Lucid Culture


CD Review: Sounds of Taraab – Zanzibar, New York

The amazing debut album from Sounds of Taraab, New York’s own East African dance band. Taraab is a slinky, danceable style that varies regionally: as the band’s website explains, taraab in Mombasa emphasizes its tricky African rhythms, while in Dar Es Salaam its Indian and Bollywood influences come to the forefront. In Zanzibar, where it originated, more often than not it’s haunting, chromatically-charged Levantine dance music set to African beats. That particular style is Sounds of Taraab’s primary focus, although the ten songs on this album are a mix of various subgenres. Most of this is foot-tapping music, although much of the material here is very psychedelic, even hypnotic.


As in a lot of Arab dance music, many of the songs here begin with a taqsim or improvisation on the accordion or oud. Accordionist/bandleader Ismael Butera plays with astronishing power, intensity and speed: anyone who might think that the accordion is a cheesy instrument needs to hear this guy. But pretty much everyone in the band gets to solo, including violinist/flute player Michael Hess (who also plays with Butera in the exhilarating Metropolitan Klezmer) and superb oud player Haig Manoukian. Khartoum native and frontwoman Alsarah (who also has some beguiling free downloads of her own available) delivers the songs’ typically romantically-oriented Kiswahili lyrics with a soulfully warm, slightly coy, Billie Holiday-esque inflection. The band’s two percussionists, Tye Giraud and Nicole LeCorgne also cover the all-important role of backing vocals: in taraab, textures are everything.   


The cd kicks off with the gorgeous, improvisationally-driven instrumental Fashraf Salama, followed by Daka Kozi Manowe, where the Indian influence – especially in the vocal melody – becomes instantly apparent. Pulsing along on a catchy 1-3-5 pop hook, the next cut, Nie Zama Nie Sema reveals itself as a link in the same chain that eventually morphed into soul music here in this country. After that, the darkly sensual snakecharmer vibe returns on Mapenzi Matamu. Butera and Alsarah share vocals on the bouncy next number, Mahaba Wa Taka Nini. After a somewhat pensive solo intro by Manoukian, Ani Wana Damu launches into a plaintive groove that wouldn’t be out of place in the Oum Kaltsoum repertoire. After the stately Lala, Mpenzi Lala – a showcase for Giraud’s vocals – the album eventually closes with a call-and-response dance number, Unalo, whose lyrics constantly make reference to ganja. It’s possible that the word means something entirely different in Kiswahli. But that’s doubtful. Proof that psychedelia has been around a long, long time before rock ever existed. Fans of pretty much any vintage style of African music, from Egyptian pop to Algerian gnawa, not to mention Indian classical music,will find plenty to feast on here. Big up to Sounds of Taraab for bringing such fascinating, fun stuff out of the archives for the benefit of an American audience.

June 30, 2008 - Posted by | Music, Reviews

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