Perceptive Travel World Music Reviews
October 2016 - By Laurence Mitchell

In this issue: a look back at Ghanian afrobeat, female desert blues, new Latin rock, plus a fusion of Greek Orthodox and Kundalini yoga (with a pinch of Americana).



Noura Mint Seymali


Coming Home: Original Ghanaian Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1967-1981
Pat Thomas

We say: Retrospective of a golden voice from the golden age of Ghanaian music

The late ‘60s and ‘70s were a golden age for Ghanaian music. It was an era of bands playing electric highlife music to packed dance halls. Pat Thomas, who was voted the “Golden Voice of Africa” in 1978, emerged during this period to become one of the most popular artists in West Africa. He is still performing and touring far and wide today.

This retrospective covers two CDs and a span of 14 years of recordings. The first CD is of earlier work with show bands and groups like the Sweet Beans and Marijata as well as recordings made with the band leader Ebo Taylor. The second CD, which tends to be of longer tracks, consists of later recordings mostly under Thomas’s own name.

What is remarkable is the sheer variety of music represented here: highlife and Afrobeat in name but music that embraced outside influences too, like jazz, R&B, reggae, soul—Ghana was clearly not living in any sort of isolated musical vacuum back in those days. Although the recording quality of some of the earlier tracks is a little rough and ready, it’s all great stuff.

In addition to Thomas’s warm, rich vocals there’s gorgeous guitar work on show here, some tight horn section work and a bonus of groovy, very ‘70s, organ playing on some of the earlier tracks. Personal favorites on the first disc are “Awurade Mpaebo” and the R&B-influenced “Revolution” with the Sweat Beans. The tracks with Marijata are interesting too, to hear what the Ghanaian take on Afrobeat was like in its early years. The second disc also has plenty of standouts—the opener “Ma Huno,” with its interweaving guitars and sharp brass, and the lengthy workout of “Mewo Akoma,” which to these ears brings to mind the Congalese soukous work of Franco at his prime.






La Lucha
Eljuri

We say: Enjoyable Latin-rock from New York City

Cecilia Villar Eljuri is a Manhattan-raised Latina with Lebanese roots on her mother’s side. A guitarist and singer with a fondness for the Cuban tres, here she leads a rocking electric band through a number of catchy self-penned Latin-rock songs. Apart from the track “Nunca Volveré,” which features Arabic dumbek and finger cymbals, the Lebanese roots are not really that obvious.

A few of the songs like “Right Back” lean towards pop, bringing to mind a more bass-heavy version of Blondie. In contrast, “Indiferencia,” with its electric tres guitar, sounds more like a rocked-up Cuban ballad. On some songs there is also a vague reggae feel, and this is even more apparent on “Quiero Saber,” which features bone fide reggae royalty in the form of Sly and Robbie on drums and bass.

Eljuri is certainly no slouch on electric guitar and acquits herself well with some admirable, but always tasteful plank-spanking. The rhythm section packs a powerful punch too, driving things along nicely even without the presence of Sly and Robbie. Strong songs like “El Viento” and heavier numbers like “Nunca Volveré” and “Luz Roja” are probably the standout tracks here but all of La Lucha is enjoyable.






Songs of Resilience
Simrit

We say: Greek/West Africa fusion inspired by Kundalini Yoga

Simrit is a Greek-born, South Carolina-raised singer whose style fuses the Greek Orthodox music of her youth with West African melody and rhythm. But that’s perhaps a little too simplistic, as there are elements of folk-rock and acoustic Americana here as well.

Simrit’s voice is pure and uninflected, and notwithstanding the influence of American singers like Loreena McKennitt, remains true to her Greek roots. The opener “Prithvi Hai” sets the scene nicely before leading into “Clandestine,” which unfolds gently beneath a trance-like soundscape of kora, cello and spacey violin. Minor key kora-dominated tracks like “Nana” retain a West African feel despite being sung in English.

If Songs of Resilience sounds a little mystical then that is undoubtedly due to the influence of Kundalini yoga, of which Simrit is a devotee. Several of the songs like “Prithvi Hai,” “Pavan Guru” and “Song of Bliss” are based on mantras and hymns and sung in the Punjabi language of this sacred Sikh tradition. The lush yet straight-ahead ballad “Still I Cry” interrupts the flow somehow but the predominant musical theme returns for the final Kundalini-inspired track “Sat Narayan.” Truth be told, the pace and mood does not vary very much throughout and all of the eight tracks are fairly lengthy and slow- to medium-paced: music to listen and relax to... or maybe do some yoga.






Arbina
Noura Mint Seymali

We say: Passionate electric desert blues for the 21st century

In a genre dominated by veiled men in indigo robes the Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali is very much her own woman -- a growing artist who goes from strength to strength. Arbina, her latest offering, was recorded in New York earlier this year and shows all the hi-tech sophistication you might reasonably expect. Nevertheless it still retains the passion and raw edginess of her first album Tzenni (2014). Powered by highly propulsive bass and drums behind the snaking quarter-tone guitar work of Jeiche Ould Chigaly (his instrument is adapted), Seymali’s husband and musical partner, Seymali plays and sings up a storm—a sandstorm perhaps—leading her musicians over the dunes and far away.

How to describe this music? Certainly it’s bluesy, and it is also trance-like, occasionally verging on psychedelic, yet edgier and more urgent than contemporary desert blues practitioners like Tinariwen.

It is interesting to read the translation of the lyrics provided as some of the songs deal with highly laudable causes like the prevention of breast cancer (“Women, hurry up!... if you get an analysis early you will be okay…”) on “Arbina.” Others call out to the divine for protection (“Tia”) or provide evocative vignettes of desert life (“… I visited the oasis, where there were tall ghoaune trees. There I saw many giraffes standing among nomads” on “Ghizlane”).

Putting the lyrics aside, this is passionate, powerful music: an electric revitalization of traditional Moorish music that comes across as fresh and exciting.






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.





Also in this issue:





Coming Home: Original Ghanaian Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1967-1981

Buy Coming Home: Original Ghanaian Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1967-1981 online here:
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La Lucha

La Lucha will be available mid-October.



Songs of Resilience

Buy Songs of Resilience online here:
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Amazon Canada
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Arbina

Arbina online here:
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Amazon Canada
Amazon UK