find essential music, and that nothing has taken its place since it stopped publishing. Or perhaps it was just my life at the time that caused me to miss this great 2007 release. Tony Allen is, of course, the drumming genius who helped Fela give shape to Afrobeat, and this compilation of recordings from the 1970s demonstrates not only unity with contemporary Fela albums, but also Allen's individual vision that he has continued to develop over four succeeding decades.

This lavish, two-disc set from VampiSoul is full of extended instrumentals that give Allen lots of room for drum solos, and while many tracks feature his soulful vocal improvisations, it is the beat that is crucial. The album compiles four Tony Allen records from 1975-1979, the first three, and in my opinion strongest, were made with Fela's Africa 70 band led by the master himself. "Afro-Disco Beat" is a wonderful, twelve-minute instrumental featuring Fela on sax, but my favorite is the splendid "No Accommodation For Lagos." Beginning with a soft conversation, it ramps up the percussion and the horns kick in, and then a discordant keyboard chop punctuates the Afrobeat, providing an irresistible hook. This essential album is full of hooks and some groovy wisdom, but it appears to be deleted from the VampiSoul catalog. So if you do not own it already (and you should), hurry because there do not seem to be many copies available.


Remixing classic recordings is not a new concept, and Fela has been remixed more than many artists. When Red Hot + Fela was announced, I was curious because one of my most-played albums is another Red Hot charity Fela remix, 2002's Red Hot + Riot. A new remix for a new generation? Perhaps. Certainly rap is much more in the forefront of this collection, and for long stretches it can be hard to find Fela, apart from words. Another remix of a master came my way this week, the son's remix of Bob Marley's Legend album, and it left me cold. Too often the subject gets lost in remixes, buried beneath the musical egos that pay token homage while strutting their stuff.

This Red Hot begins promisingly with Baloji & L'Orchestre de la Katuba taking a stab at "Buy Africa," but after the following "Lady" I began to lose interest as electronics took over and I forgot there was any Fela there. The version of "Sorrow Tears and Blood" was so somnolent that I almost had to stop driving: Who would entrust that searing song of outrage to the Kronos Quartet? It's not all bad, though; I liked several songs like the creative version of "ITT", 
the sultry "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am" and, well. . . maybe that is it. Maybe you would be better off searching for a used copy of the original Red Hot Fela remix, which is long out-of-print, for that is a true masterpiece worthy of the "African original," as Fela dubs himself in "Gentleman."


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Alhaji Bai Konte — Kora Melodies from the Republic of The Gambia, West Africa (1973)

Rounder Records first foray into African music came with this record, released in 1973 to coincide with Bai Konte's concert tour, thought to be the premier solo kora performances in North America. A respected kora master in his own country, this recording, made by Marc Pevar, caught Konte at the peak of his career, a short decade before his death.

Most of the songs on the album draw from the traditional repertoire, but there also are a couple of short Konte originals. Though the sleeve notes give few details about the recordings, they appear to have been made primarily in a home setting; crickets can be heard on a few tracks. One praise song is performed by the Konte family for a benefactor, possibly in that person's compound. Reading the sleeve notes, which I recommend (included in the download folder), makes one realize how tentative its release was: Song notes try to relate the music to other, more familiar music already available in record shops, like flamenco and blues, foreshadowing the "world music" marketing push that occurred a decade later.

I present this historic and enjoyable album to offer some peace, in contrast with the patriotic hype that permeates this weekend (and era).
Here is a lovely tribute film, also done by Marc Pevar, which gives much information about this seminal musician and his culture. If you go to the actual YouTube page, Pevar discusses Konte's time in the U$ in detail.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Big Youth – The Chanting Dread Inna Fine Style (1982)

One of the most distinctive voices in roots reggae was that of iconoclastic deejay Big Youth. Before its deep submergence in Studio One material, Heartbeat Records drew on Big Youth for several of its first releases. Chanting Dread is the second, and like the others, it benefits from the participation of the cream of reggae musicians. The sometimes spare and always crucial rhythms are masterfully ridden by the vocal improviser.

This collection compiles singles recorded in the 1970s by Big Youth's Negusa Negast Records, but it was released at a time when his popularity had waned significantly in Jamaica. Thirty years later, it's great to step back into the "golden jubilee" of reggae.

Monday, June 17, 2013

José "Zeca" Afonso – Cantigas do Maio (1971)

Zeca Afonso continues as one of the most beloved Portuguese singers, decades after his death in 1987. During his long career, Zeca's music was the poetic expression of his revolutionary politics. Beginning his career as a fado singer, his music benefited from years living in both Angola and Mozambique, both Portuguese colonies at the time. Zeca's politics, already forged by involvement in both student and workers movements in Portugal, evolved with his observations of brutal colonial rule in Mozambique, as well as the incipient armed rebellion led by FRELIMO.

Cantigas do Maio is considered Zeca's best record, and it arguably is his most important. The B-side begins with "Grândola, Vila Morena," the song that became the anthem of the revolutionary movement to overthrow the fascist, Salizarian dictatorship that had ruled Portugal for decades. It also was used in April 1974 to coordinate the revolutionary military forces that overthrew the fascist government, in a practically bloodless coup popularly known as the Carnation Revolution: the song was broadcast on the national radio to signal the beginning of action.

While "Grândola, Vila Morena" is iconic, all of the songs on this album are powerful and memorable. Zeca's unique voice was perfectly suited for his activist role. It's a voice desperately needed now, in every language, to contend with pan-global repressive forces.
Enjoy! Then act.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Le Commandant Tchico - Full Steam Ahead! (1985)

Full Steam Ahead! describes my life pretty well at the moment, and this album from Tchico is one that fits the rhythm of activity that has kept me offline, most of the time. Straight-ahead soukous at the right time is the perfect music to get you off your butt and doing things. Dancing would be good, but that will have to wait for me.

I'm at a brief pause in what has been and will be an enormous undertaking to relocate after many years in Alaska. So over the next few days I hope to post a couple more choice albums-in-waiting. I'll also be reviewing the new, important album from Femi Kuti. I received it just days after seeing the fantastic performance Fela! in Seattle. Google "Fela on Broadway" and if the performance is within hundreds of miles, go see it: Brilliance. In the meanwhile, rock to this fine album that helped ignite the worldwide "world music" market in the mid-80s.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: Orchestra Super Mazembe – Mazembe @45RPM Vol. 1

My knowledge and appreciation of African music has been tremendously enriched over the past few years by comrades in the blogosphere who tirelessly search for elusive treasures that appeared only on 45 rpm singles. Singles were much more affordable for consumers than albums, in Africa as elsewhere, and they also were a way for a band to quickly record and release hot new songs to waiting fans. Some really great music only appeared on 45s, and much of that has disappeared.

As rich and valuable a reservoir for lost, important music as the dispersed internet library is, it is a great pleasure when a passionate music expert collects a bunch of pristine sound and publishes it. Doug Paterson has had a fruitful relationship with Stern's for years, having produced many wonderful albums including one I reviewed on this site nearly three years ago, as well as last year's Vijana Jazz release here. This new Orchestra Super Mazembe release is, in a word, spectacular. Check this first track:




One of the premiere Congolese bands operating in Kenya during the '70s and '80s, Super Mazembe was immensely popular. A dozen years ago Earthworks issued a compilation called Giants of East Africa, which remarkably is still in print and available. Continued access to that recording reflects continuing demand; it's easily explained: There is something quite magical about how Congolese rumba evolved in Kenya, and also in Tanzania, to include new nuances. Guitars influenced by benga and other Kenyan styles, different rhythms: there is a certain lightness to this rumba that makes it extremely infectious.

The nine songs (over 77.5 minutes) collected on this album come from 45s recorded in the late '70s and the early '80s; as the liner notes describe, each song has a four-part structure allowing for revving up the dance rhythms, and for various solos. These tracks, which originally spanned the A and B sides of a 45, are happily spliced together, allowing the majesty of each composition to flow freely. I have no trouble recommending this release wholeheartedly; in fact, I have been playing it frequently since it graced my mailbox.

You can find inferior digital copies available at the usual music download stores, iTunes and Amazon, but actual CDs, with all the important liner notes, are available in Europe or from Europe. Not, to date, in the U$A. I also noticed that there is a Volume 2 on the way. I can't wait!!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Comrade Chinx – Ngorimba (1988)

After fronting the successful band Ilanga, Comrade Chinx went solo for a short time before fading out of Zimbabwe's music scene, as I wrote about when I posted his Early Hits lp a couple of years ago. Ngorimba is powered by dual mbiras, played by Robert and Thomas Ndadziira, as well as a thumping bass line. The title track was a hit, and it is indeed one of the nicest chimurenga songs I have heard. Chinx was motivated by zest for the revolution, and his choral roots and political fervor give every song earnest energy. I think the whole album is great, and I hope it positively powers your weekend.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Zao – Ancien Combattant (1984)

At a time when revved up soukous was the Congolese component of the burgeoning "world music" marketing phenomenon, and when two generations of rumba bands were battling for popular hegemony in the Congo, Casimir "Zao" Zoba released this album that opens with a musical call-to-arms parody. More folkloric than soukous, the anti-war title track "Ancien Combattant" nevertheless became a hit.

Zao's songs addressed social issues with humor, and the music reminds me slightly of Gabon's Akendengue, at least in the sense that it is not formulaic, relying on pop norms. Zao charts his own path, and I am happy to follow it. We'll meet again, down this path, for another installment.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ismael Lô - Xalat (1984)

After leaving Super Diamono, Ismael Lô recorded a series of excellent albums that demonstrate his strength as a songwriter and arranger. They also exhibit both his prowess with mbalax, as well as his wonderful, soulful singing. Xalat is the first of those albums, and the cover photo reveals another unique aspect of Lô's contribution to Senegalese pop, one that augments the soulfulness: his harmonica.

Today's post reflects the breaking of a record-cleaning bottleneck that has limited my digitizing recently. This is a good way to resume.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Kasongo Band - Gejo (1990)

Here is another splendid recording of chimurenga from Zimbabwe's golden treasure chest. The Kasongo Band formed in exile in Tanzania during the liberation war, where other East and Central African music styles influenced their music. During an extended guitar break in the last song, for example, a band member invokes the Congolese animation "kwassa kwassa." While the harmonious singing is solid throughout this album, it's the intertwined guitars that propel the music at breakneck speed, making it impossible not to kwassa kwassa.

The band name on the back of the sleeve is Knowledge Kunenyathi and Kassongo Band, highlighting a leader of the band who struck out on his own shortly after this record was cut. I suggest putting it into your library, turning it up loud, and then going to the useful Music of Zimbabwe site for a little more information about the band.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bonga - Kualuka Kuetu (1983)

The sun is flooding through the windows, and one might imagine that the palm trees behind Bonga on the album sleeve are just in reach. Spring is indeed here, though the two feet of snow over the weekend and this morning's -18° F thermometer reading have dampened any enthusiasm for its arrival. Still, the fluffy white stuff, the work in moving it out of the way, and the abrupt cold have kept me off my bike, letting me focus on music and a few other important things.

Listening to Bonga is always such a pleasure. Weaving Angolan folk music with influences from other lusophone countries' cultures. Threads from Cape Verde, Brazil and Portugal abound, but where do they originate? There has been such coevolution of music that those threads are found in the music of each of those countries.

This album, from relatively early in Bonga's long career, alternates between ballads and dance-oriented sembas, with a few surprises. The birimbau in "Pió-Pió" is delicious. Listening to this great, uplifting album as I write, I realize it might not be THAT cold outside. Time to ride!

PS. This is the third Bonga album I have had the pleasure to digitize. The others can be found here!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Oku & AK7 - Pressure Drop (1984)

When I read WorldService's eloquent, recent post describing the surreal politics in Italy, without even mentioning the sublime and sordid fiasco in the clerical state-within-a-state, and depicting corruption in the Netherlands, where politicians in bed with financiers are fleecing the ordinary taxpayer, it made me think of this country, the U$A. How normal, how absolutely mundane, in comparison. Here our enlightened government has a very hard time deciding whether it has the right to murder its own citizens on our own soil. Whether or not it is okay to have a drone bomb a cafe to kill a U$ citizen who may be reading something objectionable online, or chatting with relatives in Pakistan via Skype. You know, those imminent-threat characters. Collateral deaths (deaths of the innocent) are regrettable, of course. Executing people anywhere else in the world is fine, naturally, so be careful who you are sitting next too! Our eminent president already has assumed authority to kill anyone he deems to be a threat to the U$, theoretically even someone who may have voted for him, believing he would bring a more humanitarian approach to the world's most powerful office. What gives him this right? Legal arguments that are classified and therefore hidden from the citizenry.

As I contemplated the gloomy state of reality, I happened to digitize this record of scorching dub poetry by the "grandfather" of the art, Oku Onuora. His first poem "A Slum Dweller Declares," written from prison, begins:
We wan fi free, free from misery, we want to live like human beings.

That powerful poem is followed by ten more uncompromising ones, mostly set to tough riddims and tight instrumentals. Anyone familiar with the music of Linton Kwesi Johnson will feel at home in this rich, provocative environment. A hard life informs Oku's cry for justice, and passion drips from his voice. In these days of callous, imperial governments around the world, and exquisitely manufactured apathy among entire populations of consumers, this music has never seemed more essential. Where are today's militants? Not the ones motivated by delusional belief systems, but those seeking justice?