Washington, DC-based Afrobeat band Elikeh’s album Adje! Adje! landed on a lot of best-of-2010 lists at the end of last year for a good reason: it’s a phenomenal party album. This isn’t fratboy music, and it’s about as far from Vampire Weekend as you can possibly get: it’s the real thing, a mix of Fela-inspired, 1970s style Afro-funk with Ethiopian tinges, traditional Togolese sounds, a defiantly smart lyrical sensibility and a groove that’s every bit as infectious as it should be. There isn’t a single song on here that’s not catchy. The lead guitar, in particular, is excellent, whether burning through bluesmetal on the resolutely anti-imperialist title track that opens the album, delivering swaying funk or judiciously incisive blues lines. Add spicy horns and hypnotic, organic dancefloor rhythms to the darkly incisive, minor-key melodies, and you have a recipe for a tidal wave of moving bodies.
“Here they come again, this time I won’t let them take over my place,” Massama, the band’s Togo-born frontman insists on the title cut. “Congo is burning, they burn down our barriers…they killed Sankara, they killed Lumumba,” a warning that the imperialists are still as mindful of African resistance as they were during the colonial age. The single best track here might be the last one, a tersely thoughtful rap number, delivered in French over simple, funky acoustic guitar: “Everybody follows the American way,” Massama warns, but even if you’re African and you’re born in Paris, or the US, you’re still African. The solution? It’s up to the people; the oppressors won’t make things any better.
The rest of the album is just as diverse. About two thirds of the way through, there’s what’s essentially a suite of three hypnotic one-chord jams that speed up and raise the ante higher and higher, the sort of thing that seems designed to bring a concert to peak intensity. The album’s second track adds hints of reggae and balmy flute; the third, a flamenco-flavored number, features deliciously twangy reverb guitar and a dramatic Spanish guitar solo. The rest of the album veers from slinky funk to funk-pop and a suspenseful, intense vamp to wrap it up right before the closing rap. Shame on us for blinking and not including this on our Best of 2010 list. Elikeh are at Joe’s Pub this coming April 16 at 11:30 PM.
Reviewing a hip-hop album in an unfamiliar language is a recipe for disaster potentially compounded tenfold in the case of a westerner haphazardly attempting to shed some light on a characteristically slang-laden, regionally-centric release from the third world. Saying that this album is full of pleasant dance grooves would be like a non-Wolof speaker explaining how the classic Ousmane Sembene film Camp de Thiaroye is full of striking urban imagery. So here goes a shot at something better. Sister Fa is the biggest female hip-hop star in Senegal, a more impressive accomplishment than it may seem considering that female performers other than singers are often frowned upon in the dominant Muslim culture. Suffice it to say that it was a pretty rough road for her, but Sister Fa – now based in Germany – is every bit as popular on her old home turf as, say, L’il Kim is here. On her new album she raps in Wolof, Manding, Jola and French, pretty much in that order. From a Francophone perspective, her flow is completely original, a rapidfire delivery that seems to draw on what was fermenting in Brooklyn and Staten Island in the late 80s and early 90s, through the prism of popular 90s French-African acts like MC Solaar and Menelik. If there are similar Senegalese lyricists out there, at least from a western perspective, they’re under the radar. No doubt that originality struck a nerve – not to mention her fearless political stance as a crusader against female genital mutilation (Sister Fa herself was maimed at an early age).
Having succeeded where she started, she’s shooting for a broader audience (at least with the French material here), eschewing local scene-oriented topical material for a broader anti-violence, populist, generally uplifting vibe. That which isn’t narrative here is boast without the bling, much in the same spirit as Canibus – Sister Fa has the confidence to go with her words alone without bragging about how much luxury brand crap she owns, and it works. The more specific material has a message: for example, one of the Wolof numbers, Life AM, set to one of the more ominous samples here, is a no-nonsense guide to how to avoid AIDS and STDs. As far as the backing tracks are concerned, this one has more of a vintage 80s feel, straight-up samples without backward masking plus occasional loops of pretty, fluttery kora (West African harp) and acoustic guitar over a variety of beats ranging from light trip-hop to subsonic thud. At itunes and better urban record stores.