A ‘king without a coach’, an eccentric ambassador, a true artist. Oxmo Puccino is all of these. UNICEF France recently named the 39-year-old Bamako-born hip-hop singer an ‘Ambassador’. He has been part of the musical scene for 25 years. Roi sans carrosse (King without a coach) is his sixth album which, a mere 6 months after its release, was awarded a Victoire de la musique (an important French music award) for the best ‘urban music’ album. Just like with his previous work L’Arme de Paix (The weapon of peace). At first glance, Oxmo Puccino may seem more a French artist than an African one. People call him ‘the most Parisian African rapper’ and ‘Black Jacques Brel’ thanks to his musical style.
Despite owing much to rap and hip-hop, Oxmo Puccino doesn’t adhere strictly to these styles. In his albums, he repeatedly takes a revolutionary stance to this musical style. He once said that many young African artists “try to escape” local musical traditions “through modern music, such as rap.” He suggests to “integrate local music trends” in their songs to create “their own universe.” That is exactly what he tries to do in Roi sans carrosse, where he mixes traditions. The first, obviously, is hip-hop, even if only few of the eleven tracks have a rap arrangement.
On the other hand, songs like Pam Pa Nam (a tribute to his adoptive city, Paris) or the title track, remind us of French songwriters (a hint to explain the apparently bizarre comparison between the Bamako-born singer and Belgium’s Jacques Brel). Even when Puccino approaches classic rap themes (such as physical love), the musical rendering is surprisingly innovative: in his highly personal style, strings and guitars are predominant. Finally, the award-winning album, according to its author, was deeply influenced by Brazilian rhythms and culture - it was in fact composed during a trip to that South American country.
“Bossa nova and saudade [a Portuguese word which loosely translates as ‘melancholia’ or ‘homesickness’], this alliance between joy and sadness in life, have greatly influenced me”, Puccino said in a recent interview. “With my latest album – he added – my musical universe becomes more precise. It seems lighter, but this does not mean that it is less dense,” he added. Roi sans carrosse, he pointed out, “is an emotional journey representing a part of my life.” This is also clear when looking at the subjects ‘Black Jacques Brel’ tackles, in a style he once defined “full of African philosophy and Parisian experiences.” Not exactly words one might expect from a rap singer.
Most ‘big names’ of hip-hop sing about the tough street life, a cruel world of violence. In the first track, Le mal que je n’ai pas fait (The evil I haven’t done), Oxmo Puccino takes a different stance: “I’m proud of all the evil things I haven’t done,” he sings.
There is a strong attention for interiority throughout the album: its best example is the introspective song Le vide dans moi (The void in me), while Un an moins le quart (in other words nine months) and Artiste describe more specific moods, which deal respectively with paternity and the ‘dark side’ of the artistic career. The album does not lack political lyrics: in Parfois (Sometimes), a hymn to equality, Puccino refers to Rosa Parks, the late US civil rights activist, and pays homage to “every Spartacus” fighting for freedom.
The African rapper’s latest album is international for both its themes and its rhythms, but Abdoulaye Diarra (Oxmo’s real name) hasn’t forgotten his home continent. “Africa – he told journalists – still offers much poetic matter,” and its most promising musicians have to be encouraged. “There are many talented people, both in Europe and in Africa – he also said – unfortunately they don’t always have enough resources to express their potential. They are the Rois sans carrosse I want to honour.”
Forget everything you thought you knew about African drums. The name itself of Congo’s Les Tambours de Brazza indicates the importance given to the drum (‘tambour’ in French). Nevertheless, their music is far more elaborate than a “traditional percussion dialogue,” as the group leader, Emile Biayenda repeated on many occasions.
“Some people may think that our shows are village feasts with feathers and paintings… Not at all!” explained Biayenda, now in his late 40s, who founded Les Tambours in 1991, together with several other musicians from Congo Brazzaville. Twenty-two years later, they are releasing their fifth album, Sur la route des caravanes. As in their previous works, the drum is still at the core of the 13 tracks. Its role changes from time to time: it might be the lead instrument, or it can provide an accompaniment either to the voice or to other sounds. Biayenda explained that the band’s goal is to go beyond the traditional representation of the drum, “as an instrument for entertainment.”
The band manages to fully express the wide range of musical possibilities provided by their beloved ngoma, the traditional drum of the Bantu kingdoms. It couples with the singer’s voice: neither one prevails on the other, they appear to be ‘intertwined’ and complementary. The same happens with the other instruments which find their place in the songs (including a violin, a bass, a keyboard and even ‘western-style’ drums), and in some cases the sound of the ngoma is unpredictably soft.
As for the themes and the style, both the great number of the band members and of their musical influences has to be taken into account. The title of the album itself, Sur la route des caravanes has multiple meanings. First, it recalls the slave trade, which had a key terminal in Pointe-Noire, in the Tambours’ home country. However, ‘la route’, the road, also means travelling, something that these Congolese musicians often do: apart from touring in four of the five continents, they were even forced to leave Congo because of the civil war. Yet, their two-decades-long career and their musical evolution can be compared to a journey also from a symbolic point of view and this is due to ‘biographical’ reasons as well as to cultural ones.
“Congolese music has always been influenced” by traditions “from all around the world,” Emile Biayenda explained when the band’s latest album was released. Add to this the fact that the different band members and guest stars performing in Sur la route des caravanes have spent their lives listening to the most different musical genres (from hip-hop, to African tunes, reggae, blues, and jazz) and you will have an idea of what the whole album sounds like.
“Blending tradition with modernity” is a phrase that has been used several times in reference to various African artists, obviously including Les Tambours de Brazza. In fact, they show how much musical rhythms, such as hip-hop, owe to the ‘Black continent’. It might be unfair to think of the Congolese band as just another example of the so-called ‘World music’. Looking for other similarities does not seem useful either. Emile Biayenda and his band’s albums have a unique sound. These ngoma virtuosos are just one of the many examples showing that Africa has a musical tradition of its own, which does not follow mainstream patterns, but slightly different ones. It is best to forget stereotypes.
They could be called a coalition, even though not a warring one. Many West African singers and musicians took their stand on the conflict in Mali, and chose to ask for peace and unity.
In January, Mali’s Fatoumata Diawara gathered some of the country’s best-known music artists, including Vieux Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, Oumou Sangare, and Toumani Diabaté, the renowned kora harp player. The ‘Voices United for Mali’, as they chose to call themselves, recorded a song in a mix of French, Bambara, and other Malian languages: it is called Mali-ko, a title that roughly translates to ‘Peace’.
“We are killing each other, betraying one another, and dividing ourselves. Let us not forget we have the same blood,” they sing in Mali-ko. And: “Let's stand stronger together, people of Mali! Men and Women of Mali, let us unite to be stronger. Let me tell our children that we will not let our country fall into ruin.” Despite the fact that at first glance the ‘Voices United for Mali’ project can look a bit like an African, anti-war We are the World, these musicians do not hesitate to deal with relevant political themes, such as the rise of Islamist groups in the northern regions of the country.
“I have never seen such a desolate and catastrophic situation. They want to impose Sharia on us. Go tell them that our Mali is undividable and unchangeable,” sings Soumalia Kanouté. Other lyrics reveal a deeper concern: “In a moment where the people of Mali think of their stability, others try to destabilize us. In the North, people are starving, our women become merchandise, they are beaten and raped,” says Kisto Dem, and Master Soumi likens the country to a “political cigarette butt.”
This all-star music team is not unique in the war-torn country. As in other parts of Africa, Mali’s musicians often played a symbolic role, also involving a certain share of political commitment. On this issue, Oumou Sangare recently told the press: “We sing about what the politicians will not say. We must sing for people who have no voice.” Both she and Ivorian-born reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly, currently living in Bamako, have already recorded two other songs about the political crisis in the country: Paix au Mali (‘Peace in Mali’) was Oumou’s, and An ka wili (‘Mobilization and galvanization’) Tiken Jah’s.
Music has also been used, in the past, to highlight the Tuareg’s desire for freedom. They played a great role in Mali’s history and at the beginning of the crisis. This is quite a paradox, because with the Islamists’ takeover most music – including that of Malian Tuareg groups such as Tinariwen and Tamikrest – was outlawed due to the strict interpretation of the Sharia law imposed by the radical movements.
Both Tinariwen and Tamikrest supported the political struggle of Kel Tamashek (as most members of this people prefer to be called) and the former even took part in the fighting of the 90s. However, none of them wants Tuareg to be confused with al-Qaeda linked Islamists – which they never supported – and they clearly favour peace. Nevertheless, peace is seen as a step towards independence by Tamikrest’s leader Ousmane ag Mossa. "We have never seen Mali as one country. Our movement is for our independence,” he said to journalists in January before a concert in London. “The musicians of the south are only finding out now what has been going on,” added the singer, who lost his parents during the 1990s Tuareg uprising and the consequent operations of Malian soldiers.
As one can easily imagine, neither Tinariwen nor Tamikrest are part of the ‘Voices United for Mali’, but in the country there has been – in past years – at least one music event in which musicians from every part of Mali, and from other regions of Africa and Europe, took part. It was the Festival au Désert (‘Desert Festival’) usually held in Essakane or Timbuktu. Since they both are in the war-torn North, the government of Mali asked for this year’s festival to be postponed. Is this another signal that the current conflict has emphasized the existing differences in the country, turning “musicians into frontline soldiers”?
These are the words of Andy Morgan, a former music manager for many bands (including Tinariwen), now turned journalist. According to what he wrote in January on the CNN website, the Malian crisis has to be regarded as a “cultural conflict” inside the Muslim world. A risky thesis, because it highlights just one of the many factors which characterise the current war. Moreover, Morgan describes music – because of the Islamists’ ban – as a divisive issue, which appears to be only marginally true. As all Malian musicians – both Tuareg and black African – have shown, music can truly replace arms as an instrument in the political arena. This means that it is more correctly considered a tool of peace than a weapon for war. (D.M.)
In the field of African music Senegal holds an important place. Rap music, as in other parts of Africa, is successful among Dakar youth, but the work of many other artists is still rooted, in different ways, in the most well-known local musical genre, the ‘mbalax. Amadou Diagne is one of these singers.
Born in a griot family (griot is the name for the Senegalese troubadours-historians, keepers of the epic traditions of West Africa), Diagne begun his musical practice as a child. “When I was five years old, my mum started to buy me a drum every Christmas and I started to play at a very early age”, he recently recalled in an interview. Moreover, he was just seven years old when he played the drum and sang in his first ever public performance. Diagne later became a percussionist in the Senegal National Band, managing to play percussions for world-famous artists, such as Cape Verde’s Césaria Evora and his own fellow countryman, Youssou N’dour. After winning a web music contest he released his debut solo album, Introducing Amadou Diagne. In it he combines the Senegalese music tradition, evident in the use of djembe and other traditional drums and of the 21-stringed kora, an African harp often used by griots, with different sounds: some songs are accompanied by a saxophone and a cello, while Diagne himself plays the guitar.
Sung mainly in wolof and pulaar (the tongue of the fulani people), the 13 tracks are played in an acoustic, soft and intimate style, and use, from time to time, traditional melodies, not an unusual choice for Senegalese artists. “I decided to write very gentle songs, with a little rhythm. I want people to hear the messages I’m saying, whilst I’m doing gentle and simple music”, Diagne said to journalists, when asked about these features of his debut album.
References to the Islamic religion are common in the tracklist, and they are meant to convey a message of tolerance and respect. ‘Dabakh’, dedicated to a beloved late Senegal imam, is one of such songs. Thus, it would not be correct to label Diagne’s music as religious only. Many songs praise values both universal (‘Beaguele’, on love) and typical of Senegalese culture: in the opening track, ‘Senegal’, he mentions ‘taranga’, which, as he himself writes on his website “means that no one should go hungry, that family and community all help each other out in life”. And family is another of the main themes: in ‘Jigen’, a song intended to call for a great respect for women, the artist names his mother, whom he also writes an entire song for, called ‘Mam’.
Nevertheless, Amadou also manages to approach political themes. This, too, is not rare in Senegalese music (rap singers and Youssou N’dour also played a political role before and after the last presidential elections), but ‘Introducing…’ deals with this theme in a personal way: in ‘Africa stop war’ (entirely sung in English) the former National Band percussionist asks for peace in the continent, bearing in mind – in particular - the long-lasting conflicts in Somalia and the Ivory Coast. He also makes a reference to an equally sensitive, but more local theme in the song ‘Talibé’: talibés are children belonging to poor families who, instead of going to school, are forced by their parents to beg for food and money on the streets. In the lyrics Diagne asks families to make a responsible choice and decide to send their children to school, because education, from his point of view, means a chance for a better life and future for the young, even if it is hard to afford for many people.
The album title, ‘Introducing…’ indeed describes its nature well, as the songs do not only mark the international debut of an artist, but also include a great range of themes; a good way to approach a rich – and still living – musical tradition.
Mory Kanté is a legend. Born in Guinea, he started as a balafon player and rose to regional stardom in the 1970s. He became quite a sensation in Europe and climbed the world pop charts with songs like Yeke Yeke in the ‘80s; kept a low profile in the '90s, to return home to his native Guinea and become an inspirational voice for a new generation of Africans (he doubles as Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN).
Optimism and inspiration are themes that pervade the songs on Kanté's eleventh album, La Guinéenne. This is both a love song to Africa and a treasure chest of hard-nosed advice about trust, hard work, gratitude, and the importance of maintaining traditions in the face of modernity. In this album, Mory Kanté pays a tribute to Women, whose sacrifice, dedication, and centrality to human progress is too often met with oppression and neglect.
La Guinéenne marks Kanté’s return to his trademark, big band sound. He recorded the original tracks for La Guinéenne in Conakry, at a moment of deep political turmoil. Kanté then took the tracks to Paris, where he worked closely with producer Philippe Avril to complete the album. The result is a bi-cultural creation, rooted in authentic West African folklore, and gleaming with the polish and precision of top-flight contemporary production.
However, if you cannot understand the text, the album fails to impress. Long gone is the silver light of Yeke Yeke. In La Guinéenne one sees the quality of the maestro, but fails to see a spark of novelty. Yet, the genius is still at work. Tracks like Nata, Dimimi and Mana Mana Ko do have something new to offer. All in all, an album worth listening, if you like the particular sound of Guinean music.
Mory Kanté, La Guinéenne, Discograph 2012
Israeli Idan Raichel and Malian guitar virtuoso Vieux Farka Touré first met at an airport in Germany in 2008 while both were on tour. From this chance encounter an artistic kinship was born, culminating in an unscripted recording session that took place one afternoon in November 2010 in a small Tel Aviv studio. Joined by Israeli bassist Yossi Fine and Malian calabash player Souleymane Kane, Idan and Vieux improvised a masterful selection of songs that capture the unbridled creativity and inspired collaboration of these four brilliant musicians. The Touré-Raichel Collective was formed and the songs they recorded are the foundation of the album The Tel Aviv Session.
Idan Raichel is a well known pop star in Israel. The music he creates with his international band The Idan Raichel Project unites African, Middle Eastern, Eastern European traditions into an accessible global pop amalgam.
Idan has long been a fan of the legendary Ali Farka Touré, Vieux's father and main musical inspiration. Upon meeting Vieux, Idan said "I have a dream, I will leave my band and come join yours as a keyboard player. I don't care if I get paid or anything, I just want to follow you around and see how you do it." Idan proved his sincerity when he hopped on a flight to Cartagena, Spain to join Vieux in concert. "Going back to being a side musician and taking that opportunity to learn from Vieux was a magical experience for me," Idan says.
Vieux recalls, "When I first met Idan he looked like a crazy hippie to me. But he carried himself with a lot of confidence. He was cool and relaxed. I knew there must be something powerful about this guy. Then the minute we first played together, I knew that I was right. He has deep talent and a deep soul."
Two years later, Idan became the curator of a world music series at the Tel Aviv Opera House, and he invited Vieux to perform the first concert. It was a magical night, with Vieux and Idan trading riffs backed by Vieux's full band. When the unforgettable concert was over, Idan wanted more. "You know what, let’s find a studio and jam," he proposed, and the next day they met at a friend's studio in south Tel Aviv. Idan, Vieux, Yossi and Souleymane from Vieux's band played together.
Vieux's manager, Eric Herman of Modiba, was in the studio and remembers, "I was thinking to myself, 'Alright, this is fun, a really nice little jam.' Soon there were two or three tracks and I started to think 'Hmm, maybe there will be something here we could use.' After about five or six more amazing songs were laid down I said, 'Wait a minute, we have a full album here!"
"Because there were no expectations," Eric explains, "it was really the most fluid and pleasant recording experience. They all just played until they got tired. As it was unfolding, it was pretty clear to everyone something special was happening and that's why it kept going and going and by the time it was done I knew that we had a really good record. What struck me was the nakedness of it. So many people agonize over all the aspects of a recording; everything is premeditated in virtually all recording sessions that I've been to. And this was entirely freeform, an open exchange."
Idan began to edit the tracks, trimming some sections and fleshing out others. There were some people that they wished had been there that day, so they decided to ask them to record some additional parts. Singer Cabra Casey, an Israeli of Ethiopian heritage, wrote lyrics in the Ethiopian language Tigrit and sing on the song "Ane Nahatka". Yankele Segal played the long-necked Persian tar on "Kfar". Mark Eliyahu added the haunting sound of the kamanche, an Azerbaijani fiddle, to "Alem". The result is The Tel Aviv Session, an album that merits listening to.
London based Afro-funk outfit KonKoma released their debut album last June. The group proposes a sound typical of the 1970s Ghanaian music scene. The band has been built around two Ghanaian musicians – Alfred Bannerman and Emmanuel Rentzos – who have stage experience with the likes of Bobby Womack, Hugh Masakela and Peter Green as well as being long term members of the Afro-rock band Osibisa. The full line-up of KonKoma sees Emmanuel Rentzos on vocals and keyboards, Reginald ‘Jojo’ Yates on vocals, mbira and percussion, Alfred ‘Kari’ Bannerman on guitar and vocals, Nii Tagoe on vocals and percussion, Jose Joyette on drums, Derrick McIntyre on bass guitar, Scott Baylis on trumpet, Max Grunhard on saxophone and Ben Hadwen on saxophone and flute.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Ghana was in the forefront of Afrobeat. The genre was soon to take over in discos around the region and became famous as Highlife. This is why many think of it as a Nigerian or Ivorian music. However, it is in Ghana that local artists combined traditional African rhythms with European brass, an essential mould for the sound later popularised by Fela Kuti. KonKoma wants to re-propose that sound.
“KonKoma is the name of a tribe in Northern Ghana”, says lead guitarist Alfred ‘Kari’ Bannerman. “They are very colourful and their rhythms are wonderful. The band is a rebirth of Ghanaian music from the 70s and 80s – it feels very authentic”. Both Bannerman and keyboardist Emanuel Rentzos are living relics from that period. And this is not exactly a good aspect. In fact, in listening to this album, one fails to warm up to the 12 tracks proposed. The opening song, Lie Lie, is delivered in a perfunctory way, nothing more. Sibashaya Woza is the typical song that makes you say “déjà vu”; there are thousands of tracks like this, and any unconvincing band from Lubumbashi to Nairobi offers the same quality as KonKoma. Ditto for the following tracks.
In this album, KonKoma show a penchant of impressing the listener with elaborate drumming (which is largely copied from other artists, nothing new under the sun). They even fall in the cliché of performing Jojo's Song, a track devoted to the kora. Why is it that there must be a kora?
KonKoma, KonKoma, Soundway / SNDWCD 044, 2012
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of war and enflamed the passions of fans across the globe with their uplifting songs of hope, faith and joy. The band is a potent example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact. From their humble beginnings in West African refugee camps, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have performed on some of the world’s most prestigious stages.
Throughout the 1990s, the West African country of Sierra Leone was wracked with a bloody, horrifying war that forced millions to flee their homes. The musicians that would eventually form Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are all originally from Freetown. They were forced to leave the city at various times after violent rebel attacks. Most of those that left the country made their way into neighbouring Guinea, some ending up in refugee camps and others struggling to fend for themselves in Conakry.
Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace had left Sierra Leone in 1997 and found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone. When it became clear they would not be heading back to their homeland anytime soon, they joined up with guitarist Francis John Langba, and bassist Idrissa Bangura, whom they had known before the war, to entertain their fellow refugees. After a Canadian relief agency donated two beat up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meager sound system, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were born.
American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White encountered the band in the Sembakounya Camp, and were so inspired by their story they ended up following them for three years as they moved from camp to camp, bringing much needed joy to fellow refugees with their heartfelt performances. Eventually, the war in Sierra Leone came to an end, and over time the All Stars returned to Freetown, where they met other returning musicians who joined the band’s rotating membership. It was there in the tin-roofed shacks of Freetown’s ghettos that Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars recorded the tracks that ended up, along with unplugged recordings made in the refugee camps, being the basis for their debut album, Living Like a Refugee, which was released on the label Anti in 2006.
A film that documented this moving saga, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, was a critical success, and introduced the world to the personalities and dramatic stories behind the band, not to mention their instantly appealing music. The movie, album and eventual U.S. tours helped expand their following, and soon the band found itself playing in front of enraptured audiences of tens of thousands at New York’s Central Park SummerStage, Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival and the revered Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. They appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, contributed a song to the Blood Diamond film soundtrack, participated in the U2.
For their second album, the members of the All Stars knew that they needed to prove to the world that they had the talent to produce an album that would rise above their unique story and stand on its own musical merits. After recording some songs and demos in Sierra Leone, the group went to New Orleans, Louisiana to work on the album with veteran producer Steve Berlin, a member of Los Lobos. Rise & Shine brought the band new accolades and earned 2010 Album of the Year on the prestigious World Music Charts Europe.
In January 2011, the All Stars returned to the studio, this time in snow-covered Brooklyn, NY. Their producer for their third studio album was producer and keyboardist Victor Axelrod, aka Ticklah. He added a whole new dimension to the All Stars sound and helped them reveal how years of touring have honed their skills.
The All Stars took advantage of the vintage analog gear at Daptone affiliate Dunham Studios to record an album inspired by the retro sounds they heard blasting out of radios in their younger years. Old school reggae, funky African grooves and deep tribal chants form the musical underpinning of Radio Salone, which was released last April.
The album is called Radio “Salone” – meaning “Sierra Leone” in Krio – and the band sings in six local languages. The radio theme appears throughout the album artwork and reflects the impact that radio has long had on the band. In the pre-TV and Internet days, radio served as a connection to the rest of Africa and the globe. Long before the war, members of the band were exposed to vintage reggae, Congolese soukouss, American soul, and much more. During the war, radio provided an essential escape from the harsh reality of the refugee camps, bringing news and music to people desperate for a link to the world beyond the camps.
Radio Salone is not the best album from Africa this year. The band is still leaning too hard on their past. Indeed, they helped uplift the souls of many people in the camps, and showed the kind of resilience great people are made of. Yet, their music does not automatically benefit from the personal history. This album is anyway worth listening to. Some of the songs do have a punch, and also because Sierra Leone music is hard come by and this band is the only one marketed in Europe, so far.
Earlier this year, Angelique Kidjo released her first live album – Spirit Rising – after a long carrier of studio albums and concerts in the most respected music temples on the planet. Kidjo is certainly one of the most important living African singers. In October 2011, Forbes listed her as the first woman in their 40 Most Powerful Celebrities In Africa. This reflect not only her artistic achievements, but also her social drive which saw Angelique take the foreground on many civil society battles, especially in defence of women’s rights.
Spirit Rising was recorded live in Boston, and could easily be sold as a ‘best of’ album. These 16 tracks offer Kidjo’s oldest signature songs and some surprises; all interpreted with a swift flow of guest stars. The band operates as a balanced wall of Afro-pop, lacking however the easy flow of African style percussion. There are good moments, yet these are short outbreaks swiftly dispatched. Kidjo’s vocal ability takes centre stage, and at times saves a song that would need serious redress. The many guest stars - Josh Groban, Dianne Reeves, Branford Marsalis, Richard Bona and Ezra Koenig – add some, but also seem to get in the way of the general performance. Basically, their presence is artificial and – with the exception of Branford Marsalis - they overdo it.
Tumba, the opening track, is a difficult one to perform live. The studio version is certainly better. Yet, here it is played well. Afrika and Agolo are signature songs from Kidjo’s old repertoire, and they appear here in sleekly dashing form. Much less convincing is Redemption Song, whenever our artist moves away from African to play with other styles she loses in quality.
A bad surprise comes with Malaika. This Swahili song comes from Mombasa, even though it was written by Fadhili William Mdawida, a Taita musician from inland Kenya. Kidjio simply does not get into the feeling of the song, taking freedom with the way of singing it and simply spoiling the mood. Malaika is the sad story of an impossible love. In Kidjo’s performance it becomes something between a hard rock and soft something else. Anyone who loves Kenya’s coastal music will not see in this performance a true rendition of Malaika.
All in all, this is an album to enjoy the best tunes by Angelique Kidjio, who remains a true star of African music.
Angelique Kidjio, Spirit Rising, Wrasse Records, 2012.
Malawi is the first country in Africa I visited. Once I left Blantyre and moved south towards the border with Mozambique in Gambula – and the then on-going war – I saw children selling mice along the road. My guide explained that people prized roasted mice with their maize meal at night. Children, in turn, made a few kwacha capturing them in the bush and selling them after piling them on a stick. Not the best of suppers!
Sitting at a road side cafe in Malawi, Ian Brennan saw children selling roasted mice to travellers. Most probably he did not think much of that food, either. But he was interested in hearing the music that those kids played while waiting for more customers. Brennan is a Grammy award-winning producer. He is behind the success of band such as Tinariwen, from northern Mali. Brennan is always on the lookout for new sound, and Africa has produced quite a few new artists in the past years. Just think of the Karindula Session from Southern Congo. When he heard them playing, Brennan knew there was potential in that music.
The Mouse Boys are a vocal band singing homemade songs, mostly gospel and call-and-response style led by acrobatic vocals from Zondiwe Kachingwe. These eight friends have worked together since boyhood, crafting songs when business was slow. The music they produce has a refreshingly unencumbered sound, a lack of technological interference allowing the honesty and authenticity of the music to shine through. The recording, done in situ, did little to hide the imperfections. The poor sound of the home made instrument is just what it is. The occasionally out of tune response was left untouched in post production.
He is #1 is the resulting album; 13 songs of faith and love. Kunvera (to hear) opens the album; a powerful a cappella led by lead vocalist Zondiwe Kachingwe supported by a strong chorus of peers. Listeners can be excused if they were to think of listening to South African music. In fact, Malawian music is heavily influenced by the Ngoni tradition. In the XIX century, coming from Natal, the Ngoni attacked the Maravi Kingdom led by the Chewa people. They have been influencing the culture of Malawi and Zambia since then. Mtsilikali (Soldier) places some reggae vibes behind the constant references to “Jesus”, and Wabwino (It’s Good) is justly rough.
It is a little too early to proclaim this band the future of Malawian music, but certainly the recording has a freshness that cannot be doubted. Most songs are not well refined, exactly how you would hear them played on a country roadside. However talented, these young musicians cannot change the rough sound of home-made instruments; but this does not play against them. On the contrary, the Mouse Boys can capitalize on this first album and refine their music, hoping they will also keep the positive aspects of their music as well.
Malawi Mouse Boys, He is #1, Independent Records Ltd, 2012