Bouger le Monde!
Staff Benda Bilili
We say: A second helping of liquid sunshine from the DRC.
Staff Benda Bilili arrived with a splash a couple of years ago to become immediate favorites on the world music festival circuit. It was easy to see why: with groovy danceable tunes, lilting guitars and sweet harmony vocals they personified the notion that, despite poverty and hardship, Africa remains the world's prime location for rhythmic feel-good music. What was especially remarkable about Staff Benda Bilili was that not only were they Africans from the wrong side of the tracks in a poverty-stricken dysfunctional city (Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo) but they were all seriously disabled too, performing either on crutches or from home-made invalid carriages.
Bouger le Monde! ("Move The World!") continues musically from where the band left off with Très Très Fort in 2010: irresistibly warm vocal harmonies and chiming guitars topped off with liquid high-register solos on an amplified one-string tin-can guitar. This time round the sound is a little more sophisticated, recorded and produced in a proper studio rather than assembled from recordings made at a mobile studio at Kinshasa zoo, the band's former home turf. There is more percussion on this new set of songs, as well as more singers and guitar soloists, but essentially Bouger le Monde! is more of the same, which really is no bad thing.
The joyfulness of the sound belies the tough lyrical content of some of the songs: "Sopeka (Begging)", "Kuluna (Gangs)" and "Djambula (Too Many Problems)" are all clearly not about matters of the moon in June, but, listening to the unwaveringly up-tempo content here, you really would not know it. Disabled or not, Staff Benda Bilili display an admirable lack of self-pity and are an object lesson in dignity and self-determination. What they want more than anything else is to be taken seriously as musicians rather than as novelty performers, so patronize these fine musicians at your peril. As the translation of "Mutu Esalaka," the final track's title, clearly states, 'The Brains Are OK'. So are the hands and voices it would seem.
Cinéma el Mundo
We say: A gastronomic world music buffet from western France.
Cinéma el Mundo is the tenth album from this longstanding French group. More a musical collective than simply a band, Lo'Jo have over the years collaborated with circus performers, theatre groups and musicians as diverse as Benin brass bands and Malian troubadours. Such is their bohemian approach to life and art that even today the various band members still live collectively in a large house near Angers in western France.
Musical influences have always been diverse—French chanson, Berber rhythms, beat poetry, dub, gypsy music—but Lo'Jo have long had their own distinctive voice to the extent that their sound is instantly recognizable. Part of this is down to the lead vocals of lyricist Denis Péan, a middle-aged French poet whose gruff vocals and ever-present trilby have encouraged some critics to describe him as a Gallic Tom Waits. Certainly, there is a parallel here, most notably the shamanic beat poet bit, but Péan is very much his own man. Supplementing Péan on vocals are Berber sisters Nadia and Yasmina Nid el Mourid, who provide close Middle East-inflected harmony, although their role within the band is far more central than that of mere backing singers (they play percussion, kora and soprano saxophone too). The lissom rhythm section of Kham Meslien on bass and Baptiste Brondy on drums underpins things handsomely, while the role of instrumental master of ceremonies is held by violinist Richard Bourreau who, along with Péan, is a founder member of thirty years standing. The empathy and originality of the playing is such that the combined effect is never less than synergistic, although there is always enough room to allow the music to breathe. Cinéma el Mundo also features a handful of guest musicians that include the evergreen Robert Wyatt, cello fusionist Vincent Segal and Ibrahim Ag Alhabib from the Tuareg desert rock merchants, Tinariwen.
Cinéma el Mundo works as an entity, each track flowing into the next one almost as if this were a concept album. "Tout Est Fragile" has a hint of the brittle delicacy that its title suggests, while "African Dub Crossing The Fantoms Of An Opera" conjures up African jazz fusion. "Zetwal" is a Waitsian circus waltz accompanied by a marching band, while the title track features the wordless multi-tracked vocals of Robert Wyatt—always a joy to hear—against lush pizzicato and unworldly harmonics. There is really little point in picking out outstanding tracks though, as they are all pretty good. Robert Plant is a fan. You should be too.
We say: Psychedelic jazz fusion from the Welsh borders.
The notion of what constitutes "world music" is a curious thing. Perhaps it is an outmoded concept these days as the term was, after all, originally coined simply as a marketing label. If, as the great Louis Armstrong once asserted, all music is essentially folk music when he said, "I ain't never heard no horse sing a song," then by the same token all music from Planet Earth must, by definition, be some form of world music.
The music here originates from a pleasantly leafy corner of Planet Earth: Shropshire in the English West Midlands close to the border with Wales, a region more associated with dairy farming and half-timbered villages than innovative music. There's nothing half-timbered—or half-assed—about Glowpeople though: this is muscular music, spacey and dreamy but with a visceral quality. The creative approach seems to involve rehearsal studio jam sessions from which improvisations are distilled and condensed to eventually become "tunes" in the band's repertoire. This technique has served experimental bands like Can well enough in the past and it seems to work effectively here too.
Glowpeople's music is groove-based for the most part: elliptical drum patterns and space-funk bass lay the foundations, while effect-laden guitar, trippy electric trumpet and swirling ethereal synthesizer provide texture and melodic flurries. Musical parallels are hard to find—always a good sign—but to these ears, there are hints of electric period Miles, Can, 80s Acid Jazz; even, perhaps, an echo of a more eloquent and less head-banging Hawkwind.
Things… is entirely instrumental, with the exception of spoken vocal on a couple of tracks. "Things Went Wrong," the opener, starts off suddenly and menacingly enough to convince that a disaster is indeed beckoning, although this is at odds with the music, which works very successfully in this instance. Other tracks like "Resound in H Flat" sound less resolved, more like works in progress, but the majority come across like they are old favourites in the Glowpeople live set. Although the result is unarguably original, the musical influences and references are far-ranging. "With You Without" features, unconsciously maybe, a truncated riff from Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" as well as a trumpet figure that slyly alludes to Gershwin's "Summertime." Intriguingly though, "The Saddest Flower in the Vase", the lachrymosely titled final track sounds not the least bit gloomy.
How to sum up then? Glowpeople call themselves "psychedelic jazz fusion adventurers." Yes, that covers it nicely, although I might add "trippy space rockers" too.
We Say: More sweet vocals from troubled Zimbabwe.
Last time here I reviewed the Best of… collection of Black Umfolosi. Well, here is more vocal music from Zimbabwe. Vusa Mkhaya is a singer/songwriter who is also a member of the Zimbabwean vocal trio Insingizi but here on Vocalism he gives his own personal take on the African vocal tradition. A largely solo effort, Mkhaya overdubs his voice on many tracks but there are other singers also on board to help him along, most notably the sturdy female voice of Nomathamsanqa Mkhwananazi, who sings lead on "Umakoti (The Bride)."
With solo and group performances, some featuring a light instrumental backing of guitar and percussion, this is a varied collection that, in addition to traditional Zimbabwean songs like "Umakoti (The Bride)" also features gospel songs like "S'Thethelela (Forgive Us)" and "Uthando Lukababa (God's Love)." Even more eclectically, there is also a traditional Hungarian folk song, ("Tavaszi Szél"), for good measure, as well as "Schweinbeuschel," a yodelling song from the Rax Valley of Austria, and "Brunnenmarkt," a self-penned song about a Vienna street market. As Vocalism was recorded both in Bulawayo and Vienna this inclusion of Central European material is perhaps not as surprising as it first might appear.
Although vocal music of this stripe may not be to everyone's taste, the singing is sweet and harmonious throughout—think Ladysmith Black Mambazo or Black Umfolosi with, perhaps, a slightly stronger gospel influence.
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.