Rock the Tabla
Hossam Ramzy & Special Guests
We say: Superstar sidemen in an international drum fest
Rock the Tabla is the realization of a decade-long dream for Egypt's "Ambassador of Rhythm" percussionist Hossam Ramzy. On this album Ramzy gets to record with an array of musical friends like A R Rahman, scorer of Slumdog Millionaire and one-time Nasrut Fateh Ali Khan collaborator; former Mahavishnu Orchestra member and Miles Davis sidekick, Billy Cobham; Manu Katché, who has recorded with Jan Garbarek and Peter Gabriel among others, and Turkish multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek. As you might expect, the result is a percussion-heavy, loosely oriental collection that has plenty of polyrhythmic interest for drum aficionados.
The album kicks off with the powerful Andalucía—flavored "Arabantana," which has flamenco and Carlos Santana-style electric guitars introducing the theme before Egyptian strings come in against Ramzy"s Arabic percussion and Manu Katché's drum kit. "Cairo to India," which comes next, starts off sounding reminiscent of Algerian Rai (although that's not on the route) before an Indian string section arrives to take over proceedings. "Six Teens" is an Egyptian tune that serves as the perfect vehicle for a squeakily tight Billy Cobham and Hossam Ramzy drum and percussion partnership, while "Ancient Love Affairs" is a gentler modal piece with a yearning Arab vocal by Elhamy Ezzat and a droning bass figure that conjures images of caravans crossing desert wastes. After some Arab-Japanese drumming under the rather cornball title of "Shukran Arigato," we get "Bluesy Fluesy" — good track, awful title — with excellent electric violin by Mohammed Ali soaring over a heavy 7/8 groove. Completing the collection are Turkish, Latin and Malian crossover pieces and a belly dancing tune that has Cobham's thundering drums alongside Ramzy's hand percussion — powerful and heavy but also surprisingly elegant.
Despite a wealth of luminous guest musicians it is Ramzy who is in the driving seat throughout, propelling proceedings along with a blur of flying fingers. The bonus track at the end is on the money with its throwaway title of "This could lead to dancing." Well yes, it might.
Addis Acoustic Project
We say: Acoustic Ethiopian vintage pop in a modern jazz setting
As might be expected by a recording that features musicians from Ethiopian soul singer Muhammed Ahmed's band, there is a strong Horn of Africa feel to this recording. In actual fact, "Tewesta" ("Remembrance") showcases and reworks Ethiopian pop hits from the 1950s and 1960s. Anyone cognizant with the wonderful Ethiopiques re-issues on the Buda label will probably find the tunes here oddly familiar: tuneful bluesy melodies that sound as if they come from another time and space, which, in a way, they do.
"Ambassel" features splendid snake-like accordion by Girum Mezmur, who is the master of ceremonies here and also contributes jazz-inflected Wes Montgomery-style electric guitar throughout this recording. Elsewhere, it is the mandolin of Ayele Mamo that is to the fore — a very un-Ethiopian instrument that still manages to sound very much at home here. Mostly though, it is the ensemble playing that impresses, producing a gentle intimate music that owes as much to the sensibilities of small group jazz as it does to Ethiopian pop. And Ethiopian jazz too: to these ears, "Etitu Beredegu" sounds like it would be right at home on one of Mulatu Astatke's fantastic 1970s recordings.
If there is any criticism to be made, it is an occasional lack of vitality. With notable exceptions like "Yigermal," the closing track, which swings convincingly and seems redolent of bustling Addis markets, Tewesta sometimes sounds just a little too polite in places, a little too polished and four-square. Part of the charm of Ethiopian music — certainly as witnessed in the Ethiopiques series of recordings — is its dreamlike quality and raw edginess. It is music that, as Seasick Steve might say, sounds at its best when there is still some of the bark left on the stick. That is a small criticism though: this is a very enjoyable collection that, rather than merely nostalgic, manages to sound fresh and contemporary, and one that convinces that the Addis Acoustic Project are probably great to see live when there is a little more room for improvisation.
We say: A hodgepodge of Latino musical styles from the Brooklyn barrio
Brooklyn-based Conde has taken urban Latin music and given it a modern twist. The opening two tracks of this eponymous album feature sampled drums, keyboards and sound effects. It works pretty well but this electronic approach sounds rather cold and oddly dated in places and it is a relief when a real trombone rasps in to play near the end of "Matapalo Matamusa."
This collection is more than Latino dance music though — it is highly varied in pace and style and seasoned with some quirky, oddball elements. "Gordito Cabezon" (Bighead Fatboy) describes itself as "a song for dogs"; a novelty number with barking dogs, punk attitude and Archies' "Sugar Sugar" organ. "Gota de Felicidad" (Drop of Happiness) is more considered, with a slowish tempo and dub feel complete with skanking guitar, sharp rim shots and a dreamy coda. Elsewhere, things are more traditional: "El Vestido" is retro tango, pure and simple, "El Avion" is a stripped down mambo that brings to mind Catalan world groover Manu Chao, and "El Manatial" is a cool bolero with sparse keyboard washes and reverb guitar.
Some tracks do not work as well as others. "Silenciosa Maravilla" utilizes a soul funk groove that doesn't seem to quite suit Conde's dry vocal style, nor does "Mabel, Mabel," a Brazilian-style samba that is repeated in Portuguese near the end of the album for good measure. "Mujer" is a bluesy power ballad that is repeated in clunky-sounding English for the last song and rather overstays its welcome. "Elefante en Hotel" has a marked Afro-Peruvian feel that is reminiscent of Susana Baca's output but just does not have the same spark.
As a whole, this collection is nothing if not varied in style and influences; whether or not it strays a little too widely to gel as a whole is open to debate.
We say: West African electrical storm with deep trance grooves
The Juju here does not refer to African magic (well maybe just a little, tangentially speaking), or a Nigerian musical form popularized by King Sunny Adé in the 1980s, but is simply an amalgam of the two first names of the lead musicians here: Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara. Englishman Justin Adams is a big cheese in the world music milieu: if he is not playing guitar on your album then the chances are he is producing it. Associated with French fusionists Lo'Jo and post-Zeppelin Robert Plant in the past, as well as many other world music luminaries, this is actually the third album that Adams has recorded with Camara under the banner of Juju. While Adams plays electric guitar with a characteristic Saharan inflection (think Ali Farka Touré meets Jimmy Page), Camara sings and plays the ritti, a one-string fiddle that is indigenous to his Gambian homeland. But don't let the seemingly folksy simplicity of "one-string" give you the wrong impression: Camara coaxes screaming melodic lines of considerable complexity out of his electrified instrument — if anybody was ever in a position to be lauded as the "Jimi Hendrix of the ritti" then it would certainly be him.
Electric bass and drums make up the quartet of musicians on record here and the resulting In Trance is as much fusion rock as anything else. Seven long tracks make up the collection, three of which go on for almost a quarter of an hour. Lyrically, the songs concern themselves with standard West African themes like beautiful brides and the importance of respecting traditions but this is academic for most of us as they are sung in Fulani throughout.
In Trance might sound quite relentless at first but repeat listens reveal subtleties and nuances that are easily overlooked first time round. Either way, it is pretty heavy stuff — if these songs were performed in the casbah then it would most certainly be rocked. The sound, although studio-recorded, is very much a live one: think Led Zeppelin playing with local musicians on the scorched banks of the River Niger, or an electricity-drunk Ali Farka Toure in freak-out mode (Camara's voice actually sounds quite similar to Farka Touré's).
With desert riffs to die for and a bruising rhythm section, this is heady stuff that is almost trance-like in its intensity…and at nearly 70 minutes long, you'll probably need a lie down when you've finished listening. It is very good though: Ali Farka Touré would probably have approved; Hendrix most certainly would have done.
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.