He is #1
Malawi Mouse Boys
We say: Impossibly soulful roadside gospel from dusty Malawi.
The story behind many world music artists is often much more interesting than that of their First World counterparts. You won't find too many American musicians who sell mice kebabs on the roadside as a kind of snack-to-go. But these guys — with broken guitars, rudimentary percussion and here recorded in situ by Ian (Tinariwen) Brennan — not only have a good story but also deliver a joyous gospel. At times ("Ndaimirila") it almost sounds Pacific in its casual hip-sway rhythms, raw drumming and harmony vocals. At other times (the affecting "Jesu") there is a simple and unadorned testament of faith which is gentle and hypnotic. When they hit offbeats ("Ndathamanga-Thamanga" with its single string guitar solo, the chant-sing of "Mtsilikali") this could be reggae from a rural roadside in Jamaica. It has suggestions of American gospel from many decades ago in "Rejoice in the Lord."
The Malawi Mouse Boys will never be able to make another album as authentically unmediated as this and theirs is a collective voice which is a delight to hear. Very special indeed.
En Yay Sah
Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang
We say: Roughed up psychedelic Africa from the Big Apple.
Fronted by singer-songwriter Ahmed Janka Nabay from Sierra Leone but propelled by an alt-rock group from Brooklyn (which includes Syrian-born singer-bassist Boshra AlSaadi as melodic counterpoint to Nabay's sandpaper style), this exotically swirling, energetic and edgy debut album marries the "bubu" sound of Sierra Leone with inner city pop-psychedelics. The result is a heady brew of pulsing beats, weirdly disconcerting organ, and piercing, textural guitar.
By Nabay's account he resurrected and rocked up the ancient bubu/witchcraft-folk sound but, when he fled his homeland after the civil war, he ended up in New York working in fast food joints. It's not all flat-tack and white-knuckle however. The slower (but still psyched-out) "Somebody" — the only song in English — has a yearning quality as Nabay sings of his need for love and of distant Africa. And on the title track — punctuated by electronic washes and riding a bubbling bassline — Nabay speak-sings of his faith and fears in a piece which is as mesmerizing as it is spooky. Nabay might not have the most memorable voice, but in this street-smart sonic context where Africa-meets-block rockin' beats this is persuasive stuff.
Palace of Dreams
Victor Ghannam and Jacco Muller
We say: Like the famous curate's egg, good in parts.
Following their Viento del Desierto collaboration in 2009, Dutch flamenco guitarist Muller again teams up with oud player Ghannam for an even more daring bridging of cultures and styles. This collection brings in electric guitar, tabla drums, synth-strings and electric oud for a melange which sometimes errs too close to exotic New Age ("Velvet Moonlight," the title track) but mostly delivers Middle Eastern and flamenco melodic drama (the dueling strings on "Wandering Nomads"), broody ballad ("Mirador de Daraxa") and heel-clicking rhythms ("Raq's Al Sultan").
The spaghetti western "Old Snake Boots," full of wind-blown melodrama and Telecaster twang'n'distortion, sits at odds with most things here, and the short pieces ("WaHee", "Turquoise Sky" and "Dusty Roads," all well shy of two minutes) sound little more than soundtrack filler. So a mixed bag which at its best crosses the cultural and musical divides, but too often doesn't deliver on the promise elsewhere.
Graham Reid is a New Zealand—based writer whose first book Postcards from Elsewhere won the 2006 Whitcoulls Travel Book of the Year Award in New Zealand. His new collection The Idiot Boy Who Flew won the Whitcoulls Reader Choice award and is available through www.amazon.com. He also hosts his own music/travel/arts website www.elsewhere.co.nz .