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Tag: musique africaine

Innov Gnawa and Amadou & Mariam at the Peak of Their Psychedelic Powers at Prospect Park

“It’s hot all over,” guitarist/singer Amadou Bagayoko remarked to the Prospect Park Bandshell crowd last night in his heavy-lidded, Malian French drawl. On the hottest night of the year so far, one of the other things he noticed that was all over the place was weed. See, Amadou is blind. His other senses are working overtime.

But it hardly took a sensitive nose to pick up on what was wafting from the slope out back: this was a show for the smokers. And the place was packed: from personal experience and a survey of random concertgoers who’ve seen multiple shows here recently, the only act who’s drawn as much of a crowd as Amadou & Mariam was Jamaican dancehall star Chronixx. Psychedelic music has never been so popular as it is in 2017.

Which is no surprise. Amadou & Mariam are arguably the world’s most individualistic psychedelic rock band. Over the years, they’ve inched further and further from their original mashup of sprawling two-chord Malian desert rock jams and bouncy central African pop, to a much more western sound rooted in the 1960s. And they’ve never sounded so interesting, or eclectic as they are now.

Mariam Doumbia – Amadou’s wife and childhood sweetheart – sang in her enigmatic, uneasily bronzed, sometimes gritty delivery in both French and Bambara, often harmonizing with Amadou’s balmy croon, going through a couple of costume changes in the process. Behind them, their drummer alternated between stomp, slink and funk while their bassist played tasteful, serpentine riffs and countermelodies, their keyboardist adding lushness and lustre on organ and several synth patches.

They opened with Bofou Safou, their driving, biting new single, sending a message that this show was going to rock pretty hard. From there they made their way methodically through a couple of leaping dance-funk numbers that brought to mind mid-80s Talking Heads, a starry nightscape with majestic Pink Floyd echoes, several similarly mighty blues-based anthems and a deliciously creepy detour into late 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia.

It was on that allusively menacing number that Amadou took his longest, wildest, solo of the night. While his playing sometimes brings to mind the feral icepicking of Albert Collins, the twangy sparkle of Mark Knopfler and the machinegunning hammer-ons of Vieux Farka Toure, he doesn’t seem to be influenced by any of them, and with the exception of his countryman and younger colleague Toure, may not have even heard those guys. Winding up and down and around, he brought his long trails of sixteenth notes home to a final comet tail and wild applause. The band have a new album due out next month: if this concert is any indication, it’s going to be amazing.

Brooklyn’s own Innov Gnawa, whose career has taken a meteoric rise recently, opened and got a full hour onstage, a rarity at this venue. The sea of fans they’d brought to the show might explain why. Fresh off a Coachella appearance and a marathon series of New York club gigs, it’s hard to imagine a hotter band in town right now.

The only gnawa band in the world west of Morocco, they play the original drum-and-bass music. With roots in sub-Saharan, pre-Muslim central Africa, transplanted to the north, many of their hypnotic, pulsing, crackling themes date from over a thousand years ago. It’s party music, for sure, but it has even more cultural resonance for healing and spiritual purposes. With limited time (for them – this band can jam for hours) and a big stage to work with, they clanked and boomed and snapped their way through a dynamic mix of straight-ahead dance jams and trickier, turn-on-a-dime rhythms, winding up with frontman/sintir lute player Hassan Ben Jaafer running his basslines faster and faster as his chanting choir of bandmates whirled their cast-iron castnets, encircling him and bringing the show to a peak that would have been daunting to most headliners other than Amadou & Mariam.

Amadou & Mariam continue on US tour; their next show is on July 24 at 6:30 PM at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago; admission is free. Innov Gnawa are uptown at Ginny’s Supper Club on July 27, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30  PM; your best deal is standing room at the bar for $15.

The next show at Prospect Park Bandshell is tomorrow night, July 22 at 7:30 PM and opens auspiciously with Innov Gnawa percussionist Amino Belyamani’s similarly innovative, mesmerizingly rhythmic dancefloor minimalist trio, Dawn of Midi. Jury’s out on the headliner: are Mashrou ‘Leila the Lebanese Cure, or just another lame corporate dance-rock act?

A Blissful Weekend of Otherworldly, Cutting-Edge Moroccan Trance Music

Every year, at the end of June, the Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde – the world’s largest performance of North African music – takes place in the coastal city of Essaouira, Morocco. Literally millions of people gather to watch dozens of the world’s most exciting and innovative acts in Moroccan and Middle Eastern sounds, to discover new bands, to dance or to be whirled into a trance state. By all accounts, Essaouira is a safer city than New York. With the strong dollar, it hasn’t been this inexpensive for Americans to visit in a long time. If you can afford to, you should go – in this political climate, your chance might be now or never, at least for the next few years.

This past weekend, three concerts in New York and one in Washington, DC celebrated the first-ever collaboration between the festival and Lincoln Center. Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal and Samir LanGus, founder of the only American gnawa band, Innov Gnawa, came up with the idea while at the festival last summer, and the rest is history.  And historic as well: this series of shows marked the first time three of the great maalems (masters) of Moroccan gnawa music, Abdeslam Alikkane, Hamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa, have ever appeared on the same stage.

About the music: gnawa was brought to Morocco by black slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. Gnawa music originated in pre-Islamic society as a healing ritual, fueled by the well-known calming and curative powers of low-register sonics. It’s typically sung by a maalem who plays a sintir bass lute, accompanied by a call-and-response chorus who add an often mesmerizing series of polyrhythms with a rustle and whirl of cast-metal qraqab castanets. The music’s migration north brought the invocation of Islamic saints and liturgy into the fold along with the traditional ancestral and nature spirits. Like American hip-hop or blues, it was considered ghetto for years before becoming Morocco’s best-known global music export over the past decade or so.

Thursday night at Lincoln Center was the big debut event. It’s safe to say that space was as packed as it’s ever been, an ecstatic, multicultural crowd that drew heavily on the Moroccan expat community, one of the many immigrant cultures that New York’s cultural mecca has reached out to in the recent past.

Alikkane was the first to take the stage, backed by a seven-piece qraqab choir. Rustic, tersely catchy, purposefully propulsive midtempo phrases flowed from his sintir while individual chorus members would spin out into the crowd, further energizing the audience. Would this hypnotically traditional performance be his signature style throughout the US tour? That answer wouldn’t reveal itself until the second night’s concert at the New School.

The atmosphere was electric when Ben Jaafer took the stage. Word on the street is that while audiences in Morocco miss him, there were some musicians who breathed a sigh of relief. At the moment he left for New York, seventeen years ago, he’d become such a popular touring artist that his departure opened up numerous opportunities for his fellow gnawis: he’d left big shoes to fill. Although the three New York concerts didn’t turn out to be cutting contests, per se, each maalem seemed fixated on taking his performance to the next level, and in this case, Alikkane had given Ben Jaafer a launching pad for some of the festival’s most exhilarating bass-string firepower.

Frequently interspersing unexpected, booming chords into his sinewy, serpentine volleys of notes, his strings crackled with ancient, blues scale-based riffage ornamented with contrastingly subtle, microtonal shades. His rugged baritone took on a regal resonance: the most powerful spirits of the night were definitely being invoked.

In his North American debut, El Kasri had a hard act to follow but ended up earning his headliner status. His sintir is flashier and has a grittier, more cutting tone than his colleagues’ models, closer to the sound of an overdriven bass guitar at times. Vocally, he turned out to be every bit the rockstar that Ben Jaafer is. By now, the crowd was amped to the point where they were making requests. With a triumphant grin, El Kasri seemed glad to give his people what they wanted: a chance to see one of the Essaouira festival’s most intense performers conquer a new continent.

The Friday night show at the New School was closer to the atmosphere of a lila, the ritualistic all-night trance ceremony and communal feast. Incense was burned and a platter of delicious dates made its way around as the room grew to capacity. Alikkane led the ensemble this time, a mix of Moroccans and expats, airing out his vast repertoire as the rhythms shifted from punchy and bouncy to a mystically shuffling hailstorm of qraqabs. He sent numerous shouts out to past masters of gnawa, made ancestral homages and kept the waves of reverent Sufi call-and-response going for about an hour and a half. At the end of the show, the great gnawa funk pioneer Hassan Hakmoun stepped in as translator, impromptu emcee, and took a turn on the sintir as well.

That this tour was able to sell out the big Pioneer Arts Center in remote Red Hook, of all places, on the final night speaks to how devoted the gnawa subculture has become. This wasn’t just an audience of expats: there were as many curious American kids, and couples, as there were Moroccans in the house. Alikkane again got to open the show and quickly picked up the pace as he’d done at the New School. He and the chorus were joined eventually by a crew of American jazz players including drummer Will Calhoun, bassist Jamaldeen Tacuma, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and multi-keyboardist Marc Cary. Main themes aside, approximately eighty to ninety percent of gnawa is improvisational, key to its ongoing popularity with jazz musicians. To the credit of everybody onstage, there was cordial camaraderie rather than egocentricity, Alikkane setting up a friendly, low-key rhythmic framework that made room for Strickland and Cary to waft and weave their way through as Calhoun and Tacuma bolstered the simple, purposeful groove.

El Kasri took centerstage for the second set of the night: several of the cognoscenti in the crowd, who’d been to all of the New York shows, agreed that this was the high point of the tour. It wasn’t long before he introduced a number with a long, ominous, enigmatic taqsim, moving beyond the traditional modes that had dominated the show so far, toward Middle Eastern microtones. He shifted back and forth between the two idioms from that point forward: when the jazzcats joined him later, it turned out to be fertile terrain. Tacuma embraced the uneasy, moody modes while Cary added mystital ambience via string synth and echoey electric piano, while Strickland contributed a broodingly gorgeous, slowly crescendoing solo, reminding of Kenny Garrett’s late 90s work. By the end of the show, both Alikkane and Ben Jaafer had picked up their qraqabs and joined the melee onstage, a welcome evocation of North African sun on an unseasonably grim New York evening.

For New Yorkers who might have missed these historic events, there’s are a couple of enticing gnawa events coming up soon. This Saturday night, March 25 at around 9, Innov Gnawa – the only gnawa group on this side of the Atlantic – are playing a benefit for at Littlefield. The rapturous guitar/piano duo of Rafiq Bhatia and Chris Pattishall open the night at 8; members of long-running second-wave Afrobeat faves Antibalas headline at around 10. Depending on what you’d like to contribute, you can get in for $12, or more if you choose. And on April 20 at 8 at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village, Innov Gnawa are playing an extremely rare set of Moroccan Jewish gnawa tunes.

Magical Moroccan Music Masters Make History This March 16 at Lincoln Center

One of the most important musical events in recent history, with global significance akin to Peter Tosh and Bob Marley sharing the same stage – or Robert Johnson jamming with Howlin’ Wolf – will take place on Thursday, March 16 at 7:30 PM at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. It’s the first-ever performance by three of the world’s greatest masters of Moroccan music. Two of the great maalems (masters) of explosively hypnotic Moroccan gnawa trance music – Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane – will share the stage with Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, the only gnawa master this side of the Atlantic, who leads Brooklyn-based ensemble Innov Gnawa.  This first performance on this year’s inaugural Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde Festival Tour marks the debut of a new partnership between the Festival and Lincoln Center. 

Taking a brief pause in between rehearsals and the innumerable demands of scheduling an event of this magnitude, Maalem Ben Jaafer, his Innov Gnawa protege and bandmate Samir LanGus, and David Rubenstein Atrium Programming Manager Meera Dugal got together Sunday night to share some intimate details about the event over snacks and a delicious vegan Moroccan stew in the comfortable, lowlit confines of Tagine on 38th Street.

It turns out that this show will be a very heartwarming reunion. Ben Jaafer and El Kasri knew each other as young stars of the lila party circuit, Ben Jaafer from Fez and El Kasri making his home base in Rabat. They haven’t seen each other or even talked on the phone in seventeen years

LanGus was immersed in the music in his native Morocco before moving to North Carolina and then New York to play under Ben Jaafer’s tutelage. Growing up in South Carolina, Dugal didn’t encounter gnawa until moving to New York, where she first met LanGus at a wild Lincoln Center concert by Hoba Hoba Spirit – the Moroccan Clash – in 2014. 

“Samir and I dreamed up this partnership between the two institutions while at the gnawa festival in Essaouira last summer, and this collaboration marks the next step in our mission to share gnawa with a larger audience here in the US. At Lincoln Center, we’ve been listening to our enthusiastic Moroccan community, and they’ve been crucial to our focus on this music, as well as our decision to reach out to the Gnaoua Festival to work together.” 

“If this is someone’s first exposure to gnawa music, it doesn’t get any better than this,” LanGus enthused. “For Moroccans in America, it’s a chance to see something here that wouldn’t even happen in Morocco. For people who know the music, it’s a chance to go really deeply into it and and watch three of the greatest musicians alive. And if you haven’t seen gnawa before, this is as good as it gets.” 

”The Gnaoua Festival also plays a significant role in elevating the status of gnawa music and gnawa people in Morocco,” Dugal explained. Just like Argentine tango, Puerto Rican salsa and American blues, gnawa was marginalized for decades. Gnawa musicians were held in low esteem before a recent resurgence. These days, it’s essentially become the national music of Morocco.

Gnawa’s roots date back to pre-Islamic sub-Saharan Africa. First brought north by slaves and Moorish soldiers, the music slowly gained popularity through lilas, the marathon all-night gnawa celebrations which are part block party and part mystical trance ceremony. There are thousands of songs in the gnawa repertoire; Ben Jaafer and Innov Gnawa have a repertoire of about two hundred. In live performance, improvisation factors in about eighty to ninety percent of the music: the chorus of qraqab castanet players has to be able to follow a skilled maalem’s sudden rhythmic changes on a moment’s notice. 

Ben Jaafer is revered as an innovator just like his mentor, Maalem Sidi Mouhamed Sam, widely considered the greatest gnawa pioneer of the 1960s and 70s. Ben Jaafer made a name for himself on the lila circuit as being one of the most innovative gnawa singers and virtuosos of the sintir, the Moroccan low-register lute. Eclecticism became his signature sound. He incorporates elements of Sufi hammadcha, in addition to the two primary branches of gnawa, marsaoui and chamali, into his phrasing. He quickly made a name for himself as one of the very few maalems adept at each of the various regional styles of gnawa, which differ widely from north to south and points in between.

Alternating between Arabic, French and English, he shared some colorful stories of life on the road as one of Morocco’s most sought-after musicians (he now lives in Brooklyn, leading Innov Gnawa in concerts across the city and as faraway as big festivals like Coachella). He recalled a time in Morocco going from a low-key afternoon lila in a fancy neighborhood, then taking a break for a snack before moving on to an all-night gig  in an adjoining city. There were times when he’d get home early in the afternoon, thinking he’d finally get some sleep, only to be woken a couple of hours later by a client looking to book him. Then there was the time when he was called in the middle of the night to replace another maalem who’d unexpectedly quit a lila at three in the morning. “We were expected to go til eight or nine,” Ben Jaafer explained with a wry grin. 

For those of you new to gnawa, there are other related upcoming events to help you out. On Monday, March 20 Langus and Dugal are convening a panel at The New School Jazz with journalist Tom Pryor, ethnomusicologist and political scientist Hisham Aidi, and jazz pianist and Juilliard Jazz Chair of Improvisation Marc Cary. The event is free and will feature Moroccan refreshments and a performance by Innov Gnawa, who will also be special guests on March 22, as NEA Jazz Master and piano icon Randy Weston wraps up his residency at Medgar Evers College with a discussion about his history with gnawa. Ben Jaafer and LanGus will join him onstage.  

After the Lincoln Center event, the maalems make a stop on March 17 at 7 PM at the New School, where the performance will be more intimate and akin to a lila as practiced in Morocco. Then they’re at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on March 18 before returning to New  York for a 7 PM gig at Pioneer Works in Red Hook on March 19, where they’ll jam with New York jazz artists including Cary, Marcus Strickland, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Will Calhoun; advance tix are $30. 

Diverse, Dusky Desert Sounds from Terakaft

Music is an even more intrinsic part of the fight for freedom in the third world than it is in the west, perhaps because music from those cultures hasn’t been as corporatized and bled dry of meaningful content as it has in the US and Europe. From a non Tamasheq-speaking point of view, to listen to desert blues band Terakaft’s new album Kel Tamasheq – “Tamasheq Speakers,” in the Tuareg nomads’ native tongue – strictly for the music is like a non-English speaker trying to make sense of the Clash or the Coup. But like those two bands, while their potent antiwar message is inseparable from their music, the tunes stand for themselves. Begun as something of a harder-rocking side project for members of iconic duskcore band Tinariwen, Terakaft have since solidified their identity; this new album, their fourth, is their most eclectic, and surprisingly, a lot quieter and more pensive than Aratan N Azawad, their album from last year.

While it’s amazing how interesting these guys can make a one-chord jam, this isn’t all just long, mesmerizingly cyclical vamps. Although that is how they start the album; a spare, lingering guitar phrase opens it, then they’re off and scampering with an unusual force and drive for this kind of music. Credit producer Justin Adams for beefing up the rhythm section and allowing for separation between the guitars, which enhances the psychedelic factor. Given the shared vernacular with American blues – which goes back to Africa, after all – a lot of these songs sound like electrified, rhythmically altered versions of tunes that might have come out of the Mississippi delta a hundred years ago. The album’s second track is characteristic, a north Malian counterpart to a swaying blues-rock song, fluid hammer-ons alternating with sparse, stinging guitar accents over an undulating pulse.

The third track has an unexpectedly bouncy soukous influence; the one after that sounds like a Tuareg response to noir cabaret, with its catchy riffage and ba-bump rhythm. After that, the band goes into a more low-key, dusky, traditional desert atmosphere, then follows that with the briskly walking Imad Halan, a broadside directed at the fundamentalists who’ve fueled the catastrophic civil war raging in Mali.

They then return to a warmer, hypnotic desert blues vibe, which picks up when they segue into the gorgeously pensive, visceral longing of Imidiwan Sajdat Ahi, which reaches for a psychedelic, polyrhythmic, intertwining sound that evokes the Grateful Dead, especially as it speeds up at the end. From there, they keep the bracingly modal, polyrhythmic pulse, then sway soulfully through a glimmering nocturne and then the album’s catchiest number, a straight-up rock song, its precise, careful guitar leads resonating over a steady backbeat: it’s the most western thing here. They end the album with a return to sparser, duskier ambience.

Like their Tinariwen brethren, the band has a somewhat rotating cast of members: this particular unit includes Liya Ag Ablil on guitars, Sanou Ag Ahmed and Abdallah Ag Ahmed on guitars and bass and Mathias Vaguenez on percussion. Pretty much everybody sings. The lyrics – in Tamasheq – address the here and now: the horror of war, the alienation of exile and pride for the group’s nomadic heritage. The album is just out from World Village Music.

Energetic Desert Blues from Alhousseini Anivolla of Etran Finatawa

Etran Finatawa singer/guitarist Alhousseini Anivolla has a new desert blues album out, The Walking Man, which takes the style and gives it a welcome shot of adrenaline: it’s closer to the harder-hitting sound of his Tuareg brethren Terakaft (who also have a killer new album due out next month) than his old band. In that sense, this is more of a rock record. Westerners may call the style desert blues, but in reality it’s both rock, and blues, and a mix of indigenous styles: like all nomadic cultures, these guys literally take the best of pretty much every possible world. Anivolla is a one-man band, playing all the guitars and bass and driving the rhythm with a simple, pulsing hand drum beat. The whole thing is streaming here.

It’s got everything that fans of this stuff have been devouring ever since desert blues went global: hypnotic two-chord jams, trance-inducing beats, biting blues-infused guitar and in Anivolla’s case, warmly laid-back vocals sung in his local vernacular. Anivolla is an incisive and remarkably subtle guitarist, varying his attack on the strings, adding minute levels of natural distortion, his incisive, bluesy phrases ringing out over long, swaying vamps. By the slowly unwinding standards of this music, the opening track, Immousan – a message to the elders to pass along their wisdom to the young generation – is remarkably catchy, briskly swaying and spiced with spiky hammer-on guitar phrases.

The equally catchy second track pulses along with a darkly rustic, minor-key theme that fans of old American country blues will quickly recognize. Anivolla sings a low second, vocal line on the third track, adding a menacing undercurrent that anchors his sometimes Hendrix-tinged, stinging guitar harmonies.

The fourth track is a thicket of tricky counterrythms, bluesy guitar riffage mingling with more resonant, trancey phrasing. The fifth song, Talitin, kicks off with an anthemic series of riffs and then works a more carefree vibe, Anivolla eventually looping a guitar phrase for extra hypnotic effect. By contrast, the instrumental Attareach – which originally appeared in the film Endless Journey, which documents Alhousseini and several of his countrymen on a tour of schools and youth centers in their native Niger – is more skeletal and staccato, the guitar carrying what’s essentially a vocal line.

After that, Anivolla launches into a couple of one-chord jams, the first centered around a bright, reggae-tinged riff, the next one with some unexpectedly energetic high vocal harmonies over the scuffling layers of guitar. Drony bass and vocals kick off the ninth track, quickening the pace with an anthemic minor-key hook: it has the feel of a singalong that the band would reach a peak with toward the end of a concert. By contrast, the darkly hallucinatory Iblis Odouad – meaning “the demons are coming out” – builds a vividly dusky, anxious ambience. There’s also a “bonus track,” featuring South African chanteuse Malebo Mothema, which with its swirling synthesizer, gentle acoustic guitar and airy vocals, has more of a pop feel than the rest of the record. Another winner from World Music Network.

Amadou & Mariam Rock Out in Central Park

To see Amadou & Mariam in concert for the first time – at Central Park Summerstage, early Saturday evening – was eye-opening, especially considering how low-key their early work in the 90s was. For anyone who might think that the celebrated Malian couple would come across live as a folk or pop act, guess again: backed by drums, bongos, keyboards and an extrovert bassist, they’re a robust rock band. Amadou’s repartee with the crowd was pretty much limited to “Are you feeling allriiiiiiiight? Let’s go!” – in French. Interestingly, Mariam looked regal but stayed pretty much in the background musically, only taking over lead vocals on a couple of songs, one of them a ballad that sounded like a halfspeed version of La Bamba with French lyrics. Amadou is a fast, fluid lead guitarist and seemed to relish the opportunity to take a handful of intense, smartly crescendoing solos, playing through a flange effect for a watery tone similar to the one used by another first-rate Malian guitarist, Vieux Farka Toure.

Almost everything they played was in minor keys. There were a lot of hypnotic two-chord vamps, but unlike desert blues, those songs swayed and bounced briskly, sometimes with a funk edge: this band left no doubt that what they were playing was first and foremost dance music. As expected, there was a lot of call-and-response between Amadou and the band, and on a couple of occasions, with the crowd (which seemed to be missing the African expat contingent that usually shows up in droves for stars from that continent). The keyboardist alternated between pinging, upper-register electric piano and dramatic organ swells, adding a playfully cheesy portamento synth solo on one number, over what sounded like a thinly disguised clave beat – or an original version of the clave rhythm, before the Cubans adopted it. One of the songs with Mariam on lead vocals started out with a circular feel akin to the Grateful Dead’s The Eleven before smoothing out with more of a reggae vibe, and a long, suspenseful guitar solo that Amadou began spare and staccato and eventually picked up with a hammering intensity. Another song reminded of Bob Marley’s Exodus, right down to the disco bass allusions. After a couple of long, anthemic, vampy songs to keep the dancers swaying, they ended the set with a straight-up garage rock song. Although the crowd wanted an encore, and there was plenty of time before the usual 7 PM shut-down time at this space, they didn’t get one. What an enjoyable surprise, to show up expecting pleasant and hypnotic, and getting fiery and propulsive instead.

Malian All-Stars Rally for Peace

Here’s JeConte & the Mali All-Stars with desert blues icons Khaira Arby and Vieux Farka Toure plus the great Bassekou Kouyate doing Le Monde pour la Paix (The World for Peace) from their forthcoming album Mali Blues for Peace. This is how it works in the third world. JeConte, about life after the latest coup: “I went by a big hotel to use the high speed internet and got trapped there for several days. I tried to escape numerous times, was threatened at gunpoint and had to escape out the back of the hotel in the middle of the night under very precarious circumstances.” They’ve set up a relief organization, who deserve your support if you’re in a position to offer any.

A Double Shot of Desert Blues

When you come to think of it, desert blues is a complete misnomer. For one, it usually isn’t recorded in the desert, and it’s definitely not blues. But whatever you want to call it – Malian rock, maybe – two of the best albums in recent months both fall under that category. Samba Toure’s Crocodile Blues is the more traditional of them, at least in the sense that much of it is long, slowly unwinding one-chord vamps. But that’s just part of the picture: this is his quantum leap. He’s always been one of the most compelling singers in the style – his gritty baritone reaches for intense highs, or stays low and wary. His guitar here also has similar bite, and a welcome unpredictability: he’s a fast, terse player who can make a seven-minute one-chord jam interesting. With quicksilver hammer-ons, judiciously constructed blues riffs and accents, and apprehensively soaring sustained notes, this is a feast of good guitar. And unlike a lot of desert blues records, this one has the bass up in the mix, maybe because Toure’s four-string buddy Baba Simaga not only played on it but also co-produced it.

Several of the cuts here have the loping, triplet-rhythm sway that Etran Finatawa made so popular; another handful are essentially long jams, and several others defy expectations. For example, the echoey, reverb-drenched opening tune takes a unexpected leap into a minor mode toward the end, Toure making his occasional eerie, sustained bend count for everything it’s worth. The second track has a turnaround straight out of 1960s soul music; a duet with Oumou Sangare has the two singers unexpectedly switching roles midway through, and there’s a Peter Tosh-inflected track later on with a contrapuntal call-and-response between the guitar and riti fiddle that’s absolutely exquisite. Although all the lyrics are in native dialects, the music often echoes the message for non-native speakers, particularly on a vividly wary “watch out for your children” cautionary tale where the guitar delivers the biting melody with a surprisingly watery, hypnotically sustained tone.

Bombino’s Agadez is the more rock-oriented of the two records, as far as both production and arrangements are concerned (who knew that a studio recording from Bamako could have this much fatness and resonance?). He gets a lot of Mark Knopfler comparisons, but a more accurate one would be Jerry Garcia (in “on” as opposed to “off” mode). Desert blues songs aren’t known for being particularly terse, nor is Bombino. One of the epics here – the amazing, serpentine, live bonus track – clocks in at thirteen minutes, another at almost twelve. Bombino varies his tone considerably, from clean to distorted, as he methodically builds his solos, sometimes with lightning-fast hammer-ons like Vieux Farka Toure, other times with spiky jangle, a little funk and even one song with an American C&W vibe. Behind him, the layers of guitars shift, rise and subside, the band sometimes picking up the pace or pulling back as the song winds down. The more laid-back songs here use an open G tuning popular in American folk music to enhance the hypnotic effect (classic rock fans will recognize it from the Rolling Stones’ Moonlight Mile). Others jam out on a single chord over a rolling, camel-walk triplet beat; from start to finish, Bombino varies his intros and outros, taking his time working his way into the song and then frequently ending when least expected: the effect is less jarring than simply reaching for the right place to take the song out after everything that needed to be said is done.  Bombino’s giving away a free download here as an enticement to get the whole album, which is also available on double gatefold vinyl!

African Revolution in Central Park

Yesterday afternoon Tiken Jah Fakoly strode onto Central Park’s Summerstage looking triumphant but haggard. Maybe all the years battling the gestapo in his native Ivory Coast are weighing on him…or maybe it was the fact that he’d just played well into the morning the same day at SOB’s. In a world where stardom is an antiquated concept, Fakoly is one. Not because of marketing, or some evanescent cosmetic appeal – Fakoly is a freedom fighter, the real deal. The part of the show that resonated the most with his fellow Africans was a tantalizingly brief medley of hits, including a barely thirty-second chorus of Quitte Le Pouvoir (Leave Power), his signature song. That one got him banned from the radio and it also almost got him killed. “African revolution” was his mantra here, that phrase being an instant recipe for confrontation with dictators and thugs throughout the world. He wants them gone, to “sweep them away,” as one of the songs in the medley put it.

And it’s not just sloganeering. What’s made him such a thorn in the side of the fascists is that he won’t settle for anything less than a revolution, “An intelligent revolution,” he told the crowd more than once, reminding that liberation can’t happen without both political and economic self-determination. Undoubtedly he would have elaborated further if his English was better. Most of the songs in this particular set were sung in French, some in his native dialect, his terse, aphoristic lyrics immersed in a dry, biting sense of humor that evoked Peter Tosh. And as much as Fakoly has a message, like the Wailers, he leads a kick-ass reggae band. Early on, they broke it down into a completely unexpected, echoey dub vibe; later on, the eight-piece group’s keyboardist used the rapidfire microtonal quaver of a ney flute setting for added menace. The band’s acoustic rhythm guitarist played virtuoso, spiky kora (West African harp) on several numbers, including an offhandedly ferocious anti-imperialist number: “They divided Africa without consulting me,” Fakoly sang nonchalantly, sardonically, in French. “We gotta get up!” The three-piece horn section soared and wailed as Fakoly stalked across the stage, once or twice summoning the energy for some unexpectly energetic dance moves.

And while Fakoly disdains most African regimes, he’s a great ambassador for the continent. Viens Voir (Come See) wasn’t just a wickedly catchy anthem: it was a fervent reminder that Africa, like everywhere else, is far more complex than it’s portrayed by the slavish corporate media. It’s not all suffering, misery and poverty. That song could be do for African tourism what Bob Marley’s Smile Jamaica did for that country. Yet he closed the show on a down note: essentially, what he told the crowd during his final fiery anthem is that his country was doing perfectly fine until the imperialists got there and fucked everything up. Nobody disagreed: half the crowd was too stoned to complain, the rest raising their fists in solidarity.

It was an unexpected treat to be able to catch a half-hour of New York roots reggae sensation Meta and the Cornerstones’ opening set: unexpected, because the last time Summerstage booked an African reggae artist, the lines to get into the arena stretched thousands of feet beyond the entrance. Where Fakoly speaks to global revolution, this band’s Senegal-born frontman reflected on a more front-and-center reality, police brutality against entrepreneurial if slightly illegal Brooklynites, and the hardships expatriate Africans have had to surmount since the Bush regime’s crackdown on immigration ten years ago. Like Fakoly, he’s got an amazing, eclectic band behind him: two horns, a keyboardist whose tantalizing allusions reach to both classical and jazz, and a lead guitarist who didn’t waste a single note through three long solos, equal parts purist Chicago blues, jazz and Al Anderson-style reggae.