Perceptive Travel World Music Reviews
June 2016 - By Laurence Mitchell

In this issue: Retro African guitar rock Caribbean roots music, Cuban Country, and an atmospheric analog journey with Mop Mop.


Lunar Love
Mop Mop

We say: From Europe to the Caribbean and places in between, a deeply atmospheric musical journey

The driving force behind Mop Mop is Italian drummer Andrea Benini who pulls together a variety of skilled musicians to create a musical landscape that has echoes of Sun Ra ("Spaceship: Earth"), soul ("Supreme"), dub reggae, and jazz. This is Mop Mop's fifth studio album and in many ways picks up where the excellent Isle of Magic of 2013 left off, although this, if anything, is more sharply focused.

About half of Lunar Love is instrumental—the piano-led title track, the extended mood piece that is "Habibi," the guitar and vibraphone groove of "Plato" —but in addition to a pair of vocal tracks ("Supreme" and "Foreign Correspondents") at the end there are also some spoken pieces by the Trinidadian-British poet, novelist, and lecturer Anthony Joseph. Despite Joseph's obvious Caribbean references, the precise geography of Lunar Love remains a little vague—somewhere tropical certainly, an island probably, but there's a dreamy quality to it that makes it hard to pin down. With elements of Moroccan Gnawa and smooth jazz alongside light-touch reggae it is not really the Caribbean as we know it.

Lunar Love unfolds slowly, going through four "movements" along the way: The Journey, The Awakening, The Experience, and Close Encounters. The phrase "musical journey" may seem like a cliché, but here it seems wholly appropriate. The album begins with just the resonant chime of a hang drum and the sound of water dripping. That's "Alfa," a sparse yet elegant introduction to over an hour of percussion-driven groove. The scene is set on the second track "Adhara," a slow, reggae-flavored workout that features electric guitar and piano over all manner of shuffling percussion. To follow this, "Totem" begins with a staccato organ that wouldn't seem out of place on a 1970s Ethio-Jazz release. This is the first of four tracks to feature Anthony Joseph (more on him in the Caribbean Roots review below), who tells his tales over an evocative wash of marimbas and other exotic percussion.

Lunar Love is a skillfully recorded album that has used vintage analog equipment throughout to capture mood and fine detail. It probably sounds even better on vinyl. If there is anything wrong with it at all, it might be just a little too long, losing its focus slightly in the last couple of tracks. But that's hardly a gripe: Lunar Love comes highly recommended. Great cover too.






Ave Africa
Sunburst

We say: A double helping of retro African guitar rock

Barely a month goes by these days without a new anthology of vintage African music being released. This double CD set from the 1970s Tanzanian band Sunburst is a welcome addition to the canon. Ave Africa actually cover the band's entire recorded output: the first CD being a re-release of their eponymous album recorded in Zambia in 1976, while CD 2 contains singles from between 1973--76 along with some early unreleased radio sessions.

Although formed in Tanzania, the band was multinational, coming from six different countries. It included a couple of Zaireans like guitarist, Hembi Flory Kongo, and a Zambian lead singer, James Mpungo, in the line-up. Sunburst started out doing covers of James Brown and Santana before going on to write their own material influenced by the soul, funk and R&B they were listening to. Not surprisingly, there's a variety of musical sources in evidence on both discs. The original Ave Africa album release was described at the time as "a fusion of the traditional sounds of Africa with Western Rock, spiced by with a piece of the Caribbean." This seems a fair description: tunes like "Kamungulwe" and "Wakulu Wa Kuno" have a distinctly African flavor, while others like the English-language "Your Day Will Come," "We Need Each Other" and "How Can I Get To You" owe more to Western pop and soul. The overall effect is enthusiastic but a little raw in places, and the influence of Santana seems to have persisted into the original material, especially in Kongo's guitar playing which sometimes flagrantly ignores the dictum "less is more."

The second CD also has plenty of interest, like Sunburst's radio hit "Banchikicha," which has lyrics based on a popular children's song, an anthem to Black Power ("Black Is Beautiful") and a song dedicated to the erstwhile Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda ("K.K. of Zambia"). The strongest tracks here though are probably the Afrobeat-influenced opener "Simba Anguruma," another version of which appears on the radio sessions, and the very Cuban-sounding "Kipato Sina."






Caribbean Roots
Anthony Joseph

We say: Enticing Caribbean storytelling set to a superb roots-jazz backdrop

Anthony Joseph appears on four of the tracks on Mop Mop's latest (see above) but here on Caribbean Roots he takes center-stage accompanied by top-notch musicians that include saxophonists Shabaka Hutchings and Jason Yarde, Salif Keita's bass player Mike Clinton, trombonist Pierre Chabrėle, and trumpeter Yvon Guillard. At the center of everything are the bright chiming steelpans of Andy Narell.

A superb storyteller, a poet with strong hints of the late great Gil Scott-Heron and the proto-rappers The Last Poets in his work, Joseph's heartfelt spoken word vocals relate intriguing tales based on his Trinidadian heritage. The music itself, superbly played, with elements of calypso, soca, Afrobeat and a hefty serving of jazz in its makeup, leaves plenty of room for instrumental work-outs and virtuoso solos along the way.

The opener, "Kora," sets the scene, allowing the music to build up to a crescendo before quieting again to make room for its urgent Afrobeat-riffed successor "Jimmy, upon that bridge." Melodically speaking, "Brother Davis (Yanvalou)" is particularly beautiful and "Our History" is very affecting in emotional terms -- a sort of pre-colonial counter to Gaye's "What's Going On" -- but it is hard to identify favorites as each song picks up where the last left off and all seem equally good. Some of the most effective tracks are perhaps those that are musically stripped-down: "Mano a Mano" with just percussion and a glorious free soprano sax; "Powerful Peace" with its sweet clarinet and steelpan accompaniment to the fore.

Like Lunar Love reviewed above, this recording traces a musical journey, one rooted in the Caribbean but with universal poetic appeal. Caribbean Roots simply gets better with each listen. Highly recommended.






Guajira mas Guajira
Eliades Ochoa & Alma Latina

We say: Old time Cuban country with a contemporary twist

I have been a fan of Eliades Ochoa for years now and have been familiar with his work since well before he joined the Buena Vista Social Club project. Here, he is joined by his sister Maria, a competent and spirited guajira singer, and the eight-piece group Alma Latina to perform a variety of Cuban country styles.

Maria opens the vocal credits on the breezy first track "Brisa Mañanera," before Eliades takes the lead on the self-penned ballad "Que Sigan Sonanando las Campanas" that follows, a rare venture into songwriting for the Buena Vista star. "Su Aliento Me Hace Falta” is another original ballad by the singer-guitarist. "El Punto Cubano," a Celia Cruz tune, is altogether livelier, as is the spirited son "Me Voy Para Monte" and Miguel Matamoros's "Oye Va," a personal favorite here. Many of the other tracks are original compositions, most notably four songs at the end by guitarist Julio Montoro, the first of which, the rumba "Rumberito Baila," really cooks. Overall, the use of electric guitar as played by Julio Montoro adds something of a rock sensibility to proceedings, although at times this can feel a little incongruous in the midst of the otherwise acoustic instrumentation.

Sonically Guajira mas Guajira sounds a bit thin in places as if it were recorded quickly and inexpensively. This, of course, may well be the case. Nevertheless, while it may be true that Guajira mas Guajira possesses none of the genre-busting originality or deeply resonant studio sound present on classic recordings like Buena Vista Social Club this is still a very listenable collection of contemporary Cuban music.






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.

See the last round of music reviews from Laurence Mitchell.





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Ave Africa

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Caribbean Roots

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Guajira mas Guajira

Buy Guajira mas Guajira online here:
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