(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 22, Number 1, 2002)
Whacked out, twisted, broken beats and a soundtrack to life and death: I have got all kinds of junk running around in my head. There's all the music, some of it behaving in an orderly manner, some of it bouncing around all over the place like a delinquent bozo on a mobile trampoline. Then there are the noises, the hisses, the pops, the low level waveforms and... the voices.
Novelist Mark Hudson obviously shares my problem. A few years ago I reported on his book The Music in My Head (Vintage), a highly enjoyable and thinly disguised journey into and through the digestive tract of the West African music industry. The pages echoed with sound and the cd soundtrack to the book brought those resonances to our ears. Now a follow-up release, The Music in My Head 2 (Stern's) has rumbled out onto the street. Subtitled Guitars Are from Mars, Balafons Are from Venus, it is a fantastic compilation of really great and wonderfully wild music. In fact I've not come across a compilation so absolutely out-there as this for many a century.
Like its predecessor, fact, funk and fiction are interwoven, also like its predecessor the cd has an intro by the "compiler," the hero of the novel, independent record label owner, A&R man, hustler and world music authority Andrew "Litch" Litchfield. He sets the scene for Mark Hudson's trip through a view of the best from a golden age of western African popular music.
What actually does constitute the golden age of West African pop and did such a thing ever exist in the first place? Or is it the fact that there is always a golden age for each generation? These are matters discussed in Mark's eloquent notes.
TMIMH 2, hereafter referred to as Timmy2, is a very well-thought-out compilation. Although Litch claims "it was scrawled on the back of a fag packet," that is not the case. A lot of effort has gone into the choice and musical structure of Timmy2. Like Timmy1 it is epicentered around Senegal, Guinea and Mali with select choices from well-known names like Youssou and Etoile de Dakar, Super Diamono, the Rail Band to Aminata Fall and lesser-known artists and even more obscure bands. The result is a journey alongside some of the most whacked-out music you are ever going to hear in one place at one time.
The tracks range from 1975 to 1984: The cd opens in '79 Senegal with Etoile de Dakar's "Dom Sou Nare Bakh," described in the sleeve notes as "rabble rousing." The tama crackles like a firecracker ignited by the sparks showering from the flaming guitar. Still on the road in Senegal we encounter Thione Seck's 1984 "Diongoma." It has a rattling tama you can hear a hundred yards away, not mad but bad and extremely beautiful.
We are reunited with the perfection of Youssou N'Dour's classic "Pitche Mi" which takes us down for that slow jam building as it climbs and burns with peaks of intensity. You would be crazy not to admit this is one of the best things he ever did. Super Diamono's 1985 "Bass" was always one of my favorite Diamono/Omar Pene tunes of all time. Its flowing jazz funk feel powers a high-stepping mbalax beat with great, great vocals.
No compilation should be without a scorching Orchestra Baobab track. 1980's "Ndiawolou" is the choice here: Barthelemy's rapier-sharp guitar picks, cuts and slashes while Issa's sax honks, hoots and counter-parries. Ousmane Kouyate takes us for a gentle stroll with his luscious 1982 "Beni Haminanko" where the guitar leads and guides the way graciously. The Rail Band's "Jurukan" sounds oh-so-very 1975 with a super drum break, wild impassioned Mory Kante vocals, sort of Grateful Dead guitar and a sax that is certainly a long-time resident of the Bedlam Residential Care Facility. And talking of nuttiness, Aminata Fall's "Yayeboye" is one of those deceptive grooves which starts with a gentle jazzy piano and funky bass then grabs your attention as Aminata starts to let rip with her scatted out vocals, and pushes the perimeters of the song in all directions.
The obscure cuts from Guinea are very charming indeed, like Keletigui et ses Tambourines and "Demba Ti," Super Mama Djombo's "Guiné Cabral" is a real ear-opener with its chiming guitar, rampant industrial use of wah-wah and effect pedals. The journey comes to an end with Guinea's Balla et ses Balladins 1980 recording "Bambo," a sublimely successful journey through what sounds like calypso/highlife or Lypsolife or CalyHi. Whatever you want to call it, it is an exceptionally carbohydrate-rich groove. Timmy2 exceeds Timmy1 in many ways; I'm just looking forward to the Timmy2 book now.
Regular visitors to these scribblings will have noticed that I often recommend releases from the London-based Far Out label. I am very pleased to very highly recommend their latest offering Off the Shelf, a firing collection of twisted beats from the London underground. It is a selection of very sought-after rare 12" releases and deleted cuts that appeared from 1996-2002 on Far Out and its sister label Solaria. Trouble Man's "Strike Hard" is without a doubt one of the stars of this release, its dubbed out West African mix up rides on a fluxy pounding wide-screen beat that takes you on a foot-to-the-floor ride. What I especially like about this thundering musical tour de force is that in its eight minutes and 34 seconds it moves through an entertaining kaleidoscope of sound and rhythm. One of those mixing djs might have constructed this musical epic from four or five records, but I'm too old for that - I let the tracks do the talking and let them take you from one place to another.
Far Out has really come up trumps with this release as it pinballs from one creative bumper to another, like Exile's "Salidor," which moves smoothly from quiet Brazilian vocals to d&b, and the Roni Size remix of Azymuth's "Faca De Conta." From way back in my Jungle days I have always had a soft spot for Roni Size; he has always done interesting things. [www.farout recordings.com]
Youssou N'Dour's latest offering Nothing's in Vain (Nonesuch) has had some commentators saying he is back on form with his best release in ages. I wanted very much to like it, but there is something holding me back. Probably I am one of those people stuck in their own "golden age" of his music. His voice is beginning to get quite mature these days. The songs have very eloquent words - these days you have to pay respect to Youssou as one of the great voices and an important facilitator in Senegalese music. But dare I say it? This is comfort music. Nice as it is I think the only fans Nothing's in Vain is going to win are people discovering him for the first time, then this will be part of their "golden age" of music. Give me the old stuff any day.
Two recent compilations of old stuff share almost the same title: Youssou N'Dour et Les Super Etoile de Dakar Vol. 1 (Tumba K7) is made up of tracks from 1982, where the mbalax is strong and the sound thin - a combination guaranteed to warm the hearts of us oldsters. Only three of the six tracks here are actually sung by Youssou but you also get classics like Nicholas Menhem's "Siempre." Also titled Youssou N'Dour and Etoile de Dakar (World Music Network), a Rough Guide which is taken from the Absa Gueye, Thiapathioly and Lay Suma Lay releases. I could listen to this over and over again; it never fails to move me. But then new fans can easily buy most of the original music in its original release format anyway.
It's not only Orchestra Baobab returning after 15 years laid up on blocks awaiting restoration. Guinea's Bembeya Jazz are back on the scene with a vengeance. Mark Hudson in his sleeve notes for Timmy2 talks a lot about the music revolution that Ahmed Sekou Toure, the president of the newly independent Guinea, engineered by steering his country's groups to discover their musical roots. This must be one of the few times in recent African history where such nationalistic tactics have actually worked.
Bembeya (Marabi) is a fantastic comeback. The four-guitar line led by Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate still gives us a wall of guitar sound including that slide guitar! The three lead singers continue their honeyed tones. The horns still punch hard and the rhythms continue to syncopate smoothly, especially on Afrobeat-style groover "Sabou," while on "Gnape," the Hawaiian slide guitar chimes away as a ferocious drum break rips out. Welcome back, Bembeya.
I was trying to describe Salsa Feeling by Jimmy Le M and La Clave de Londres (International) to a born New Yorker who believes that 99% of the world's salsa comes from New York. When I described it as English salsa, he fell down laughing, tears rolling from his eyes. "English salsa," he choked, "there is no such thing as English salsa." "Why?" I asked. "There is Scottish salsa with Salsa Celtica and their bagpipe charangas, so why not English salsa with the best English salsa band? "Indeed," I said as I proffered a hand to help up my prone friend. "This release is probably the best English salsa release so far."
Salsa Feeling certainly is the best English salsa release so far from a band that has long been part of the burgeoning salsa scene in these sceptered isles. There have of course been notable Latin recordings by English musicians since the '50s but there has been a huge growth of interest in salsa music and dancing in the last 15 years. These days there are heretics who mutter that there are more salsa clubs in London than in New York and that the dancing here is more varied.
Led by timbalero Jimmy Le M, La Clave is comprised of a large swathe of the best English salsa musicians. La Clave frequently provide the backing band up when a U.S. vocalist appears over here. Which is where Tito Allen comes in, as one of New York's most respected soneros it was La Clave who backed him on his shows here. He has returned the favor by singing on this release, contributing two songs, including one in English, so not only do we have English salsa we have salsa in English. Now the only question I have about that is does English sound as poetic as Spanish? Well, sometimes it can. But I'm really looking forward to a song in English that has as lyrics as good as anything anything from Alonso "Tite" Curet or Ramon Rodriquez. What we want is some good words telling good stories over a memorable melody; when we have achieved that then I can say we are equal. Musically La Clave is equal and can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with any Latinos anywhere.
David Alvarez y Juego de Manos have an excellent new release, Son Demasiado (Tumi) just out. What I like about Alvarez is that he is not just a one-groove merchant. What makes him special is his ability to to fuse all sorts of different Caribbean musics, like bachata with the traditional son. The lyrics are very amusing and at times deep and you find a whole range of different rhythms. The arrangements are subtle and swinging, the female backing vocals are real punchy, and his distinctive voice with its vibrato quaver is quite unusual.
And last but certainly not least is the incredible Red Hot and Riot (Red Hot/MCA) Fela Kuti reworkings. At the dog end of the year this momentous release suddenly jumps up and bites you hard. It has to be one of the picks of the year, a real masterpiece of modern music, multilayered, deeply textural and totally radical. I will never know how on earth the Red Hot team managed to corner a whole heap of drongos - sorry I'll read that again. Some of the most creative artists - musicians, singers, rappers, etc. - that exist in our big wide world today, in order to create an album like this. You need a big vision, a shedload of creativity, organizational ability, patience and great interpersonal skills to persuade said drongos just to turn up on time. When you can also get these people to create something new, and make something very unique with it, as well as funding and telling the very important AIDS awareness message, then you have managed to make an album that is going to go down in history as a classic.
Some of the dingbats on this magnificent recording I've heard of, but never actually heard, if you see what I mean, for example Dead Prez and Yerba Buena (forgive my ignorance but I lead a sheltered life). As soon as the crisp cuts of Mixmaster Mike, Lateef and the Gift of Gab's "Kalakuta Show" hit my ears I knew we were on a winner here. After the following track, Jorge Ben Jor/Talif Kweli's "Shuffering + Shmiling" has run its course, it's jaw-slackening time.
The D'Angelo/Macy Gray/Femi Kuti/Roy Hargrove/Nile Rogers/Soultronics/Positive Force cut of "Water No Get Enemy" is something very special, with its chopped guitar and Fender keyboards, those Positive Force horns and that slapping conga. Whew. I get a kinda deep-fried jazz-funk gumbo taste and feel from this beautiful mover. In my opinion D'Angelo is one of few interesting male voices in modern American music.
Cheikh Lo really hits it here with two versions of his reworking of "Lady/Shakara" (which he originally did on his Bambay Gueej release). One is ripped apart by the tama and short-cut scratchy guitar. In the other one he is aided and abetted by vocalists Les Nubians and Manu Dibango letting go on his famous sax. This is a monster track, a real pumped-up bass-driven groover that I'm sure will be very popular around the globe. As will the Nile Rodgers/Roy Hargrove and Money Mark reworking of "Zombie." But in an album packed with mega tunes there has to be one that is just better than the rest, slightly above the high standards offered by the other tracks. Bigger than Cinerama is Tony Allen and his incredible "No Agreement." Along with Baaba Maal, Ray Lema, Res and Positive Black Soul, you find the great Archie Shepp's wailing tenor (and vocals). Ahh, sheer beauty has no names, she walks just so.
You could not force Red Hot and Riot: This is just one of those great moments that just had to happen when it happened. It is amazing that you can get something that brings so many disparate people together, and in doing that create something new and unique. A complete masterpiece. A brilliant idea, brilliantly executed. What more could I ask for?
Fela Joke: Fela goes to heaven. At the pearly gates he finds a queue, so he marches down to the front and tries to hustle his way in, saying to St. Peter "Don't you know who I am?" St. Peter says "Sorry mate, I don't care who you are. Please wait like everyone else."
So when Fela finally gets in he goes to the Welcome Bar where, by some curious accident God is actually deejaying that day. He goes over to him: "Got any of my music?"
Copyright 2003 Dave Hucker