We say: The North African compass gets realigned.
Anyone who still thinks the "Sahara blues" or "desert blues" sound — hypnotically mercurial guitar, drone-like vocals and rolling rhythms — which beamed in from North Africa courtesy of Etran Finatawa and Tinariwen a decade ago is an intuitive sound need only listen to this album by a next generation band to have their coordinates realigned.
Tamikrest members have enjoyed a long relationship with producer/guitarist Chris Eckman who here on their third album helps them move their extraordinary, mesmerizing sound towards dub reggae textures, heavy-lidded psychedelia, left-field folk and white-heat guitar work. But everywhere these musical gestures are aligned to the politics of Tamikrest's world, a region ravaged by radical Islamists, warfare, and unemployment. Which means this album-as-journey (lyrics translated from their native Tuareg), is a menacingly volatile if sometimes melancholy experience where traditional instruments (calabash, djembe) rub shoulders with searing and sinuous guitars.
Their themes come directly from their world: the suffering and oppression of women, innocent people beaten down by hardship, but there’s hope amidst the perilous context. It is Tamikrest's gift that these regional issues become universal concerns, and in a soundtrack which swirls like acid-colored sand blown by a desert wind. Not so much "world music" but a rare, tripped-out 21st century blues which has something to say. Essential in any serious collection.
Stand Up, People
We say: And the soundtrack to your next wedding, party, anything is . . .
World music is not so morally superior to Western pop that it doesn't have its fads and phases. Witness the infatuations for Cajun then Cuban then Portuguese fado then Sahara blues . . . And more recently the sounds of the Balkans in what we might call Gypsy folk-pop. There are hip big-city musicians with university degrees who get down with the earthy sounds of Roma music in the same way some secular humanists do with alt-country and that old time religion.
But this collection — subtitled "Gypsy Pop Songs From Tito's Yugoslavia 1964-1980" — throws us right back to the authentic source material which immediately impresses by not being quite as frenetic as its current practitioners. As with so many such compilations this one is pulled together by Londoners (Philip Knox and Nathaniel Morris of Vlax Records) and their ears are astute.
So here is a collection that doesn't favor famous names (although Esma Redzepova and Saban Bajramovic are here), but wallows in wonderful obscurities (Bedrije Misin was never a household name, not even in Kosovo) and songs which betray influences from mariachi music, Bollywood, weird Eastern psychedelia, and so much more. This is heart-aching at times and downright strange at others, but always finely focused on a period when this music not only flourished but was encouraged. So no sense of repression or imminent annihilation, just heartfelt Gypsy pop . . . which frequently rocks out. This 19-song collection is that rarity: archival but alive.
La Noche Mas Larga
We say: Sophisticated, jazzy, smart, calculated but…
Born in Mallorca to Guinean parents, Concha Buika worked in Las Vegas (as a Tina Turner impersonator) but through a series of albums guided by producer Javier Limon (her more benign Svengali) she was set alongside Anoushka Shankar and Mariza, and appeared as a singer in one of Pedro Almodovar's films. More recently she's worked her way to another persona through Billie Holiday (her ill-advised and over-emoting take on "Don't Explain" here), Jacques Brel (a mindless flamenco/piano-funk treatment of "Ne Me Quitte Pas") and flamenco-soul to arrive at Womad festivals.
That might mean fiscally trading down in some circles but in the long run — when she gets the blend right as on the rippling flamenco-blues of "Siboney" and the lovely "In Her Family" or turns down the desire to impress — she could be trading up in the credibility stakes. This album however, which features guitarist Pat Metheny on the spacious "No lo se," feels like a transitional patchwork.
Walk in Africa 1979-81
We say: South African mixed-race punk, who woulda thunk?
Formed in apartheid-era South Africa a couple of years after the uprising in Soweto and at the height of punk, this mixed-race band threw everything they could into a frantic stew of hard rock, reggae, punk and even some free-form jazz. They released one album (according to the excellent liner essay it sold 700 copies before being withdrawn under government pressure), toured relentlessly playing under the radar shows (or the watchful eyes of officially sanctioned media and police) and shortly after disbanded.
Given the cultural and political climate, theirs was a brave stand and proved to be influential on other musicians. The album was re-released in South Africa two years ago, most people hearing it for the first time. Although grounded in the prevalent music of its period, the energy and lyrical courage on display — not to mention some thrilling guitar work by Steve Moni — on this 14-song expanded edition of the album makes for fascinating listening. And the title track should have been a hit.
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 newer 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 .