Thursday, September 30, 2010

Los de Abajo: Actitud Calle

Robin Denselow reviews Los de Abajo's Actitud Calle.
Mexico's best-known ska and fusion band have been mysteriously quiet since they released the glorious LDA vs the Lunatics set five years ago, which famously included their Latin reworking of The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum. Now they are back, with only five members of the old band featured in the new, expanded 10-piece lineup, but they still sound slick, distinctive and energetic, if no longer quite as experimental as in the past. This is a band who have always specialised in variety, and can switch seamlessly between styles, easing from brassy ska to hip-hop, then adding in anything from traditional Mexican styles to salsa, acoustic guitar passages or global influences.
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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Joana Amendoeira: A Flor da Pele

Michael Church reviews Joana Amendoeira's A Flor da Pele.
Amendoeira's fado-singing is wonderfully subtle.

Each song has its own character, and each phrase is exquisitely shaped: several of the lyrics are newly written for her, but all draw from that well of inspiration which has nourished fado since its inception a century and a half ago.
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Various Artists: Africa - 50 Years of Music 1960-2010

Neil Spencer reviews Africa - 50 Years of Music 1960-2010.
By comparison, we live in an age of sophistication, where Nigerian Afrobeat and Malian desert blues are carefully distinguished even by western audiences who have come to the music via enthusiasts such as Damon Albarn and Vampire Weekend. Lovingly researched compilations of antique Africana, concentrating on the 1960s and 1970s, have also blossomed recently, sometimes resurrecting careers. "Acts like Senegal's Orchestra Baobab or Benin's Orchestre Poly-Rythmo are forgotten in their own country," says Urbanus, "but they can now tour Europe or even America."

The changes in African music are in many instances tied to the tides of the post-colonial era. West Africa's large orchestras, much influenced by Cuban music, fell apart as post-independence euphoria was dashed by corruption, economic collapse and dictatorship. Many musicians simply fled abroad, with Paris their preferred destination. That city became the crucible for a new spirit of Afro-modernity, with Ibrahim Sylla, in particular, bringing technological know-how and a radical ear to the numerous west African exiles shuttling between their homeland and the new frontiers of Europe. As author Mark Hudson puts it in his essay in 50 Years of Music: "The principal site in the development wasn't now the nightclub or the concert hall but the airport."

The crossover breakthroughs that followed have proved hard to maintain. "One problem is that the music becomes a novelty that fades," says Urbanus. "Nigeria's Sunny Adé was hailed when he was promoted here in the 80s, but after three albums people started to think, 'Do I want another juju album?' It's difficult to achieve longevity."
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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Seu Jorge: Seu Jorge & Almaz

Robin Denselow reviews Seu Jorge's Seu Jorge & Almaz.
Seu Jorge is the wild card of contemporary Brazilian music. He's a soulful samba star and successful actor, best known for his roles in City of God and The Life Aquatic, in which he sang acoustic versions of Bowie songs in Portuguese. Now comes another surprise, with this extraordinary album of even more unlikely cover versions, on which he is backed by the powerful trio of drummer Pupillo and guitarist Lucio Maia from that great band Nação Zumbi, along with bassist Antonio Pinto. The result is an exercise in freewheeling psychedelic samba and funk, with Maia's epic guitar work matched by intimate and relaxed vocals from Jorge.
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Natacha Atlas: Mounqaliba

Robin Denselow reviews Natacha Atlas' Mounqaliba.
Two years ago, Natacha Atlas dramatically changed musical direction. Once known for her furious fusion of Arabic pop, beats and belly dancing, she recorded a subtle acoustic album, Ana Hina, in which she was backed by ney flute, cello and piano. It was a triumphant move, and it was only to be expected that she would continue to explore further acoustic fusions of Middle Eastern and western styles. What was not to be predicted is that she would record an album as unexciting as Mounqaliba.
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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ana Moura: Leva-me aos Fados

Colin Irwin reviews Ana Moura's Leva-me aos Fados.
Mick Jagger – who has recorded and sung on stage with Ana Moura – has described fado music as Portugal’s version of the blues, though its overriding aura of tragedy is perhaps more akin to opera.

If the great Amália Rodrigues was the undisputed fado queen, singing with a raw intensity every bit as dramatic as Édith Piaf or Maria Callas, her spiritual heir Mariza spectacularly introduced the Rodrigues legacy into the 2000s, texturing her crushing power with style and elegance.

Ana Moura is a mellower inheritor of this deeply evocative legacy, providing a more subdued yet nevertheless affecting link in that same proud and colourful chain. Her main collaborator is Jorge Fernando, who once played alongside Rodrigues and, with the brilliant Custódio Castelo, not only adds some of the lovely fluid acoustic guitar work that paints busy backdrops behind Moura’s mournful voice, but is also the album’s producer, musical arranger and predominant songwriter.

Neither Fernando nor Moura have previously been afraid to veer from fado’s venerated café history as the expressive voice of Portugal’s underclass – apart from Moura’s exploits with The Rolling Stones, there were previous dalliances with pop and rock and enticing talk of a Prince collaboration. But the three acoustic guitars/one voice format of this fourth album pitches it at the pure heart of the fado tradition.
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Monday, September 20, 2010

Chucho Valdes & The Afro-Cuban Messengers: Chucho's Steps

Chris May reviews Chucho Valdes & The Afro-Cuban Messengers: Chucho's Steps.
The semiology contained on pianist Chucho Valdés' magnificent Chucho's Steps points to the character of the music before the disc has even been taken out of its sleeve. First there's the name of the group and its reference to drummer Art Blakey's ferociously swinging Jazz Messengers. Then there's the title of the opener, "Las dos caras" ("Both Sides"), which hints at the two jazz traditions, American and Afro-Cuban, defining its particular style—an idea reinforced by the image of a crossroads, signalling an intersection of styles, on the front cover. And then there's the title of a second track, "Yansá," which is taken from the orisha who in Cuban mythology controls wind and lightning. For if Yansá is a force of nature, so is Chucho's Steps; its vigor bursts out of the speakers and sweeps everything away before it.

When you've played the album for the first time, and recovered your breath, chances are you'll be going to Valdés' All About Jazz page to check his age. Was this music really conceived and performed by someone who'll be 70 years old in 2011? But youthful longevity runs in the Valdés family: in 2008, Valdés recorded the Latin Grammy-winning Juntas para siempre (Calle 54) with his pianist/bandleader father, Bebo, who was at the time nearly 90.

Whatever it is Chucho and Bebo are imbibing, the Afro-Cuban Messengers are having it too. Trumpeter Reinaldo Melián Álvarez and tenor saxophonist Carlos Manuel Miyares Hernández approach their instruments with the passionate intensity of Jazz Messengers Lee Morgan and Jackie McLean; bassist Lázaro Rivero Alarcón and drummer Juan Carlos Rojas Castro stoke the engine to a giddy temperature, assisted by percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles and batá drummer Dreiser Durruthy Bambolé. It's a perfect storm.
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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Gogol Bordello: Tiny Desk Concert

Gogol Bordello's NPR Tiny Desk Concert.
Great. Not much to add. Watch the video here.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cheikh Lô: Jamm

Jon Lusk reviews Cheikh Lô's Jamm.
Perhaps it’s a case of quality not quantity, or the amount of dope he smokes, but Senegalese crooner Chiekh Lô doesn’t make albums very often. He has only released three since his bewitching international debut Ne La Thiass in 1996. And although he hasn’t really followed through on the promise of that first record, Jamm comes closer to doing this than anything since.

Lô’s music has always been roughly divided between a mellow semi-acoustic take on the surging poly-rhythms of mbalax – Senegal’s most distinctive and popular style – and the local variations on Afro-Cuban grooves loved throughout West Africa since the 1960s. Lô was born in Burkina Faso and spent his formative years there, so he’s always had quite a different take on them from other Senegalese artists, as well as several other influences.

These are brought to the fore on Jamm, which has a strong streak of nostalgia running through it, and an equal number of covers and original compositions, revealing more about his roots than any previous release. For a relatively short album, it’s surprisingly varied, or as he drolly puts it in the sleeve notes: "It’s a cocktail".
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Afro Celt Sound System: Capture (1995-2010)

John Eyles reviews Afro Celt Sound System's Capture (1995-2010).
Capture compiles the best tracks from Afro Celt Sound System’s first five albums, released between 1995 and 2005. One disc, subtitled Verse, contains tracks featuring vocals; the second, Chorus, focuses on instrumentals. Together, they encapsulate the elements which have made the band popular: an irresistible blend of rhythms and lilting spirituality aimed equally at the head, heart and feet.

The band’s distinctive fusion of African and Irish music had its origins when their guitarist Simon Emmerson was working in the early 90s with Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and noticed similarities between the rhythmic triplets used in the traditional music of Africa and Ireland. From that starting point, the band recorded African drums overlaid with Irish pipes and whistles, adding electronic keyboards, programming and dance rhythms to produce music that sounded modern while staying in touch with its roots.
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Various Artists: Cuban Funk Experience

Jeff Dayton-Johnson reviews Cuban Funk Experience.
UK mixologist John Armstrong has compiled a collection of "Cuban funk" recordings from the coffers of two record labels: Havana's Egrem and Miami's Sound Triangle, between 1973 and 1988. Like Típica '73's Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez did back in the 1970s, Armstrong is arguing that Cuban music in the US and in Cuba are two branches of a single family tree. He makes a good case. An interesting experiment is to try to identify which of these cuts comes from which country: it's not easy.

So, the first provocation of Cuban Funk Experience is the assertion that "Cuban" embraces Miami-based musicians as well as those on the island. The second provocation is that there is something, sampled here, called "Cuban funk."
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Friday, September 10, 2010

Various Artists: Latin Party

Jeff Dayton-Johnson reviews Putumayo's Latin Party.
The redoubtable Putumayo programmers have already released ¡Baila! A Latin Dance Mix (2006), ¡Salsa! (2009) and Afro-Latin Party (2005), as well as nationally-themed but party-ready collections from Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Are they perhaps scraping the bottom of the Latin party barrel with Latin Party? Ah, that would be to mistake the inexhaustible profundity of that barrel.

As it is, Latin Party conveys a convincing party message. It also conveys an interesting geographical message: namely, that one of the most important countries in the Latin music universe is the United States, and New York City in particular. In part, this is because so many Latin American musicians are gathered there, playing music from so many veritable Latin American cities. Thus, José Mangual Jr. sings on "Son de Nueva York," led by his uncle and city employee Luis: "Aunque el son es cubano, lo tocamos en Nueva York"—"though the son is Cuban, we play it in New York."

But it's not just that; the United States is and has been a tremendous site for synthesizing and innovating Latin music styles, as evidenced on this collection by Brooklyn Funk Essentials' "Big Apple Boogaloo" or "Mi Gente," by A.B. Quintanilla II & Kumbia Kings of Corpus Christi, Texas.
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Various Artists: Afro-Beat Airways: West African Shock Waves, Ghana & Togo 1972-1978

Joe Tangari reviews Afro-Beat Airways: West African Shock Waves, Ghana & Togo 1972-1978.
f you're already collecting Afro-funk comps, you'll probably know names like K. Frimpong, Ebo Taylor, and African Brothers Band. They and others here have all featured on other compilations, but this disc digs deep to bring us stuff we've never heard before. And if you're just getting into this music, pretty much everything will be revelatory. Taylor's two tracks under his own name here both have his signature big sound, underpinned by the knocking Afrobeat rhythm that he built into a trademark. It wasn't easy to have a massive sound like Taylor's in 70s Ghana. Successive military governments in the 60s had imposed curfews that made life difficult for musicians, breaking up a lot of bands and sending their members abroad-- the large horn sections of the big old-style highlife bands were the hardest-hit, and as a result highlife in Ghana became more focused on the guitar. Taylor's big, pummeling horn fanfares are a thread tying his funked-up 70s output back to the society bands he got his start in.

The ultimate Ghanaian guitar highlife band was undoubtedly the African Brothers, led by guitarist Nana Ampadu. Their "Ngyegye No So" borrows an Afrobeat backbeat (it's the insistent syncopated tick-tock-a-tick pattern played on the non-trap percussion) and tugs on it with a fractured bass line. After the psychedelic organ solo, Ampadu delivers an English monologue that goes like this: "It is me they call Nana Ampadu, the music king. I be composer, I be singer, I be arranger, I be master guitarist"-- the joke being that the song's title means "Don't Brag". Orchestre Abass, a Togolese band that relocated to Accra and later had a residency at Fela Kuti's Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, picked up the choppy rhythms and immense organ sound of their adopted country, and they flash it brilliantly on "Awula Bo Fee Ene".
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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Hassan Erraji: Awal Mara

Robin Denselow reviews Hassan Erraji's Awal Mara.
Described by his record company as "part oud-flailing Hendrix, part transmitter of ancient culture", Hassan Erraji is a blind Moroccan multi-instrumentalist who has studied north African folk styles and western classical violin and piano. He has relocated to Leeds and teamed up with producer Dave Creffield, best known for his work with the Kaiser Chiefs. The result is an upbeat crossover set that continues Erraji's fascination with fusing different styles while playing an extraordinary range of instruments. Rhythm is provided by Ben Stevens and Kenny Higgins, while Erraji sings and plays anything from the Arabic lute to the ney flute, qanun, violin, keyboards and hand drums.
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Al Andaluz Project: Al-Maraya

Michael Church reviews Al Andaluz Project's Al-Maraya.
Here the vocal traditions of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish worlds are brought together by leading exponents of each.

L'Ham de Foc, the Sephardic group from Valencia, are joined by the Munich group Estampie, and the whole is fronted by three outstanding singers: Mara Aranda, Imam Al Kandoussi and Sigi Hausen, assisted by an Indian tabla player and a Russian percussionist.
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