(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2008)
It's not very often that a popular musician gets a lead editorial comment in a "serious" English newspaper like the Guardian. But Manu Chao received just that when his new cd La Radiolina (Because Music) was released here. That he also sold out three consecutive widely acclaimed shows at a 3,000- capacity hall in South London as well as a large number of major venues around England is another remarkable achievement. He is certainly getting more popular all the time, with so many different tribes. I'm sure he could be soon considered a world leader. Indeed I know there are calls for him to be the new world leader: a missionary to lead us out of musical misery and into a new promised land of three-minute songs that are packed full of ideas combined with a controlled nuttiness from a wide range of musics. A long time ago I gave up complaining that Manu was messing up my mind. He always gets there like a bit of grit in some orifice or other, irritating away. You also get drawn into his world and blissfully accept his rules and take what he gives you. He is also blessed with being one of the great visionaries of current music, mixing, matching and cut 'n' pasting his personal views in the various musical forms of the world that he has a interest in, which is quite a few, and he gives it such a sharp attention to detail. The bigger he gets the more precise his vision seems. Live, he mixes things up with gusto, twisting convention with his trademark of building up layers of alluvial sound.
On the new album, he has definitely grafted in more guitar: On "Tristeza Maleza" he has dumped in a load of pomp rock, whether it is intended to be ironic and/or inclusive I'm not so sure. Throughout the album Amadou Bagayoko contributes quite a lot of guitar, or is it bits and bobs left over from Manu's Amadou and Miriam production cut and pasted in? "Politik Kills" is a classic semi-rockers where he states "Politiks need people." True -- nature abhors a vacuum so it created politikians to fill it. "Rainin in Paradize" and "Amalucada Vida" certainly have a Cape Verde feel to them. "El Kitapena" is a sort of ska with sharp horns and Al Pacino Scarface vocals. "El Hoyo" is a very mutant sound.
There are 21 songs here which rarely exceed three minutes which is something we should appreciate as the art of writing three-minute pop songs is almost lost. Manu Chao is one of the more relaxed people on this planet and continually moves on as does the world around him. When Clandestino came out I said certain tracks would still be heard years later and indeed they were. Which are those tunes on this release? Time will tell as Manu moves on to the next bar. Overall I do think La Radiolina is a bit of a dilution from the total brilliance that was Clandestino and Proxima Estacion: Esperanza. But we should still be very thankful that Manu Chao is still Manu Chao.
The new Orchestra Baobab release is pretty stunning. Made in Dakar (World Circuit) is exactly that, recorded at Xippi Studio it has a punchy, sophisticated rawness. Recently the band has been doing their first Dakar residency in nearly 20 years, Saturday nights at a place called the Just 4 U club. They are obviously relishing the opportunity of a regular gig which allows them to continue to gell and expand in a relaxed manner. Songs can be road tested. In this case the album is a selection of classic tunes from the '60s and '70s that they might have played 30 years ago. As always the band is so very tight but they are giving us a new edge. Orchestra Baobab has got the groove, the knowledge and the experience to really let loose. Made in Dakar should have happened years ago but could not have until now.
The album opens with "Pape Ndiaye," a tribute to a benevolent Senegalese king. "Nijaay" is one of those classic quintessential Senegalese mixups of trad with Latin with twists, many twists. It has Youssou guesting on vocals doing a superb job and is a fantastic track: a slice of undulating psychedelic tama jazz that goes beyond beyond.
"Beni Baraale" is a Bembeya Jazz song where the guitars chirp together like lovebirds as a beautiful rhythm runs underneath. Great vocals from Rudy Gomis, but then, all the vocals on all the tracks are fantastic. "Ami Kita Bay" is sung in Portuguese and is a spirited journey into Guinea Bissau/Casamance. Slinky-smooth guitar floats over the choppy rhythm, a real masterpiece of moving music around. "Cabral" is another Guinean song, a slow guajira where Barthelemy really goes out dere. You can clearly hear why Carlos Santana was regarded as a god in Senegal and indeed the last track, "Colette," is dedicated to him.
"Sibam" was a hit for them in the '70s and it is a mega groove that goes all over the place, propelled along with force by Assane Thiam's tama and Thio Mbaye's sabar. This time it gets a bluestinged toughness. "Aline" is a tribute to the golden period of Congolese music and flows as slowly and as powerfully as the Congo River. Beautiful. "Ndeleng Ndeleng" takes a galloping mbalax with the guitar right out there. "Jirim" is a traditional Senegalese song which takes many turns on the road including country & western guitar; "Bikowa" is "Stormy Monday" jazzy.
The final track, "Colette," is ska to my ears. And like ska should do, it morphs through a bewildering number of guitar-led musics of the time. Barthelemy takes the Ranglin position, a boogaloo breaks in for a couple bars. He then opens the throttle and goes well into wah-wah and any number of pedals to move a couple bars on to the next idea. It ends up more of a Central West African groove with trombone gently pushing, constantly shifting sands of rhythm, while not allowing any slipping into the quicksand.
Made in Dakar is a major release because Orchestra Baobab is still growing. I just cannot get my head around the fact this band, which has been playing together since the '70s, well apart from the 25-year layoff, is actually getting better. They are making up for lost time as they devour up and explore different musical areas. Yet another masterpiece.
RIP Senegambian Labah Sosseh. He was a major player in West African Afro-Cuban music, most recently gracing the vocal lineup of Africando. His work in the late '70s for producer Roberto Torres was unparalleled with even Colombian star Joe Arroyo doing one of his songs.
Two African re-releases of major significance are Tabu Ley Rochereau, The Voice of Lightness 1961 -1977 (Sterns) and Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, Take One 1974-79. First up, the Rochereau box set is a top-class selection of some of the best songs that he ever recorded, with the various great bands he led that made music in this most belle of the Belle Époque of Congolese music. Every track on this cd is a classic -- if we needed any prompting in realizing that Rochereau is a true genius then every track here will do the job. His place in history is assured because of the radical things he did with Congolese music, expanding its horizons and introducing new elements and twisting Cuban music on its head, as well as his own songwriting and singing -- he was one of the best songwriters in Congolese music. He made some of the most beautiful music ever with the top elite of musicians and provided the entry-level first steps for many of the Congo's big stars. There is a comprehensive booklet with fact-filled notes by compiler Ken Braun who explains how it all came together and what happened. There are also rare and wonderful photos. I like the one of Tabu Ley with the Rocherettes in the '70s.
On Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, Take One 1974-79 (Analog Africa) the molds were being formed, the dies being cast for the future. This band was the template for modern Zimbabwean music with the looping mbira-style guitar and more traditional sound within a modern electric band. Mr. Walker, the chairman of the Mangura Copper mine, wanted a band to entertain its mainly Malawian workers. He asked Lovemore Mayabezi to help, who then requested trumpeter Daram Karanga to contact the right musicians. Daram was given a company car and driver to go to Salisbury and recruit people like drummer and vocalist Thomas Mapfumo, who alongside bass player Robert Nekati, guitarists Elijah Josam and Joshua Hlomayi Dube formed the nucleus of the first band, a melting pot of national origins, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Rhodesia.
This was music created on the cusp of change from Western pop and Stax soundalikes to what we know now as the Zim style. For example "Kare Nanhasi" is pure Merseybeat with square drums and chorus that is oh-so Hollies. The group's name came about when Walker, on hearing that the obviously uppity city boy Thomas Mapfumo had gotten a day job working at a chicken farm, said "Hallelujah" then, "why don't you call yourselves the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band?" Or HCR as they became known. There are four songs featuring Mapfumo on this compilation. He left when he objected to a wage cut instigated by disgruntled white mine workers and went on to create his own unique chimurenga style.
Every track here is outstanding with something to say musically, especially the soulful vocals of Elias Jingo. Top stuff throughout and music that has historical meaning as well as a musical one. There is an excellent booklet with photos and a comprehensive history, facts and credits written by producer Samy Ben Redjeb. Many people will look back with a very fond recollection of the financial and musical good times when Zimbabwe was the bread basket of southeast Africa. Now in the topsy-turvy world of Mugabe voodoo economics cigarettes are an expensive black market commodity, but marijuana, a cash crop, is hardly affected by the 30,000 percent-plus inflation per year.
As always David Calzado is on the ball. The latest Charanga Habanera release El Rey de los Charangueros (Planet) has many facets to admire. I admit to have doubted him in the past, but I have understood the errors of my ways. He is one of the best Caribbean pop songwriter-producers of the moment. He's got the formula. I would put money that if Rochereau was of today's generation and hooked into modern Cuban timba he would be listening to and really digging Charanga Habanera alongside Los Van Van, Pupy y Los Que Son Son, Paulo(ito) FG, Sur Caribe or Charanga Forever.
The big dance-floor hit is "El Cañon" which opens up as reggaeton but swiftly moves on to more fertile ground. Calzado's top-notch piano powers things along to give all the songs a tough, punchy urgency. Songs like "Me Palpita" have a real pan-Caribbean groove par excellence. The pretty-boy vocalists shine brilliantly and show their pecs off. All in all another good release from Charanga Habanera.
Worthy of interest is Tribute to Joe Cuba by Nils Fischer and Tumbazo (Walboomers Latina). German-born percussionist Nils and this Dutchbased combo have gained much respect throughout the musical world. This has encouraged quality guests to drop into this recording, such as trumpet player Brian Lynch, Cuban bass player Alain Perez and timbalero Jose Pepe Espina. As the name suggests this album is a reworking of a shedload of Joe Cuba's greatest hits. As far as I am concerned you can never have enough tributes to JC. This is a warm, creative and loving doff of the cap to one of the great characters of NY music who has been hugely influential throughout his long career. The new versions are tough, powerful, kicking dance-friendly efforts with beautiful playing all round. Full marks.
For anyone in the world who missed out on Francis Falceto's Ethiopiques series, an edited highlights version is out now. The Very Best of Ethiopiques (Manteca) is a double cd with all the hits and the classics. Francis also provides the sleevenotes.
A take on modern Ethiopian music comes from Saba and her Jidka (Riverboat). Saba has a good voice and is a tv actress in Italy. She is a half- Italian, half-Ethiopian singer attempting to update the classic sound by copying the current r&b vocal style. Some people will find this release interesting However it does nothing for me. It depends where you stand on this gospel-originated modern r&b vocal style and how happy you are with how it incorporates old and new. I am very, very rarely touched by it and find it actually limiting. Saba I am sure will be around for a while but for me, it does not ring my bell.
The Rough Guide to Latin Funk (World Music Network) sounds like it has been assembled with second-choice outtakes from Pablo Yglesias' previous compilation Latino Nuevo. So therefore it is not as interesting as that release. However, The Rough Guide to Flamenco (World Music Network) is a hand-clapping, foot-stomping success. It is quality flamenco with a whole raft of superb songs from the recent cutting edge, a tight and intelligent compilation by Jan Fairley. My favorite here is Las Montoya y Las Peligro with Pedro Sierra on "Casamiento Gitano," a rousing tango with powerful vocals from a group of female friends from two Sevillian clans -- the Montoya and Las Peligro.