Perceptive Travel World Music Reviews
April 2016 - By Laurence Mitchell

In this issue: Fela Kuti's first band, 12-piece Ethiopian fusion, a refugee from Saharan purgatory, plus America meets Cameroon.

Fela Ransome Kuti and his Koola Lobitos: "Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul (1963-1969)"
Fela Kuti

We say: Very early Fela Kuti recordings from 1960s Nigeria

By the end of his idiosyncratic life Fela Kuti had become one of the most famous musicians in all Africa but few are familiar with his musical beginnings. Long before becoming a legend outside his native Nigeria, Fela Ransome-Kuti, as he was then known, travelled to London to study music at the Trinity School of Music. Returning to Lagos, still a young man, Kuti formed his first professional band, the Koola Lobitos, who went on to become popular in the then Nigerian capital.

In the early 1960s Afro-Beat was yet to be invented and the music Kuti and his band played was a loose mixture of Highlife and Jazz, along with a sprinkling of what was described as Afro-Soul. It may come as a surprise but Kuti's main instrument back in the day was the trumpet, an instrument that it might be argued he played much better than the saxophone he would go on to favor in later years.

This anthology provides a great range of early material spread across three CDs. Disc 1 consists entirely of 7" single releases from 1963-64, all relatively short and danceable, and largely like "Oyejo" and "Oloreuka" in the Highlife style. There are also digressions into soul and R&B ("V.C.7" and "I Know Your Feeling") and what might best be described as Afro-Jazz on tracks like "Great Kids" and "Amaechi's Blues."

Disc 2 is a re-release of Fela Ransome Kuti and His Koola Lobitos first album from 1965. Most of this album is in the Highlife style with occasional digressions into Afro-Soul territory on numbers like "Ololufe." The self-explanatory "It's Highlife Time" features some pretty nifty trumpet playing from Kuti.

Disc 3 consists of live recordings made between 1966 and 1968. Considerably rougher in recording quality (and also occasionally musicianship), these capture the atmosphere of the band's live appearance at the Afro Spot Club in Lagos. Despite sometimes seeming like listening to a party next door through the living room wall, this is of interest for its sheer vitality and live gig energy. It also documents the emergence of Afro-Beat as a distinct style all of its own and any recording that features the mighty Tony Allen on drums has to be worth listening to.

Ere Gobez
Debo Band

We say: Ethiopian retro with a modern touch and rock sensibility

With a big band sound that harks back to the golden years of Ethiopian music in the 1970s and '80s, Debo Band brings a modernizing touch to a much-loved musical genre. Led by sax player Danny Mekonnen, this twelve-piece group fuses classic Ethiopian material with a wide range of other influences.

Ere Gobez is very high energy, almost riotous at times. Unorthodox instrumentation like electric violin, accordion, wailing electric guitar, and sousaphone add texture and flavor to a postmodern mash-up that blends Ethiopian music with other world music styles and rollicking straightforward rock.

A wide range of musical sources are invoked: traditional Ethiopian wedding songs ("Yalanchi"), the Harar Police Orchestra on "Yachat," Duke Ellington on "Blue Awaze." There's even a popular song from Okinawa ("Hiyamikachi Bushi"), which despite its origin sounds like the sort of thing a contemporary Addis Ababa heavy metal group might have in their repertoire. There are long-forgotten Ethiopian songs too, like the eerie and powerful "Sak," which is sung with trembling intensity by vocalist Bruck Tesfaye. Mellower songs eschew hints of modernism to sound more like they were lifted direct from the Buda Musique's Ethiopiques series, the highly influential re-releases that prompted this current Ethiopian music craze. With fresh new takes on the genre like that of Debo Band still emerging, all I can say is long may the craze continue.

Abbar el Hamada
Aziza Brahim

We say: Songs of exile from the Sahara Desert

Aziza Brahim grew up in a Saharawi refugee camp in the Sahara desert in Algeria before moving first to Cuba and then finally to Barcelona. All of these geographical reference points seem to have made an impression on the music of this exiled singer, although the subject matter itself focuses closely on her homeland of Western Sahara, a country that has not existed independently since Morocco took de facto control nearly forty years ago.

Recorded in Barcelona using producer Chris Eckman, who has previously worked with West African artists Bassekou Kouyate and Tamikrest, this is a musically diverse album that has elements of Saharawi, West African and even contemporary Spanish music all to the fore. Although there are distinct hints of retro West African bands like the Super Rail Band ("La Cordillera Negra") or the camel-gaited lope of desert blues outfits like Tinariwen and Tamikrest ("Calles de Dajla"), Brahim is very much a woman in her own element plowing her own Saharawi furrow.

The traditional Saharawi rhythms such as Sharaa and Asarbat that underpin many of the tracks are seamlessly fused with West African and Mediterranean sounds, most notably the chiming electric guitar of Malian Kalilou Sangare. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter this is mostly pretty relaxed and easy-going on the ears, even upbeat on songs like "Calles de Dajla." Other tracks like "Mani," a bluesy ballad that serves as an impassioned hymn to Brahim's homeland, are sparser and simpler.

The lyrics, translated in the liner notes into Spanish and English, address the political purgatory of being a Saharawi exile, The last track "Los Muros (The Walls)" condemns the vast sand fortifications placed along the Western Saharan border by Morocco. "Intifada" -- perhaps a more universal theme -- describes the rising of youth in the struggle for national sovereignty. Other songs reference an evocative lost landscape: "El Wad (The River)," "(La Cordillera Negra (The Black Mountains)," and the title track "Abbar el Hamada (Across the Hamada)." The Hamada is the name of the inhospitable rocky desert that separates the Algerian refugee camps from Western Sahara; here it is a landscape that serves as a powerful metaphor for the loss, suffering, and exile of Brahim's people.

Chapters of my Life

We say: Songs of life from Cameroon to Detroit

The last of four African music releases reviewed here this month, this one wears its geographical origin somewhat more lightly. Singer-songwriter Moken originally comes from Cameroon but moved to the United States several years ago, going to live in Detroit while he attended college. Although he grew up listening to traditional Cameroonian music, Moken lists his musical heroes as Van Morrison, Nina Simone and fellow countryman Manu Dibango. The influence of the latter two of these can be heard in his distinctive singing voice, which is quite heavily accented and jumps frequently from baritone to falsetto.

There's a cool semi-acoustic vibe at work throughout Chapters of my Life. The instrumentation is simple but effective, just guitar, bass, drums and a little unobtrusive programming. Although the overall sound is contemporary there are hints of jazz here and there, and also Senegalese mbalax on "Ma Masse" and noticeable Afro-Cuban influences at work on songs like "The Man That Never Gives Up." Other standout tracks include "Jerusalem" with its insistent, gently propelling rhythm, the autobiographical "Walking Man," and the hypnotic "A Bato Bam."

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 and his blog at

See the last round of music reviews from Laurence Mitchell.

Also in this issue:

Fela Ransome Kuti and his Koola Lobitos: Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul (1963-1969)

Buy Fela Ransome Kuti and his Koola Lobitos: "Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul (1963-1969)" online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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Ere Gobez

Buy Ere Gobez online here:
FBE Records

Abbar el Hamada

Buy Abbar el Hamada online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Chapters of my Life

Buy Chapters of my Life online here:
Bantu Records