News, reviews and commentary on afrobeat and related music from Africa, The Caribbean and The Americas

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Is Music Universal?

By David Fox

Blogs that allow comments offer a forum for people from all over the world to communicate at something between the speed of light and the speed of typing. So I want to ask what I think is an interesting and provocative question about music and encourage all readers to post your thoughts by clicking on “post a comment” below and typing in your ideas. People from more than 50 countries have visited the AfroFunk Music Forum in its first few months, so let’s see if we can get a little international discussion going about the music we all come here to read about!

My question is this: are some styles or specific pieces of music universally accessible?

I am NOT asking if music is universal among humans. As far as I know, all human cultures make music in some form and it seems like music may be one of the characteristics of humans in general. And we have been doing it for a great long time. Indeed, check out this news release about 7000 to 9000 year old bone flutes from China that includes links to wav files of some of the actual instruments being played: (http://www.bnl.gov/bnlweb/pubaf/pr/1999/bnlpr092299.html).

Also, objects interpreted as bone flutes have been found in Europe associated with Homo neanderthalensis, a.k.a. Neanderthal man, a hominid species closely related to us and now extinct. So perhaps music is a characteristic of hominids more generally, raising the question of when music making evolved. But that is a separate discussion.

What I am asking is whether people from any culture immediately “get” certain pieces of music regardless of its style or cultural of origin, or are cultural boundaries so tight that people from different cultures cannot appreciate each others music in the same way as they can appreciate music from their own culture?

Although I am no expert, it is my understanding that Rastafarianism has specific ideas about how various notes, chords, and rhythms affect and access the spiritual state of both performers and listeners, suggesting an awareness of the common human response to some musical forms. Afrofunk and other genres influenced by African styles of music (reggae, blues, funk, jazz, various Latin American styles) are what I listen to almost exclusively, but they are far removed from my personal or familial cultural heritage as a white boy from the southeastern US.

My contention is that these musical styles (and certainly others), or at least the preeminent performers of these styles (e.g., Fela, JB, Bob Marley, Duke) surpass the confines of their own cultures and connect to something that is present in most humans. For me, these are musicians whose work makes me say, “That is simply right.” This is obviously a big can of worms, but for fans of a musical style such as Afrofunk with a growing international fan base, reflected in the readers of the AfroFunk Music Forum, it seems like a logical can to open.

So, don’t be shy! Join the discussion and post a comment with your thoughts and include where you are from. If you feel as I do, tell us who you include on your list of musicians with universal reach. If you think we are more limited by our own cultures, tell us why you think so.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Modiba Productions Increases The Beat

By Robert Fox

Check out this superbly produced short video “Africa, New York,” featuring the dynamic recording “Pelotero” by Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble as the soundtrack.

The video is brought to you by the innovative Modiba Productions, and includes clips of Burning Spear, Speech (of Arrested Development), Thomas Mapfumo, Wunmi, Abou Diarassouma and others, all discussing the impact of African music in New York and worldwide.

Modiba Productions is a new recording and production company with the stated mission to:
create new avenues through which the vibrant beauty of African musical culture can reach the experienced and uninitiated alike; to bring the world's finest musicians together with local African talent while making use of cutting-edge music and film production; to raise global awareness about life and society in today's Africa and educate about current political challenges faced by its many diverse cultures; and to cooperatively help in developing locally-based music and film productions in order to generate funding for local societal improvement initiatives (e.g. employment training, infrastructure development, poverty relief projects,...)
Modiba also sponsored ASAP: The Afrobeat Sudan Aid Project, featuring top Afrobeat groups from around the world, united to support the people of the Darfur region. The project has raised more than $130,000 in aid so far. Purchase the Afrobeat Sudan Project CD or make a contribution.

Modiba also offers free African music podcasts on their website, along with opportunities to learn more, get involved and make a contribution. Also check out the Modiba Productions blog for regular updates on African political and musical issues.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Afropop Worldwide Features Sila & the Afrofunk Experience

By Robert Fox

The always-informative Afropop Worldwide radio show reviews a super-funky new tune called “Ambush” by the outstanding California Afrobeat group Sila and the Afrofunk Experience. It’s from their new album The Funkiest Man in Africa—definitely worth checking out. Victor Sila is one of the leaders of the Afrobeat Renaissance that is blooming throughout the US and the world in recent years, and he’s put together an exciting music project that is attracting widespread attention, for example this from the San Francisco Bay Guardian:
Sila and the Afrofunk Experience have exploded onto the Bay Area world music scene with an irresistible blend of traditional African and Afro-Latin rhythms, slinky guitar, and Sila's syrupy Swahili and English vocals. The ten-piece also throws some crucial reggae skank and hip-hop swagger into the mix, resulting in an upbeat, multiculti celebration that's guaranteed to keep you glued to the dance floor.
The Afropop Worldwide site also features a free tune this week from Zimbabwean MC Metaphysics as well as a remix from Bab Kubwa founder Ralph Godden. Godden’s track remixes the hit Moto Chini by Tanzanian hip hop artist Sugu—this was the winning track in the 2005 African Hip Hop Foundation Sugu remix contest.

You can also purchase selected singles, check out music videos and by music DVDs on the Afropop Worldwide site, with the profits going to benefit the program’s efforts to champion African music

Friday, May 26, 2006

Reggae Innovator Desmond Dekker Dies at 64

By Robert Fox

Reggae and ska pioneer Desmond Dekker of Jamaica died of a heart attack yesterday at his home in England. He was 64. One of the inventors of reggae, he is best known for the smash hits “The Israelites” and “007 (Shanty Town)” but he released a string of winning singles and albums over an influential career that extended for more than 40 years.

Dekker originally worked as a welder alongside Bob Marley in the early 1960s, and he was enormously popular in Jamaica and Britain before achieving global fame with the release of the film “The Harder They Come” in 1972.

All Music Guide summarizes the impact of Desmond Dekker:
Probably no other Jamaican artist has brought more international acclaim to his island home than Desmond Dekker, barring, of course, Bob Marley, but Dekker came first. Most people's introduction to the island's unique musical sound came via the singer's many hits, most notably "The Israelites" and "007 (Shanty Town)." Needless to say, he was even more influential in his homeland.
Tributes to Dekker are appearing worldwide, for example this excerpt from a Reuters obituary:
In 1969, he enjoyed his biggest success with the propulsive reggae classic "Israelites," four years before Marley truly brought reggae into the mainstream. The song's hard-luck lyrics -- "Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir" -- delivered in Dekker's mellifluous voice, resonated around the world. It topped the charts in the U.K. and many other countries, and reached the top 10 in the United States.

"It's about how hard things were for a lot of people in Jamaica -- downtrodden, like the Israelites that led Moses to the Promised Land," Dekker said in the liner notes for the 2005 career retrospective "You Can Get It If You Really Want."

"I was really saying, don't give up, things will get better if you just hold out long enough."
The BBC has a nice tribute to Desmond Dekker (“he introduced ska to the world”), as well as a retrospective by reggae DJ Mark Lamar (“Dekker was always magnificent”). The BBC is also featuring a personal memoir by reggae DJ Brinsely Ford, former frontman for the reggae group Aswad, which includes the following:
The last time I saw him perform live would have been a few years ago, and he was absolutely incredible. He was up and down the stage like nobody's business - I was actually quite shocked at his energy. He was still commanding the audience - half of them probably weren't born when those songs were popular, and they were totally into him.
People I have spoken to since his death, you mention Desmond Dekker and they say, 'Who?' Then you start singing the songs and they go, 'Yes, I know that song'. The work that he has left will live on for years and years. There is great wealth of musicians and artists that we listen to now but don't recognise that they listened to Desmond Dekker's music and were influenced by it.
It may never fully be recognised and appreciated, but I am sure he has done a great service for music.
You can check out Desmond Dekker’s official website here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Amadou and Mariam with Manu Chao

By Robert Fox

Here it is: the beautiful music video of “Senegal Fast Food” by Amadou and Mariam, with Manu Chao. This choice cut from the Malian superstars is from their recent album Dimanche a Bamako, which was produced by Manu Chao, the Spanish world music revolutionary. As you can hear on the recording, Manu Chao’s influence is powerful on the album, which features the unique reggae and hip-hop feel of Manu Chao’s solo work. Purists may find this new sound surprising, but I think it’s an interesting new direction. Check it out and see what you think!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Excellent Fela Radio Documentary

By Robert Fox

The BBC has a superb streaming radio retrospective of Fela Kuti’s career and influence. Originally broadcast in 2004, this is one of the best histories of Fela I have heard, definitely worth checking out. It includes some wonderful insights and interviews. From the BBC intro to the show:
Seven years on from his death, the world is starting to recognise the work of Fela Kuti as one of the most significant bodies of 20th-Century popular music. The sheer power of his music, the scathing dialectic of his lyrics, his controversial lifestyle and consequent iconic status have all nurtured a rich legacy. But who was he? What was his impact, before and after his death, in African politics and music? Was he a revolutionary prophet and voice of the people or a just an outspoken rock star, a patriarchal hedonist who famously married 27 women in one ceremony?
Max Reinhardt and Rita Ray founded the Shrine nightclub in London, and produced the revealing 44 minute radio documentary. In it, they travel to Nigeria and interview some of Fela’s family members as well as many musicians who played with him, including original Africa 70 drummer Tony Allen and keyboardist Dele Sosimi. Fela biographer Michael Veal and journalist Vivian Gold also add historical context and perspective. The radio documentary also frankly discusses the mixed legacy of Fela’s relationships with women, and also his strict approach with other musicians regarding song arrangements.

Max Reinhardt summarized Fela’s huge influence in Nigeria and around the world:
Fela was the only African musician to have taken such a strong and consistent and explicit stand on the political realities affecting his society, documenting that reality in recorded works that we can still go back and listen to.
Fela paid for this stand, as the documentary illustrates in “Fela by the numbers:”
* 50 albums recorded between 1969 and 1992
* 3 spells in prison
* 356 court appearances
* 28 wives (27 married at one time)
* 1 million people at his funeral
The BBC website also highlights a nice feature article on Fela by DJ Ify as well as an online photo exhibit of images from the art exhibit The Black President, which was presented at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Arts as well as The Barbican in London. Fela Lives!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Burning Spear: "Spritual Upliftment Second to None"

By Robert Fox

Reggae genius Winston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, now has his essential early work available on a CD called Creation Rebel. This collection captures Spear’s crucial 1968-1974 Studio One material produced by Clement Dodd, and it’s one of my favorite CDs ever. Beyond the massively profound groove demonstrated here, this set of material is noteworthy for the fact that it pre-dates virtually all other conscious reggae. It was recorded prior to Bob Marley’s groundbreaking Lee Perry sessions, yet appears fully formed musically and politically. I’ve really enjoyed listening to these early tracks, and I’m sure you will too. The song “New Civilization” is even more relevant today than when Burning Spear came up with it. We need a change in direction, and Spear certainly has some suggestions.

And while we’re at it, a new Burning Spear video documentary is scheduled to be released shortly, titled "Burning Spear: The Story of A Living Legend." Last week, Spear released a wonderful 4 minute trailer for the documentary that includes some excellent live concert footage as well as interviews with the man himself. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the full documentary. Two fans who are interviewed in the trailer give some perspective on Burning Spear:
All the time he is bringing a message. That is what I like about the guy’s music. The music is not just there—it lingers on. There is a lingering spirit in your mind.
When you finish listening to Burning Spear you have this inspiration and this spiritual upliftment that is second to none. If you’re not a serious spiritual person and you listen to some Burning Spear, then you definitely will change.
Burning Spear also has an excellent website that currently includes a free download of a new track, titled “Music Business Dub,” as well as a free remix of “Never” by Paul Oakenfold. Although he’s about to enter his seventh decade, Burning Spear remains as productive and energetic as ever.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Franco and Mobutu

By Robert Fox

Afropop Worldwide currently has a very interesting article about the history of Congolese music. It’s based on interviews with Dr. Kazadi wa Mukuna, an ethnomusicologist and author who teaches at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and Lubangi Muniania, an arts educator, community scholar and president of Tabilulu Productions based in New Jersey.

The authors review how the brutal history of the Congo created a modern musical culture that prized “authenticite,” a nationalist sense of black power, set in opposition to 500 years of colonial exploitation and racism. Kazadi wa Mukuna discusses how even corrupt dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko were able to take advantage of the need for “authenticite” in justifying their rule—for example by enlisting Franco, aka Luambo Makiadi, a towering figure in Congolese music. Franco was a powerfully influential singer, guitarist, bandleader, composer and arranger, and Kazadi wa Mukuna explains how Mobutu took advantage of Franco’s fame:
Mobutu was not an idiot. He was a very smart man. He knew that he could use musicians to push forward his mission. Franco was instrumental. And Franco took advantage of this to compose songs about authenticite. Franco wrote about everything. He spoke about every aspect. Authenticite was subject that he was close too. “Belela Authenicite Congres Na Congres” MPR is one of those song in which he truly revealed his belief. He says in Lingala, “In a foreign country, a foreigner asks, “Who am I?” Proudly and in my way I will tell him that I am Zairois. My party is MPR. My chief is Mobutu.” It all comes down to “belonging.” Franco took that traditional concept of belonging and used and summarized it to put it in terms of authenticite as Mobutu defines it saying that “MPR is family and politically organized. If you are born Zairois, you are a member of the MPR.”
The article also addresses how high copper prices in the early 1970s gave Mobutu an opportunity to pose as a legitimate leader by hosting the epic music festival that accompanied the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, which included James Brown, Stevie Wonder, the Fania All-Stars and many other musical heroes.

There are nice summaries of Franco’s musical influence on the Leopardman’s Guide, RetroAfric and All Music Guide. You can purchase Franco’s historic 1956 recordings on the RetroAfric website.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Calling The Mothership

By Robert Fox

Oh yes! Classic video of Parliament Funkadelic live in Houston, 1976. Glen Goins calls down The Mothership. Accept no substitute...

Friday, May 19, 2006

Fela Video: "Music Must Be Used For Humanity"

By Robert Fox

The 2002 CD project Red, Hot and Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti brought together some of the world’s top afrobeat, jazz and hip hop musicians for an epic tribute to Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti. The project benefitted the Red Hot Organization, the leading international organization dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture.

It also produced some of the finest Afrobeat-inspired music ever recorded, with new interpretations and new lyrics built on Fela’s original classics. The CD release helped spark the continuing Afrobeat Renaissance around the world.

However, even dedicated Afrobeat fans may not realize that the project also included a documentary video, "Red, Hot and Riot: Encounters with AIDS in Africa." It has some choice footage from a musical and political perspective.

For example, in this brief streaming video clip, Femi Kuti reflects on the legacy of his father, Afrobeat creator Fela Kuti:
My father was one of the greatest people to come out of Africa. He spent his entire career fighting against injustice in Nigeria and in Africa as a whole.
The same video segment also has archival footage of Fela in action, including an interview where he shares this direction for musicians everywhere:
Music is a spiritual thing…One day higher forces give you the gift of music. Musicianship must be well used, for the good of humanity.
Check out additional video footage from the documentary Red, Hot and Riot: Encounters with AIDS in Africa. You can purchase the entire documentary or the CD with a donation to the Red Hot Organization.

Read reviews of the CD by the BBC (“one of the filthiest tenor sax solos ever committed to tape”) and All Music Guide (“moves into uncharted territory”).

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Belize City Boil Up

By Robert Fox

Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up is a rich blast of classic grooves that reflect the diverse cultural history of Belize, mixed with a heaping dose of 70s-era funk, soul and reggae. This 2005 release includes some outstanding local hits from back in the day, and the raw, groovy sound will definitely get you up out of your seat.

Belize is the small Central American nation wedged between Guatemala, Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. It’s one of the more diverse nations in The Americas, boasting a population that includes the Native American descendants of the Mayans, Spanish-speaking mestizos, the Afro-Amerindian Garifuna, plus the descendants of Africans brought by to Belize by the British colonizers.

Throw in the musical influences of Cuba and Mexico, plus a shot of James Brown and some scratchy low-fi recording equipment, and the result is Belize City Boil Up—a vibrant mix of dance music, salsa and sucker-punch funk. This I like!

These tracks were rescued from obscurity by the fanatics at Numero Group records, who have now released six CDs worth of previously lost gems from all over. Here is how they describe Belize City Boil Up—you can check out the song samples and see for yourself:
Belizean’s call it Boil Up, and it’s anything but leftovers. Mix equal parts R&B, calypso, disco, funk, reggae, bruckdown, soul, folk, and whatever else can be found back on the bottom shelf of the musical pantry. Get ready to feast on passport stamped rhythms, second-deck cruise ship melodies, hotel pool calypso, soundtracks to movies not-yet-made, and anything else savory, or unsavory, enough to throw into the pot.
While you’re at it, take a look at Numero Group’s catalog and outstanding website, which includes a digital dig of unearthed singles and rare tracks you can purchase online. Numero Group is definitely worth paying attention to—here’s how they describe themselves in one of their less modest but poetic moments:
Anything but another record label. Please, we don't need another one of those clogging up the bins. Accountants with coke habits, lawyers using a Pitchfork as a tip sheet, 60 year-old executives awkwardly trying to converse with 17 year-old groupies. Marketing meetings. Junior VP's.
Enter the Numero Group... a big pile of music that no one had ever heard of. The mission was simple: to dig deep into the recesses of our record collections with the goal of finding the dustiest gems begging to be released from their exile on geek street.
Right On! This is a record label to watch.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Curtis Mayfield Is The Answer

By Robert Fox

Curtis Mayfield inspired people everywhere with his political vision, personal insight and ground-breaking soul and funk. The worldly music he laid down with The Impressions and on solo albums like “There’s No Place Like America Today,” and “Superfly” live on with enormous influence among musicians, fans and activists. These recordings are among my favorites in any musical genre. Curtis’s “People Get Ready” is an anthem for the ages, and is my personal standard for music to organize a revolution with.

Recently, there was a wonderful radio memoir related to Curtis Mayfield on the National Public Radio show “Studio 360.” It’s by Dave Alvin of the roots-rock group The Blasters. In the moving memoir, Alvin describes the challenges of his early music career, and how seeing Curtis Mayfield perform helped him regain his focus on what's meaningful and on why musicians are so fortunate. He describes how Curtis changed his life---I’m sure he’s not the only one.

Check out this wonderful streaming audio file (4 minutes) of Dave Alvin on the impact of Curtis Mayfield.

The music in the memoir is from the phenomenal Curtis/Live! album, recorded in 1971 at New York’s The Bitter End. All Music Guide calls it “simply one of the greatest concert albums ever cut by a soul artist.” It’s truly amzing, and still precisely on the mark politically.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

New Release from Cheikh Lo

By Robert Fox

Senegalese composer, singer and guitarist Cheikh Lo has a creative new release now available this month, titled Lamp Fall. I’ve very much enjoyed Cheikh Lo’s music over the years, but it’s been a long wait between recordings. The new CD was reportedly six years in the making, and continues the pattern set by his first two releases: meticulously crafted blends of catchy Cuban beats, Senegalese mbalax and a popular, accessible style punctuated by his powerful vocals. However on the new release, Lo did much of the recording in Bahia, Brazil, and the eclectic results reflect a new Brazilian influence alongside the unique mix of styles that is the hallmark of his recordings.

In an interview with Afropop Worldwide, Lo explains how he ended up in Bahia:
After nearly a year of recording and developing tracks for what would become Lamp Fall, Cheikh wasn’t entirely happy with the result. He kept wanting more. That was when his producer, Nick Gold, suggested they take the tracks to Carlinhos Brown’s studio in Bahia, Brazil. Cheikh had long nurtured the idea of creating a cross-cultural percussion summit and as he told us, his response was immediate: YES! Once in Brazil, Cheikh was very turned on. “Carlinhos’s studio is there in the neighborhood. And the young musicians he works with, they play those big drums with sticks. I said to myself, This is almost Africa. Effectively, this is Africa. Because they themselves were transported from Dakar-Gore to wind up in Brazil.”
Meanwhile the Fly Global Culture website pointed out that Lo’s expansive vision of music provides a new twist to traditional sounds:
If some recent traditional albums give the listener a feeling of tranquility, as if reaching an isolated but welcoming village as dusk settles, Lamp Fall by contrast is like arriving in a bustling city full of unique and chaotic possibilities.
Fans of Afrobeat will definitely relate to the warm and comfortable grooves that Cheikh Lo comes up with. You can check out song samples and buy the CD here.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Tony Allen: I Will Never Bore You

By Robert Fox

The Dutch music website KindaMuzik has an interesting interview with Afrobeat architect Tony Allen, the drummer and music director for Fela Kuti's legendary Africa 70 band, inventors of Afrobeat. The interview coincided with the release of Tony Allen's powerful solo album Homecooking in 2002.

In the interview, Allen discusses the impact that American jazz drummers like Max Roach and Art Blakey had on his playing. He also expresses his interest in pushing Afrobeat into the future and taking the music in new paths. Here's a brief excerpt:
"The music has to stay, it is my mission to make afrobeat stay forever. So I'm always trying to take the music in new directions. Which is why I make music with new artists. Like the Allenko Brotherhood project. I made different rhythms and gave them to DJs, producers, hiphop artists, you know? So they could build the tracks around my rhythms. I don't want to repeat what we've done with Fela Kuti & Africa 70 in the seventies, and what I've done with Egypt 80 in the eighties. When people talk about afrobeat, they want to hear the old stuff. Why? Why do more of the same stuff? If you really want the music to stick around, you have to change it. You have to move with time, because if you don't, time will pass you. The core is the rhythm, my rhythm. That will not change. The rhythm is afrobeat. But that doesn't mean you can't make it sound fresh. So no repeating. As long as I'm alive, I will never bore you. "
In recent months, Tony Allen has also released a new live CD, Lagos No Shaking, that is getting excellent reviews. You'll definitely want to check it out.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Global Rhythms Podcast Features Ali Farka Toure and Taj Mahal

By Robert Fox

The world music magazine Global Rhythms has an informative website that includes choice monthly podcasts available for free downloads. This month’s Global Rhythms podcast includes selections by Lobi Traore, Cesaria Evora as well as an assortment of new music from Cuba, Mexico, Sicily and more.

However, the highlight of this month’s podcast is a tribute to recently deceased Malian bluesman Ali Farka Toure, including an exclusive interview with the American blues musician Taj Mahal. In the interview, Taj Mahal discusses his own discovery of Ali Farka Toure, and his joy at having the opportunity to record and perform with Toure.

Taj Mahal also reflects on Ali Farka Toure’s pattern of spending half of each year farming in rural Mali, then the rest of the year touring the world’s top music venues. He also points out that Ali Farka Toure was fluent in Bulgarian, apparently from having lived in Bulgaria briefly in the late 1960s, where he is said to have purchased his first guitar.

Also included in the tribute are selections of Toure performing with artists such as Toumani Diabate and Ry Cooder.

Check out the Global Rhythms podcasts—you can listen to them as a streaming audio on this website, or download for playing on your computer or portable music device.

The Afropop Worldwide website also offers free regular podcast feed that includes some well-chosed selections.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Kokanko Sata - Who Says I Can't Play?

By Marc Bruner

Kokanko Sata's debut album is another ground-breaking piece of work from the musical hotbed of Mali. It's also another excellent release from Honest Jons Records, a creative partnership between London's legendary Honest Jons record shop and Blur frontman Damon Albarn.

Kokanko Sata sings and plays percussion, and she also plays the kamelen n'goni, an African harp with a deep, forceful sound that is notoriously difficult to master. Her music is well grounded in the traditional sounds of the Wassoulou region of southern Mali, which has generated a number of famous female singers, such as Oumou Sangare and Sali Sidibe. But she certainly breaks with tradition by playing the kamelen ngoni herself -- this is an instrument that is (or rather, was) reserved exclusively for men. No one would teach her how to play it, so she made one out of a gourd and taught herself.

The result is a rich and personal sound that is full of acoustic energy. Multi-talented musician and mother of three, Kokanko Sata is paving the way for female musicians in Mali (and hopefully beyond) to pursue the music they love.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Orchestra Makassy - Legends of East Africa

By Marc Bruner

This album is as sweet as honey. With its infectious rumba rhythms and gorgeous electric guitar melodies, it exudes a potent Afro-Caribbean vibe that is sure to put a smile on your face. It's an East African classic, and one of my personal favorites.

Orchestra Makassy was immensely popular in Tanzania in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and included some of the biggest names in Tanzanian music, such as Mose Se Senga aka 'Fan Fan' and Remmy Ongala. The band's leader, Kitenzogu "Mzee" Makassy, was born in eastern Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo), and the music is filled with the sumptuous sounds of Zairean soukous. But the album also stretches eastward to the Indian Ocean: Makassy founded the band in Uganda in 1975; moved the group to Tanzania after Idi Amin forced him into exile; then recorded the eleven songs on this set (nine of which were originally released on the album Agwaya) in Kenya in 1982.

Perhaps it's the mix of different musical influences that makes this album so absorbing. Or maybe it's just the incredibly catchy tunes and the sparkling, luscious guitar work. As Robert Christgau of the Village Voice put it, "I love them because they're lovely."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Gangbe Brass Band – Music From Benin, With A Touch Of New Orleans

By Marc Bruner

What does Benin (formerly Dahomey), a small West African nation, have in common with New Orleans? Perhaps more than you’d think. Just listen to Whendo, the latest release from Gangbe Brass Band, a ten-piece band that blends traditional African percussion and call and response vocals with a jazzy big brass sound. The result is music that is fresh, playful, joyous, and soulful. Many of the songs would fit right in on a New Orleans street corner.

The connection goes a long way back and is perhaps not all that surprising. Slaves from Dahomey brought with them to Haiti their voodoo traditions, including ritual dancing and singing, which ultimately made their way to New Orleans.

There are other connections and influences as well. Various songs on Whendo recall Afrobeat, Juju music, Afro-Cuban jazz, and even bebop. Check out the Gangbe Brass Band, and see (and hear) just how small a place the world really is.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Lobi Traore: More Great Music From Mali

By Marc Bruner

Lobi Traore’s self-titled release from 2005 is a tour de force. All Music Guide hails it as the best blues record of the year, "and it isn't even a blues record. It's hard Malian folk music gone electric." BBC describes it as "blistering" with a "manic, mystical edge," and declares: "Traore's fiery guitar style is somewhere between John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Page, and against a backdrop of frantic percussion, the whole works like a trance-inducing chant. . . . All songs are ultimately feral, almost chaotic, and weirdly funky." Indeed, the music is hot and hard-hitting – and incredibly satisfying.

The album was recorded in the open air in Bamako (Mali’s capital), with no second takes and no overdubbing. As a result, it has the energy and spontaneity of a live performance. And while it may seem rough and rugged at first, repeated listens reveal a tight and sophisticated sound. I should know – I can’t seem to get it off of my CD player!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Ode to the “Bluesman of Africa”

By Marc Bruner

Ali Farke Toure died a couple of months ago on his farm in his hometown of Niafunke, Mali. He was a national hero and one of Africa’s most famous musicians. As expected, the eulogies were plentiful and full of praise – and rightly so. (See obituaries by BBC, The Times, The Guardian, The International Herald Tribine, The New York Times, and Afropop Worldwide.)

Ali Farka Toure was my introduction to Malian music. I bought a bunch of his CDs in late 1998, just before heading off on a two-month trip to West Africa. I was struck by how varied the CDs were – and how I much I liked each one.

Radio Mali, a reissue of songs made for Malian radio in the 1970s, is raw, poignant and powerful – and distinctly African. Talking Timbuktu, his 1994 collaboration with Ry Cooder, is polished and sophisticated, and emphasizes the close connection between African music and American blues. The self-titled Ali Farka Toure has a much more minimalist sound, focusing almost exclusively on Toure’s passionate singing and his graceful, yet intense, guitar work. But The Source is my favorite. In captivating fashion, it blends acoustic and electric, moody and upbeat, and the exotic with the familiar.

Ali Farka Toure will be sorely missed. But we can still find comfort in his music – including an upcoming new solo album, which his record label, World Circuit, says he completed just before his passing.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Kinshasa + Havana = "Kinavana"

By Marc Bruner

There has long been a strong and intimate connection between Cuban and Congolese music. This is powerfully illustrated by the music of Kekele, a veritable all-star group of veteran Congolese musicians devoted to "rhumba," the Congolese version of Cuban rumba music. Check out their latest release, Kinavana, for a wonderful blend of Cuban and African sensibilities.

Afropop Worldwide aptly explains the longstanding cross-Atlantic connection: "By the closing years of the Belgian Congo, the city of Leopoldville (today’s Kinshasa) was a place where city boys plucked out highlife songs on box guitars, phonographs and radios played the latest mambo and son hits from Cuba, and people from deep in the Congo’s remote, culturally rich interior came to seek opportunity. Pop bands mainly existed to entertain the white elite, and played imitations of foreign music. The Cuban music, with African (including Congolese) rhythmic ideas at its heart, was naturally familiar and attractive to local musicians and listeners. So when musicians in Leopoldville began to make electric pop music for themselves, that music provided an obvious starting point."

Kinavana brings it home full circle. The album is a sweet-sounding, heartfelt tribute to Cuban singer, songwriter and guitarist Guillermo Portables, with an unmistakable African touch. When I played it for my wife, she seemed surprised: "It’s so soothing, but it makes me want to get up and dance." Right on!

Soothing Sounds from Sierra Leone

By Marc Bruner

When you think of Sierra Leone, calming music might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But just listen to Dead Men Don’t Smoke Marijuana, a 1994 album from Sooliman E. Rogie, the Golden Voice of Sierra Leone. You’ll be transported to a hammock by the sea when you hear his deep, smooth voice and gentle acoustic melodies.

All Music Guide sums it up nicely: "Rogie is a master of palm wine music, which is named for a drink made from the milky white sap of Sierra Leone's palm trees, and the atmospheric, carefree feel of the tunes conjures up images of relaxing times on breezy beaches watching lush, tropical sunsets. Rogie's lilting guitar, backed only by standup bass and subtle percussion, has a rootsy folk-blues feel, while his soothing, buttery baritone caresses you like a warm Caribbean wind. With traditional African call-and-response vocals, the music comes off like a cross between the laid-back island rhythms of reggae, the back-porch vibe of rustic blues, and the spiritual feel of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, making this a sweet, stirring testament to an undeservedly little-known talent."

But Rogie was more than just a deeply talented musician. He was also a devoted teacher of African music and culture. In the U.S., where he lived for 16 years before his death in 1994, he performed at elementary and high schools across California, and received awards from Congress and the Cities of Berkeley and Oakland. Be sure to check out the soothing sounds of Sooliman E. Rogie – the godfather of modern palmwine music, who taught himself how to play guitar and who taught others about his country’s culture and its music.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Bokoor Studios: Highlife Music From Ghana

By Marc Bruner

I first heard highlife music in 1998 in a taxicab in Washington D.C., and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Highlife music emerged in coastal Ghana more than 100 years ago. It is a vibrant blend of local music and various foreign styles such as European military brass bands, the music of Liberian seaman, and dance orchestras that played western ballroom music. In the 1950s, highlife – like many other types of African music – incorporated Afro-Cuban rhythms and the electric guitar.

The recordings from the Bokoor Studios in Accra (Ghana’s capital) during the 1980s provide an especially fascinating introduction to this vital music. The studio is an amazing story in itself. It was founded in troubled times in 1982 by musician, musicologist, and teacher John Collins. In the early days, Bokoor ("spirit of coolness") was surrounded by tension, unrest and, at times, gunfire. One of the guitarists who came to record at the studio in 1982 was an active-duty army sergeant – faithful to both causes, he played in full military uniform, with a machine-gun strapped to his back. Hence, the name of the excellent compilation The Guitar and the Gun, which features tracks from such groups as the Calvary Bells Supreme Christian Singers, Salaam and His Cultural Imani Group, and F. Kenya’s Guitar Band. (For a great article on this album, and highlife music in general, click here.) Electric Highlife is another fabulous collection of recordings from the Bokoor Studios, while Vintage Palmwine features some fantastic "unplugged" highlife from Ghana’s longest continuously running recording studio, which Collins still operates.

The album cover for Vintage Palmwine instructs, "shake well before using." If not, no worries, for the highlife music from Bokoor Studios will surely get you shaking.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Jerry Gonzalez & the Fort Apache Band

By David Font-Navarrete

"I am bilingual. I speak Spanish and English. I can play the blues and I can play the rumba." -Jerry Gonzalez

The Fort Apache sound is completely unique. One reviewer eloquently describes it as an "ongoing thesis of Afro-Cubanized hard bop." The Apaches have genuinely inspired my own obsessive devotion to music, and they're my heroes. Most of their recordings are available online- I recommend Descarga.com. They also appear in the award-winning documentary "Calle 54." "Rumba para Monk" and "Obatala" are CDs I'd need on a desert island ...


Here's a discography of Jerry Gonzalez & the Forth Apache Band, the world's
greatest Latin Jazz group:

"Rumba Buhaina" (2005)
"Fire Dance" (1996)
"Pensativo" (1995)
"Crossroads" (1994)
"Moliendo Cafe" (1991)
"Earthdance" (1990)
"Rumba para Monk" (1988)
"Obatala" (1988)
"The River Is Deep" (1982)
"Ya Yo Me Cure" (1979)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise

By David Font-Navarrete

"Music is not part of this planet in a sense that the spirit of it is about happiness. Most musicians play earth things, about what they know, but I found out that they are mostly unhappy and frustrated and that creeps over into their music. But people they have dreams of going other places and seeing other things. Musicians should not get too tied up in academic things and their egos and the money thing, or they'll never be able to really create." -Sun Ra

No discussion of anything called "AfroFunk" is complete without Sun Ra. He was a black man from the planet Saturn. He led one of the most spectacular big bands of all time (the Arkestra) and recorded dozens of beautiful albums with titles like "Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow." Enough said? A few days ago, I revisited two amazing films about Sun Ra: "Space Is the Place" (1974) and "Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise" (1980). Pure joy, my friends! Sun Ra is one of the most radical, inspiring figures in 20th century music. Period.

Here are links to some nice web pages about Sun Ra:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Ra

http://www.dpo.uab.edu/~moudry/

http://www.holeworld.com/stellar.html

http://www.elrarecords.com

The two films I mentioned are both available at Netflix, and a number of Sun Ra recordings are also available through Forced Exposure.

See you in the Omniverse ...

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

DJ Thick: AfroFunk 1

By David Font-Navarrete

I've been experimenting with electronic music for the last seven years under the name Io (available through Elegua Records, CDBaby and iTunes). At some point -maybe at the Ambient Ping- I realized that Io was becoming a much more meditative ambient project, going further and further away from anything resembling funky music for dancing.

Well, I recently sold most of my electronic music hardware (sampler, synthesizers, etc) and switched to software-based technology (Audacity, Ableton Live, Reason, etc). This stage of my journey in sound has spawned a new persona: DJ Thick.

Why "DJ" (short for "disc jockey"), if there are no discs involved, vinyl or otherwise? Aren't there enough DJ names already in an impossibly long roster of musical cartoon characters? ... the thing is, Thick is a new group project: electro-acoustic roots music. I play electronics and percussion in Thick. So I'm the DJ for Thick ... thus, DJ Thick. No? As DJ Thick, I can do remixes and mashups, as derivative and ironic (or organic and original) as I want. Which brings us to today's post:

Fresh from my digital audio wonderland, here's a special dedication mashup for all you AfroFunk heads: DJ Thick - AfroFunk 1.

It's a 7.7 MB, 8'21", 128 kbps MP3 file, so folks on dialup should plan accordingly.

Here's the list of ingredients:
Zap Mama- Wadidyousay?
Chopteeth- We Dey Chop
Babatunde Olatunji & Charles Payne- Soul Makossa
Tom Tom Club- Genius of Love
Herbie Hancock- Chameleon
C.K. Mann & Carousel 7- Funky Hilife (E flat)
Bell Telephone Laboratories- How We Hear
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings- Pick It Up to Lay It in the Cut

At this page, you'll also find two longer mixes from sets at my friend Xochi's birthday bash, one of the best parties I've ever been to ... Thanks again, Xochi!!!

If you like what you hear, let me know! Much more on the way, so stay tuned ...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Pancho Quinto

By David Font-Navarrete

The late, great percussionist Pancho Quinto is a legend among fans of Afro-Cuban music. He was, paradoxically, revered as both a relentlessly creative innovator and a standard-bearer of tradition.

This is from a brief but lovely tribute to Pancho Quinto from the World Music Network:

"Francisco Mora, better known as Pancho Quinto, passed away on 11 February 2005, from complications resulting from several strokes he had suffered in recent days. Pancho will be remembered as a pioneer in Cuban music for his innovations in the use of traditional instruments and rhythms. His career spanned six decades, and he started as an apprentice drummer studying the traditional rhythms and songs played on the bata drums from the Yoruba tradition, retained and passed on in Cuba over centuries ..."

Two records under his own name ("Rumba sin fronteras" and "En el Solar La Cueva del Humo") and a third with Yoruba Andavo ("El callejon de Los Rumberos") are essential listening

Here are links to two reviews of Pancho's last record, "Rumba sin fronteras", from the BBC and Roots World.

As long as people play rumba, the name of Pancho Quinto will be remembered. Iba e!