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You can read the following world music reviews at the last part of this page:
Hugh Masekela: Sixty & Greatest Hits: South Africa
Njava: Madagascar - Drums of the World:Netherlands/West Africa-Japan
AFRICA: Folk Music Atlas: 3 x CD + CD-ROM
Maryam Mursal: Somalia-Denmark - Chris McGregor: South Africa
Hugh Masekela (x2): South Africa - Galaxy: Senegal-Finland - Acid Queen: Norway-Tanzania
Mahmoud Ahmed: Ethiopia - South African compilations (x3) - Mandela's music
Bonga: Angola-Portugal - Fela Kuti (x 2): Nigeria - Salif Keita (x 2):Mali
Sudan - Valanga Khoza:
South Africa - African Summit:
MIRIAM MAKEBA has in many ways represented
the best of South African music for all of 40 years now - and
the charged, powerful energy of her voice still easily carries
the South African "sound", rhythm and the feeling of
her people. Homeland came out in the new millenium, and
gives a great contact with both the new, and with what is worth
bringing forward of the old. kr.159.-
BONGA - The Voice of Angola, 102% live (see the review
below): Our rythmic record of the year for 1996, this record
just wants to make you dance. It's colourfully alive and joyful,
a wonderful mixture of Brazilian, African and Portuguese culture
and music. It's a 102% live concert recording. kr 149.-
FARAFINA: (Bourkino Faso): The fantastically precise drums
play hard-hitting, fundamental dance-rhythms. Also often making
their presence felt are the rough, blues-like flute - and in some
longer passages, 2 balafons (wooden xylophones), whose rhythmically
concentrated bell-sounds make basic trance music that just keeps
going on and on Faso Denou is a definite "Numen"
MASTER DRUMMER MUSTAPHA T. ADDY (Ghana): Order either Royal Drums of Ghana with a larger group playing, or the more straightforward Come and Drum. West African drums, good for dancing - no fancy frills - just go there and do it!
His latest release, a little different: Come and Dance, with
Rolf Exler and Michael Kütner playing percussion, and with
other instruments like trumpet and bass keeping things cooking.
AFRICA DJOLÉ (Guinea): More drumming.
This wonderful group's incisive drumming won't let your feet stay
still. Long sequences with basic, hard-hitting, multirhythmic
drums. Order either their first, great recording Percussion
music from Africa or look forward to enjoying the later one,
Basikolo - Né Né. 149.-
AJA ADDY is a Ghanaian drummer, but also a Tigari priest.
On The Medicine Man he plays healing rhythms for different
occasions, giving both body and soul a natural and necessary massage.
LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: The famous South African a capella
male choir - enjoy their harmonic sensuality, soul and rhythm.
For example on Thandani 109/169.-
GUEM: The North African-French group plays round and softly
rolling percussion and drums, 3-dimensionally alive and inviting.
Listen to many fans favourite CD, Best of Percussion, or
dig their latest offering, Voyage 115/149.-
RHYTHM OF HEALING: West Nkosi from South Africa
plays township jive on the sax and penny whistle. Basic best of
South African city sounds, with memories of kwela music from the
THUNDER BEFORE DAWN is (in our opinion) the best title in the series. A compilation of basic South African city music, with a built-in urge to move your corpus. Different groups, but one thing they have in common is the deep pounding of an ever present bass, so typical of South Africa. If the bass instrument hadn't been invented, South africa would have had to make it.
Latest in the series is Jive Nation, once more a collection
of realrhythm - music and song with the deep bass - now from the
new South Africa. 149.-
ZAP MAMA (Belgium/Zaire): These wonderful Belgian-African
ladies sing a-capella with lots of humour, rhythm and harmony.
A kind of feminine Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who tell a story every
time they sing. Their second recording Sabsylma is, like
Zap Mama, a pleasure to listen to, full of amusing themes
to delight the listener. 149.-
EARTH TRIBE RHYTHMS: Brent Lewis, mover of feet, is an
American who plays on a set of tuned drums. The melodically jumping
language of these talking drums gives the listener a tune-up of
both body and soul. This recording is probably our most popular
item, but his fans are always looking out for his latest release.
Currently that is Thunder Down Under, with a didgeridoo
accompaniment, and Jungle Moon - site of the sacred drum,
(one of his best) with a West African drummer. Look for more in
our World Music section. 115/149.-
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Masekela is one of the great South African icons, known and loved by many - a hero, once married to Miriam Makeba in the beginning of the sixties, when they left the apartheid system and demonstrated so clearly to the West the value of black South African culture.
Masekela plays an unusually incisive, dynamically live and rhythmically powerful trumpet, in a kind of instrumental exposition of the singing style of his people. As I've written before (below), he plays trumpet the way he - and they - sing. His instrument putting out a kind of concentrate of voice and staccato rhythm, call and answer-like. Sometimes call as well as answer. So that now and then, in a moment, one hears imaginatively a whole series, a whole play of human interaction. Exciting, spell-binding, it happens fast, and it's a technique that demands being there, being present - both of the player and the listener.
That said, it does unfortunately often seem that his musicians, in recent years, have had trouble breathing life in to the arrangements he's worked with. Compared to his older recordings, and certainly also his live performances, the music on many of his latest records - for example here, on Sixty - sounds monotonously, stolidly stationary. It has a pervasive tendency to remain where it is, to a degree that even Masekela's normally fascinating solos become dulled.
On the other hand, something seems to have happened to save the day on his other, simultaneous release, Hugh Masekela: Greatest Hits. These are also recent recordings, but, perhaps because many of the arrangements are close to the original hits, it just works much better. The music is more 3-dimensional, and the accompaniment complements both Masekela's trumpet and his voice - and the English texts, by the way, are often really worth listening to. Suddenly he's once more "creating" the music, in an interaction between his voice and trumpet, and the other musicians and the choir.
There are 14 numbers on the record, among others his great hit Grazing in the Grass, but also others like Stimela and African Society. The CD is in fact filled with good moments, melodies and lyrics, full of surprising, great ideas that really work and give pleasure - and thus wish to hear again. So thank you once more, Hugh Masekela.
Jack Donen - 8/00
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This record should, in my opinion, soon become one of the most memorable classics of 1999, and the group one of the new stars shining high in the world music sky.
Njava is five Belgian-based brothers and sisters from Madagascar, and just by the way, they're playing in Copenhagen later in April.
'Vetse' is an unpretentious but thoroughly musical record. Not loud but lyrical, not pounding but rollingly rhythmical. The music is ethnic but modern, the craftsmanship of the musicians is an ongoing work of art, and the five of them work together as only people do, who know each other in and out.
The three brothers play musical guitar, bass and multi-percussion, whilst the sisters sing - and call, and laugh, and use rhythmic breathing. Charmingly, playfully, the music fills the room with enjoyment and a pleasant satisfaction. What more can one wish for?
See you at the concert.
Jack Donen - 2/99
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AFRICA: Folk Music Atlas: 3 x CD + CD-ROM
En omfattende rundrejse kræver en omfattende præsentation.
Hele Afrika på en gang lyder voldsomt, men denne indføring virker ikke overvældende men tværtimod både gennemført professionel og teknisk overskuelig, og trods alt med mange fine detailjer. Fin til indføring og for eksempel til undervisning.
Musikalsk er den dog alligevel kun en introduktion, som giver mange smagsprøver - der er 40 skæringer på de tre CDer og nok tæt på det samme på CD-ROMen - men selvfølgelig ikke fordybelse i noget enkelt emne. Måske med undtagelsen af trommespil. Naturligt nok, fordi trommespil som fremtrædende ingrediens indgår i så mange afrikanske musikalske sammenhæng.
CD-ROMen dækker fem hovedområder: etnohistorie, det afrikanske folks musik, sang, musikalske instrumenter og ny afrikansk musik. Der er en stor mængde informationer, igen delt op i mindre områder, om hver af de nævnte emner.
Desværre har der åbenbart ikke været plads til videosekvenser, som på Marokko udgivelsen anmeldt ovenfor. Til gengæld er der til alle tekstafsnit op til flere musiksekvenser, som oftest virker velvalgt og inspirerende på lytteren. Musikudvalget dækker med få undtagelser præsentationen på CD-ROMen, og det skal understreges, at producerens ide mere har været at præsentere den "oprindelige" folkelige musik, end storbyernes musik, og derfor er udvalget af moderne musik forholdsvis skrabet.
Der er overraskende mange gengangere af musikere og grupper på audio-CD skæringerne - så man spørger sig selv om det har været billigere at gøre det på dén måde. Men musikken er ellers helt fin og varieret, og der er valgt en del af de bedste og kendteste musikere og grupper.
Igen en fin indføring, god til undervisningsbrug - og hvem ellers end det offentlige ville da også betale de næsten fire gange almindelig CD pris, som samlingen koster?
Jack Donen - 6/99
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CIRCLE PERCUSSION & ANUMADUTCHI: 'Drums of the world'
I think that anyone interested in drums, or for that matter, in rhythm in it's broadest sense, will be able to find something of interest on this record.
This is interaction between two very different traditions - African and Japanese. And it's not just a meeting between two traditional ways of creating certain kinds of sound, resonance, timbre, but also - purely rhythmically - it's a meeting between the syncopated African way of rhythmning, with the most usually more "straight" Japanese way. (Note: to define the concept, in the words of music educator Philip Seyer, "Syncopation happens when we shift an accent from a beat that's normally strong to one that's normally weak or when we fail to provide an accent for a normally strong beat". For more, check out http://www.ilovemusic.com).
So, in this vein, even the illustrious old minimalist, "love-him-or-hate-him" Steve Reich, shows up - composition-wise, though not in person. And his somewhat interesting, but in my opinion emotionally empty structures, get filled out and complemented by the African element, so that for once the music feels not only complete, but it also becomes a stimulating experience to follow the development of his composition.
Circle Percussion is interestingly enough not a Japanese group, but a Dutch one, formed as far back as 1973 by musicians inspired by Japanese taiko-drumming groups like the now world-famous Kodo and Ondekoza groups (see my Japanese page). The group plays impressively professionally and is probably well worth hearing on its own. Anumadutchi, also based in The Netherlands, is a mixed African and Dutch group, and they seem to have done a lot of work learning to play different African and Western traditions, together with the attendant instruments. Besides playing a lot of West African djembe drums here, among many other interesting instruments they play, are the mbira from Zimbabwe and the timbila xylophone from Mozambique.
Altogether an intriguing and stimulating example of real world musical fusion.
Jack Donen - 2/99
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MARYAM MURSAL: 'The Journey'
Here's the record that definitively puts Maryam Mursal on the world music map, right up there among the stars. And not only that - she's brought Denmark with her, too.
The recording is actually very different from the music that her group, Waaberi, normally plays, and that we heard on their first recording in the Autumn of 1997. Here we're presented, not with roots music from Somalia, in fact the acoustic element is almost non-existent. Instead, with a rather massive presence of Danish musicians, there's a break-through to a funky, electro-rhythmic and yet genuinely world-musical version of the music and the musical traditions of today's African Horn.
The fact is that in Somalia, Ethiopia and the Sudan, American pop music, jazz and soul have influenced the local music scene for many years. It's easy to hear in the recordings of great names like Abdel Gadir Salim and Abdel Aziz el Mubarak from the Sudan and Egypt, and, most recently, in the first CD from the great Ethiopian star, Mahmoud Ahmed. Right, then - so here it is finally, in the most contemporary and ultraprofessional mix from - where else than - Denmark! With the help of the extensive facilities of Peter Gabriel's RealWorld studio, we're taken on a trip to Arabian Africa, with an archetypal Arabian string orchestra, run by (yes) Claus Holten Hansen, with an "American" horn section played by something called The Kick Horns, and perhaps most importantly, with the many lavish arrangements created by Maryam Mursal's Danish manager and co-musician, Søren Kjær Jensen.
Mursal is in fact already a big name in Somalia, Ethiopia and the Sudan. She was a member of the Somalian National Theatre, then the leader of her own group for a number of years, before having to flee from the civil war. She came by way of Kenya and Ethiopia to Denmark's second largest city, Århus, in the beginning of the nineties.
Here and in England, together with other Somalian refugees also with a background in the Somalian National Theatre, she formed the group Waaberi, and they came to Peter Gabriel at RealWorld by way of a video they had made together with Søren Kjær Jensen. This was a video which, incidentally, won Maryam Mursal the prize as Refugee Artist of the Year at the World Music Festival in Vejle in 1996.
This, then, is the impressive result of a long journey, in my opinion clearly top-international in calibre. And with a certain Danish - Scandinavian - quality of craftsmanship in the music. A rigourous attention to detail, a tactile aesthetic, combined with a good sense of over-all balance. Perhaps it's this same kind of aesthetic overview that puts Danish sound technicians up there among the world's best - and that in fact has made Danish design in general a world renowned concept. One which even the Japanese, with their own, refined version of aesthetic sensuality, value highly.
Whatever. In any case 'The Journey' proves to be an exciting and stimulating mix of Afro-Arabic and Western music. It's the kind of special journey that leads the listener through a musical and rhythmic potpourri, and leaves behind it the kind of sweet and spicy aftertaste that one's palate never gets tired of.
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CHRIS McGREGOR AND THE SOUTH AFRICAN EXILES: 'Thunderbolt'
A very welcome re-release. The now deceased pianist Chris McGregor was through many years a rallying point for a mixed group of South African jazz musicians: from the late fifties in South Africa itself, later in London with the Brotherhood of Breath, and finally at intervals while living in France, until his death in his early fifties in 1990. This is the recording of a group of exiled South Africans that he was asked to collect together in 1986 for a tour of Germany.
For those interested, the 'Thunderbolt' CD, recorded in concert in Mainz, is an exhibition of South African music culture. "Culture" being the correct word, because the experience is not only of musical improvisation, but also of getting a look at how the musicians support, listen to, and accompany each other. In fact getting a chance to enjoy a wonderful look at the way they play, musically, with each other. Contemporary jazz, but with a sense of spontaneous fellowship, of community, of finding out how to "play" together as you go along, making up the rules without a fuss, but with curiosity, with joy and with meaning.
The last, long number, starts for example with a basic rhythmic phrase on the piano. On top of that, the trumpet and sax play a little with some counterpoint, until finally the saxophone breaks out strongly, and creates the melodic line. In comes the singer, the sax supporting now, but incitingly. When everything is just the way it's supposed to be, the sax leaves the melody to the singer, who's by now being spurred on by the piano, and by that South African fountain of pleasures - the deeply thrusting bassline. In the background the members of the audience - obviously consisting of a good portion of likewise exiled countrymen - also make themselves heard, joining the rhythm of the group and egging it on with shouts and sharply punctuated whistling. The number ends politically, with the singer's call: for "Amandla"! Freedom!
That was in 1986.
Not long before that McGregor's old colleague and friend, whom he took in as a young boy in Johannesburg in the early sixties, the trumpetist Mongezi Feza, died. Later in 1986, the Danish-married bassist on this recording, Johnny Dyani, died. In May 1990 McGregor himself died, and a month later, his most longstanding colleague and friend, who played altosax at this concert, Dudu Pukwana, died. Some say they died of their exile, but in the struggle for change. If that was so, it was not unavailing. In February of 1990 Nelson Mandela was made a free man. And the rest is a story we all know.
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HUGH MASEKELA: 'The lasting impressions of Ooga Booga'
In comparison to Chris McGregor's exile, described above, Hugh Masekela's exile was very different. It also started in London, but partly with the help of the Jamaican-American singer and benefactor-of-many, Harry Belafonte, Masekela moved, 21 years old, to New York, where he studied at the Manhattan School of Music. Five years later, in 1965, this live recording was made from an evening at the Village Gate.
Masekela was a professional musician in the USA for many years - among other things doing film music - and perhaps through the years he's released some music that was not so much creative as it was effectful (see my review below of his 'Black to the Future'). On the other hand he's done many recordings that make one sit up, listen and enjoy, so that it's always well worth checking him out, and certainly here the music is real, it's contemporary and it's relevant.
Masekela may be a jazz musician, and as such partake of a quite specific musical culture. But at the same time he's very African and not least, very much himself. He plays trumpet as if he were singing, his instrument putting out a kind of concentrate of voice and staccato rhythm, call and answer-like. Sometimes call as well as answer. So that now and then, in a moment, one hears imaginatively a whole series, a whole play of human interaction. Exciting, spell-binding, it happens fast, and it's a technique that demands being there, being present - both of the player and the listener.
On this recording his three American colleagues, Larry Willis on piano, Harold Dotson on bass and Henry Jenkins on drums, listen intently to him and create a space that Masekela makes good use of.
He is now back in his homeland, teaching younger generations at the University of Natal. Strange to note how the institutions of both apartheid and of the old (British) colonial power can be taken over and made good use of by the culture that they, for so many years, excluded from having any voice at all. Calling it primitive, obsolete, useless, uncivilized. In fact it seems that only God really knows the degree of spiritual laziness, mental blindness and emotional frigidity and arrogance, that has allowed the Europeans to grant themselves the moral right to such gigantic heights of smug condescension towards a whole race of their fellow human beings.
It is this grotesque condescension that Masekela refers to with his title: "The lasting impressions of Ooga Booga".
Dynamic, live, civilized music. Enjoy an evening with Hugh Masekela.
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HUGH MASEKELA: 'Black to the Future'
As usual, catchy tunes from the formerly exiled South African trumpetist, singer and composer, Hugh Masekela.
Insistingly repetitive, hypnotising rhythms built in to the voice and in the music. It might seem somewhat stationary to some, the music doesn't develop itself with the dynamic force that Masekela is often able to produce. One might say, these are more slow, thoughtful numbers, made for a late evening's body-consciousness, together with your favourite dancing partner.
Jack Donen - 6/98
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Great things happening, also in Finland, in the world of world music.
Global Music Centre works with helping immigrants in Finland to present their culture and their art to the larger world. Here it's mbalax from Senegal. Seven musicians, showing how the rhythm and the songs should be made, accompanied by six horns with open-handedly prodigious arrangements served up by the Finnish hosts.
All in all: Lots of talking drums, kora-like guitar, a jazzy Finnish horn section, great a capella blues song. And of course the wailing sounds of the jali. There are many fine moments on this well-recorded, ample CD. Perhaps especially the elegant demonstration of how to play the drums, but also noteworthy for me, has been the way that Pape Sarr's compositions stay in my head, and the way his bass through it all gives the music solid ground to lift off from.
This is living trance music from the people who know about it. And a good example of an old tradition that has been able to renew itself.
Thanks once more to Global for their good taste.
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ACID QUEEN - FEATURING SISI LAVA SISI AND EGYPTIAN CLUB: 'Tranzania'
This CD is the result of a project with whose aims one can only sympathize - aiming as it does, to support Tanzanian musicians, and composers of music and lyrics. It's a project paid for mainly by NORAD, the Norwegian State's Third World aid agency, and is run in co-operation with several other Norwegian institutions. The P2 radio station, the Strømme Fund, and last but not least, the record label of the Church's Cultural Workshop.
The idea is to support musicians educationally, economically and practically in Tanzania, in particular through a strengthening of the Tanzanian Musicians Association, Chamudata. Profits from the sales of this CD go, then, to support the main project.
The CD came about after two techno-musicians from Norwegian Acid Queen went down there and met and recorded two local tarab groups, 'Sisi Lava Sisi' and 'Egyptian Club'. The Tarab genre comes originally from the island of Zanzibar, but has now also become popular in Dar es Salaam as well as up the whole coastal area of Tanzania and Kenya.
With this background I find it difficult to criticize a record that nevertheless, in the real world, has turned out to be a slightly ambient, quite good techno-recording, containing a just discernable amount of foreign, i.e. African colouring.
I think that to me the biggest disappoinment is that the many possibilities present for experimenting with real African rhythms have almost not been utilized. But perhaps I'm just a romantic dreamer as far as techno is concerned? Otherwise it must be said that as pure techno, the recording seems to function very well. It has the drive of ambient techno's monotonous, and slightly - though not exaggeratedly - pumping rhythms. The songs of the African musicians have clearly been relegated to a back seat, but have still managed to come through as the background for quite a few beautiful melodic themes. In fact they leave behind them a kind of lyrical mood that floats through the room, even after the music has stopped.
I would thus hope that the whole project gets to work so well, that we in the First World will soon be hearing a lot more Tarab sounds - with no objections from me for just a splash of Western influence.
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BONGA : 'Swinga Swinga' -The Voice of Angola 102% Live
This is a record that's hard to stop playing.
Born in Angola, Kuenda Bonga is a living fusion of Angola, Portugal and Brazil - a cultural fusion called "Lusophone" in the Portuguese-speaking parts of the world. He's released more than a dozen albums over the past 20 years or so, and deserves much more notice in this our part of the world, than he's had. This is living music, 102% live and full of everything that brings life to the ears and heart and feet of whoever is lucky enough to be listening.
He has a powerful "presence" and an enormous amount of energy that he conveys constantly to the audience through his distinctively husky voice. A voice whose warmth is combined with the kind of Latin sentimentality, with a touch of gypsy/flamenco in it, that we know from the Gypsy Kings for example. Especially clear on 'Praca', a song from the Cape Verde islands.
The sound of the band is authoritatively, sensuously masculine. The musicians play very closely together, yet each can weave his way forward at times, and play something really worth hearing, in a way that seems very African (and has been refined in the concept of the jazz solo). To hear Alfredo open a number with a rhythmic play of his bass is to be transported immediately into quite another world - to be filled with the exotic "Lusophone" culture, which is the culture shared by the Portuguese in Africa and Brazil
Difficult for this reviewer to hear without the feeling of South Africa coming up. Yet the Brazilian salsa rhythms are all over the place, brought to us courtesy of a wide variety of percussion instruments, African and Latin American.
Then there's the husky, bluesy saxophone, the flute, and the Latin guitar who is also no stranger to the blues. But I stop now, with the realization that trying to describe this wonderful mixture of so many of the good things in musical expression, becomes like describing the details of a beautiful woman's features - the beauty gets lost in the concreteness of the details.
This recording was made live at the HeimatKlänge festival in Berlin last year, the technical quality is excellent, and the dynamic warmth of Bonga's personality and his constant on-stage communication both with the band and the audience are clearly essential in giving the music its persistent drive and joyous lift.
So this is an example of the "Lusophone" culture. Let's have more of that, please. LusoMania for me! At this point in time I can't imagine it being overdone - as my rhythmic disc of the year.
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MAHMOUD AHMED: 'Soul of Addis'
From the moment I first heard Ethiopian music, around the beginning of the nineties, I've been sold on it. Mahmoud Ahmed is one of their big names, and, together with Aster Aweke, he was one of the first singers I heard. That was on a cheap locally produced tape, and it's great to see that he's finally available on CD.
One of the most special experiences Ethiopian music has to offer is their tizita, a kind of Ethiopian blues. A fine, an elegant expression of emotion, that really shows up the romantic soul of Ethiopia. To try to give words to my experience, I would say that in tizita, a feeling for the tragic depths of life is balanced by the expression of heroism, pride, stubbornness in the face of adversity.
Mahmoud Ahmed says "Even when I hear others sing tizita I'm overwhelmed with emotion. When I perform a tizita song, I lose myself in it. I try to play tizita in its many variations. It's my favourite soul music".
And in fact, most of it sounds like tizita to me, the outsider. Both listening to a ballad, and when the music is more strongly rhythmical. So I also lose myself in it - all the time.
To do it justice though, I should mention that this record has examples of several distinct genres. Besides tizita and ambassel, with their chichika Amharic rhythms, there's a reggaenumber, and then there's Gurague, with it's quite Western, jumping rhythm. In general, the instruments are western, and there's what I can only describe as a jazz-combo sound to much of the music.
Each song has its own special rhythm. On a firm background of bass guitar and drums, the singer creates a rhythmic expression that is in constant interchange with a horn section, which plays a kind of contrapuntal jazz-riffs to his voice. And the listener is rocked by the steady exchange between singer and horns.
Ethiopian music is a quite special experience.
Jack Donen - 6/97
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a capella, bass rhythms and especially jazz
South African music is traditionally marked by two special characteristics: a capella song and the richness of the harmonising voices, and rhythmically by a typically strong, pulsing bassline, that goes in deep and moves one's corpus.
And then there's the jazz tradition in South Africa, probably
the one closest to the jazz we know in the West, but one that
still has it's own local sound. The closest comparison I can think
of, would be the jazz "schools" around the fifties in
the USA: West Coast, "cool jazz", Kansas City, and so
on - though admittedly the South African "sound" is
more ethnic, and as such the feeling of African culture in general
is always there, and different from First World jazz. That the
relationship between jazz and Africa has been reciprocal can also
be heard in more ethnic South African music, for example in the
rhythmically hypnotic repetition of a phrase - vocally or instrumentally
- which easily brings out reminders of jazz musicians' riffs,
that are meant to drive and incite both the soloist and the audience
VARIOUS ARTISTS: 'Afrique du Sud - Jive Township'
The 'Afrique du Sud' compilation consists of a journey through contemporary South African music, a journey with a certain amount of historical perspective. There's mbaqanga of course, with Mahlatini, but also pure a capella, and then there are several tracks which are based on the old song traditions, but which now are accompanied by electric guitar and bass - "néo-traditional zoulou" is the quite precise definition given in the cover notes of the French record company Mélodie. There are several examples of both older and good new jazz, with groups like Malombo and Orchestra Mundo. A bit of world pop, a single purely South African dub number, Lucky Dube's reggae, and the Soul Brothers, who do their rather frenetic thing. Last but not least, the older generation's Dolly Rathebe still makes her mark, with her hypnotic, authoritative marabi song.
All in all a collection whose balance on the side of the not-too-electric suits this reviewer's tastes well.
Jack Donen - 6/98
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VARIOUS ARTISTS: 'The Music of South Africa - The Rough Guide'
World Music Network doesn't say so directly in the cover notes, but the compilation 'The Rough Guide' is an historical presentation of South African music.
That is, a selection that starts somewhere in the beginning of the 1960s, with real pennywhistle jive by Spokes Mashiyane, who in those years made kwela known all over the world. From that period you can also hear Miriam Makeba - at that time a member of a pop group called the Skylarks - singing in an an unrecognisable falsetto. Through a number of older recordings, we get to the mbaqanga and bubble gum, soul and jazz of the 1970s and 80s. As time and techniques developed, the recordings become more and more polished, while still clearly displaying a basically "ethnic" sound - though just as on 'Afrique du Sud' (reviewed above), in what might be called a "neo-traditional" form.
Unfortunately the quite random sequence of the numbers on the CD doesn't work to the benefit of the older recordings. The contrast with the more 3-dimensional sounds of the newer recordings makes the older ones sound unecessarily weak, and uninteresting, and the resulting experience is not as well-rounded as on other collections of South African music.
However, if you're a collector or perhaps a teacher, interested in specific artists and periods, this might be just the thing for you.
Jack Donen - 6/98
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VARIOUS ARTISTS: 'Mandela - son of Africa, father of a nation'
This record is the soundtrack of the documentary movie of the same name. The 26 tracks present South African music from the fifties to the nineties, the four decades that the film apparently describes in most detail. This is music Mandela himself has listened to, but also music about him and about the South African struggle for freedom, of which he has been so powerful a symbol.
There are three kinds of music on the CD:
- About a third is from the 1950s. Among them are several jazz numbers, that show how clearly South Africa already at that time had its own - genuine - jazz tradition, with its own very characteristic sound. It was a sound that perhaps became best known in the West through Miriam Makeba's ex-husband, the trumpetist Hugh Masekela (see my review elsewhere on this page of a re-release of his from 1965). And the matchless Masekela indeed plays here on several both old as well as new tracks.
Some of the most notable of the older recordings are the vocal groups (among others The Skylarks with an early Miriam Makeba), with a few perhaps stylistically somewhat dated versions of the South African gift for a capella harmonising, with its rich tonal colouring, depth and crispness. This was the sound that Paul Simon's record - with Ladysmith Black Mambazo - made famous around the world.
- Several short numbers have been composed for the film itself. These are mostly for background sound, and most of them consist of short sequences with a capella song.
- The last third of the CD consists of modern pop songs, but pop songs with a political message. In a country with many illiterates, their purpose has been to strengthen the anti-apartheid movement (for example 'Toyi Toyi Mix' with the ANC Choir), to strengthen voting consciousness (for example 'Phansi Ngodlame' with "bubblegum pop", the star Babsy Mlangeni and the forementioned Masekela in a well-functioning collaboration). And last but not least, many of the songs are in praise of Mandela himself (for example 'Black President' med Brenda Fassie).
The record stretches over huge territory, both time and stylewise, but as a musical picture of South Africa, it works, because there really is a special sound to South African music.
What Mandela has given us all is a hope that kindness and friendliness, the idea that we humans really are brothers and sisters, are things worth struggling to realise. That they are conditions we all, deep down, would like to live in, and that they represent feelings that in fact do have a hope of prevailing one day.
The beautiful music of South Africa is an expression of all that's worth sharing, between people. There's masses of it down there - and ' Mandela' is a sample.
Jack Donen - 6/97
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VARIOUS ARTISTS: 'African Summit'
From a (prejudiced) South African, a long way from home, and with an itch in his dancing feet: This is township jazz, beautiful swinging, big band sound. Full of the rough, grinding tones of alto and tenor saxes, with lots of space for the soloists to wind their way around the room, and your legs, making up jumping songs as they go.
Besides that, and not enough of it, the silver strings of a single guitar and an occasional throaty flute with blues in its soul. The rhythm section, solid jazz piano, powerful bass and an old fashioned, finely tuned, sip-sipping, clicking and dumping set of jazz drums.
The only information on the cover is the names of 10 musicians - not even their instruments. From other recordings, I recognize three of them: Barney Rachabane on alto, Duke Makasi (he's played with Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim) on tenor, and Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi (who can do an all-American John Coltrane so you can't tell the difference) also playing tenor sax.
A call to KAZ further revealed only that the recording was made recently, at a concert in "Bop" - Bophutaswana, one of the old Bantustans, near Johannesburg. The crowd loves them - I love them. This is jazz from South Africa, one of the best places to hear it.
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VALANGA KHOZA: 'Sebe'
An enthusiastic audience during the Images of Africa festival in Copenhagen a few years ago, confirmed that South African born Valanga Khoza easily had the musical calibre to entertain it, standing solo on the stage.
This CD confirms that as a teacher he's been able to create a beautiful life support system in his adopted country, Australia. The backing group may be mostly Australian, but the music is filled with the feel of South Africa. And this at the rather unusual level of what one might call "folk music".
This is not the big city music you normally hear from South Africa, but ballads, blues and hypnotic dancing rhythms from the country. The backing is varied, and filled with many of the richly inventive rhythmic and percussive sounds and effects, both vocal and instrumental, that make South Africa so wonderful and special an experience.
Jack Donen - 9/96
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FELA KUTI: 'Fela's London Scene'
This is the second in a series of reissues by Sterns of London, of the works of the "outspoken Nigerian superstar", Fela Anikulapo Kuti. After "The '69 Los Angeles Sessions", his popularity continued growing, and EMI financed a trip to London, and this - now digitally remastered - recording session in 1971.
Fela's international stature has been based not only on his musical production, but perhaps almost equally on his role as a fearless rebel, a challenger of the political regimes in his country, both military and civilian. Starting out as a promoter of Africanism and pride in black culture, he became more and more critical through the years, of those in power, accusing them, also in his music, of corruption, incompetence and of not caring about the people they ruled.
He used for example the name of a multinational company in his song "ITT", creating the refrain "International Thief Thief" to explain what he meant. And the political/military establishment in Nigeria responded in kind, with harrassment, intimidation, by raids on his compound (his mother was once thrown out of a 1st floor window) and finally by jailing him for 2 years in the eighties.
Another aspect of Fela's showmanship, bound to impress a European audience, has been his 27 wives, perhaps fittingly employed as chorus girls on the stage with his Africa 70 band.
But Fela's musical reputation can only partly be explained by his flair for political and otherwise showmanship. The unreserved challenge of his message is matched by a powerful expression. Perhaps not so much in the sound of his saxophone, as in his vocal interaction with the band. The way he "plays" it is masterful - interlacing his words and song with patterns of riffs from the brass section, and with a broken rhythmic intensity of bass and drums. All together creating a driving insistence of sound and rhythm, with constant small changes in the patterns, that hold the listener's consciousness, and keep the listeners body awake and moving.
There is quite a difference here, from "The '69 Los Angeles Sessions", where the music much more softly and roundly shows off Fela's jazz background. Here it's obvious that Fela returned home from Los Angeles with a stack of sounds from the great James Brown. And that he studied them carefully. Most obviously reflected in the funky electric piano, at that time an interesting innovation. But besides that, the rhythm is now much sharper, more punctuated, the bass line broken, often with a lot of space in between short, sharp riffs, re-creating the "cooking" suspense of James Brown's special brand of funky soul. Enjoy for example the long "Egbe Mi O" in this style (it has the help of Ginger Baker by the way).
But make no mistake, Fela Kuti makes the new mix an African one, he's himself in it, telling his band what to do, and when, telling the world his thoughts about Africa. And giving us others something musical to move along with. You don't forget Fela easily, once you've made the connection. This is still music to be heard, and danced to.
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FELA KUTI: 'He Miss Road'
This is the third of Sterns' re-releases of the Nigerian "superstar"
Fela Anikulapo Kuti's music. He Miss Road stems from 1975,
in the middle of a very productive period lasting about 4 years,
during which he released no fewer than 22 recordings!
At this time, he was beginning to be a well-known figure, not only nationally, but also on the international scene, with his Afro 70 Band, which played the genre developed from his personal concept: "Afro-beat" - a jazzy mixture of African and big band music. (Note that the number in the title, Afro 70, not only refers to the 7th decade of the Century, but actually also to the number of members of his band - including his 27 wives)!!! The basics of the style includes not least Fela Kuti's own funky sound on sax and electric piano.
On this recording, he's first and foremost a musician, and his political texts, which were actually at that time a part of his trade mark, are here limited to injunctions to remember to be friends with each other, and to help each other.
The numbers are long, and the rhythm hypnotic - whether the bass is playing soul or reggae rhythms. And the music keeps the mood "cooking", in the way James Brown does it, though a little more softly here. A lot of focus on the rhythm group, and not so much on the wind section backing, behind Fela's many forceful, jumping solos.
Thanks to Sterns once more, for an obvious choice for Fela fans.
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SALIF KEITA: 'Folon...The Past'
On the heels of his compilation release 'The Mansa of Mali - a Retrospective' (see Djembe no.14), comes Salif Keita's newest: 'Folon...the Past'.
Folon shows a further development in the music of Salif Keita. His voice is perhaps a shade more relaxed now, but still filled with the well known sense of power and intensity that he always generates. In the ballads, his voice expresses a fine simplicity of feeling. Reading the translations of what he sings highlights the poetry of his texts, and reveals a man engaged in expressing the spiritual values of Africa. A griot not born, but self-made.
The instrumental side of the music also represents a further development. Making thorough use of the possibilities of studio recording techniques of the 90's, to be an expression of Africa in the world today. It's electric, very electric, if that's your bag. And simple, yet complex.
Simple because melodically straightforward. On the other hand, the percussive effects are extremely complex, they're not only created by drums and bass, but in fact by all the musical instruments, wind instruments, guitars, balafon, even the backing vocals can be percussive in character. So at its most danceable, and there's plenty of that, the record presents one of those multidimensional rhythmic images that are designed to put all your body parts, separately, at work.
To quote from the press material: "Keita likes to use the metaphor of a tree to describe the routes of music. The roots are African music, the trunk is jazz, the branches and the leaves are funky, reggae and other modern styles". They are all there on this album.
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SALIF KEITA: 'The Mansa of Mali... A Retrospective'
Soro, his most well-known recording, has been called "Seamless high-tech arrangements". A bit too condescendingly, I think. To me, the best of his recordings are like some pieces of African art. Strikingly simple, sensually rounded and smooth, but with a charge that can lift and take you into places you know you want more of.
His singing style is of course similar to the jalis of Mali, his home country. The voice is insis-tently powerful and penetrating. He keeps his voice separate from the rhythmic base of a num-ber, floating and driving around and above it. But always projecting a sense of meaning in it, even to the listener who can't understand a word of his song.
Varied on this CD, as it is, from a couple of acoustic recordings, to Joe Zawinul's electric disco productions, the music is always eminently danceable.
The compilation is made up from 5 different recordings, stretching over 15 years of Salif Keita's career. The earliest one, Mandjou, (1978), from his time with Les Ambassadeurs, is a 12 mi-nute long, softly stretched out electric blues number. It makes this record worth having all on its own, for anyone who knows him, and wants more. The other takes are from Soro (1987), Ko-Yan (1989), Amen (Zawinul's electric Weather Report from 1991 - these two numbers are of course, the least African in feeling), and 3 tracks from the soundtrack album of L'Enfant Lion (1993).
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MOHAMMED WARDI "LIVE" IN ADDIS ABABA: 'Songs from the Sudan'
Mohammed Wardi's records have sold more than 20 million copies over a thirty year career in the Arab world and in the African Sahel region. A living legend, he has performed to crowds of up to 300,000 people. So if you don't already know him, here's your chance.
This is big band Sudanese music, and it'll easily remind you of Abdel Aziz el Mubarak, or Abdel Gadir Salim, if you were lucky enough to enjoy his Merdoum music concert in Pumpehuset, during Copenhagen's last Images of Africa festival. A kind of plaintive big band jazz sound, also familiar to us from the blues of Ethiopia, with their common mix of jazz with reggae, calypso and the Far East. (Although the Ethiopian music I've heard seems to have more a combo, than a big band approach).
Wardi's band comprises a 7-man string section, electric bass, accordion, bluesy electric guitar, 2 saxophones, trumpet, percussion and drums. Of course, the large string section and Wardi's voice dominate the music, but the other musicians don't just comprise an anonymous group sound. Some of the exchanges between, for example, strings and guitar, or strings and sax, are simply wonderful pearls of musical feeling, as well as being surprisingly close to Western blues and jazz.
Rhythmically the music is deceptively simple, based as it is on a hypnotically insistent clapping effect. But underlying the consistency of the clapping are continually changing elements, with new riffs, new incisions with each change of instrument, and with each solo instrument playing around with the rhythms. The result is that it really swings, and it just goes on and on, and if it's your scene, you'll be wanting it to do just that.
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