Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Robin Denselow reviews Manu Dibango's concert at the Barbican, London.
Manu Dibango began with an announcement in broken English. "I'm still as in love with music as 50 years before," he proclaimed, and that ought to have marked the start of a classic concert. He is, after all, an undisputed legend for followers of anything from world music to jazz, funk and the whole host of other styles that have taken his fancy over the years. Now 73, he was back in London to celebrate both the 50th anniversary of his life as a professional musician and the launch of a new live CD and DVD, Lion of Africa, recorded in this same hall back in the autumn of 2004. The album of that last Barbican show, which featured special guests including Baaba Maal and Courtney Pine, showed that it was a patchy but often rousing occasion.
This latest concert, which featured no special guests, was merely patchy. It was a pleasant, breezy and thoroughly professional show that demonstrated Dibango's range of styles, but which switched constantly between the almost impressive and the gently soporific, often within the same song. It sounded at times as if a bunch of very classy musicians were having fun on stage, but weren't bothering too much about their audience. As for Manu Dibango himself, he clearly enjoyed himself, but never made this seem like a special occasion. A charming, cool, and (considering his age) remarkably sprightly figure with a bald pate and dark glasses, he swapped between saxophone, marimba and vocals almost as often as his music switched styles. He is famous for being unpredictable, so it was perhaps to be expected that only three of the songs he performed appear on the new album, and these of course included his signature tune, Soul Makossa. The variety was impressive - but he still acted like a great musician on autopilot. Read More

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Mark Wedel interviews Angélique Kidjo.
In the middle of enthusiastically speaking about the uniting power of music, Angelique Kidjo stopped herself to ask: ``Can you imagine this world without music? Can you? ... People would be jumping off the roofs every day!''

Would people just start making noise until they brought back music?

``I think that's how our ancestors discovered their voice, by screaming and listening to the echo in nature, and listening to the heartbeat to discover a sense of rhythm,'' said Kidjo, on the road somewhere in California. ``Music has always been there for human beings.''

Kidjo will bring her soaring voice and a group of five musicians who specialize in the rhythmic sounds of Afropop to Kalamazoo Valley Community College's Dale Lake Auditorium on Saturday. In addition to music from her native West Africa, she offers modern pop, American R&B, and South American and Caribbean styles.

It's hard to imagine that people will sit still through her show. She'll certainly be dancing, Kidjo said. ``I'm in paradise when I'm on stage.''

Kidjo was born in the West African country of Benin in 1960 and moved in the '80s to Paris, where she became a popular performer. In the '90s, she had a series of Afropop dance hits and earned Grammy nominations. She currently lives in New York City.

Her latest CD, ``Djin Djin'' (due out May 1 on Razor & Tie), has Kidjo singing with guest stars Joss Stone, Alicia Keys, Peter Gabriel and Carlos Santana. It's also a return to the more traditional sounds of Benin and of Africa in general.

Kidjo disputes that it's a return, however. Musically, ``I've always been in Africa,'' she said. Read More

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Michael Kessler interviews Tinariwen's members.

It has to be the most fascinating music story going around - a group of Touareg nomads from the Sahara Desert in northern Mali, faced with state persecution, flee to Libya. Some end up in Colonel Gaddafi's military training camps, where they record a set of underground cassettes.

Their music echoes over the sands like a siren and, heard by scores of exiled Touaregs in neighbouring Nigeria and Algeria, they become the voice and sound of a movement - the ishumar, the Sahara's Generation X.

They return to their homeland to mount a brief but violent rebellion. In 1990, they broker a peace deal with the Malian government. In 1991, they lay down their rifles. For guitars.

Tinariwen's music has won lavish praise. "The best rock'n'roll band in the world," said The Financial Times. "Sounds like a mirage: Keith Richards, Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder picking together," waxed Rolling Stone. "The kind of band that generations of Western rebel rockers could only dream of being," dared The Guardian.

In essence, it's a gentle desert blues, a sunrise-to-sunset trance on the pull of the land, human loss and the struggle of the Touareg. Indeed, as more than one critic has pointed out, this is perhaps where the blues as we know it came from.

Only Tinariwen would call it something different. "I got interested in music as a way of expressing how I felt about my past, my heritage," says Ibrahim Ag Halbib, lead singer and guitarist. "That sense of nostalgic longing, of loneliness, and suffering is our assouf, our blues."

Tinariwen's music is, as Led Zeppelin muso Robert Plant put it, "like falling in a well". The analogy functions on a number of levels - desert wells are deep, essential to survival and filled with a substance more precious than gold. Yet to make sense of the depth of Tinariwen's music, to understand how critical the pull of the desert is to their identity, you have to visit the Sahara. Which is what, after a 1000-kilometre journey through the desert, I'm fortunate enough to do.

It's here I meet Ibrahim, who is propped up between cushions inside our tent. Like many in the group, he lost family in the first rebellion of 1963. He clearly remembers his father being taken away; his weathered face drawn as he recounts his childhood loss. His expression wavers little as, between sips of tea and puffs on a cigarette, the conversation shifts to his discovery of music.

"I used to play the flute but it wasn't enough, so I got a canister, cables from my bike and a wooden pole and called it 'guitar of Ibrahim'. Some kids destroyed it so I made another one. Then when I was 17, I met a guy who taught me to play guitar. I was obsessed with getting an electric guitar and that man bought me one."

We're camped in the mountains near Tessalit, a few hundred kilometres down the road from Kidal, where many members of the group live. This is Mali's Adra des Iforas region, Touareg country where Tinariwen were born and bred. And it is here that they are truly considered heroes.

Which brings us to the reason we're here - the group are overseeing Mali's inaugural Camel Festival. Throughout the three days we're here, men in blue robes arrive on camels - replete with mobiles, Ray-Ban knock-offs and digital cameras. Jeeps of families loaded with mattresses arrive.

People descend on one another's tents to share tea, strum the guitar, chew the (goat) fat. There's no musical program but each night after the camel races, men, women, children and camels gather and howl to the electric guitars of nomadic Touareg groups from as far afield as Algeria.

Tinariwen were the driving force some years ago behind Timbuktu's Festival au Desert. What started off as a show of Mali's rich musical culture - Ali Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare, Habib Koite have all played here - has grown into something of a cult stopover for world music lovers.

But it's also attracted the mainstream of late, from musicians including Robert Plant to the likes of actor Johnny Depp. The festival seems to have outgrown Tinariwen, which is one of the reasons they've decided to go back to basics with a camel festival - a festival run by and for the Touareg.

The festival coincides with the imminent release of the group's third disc - Aman Iman (Water is Life). While no strangers to travel, they will tour Europe, the US, Canada and Australia to promote the album. It will be a chance to try a different kind of nomadism.

So are Tinariwen the next big crossover in world music? It's certainly the most authentic story to hit the music industry since the oldies of the Buena Vista Social Club were delivered to global audiences by World Circuit producer Nick Gold.

"It might be, but it's going to happen slowly because there's still a lot of resistance to non-English-language music, especially among radio producers," says Andy Morgan, Tinariwen's manager.

Word has it that Gold was once interested in signing up Tinariwen. He didn't and apparently he now regrets the decision. Desert blues indeed.

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Ernest Barteldes reviews Bebel Gilberto's Momento.

On her third release, Momento, Brazilian-bred singer Bebel Gilberto seems to have found a comfort zone between her bossa nova roots and the electronic sounds that have been part of her music since her 2000 debut, Tanto Tempo. “Caçada,” a track at the heart of the disc, was written in the ’70s by her uncle, Chico Buarque, one of Brazil’s best-loved popular composers. Gilberto reworks it as a forró, a Brazilian folk style that’s a world apart from the sophisticated music that’s made by Rio de Janeiro’s music-school-educated composers. Forró is built on completely organic sounds—hand-held bass drum, accordion, wooden flutes, and other rustic instruments—and its syncopated beat is made for dancing. Gilberto, whose origins are rather lofty—she grew up in New York and Rio and is the daughter of bossa nova prime mover João Gilberto—embraces the genre and sounds at home with it. But she’s just as comfortable on her cover of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” which receives a ’50s bossa nova treatment, and “Bring Back the Love,” an uplifting tune written by longtime collaborators Didi Gutman and Sabina Sciubba of the Brazilian Girls, which boasts a samba-inflected dance beat. Momento evokes the cities where it was recorded: Rio, New York, and London. The bilingual “Os Novo Yorkinos” addresses the residents of New York (who “do not need to sleep/Because we are in a living dream,” she sings in Portuguese), featuring a backbeat of capoeira handclaps and a chorus singing “farofa”—roughly, Portuguese for “melting pot.” She also nods to her Latin music influences on “Tranquilo,” a laid-back mambo-inflected tune. By first making a name for herself outside of Brazil—thus avoiding the “daughter of bossa nova” stigma that would have certainly damaged her career—Gilberto has managed to do what few Brazilian singer-songwriters have done. Instead of following what was going on in the market, she created her own sound, in the process influencing younger artists like Six Degrees labelmates Céu and Cibelle. Some Brazilian critics might turn their noses up at her music, which is easygoing and accessible; in fact, she’s more popular in the U.S. and Europe than she is in Brazil, where critics also take issue with her singing in English. It is exactly those points, though, that distinguish her as an artist. Momento is refreshingly personal and unpretentious and a welcome addition to the Brazilian-fusion genre.

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Roberta Macinnis interviews Angélique Kidjo.

West African singer Angélique Kidjo speaks eight languages. But when asked if it's true she hates recording in the studio, she doesn't use any of them. She just groans.

"It's not my culture," says Kidjo, who has been performing in front of real people — rather than a recording console — since she was a 6-year-old in Benin.

It may not be her culture, but Kidjo's spirited world-beat, Afro-pop albums have earned her four Grammy nominations and fans from Africa to Paris to Toyko. She makes her third appearance at the Houston International Festival on Sunday.

It's a fitting gig for Kidjo. The 46-year-old singer prefers a global approach, incorporating gospel, jazz and Latin and Caribbean influences into her sound.

"I like music that gives me the ability to try anything I want to try," Kidjo says. Say a peppy multilingual duet of the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter with Joss Stone? Or an a cappella version of Bolero, with original lyrics in Ewe, a language spoken in Ghana?

"That was all about how music can transcend the matter of language," she says about Lonlon, her take on Maurice Ravel's classical war horse. It's the last track on Kidjo's new album, Djin Djin (pronounced gin gin), due May 1.

Kidjo says Ravel was one of the first classical composers to use the model of African music — particularly the percussive elements and emotional content — in his pieces.

"The first thing that comes to me about that music is love. Love seems so simple yet so complicated. That love demands a lot of work, a lot of commitment to do it right."

Typically, Kidjo says, the hardest part about a new album — aside from recording it — is finding the inspiration. Djin Djin sprang from her travels as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

"I've seen a lot of people's suffering, people's strength and people's joy. Even the ones who have nothing are sometimes the happiest."

Djin Djin's theme is the joys and sorrows of life, including birth, individuality, oppression and isolation.

"I didn't even know I was even influenced, but the songs just came to me. Some songs come fully. Beginning to end, you can hear them loud and clear in your head."

Usually, though, Kidjo starts with a thought that eventually puts itself to music.

"I don't write with my ears. I can hear the music in my head. I'll start humming the music and the lyrics." The rhythm, percussion and melody follow.

In those cases, Kidjo says, the music determines which language she'll sing. Djin Djin includes languages of Benin, Nigeria and Togo, as well as English and French.

Kidjo's major albums — Oremi, Black Ivory Soul and Oyaya! — reflected her exploration of popular music in the United States, Brazil and the Caribbean, as well as their African origins.

She skewed that approach to create Djin Djin. A pair of African percussionists became the center of the project. Kidjo then invited others to build on their rhythms.

Six of the album's 13 tracks feature guest musicians — Alicia Keys, Joss Stone, Josh Groban, Peter Gabriel, Ziggy Marley, Carlos Santana and Branford Marsalis all contribute.

"It was important to me that all of these great musicians come with me back to my roots," Kidjo says. The challenge was "not for them to be me or me to be them."

Her friends were up to that challenge, she says.

"There's something in the rhythm that is universal, that calls anyone in. It's infectious, they couldn't resist it," Kidjo says. "Those drums — even dead men can wake up and dance."

Kidjo also enjoyed the company. The studio sessions transformed from something to be endured to something to look forward to.

"I just wanted to stay in there, it was so fun," Kidjo says.

That's the reward of taking creative risks, she says. It's an emotion she likes to share with her audiences.

"What I want people to get out of my concert is the power of joy, because if you are a joyful person, you are a great achiever. Joy is strength; fear is not. Fear brings you back down in a hole."

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Paul de Barros previews CéU's concert in Seattle.

Forget Bebel Gilberto.

There's a new Brazilian voice in town, and her name is CéU.

A 2005 Latin Grammy nominee with a strong indie debut in Brazil, this stunning new chanteuse debuts Sunday at the Triple Door.

As the French say, she is something amazing — smart, cheeky, sexy, upbeat and with a voice like a soft bell ringing through the humid air.

Raised in a big, middle-class family in São Paulo by songwriter/maestro Edgard Poças (her full name is Maria do Céu Whitaker Poças), this 26-year-old singer/songwriter grew up knowing famous composers such as Pixinguinha, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Baden Powell. Enamored of North American funk and Jamaican rock steady (and dub), CéU (pronounced say-OO) also became a connoisseur of the traditional sambas and marchinhas played by the carnival samba schools.

"I was always asking musical things to him," she recalled of her dad, in a phone interview from Philadelphia. CéU speaks English fairly well, but her songs are almost all in Portuguese. "He was my teacher," she continued. "He's a Brazilian old-school music researcher."

He is also well-connected, and got her gigs singing backup with Brazilian veteran Johnny Alf and for studio jingles.

At 18, she struck out for New York and, by a crazy coincidence, while working at a restaurant met Brazilian film composer Antonio Pinto ("Central Station," "City of God"), who was down on his luck. She took him in and discovered he was a distant cousin.

Back in São Paulo, Pinto would later return the favor, working with the brilliant producer Beto Villares on CéU's self-named debut album. The result, picked up in the States last year by Six Degrees, is a delight.

Like the Brazilian landscape itself, CéU's sound has a pastel softness while maintaining a rich body and sharp edge. Her lyrics aren't bad, either.

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Review: Futurismo by Kassin +2

Robin Denselow reviews Futurismo.

Alexandre Kassin, Moreno Veloso and Domenico Lancellotti are three of the coolest players on the new Rio de Janeiro music scene. As the +2 band, they have each taken it in turn to dominate recordings and they have also found time to enliven the latest samba revival with Orquestra Imperial, an often-changing project that has included the likes of Seu Jorge. On this excursion, Kassin leads his colleagues through what sounds like an unexpectedly easy collision between an experimental rock band and old-style Brazilian bossa nova. So there are easy-going, melodic ballads that show off the fine singing of Moreno (the son of Caetano Veloso), and these are suddenly dissected with playful electronic effects and wild or sturdy guitar riffs from Kassin. The final tracks are in English and feature Sean O'Hagan, and John McEntire of Tortoise. It's an intriguing set, but they are even better playing live.

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Interview with Julieta Venegas

She is an unlikely pop star, Julieta Venegas, especially in the Latin music world. She plays the accordion, for God's sake. She even calls herself geeky, though pretty but slightly awkward chica next door is probably more accurate.

There's definitely no ostentatious cleavage or babelicious mincing in her videos or appearances. Instead, she's romancing a werewolf in a silent film-style satire, or playing accordion with old school Norteño legends Los Tigres del Norte.

Even her songs are spiked with complicated sentiments and sharp observations -- in Limón y Sal (Lime and Salt), the title of her latest CD, she proclaims at the very beginning, ''I'm so sick of love songs.'' That's a sacrilegious statement in Latin culture.

''I don't see myself as a pop star so I don't have to follow that pattern,'' Venegas says. ``I don't see myself as a sex bomb and I'm not interested in being one. I just try to act the way that feels natural to me.''

Natural has been surprisingly successful for Venegas, who's an anomaly in the Latin pop world: An independent, self-defined female songwriter who puts her art above her sex appeal yet still has had significant mainstream success.

She plays her first South Florida concert Saturday night at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach.

Born in Southern California to Mexican parents and raised in Tijuana, the 36-year-old Venegas became an underground star on the Latin alternative scene at the end of the 1990s with introspective, dark, and daringly experimental songs that had some critics comparing her to English language alternative idols like PJ Harvey and Bjork.
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Review: Watina by Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective

Robin Denselow reviews Andy Palacio's Watina.

This is a stirring, gently soulful album that results from one of the most remarkable stories of the slave trade era. Back in 1635, two slave ships were wrecked off the coast of St Vincent, and the surviving African captives escaped and set up a community of their own, mixing with indigenous local Caribs. The resulting Garifuna people developed their own language and music, but are now less than a quarter of a million in number, spread across the Caribbean and central America. Andy Palacio, from Belize, is the best-known Garifuna singer, and is joined here by musicians from across the region to explore and rework traditional styles, from hymns to laments or protest songs. The backing is provided by guitars, rum bottles or table-top drumming, and the songs range from the light and emotional to a more stirring blend of Garifuna rhythms and reggae. This is far from being merely an academic exercise, and the reminder of a forgotten community. It deserves to be one of the successes of the year.

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Kevin L. Carter reviews Lura's performance at the Perelman.

Only in Cape Verde could the mazurka, a Polish song form appropriated by the French and dispersed around the world by Martiniquians, find itself a proper place within the Crioulu cultural stew and active musical laboratory of this West African island archipelago.

When Lura, the sensuous Cape Verdean vocalist, danced joyfully across the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater stage Wednesday night, you could see Africa personified in her movements and in her smile. But as any Cape Verdean will tell you, while African roots are strong in Cape Verde, they are not the whole story. With Lura, as with Cape Verdean pioneer Cesaria Evora, the songs are full of Portuguese chordal and emotional underpinnings.

Lura, born Maria de Lurdes Pina Assunção in Lisbon 30 years ago, fronted a crack six-piece ensemble and ran briskly through the gamut of Cape Verdean rhythms – mazurka, coladeira, batuku, funana and morna.

Singing to a multicultural crowd that included a large Cape Verdean contingent, Lura used her voice to good effect, markedly on "Ponciana," from her new album, M'bem di fora (I've Come from Far Away). Lura is a compact woman with a voice powerful and metallic in the high register, more tender and sweet in the lower.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Rachid Taha & Vieux Farka Toure at the Barbican, London

Vieux Farka Touré has a lot to live up to, especially with an electric guitar round his neck. The death last year of his father Ali, the great master of the desert blues, was a huge loss to music, and for his son to carry on the family business is a tall order indeed. Ali preferred Vieux to be in the Malian army than in a Malian dance band, but the mulish genes of the father have been passed down, and there is a crackle of expectation at seeing what this young man can dish out tonight, in an inspired pairing with the Algerian-born rai rocker, Rachid Taha.
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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Carlos Villatoro reviews a Lila Downs' performance.

Although Downs’ performance drew loud applause, as well as shouts of “Otra tequila,” “Oaxaca” and “I love you, Lila,” the crowd largely remained motionless in their seats.

In turn, Downs sang most of her songs in the cradle of her band — a skilled group of musicians that formed a semi-circle around the singer — and not at the edge of the stage.

The few times that she did venture out were memorable, giving the crowd opportunities to hand her wine and bouquets of flowers. One lucky girl, dressed in a traditional Oaxacan outfit, briefly went on stage with Downs to share the limelight.

Downs is a dynamic singer with the range to deliver low lows and crisp highs. During a rendition of the famous Mexican folk song “La Cucaracha,” Downs and harpist Celso Duarte engaged in a classic call-and-response segment — Downs would sing high notes and Duarte would match them on his harp.

Despite her ample vocal ability, she failed to involve the crowd in much of the performance. It wasn’t until the last song, “El Bracero Fracasado,” that a group of her fans rushed the stage and everyone in the theater rose for the grand finale.
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Joe Tangari reviews Vieux Farka Touré's album.

Vieux Farka Touré's debut album is a transitional work, representing the passing of a standard from a father to a son. Some of Malian guitar legend Ali Farka Touré's final recordings are here on his son's debut, which takes the signature desert guitar style of Ali and subtly builds on it. It's difficult for a young musician to step out from the shadow a parent so revered in the same field, but to his credit Vieux is content to move slowly and find his own approach to the style.

Vieux and Ali play together on two tracks, and their interaction-- the son plays rhythm guitar and gives his father's unmistakable leads free reign, with interjections from ngoni player Bassekou Kouyaté-- is not surprisingly marked by deference and respect. "Tabara" is a slow and meditative instrumental spotlighted by a mellifluous lead from Ali, into which Vieux perfectly slips his minimal backing rhythm. The other collaboration, "Diallo", is a conversation between Vieux's wizened, parched vocals and Ali's electric guitar, which carries his distinctive pinched tone. The rhythm is propelled by hand percussion, which is this case means sound actually created by the hands, without drums or blocks.
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Bill White reviews a Soweto Gospel Choir concert.

Drawing from diverse cultures and faiths, the program ranged from the traditional "Thapelo," on which seven male singers opened up the possibilities of harmony within the bass and tenor ranges, to "Weeping," a song from the apartheid era so beautifully sung by Shimmy Jiyane that the painful lyric was transformed into one of love and transcendence.

A surprise on the program was Bob Dylan's "I'll Remember You." Although the song was not one written during Dylan's born-again period, it was given an arrangement that paid tribute to the gospel music of North America.
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Monday, April 02, 2007

Tinariwen at the Barbican London

Howard Male reviews Tinariwen's performance at the Barbican London.

As he begins the evening with a solo performance of "Tenere," charismatic frontman, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, barely tickles the strings of his Stratocaster and sings like John Lee Hooker at his most laid-back. Then the rest of the eight-piece join him, and we find out why this Touareg band are currently capturing the imagination of Mojo readers and world music fans alike.

Handclaps, and a hand-drum no bigger than a footstool, form all the percussive backdrop that's needed. This leaves plenty of space for the three guitarists, who are the heart of the band's sound, to interlock and interact, while the bass(pictured, below) throbs away in the background. One guitarist deals out angular chugging riffs. The other two issue wiry curlicues of notes, creating the illusion of baroque complexity in songs built from just one or two chords. The tone of the guitars is clean and sharp, but with an edge of distortion: the sound of electricity incarnate; no pomp, just pure African soul.

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