Best of the Black President 2
We say: Hypnotic Afrobeat grooves from the legend.
Nigeria's Fela Kuti, who died in 1997, was nothing less than a force of nature. Fierce, combative and uncompromising, he was tough enough to use his music to challenge the might of his homeland's military government at a time when the country was even more of a political basket case than it is today. Working out of a communal base in Lagos where he lived with a huge entourage and extended family that included 27 wives, Kuti was a charismatic and sometimes self-mythologizing outlaw who relished his role as the people's champion or "Black President" as some called him. Like a Nigerian James Brown, Kuti was famous for turning his musical performances into pure theater, but unlike the Godfather of Soul, who mostly pronounced on topics like new bags and sex machines, Kuti's output was overtly political in nature.
Never one for brevity, every one of the 12 selections on this two-CD compilation runs between ten and 16 minutes. The slow development of each piece is almost formulaic: a chopping guitar riff and lengthy build-up of percussion before the horns enter the fray and then, several minutes after the track has begun, the vocals finally come in with Kuti barking into the mike backed by a chirruping chorus of assorted wives. This was no democracy: Fela Kuti was always the ringmaster of his own circus and we can only imagine that no one ever had the heart (or courage) to tell him that maybe every song didn't need one of his "trademark" (ie: not very good) extended organ solos squeezed in midway.
The song titles — "Colonial Mentality," "Black Man's Cry," "Mr Follow Follow" —give a good idea of what to expect subject-wise. "Sorrow, Tears and Blood" is a response to apartheid South Africa's brutal crushing of the Soweto uprising in 1976, while "Underground System (Part 2)" concerns the 1987 assassination of Kuti's revolutionary friend Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso. With nothing to do with the tropical disease of the same name, "Yellow Fever" is actually about the habit of skin bleaching practiced by Nigerian women in the late 20th century.
For many music fans in the West, Kuti's hypnotic Afrobeat was the first homegrown music we ever heard coming out of Africa, this well in advance of Paul Simon's groundbreaking Graceland album and long before the term "world music" was invented as a marketing term. Hearing this music again, more than 30 years after its original release, it is easy to carp and wish for a little more self-discipline in places. But if this were the case then it would not truly reflect the free spirit that was Fela Kuti, a maverick innovator who, whatever his faults, was undoubtedly a seminal figure in modern African music. Listen to the sweet languid groove of "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am" and it's easy to forgive a little overindulgence.
We say: Thirteen last songs from Cape Verde's barefoot diva.
Cesoria Evora, "the Barefoot Diva" from Cape Verde, who passed away late in 2011, left behind a considerable musical legacy. Working unnoticed for years as a humble bar singer in the São Vicente port of Mindelo, Evora was eventually discovered by music producer Jose de Silva who encouraged her to record an album. This was a late start—Evora was already approaching 50—but within a few years the singer had become a world music star playing venues and festivals around the world. As well as her velvety if slightly crumpled voice, Evora's USP was the morna music that made up most her repertoire, a distinctive blend of African, Latin and Portuguese influences that manages to sound both mournful and tropical at the same time.
Mãe Carinhosa is a posthumous collection of 13 recordings that for one reason or another never previously made it on to an album. There's plenty of morna here: the eponymous title track "Mãe Carinhosa (Mother Affection)," the lush "Dor di Sodade (The Pain of Sodade)" and the anguished lament of "Caboverdeanos D'Angola (Cape Verdeans in Angola)." There are more upbeat songs too, like "Quem Tem Odios (He Who Feels Hate)," "Emigre Ingrote (Ungrateful Friend)" and the downright odd "Cmê Catchôrr (Eating Dog)." There's even a song sung in Spanish — "Dos Palavras (Two Words)" — in contrast to the mellifluous Cape Verde Portuguese that Evora usually sings in.
One caveat for the uninitiated: morna is a little like Portuguese fado in that things can start to sound a bit similar after a few tracks—the tempo does not tend to change much from song to song, neither does the musical mood. Variety may not be the watchword here but soulfulness undoubtedly is, and while Mãe Carinhosa is by no means a "Best of..." collection—there are plenty of those available already—it is a welcome addition to the Evora canon and, for latecomers to her music, as good a place to start as any.
We say: Retro Gallic chanson from artists old and new.
The title says it all: this is a celebration of vintage French chanson that features performances by high profile artists like Juliet Greco ("La Valse Brune") and Madeleine Peyroux ("La Javanaise") alongside less familiar names like Daniel Roure ("Les Baleines Blues"). Better known chanson icons like Maurice Chevalier and Charles Aznavour don't get a look in but perhaps that is no bad thing in a cliché-ridden genre such as this.
Although Vintage French consists largely of modern-day artists performing contemporary covers of French classics, the recordings here are quite retro-sounding on the whole. Nevertheless, it is the exceptions that stand out, like Francesca Blanchard's sensitive cover of the lovely "Sous le Ciel de Paris," which has a more modern feel with delicate acoustic guitar and rippling cello. It's not all singing either—we also have virtuoso harmonica playing from Dutchman Martijn Luttmer on "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg," and 1940s Gypsy jazz from the Norbert Slama Trio on "Nany." Either way, vocal or instrumental, this is atmospheric stuff: cue berets and baguettes, Parisian cobbles and strong cigarette smoke. By and large Vintage France is an impressive and evocative collection, occasionally as cheesy as a croque-monsieur but just as enjoyable.
We say: Indie Latin fusion songs of exile.
Del Exilio is a US-based band led by David Sandoval, a second generation Cuban-American who grew up surrounded by the sounds of his parents' homeland in Union City. Aiming to combine his various musical loves — vintage Cuban, Latin music and indie pop — Sandoval has honed a distinctive Latin indie sound and brought in fellow traveler José Luis Pardo from Venezuela's Los Amigos Invisibles to produce this album.
Panamericano is a collection of songs that tell the story of Fernando, an American of Latin descent who, accused of not being "Latin" enough by his peers, goes on a quest to discover his roots. Effectively, it's a sort of musical Che Guevara motorcycle trip minus the revolutionary zeal.
In sonic terms, Panamericano comes across as slick and commercial, sounding more like American AOR than most contemporary Latin music. Nevertheless, this is music that is not afraid to show its roots, featuring panpipes and Quechua lyrics on "Peruvian Grooving," Mexican-style rap on "Tacos" and a rocked-up tango on "Santa Maria del Buen Aire." Elsewhere, on tracks like "LA Rebellion," the music is loud and punkish, and the only thing to remind of Latin roots is the Spanish language it is sung in. On the whole, although the subject matter is very much that of the latino exile, the sound more resembles that of young America and it is probably fair to say that Panamericano is really more for rock fans rather than those who hanker after something with a more pronounced Latin flavor.
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.