Red Hot + Fela
We say: Musicians come together to celebrate the Fela legacy for a noble cause.
Right from the outset on the first track, "Buy Africa" by Baloji and L'Orchestre de la Katuba featuring Kuku, you know that you are in for a treat with this collection. Red Hot + Fela is comprised of 12 long tracks by a diverse group of artists who have come together to provide a musical contribution to the Red Hot AIDS awareness organization. This recording on Knitting Factory Records is a very cross-genre affair, with all manner of collaborations between African, and American artists representing a broad variety of musical styles that range from Afrobeat to Americana, from hip-hop to highlife. Although I'll be the first to admit that I don't know who many of these people are, the results are outstanding — it's all good, even for a Fela skeptic like me.
Stand out tracks include "Lady," which features Tune-Yards, Questlove, Akura Naru and the evergreen Beninoise singer Angélique Kidjo, and the gloriously upbeat "ITT (International Thief Thief)" by Superhuman Happiness with Sahr Ngaujah (who played the role of Fela on Broadway), Abena Koomson and Rubblebucket. Best of all are the long tracks that come about halfway in the running order: the gorgeously laconic, 14-minute long "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am" by My Morning Jacket with Merrill Garbus and Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes fame), and a minimalist version of "Sorrow, Tears and Blood" by the unlikely team of Kronos Quartet, Kyp Malone, Tunde Adebimpe and Stuart Bogie. Elsewhere, "Afrodisco Beat 2013" sees Kuti's former drummer, the incomparably funky Tony Allen, teamed up with M1 (from underground hip-hop duo Dead Prez) and Baloji.
Great cause: great music. What's not to like?
This Train is Now
Raya Brass Band
We say: Down and dirty Balkan gypsy brass . . . from Brooklyn.
Balkan-style brass bands are almost respectable these days, what with the likes of Serbia's Boban and Marko Marković and Romania's Fanfare Ciocărlia leading a convoy of world music brass bandwagons out of the deep valleys of southeast Europe to the wider world beyond. Raya Brass Band don't hail from the Balkans but from New York City, from Brooklyn to be precise. Their precise country of origin doesn't seem to be important — Raya Brass Band are authentic enough to be invited to play at no end of festivals and celebrations at venues that range from tiny community centers to large outdoor stages.
This Train is Now is the band's third album, recorded in a studio in the Catskills of New York State, a leafy location that might double for green Bosnian hills if you squint hard enough. Although the music might sound pretty much traditional little of the material recorded here has its roots across the ocean in southeast Europe. Most of it is self-penned and much comes from improvisations by the band — spontaneous jams that on a good day yield tunes and riffs to be salted away for future use. The title track, "This Train is Now," composed by trumpeter Ben Syversen, came into being this way, as did "Riff Cloud," which took shape after an improvisation recorded on a mobile phone. After all this faux-Balkan creativity, it almost comes as a surprise to realize that two traditional tunes have been squeezed in between the self-penned compositions — "Shapkarevo Kasapsko Oro," a Macedonian tune, and "Romska Karsilama," which was learned and adapted to a brass treatment from a black market Romany recording bought at a street market.
Raya Brass Band does not boast a single Roma (or even Slav) player in its ranks but this does not seem to matter. Why should it when most 'authentic' Roma musicians are musical kleptomaniacs who happily incorporate Hindi film playback, Klezmer wedding tunes and even James Bond theme tunes in their eclectic repertoire? Surely the only thing that is important is that the music feels right? This does.
Go: Organic Orchestra
We say: An organic musical mandala.
A mandala as you probably already know, is a contemplative design, a geometric work of art that represents an ideal. It is a focus for meditation, a spiritual map of sorts. An aural version of a mandala is exactly what multi-instrumentalist Adam Rudolph is attempting here: a semi-improvised musical matrix in which classical, jazz and world music traditions converge to produce something unique. Whatever the result, it will never be quite the same the next time you hear it.
Having said this, it is probably not worth analyzing Sonic Mandala too much: it's really better just to listen to it a few times and let the music wash over you to allow a pattern to emerge. It is an ambitious project, certainly, involving over 30 musicians and featuring lots of percussionists, a bewildering array of flutes (C & alto, Japanese noh-kan, bamboo and Fulani) and a string section. The notion is to utilize an orchestral approach to improvisation by means of a studio seating policy in which musicians of different cultures, ages and instruments sit next to each other and spark one another's idea. It's a bold idea, and it seems to work on the whole as Sonic Mandala improves on repeated listening — always good sign — and the music becomes less impenetrable the more you get to know it. Nevertheless, it is hard to draw musical parallels. "Part Seven" with its sitar groove and breathy flute puts me a little in mind of Pharoah Sanders or "Great Expectations"-era Miles Davis, while "Part Eight" has dark and fluid Miles-style trumpet fronting a barrage of oriental percussion. The tempo really picks up by "Part Nine," which features jazz guitar and African polyrhythmic drumming punctuated by staccato brass figures.
Sonic Mandala is by no means freeform or abstract but more a journey through a musical landscape where the scenery is ever changing, sometimes quite abruptly at other times slowly and organically. Food for thought, certainly; perhaps, also, food for the human spirit.
Afrobeat Airways 2
We say: Rare analog grooves from Ghana's Islamic funk belt.
There's more Afrobeat here — this time from Ghana. When music from Nigeria — notably Fela Kuti's Lagos-based Afrobeat — started to turn heads back in the late 1970s, its Anglophone neighbor was left behind in the shadows. Best known for its guitar-led highlife music, Ghana did have an Afrobeat scene of its own at the time, and there were other styles particular to the country that did not travel overseas much too. One example of this was the funk that came from the north of the country — the self-proclaimed "Islamic funk belt" — a genre represented here by bands like Uppers International ("Aja Wondo") and Los Issufu & His Moslems ("Kana Soro"). Afrobeat Airways 2, subtitled "Return Flight to Ghana 1974—1983," features a broad range of bands and artists from that creative period. Most of these remain obscure or unknown outside the country of their birth. Here you'll find Ebo Taylor Jr ("Children Don't Cry"), De Frank's Band ("Do Your Own Thing") and Rob ("Loose Yourself Up") all offering friendly advice to a funky groove, while Tony Sarfo and the Funky Afrosisbi 's instrumental, "I Beg," implores the listener in the funkiest way possible.
Listening to this collection, it seems that quite a lot of popular western music had crossed the Atlantic by the 1970s and so, as well as the inevitable influence of James Brown, there an echo of the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive" in De Frank's Band's "Do Your Own Thing," while "Waiting For My Baby," again by De Frank (this time accompanied by "His Professionals"), has more than a hint of "Louie, Louie" about it. In contrast, "Abrabo" by K. Frimpong, with its rippling highlife guitar and impassioned vocals, is very much its own thing and pure vintage Ghana.
Afrobeat Airways 2 is primarily music for dance floors. It might sound dated, but that's not such a bad thing — no studio trickery or production finesse, no double-tracking, not too much concern about getting things exactly in tune — it's raw but honest.
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.