No Place for My Dream
We say: Contemporary Afrobeat with a strong political message.
I reviewed this artist's father, Fela Kuti, last time round, so it seems as good a time as any as to take a look at the next generation. Femi Kuti is a chip of the old block to some extent, although with songs that rarely run over the six-minute mark his output tends to be more user-friendly than the rambling 20-minute agitprop opuses his father was notorious for. This is not to say that Femi Kuti is not interested in politics—far from it—it is just that he is not quite as one-dimensional as Kuti senior tended to be.
The song titles give a clue as to what to expect subject-wise. "Nothing To Show For It," "No Place For My Dream," and "Politics Na Big Business" all tell it like it is: strong direct vocals accompanied by slinky riffing guitars and funky bass along with female chorus and coruscating horns. The brass section in particular is quite magnificent on tunes like "Na So We See Am" — powerful, muscular, yet flexible — and the whole band is as tight as Femi's dad's stage outfits used to be.
Although the message is nothing new—corruption, injustice, poverty—and at times comes close to clichéd sloganeering, it is undeniably heartfelt. The truth is, Femi Kuti, although drawn to the same causes and traditions as his famous father, will never quite be celebrated in the same way: it's very doubtful that he'll ever have a musical written about him. I'll stick my neck out, though, and say that Femi is probably a better musician, with more talent (but less ego) than his paternal predecessor, the Kuti brand leader. Having developed his own distinctive musical style over the years, Femi Kuti is very much his own man these days. Listening to No Place for My Dream it seems clear that Nigerian Afrobeat remains not only alive and well but still has plenty more to say.
We say: Indian singers and an African children's choir in intercontinental harmony.
A noble cause, this—as the CD cover declares, "Africa and India: united in music and harmony." Gondwana Dawn's stated mission is to combine the hymns of the Veda with the spirituality of Africa. This is more than merely a conceptual exercise, however, as both Indian and African musicians have been brought in as contributors, with a nine-piece South African children's choir accompanying an Indian lead vocalist.
Gondwana Dawn is the combined creation of vocalist Vidushi Sumitra Guha and Robin Hogarth, a Grammy-winning composer, producer, arranger, and African music specialist. Hogarth was also responsible for bringing the African children to New Delhi to record this album, after having first performed live concerts at various Indian venues with Guha.
Although it threatens to teeter into MOR from time to time, the music is by and large slick, smooth, and polished, and sung in a style that echoes both traditional Indian song and South African gospel. Instrumentation combines Western and Indian traditions: tabla and flutes along with electronic keyboards, drum kits and bass. The songs alternate between Indian and African themes and styles. "Freedom Song" is based on a traditional Zulu song, as is "Wedding Song," while "Kirwani — I'm in your breath" —is raga-based and has a more oriental feel to it. "Vaishnava Janato," which is sung in Gujarati, was apparently one of Mahatma Gandhi's favorite songs. No doubt the great man would have approved of the spirit of inclusivity that the accompanying Africa choir brings to this recording of it.
Mahala Rai Banda
We Say: From Bucharest to Brixton — Balkan Dub remixes of Romanian riddims.
If a tune is good enough it is worth repeating, and that is precisely what is happening here: nine re-mixed Dub versions of the Mahala Rai Band's "Balkan Reggae."
The opening remix by "Nick Manasseh feat Gregory Fabulous," skanks along deliciously, aided and abetted by righteous toasting from the splendidly named Mr Fabulous. The "Jstar" version that follows is harder and airier, but no less enjoyable, with a stronger Dub feel and tough metallic edge. In contrast, the next track, a softer vocal version by "La Cherga featuring Adisa Zvekić," takes another path altogether and it is only when the familiar trilling trumpet riff comes in that you are reminded that this is, once again, the same song dressed in very different clothes.
The "Mad Professor" remix, the fourth track here, is altogether more spacey and odd, with plenty of echo and reverb along with dark Kingston brass. Elsewhere, the "G-Vibes feat Errol Linton" remix has an overdubbed vocal ("A sweet, sweet sound from Bucharest to Brixton") from the Brixtonian, while "Kanka" delivers a more straightforward, drum-heavy remix and "Koby Israelite feat Annique" reworks the tune as a vocal vehicle for the eponymous young British singer. Perhaps true to say that this is probably aimed more at DJs than stay-at-home listeners, Balkan Reggae is nevertheless a highly enjoyable half-hour of righteous Balkan Dub.
We say: Peerless (and fretless) guitar and oud work from a talented young Finn.
Oud players tend to be a breed apart and the one featured here is no exception. Although some of this music might be loosely defined as rooted in the Middle Eastern tradition, Jussi Reijonen actually hails from northern Finland and, as well as playing oud, he also doubles on guitar—both standard fretted and fretless. In keeping with the international flavor of the music here, Reijonen's accompanists are of varied nationality: Spanish, Turkish, Palestinian and Swedish.
Un begins with the flamenco-influenced workout "Serpentine" before following up with the only cover on the recording, John Coltrane's bittersweet "Naima," which features Reijonen's fretless guitar in place of Trane's soprano. Jazz standard it may be, the tune is reworked here to the extent that the result is barely recognizable and more akin to Eno ambient than modern jazz. However, despite this radical deconstruction, it still manages to retain the elegiac quality of the original.
"Bayatiful," the lengthy third track, returns to an energetic Middle Eastern groove, with guest musician Ali Amr's qanun (a type of hammered dulcimer) to the fore, setting down themes and trading convoluted licks with piano and oud. "Toumani," which follows, has, as its title suggests, West African leanings, and here Reijonen uses fretted guitar to invoke the harp-like sound of the kora (its title no doubt alluding to Toumani Diabate, kora practitioner extraordinaire).
After "Nuku Sie," a long and sparsely beautiful meditative piece that features just fretless guitar and the double bass of Bruno Råberg, Un closes with "Kaiku," the disc's only vocal track, sung (wordlessly) by guest vocalist Eva Louhvuori. As elsewhere on Un, this track is difficult to define in terms of genre. Featuring elements of music from three continents, Un belongs to the blurred boundary world where jazz, world and contemporary classical meet and overlap. The result may perhaps best be compared to the cool Scandinavian world jazz usually associated with the ECM label.
In case you were wondering: Un roughly translates in Persian as "anything that can be felt rather than defined; individuality; grace; one with presence." It also means "not/contrary to" in English and "one" in French, but of course you already knew that.
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.