(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 22, Number 2, 2002)
I tend to like the simple things in life - driving fast, hearing a drum and a bass, having guitars and polyrhythms under my skin, being eyeball to eyeball with a lion, seeing goats in trees, looking at paintings, hearing a good story told by a great voice. And simple music: there is so much music that I highly revere that was recorded on two tracks - there is nothing like the truth and purity of two tracks.
Recorded with just two microphones, one for the singer and one for the musicians, and put directly down onto a two-track recorder is Ethiopiques 13: Ethiopian Groove (Buda). The latest in Francis Falceto's highly regarded series of the Ethiopian/Eritrean Tigray musical scene to arrive is a totally funked-out blast of wild music. This time the selection is taken from the archives of the Kaifa label. Just two years, 1976-77, provide 15 of the 17 tracks on this release. It features a whole roster of magnificent singers and players, including the great Bzunèsh Bèqèlè, who is often described as the "first lady of Ethiopian popular music." Along side her is female vocalist Hirut Bèqèlè (no relation) and the ever present Alèmayèhu Eshèté as well as various hot vocalists of the period. Star sax player Seyoum Gèbrèyès gets to provide a couple of scorching tracks, while the members of the the Police Orchestra, the Sensation Band, the Wallias, Dahlak, Shebele's Black Lion and the Army Bands do their inimitable stuff and provide the shimmering and sparkling rhythmns. Alèmayèhu Eshèté opens the door with a flourish in a rousing track that has a swirling keyboard, sparkling guitar and real kickass horns. Hirut Bèlèquè brings us a reggae-ish mover with the Police Band's 1977 composition "Ewnètegna Feqer."
On "Wededku Afqèrkush" Alèmayèhu Eshèté gives us one of those heartrending tear-jerking bluesy vocals that is counterbalanced by fiery horns. The Sensation Band provides a spinning vortex of keyboard on a track called "Antchin Yagègnulèt," while sax man Seyboum Gèbrèyès shows us why he was called the Ethiopian Maceo Parker on "Muziqa Muziqa." Bzunèsh Bèqelè adds her succulent vocals to the Dahlek Band's "Atraqègn" which has more than a hint of Stax in it. The Wallias's "Muziqawi Silt" is certainly son of Superfly, and the Dahlek Band's "Djemergne" is a weird little Afrobeat mover with Albert Ayler-style sax. All in all, Ethiopiques 13 is one of the best of the series. I love it - I certainly have a two-track mind.
419 is the number of the law in the Nigerian statutes which refers to the offense of those advance-payment frauds, whose best-known vehicle are those scam mails promising to give you a percentage if you help launder all the vast amount of money that the person in Nigeria is stuck with and cannot get out of the country. Of course if you are greedy and stupid enough to get involved then you will find your bank account emptied quicker than you can say fleeced. My usual response, if I can be bothered to reply to these annoyances, is to threaten the sender with something or other unless they send me their uncle's record collection, original vinyl only (cd and cassette copies not accepted).
From Brixton, South London comes a really outstanding slice of modern Anglo-Yoruba from JJC and 419 Squad, and Atide (Big Ballaz Entertainment). Lead voice and main man JJC, AKA Skillz, real name Abdul Bello, birthplace Kano, Nigeria, is usually part of the highly successful English rap/hip-hop act Big Brovaz. The members hail from Jamaica, Nigeria, the U.S. and Uganda and recently reached number three in the English singles charts with a track called "Nu Flow." The knowingly named 419 Squad features members of the Big Brovaz, but there's no scamsters here, no one is running a murphy, this is all honest straight-up quality music. Atide is actually 25-year-old JJC's solo album and he is justifiably proud of the new direction he has taken, he shows how eloquent and funny he is with the words, which are a mix of Yoruba, English Cockney and Jamaican patois.
JJC stands for Johnny Just Come, a Nigerian term meaning newcomer, often used as an insult. He also has a radio show on one of the BBC's digital radio stations playing African music, so he's no slouch in putting himself about. He asks the question about this release "Is it Nigerian hip-hop? Latin with a African twist? Afro Garage? Yoruba Pop?" And the answer is yes to all points. Indeed there is Latin in there - this was the biggest surprise; I had not expected salsa samples. For example a track titled "Malemicita" is based on Africando's "Yaye Boy." The title track has a montuno piano riff and a chunky rhythm which ends up sounding quite zouky, and also features great backing vocals from female Big Brovaz singer Cherise.
"Gbao" is what Nigerians call Jamaicans and this track is a paean to how great Nigeria is, especially its national football team and its Star beer and its best "big booty girls." Afro-garage comes in the shape of "Gbenue" and there is even a Moroccan tagine stewed up in a track called "1 2 3" which features English/Moroccan rapping from someone called Rocko Moneigh. Where do they get these monikers? They sound like they have stepped out of the pages of a Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim or Elmore Leonard novel.
JJC spent his early years in Nigeria listening to country & western music - Don Williams, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were firm favorites in the Bello household. So he obviously appreciates a good story, though I cannot find any c&w elements on Atide, such as an Afrotechno version of Jim Reeves. However, a track called "Majaye" has a sort of highlife groove with violins and "Ewajo" is a reworking of Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" (!), then "Where's the Faji At?" which means "where's the party?" samples William De Vaughn's famous soul tune "Be Thankful For What You Got." Atide is a very confident and entertaining release, the music is varied, diverse and makes interesting listening as it makes a big picture. If it attracts me then it has most certainly succeeded. The faji starts here. JJC's Web site is www.jjc2uk.com.
For all you Congos heads out there, and you djs who like to run the left-field stuff, there is one of those rare 12"s around at the moment that is an essential "must have" and if you do not lay your mitts on it then you will forever rue your indecision. DJ Carl Craig has subtly edited Congo Man (Honest Jon's) into a radical slab of modern club music. He disassembles and reconstructs this classic Lee Perry production and over the tack-tack woodblock and bulbous bass line groove he layers up the sharp stabs of dub and raw distorted vocals. About halfway he slows it down a bit giving a change of texture and intensity. I like it when a great tune gets recycled in a creative manner, especially from a music that normally just goes boringly boom-boom-boom.
Grupo Caribe are one of the firing Puerto Rican bands in the NY area - their latest release Un Congo Me Dio La Letra (CMS), is packed full of great music, beautifully played. The all-star line up moves effortlessly through verdant sharp-edged horn arrangements and a wall of percussion. Led by piano player Sergio Rivera, Grupo Caribe is a collection of individuals who have paid their dues and learned their chops in various bands and session setups.
The stirring vocals are by Herman Olivera, Frankie Figueroa, Frankie Vazquez and Louis Ayala. No bland production-line values will be found here, this is just straightforward roots music that covers a lot of ground with five original tracks and six reinterpretations of classics.
It moves from mambo on the opening song "Linda Palomar," to guaguanco on "A Tite Curet," a tribute to the great PR songwriter, then a Latin jazz cha cha cha with the instrumental "Senor Slick," to "Nague," a 1940s track by the great Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo which conjures up a feral banshee-wail trumpet that sounds like it has suddenly been freed from the dark cave it's been imprisoned in for the last millennia, before the soneros start to extemporize. Ignacio Pinero's "Sobre Una Tumba Una Rumba" is another old Cuban tune that gets a storming outing. Un Congo Me Dio La Letra is essential for you lovers of hard-core salsa and especially the dancers - it does exactly what it says on the tin.
As Robert Leaver said in the last issue about the Buena Vista: Next Generation cd, album covers featuring old American cars in Havana streets is a well-worn tired old cliché. Los Afro- Salseros de Senegal en La Habana (PAM) is also on a German label and also has an old car on the cover, so take one step back, but you can then take four steps forward when you open the sleeve and find the singers are Labah Sosseh, Pape Fall, Mar Seck from Salsa 2000 and James Gadiaga of Super Cayor. This cd is the only good thing to come out of an disastrous attempt to take the best musicians and singers from the top Senegalese Latin bands - African Salsa, Salsa 2000, Super Cayor and Le Super Sabador - to play in Havana. The project got hijacked by politicians and quickly descended into chaos (it's funny how politicians are always guaranteed to mess things up, isn't it?).
Recorded over three days in Egrem studios, this cd runs through a raft of well-known and well-trodden tunes. The music is nicely rootsy, Baobab's Issa Cissokho was on board and he fit perfectly into the horn section alongside "Jules" Soleymane Gueye and Ali Penda's trumpets, who are outstanding on "Nampalal Sa Dom," "Teungeuth" and "Diongoma" as they bounce off the rhythm section's grooves. There is some really good music in this release but the call on this one is 40/60.
Another release from the same label is much more interesting. Commandante Ché Guevara is made up of the first two Senegalese cassettes from Nicolas Menheim after he had left Africando and formed Le Super Sabador. Néné Chèrie was 1999 and Ché Guevara 2001. The cover of this cd features a picture of the empty Plaza de la Revolution in Havana on July 26, 2001 when, it says, many Cubans were demonstrating outside the American Embassy.
The standard of the music throughout this release is outstanding: This has some of the best Sengalese salsa we have heard, with strong songs beautifully sung. The horn section of Théophile Preira, Malick Barry on trumpets and Wilfred Zissou on trombone is outstanding and there is some really nice guitar from Mamadou Diack. Nicolas' honeyed vocals float majestically over the proceedings. Le Super Sabador is unique in Senegal in having a female vocalist, the magnificent Maguette Dione, described as the Senegalese Celia Cruz. She provides lead on "A Puerto Rico" and probably the best track on this release, the classic Labah Sosseh track "El Divorcio." Maguette really does have an incredible voice: I look forward to hearing more of her in the future.
Tabu Ley's "Aïnicha" gets a rousing reworking as the horns stir up the wind and Nicolas emotes. "Borinque Tropical" opens with a vibrato trumpet, Camou Yandé handles the lead on this tribute to Puerto Rico which rhythmically moves in many directions in its 6'45" as Wilfred Zissou's trombone harries it along all the time snapping at its heels.
"Bataola" is a pachanga with attitude - again the trumpets are quite exquisite and the 'bone wails away as Nicolas leads us down a immensely complex rhythmical path overhung with a repetitive piano. "El Changui" tops out this superlative release with homage to the Cuban changui rhythm. [Distributed by Stern's]
The latest album from young son rebels Jovenes Clasicos del Son, Tambour en el Alma (Tumi) has a whole range of guests sitting in with the talented young boys, including Chucho Valdez, Tata Guines, Papi Oviedo and Chanquito. Led by bass player Ernesto Reyes "Palma," Jovenes Clasicos del Son are continuing with their vision of breathing new life and blood into that most venerable of styles - the son, a task they do with consumate skill and intelligence. They are not just remanufacturing but creating anew. As always lead singer Nene's star is shining brightly, the rhythms are tight and free flowing. I have tipped Los Jovenes for stardom for quite some time - they have been building their reputation steadily by playing all over the world, and soon their time must come. Tambour en el Alma takes them one step further towards that time.
Another really killer compilation from West African music expert Graeme Ewens comes in the shape of the Rough Guide to Highlife (World Music Network), which explores the wonderful world of this classic West African music during its heyday in the optimistic '60s and '70s. This excellent cruise through the Gold Coast (and to a lesser extent Nigeria) brings up many great Ghanaian artists like the seminal E.T. Mensah, the African Brothers and the Ramblers Dance Band.
This good-times music still sounds good today and throws up some total off-the-wall masterpieces, for example, Sir Victor Uwaifo's "Guitar Boy" must be very rare to have been taken from such a poor source, and is so distorted, so thrash-metal highlife, that even with today's technology it would be difficult to duplicate its wild bass line and nutso guitar.
In recent years we have been Afrobeated to death with record labels scraping
the bottom of the obscure barrel, So now is it time for the highlife revival?
Copyright 2003 Dave Hucker