Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Interview with Mano Chao

Delfin Vigil interviews Mano Chao.
It only makes sense that a singer who, in the course of one song, might switch from Spanish to English to French to Portuguese to Arabic and back to Spanish would eventually invent a word.

That's exactly what Manu Chao did on his 1998 debut solo album with "Malegria," a song title and lyric that would translate into English more or less as "sad happiness."

Taking a break backstage before a sold-out concert earlier this year at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, the 46-year-old singer unknowingly wears an expression that would illustrate "malegria" perfectly in a dictionary.

"Malegria is very much how I feel when I see the world," says Chao with a whispered laugh and slight smile. "It's like the painful happiness from when you feel like crying and laughing at the same time."

With the fall release of his fourth acclaimed studio album, "La Radiolina," Chao's back catalog essentially adds up to his own language that speaks of the ills and thrills of the world he has traveled many times over. It's a dialect spoken and understood from the nightclub dance floors of Barcelona to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, from the taxis of Timbuktu to the barrios of East L.A. Yet, while his solo album sales reach the 10 million mark and his concerts continue to fill stadiums, Manu Chao can walk into and out of any of those cities relatively unnoticed - much as he did on his last visit to San Francisco.

"If you go directly to the city's most popular nightclub, you're in the same nightclub whether you're in Los Angeles, Paris, Barcelona or Tokyo," Chao says in Spanish. "But if you go the bus stations, the central markets and the neighborhood streets - that's where you open the can of life that the city actually is."

After the breakup of his ska-punk-reggae band Mano Negra in the mid-'90s, Chao spent a few years roaming around his favorite cities with an acoustic guitar, a portable recording studio and the melodies in his head. When he wasn't recording songs in a friend's living room or singing on a street corner, Chao would capture the sounds of the town, often in Latin America, with a small microphone. The result was 1998's "Clandestino," a solo album of 16 songs that were like postcards, with lyrics like diary entries describing the "sad happiness" that is Latin America.

Suddenly, the radio waves of cities like Buenos Aires, Lima, Mexico City and Bogotá, which typically broadcast sappy love songs, were being interrupted by the messages of Manu Chao, who, in the form of catchy melody, sang of poverty, government corruption and political revolutions. The oddest part of all was how the messages came via the voice of a Frenchman.

Sort of.

Manu Chao was born José-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao in Paris in 1961 to Spanish parents who had fled Franco's dictatorship. He grew up in an atmosphere made up of artists, musicians and writers. His father, a journalist, would preach the principles of Che Guevara to Chao and his brother, Antoine.

In 1987, Antoine, Manu and their cousin Santiago Casariego formed Mano Negra (The Black Hand), which lasted about eight years and whose high point included a traveling train tour in remote parts of Colombia. These days, Chao stores his belongings in Barcelona and spends much time in his old hood in Paris and in Ceará, Brazil, where his son lives.

But Chao insists that wherever he plays his guitar is home.

"Sometimes when I'm playing guitar in the street in Barcelona, a tourist will walk by and say, 'You sing Manu Chao songs very well. Congratulations!' Or another will say, 'No. That's not him. Manu Chao is taller,' " laughs Chao, who seems to become less noticeable as he becomes more famous.

When not playing songs in the streets of Barcelona or perhaps a hole-in-the-wall bar in Brazil, Chao might be spotted on the subway in Paris.

"Whenever the little tough guys from the neighborhood - we call them gremlins - see me with my bicycle on the subway, they say, 'Hey, Manu, you're a rock star. Aren't you supposed to have a big car?' I can see in their eyes they think I'm crazy. But I can feel the respect, especially since working with Amadou and Mariam," says Chao of the blind couple from Mali with whom he recorded an album last year.

Chao met the couple while they were in Paris, and after getting down on his knees and begging, persuaded them to go into a Paris studio for a day of recording fun. Before long, Chao was in Mali recording, producing and performing on Amadou and Mariam's "Dimanche À Bamako," an album that won a best world music album award from the BBC. The highlight for Chao was when he joined the couple's band as a guitarist on a tour of Mali, where, as he always does, he blended into the background.

While lauded for his profound and political lyrics, Chao is often criticized for using similar song structures for different tunes.

"I love to recycle," says Chao of the instrumental compositions that might show up twice on one album and then again on the next record. "I refuse to accept that everything has to be new. Even with my shoes, until they're completely torn up I won't buy new ones. There's something in this world where we're taught that everything has to be new, new, new! It's like, 'Ah, you don't have the new recorder or the new computer?' No. I'll use my computer until it's broken. I love it. It's the same with my music. Until my toys don't work I don't feel the need to change."

Several hours before the doors were to open at Chao's concert in San Francisco, a crowd of mostly young men and women with Latin American roots grows near the singer's tour bus. The ones who get a chance to talk to Chao don't want just an autograph. They want to hear his answers to the problems that plague places he often sings about, like Nicaragua, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. Chao does his best to share his thoughts but prefaces them with a reminder that he is just a singer and not a leader.

"It's a label the media slapped on me and put in their headlines," Chao says backstage. "Sure, I'm one of millions involved in a movement that wants to change things about this world. But it's very important that the movement be horizontal and function without leaders. There's nothing easier to do than corrupt a leader. It's much more complicated to fight against a mass of people."

While comfortable in his life both financially and artistically, Manu Chao knows he can never escape the "malegria."

If he had no conscience, Chao says, he would probably go live on the beach in Brazil with his son eating fresh seafood and enjoying nature.

"I could do that and be happy," says Chao in English before returning to Spanish. "But within one week I would be dealing with so much guilt thinking of all my friends left behind in the hellfire of the ghettos. Could I truly be happy knowing that? No way. Until the world is a little bit better for everyone, happiness is impossible."

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Youssou N'Dour: Rokku Mi Rokka

Youssou N'Dour's Rokku Mi Rokka
Often when we see or hear reports about Africa, the news is of famine, disease or war.

Youssou N'Dour wants the world to know that the mother continent is full of joy, and the place where the world's most vibrant sounds have their roots.

That's the message of the Senegalese singer's new album, Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take), released recently on Nonesuch Records. N'Dour and his African big band, the Super Etoile of Dakar, on tour to promote the album, perform tonight at Gusman Center, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami.

In N'Dour, concertgoers will encounter a masterful singer of the contemporary pop music known in the Wolof language as mbalax. But N'Dour, who got his start singing a blend of Afro-Cuban and African genres, fuses his art with international influences, including Cuban music, reggae and the blues.

"In Africa, we get excited when we hear these rhythms, because we feel them, they are ours, but they left Africa with the slaves a long time ago," N'Dour said through publicists. "Rokku Mi Rokka means, 'You give me something, I give you something' and that's the message of the album: We have received a lot from the developed world, but remember that we brought a lot, too."

The album's 11 tracks celebrate Senegal's culture. Bajjan (The Father's Sister) is an ode to women who maintain family traditions; Sportif is about wrestling, a popular sport in Senegal; while 4-4-44 commemorates Senegal's independence on April 4, 2004.

Besides the Super Etoile ensemble, the album features collaborations with impressive artists. Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate, a member of Ali Farka Toure's band, plays ngoini, a four-stringed precursor to the banjo on Sama Gammu (My Rival). Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis of Orchestra Baobab add vocals on XEL (Think).
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Youssou N'Dour: Rokku Mi Rokka

Mark Jenkins reviews Youssou N'Dour's "Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take)".
The greatest contemporary singer from Senegal and possibly all of Africa, Youssou N'Dour travels the world with and in his music. He has collaborated widely with the likes of Sting, Peter Gabriel and Neneh Cherry, who appeared on "7 Seconds," a 1994 European hit. Yet N'Dour's most interesting ventures mesh Senegalese styles not with Anglo-American pop, but with other African music. Cherry returns for N'Dour's new "Rokku Mi Rokka," rapping and singing on the disappointing "Wake Up (It's Africa Calling)." But that attempt at crossover is an anomaly on an album that draws mostly from a closer source.

N'Dour's marvelous previous set revealed its inspiration in its title, "Egypt." On "Rokku Mi Rokka," which translates as "give and take," the singer-songwriter supplements his usual crew with players from nearby Mali.

Aside from "4-4-44," a simplistic tune that adds a horn section, and "Wake Up," the album's sound is intricate, indigenous and characteristically exhilarating. This isn't folk music: The five numbers featuring Mali's Bassekou Kouyate on ngoni (a West African lute also called the xalam) are spare and more traditional, but such exuberant songs as "Pullo Ardo" and "Baay Faal" include synthesizers and strings. While both modes succeed, the most striking selections are such Kouyate-driven ones as "Dabbaax," which have an ease that's rare in N'Dour's work yet suit his supple high tenor.

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Ravi Shankar: Concert for World Peace

It's a bit disconcerting (no pun intended) to realize in the 14 years since Ravi Shankar gave his "Concert for World Peace" in London's Royal Albert Hall, that not only has world peace continued to elude us, Shankar himself has become perhaps better known to younger audiences as Norah Jones' dad rather than the towering figure of "world music" he has been since being introduced to mass audiences by way of his relationships with the Beatles in the 60s, though the musical cognoscenti had known of his many accomplishments since at least the early 50s. This fascinating document shows the now elder statesman of Indian music to be surprisingly spry and inventive as he improvises over two "ragas," the Indian musical forms that are somewhat related to our western concept of scales, though the Indian conception is far more complex and includes rhythmic and melodic patterns interwoven with the basic intervallic foundation.

Shankar is surrounded by four additional musicians, whom he lovingly calls his disciples, including stellar tabla (Indian drum) player Zakir Hussain. Watching Shankar hoist his sitar (which looks like a mutant, overgrown guitar) and begin to coax almost human sounding moans and laughs from it will give most music lovers immediate goosebumps. While many untrained western ears may complain that "nothing's happening" in these frequently leisurely explorations, repeated listening will prove that there's sometimes so much happening, and so much that is foreign to our musically subdivided ears, that the spaciousness and inventiveness does not become fully apparent until several repeated listenings. Of course, none but the most educated in Indian ragas is going to fully understand Shankar's genius, but even the dilettante in Eastern musics is going to appreciate the interplay between these fine musicians.

For rock aficianados who point to 18 minute drum solos as the apex of musical achievement, note that this DVD is comprised of exactly two "pieces"--one lasting about 30 minutes, and the second close to an hour. This gives some indication of the depths that Shankar reaches as he delves into the motifs of each raga. Also be aware that that means the DVD only has two chapter stops, which may confound some people used to an "every 5 minutes" indexing.

Shankar's gentle spirit and inquiring intellect shine through this concert, and it will be appreciated by lovers of fine music everywhere.
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Tinariwen Performance Review

Mark Jenkins reviews Tinariwen's performance at Lisner Auditorium.
It's been only a decade since the core members of Tinariwen, who performed Thursday night at Lisner Auditorium, were in revolt against the government of Mali. Nowadays, the group expresses the travails of the nomadic Tuareg (or Tamashek) people with music that meshes traditional melodies with twangy electric guitars. The robed and turbaned musicians' material doesn't offer a lot of variety, but its loping rhythms and scratchy, scrambling timbres are exhilarating.

Tinariwen is a loosely aligned outfit, and only five of the 15 musicians featured on its latest album, "Aman Iman: Water Is Life," appeared at Lisner. In promotional photographs, bushy-haired Ibrahim Ag Alhabib usually stands at the center, but on this tour Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni led the band (as he did in 2004). By singing solo or playing acoustic guitar Spanish-style, Alhousseyni sometimes varied the group's sound. More often, however, he joined the communal clatter of such tunes as "Tamatant Tilay," a onetime war anthem that works just as well as an ecstatic dance song.

If the members of Tinariwen were once outcasts, their opening act was a consummate insider: Vieux Farka Touré is descended from generations of Malian nobility and is the son of the revered singer-guitarist Ali Farka Tour¿, who died last year. Yet the two acts proved both musically and personally compatible; Tinariwen bassist Eyadou Ag Leche joined the opener for one song, and later Touré added his guitar to the headliners' arsenal.

Tour¿ didn't sing much, ceding some of the occasional vocals to his quintet's percussionist. The 50-minute set was haphazardly paced and didn't encompass the stylistic range of his recent self-titled album, which features two duets with his father. Yet none of that mattered whenever Touré unloosed his guitar, playing fluid, eloquent solos.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Interview with Sergey Ryabtsev

Dmitry Kiper interviews Sergey Ryabtsev, Gogol Bordello's violinist.
At a performance by the “gypsy-punk” band Gogol Bordello, you don’t just feel the music. You let that feeling out—sweating, stomping, and springing into the air—because you can’t hold it in. Prodding the crowd, violinist Sergey Ryabtsev pumps out sweet, fast melodies, slicing the strings with his bow and shooting lightning bolt after lightning bolt into the audience.

“I don’t just want to play music,” says Ryabtsev, a forty-eight-year-old, classically trained Russian violinist. “I want the mysticism that I feel to get transferred to the crowd.”

Like Gogol Bordello’s live shows, Ryabtsev’s life journey has been full of wild surprises, improvisations, and revelations. After his first concert with the band seven years ago, an experience that genuinely frightened and intrigued him, he was hooked. He traveled to Brooklyn from Russia in the 1990s not expecting to play violin for a living or even stay, but he ended up doing both. And now that the band’s popularity is rising, Ryabtsev is beginning to get worldwide recognition.

Because most of his fellow band members are in their thirties, Ryabtsev, who admits to looking older than his age, stands out on stage. He has long, silver hair, a trimmed, gray beard, dark brown eyes, and a round gypsy earring dangling from his left ear. He speaks English with a noticeable Russian accent.

Ryabtsev’s violin style is unique: He plays doubles—the root note of a scale together with its octave, or with the third or sixth note—which makes it sound as if more than one violin is playing. “That’s my own technique,” says Ryabtsev, in Russian, “and it’s perfect for gypsy-punk.” Soon he corrects himself, contending that Gogol Bordello is neither pure gypsy nor pure punk but something entirely different. “Gogol Bordello is a cat with three heads. It’s something that shouldn’t exist.”

Ryabtsev speaks in a charged manner, with wide-open, unblinking eyes and rapidly moving hands and arms—sometimes with one hand punching the palm of the other to physically italicize his words. The band, he says with his lips and hands, is all about life. “Gogol Bordello is not only music. It’s an ideology: our relationship to life, people, possibilities.”

Sitting in the modest kitchen of the one-bedroom Ocean Parkway apartment where he lives with his wife, Ryabtsev is sipping Chianti and wearing a black, sleeveless Gogol Bordello T-shirt. The bookshelves of his living room are filled not only with Russian classics—collections of Chekhov, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky—but dozens of magazine and newspaper articles about Gogol Bordello, a collection he’s very proud of. And of course there’s a copy of the book and movie Everything Is Illuminated. (In 2005, alongside Elijah Wood, Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hütz starred in the film, and the band contributed to the soundtrack.)

Ryabtsev, who has studied violin from the age of six, learned his first life-lesson at seventeen. His father, an engineer, was drinking vodka with his workmates in the kitchen and called his son to play violin for them. Most of them had never heard a violin, and one had never even seen one.

“What do I play?” he asked.

“It doesn’t matter. Just play.”

He hesitated until his father called him over and whispered, “If you don’t play now, they will never get a chance to see this again.” So he played. And when he finished, his understanding of music had changed. He realized, he says, that “music is a big part of real life.”

Ryabtsev spent another nine years studying violin and then dropped out of the conservatory, where he felt the connection between art and life didn’t exist. “I was suffocating in that elite atmosphere,” he says.

Ryabtsev became a theater actor and then a director. When he arrived in America in 1994 for a theater conference in Connecticut, he had no idea that he would end up staying. After the conference, he went to New York City in search of a job, maybe as a dishwasher, so that he could bring some money back to his family. But he found nothing. When his new Russian friends suggested he play violin on the street, he was very reluctant. But his insistent buddies took him to Brighton Beach Avenue and told him to play. “See this pack of cigarettes?” one of them said. “You’re going to play until we finish it.” People came up to compliment his playing, wish him luck in America; one woman even brought him a suit. “What planet is this?” he wondered. In three hours, he had made $45. He was amazed.

“I came from Russia, where nothing was happening,” he says. “I knew what my life was going to be like for the next twenty years. But here, I didn’t know what was going to happen in the next moment.”

He played violin in Brighton Beach for a year, where he was approached by locals, weekenders, fellow Russians, conductors, and even mobsters. He began playing at Russian restaurants. Every day was an adventure.

But nothing could have prepared Ryabtsev for Gogol Bordello. In 2000, after a night of playing with his Russian gypsy band at Moscow, a now-defunct Russian restaurant in Manhattan, Ryabtsev was approached by Eugene Hütz, founder and frontman of Gogol Bordello. Hütz—tall, thin, flamboyantly dressed, and sporting a vaudeville mustache—came out to hear him play violin, but having missed the performance asked him to play another set. The band and the restaurant owner complied, Hütz explains in his Ukrainian accent, “because I had a lot of American girls with me.”

After hearing him play, Hütz told Ryabtsev, in Russian, “I have a well-known band. We’re playing Joe’s Pub tomorrow. Can you play with us?”

“Tomorrow? What kind of music do you play?” said Ryabtsev.

“It doesn’t matter,” Hütz replied.

Ryabtsev was sure he was dealing with “a madman.” To this day, Hütz’s reply—a distant echo of what Ryabtsev’s father told his young son in the kitchen—puzzles Ryabtsev and makes him laugh boisterously.

Hütz gave him Gogol Bordello’s first CD, Voi-La Intruder, and told him to give it a listen before the show. Ryabtsev had never heard anything like it. “With horror I wondered where a violin could fit into this music,” he recalls.

Ryabtsev didn’t sleep that night.

The next day, he arrived at Joe’s Pub with his violin in hand. Being a classically trained musician, Ryabtsev put on a tuxedo and waited for his cue. When he finally came out on stage, he was stunned. People were half-naked, drinking from bottles and dancing crazily beside broken furniture. Hütz, standing on top of the bar in his underwear dancing with two women, yelled in Russian, “Sergey, play!”

After finishing the song, Ryabtsev, in amazement, began to walk off stage. Hütz grabbed him. “Where are you going? Play!” Ryabtsev pleaded, “Play what?” Hütz yelled back, “Whatever you want.” Hütz was confident in Ryabtsev’s ability to improvise, and he ended up playing for almost an hour. After the show, he says, he felt infected with “the virus of freedom.”

On a recent Thursday night at Mehanata, a Lower East Side dance club that’s home to some of New York City’s best Romany (the preferred term to “gypsy”) and Eastern European music, Hütz—who DJs regularly at the club when Gogol Bordello is on break from touring—waxed lyrical about Ryabtsev. Asked to describe him in one sentence, Hütz said, “I can describe him in one word: supernatural.”

It turned out he had more than one word. He approached minutes later with a cup of red wine in hand, smiling, shirt unbuttoned, and said he had more to say. The first time he saw Ryabtsev play at the restaurant, “I heard all my songs in my head and I knew he was gonna slice all over them…He’s more than what I hoped for because of his artistic and theater background.”
Ryabtsev says that after coming to the United States, two events have had the most profound impact on his life: meeting his (third) wife, Olga Mateshko, and playing with Eugene Hütz at Joe’s Pub that crazy night.

Hütz not only brought him into Gogol Bordello and opened up his musical taste—by introducing him to Jimi Hendrix, Tom Waits, the Clash, and Iggy Pop—but also “increased the boiling temperature in my kettle,” says Ryabtsev, who is fond of metaphors with heat, fire, and cooking. “We’re stirring an energetic kasha” is how he describes a live gig. “A club becomes a kettle in which we’re cooking along with the audience.”

Gogol Bordello always ends the cooking sessions with “Baro Foro,” a song Hütz sings almost entirely in Romany. Ryabtsev’s rapid violin riff in the song is immediately infectious, and gives the song what Hütz calls “a gypsy twitch.”

Then, speaking of not only the song but the band, Hütz adds: “It would never be the same without him.”

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Gypsy Caravan directed by Jasmine Dellal

Kevin Crust reviews Gypsy Caravan.

The term gypsy, often used pejoratively, conjures images of wastrels, vagabonds, fortunetellers and thieves, not to mention a distant memory of Cher belting out: "I was born in the wagon of a traveling show ..."

The label has dogged the Romani people -- thought to be descendants of nomads who left India a thousand years ago and fanned out across Europe -- throughout their history.

Yet they bear the name with a certain defiant pride, eager to prove their detractors wrong. In recent years, the "Gypsy Caravan" concert tours have brought the musical culture and flavor of these people to American audiences to great acclaim.

Filmmaker Jasmine Dellal, recognizing a rich subject when she saw one, assembled a crew that included famed documentarian Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens) and chronicled the fall 2001 tour.

The result is the intoxicating documentary Gypsy Caravan, which uncovers the same joy and sorrow that characterize the Romani music in the everyday lives of the musicians who play it.

The film starts with a Romani proverb -- "You cannot walk straight when the road bends" -- and, through the six-week North American tour that features five disparate musical acts from four countries, the film follows a bending road, indeed. Amid the performances and heavy traveling schedule occur some of life's more dramatic moments, including a wedding and a funeral.

Dellal allows her audience to observe from the wings, with an all-access pass that grants intimate entree to the rehearsals, tour bus, hotels and ultimately the homes of the artists.

As compelling as the music and concert footage is, the vitality of the performers as characters is what enables the movie to transcend the music-documentary genre. No dramatist could create a figure as charismatic as Esma Redzepova, known as the "Queen of the Gypsies," who along with her husband adopted 47 children and founded a music school.

The film records a vibrant diaspora that exists despite centuries of persecution. The one thing all the members of the tour seem to want to convey is the absurdity of the stereotypes.

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Virginia Rodrigues

Kevin L. Carter reviews Virginia Rodrigues' performance in Philadelphia.
Brazilian singer Virginia Rodrigues began her gentle, subtle performance at Penn's Annenberg Center on Friday night offstage, with the lights off, singing to her pai or father, her orixà, her personally designated guide deity, Ogum, the god of iron.

In her sweet, strong quasi-operatic contralto, she chanted in her a cappella mixture of Portuguese and Nagô (liturgical Yoruba) - "Coia, coia, coia." The song laid the path for the rest of her uneven but ultimately satisfying two-hour show.

For vastly different reasons, the 43-year-old Rodrigues' presence evokes that of two other iconic Lusophone African women - the Afro-Brazilian folkloric singer Clementina de Jesus, and the Cape Verdean legend Cesária Évora.

Like the late, great de Jesus, Rodrigues is the embodiment of the spiritually anointed baiana, the black woman who knows and protects all of Brazil's religious and cultural secrets. Like Évora, Rodrigues is small, round and preternaturally dignified, a shy, unpretentious diva whose impact on the world's popular culture belies her working-class roots.

Sans her trademark braids, her hair simple and natural, Rodrigues was surrounded by a trio of admiring, protective musicians - Raul Mascarenhas on soprano sax and flute, percussionist Marcos Lobo and guitarist Fernando Mauricio. With songs from composers such as Baden Powell, Caetano Veloso and Vinicius de Moraes, the four Brazilians wove a gentle, multitextured tapestry of African-Brazilian popular and cultural music.

Rodrigues seemed affected by the cool fall weather, and she sometimes had problems hitting her highest notes and controlling her rich vocal timbre. After several songs, the show's momentum seemed to wane. But it was the samba that revived her. Throughout the evening she had showed hints of her ability to move, throwing in short circular sambas as she sang.

During "Adeus," as appropriate a despedida (farewell) as anyone from Brazil could have, Rodrigues turned up the heat both with her voice and her feet, moving briskly and expertly across and around the Philadelphia stage.

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Orchestra Baobab: Made in Dakar

John Walters reviews Orchestra Baobab's Made in Dakar.
Whoever coined the term "intelligent dance music" was probably thinking of digital basslines and tricky breaks, but the phrase will also do nicely for this set of newly recorded songs by the legendary Senegalese band. Orchestra Baobab, who reformed in 2001 after a 16-year break, are masters of an urban style that pairs rippling, fast-flowing guitar lines with impassioned vocals and sophisticated dance rhythms. These move effortlessly from rumba, reggae and highlife to more indigenous grooves such as mbalax and their own "mbalsa", an infectious salsa hybrid heard on the track Ami Kita Bay. The four vocalists - augmented by Youssou N'Dour for a new version of their 1970s hit Nijaay - are superb. Nick Gold's production and sequencing ensures we are never bored: there is always a new voice or groove around the corner. Star of the show, as always, is musical director and guitarist Barthélemy Attisso, whom I once compared to Hank Marvin and Mark Knopfler; that wasn't hyperbole.

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Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Lucy Adams reviews Ladysmith Black Mambazo's performance in Glasgow.
Most people will be familiar with the warm, glorious harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, either from hearing them on adverts for Heinz soup or on Paul Simon's album Graceland.

Joseph Shabalala, their founder, composer and lead-singer, says their style of singing, which employs unique harmonies incorporating Christian choirs and Zulu chants, came to him in a dream. The resulting sound certainly created a dream-like quality and the combination of such powerful yet melodious voices swung between rousing and soporific extremes.

They were polished, highly professional, endearing and yet at times seemed a little out of touch, at least in this venue, with their roots.

Vusi Mahlasela, whose fans in his native South Africa simply call him "The Voice", supported them in such a good-hearted, neighbourly fashion as to bring the audience closer despite the vastness of the space. During apartheid his protest songs landed him in jail on several occasions. His anecdotes about how he composed a particular song on toilet paper and his granny drove away the police with pots and pans, added a human resonance to the performance.

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Vieux Farka Touré

A preview of Vieux Farka Touré's performances in Burlington and Montreal.
hen famed Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré died last March there was speculation as to who would fill this musical giant's shoes. Worry no more. Vieux Farka Touré, his 26-year-old son, appears the heir-apparent to his father's title as "King of Desert Blues."

Malian blues is not like the American variety. Here, the soulful music that Black Americans created toward the end of the 19th century has a specific structure based on 12 bars of music with generally a three-chord major key structure. American blues guitar styles come in a variety of types from finger-style players to flat-pickers, but their common ground is the beat. Some also tune their instrument to an open chord, such as G or A and frequently use a slide to create the unique crying sound the instrument can produce. The words, when authentic, are about hard work, hard living, love and sex and living with "the blues."

Ali Farka Touré's music was widely regarded as representing a point of intersection of traditional Malian music and its North American cousin, the blues. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese characterized Touré's tradition as constituting "the DNA of the blues." He was ranked number 76 on Rolling Stone's "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time."

As the first African bluesman to achieve widespread popularity on his home continent, Touré was often known as "the African John Lee Hooker."

Vieux Farka Touré's blues, like that of his father, is based on a more lyrical guitar sound than the American variety. It forms a repetitive pattern with a pulsating bass line of just a few notes with percussion from instruments other than a full drum kit. Vieux's father was the premier stylist in this musical genre and traveled worldwide performing this unique music on an instrument, guitar, that is not native to the Sahara Desert.

Now we have his son to carry on the tradition. On his first self-named CD we find a mature guitarist whose sound on acoustic and electric guitars is both powerful and haunting. Vieux doesn't wail on guitar as Robert Cray or Eric Clapton might. Instead he plays very clean, distortion-free single note melodies avoiding crunch chords and electronic gadgetry.

Vieux's recording melds sounds from traditional Malian music with electric bass and also the Kora, or African harp. The songs are sung in a variety of dialects from this part of Africa and thus, for American ears, are both unintelligible and exotic.

Listening to this album, one is struck by the power of simple musical lines, simple guitar figures and chanted vocals. While American music wants to propel the listener to new spaces, Malian music wants the listener to stay put, transfixed in a single line of musical content, as if to fully digest the message.

If you are unfamiliar with this style of guitar playing and musical expression you have two chances to hear Vieux Farka Touré and his band. They'll be at Higher Ground in Burlington on Nov. 11 and in Montreal on Nov. 23 at Club Soda.

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Interview with Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, Tinariwen's guitarist and singer.
The Tuareg people of West Africa are descended from nomads who traveled in caravans along the Sahara desert. They've been fighting for an independent homeland for decades and in the '80s, the Tuareg rebelled against the nation of Mali. The struggle has often been violent and bitter, but a group of musicians emerged out of the rebellion.

The members of Tinariwen, which translates as "open spaces," put down their weapons to combine traditional musical styles with blazing electric guitars.

Earlier this year, Tinariwen released its third album, Aman Iman: Water Is Life. The band creates a unique sound all its own with blues and African percussion and poetry.

One of Tinariwen's guitarists and singers, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, grew up in the desert. It wasn't until 1982, when he went to Algeria, that he heard the music of Tinariwen and legendary desert-blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure.

"It was the first time I heard Tamasheq voices singing with guitars," Alhousseyni says in an interview with Scott Simon. "At home, we didn't have those kind of instruments — just the flute and the tom-tom drum — and for me to hear the guitar and the Tamasheq voices was very moving, very beautiful."

Around the same time, his experience with the guitar was also new and exciting.

Initially, Alhousseyni had a certain resistance to the guitar because of its traditional role with the griot culture's traditional hereditary musicians. But he was attracted to the guitar through other players learning the instrument, and finally in 1986 the barriers came down and he decided to fully embrace the guitar. While electric guitars are not a traditional part of Tuareg life, Tinariwen was a group coming up in the context of rebellion.

"One of the goals of the rebellion was to bring modern things to the desert, to upgrade our lives," Alhousseyni says. "The electric guitar was one of those things we could bring. We found that there was a very natural fit with the guitar and our way of traditionally singing that was just very beautiful and very pleasing."

Still fighting in song, Tinariwen seeks to give its people recognition with the words, music and actions of its members' everyday lives.

"I am not a politician," Alhousseyni says. "We are artists. And yet we live in a time where the Tuareg can't really make these separations as clearly as that. We have to be artists, politicians, nomads, businessmen — everything. I feel that our culture needs to have not necessarily a homeland, but a special consideration within the society. We don't want to just blend into the general population. Our culture is very distinct and must be able to preserve its distinct identity."

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Sound of the World

Jacobus Raj reviews Sound of the World.
BBC World Service DJ Charlie Gillet, who hosts the weekly World of Music programme, digs deep into his musical library to come up with a double CD collection that is scintillating, compelling and easy to listen to.

Music is certainly an international language and it is nice to see so much talent from all over the world collected here, playing not just traditional pieces but also more modern interpretations that move through everything from jazz and hip-hop to rock.

Gillet has done a masterful job with the liner notes as well, allowing listeners to find out more about the artistes represented on the album as well as providing helpful hints on exploring their music further, including album suggestions and the like.

The artistes chosen are also a pretty mixed bunch, ranging from the internationally renowned ones like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Tinariwen to those still making a name for themselves.

Legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, who died in March 2006, can also be heard on the album with his son Vieux Farka Toure using some samples of his father’s work on Diallo, an interesting exploration of traditional Malian music interspersed with the rhythms and sounds of blues rock and electric guitars.

Another interesting find on this album is Balkan Beat Box, based in America but with Syrian and Israeli roots. Their song Habibi Min Zaman is a lively, upbeat and infectious tune that will definitely get the feet tapping.

Elsewhere, Mexican outfit Los De Abajo tip its hat to the Fun Boy Three’s 1983 British hit The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum) by turning it into a Spanish ensemble anthem, complete with trombones and trumpets. Definitely an interesting take on an old classic.

Gillet’s arrangements of the tracks couldn’t be better and he allows the mood to grow and swell, taking listeners on a journey that can be melancholic at times but this is soon lifted with the more light-hearted numbers represented on the album.

I enjoyed the album immensely and would say that it is a very good introduction to the varied sounds of world music.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Rokku Mi Rokka - Youssou N'Dour

Andy Gill reviews Youssou N'Dour's "Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take)".
Over the past decade or so, Youssou N'Dour's career has expanded along the lines of liberal chums such as Sting and Peter Gabriel, with the African star becoming a sort of global ambassador. The most recent example was his role as the Anglo-African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano in the William Wilberforce biopic Amazing Grace. But N'Dour's musical career has suffered somewhat from the expectations aroused by the hit "7 Seconds".

The opening track here, "4-4-44", is symptomatic of this as he tries to inflate an average song into a pop hit; and many other tracks move away from his usual mbalax grooves in search of a broader audience – most successfully on "Sportif", which has an appealing New Orleans second-line flavour. The album's saviour is Bassekou Kouyaté, the ngoni (African banjo) player, whose frisky contributions are a delight. But a veil should be drawn over the concluding "Wake Up (It's Africa Calling)", an ill-judged, pompous attempt by N'Dour and Neneh Cherry to repeat the success of "7 Seconds".

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Paul Fisher interviews Tinariwen's manager Andy Morgan.
Tinariwen are arguably the hottest act in world music right now. A group of nomadic Tuaregs from the southern Sahara desert in Mali who play a pulsating brand of "desert blues" on electric guitars, their epic journey has already become the stuff of legend. Founded at the end of the 1970s, they wrote songs of the suffering caused by catastrophic droughts, the pain of exile and struggles for political freedom.

In the early '80s they were lured into Col. Gadaffi-sponsored military training camps in Libya. Their songs became the mouthpiece of the rebellion of the Tuaregs — Muslim tribesmen descended from the Berbers of North Africa who share their own language, Tamasheq.

By 1990, the main members of the group were armed with Kalashnikovs and fighting in Tuareg rebellions in northern Mali and Niger.

In 2001 they helped organize the Festival in the Desert, where they were seen by Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, one of a growing list of rock stars championing their music — and their cause — that includes Carlos Santana, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and U2's Bono.

According to their manager, Englishman Andy Morgan, who also first saw them at the inaugural Festival in the Desert, the story shouldn't get in the way of the music.

"Tinariwen are musicians first and foremost. The older members of the band did receive military training in the Libyan camps, and most of them also took part in the rebellion of '90-'91. But they consider this an episode . . . brief, painful, harrowing . . . but an episode nonetheless. They were musicians before it happened, and they've been musicians ever since.

"In the late 1980s, when Mali was still dominated by the military dictatorship of Moussa Traore [the leader who took power in a coup in 1968 and led Mali for 23 years], there seemed to be no other way for the Tuaregs to make themselves heard or respected other than taking up arms and fighting."

Talking music, their now trademark sound emerged when one of the founders of the group, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, transposed Tuareg melodies to the electric guitar, adding in blues, rock, and Berber and Arabic influences. This was a radical approach to a fairly rigid tradition, but one that didn't cause much adverse reaction.

"There was no Dylanesque backlash," says Morgan, referring to the reaction of some Bob Dylan fans when the folk singer went electric in 1965. "Tuareg society and culture was simply too dispersed, and too isolated, for such a 'unified' cultural phenomenon as a backlash to occur.

"On the other hand, I think that there was definitely a generation gap between the youth, or the ishumar, as they're known, and their parents, who had grown up in the '40s and '50s and who only knew a very ancient nomadic existence, with clear social standards and hierarchies."

Tinariwen in some ways symbolize a new way of life for the Tuareg. "They are the first generation of Tuareg to have significant dealings with the modern world," says Morgan. "They were the first to live in exile, the first to deal with a wage economy, the first to travel far from their ancestral homes, the first to listen to Western rock and pop, the first to use the guitar as their main instrument of choice."

Indeed, it's difficult to understand Tinariwen without understanding their context in the history of their people. "To take a very specific example, in the old days, before independence, it was considered the height of bad manners for an adult Tuareg male to show his full face in public, unveiled," says Morgan. "The older members of Tuareg society still live like that. Eyadou, Tinariwen's bassist, has told me that he has an uncle, living in southern Algeria, whose full face he has never seen. In contrast, Ibrahim, the founder of Tinariwen, refuses to wear the veil. For him it symbolizes the old hierarchies, and old isolation of the Tuareg. It's what he has fought against."

Apart from attracting the praise of rock glitterati, Tinariwen have actively been promoted to a mainstream rock audience by their record company Independiente, whose roster includes Travis and Embrace. The Japan Times spoke with the group just as they were about to take to the stage to support The Rolling Stones in front of 65,000 people at Dublin's Slane Castle.

"I'm really really happy to be here," says Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. "For me it's like arriving in a special place after so many years of solitude and separation and suffering in the desert. I've always dreamed of this and now it's happening. It's a big experience. None of us really knew the music of The Rolling Stones before. But in the last few days I've been listening to some of their songs, and I love them. And I now realize that we did listen to the Stones back in the desert in the '70s and '80s but we just didn't know it was them. The problem is that we heard most of our music on bootlegged tapes, with no picture, no track titles, no sleeve notes, nothing. That's why we're always a bit uncertain about our Western music, finding it hard to name names. But the Stones are amazing. Their music has a power like the devil. It's very, very strong."

The group might not be expecting 65,000 to turn up at their concert in Japan, but their first visit two years ago did leave a lasting impression.

"I was very surprised that the Japanese are such big music fans," says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, another of the group's main songwriters. "They seem to love our music, and are great dancers too. That really impressed me. For some reason I had this image of Japanese people as being mainly interested in technology, but not the music itself. It was great for us. Also, the food is bizarre, but the whole protocol of eating is very beautiful. We enjoyed the whole ritual. We found that the Japanese are very kind, very welcoming."

Ibrahim adds, "I found the Japanese people great, but strange in that they're in the world, but they're separate from the rest of the world. It's really as if you arrive in a parallel world — human, friendly, but completely separate. Tokyo was absolutely the opposite of our home. I saw people walking in Tokyo in a way that I've never seen before. These waves of pedestrians . . . it was frightening!"

That tour was not their first contact with Japan. One of their members, Mohammed Ag Itlale, is even nicknamed "Japonais" as he is thought to look Japanese.

"Back in the desert there's a whole lot of people who look Japanese," explains Ibrahim. "Japonais is only one of them. Nobody knows why. Maybe the shogun came there a long time ago to do his business!"

Eighty thousand copies sold of their first two albums notwithstanding, it's still too early to tell if Tinariwen has managed to crossover to a rock audience or not, according to the band's manager.

"It's very difficult to judge, mainly because the music industry itself is changing so rapidly. Nowadays, the significance of record sales has changed. They're no longer the main barometer of success. Sales of 'Aman Iman' [their third and latest album, released earlier this year] have so far been superb for an African act, and frankly pretty modest for a rock/pop act," says Morgan. "But having said that, I'm always so surprised by the extent to which Tinariwen have pervaded many people's consciousness, especially people who don't class themselves as 'world music' or 'African music' fans. I keep getting proof of that. So maybe there's something happening out there. Time will tell."

For the group, judging success and their own mission is complex.

"On a personal level, the mission has much to do with earning a living, traveling the world, having opportunities which are so rare back home in the desert," says Morgan. "But on a much wider community level, Tinariwen see themselves as ambassadors of the desert, the Tuareg. They're really very proud of their home, and their culture. They want the world to know about it, to understand what they've been through and what they were prepared to give up in their lives, for what they believe in. They want us to know how beautiful their homeland is, and how misunderstood."

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Toumani Diabaté - Interview

Joe Tangari interviews Toumani Diabaté.

Toumani Diabaté likes to talk. I didn't try it, but it may very well be possible to interview him simply by saying, "Go."

What comes out is a detailed and rich telling of his family history, a dose of African history, and a lot of background on the kora, the West African harp he plays with astounding and perhaps even unprecedented virtuosity.

Pitchfork: Could you start by giving us a little background on the kora?

Toumani Diabaté: Well, the Mandinka Empire was about 700 years ago in West Africa. It was like nine or 10 countries together in the Empire. The kora came from there about 700 years ago. It's made with a special gourd called the calabash and cow skin and it has twenty-one strings.

The players were from the griot families. They carried on the memory of the Mandinka Empire, because 700 years ago there was now writing in books. They were there to talk about Mandinka history.

Pitchfork: So it was oral history.

TD: Yes. It was translated [handed down] father to son, father to son, father to son...That's why I became the 71st generation kora player in my family. The kora technically is three octaves, and you play it at the bridge with four fingers. It has basically three possibilities: you can play the bass line, you can play the melody, and also you can improvise with both at the same time. Only the kora can do that.

The kora is very important for the Mandinka people. You can play it with any kind of instruments in any kind of style. It's gorgeous, it's a perfect, complete instrument, normally played acoustic.

Pitchfork: Your parents were both musicians in the Ensemble National Instrumental.

TD: Yes, my mother and father were great musicians. I was born in the 1960s, when my country, Mali, got independence-- I don't call it independence, because my country doesn't need someone to say it's independent.

[But] this was when they formed the national ensembles-- traditional band[s] with all the traditional instruments: the balafon, the ngoni, the kora, and the women with the bright voices. The men were singing also. So my parents were in the ensemble and they couldn't get time to teach me. So I was listening to my father's tapes and recordings of my grandfather and also Western music. From that, I taught myself to play while going to school to learn how to read and write.

Pitchfork: So you were hearing all this traditional and non-traditional music. How did that affect what you taught yourself?

TD: I was teaching myself the traditional music and also...I had a dream when I was young. At that time I was hearing Otis Redding, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix. So, my dream was to try to play this music with the kora. I'm happy to say today that this worked very good. I've done different projects with Taj Mahal, the prophet of blues, Ali Farka Toure-- I won a Grammy Award with him-- the Spanish musicians in Ketama, and Björk. So my dream is really here.

I didn't want the Western people to say "Oh!" when they're listening to the kora music [adopts patronizing tone] "This is so very nice." I wanted them to join with this music, and to play with this music, because music has been created as its own language, you know? The "G" on the kora is the same "G" that's on a piano. It's the same "G" that Carlos Santana was playing. The "B" on the kora is the same as the one that the hip hop people have.

Pitchfork: So after collaborating with so many people from so many places, do you look for something specific in a potential collaborator?

TD: I'm happy to be this kind of open musician. I'm not just playing for the beer or the whiskey, you know? My music has a history and a legend. My music has a geography. It's for peace and love and culture, and I think it's for communication. I think the best way to communicate today is the music. So I really want to know, today, how come the kora is not in Hollywood? How come it's not in hip hop? That's my dream today.

So if you're open and you have any connection to that, just put it on. I'm ready to do it. Because I think that people need to know that African-American people, they have another thought about Africa. Today is not time to say anymore about the slavery and people being deported from Africa to the U.S., to London, to Jamaica. That's the past right? So we have now to move on and be together and collaborate. It's not right for people to give time to killing themselves with drugs because they lost everything in the past.

My father told me, he said "Look, son, the only one in the world today who doesn't have any enemy is the money, because everyone wants money. It's important that people come together, because if you make a lot of money, finally you will lose something in you. You will lose your culture. It's no good, because money can't do everything." Everybody wants money, but, when my father talked, the money talked also. [laughs] He said, "But the money just says, 'Nobody looked after me. I'm here, I'm the money, but nobody looked after me.' We did everything for money, but money couldn't get everything."

It's time to communicate between people and between the nations. That's the best thing.

Pitchfork: You've been playing with the Symmetric Orchestra for years now, but you've only recorded with them last year. Is communication why you finally chose to record with them? Was it time to communicate?

TD: It's a 20-year-old project, and I'm happy that it works, because it's the only band in Africa today that has musicians coming form different towns and countries and talking in one language-- that's the music. Like I said, it has a history.

Pitchfork: But as far touring with the band and taking it on the road for the first time, what communication have you been getting in response from the audiences?

TD: Touring... I've been doing it for about 20 years with different people. Touring is good, but the main time is after the show, when people come to me and say, "Your music touched me." That's really important. In Ottawa, after my concert at a folk festival I had a man and his family approach me and they said that when their daughter was born, they were looking for a name to give to her. Finally, they took the name of my song and they gave it to their daughter. They brought a picture to me. I've been seeing people crying at the concerts because of the music and when I talk about the history and how we play together. People will come to me and say, "Thank you so much."

Pitchfork: So as you communicate outward, what are you hearing from other musicians you're hearing as you travel the world? Have you heard anything in particular that stands out?

TD: Well, at a festival-- most of the concerts were at festivals-- you give and you learn. It's like if you're thirsty and you want to drink, you go to the store to buy water. You can't drink the whole bottle in the store, and the music is like that. You can't say "I'm finished with the music." I started playing when I was five years old. You can't know everything about music. You're always in the middle. I think it's not only music that's like that, but life for a human being is like that all the time. So when I go to a festival, I give from my heart, but also I learn from other musicians.

Pitchfork: So is that also part of the appeal of collaborating with other musicians? Like, when you play with Bjork, she learns from you and you learn form her?

TD: Yeah. Collaborating with different musicians from different culture is the same thing. I'm happy to do that, because they have something to say and I have something to say, and when we put that together, it's just happenin' and hopefully the people will love it.

Pitchfork: In your notes on your last album, Boulevard de l'Independence, you mention that you've been recording the Symmetric Orchestra during its residency at the Hogon in Bamako? What do you use those recordings for?

TD: Well, the Hogon Club for me is a laboratory. We play there every Friday night and people come from around Mali, but also foreign people, and if I compose a song, we play it to check how the people feel this music. And if it goes well with the people, we keep the song and it gets more exciting. When the foreign people come, also, there are no constraints. I tell them, "Play what you like." That's the way we work there.

Pitchfork: So was it different when you went into a studio to record the Symmetric Orchestra?

TD: The recording was live, so not different, really. I don't like to talk much about the project.

Pitchfork: Have you been working on other things since then, besides touring?

TD: Of course the Symmetric Orchestra is still a big project for me now. But twenty years ago I released my first solo album, Kaira, and I just finished to make another solo album, which is being released next year.

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Orquestra Imperial - Interview

Will Hodgkinson interviews Orquestra Imperial.
There are some things that only Brazilians can do. One is to lie on a tiny mat on the beach all day without getting a grain of sand on it. Another is to play samba. Born in the working-class provinces of Rio at the turn of the 20th century, this blend of African rhythms and American jazz developed in dancehalls and carnivals of the 1930s and 1940s to become the epitome of the Brazilian way of life: as languid as a summer breeze but with a touch of melancholy, too. Samba fell into the realms of kitsch by the 1980s, but a loose-knit group made up of young Rio-based musicians and a few ageing legends called Orquestra Imperial have revived the form to spectacular success.

“The whole thing started in a panic,” says the avant-garde musician and producer Kassin, who had the idea for Orquestra Imperial in 2002. “I had been running an experimental club when I was approached by the manager of an old Rio concert hall called Ballroom to do a series of shows. Ballroom held 2,000 people and I didn’t think our experimental music would fill the place, so I had the idea of forming a samba orchestra.”

With only a few days to organise the first concert, Kassin called up all the musicians he knew and told them of his plans. This included the singer and actress Thalma De Freitas, his regular collaborator Moreno Veloso and the 75-year-old drummer Wilson Das Neves. The idea was to perform anything – from the classic songs that Brazilians grew up with to modern advertising jingles – in a big-band samba style.

“I had the idea on Thursday and the first concert was on Monday,” recalls Kassin. “We had 15 people on stage and nine people in the audience.” Among the 40 people that attended the third concert was a reviewer from the Rio newspaper O Globo, who went on to announce that Orquestra Imperial was the best new band he had seen in a decade. By the fourth night it was a sell-out. Since then the band have backed the Brazilian superstars Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso, sold out the Barbican in London and completed their first album. “Since Orquestra Imperial there has been a huge revival in samba,” says Amarante.

It might seem strange that a new generation has embraced the music of their grandparents, but De Freitas explains: “In Brazil we have an amazing legacy of popular songs that everyone grows up with. I think that’s why Orquestra Imperial has worked. We have a lot of fun on stage, but we are paying homage to what has gone before us. We keep the songs alive.”

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Mayra Andrade sings Lua

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Mayra Andrade - Interview

Helen Brown interviews Mayra Andrade.
Closing her eyes and arching her neck backwards, the young Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade brings her palms to her collar bone and begins to beat out a rhythm from her home islands off the West Coast of Africa.

The "batuque" beat she is tapping into comes from a Cape Verdean dance - possibly used to promote bridal fertility - that was condemned as un-Christian by the Portuguese colonists.

Today the hypnotic polyrhythm has been reborn and reinterpreted in the now independent nation where 70% of the population are of mixed race and generations of emigration mean that women far outnumber men.

Tonight's polite and exclusively white audience at the Besancon musical festival in Eastern France close their eyes with Mayra Andrade, nod their heads and tune in as her lovely voice washes over them.

She sings songs of brave women calling fishermen in from the rough waves of the Atlantic, of love and loss and time passing in weathered isolation. There's a guttural oomph that reminds me of 1970s jazz singer Marlena Shaw.

As Andrade's arms widen, flail and sway to encompass the sense of ocean and emotion, her strapless dress nearly slips from her breasts, and a Frenchwoman in the front row throws up a pashmina to cover her.

When I sat on the balcony of her little hotel room earlier in the afternoon, 26 year old Andrade was every inch the chic chanteuse. Black suited and high chinned she told me of her childhood.

"Nobody in my family was musical. My father was in the military – which is how I came to be born in Cuba. My mother had a difficult pregnancy and the medical care was better there, and because of the good relations between our countries he arranged for her to give birth there. But back in Cape Verde she made my cousin my godfather and he played guitar: jazz standards and Brazilian music. The first song I remember singing was Caetano Veloso's ""O Leãozinho" about the little lion. I'm an unconditional fan of Veloso. I love every thing he does."

By the time she reached her late teens, Andrade realized she "was always singing, performing" and wanted to do something within the Cape Verdean tradition. At that time she met Orlando Pantera, a composer who was exploring the local fusion of Portuguese and African beats that had fallen out of fashion.

"He was adding more harmonies, richer melodies and poetry" to the passionate batuque beat traditionally rapped out by Santiagoan washerwomen on the cloth bundles (tchabeta) held in their laps.

"He had the courage to break into new territory and made Cape Verdean music more attractive to younger people," she says, batting those beats out onto her crisply pressed black trousers for me.

Pantera died, aged just 33, back in 2001.

"At the time of his death," she says, "he had only just begun to be well known, so I started to sing his songs, along with a few other young Cape Verdeans, to carry on the legacy. It was too great to die with him."

Some of his lyrics are rather amusing, I say, referencing one of several Pantera compositions on Andrade's seductive debut album, "Navega" (2006), called "Accroche a Toi" (Stuck on You).

"You went out of your way to get away from me," run the lyrics, "You walked in cowpats and the farmer's dog bit your behind/ You found another boyfriend to put me off/ You sorely criticised me/ You rubbed my nose in cat's mess/ And you served me a soup of locust wings/ But in spite of everything I'm still stuck on you, ha ha ha."

Andrade nods and smiles in recollection of her "small, intense friendship" with Pantera, but her brow creases: "He used his suffering to make a funny song."

The band with which Andrade performs in France (where she has lived since 2003) and who will appear with her on stage at London's Barbican on Friday night are all Brazilian. She acknowledges the difficulties of teaching them Cape Verdean musical metre.

"We are brothers in one way but… in Brazil a beat might be X, to us its Y. If you were to make a diagram the bass would be here not there, the vocal would be…" she sings a difference near imperceptible to me. "It was difficult for me at first, like having a story to tell in a different language. But gradually they are getting closer to the authentic Cape Verdean vernacular. I have been playing them Cape Verdean music."

The last thing I want to discuss with Andrade is the ferro she plays on stage. A long metal stick, pressed into the shoulder and scraped percussively with a shining knife. "I see it as a kind of power the traditional Cape Verdean women had, with this instrument, with the batuque. If you ask them they will say 'I have these problems: the men, the money, the children…. But with this, the music, I put down the problems'. With me… sometimes when I sing I feel I leave my body."

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Orchestra Baobab: Made in Dakar

Pete Paphides reviews Orchestra Baobab's Made in Dakar.
Asked about what might be expected on the new album by Orchestra Baobab, the Senegalese group’s 62-year-old guitarist Barthelemy Attisso pointed out that his band had been playing in the same style since 1970. The likelihood of them changing at this point was not great. As he put it: “We don’t want to change our style or we would lose our identity.”

If Attisso was ever going to cater to changing tastes, he would have done it 25 years ago, when his group’s hybrid of Nigerian high life, Cuban rhythms and B. B. King steals were usurped by the percussive street music known as mbalax. If mbalax was Senegal’s punk, Youssou N’Dour was its Joe Strummer. N’Dour became a star; Attisso put down his guitar and became a lawyer for 14 years.

Orchestra Baobab’s music was always that of the status quo. But in the 1970s, Senegal had a cool status quo. Leopold Senghor, the President, was a poet who championed a progressive strain of Afrocentricity called “Negritude” and Orchestra Baobab were his favourite emissaries of it – so much so that the group had a club built for them.

Made in Dakar might indeed have been made in Dakar, but for musical provenance, you’d need a box of pins to represent these songs on a map. Such is the brassy Cuban uplift of Ami Kita Bay that the song doesn’t need to do much other than repeat its main refrain. In Sibam Medoune Diallo’s vibrato pinballs from one minor chord to another and still sounds like great party music. By contrast, abetted by a sad saxophone, the melancholia of Aline seems connected to the Cabo Verdean blues of Cesarea Evora.

With five vocalists, it’s not always possible to discern who you’re listening to. But, on a re-recording of the group’s 1974 hit Nijaay – a song originally written and sung by the group’s late singer Laye Mboup – there’s no mistaking the voice of a guesting N’Dour. His presence seems significant. During Orchestra Baobab’s dormant years, N’Dour westernised his sound. But as the success of artists such as Tinariwen confirms, we Westerners never wanted our African music to sound like Elton John in Lion King mode. We wanted a joyful racket made in some remote club that we might never get to – the Club Baobab perhaps. Judging by the intensity of his performance, maybe he did too.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Youssou N’Dour - Interview

“The music and inspiration on this album are from the north, from the desert, from parts of the country that border on Mali and Mauritania. People from those countries will know and understand this music as well as people who come from the centre of Senegal” N’Dour says.

“Some people might think Senegalese music means mbalax, which is Wolof, the most important language in the country, everybody speaks it. But all my life I have been saying that this is not the only music we have in Senegal, we have a wide range of sounds and rhythms. When it came to writing the songs for this album, I wanted to use different sounds.

“Sometimes you will hear a little blues on the album, a little reggae, a bit of Cuba. In Africa, we get excited when we hear these rhythms, because we feel them, they are ours, but they left Africa with the slaves a long time ago. Rokku Mi Rokka means ‘You give me something, I give you something’ and that’s the message of the album: we have received a lot from the developed world, but remember that we brought a lot, too.”

For the recording, N’Dour returned to the band he helped form a quarter of a century ago, the Super Etoile, and old friends Habib Faye (bass), Babacar “Mbaye Dieye” Faye (percussion) and Papa Oumar Ngom (guitar), who have been part of Youssou’s circle for more than 20 years. “They are not from the north, but they are Senegalese, they understand exactly what is happening in the north, the south, and the centre.”

There are a few additions to the team, too. Neneh Cherry, duets with Youssou on “Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling)”. (Cherry and N’Dour previously recorded the hit song ‘7 Seconds’ in 1994). “We’re not trying to have another ‘7 Seconds’ as this is a much more African-sounding song, featuring our instruments, such as kora,” N’Dour says.
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Orchestra Baobab - Made in Dakar

Robin Denselow reviews Orchestra Baobab's Made in Dakar

In the smart Point E district of the Senegalese capital, Dakar, a cosy outdoor restaurant with the ghastly name Just 4U has become a key fixture of the west-African music circuit. Cheikh Lo has a weekly residency, local hip-hop trio Daara J make regular appearances, and the country's two superstars, Youssou N'Dour and Baaba Maal, made a historic appearance together on the venue's little stage this summer. And it is here, at midnight every Saturday, that the venue is home to another west-African music legend - nearly four decades since they first got together and six years on from their dramatic reunion, following a 16-year split.

On a good night, Orchestra Baobab are still one of the most joyous, rousing bands on the continent, and a special show at Just 4U to mark the launch of their first studio album in five years provides further evidence that the gentlemen of Dakar are not finished yet. There are 11 band members on stage, mostly dressed in brightly coloured shirts, and augmented by friends playing extra percussion and brass. They play for three hours but sound as if they could have continued until dawn, constantly changing styles in a cheerfully sophisticated, rhythmic and melodic show that features their full array of lead singers (they have five to call on) and backing work that matches congas, timbales and drums with brass and the remarkable guitar work of Baobab's founder member and chef d'orchestre, the quiet and bespectacled Barthelemy Attisso.

"We have had the same style since 1970," Attisso, 62, says before the show. "We were the first band to mix traditional music with modern dance styles. We don't want to change our style or we would lose our identity." Rudy Gomis, the easy-going 60-year-old singer, who also joined Baobab at the start of their career, says the fundamental sound has never changed. "It's a salad," he explains, "a mixture of Cuban songs and influences from Senegalese griots [traditional hereditary singers], and from the Congo, Nigeria, France and America, played by a Pan-African band with members from Senegal, Togo, Morocco and Guinea."

That old Baobab formula is still intact, and the band has survived - with substantially the same lineup they started with - because they have lost neither their enthusiasm nor the element of surprise in their songs. Watch them on stage or listen to the new material or reworked old favourites on the new album, and you can hear not just African and Cuban influences but echoes of everything from ska to jazz and country. This is thanks largely to the arrangements and inventive instrumental work of Attisso, perhaps the most unlikely guitar hero in Africa, simply because this is not his full-time job.

In a miracle of time management, Attisso combines his key role in Orchestra Baobab with his practice as a commercial lawyer, based not in Senegal but in Togo, which is not even a neighbouring country in west Africa. Even now, he only joins the band "for tours or for major events like this, so I spend about half my time with Baobab".

Attisso first arrived in Dakar in 1966 to study law, "but I found I needed money to pay the law school, so I had to find a night job. I thought of becoming a concierge, a bouncer at a bar or a cashier at a club, but I thought that would be boring, so I decided to become a musician." He spent two years learning the guitar and listening to the Congolese guitarist Doctor Nico, Cuban piano styles, Django Reinhardt, BB King, Wes Montgomery and Carlos Santana. These, he says, are still the only records he plays, "because I'm still learning from them".

By 1968, he was working in the celebrated Star Band of Dakar's Club Miami, alongside singers Rudy Gomis and Balla Sidibe, who would both later be invited to join him in a new venture, Orchestra Baobab. The group was the house band of Club Baobab, a basement nightclub owned by the minister of finance, who just happened to be the younger brother of Leopold Senghor, the Senegalese president. Senghor's "negritude" policy included the promotion of African music in his newly independent state and Orchestra Baobab were among its beneficiaries. The band remained at Club Baobab for seven years, playing four nights a week to a sophisticated clientele that often included the president and his guests, developing their style of mixing current hits and popular foreign favourites with the music of the Senegalese griots. In the process, Orchestra Baobab became the best-loved band in Senegal, outgrowing even the fashionable Club Baobab. "We wanted more money and bigger places to play," said Gomis. "And we were frustrated when our friends couldn't get in to Baobab see us, while political figures could."

At their height, they were playing stadiums across the country, but when mbalax, the percussive street style popularised by Youssou N'Dour, swept Senegal Orchestra Baobab's gentle, melodic style suddenly fell out of fashion. By 1985, they were forced out of business. "It was good for us," claims Gomis now, "because the incredible success had gone to the heads of some of our musicians. But I never thought we would get together again." Gomis went on to develop a solo career, while also working as a language teacher; Attisso returned to the law. "I thought it was all over, so I simply parked my guitar," he says. "I occasionally listened to the old music with nostalgia, but I never had time to keep practising."

That could well have been that, if western audiences had not started to take an interest in African music during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001, a classic Baobab album, Pirates Choice, was rereleased in Britain, and in the same year the band was invited to reform for a special concert at the Barbican. It was, Attisso says, a frightening request. The lawyer had not picked up a guitar for 16 years and had forgotten how to play. "I told my wife that I had lost my touch but that my band members needed me," he recalls. "She replied that I could accomplish anything if I put my mind to it, and so every night after work I would practise until 2am, or right through the night, until I could play again." Orchestra Baobab were reborn, and N'Dour, the man who helped put them out of business, has proved to be a massive help in their revival. Along with World Circuit's Nick Gold, he co-produced their 2002 comeback album Specialist in All Styles, and he makes a rousing appearance on the new album, Made in Dakar, which was recorded in his Xippi studio.

Mbalax is still hugely popular in Senegal, but Orchestra Baobab have found a new audience, both back home and in the west. "Music is like fashion," says Gomis. "It comes and goes. The world stopped for us when the band stopped, but now the world is moving again."

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Cesária Évora - Interview

Jonathan Alley interviews Cesária Évora.
Cesaria Evora's name is synonymous with the ocean. A native of the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde (off Senegal), she is the world's leading exponent of "morna", a melancholic but celebratory folk music arising from a mix of tango rhythms, British sea shanties and Angolan laments.

Evora is an unlikely star, but a bona fide international drawcard all the same. Known as the barefoot diva because of her insistence on appearing sans footwear, Evora has stridently remained herself through the peaks and valleys of her journey to success.

She began musical life singing in her local Catholic church aged 10. She had no professional aspirations until she chanced upon an attractive young guitarist and ensured she joined his band, aged 16 - proving once and for all that a mix of music and hormones transcends national boundaries.

"It was the same kind of music I still sing: it's the music of Cape Verde - morna and coladeira," she says, referring to the lighter, more playful form with distinctly more flirtatious rhythms.

Featuring a noteworthy collaboration with Senegalese singing sensation Ismael Lo on Africa Nossa, Evora's new album (her 10th) is titled Rogamar, which loosely translates as "praise the sea". Maritime imagery is central to her music.

"Cape Verde is an island. The music of Cape Verde has many influences. I sang for many foreign people in my country. During those years from 1950-60 there were many foreign ships in our ports, and people liked my music," she says.

"They compared it to blues and fado. In Cape Verde we have a mix of cultures. The sea is around Cape Verde. You see the sea wherever you go. The sea sees us! The sea is the way people come and go from the country."
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Gogol Bordello on the Henry Rollins Show

Gogol Bordello performs on The Henry Rollins Show on IFC this Friday, Aug. 10 at 11:00 PM EST. The show will repeat on Aug. 11 at 4:55 AM EST and Aug. 14 at 12:30 AM EST.

See the interview with Eugene Hütz and a web-only performance of “Ultimate.”

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Papa Wemba

A biographical article on Papa Wemba.
Papa Wemba, often called the King of Rhumba Rock, was born in Kasai, Zaire. Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba first made his mark in 1970 in Kinshasa, where he was a singer, composer, and co-founder of the great youth group Zaiko Langa Langa. In 1974 he left to form his own band, Isife Lokole, and then in '76 began Viva La Musica.

Hoping to reach a wider audience he ended up in Paris in the early '80s, bringing with him the entire line-up of Viva La Musica. Wemba's musical vision went beyond the capabilities of his seasoned Zairen rhumba rockers as he began to experiment with a wide range of eclectic sounds.

Wemba's quite a stylish fellow, a sapeur, an aficionado of fashionable, well-designed clothing. His trendy suits with big jacket, and baggy, though tailored pants, are a strange mix of Africa, Paris, and the American zoot suit. A Soukous show is always a fashion event, and Wemba is a man of great style and taste.

While the celebrated musical form known as "Congolese rumba" first took the Black Continent by storm in the fifties, this music uncannily retains its youthful visage today, as if face-lifted by some timelessly hip plastic surgeons of African popular dance music. Among the "surgeons" (ought we say sorcerers ?) who have helped the rumba protect its see- mingly eternal youth, Papa Wemba is surely one of the most inspired and influential. This man is everything we love in the Congolese man, with that typical wry combination of wit, humor, and sheer talent! What a proud son of Kinshasa, a temple of intelligence - and home to the most colorful and vivid French in the entire French-speaking world! The Origins of a Vocation to Sing Papa Wemba (né Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba) was born in the southern Congo region of the Kasaï River, as the eldest child in his family, which settled in Leopoldville, the capital of the Belgian Congo, shortly after his birth. Wemba's father had fought in the Belgian army during the Second World War, and later become a hunter. Wemba's mother was a professional mourner in traditional Congolese funerals, where Wemba had his initiation in public singing. Though the passion for music born of those encounters never abated in Wemba, his father wanted to bar him from a musi-
cal career, having planned for his son a different career as a lawyer or journalist. When Wemba's father died in 1966 the only real obstacle between Wemba and his musical ambitions disappeared. Wemba began to sing in his parish church, where he experimented with the singular shrill voice which still characterizes his style.
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An interview with Putumayo's founder Dan Storper.
Chances are if you listen to a recording produced by Putumayo World Music, you'll want to get up and dance. "Our slogan is guaranteed to make you feel good," says Dan Storper, president and founder of the company. "It's not just about that (feeling good), but it's an important part of what I think the music from other parts of the world is able to do. It helps people rise above their daily problems."

Storper, who selects the artists and songs, and determines their sequence on each CD produced by the label, didn't set out to be a music executive. In 1975, armed with a degree in Latin American Studies, he opened a small store in New York that specialized in handicrafts and clothing imported from countries like Ecuador, Peru, Boliva and Colombia. (The name of the company comes from a river and valley in southern Colombia.)

Over the years, the business expanded. By 1991 he had seven stores selling crafts and clothing from around the world, and was designing a line of ethnic inspired garments. But he was tiring of the retail business and looking for something new. He found it in San Francisco. "One day I was walking in Golden Gate Park and heard an African group performing that really knocked my socks off." Storper recalls he was so impressed by their music that he made a vow to buy their CD and start playing it in his stores.
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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Ozomatli - Don't Mess With The Dragon

Ian Mann reviews Ozomatli's "Don't Mess With The Dragon".
Formed in 1995 Ozomatli are a ten strong aggregate of musicians from Los Angeles who fuse music from several traditions into one energetic whole. Their sound has the primal urgency of the best rock music but has a substantial Latin influence as well as drawing on funk, hip-hop and world music elements.

The band’s edgy energy and multi racial line up presents a vivid snapshot of cosmopolitan Los Angeles. Their music is an explosive cocktail and their performances have won them a substantial following in the US and further afield, although they remain relatively little known in the UK. However, on the evidence of this album a recent British tour should have done much to raise their profile. This is a hard gigging band who tour extensively.

With twelve tracks crammed into forty minutes there is no flab on this record. From the rousing opener "Can’t Stop" to the closing "La Segunda Mano" the pace rarely flags. The music is highly rhythmic and with two percussionists and a kit drummer it has tremendous drive. Besides conventional rock instrumentation the band also make extensive use of horns, turntables and rap vocals. It’s all in there. This is a band with attitude as encapsulated in the rapping on "City Of Angels".
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Monday, August 06, 2007

Gogol Bordello - Super Taranta

Fich Griwkowsky reviews Gogol Bordello's Super Taranta.
In this city, it's odd that not everyone knows Gogol Bordello. A punk Slav booze orchestra with acrobatic dancing girls - are you kidding me? Inside the band's chaotic coating lives a mad Ukrainian singer named Eugene Hutz - roving philosopher and one of the few modern "gypsies" to actually live up to the name. Based in New York, they put on the best live show there is. Seriously; early last year's show at the old Sidetrack was a flurry of legs, horns, accordions and near-nakedness that I'll never forget.

Bringing us to the new album, held up against the stellar Underdog World Strike of 2005.

Like its muscular predecessor, Super Taranta mixes the hooting, whistling and bootstomping of traditional Russian folk music with punchy guitars and an outright raunchy worldview. The echoey dub continues with more subtlety; it's more part of the band's general sound now, fitting the universal spirit of the seminal gypsy movie Latcho Drom. And if the whole album was as strong as the first three numbers, it'd get full marks.

Begins Hutz in his best bohunk, "If we are here not to do what you and I wanna do and go forever crazy with it, why the hell we are even here? There was never any good old days. They are today, they are tomorrow. It's a stupid thing we say, cursing tomorrow with sorrow."

And, yes, he really talks that way. The following song, "Wanderlust King", keeps up the spirit of the eternal and roving party the band's life must be.

There's a song about an uncle being an auntie, various condemnations of sedentary life and even a hilarious attack on American weddings, one-day things where the DJ is packing up his cords at 1 a.m. (A proper party is three days, as many of you know).

As always, the album can't begin to match the live show, but this is a collection of new material worth hearing. To make it really easy on you, buy the bright yellow album first.
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Gogol Bordello on the David Letterman Show 07/31/07.

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