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World Music CD Reviews, March 2010

Album of the Month

Andrew Oliver Kora Band: Just 4 You

The Sahel Band featuring Kane Mathis: The Sahel Band

Great kora players aren't rare in West Africa, but in faraway, rainy Seattle the sound of the 21-stringed griot's harp is considerably less common. If you're looking for that taste of Mandinka music in Western Washington, a good first step is to find out where Kane Mathis is playing. The young musician -- who also plays oud -- has spent years studying the kora and the culture from which it comes. And he's at the heart of these two new CDs.

When I first saw Kane Mathis, he performed with a djembe player and sang little. His new album with The Sahel Band shows great leaps in musical confidence from that time, as he sings strongly from the opening notes of "Bantam Ba Kouyate" (wasn't that the name of his first album?) and plays kora with something approaching a master's flair, even if he's a bit young for me to use that label comfortably.

The band Mathis has assembled Sam Weng on percussion, Nina Vukmanic on bass, Rusty Knorr on drums -- seems to share his vision for music that's rooted in West Africa while including modern sounds. Styles range from kora-rock to highlife to desert guitar rock, particularly on the scorcher "Sahel." Mathis doesn't (yet) have a high profile in global music circles and would probably recoil from direct comparisons to musicians who come directly from griot families, but for pure musical enjoyment and this dance-inducing album is a match for any recent African releases. If not for the bit of selfishness in me that wants Mathis to stay nearby, I'd suggest him as an inspiring opening act for anyone from Angelique Kidjo to Tinariwen.

On Just 4 U (named after a music venue in Dakar Senegal), Mathis is a full partner in an Afro-jazz outfit led by pianist Andrew Oliver and rounded out with Chad McCullough on trumpet, Brady Millard-Kish on acoustic bass and Mark DiFlorio, drums. They're a tight combo, trading support roles and solos with ease as they work through the albums 11 tracks, ranging from traditional pieces to the whimsically titled "The Funnel and the Vacuum Cleaner."

If I have any quibble with the album, it's that the trumpet often sounds like it was recorded in a different room than the rest of the band, a small but distracting issue. Given the frequent exchanges between kora and trumpet, some of the music reminds me of the sublime album Sira by Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze. A different flavor emerges on "Segu," on which guitars (by Mathis) and calabash take the listener to somewhere near Ali Farka Toure's Niafunke. Then there's the lilting soukous flavor of "Bina Na Ngai Na Respect." And t\hey don't neglect the griot tradition of praise songs; "Hidmo" pays tribute to the Seattle restaurant that hosts weekly African music nights. Different flavors, one amazing CD that's sure to be embraced by both jazz and world music fans.

©2010 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

THIS JUST IN! ... New World Music CD Releases


Angelique Kidjo : Oyo (Razor & Tie)
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Oyo is not just a great album of truly global music, it's a glimpse into the musical mind of a modern music icon. One of the most successful contemporary African artists, Kidjo has assembled for her new album a fascinating array of cover songs, many of which marked key points on her musical journey.

"This is the story of my childhood," she says. "All these songs brought me to where I am today, inspired me to do the music I have been doing for many, many years. This music has always been my Bible, the thing that reminds me what is the mission of the arts."

Kidjo's musical cannon includes the first song she sang in public, “Atcha Houn,” a traditional melody she describes as “a kind of parade music people sing when they gather together. I sang it at my Mom’s theatre company,” she recalls. “My Mom had to push me on stage to do it, but that’s when my addiction to singing, and to the stage, too, got started.” Also in the mix are jazz, blues, R&B, even Bollywood on "Dil Main Chuppa Ke Pyar Ka." And undoubtedly one of the most spun tracks on the album will be her cover of James Brown's "Cold Sweat" with backing by members of Antibalas, despite its surprisingly low energy.

James Brown was a star and huge musical influence all over Africa. And in Kidjo's world, a couple other US pop stars also shone brightly, influencing her future direction. Her cover of "Samba Pa Ti" with trumpeter Roy Hargrove pays tribute to the influence of Carlos Santana, just as she gave a nod to Jimi Hendrix with "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" on her 1998 album Oremi. One of the most compelling songs on the album is Aretha Franklin's "Baby I Love You," with guest vocalist Dianne Reeves. With other flavors including a tribute to Miriam Makeba ("Lakutshn Llanga") and an energetic reworking of the South African workhorse "Mbube," Oyo has something for everyone, even if it's not Kidjo at her edgy and original best.

Te Vaka : Haoloto (Spirit of Play)
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Te Vaka does not get around enough for my taste. Musically their pan-Polynesian sound is wonderful, ranging from boisterous log-drum dances and Maori haka chants to sweet harmonized ballads. The New Zealand-based group is also fantastic live, as I saw years ago at the now-defunct WOMAD USA. Since then, though, I've had to content myself with their recorded music. This year might be different -- not only have they released the new album Haoloto (which means "free"), they also will be touring North America during 2010. Specific dates have yet to be announced, but keep an eye on their website.

Meanwhile, the new album has their usual wonderful blend of sounds, beginning with the subdued "Ata Fou / New Dawn" and "Mau Piailug" a tribute to the Micronesian man who is known as one of the best-known living master navigators, able to sail the seas without the aid of instruments.

Te Vaka are at their best on songs such as "Tautaimi (Your Timing)," where they blend log drums, guitar, and their rich harmonized vocals delivering a heartfelt message -- in this case about singing from the heart. I also love the title track and the hip-hop flavored "Kaluve Pepe." The one English-language song "Well...You Lied" has a great self-empowering message and strong delivery by Olivia Foa'i, but sticks out as a pop-flavored oddity among the otherwise Polynesian songs. That small quibble aside, Haoloto's 15 diverse, engaging tracks simmer with succulent island sounds, and will keep me satisfied until I can see Te Vaka live once again.

Naby Camara & Lagni-Sussu: Kanteli (self-released)

I ran into balafon player Naby Camara the other day, and he handed me this wonderful CD, named for his home village in coastal Guinea. Despite trying to keep tabs on the great African musicians in the area, this album had passed me by since its release in 2007. Which means that I've missed three years of really stellar balafon tunes. I can't tell you much about the album or song origins, since the liner notes contain only the musicians names and a few words about each tune. What I can tell you is that this buoyant, rousing music is mostly made up of traditional West African music, but also includes some Western touches, such as the electric guitar and drumset on "The Sharks of Guinea." Camara's balafon is soft and clear, without the heavy buzzing that is traditional in some styles. So the sound is accessible, and the variety of celebration songs and work songs keeps things interesting. The bad news? Unless Naby hands you a copy, you may not be able to find Kanteli. It's not on his website, though you can find three earlier albums there, and you can get his 2004 album L'union Fait la Force from CDbaby. I'll mention this problem to him next time I see him; this stuff is too good to keep hidden!

Invisible System : Punt (Harper Diabate Records)
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Ethiopian music has been making the rounds in recent years in different forms. Bill Laswell's inclusion of Gigi with the group Tabla Beat Science was a sweet vocal addition to a somewhat technical electro-rhytm outfit. Gigi's sister Tigist Shibabaw joined up with Bole 2 Harlem for some of my favorite Afro-fusion dance music ever. And the continuing Ethiopiques series and Mulatu Astatke have given us many different flavors of Ethio pop, rock, and jazz.

The creation of Dan Harper, who spent eight years working in Mali and Ethiopia (and worked on the album A Town Called Addis), Invisible System brings another mutation in Ethiopian musical evolution, with basic flavors familiar from these other albums blended with a variety of trance, dub, downbeat, rock, and electronic music. Fortunately, the additions never quite overshadow the great roots of the music, most distinctively the vocals and the fiddle lines. Start with "Because of You, I Faced So Many Challenges" and "Gondar" and then move on to the more transmogrified songs, and you'll discover a multifaceted album that ties together unseen musical threads.

With a little less sameness among the tracks (and some editing of the indulgent extended guitar solo ironically answering the musical question posed by the song "What Have I Done Wrong"), this could have been a great album. Instead, it feels like an interesting evolutionary stepping stone on the road to something potentially much better. Stay tuned.

©2010 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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