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Tag: african pop

Bright, Colorful East African-Inspired Jazz Themes on Saxophonist Berta Moreno’s New Album

The main inspiration for Berta Moreno‘s latest album Tumaini – streaming at Bandcamp – is the trip the alto saxophonist made to Kenya, where she fell in love with the region’s many indigenous sounds. The album title is Swahili for “hope,” which resounds throughout this upbeat, optimistic mix of original jazz songs equally infused with soukous, soul and latin influences. We could all use something upbeat and optimistic these days, right?

Singer Alana Sinkëy’s warmly inviting soprano fuels the optimistically clustering, latin-tinged opening number, Karibu, Moreno’s carefree solo soaring over the scrambling groove of bassist Maksim Perepelica, drummer Raphaël Pannier and percussionist Franco Pinna. Pianist Manuel Valera’s brightly rhythmic attack brings the sunshine in, full force. They take the song out with a cheery soca-inflected romp.

Sinkëy multitracks herself into a one-woman choir, singing in her native vernacular in the second track, Afrika. After those balmy, atmospherics, the band pounce into a brisk, bounding groove that could be soukous, or Veracruz folk.

“Stolen sunlight, golden dust around your feet,” Sinkëy muses as The Beauty of the Slum gets underway, an understated trip-hop beat and Valera’s blend of piano and organ anchoring a catchy neosoul tune reflecting how there’s so much more to Africa than destitution and bloodshed.

Sinkëy’s lively vocalese interchanges with Moreno’s terse, blues-tinged lines throughout the next cut, simply titled Dance, Valera’s chords punching through a thicket of beats. Mandhari, a diptych, begins as a slowly undulating but stately soul-jazz ballad, a tribute to a “sacred place,” as Sinkëy puts it. The conclusion is a trickily rhythmic dance, Moreno’s wryly stairstepping solo handing off to Valera’s precisely circling phrases.

Valera loops a brooding minor phrase, mingling with Pinna’s shakers as the album’s title track gets underway, vocal and sax harmonies and then a tersely acerbic Moreno solo following a subtly brightening trajectory. Meanwhile, Valera channels his native Cuba, spirals and dips, and chases the clouds away.

Christine, a funky soul stroll, is a portrait of an inspiring, indomitable little girl, with a bitingly modal Moreno solo midway through. She winds up the record with Kutembea, a catchy, understatedly enigmatic, circling anthem, the most distinctly Kenyan-flavored track here. Beyond Moreno’s eclectic tunesmithing, this album is a welcome introduction to Sinkëy, a versatile and potently expressive singer that the world needs to hear more from.

Fiercely Danceable Guinean Feminist Rock on the Library Steps in Brooklyn

What is the likelihood that a woman from a remote Guinean village, where child brides are routinely taken by older men, would go on to become one of the most popular hip-hop artists in Africa and then a feminist rock bandleader?

In an era where unlikely heroes are busting out of the least expected places, singer/guitarist Natu Camara is paradigmatic. At her show on the plaza at the Brooklyn Public Library Wednesday night, she led a versatile, slinky band through a catchy, high-voltage mix of politically-charged songs and wound up an increasingly ecstatic show with a dance jam that went on for well over half an hour.

The steady upward climb to that final, sprawling, soukous-flavored outro was as provocative as it was fun. As the sun sank behind the library, the crowd was sluggish. “What’s up, you didn’t have enough coffee?” Camara laughed. “You afraid of corona? OK, then stand behind the line!”

That was the only time she touched on that issue, but she pushed a lot of other buttons that would have gotten her in hot water or worse where she grew up. The former member of the first Guinean all-female hip-hop group, the Ideal Black Girls, spoke truth to power, stepping in place and whirling in front of the band when she wasn’t fingerpicking her big sunburst Gibson guitar.

She began Momi Hidda, her broadside against young girls being married off, in the gentle imploring voice of a child speaking to her parents, before picking up at the end with a righteous wail.

The band behind Camara shifted gears seamlessly through a wide swath of genres. Bassist Kayode Kuti played fat downtuned lines, bent notes and bubbling vats of tarpit melody, often in tandem with the vocals. Drummer Oscar Debe kept the labyrinthine rhythmic shifts on the rails, abetted by a nimble percussionist, while keyboardist John F. Adams moved from lushly orchestral string patches, to reggae organ, phantasmagorical jazz piano and some wry P-Funk style portamento synth. Lindsey Wilson added soulful, often impassioned vocal harmonies; there was also a lead guitarist who played loopy phrases, or simple accents to bolster the beat.

Camara went into brisk late 60s-style rocksteady for Arrabama Di (What Are We Going to Do About It?), a cheerily insistent tune sung in one of seven languages. Her English is strong, and she’s funny. “What is a monster?” she asked the crowd. “You give him your heart, and he squeezes you!” And with that she launched into a vengeful minor-key vamp, soaring up to the top of her register at the end.

Likewise, Wa (an onomatopoeic word – it means “cry”) grew from a muted, gentle couple of verses to a scrambling, triumphant dance tune. My Hiding Place, she explained, was meant more as a metaphor, a philosophical home base as a place of refuge. The best song of the night might have been White Bird, a brisk, resolute dance-rock anthem inspired when a bird landing conspicuously on her windowsill. She took that as an omen, walked away from her dayjob, and the rest is history.

The dance numbers after that offered tribute to Miriam Makeba: Camara had seen her in concert at an early age, had an epiphany and decided to defy the authorities and make music her career. It goes without saying that at this point in history, we need more performers this outspoken and fearless.

Haunting, Wildly Psychedelic East African Sounds Rescued From an Obscure Archive in Djibouti

Many emerging African nations in the 60s and 70s had a national band. Those were typically established by newly independent regimes, to help concretize a national identity in areas which had been balkanized by Western imperialists. While those groups may have been founded and then exploited for propaganda purposes, their music was often very good, and fascinatingly cross-pollinated. One of the most intriguing was from Djibouti.

That country’s group, 4 Mars’ bandname commemorates the founding date of the ruling People’s Rally for Progress party there. What makes this music so unique is not only the haunting chromatics common throughout what is now Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, but also the global influences that passed through Djibouti’s ports. For centuries, the region has been a major Indian Ocean commercial hub: no wonder the Chinese Communists are building a naval base there.

In a much more fortuitous and peaceful development, the American firm Ostinato Records recently gained access to the massive archives of Radiodiffusion-Télévision de Djibouti and is mining the collection for all sorts of treasures never before heard outside the country. The new 4 Mars compilation Super Somali Sounds From the Gulf of Tjadoura – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first release, comprising both studio and concert recordings made by the regional supergroup between 1977 and 1994.

A couple of the cuts here are questionable: how appropriate is it to include a tribute to a repressive political figure? Sure, the praise-song tradition in Africa goes back centuries. But comparatively speaking, does the inclusion of Dixie in an anthology of American folk songs enhance the album’s historical value…or compromise it ethically and esthetically?

The album’s opening track, simply titled Natesha (Compassion) sets the stage: a Bollywood-influenced, melismatic chanteuse out front of what sounds like a lo-fi, vintage synth-driven roots reggae band playing a dark minor-key groove. That beat is actually dhaanto, an ancient East African rhythm that eventually made its way to Jamaica.

The quasi-reggae pulse gets more organic, with swirly organ, spare bass, trebly tremolo guitar and one-drop drums in the epic, almost ten-minute Hobolayee Nabadu (Hello Peace). The group’s saxophonist, Mohamed Abdi Alto – who now leads the excellent Groupe RTD – plays spare, biting minor-key riffs and remains an often haunting presence on many of these tracks.

Dhulika Hooyo (Motherland) is cheerier, with more surreal harmonies and a massed choir which could be half kids: at their peak, the group comprised more than forty members including dancers. How powerful is Tamarta (Power)? Not so much: this is one of the more synthy tracks, guy/girl vocals matched by tradeoffs between flute and keys, shifting to an unexpected latin soul-inflected groove.

Daroor (rough translation: Drought) has a loping, vaudevillian beat behind the Bollywood-style vocals. The number after that is faster: imagine Fela playing rocksteady. The song for an iron-fisted Djiboutien ruler has more of a strut and is a lot shorter. Likewise, the pulse of Lana Rabeen Karo (It Cannot Be Desired), a long one-chord jam which seems less forced: one thing that definitely can’t be desired is having to sing for a dictator.

Tellingly, the female singers are missing until a couple of minutes into the even more disturbingly titled Tilman Baa Lagu Socdaa (Follow the Rules). Like several of the reggae-ish tracks here, Inkaar Walid (The Elders’ Curse) could be a Burning Spear anthem with surreal Chinese flute and Balkan pop influences.

The broodingly catchy Abaal (Gratitude) seems to be of the same early 80s-tinged vintage as the album’s opening number, with flaring metal guitar, warpy synth and hasty, overcompressed lo-fi production. An acerbically modal traditional wedding song gets a bouncy, electric update with keening flute and synth along with more Ethiopian-flavored vocals: it’s arguably the catchiest track here. The concluding epic is a real departure, a melancholy, pentatonic Chinese ballad. Goes to show what a range of flavors the trade winds will blow in. Let’s hope for winds of trade rather than winds of war in that part of the world in the coming years.

Punchy Afrobeat Grooves From Surefire Sweat

Toronto band Surefire Sweat play a very tight, purposeful style of Afrobeat. Solos are short and succinct, the grooves a little heavier and more focused than most acts who jam out African-flavored funk. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open with Threshold, a brassy stomp built around an assertive, repetitive riff from tenor saxophonist Elena Kapeleris (their not-so-secret weapon here), baritone saxophonist Paul Metcalfe and trumpeter Brad Eaton.

Set to bandleader/drummer Larry Graves and bassist Liam Smith’s soukous-flavored groove, For All the Times I Never Came to See You has similarly punchy horn riffage and a bright, spiraling solo from Kapeleris.

The rhythms grow trickier and more loping in Sunshine Interference, with a jaggedly allusive guitar solo from Paul MacDougall. A Tale of Two Times is moodier and a lot closer to vintage Fela, Kapeleris’ long, pensive solo at the center. The band build RH Factor, a bright, cheery tune, around exchanges between Graves and percussionist Dave Chan along with a spacious trumpet solo.

The album’s catchiest and darkest number, On the Phrynge has some cool, subtle rhythmic shifts around an uneasy, trilling Kapeleris solo. Number Nine, a shout-out to longtime Fela drummer Tony Allen, slowly grows more complex, with accents from the whole band shifting through the mix. They close the record with Scuffle Strut, a slow New Orleans funk tune set to a pretty straight-up rock beat.

Amazing, Psychedelic, Danceable New Sounds From Djibouti

How much damage has the global lockdown done in Djibouti? That country has suffered enough without everybody having to wear those stupid masks. And if the digital gear necessary to record Groupe RTD’s new album The Dancing Devils of Djibouti existed on the band’s home turf last year, it wasn’t available at the time. A portable studio had to be flown in to catch the group’s marathon three-day session, fueled by high quality weed and qat (the national drug of Yemen, whose popularity extends to Barbary Pirates territory). The result is an ecstatically slinky mix of music with echoes of Ethipiques, but also roots reggae, Bollywood and Middle Eastern habibi pop. It’s streaming at Bandcamp.

In the album’s opening track, The Highest Mountain, guitarist Abdirazak Hagi Sufi runs reggae skank and big stadium hooks over keyboardist Moussa Aden Ainan’s keening multitracks backing frontwoman Asma Omar’s expressive, Bollywood-influenced delivery. This is insanely catchy minor-key music.

You Are the One That I Love (sticking with the English translations of the song titles here) is sort of reggae, sort of ska. Omar’s insistent intensity rises over sax player Mohamed Abdi Alto’s looming lines and the bubbling groove of drummer Omar Farah Houssein and dumbek player Salem Mohamed Ahmed.

The soulful, suave Hassan Omar Houssein takes over the mic on The Pearl Necklace, a pouncing minor-key ballad, followed by The Queen, a mighty, deliciously swirly anthem with some spectacular organ work from Ainan.

Alto’s Interlude turns out to be mostly a haphazard guitar -and-synth tableau in the blues scale. I Want You has the kind of stampeding drive that you would expect, with guitar, sax and rapidfire organ lines behind Houssein’s chill, melismatic vocals. That’s Where You”ll Leave His Reward (a religious reference, maybe?) has hints of a 70s disco strut and a warm major-key pulse.

Look at Me, with its catchy minor-key blues riffage, is more reggae-ish, validating any argument that both reggae and blues came from this part of the world. Joy could be a great lost classic from Jamaican reggae legends the Abyssinians’ iconic first album, more or less: it validates both that group, and this one here. They close the record with a gnawa-flavored shout-out to the spirits. How serendipitous that music from this part of the world could possibly be available at such a twisted time in global history.

Cape Verdean Singer Lucibela Charms and Energizes the Crowd in Her New York Debut

In her New York debut last night at Merkin Concert Hall, Cape Verde singer Lucibela delivered a mix of pensive morna ballads and bouncy coladera dance tunes with considerably more depth and gravitas than her limited if stylistically vast recorded repertoire has hinted at so far A sold-out crowd who’d followed those hints, or had seen her before – the home island posse was in full effect for this show – sang and danced along to a dynamically shifting mix of Portuguese-language songs reflecting issues of distance and alienation, and sometimes just good times off the west coast of Africa.

The World Music Institute’s Gaby Sappington – who’d booked this show – explained that she’d chosen Lucibela to open their 2019-20 season and keep the spirit of late-summer vacationing alive, if only for an evening. Yet the most explosively applauded number of the night was a brooding, bolero-tinged ballad where the bandleader finally reached for the rafters with her cool alto voice, channeling abandonment and destitution.

It took her awhile to get to that point. Rocking a mane of an afro and dressed in a simple white-and-beige linen dress and sandals, she sang with an elegant understatement for most of the evening. Her four-piece backing band were tight and methodical. Seven-string acoustic guitarist Ze Antonio alternated between graceful, steady chords, swinging basslines on his low strings, and the night’s most shivery, breathtaking instrumental break. Purposeful, incisive lead guitarist Daya Nieves switched to melodica on a handful of songs, alongside carvaquinho (Brazilian ukulele) player Stephane and drummer Nir, who balanced graceful rimshots and a mist of cymbals over a groove that often slunk into clave.

Lucibela began the night very demurely but as the trajectory of the songs rose from stately morna ballads to more kinetic, often bossa-tinged coladera numbers, she warmed to the audience and by the end of the show had them on their feet and dancing. The night’s funniest song was Profilaxia, a sardonically romping tune about a guy who just can’t get enough of the females. That was her moment to flirt with the dudes in the front row. Meanwhile, the guitars intertwined, the carvaquinho plinked, and influences from across the waves – from dramatic flamenco to stark Romany music to Portuguese fado and French cabaret – filtered through the mix.

The World Music Institute‘s ongoing series of concerts continues this Sept 22 at 8 PM at Merkin Concert Hall once again with Indian sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee and tabla player Ojas Adhiya; you can get in for $25.

Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hypnotic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9:30ish by ex-Chicha Libre keyboard sorcerer Josh Camp’s wryly psychedelic cumbia/tropicalia/dub band Locobeach. Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

A Clown-Free Valentine’s Day Show at Lincoln Center

Obviously, if you run a music blog in a town where there are over 230 fulltime venues, it pays to get out as much as possible. This blog takes three official vacation days a year: New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day and St. Paddy’s. What’s out there in the clubs on those three nights is almost inevitably worse than what’s onstage.

If Celtic sounds are your thing, you can wait til the 18th when all the amateurs are still at home recovering. New Year’s Eve is a ripoff pretty much everywhere, and Valentine’s Day is cheese central. Venues that wouldn’t ordinarily consider booking a Justin Beiber cover band blink and and hope that there are enough Jersey tourists to justify torturing the sound guy and waitstaff for a night.

But this year there is a show on Valentine’s Day that’s neither cheesy nor extortionistic, and that’s Cape Verde singer/guitarist Tcheka’s gig at 7:30 PM at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. As with the rest of the mostly-weekly early evening shows here, there’s no cover, although the seats tend to get taken as early as an hour before showtime.

Tcheka’s album Boka Kafe is streaming at Bandcamp. He plays solo acoustic guitar, with flair and flurrying energy in an individualistic style that draws on samba, bossa nova, soukous and even funk in places. Which makes sense: music from island nations tends to be a mashup of everything that’s blown in on the trade winds. He sings in an earnest tenor voice, with a smoky falsetto, in his native vernacular and also in Portuguese.

He chops his way through thickets of rainy-day jazz chords on several of the album’s faster numbers; on one, he strums into rapidfire flamenco territory. The quieter songs have a lingering luminosity with echoes of Portuguese fado balladry. And his hooks are catchy: you walk away humming them. Lyrics are a big deal for this guy – themes of the rigors of rural island life, coastal mythology and on one track here, women’s rights are front and center, so his music will resonate most with those who can understand them. But fans of tropical acoustic sounds also ought to check out Tcheka (sorry – couldn’t resist).

Elida Almeida Brings Her Catchy, Evocative Cape Verdean Anthems and Dancefloor Grooves to Lincoln Center

Elida Almeida might be the most prominent voice in Cape Verdean music since Cesaria Evora. Her global popularity attests to her ability to transcend linguistic barriers: she can evoke any emotion she wants, from righteous rage to exquisite tenderness.

“We really want to make sure that we are representing the people who make up this city, and the world,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh, who booked her show there last night, reminded the crowd. “If you have an opinion, call your representative.” She didn’t elaborate any further, but no doubt Almeida was on that same wavelength.

Almeida’s lyrics, in her native vernacular, have a biting social awareness. Sometimes allusively, sometimes very forcefully, she addresses the weariness of exile, young brides’ disillusionment, tragedy and struggle in the ghetto, and themes of nostalgia and escape. Likewise, her music extends far beyond the brooding morna balladry made world-famous by Evora, to bouncy funana and percussive batuque grooves. 

Almeida and her band opened with a pulsing, darkly anthemic minor-key number, segueing in a split-second into a twinkling soukous-tinged dance interlude fueled by Hernani Almeida’s spiky electric guitar and Diego Gomes’ pointillistic electric piano. By now, a young, energized Cape Verdean massive had moved onto the dancefloor.

An achingly lilting ballad rose and fell over a waterfall of echoey keys, matched by a jagged Portuguese guitar solo that peaked out in a flurry of tremolo-picking. “Everybody loves morna,” Almeida acknowledged as she brought the lights down with a moody, expectantly melancholy piano ballad, joining voices with Gomes for some tenderly ominous harmonies. Then she picked up the pace with a catchily whirling, syncopated batuque anthem, inviting a lady in the crowd up onstage for a brief orgy of booty-shaking, then drawing the crowd into a big singalong.

An enigmatically hooky three-chord progression anchored the anthem that followed. Then Gomes switched to accordion for a propulsive cumbia, which was where the whole house really started bouncing. Maybe that’s why the band leapt into doublespeed, bassist Nelly Cruz and drummer Magik Santiago digging in hard at the end.

A slow, spacious, regretful acoustic ballad with an achingly spare guitar solo was next on the bill, followed by a raucously scampering, latin-infused accordion tune that might have been the night’s most memorable song. From there the band took a sprint through what sounded like a Mexican banda polka and then sent a soaring, wryly aphoristic shout-out to cachupa, the Cape Verdean national rice-and-beans dish. Like any other seaside nation, Cape Verde is a real melting pot, further underscored by the salsa-funk tune the band barreled through after that. They encored with a plaintively swaying ballad that brought to mind vintage Sade as much as it did Evora. 

On one hand, listening to music from cultures with unfamiliar languages always feels a little vicarious. On the other, if you want a free, early-evening global tour of what’s happening around the world, just steps from the local IRT Broadway subway, Lincoln Center is the place to be this year. Their Atrium 360 series continues next Thursday, June 28 at 7:30 PM with a NYU-sponsored allstar lineup including but not limited to Palestinian singer Amal Murkus, Italian nyckelharpa virtuoso Marco Ambrosini, Israeli oudist Yair Dalal and Ghanian fiddler Meirigah Abubakari, all mashing up styles from their similarly eclectic backgrounds. With all of those diasporas coming out for the show, get there early if you’re going.

And the following night, June 29 Almeida and band are back in town for a show at SOB’s at 11 PM; cover is $25.

Single of the Day 4/9/18

The snarling psychedelic guitar solo that kicks off Les Sympathics de Porto Novo’s  A Min We Vo Nou We (via Soundcloud) offers more than just a smoky hint that it’s going to be proto stoner metal.

Nope.

Instead, it warps into absolutely feral pre-Fela Afrobeat. That the band managed to make it under brutally repressive conditions in Benin in the early 70s is even more impressive. When the organ kicks in, there’s no way you’re clicking through to anything else. It’ll be on the forthcoming African Scream Contest 2 compilation this June.