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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