Wait For Me
Zita Swoon Group
We say: From Ougadougou to Antwerp, it's good to travel
Zita Swoon Group, a collective from Antwerp centered round guitarist/vocalist Stef Kamil Carlens, are pretty big in Belgium. Carlens has a long musical pedigree in the country having been a founder member of dEUS, a long-lived quirky rock band who are even bigger news over there in the land of the Flems and Walloons. On Wait For Me the group's Belgian core have been joined by West African musicians who add color and texture to the mix by way of balafon (xylophone) and griot vocals.
From the very first track, "Sababu (The Reason)", the style is set—acoustic West African blues rock with husky English vocals — a sort of Manu Chao meets Salif Keita; or maybe Dylan meets Baaba Maal (although vocalist Stef Kamil Carlens actually sings a lot better than Dylan does these days). What is enjoyable about this recording is that, rather than attempting a fusion of European and West African traditions, it is content to stick to the standard Western rock music formula, with shortish songs and hummable tunes. The West African elements simply add another dimension — the balafon ensuring a relaxed earthy groove while the griot vocals instill a dreamy quality into the music. Cuban percussion and cocktail drums drive the rhythm section along, while banjo, pump organ and resophonic guitar complete the idiosyncratic line-up.
The African musicians featured on Wait For Me hail from Burkina Faso, a country that, as a rule, lies well off the usual Sahelian musical map. Both singer Awa Démé, and balafon player Mamadou Diabaté Kibié, are storytelling griots in their own country and the lyrics here, mostly sung in English by Carlens, concern themselves with traditional West African concerns: tribal wisdom, social justice, and rural poverty. Song-writing credits are shared between the griots and Carlens, and it is a successful formula, especially on longer story-songs like "A Ni Barra (Greetings To He Who Works Well)" that speaks of the hopes and fears of an economic migrant. There a couple of groovy instrumentals too — most notably "Ko Benna Waati (Everything Has Its Time)", which really rips along with Afro-beat guitar, hammering balafon and a hot brass section. As the English translation of "Taamala Fisa", one of Wait For Me's titles, states — 'It's good to travel'. True enough.
Putumayo Presents African Blues
We say: From Memphis to Mali and back again
The very obvious connection between American blues and West African music has long been recognized. Call and response vocals, work-songs and flattened 'blue' notes are all mutual ingredients, and the original music of artists like Ali Farka Touré has always sounded uncannily close to Mississippi Delta blues despite Touré's, perhaps disingenuous, claim that he had never heard it. An earlier release on this same label was Mali to Memphis, which explored some of commonality of these two musical traditions.
What this collection does is not so much explore these links further but, rather, throw distinctive voices from both sides of the Atlantic together to create some intriguing musical hybrids. African Blues features some inspired pairings. On "Dhow Countries", the oriental-sounding strings of the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar beautifully augment Taj Mahal's rich warm voice as he croons about East Africa's timeless sailing tradition. Elsewhere, African and American musicians blend effortlessly on tracks like Mali Latino's "Ni Koh Bedy" that features Alex Wilson's down-home bluesy organ. Tuareg desert rockers Tinariwen join forces with Keb' Mo' under the auspices of the Playing for Change band on the plain-titled "Groove in G", British guitarist Ramon Goose plays slide alongside Senegalese kora maestro Diabel Cissokho on "Totoumo", and Belgians and Malians join forces as fellow members of Kalaban Coura on the gentle and lyrical "Mali".
African musicians have been playing with Americans and Europeans for quite some time now — even the world-famous Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon was simply the serendipitous outcome of a proposed Mali-Cuba musical project that never got off the ground. Nevertheless, African Blues is a welcome addition to this ever-fertile, two-way musical dialogue.
Nu World Trash
We say: Iranian jazz fusion—but more sax, less speech please
Well it sounds like an appealing formula: an Iranian tenor saxophonist fusing free jazz with world music. What's not to like? Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi, aka SoSaLa, who has worked with Salif Keita as well as jazz luminaries like Ornette Coleman, is Iranian by birth and culture but has had a largely peripatetic life, living in Switzerland, Germany and Japan before finally making the move across the Atlantic in 2008, aged 55, to come to New York City.
A devotee of Iran's liberal reformist Green Movement, Sohrab has played his horn in front of New York's United Nations building in support of their cause on occasion. The current troubles of his native land feature in his music too, in tunes like "Vatan Kojai? ", (in Farsi, 'Where is my country?'), "Welcome New Iran" and "Khorasan", a touching musical tribute to the province where he was born.
The music here is fluid and meandering, as you might expect from someone versed and immersed in jazz. But Nu World Trash cannot really be described as free jazz, rather it is improvisational music loosely based around traditional Persian melodies. There are other influences at work too. On "Ja-Jou-Ka", the first track, the spirit of Morocco's Pipes of Jajouka are invoked (Sohrab has played with Bachir Attar of the Master Musicians of Jajouka); flamenco is hinted at on "Nu Persian Flamenco", while "Sad Sake" is inspired by a sad Japanese tune by the Enka singer Hibari Misora.
Nu World Trash was recorded in Brooklyn and produced by Martin Bisi, who has worked previously with the likes of John Zorn, Sonic Youth and Bootsy Collins. There is a spontaneous live feel to the recording but it is a shame that Sohrab seems happier to provide spoken word vocals than actually play the sax for much of the time. Getting your message across is one thing but on repeated listens, his utterances, like those spoken over freak-out guitar on "Happy April Fool's Day", ('Ha, ha, ha, I am the Joker, make you laugh, make you cry'), and spoken declamations like 'Alone I am nothing, but together, we are winners, we are powerful' on "Welcome New Iran", start to grate after a while. Much of this comes from Sohrab' s studio over-dubbing of a vocal track over his saxophone, so performing these same tunes live he would have to choose to either speak or blow. I know which I would prefer. Maybe show, don't tell, is the advice here?
We say: Sway to the thump of the thong-a-phone
South Pacific music is not very well known in the West; even so, there are no prizes for guessing that the genuine article doesn't sound much like what you'd hear in a Rogers and Hammerstein musical. Narasirato, who are the genuine article, come all the way from Malaita, one of the more remote islands of the Solomon Islands, which itself is a pretty isolated archipelago. Narasirato's music is claimed to bring peace, no bad thing for an island community that once upon a time used to practice headhunting. "Bali Ha'i" it ain't.
Narasirato's music is acoustic by necessity as their home village, Oteramo, is without electricity. In a nutshell (a coconut?), the musical style is that of happy harmonious vocals accompanied by all manner of wooden instruments. Log drums, stomping tubes and a curious instrument made of giant bamboo called a thong-a-phone (and played with a pair of flip-flops, or 'thongs' as they are known in Oceania) pound steadily behind the singing while panpipes provide accompaniment.
Warato'o roughly translates as 'the little seed of goodness in everything' and alludes to an ancient belief system that respects nature and bows to the wisdom of ancestors. The music is tuneful and surprisingly accessible, even sounding a little Caribbean at times; rhythmically driven thanks to all that banging on bamboo. Perhaps in acknowledgment of this unconscious and inadvertent Caribbean connection, one of the livelier tracks, "Roromera", is repeated as a 'dub' version at the end of the disc with the thong-a-phone playing the dub bass part — clearly, Narasirato must have been introduced to the work of King Tubby somewhere along the line. Other tracks like "Mane Paina" have something of an Andean feel about them, although that might simply be the result of the chromatic limitations that come from using panpipes. But there are definitely no condors passing by here — this is music from the mangroves, salty and with the scent of the ocean.
Music has always been central to Malaita culture — the home-grown soundtrack to feasts and festivals — and Narasirato continue this tradition, performing regularly in their home islands as well as taking their music overseas. With body paint and loincloths, and bamboo instruments a plenty, they must be quite a spectacle to see live. With luck, they'll be coming soon to a world music festival near you.
Laurence Mitchell is a British travel writer and photographer with a special interest in transition zones, cultural frontiers and forgotten places that are firmly off the beaten track. He is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia, Belgrade and Kyrgyzstan, Slow Norfolk & Suffolk and a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. His website can be seen at www.laurencemitchell.com and his blog at eastofelveden.wordpress.com.