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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Vieux Farka Toure Kicks Ass on The Secret – How About the Special Guests?

Many years ago, a bunch of early jam band guys got together and decided to make a tribute to Muddy Waters. The result was a lacklustre album called Fathers and Sons (it’s easy to find, if you really want to hear it). The guys from the Butterfield Blues Band and their friends were bigger fans of Muddy’s than he was of them, but probably since it beat working as the handyman at Chess Records (which is what the guy who might have been the greatest blues slide guitarist of all time did when he wasn’t on tour or in the studio), Waters did the album. And phoned it in. Fast forward a little more than forty years: some of the big names on the American jam band circuit have discovered powerhouse Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure (the oldest son of the great Ali Farka Toure). And they’re all over his new album, The Secret. The biggest secret here is that almost all of them elevate their game – with one exception, this isn’t a bunch of white wannabes patronizing somebody from another tradition whose music they admire. For the most part, this is a clinic in how musicians from different cultures can create real alchemy if they’re inspired.

What’s nicest to see is that Toure is allowed to be the star he is, doubletracking and tripletracking here and the result is exhilarating. Acoustic rhythm guitarist Ali Magassa holds it down incisively and hypnotically with broken chords and simple, direct riffs over the loping calabash and djembe of Souleymane Kane. The first track, Sokosondou sets the stage for what’s to come with an endless succession of molten lava hammer-ons and hypnotic call-and-response vocals in Toure’s native dialect. Toure plays acoustic on the second cut, Aigna, where Derek Trucks does a surprisingly killer evocation of a sitar with his slide guitar, livening up the dusky atmospherics, getting darker and growlier as it goes on. Guess all that hanging out with Susan Tedeschi has been a good thing for him! The fourth track, Ali is a vertigo-inducing polyrhythmic forest of guitars, Toure throwing in a subtle, ominous chromatic allusion once in awhile

The first of the Malian/American hybrids, here, Watch Out is a swaying, funky number featuring Eric Krasno (of the generic Soulive and dubious Lettuce), who contributes some biting, vibrato-toned incisions with a little wah thrown in for good measure. Aaron Neville, who knows a little something about hypnotic grooves, hangs back with the beat and adds terse, smart organ fills; Toure winds it out with one of his unstoppable, stunningly precise, adrenalizing solos. A boisterously swaying, mostly acoustic number, Wonda Guay has Toure lingering overhead like an out-of-control helicopter. The title track, a hypnotic, resolute instrumental features a guitar track by his late father along with spiky textures from Ganda Tounkara’s ngoni and Cheikh Diallo’s distant flute atmospherics. It’s one of those tracks where it’s hard to figure out who’s playing what – you just get lost in it. The poignantly catchy closing track, Touri, is much the same. Borei, a fast, shuffling concert favorite is a feast of Toure textures, fast fluid runs, chords blasting on the beat and a searing, mostly one-note solo midway through.

The most traditional desert blues song here, Sankare Diadje has a typical call-and- response over a hypnotic, circular two-chord theme. Meandering, midtempo and ominously modal, Gido features John Scofield, who slinks through a wary, slowly furtive chromatically-charged solo and only puts the bite on once, at the very end, when he can’t contain himself any longer. Amani Quay begins with a gorgeous twelve-string acoustic intro that gives way to a shuffling, hypnotic groove, Toure picking it up and blasting through yet another rapidfire solo, this one a little sunbaked and slightly restrained. The only dud here features the clown prince of wretched jamband excess, Dave Matthews. When you put this on your ipod, you’ll want to delete track three. But what a pleasant surprise this is – and reason to check out what Derek Trucks and Eric Krasno have been up to lately.

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June 11, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boubacar Traore Returns with More Hypnotic Desert Blues Magic

This is the kind of album you find at Awesome Tapes from Africa. Along with Ali Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore is one of the fathers of desert blues: now close to 70, the superstar Malian guitarist’s voice has taken on a flintier edge as the years have passed, but otherwise his playing is as hypnotically gripping as it was forty years ago when his cassettes began circulating in his native land. His latest album Mali Denhou is characteristic: sometimes brooding, sometimes warmly circling, it’s a display of minimalist intricacy that European composers struggle trying to achieve. Traore does this effortlessly, backed by spare, simple percussion and mournful chromatic harmonica, occasionally with dual acoustic guitar tracks.

Traore’s solos are typically limited to an expansive bar or two, often to signal a change or the return of a chorus: the harmonica is the lead instrument here, and it is excellent, woundedly spiraling or letting the end of a phrase trill out over the steady rotation of the guitar riff underneath. Traore sings in his native dialect, usually with the patient stoicism that characterizes Malian desert music, occasionally rising to meet the crescendo of the guitars. The album’s opening tracks feature marimba interwoven among the guitars, so seamlessly that it’s impossible to figure out who’s playing what unless you’re paying close attention. A couple of the later ones feature a lute that sounds like a higher-pitched oud, snaking through the thicket of casually intricate textures. An early track has a lullaby feel; the final one runs a warm circular motif over and over. Another hints at an upbeat 1-4-5 change, evocative of some of reggae legend Burning Spear’s simpler, more direct, African-influenced songs. There’s also a mini-epic that begins with a distinctly flamenco-tinged riff. But as with the rest of Traore’s voluminous back catalog, it’s the dusky otherworldly minor modes that deliver the most chills, and there are plenty of them, from the stately title track, an anthem in 6/8 time, to a couple of rhythmically trickier, slowly unwinding numbers, building from skeletal yet incisive hooks that essentially serve as basslines. Imagine the expanse of the desert from beyond the tent, as the sun goes down at last and a breeze breaks the spell of the heat for the first time. This is magical music from a magical player who’s been around a long time. Fans of the current crop of desert blues bands like Tinariwen or Etran Finatawa have a lot to enjoy here. It’s out now on the adventurous French Lusafrica label.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Khaira Arby’s Timbuktu Tarab Reinvents Desert Blues

Khaira Arby is sort of the Aretha Franklin of Mali and what’s more, she’s got an amazing band. They’re playing Joe’s Pub on 9/29 at 7 and if her new album Timbuktu Tarab is any indication, the show should be pretty intense. A cousin of desert blues legend Ali Farka Toure, Arby sings in four indigenous dialects with a fearless, raspy wail, unafraid to buck convention and challenge traditional Muslim social order (one can only wonder if she’d get away with this if she wasn’t related to Malian duskcore nobility ). Her band is just as intense. The dual guitars of Abdramane Touré and M’Barka Dembelé blend hypnotically with a wild eclecticism that ranges from snaky desert blues to oldschool American soul, sixties psychedelic rock and even tinges of country music, further enhanced by Ebellaou Yattara’s spiky ngoni lute, the screechy fiddle of Zoumane Tekereta and an exuberant harmony vocal duo.

The album opens on a pretty standard desert blues note but hints at the stunning originality that will come soon after, the band stopping cold and letting Arby wail until the central riff kicks in again. The second cut, simply titled Khaira, spins along on a hypnotic web of interlocking guitar lines, intricate, lightning hammer-ons over a growling, distorted, percussive attack. The methodically hypnotic Djaba, a tribute to a legendary warrior, bounces with swirling flute-like fiddle and more interlocking guitars.

A shout-out to a friend, Dja Cheikna has the backup vocals going full tilt, a dazzling guitar solo and stomping twin-guitar outro. The unapologetic feminist anthem Wayidou has tinges of ornate 70s art-rock; a blistering attack on female genital mutilation, Feryene begins with a haunting psychedelic rock intro straight out of the Pretty Things circa 1967, then winds down into otherworldly duskcore, overtones flying like little banshees from the off-center interplay of the guitars. And the band pull out all the stops on Delya, a showstopper and a genuine high point in the history of desert blues, mixing psychedelic rock, art-rock, Afrobeat and desert blues and a passionate performance from the backup choir. There are also a couple of vividly soul-influenced numbers, one with some unexpected, bucolic American C&W tinges; the last cut on the album is a cross between late 60s psychedelic soul music and desert blues. It’s hard to imagine a more original album in any style of music released this year: you’ll see this on our best of 2010 list in December.

September 9, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Rough Guide to Desert Blues – More Diverse Than You Might Imagine

Consider this the Nuggets of duskcore. The new Rough Guide to Desert Blues anthology is a vivid illustration of how much variety there is in desert blues, and also includes some excellent tracks by artists outside the circle of usual suspects. No desert blues collection would be complete without Tinariwen or Ali Farka Toure, and this one’s got both. And like all the Rough Guides, it comes with a bonus cd, in this case a whole album of Etran Finatawa which is worth the price of admission all by itself. But the real drawing card here is the more obscure tracks. The most psychedelic is by Tamikrest, layering eerie, atmospheric electric guitar washes against percussive fingerpicking. The most rock-oriented one is by Mauritanian singer Malouma, with Rhodes piano and incisive, distorted electric guitar accents that really catch fire on the turnaround. El Profeta, by Jalihena Natu has a roughhewn, demo feel, his rousing vocals rising over aggressively squiggly hammer-on guitar work. A pretty standard one-chord jam by Tartit morphs unexpectedly into a joyous, circular dance; Western Sahara’s Mariem Hassan belts her song Tefla Madlouma with drama and passion over a repetitive flute-and-guitar riff.

Tinariwen is represented by Tenhert, a slinky, unusually energized proto-boogie with breathless Tamashek lyrics; by contrast, Ali Farka Toure’s Mali Dje is understated even by his standards, patiently staking out terrain with a series of terse, watery guitar motifs. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba contribute a crescendoing Ali Farka Toure-style cut from his excellent new album I Speak Fula. And Tinariwen spinoff Terakaft gets a track that’s almost funk rock with richly cross-shaded guitars, one running through a wah pedal. There are also a couple of ringers here, a simple, repetitive instrumental by Niger’s ngurumi lute virtuoso Mamane Barka and a duskcore-tinged pop song by Amadou and Mariam with soaring, mariachiesque trumpet.

Likewise, the Etran Finatawa cd spans the range of duskcore: the spacious, skeletal opening track; a couple of hypnotic riff-driven numbers that crescendo surprisingly with bracing electric guitar solos; the majestic reverb-guitar anthem Iledeman; the spiky, circular Aliss and Anadjibo, and the playful Ronde with its tricky false endings. It’s out now on World Music Network.

August 20, 2010 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday at Lincoln Center Out of Doors: Bad Segues, Amazing Show

By any standard, this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival is one of the best ever: of all of New York’s summer festivals, this is one you really should investigate if you’re in town – especially because it’s free. Sunday’s lineup outdoors on the plaza under the trees was an improbable but smartly assembled “roots of American music” bill.

“Are you awake?” Etran Finatawa’s electric guitarist asked the crowd, in French: from the response, the answer was barely. With their swaying triplet rhythms and expansively hypnotic, gently crescendoing one-chord jams, the Niger-based duskcore band were a perfect choice to get the afternoon started. They’re as captivating as Tinariwen, starting methodically and getting more diverse and interesting as the set went on. One of the earlier numbers started with a meandering solo guitar intro, like a Middle Eastern taqsim, and grew surprisingly into a boisterously shuffling anthem. One of the band’s percussionists – dressed in what looked like warrior regalia – opened a percussive, stop-and-start number solo on screechy ritti fiddle. Desert blues bands change modes more than they change actual chords, but Etran Finatawa’s most memorable song, an especially epic one, worked a dramatic shift from minor to major and then back again for all it was worth. And then like many of their other songs, they shut it down cold.

Los Straitjackets, arguably the world’s most popular surf band after the Ventures and Dick Dale, made about the most incongruous segue imaginable. But counting them as a roots band isn’t an overstatement: there isn’t a band alive in the small yet thriving surf rock subculture that hasn’t felt their influence, especially because they write original songs, in a whole slew of styles. Happily keeping the choreography and the cheesy stage antics to a minimum, they aired out their repertoire instead with a mix of cheery Buck Owens-flavored country stomps, Gene Vincent twang, three-chord Chuck Berry-style shuffles, and a couple of attempts at a happier spaghetti western style (along with one that was not happy at all – it was the highlight of the show). Drummer Jason Smay’s playful Gene Krupa-isms got the crowd roaring on an extended surf version of Sing Sing Sing; guitarist Danny Amis (who played bass on one song) led the band in a rousing version of a Jimi Hendrix song (ok, it wasn’t a Hendrix song, but that was Jimi on lead guitar on Joey Dee and the Starliters’ Peppermint Twist). Guitarist Eddie Angel showed off expert and boisterous command of every twangy guitar style ever invented, from Dick Dale tremolo-picking to sinuous, fluid Bill Kirchen country licks. The crowd screamed for an encore but didn’t get one.

The Asylum Street Spankers were their usual adrenalized selves, but a sadness lingered: the band is breaking up. Other than the show they played right afterward at Joe’s Pub (one hopes they got there in time), this was their last one in New York. It’s hard to imagine another band who were as funny as they were virtuosic. Banjo player Christina Marrs, multi-instrumentalist Charlie King, resonator guitarist Nevada Newman and the rest of the crew (Wammo was AWOL) all showed off their prodigious chops in turn, tersely and intensely. Their big college radio hit, Scrotum, was “a mixed-blessing song,” as Marrs put it, but she traded off vocals with Newman and King with a freshness and salaciousness that made it hard to believe they’ve sung it a thousand times before. The high points of the show were the political ones: the hillbilly sway of Lee Harvey Was A Friend of Mine, which cites Jack Ruby as “the biggest sleaze in town,” and My Baby in the CIA, a hilariously understated chronology of CIA-sponsored anti-democracy coups over the decades – and a lot of other things, some relevant, some less so but still fun, like King’s throat-singing. Marrs cranked up the volume with her amazing pipes on fierily sultry covers of the Violent Femmes’ Jesus Walking on the Water and Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Working; they closed with a swinging version of Don’t Let the Music Die, but it was about to and that was too bad. At least it’ll be fun to find out where all the individual Spankers end up once this year’s ongoing farewell tour has run its course.

August 3, 2010 Posted by | blues music, concert, country music, folk music, gospel music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vieux Farka Toure Burns His Guitar

Vieux Farka Toure didn’t really burn his guitar, at least the way Hendrix burned his. He just turned in an incandescent performance. It’s a useful rule of thumb that if a performer plays well in daylight, he or she will rip up whatever joint they’re in come nightfall. Or maybe Toure’s just a morning person. Thursday afternoon in Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, the Malian guitarist didn’t let the crushing tropical heat and humidity phase him, blasting through one long, hypnotic, minimalistically bluesy number after another.

Like his father, desert blues pioneer Ali Farka Toure, he’ll hang on a chord for minutes at a clip, building tension sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes with savage abandon. That intensity – along with a long, pointless percussion solo- is what got the audience – an impressively diverse mix of daycamp kids and their chaperones, office workers and smelly trendoids – on their feet and roaring. Using his signature icy, crystalline, Albert Collins-esque tone, he took his time getting started, subtly varying his dynamics. What he does is ostensibly blues, inasmuch as his assaultive riffage generally sticks within the parameters of the minor-key blues scale. But the spacious, slowly unwinding melodies are indelibly Malian, with the occasional latin tinge or a shift into a funkier, swaying rhythm. This time out the band included a bass player along with Toure’s steady second guitarist, playing spikily hypnotic vamps on acoustic, along with a sub drummer who was clearly psyched to be onstage and limited himself to a spirited, thumping pulse, and a duo of adrenalized percussionists, one on a large, boomy calabash drum.

Lyrics don’t seem to factor much into this guy’s songwriting: a couple of numbers featured call-and-response on the chorus in Toure’s native tongue, but otherwise it was all about the guitar. As the energy level rose, he’d launch into one volley after another of blistering 32nd-note hammer-ons. And he wouldn’t waste them – after he’d taken a crescendo up as far as he could, he’d signal to the band and in a split second they’d end the song cold. It’s hard to think of another player who blends purposefulness with blinding speed to this degree (although, again, Albert Collins comes to mind – although Toure is more playful than cynical). Toure’s show this past spring at le Poisson Rouge was the last on an obviously exhausting tour: he’d sprint as far as he could, then back off when it was obvious that he needed a breather. Thursday was more of a clinic in command: Toure was completely in control this time out. Like most great guitarists, he spends a lot of time on the road (and has a killer new live album just out, very favorably reviewed here), so you can expect another New York appearance sooner than later.

August 2, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Vieux Farka Toure – Live

A characteristically intense, often exhilarating album by one of the great guitarists of our time. Vieux Farka Toure’s dad Ali Farka Toure was one of the inventors of duskcore, the patiently meandering, hypnotic desert blues. Unlike his dad, Vieux Farka Toure is not exactly a patient player, but in the family tradition he’s also invented his own style of music. Whether it’s blues, or an electrified and electrifying version of Malian folk music is beside the point. He may be playing in a completely different idiom, but Vieux Farka Toure’s approach is essentially the same as Charlie Parker’s, creating mini-symphonies out of seemingly endless, wild volleys of notes within a very simple chord structure. Bird played the blues; sometimes Toure does. Other times he just jams on a single chord. Whatever the case, Toure is the rare fret-burner who still manages to make his notes count for something: this album isn’t just mindless Buckethead or Steve Vai-style shredding. The obvious comparison (and one which invites a lot of chicken-or-the-egg questions, which may be academic) is to hypnotic Mississippi hill country bluesmen like Junior Kimbrough and Will Scott.

Toure’s attack is fluid and precise, utilizing lightning-fast hammer-ons whether he’s sticking to the blues scale, or working subtle shifts in timbre and rhythm during the songs’ quieter passages. He plays with a cool, watery, chorus-box tone very reminiscent of Albert Collins. Here he’s backed by an acoustic rhythm guitarist who holds it down with smooth yet prickly repetitive riffs, along with percussion, sometimes bass and a guest guitarist or two (Australian slide player Jeff Lang converses and eventually duels with him memorably on one track). The album collects several of the hottest moments of a 2009 European and Australian tour.

The midtempo opening number is a teaser, only hinting at the kind of speed Toure is capable of. As with several of the other numbers here, call-and-response is involved, this time with band members (later on he tries to get the audience to talk back to him in his own vernacular, with particularly mystified results). The slow jam that serves as the second track here is a study in dynamics and tension-building up to the ecstatic wail of the next cut.

A couple of songs here work a boisterous, reggae-tinged groove; another echoes the thoughtful, Castles Made of Sand side of Hendrix. When Toure’s taken the energy as high as anyone possibly could, sometimes he’ll stop cold and end the song there rather than doing something anticlimactic. He winds up the album with a big blazing boogie with a trick ending and then a stomp featuring a couple of characteristically paint-peeling solos along with a breakdown where the band takes it low and suspenseful until Toure is ready to wail again. If lead guitar is your thing, this is somebody you need to know – and somebody you really ought to see live. Like most of the great lead guitarists, Toure pretty much lives on the road – his next NYC gig is at Metrotech Park in Brooklyn at noon on July 29.

July 2, 2010 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Meta and the Cornerstones and Vieux Farka Toure Live in NYC 4/27/10

Wednesday night at le Poisson Rouge, one of the best doublebills in New York so far this year featured a headliner straight from Africa and an opener one step removed. Roots reggae band Meta and the Cornerstones have a Senegalese-American frontman along with band members from Lebanon, Israel and Texas, to name a few places. Bouncing their way through a set as diverse as the musicians’ origins, they reaffirmed their status as one of New York’s most captivating live acts. With two guitars, rhythm section, percussion, backup singer and a terrific keyboardist playing through organ and piano settings instead of the cheesy synthesized brass that the Jamaicans have been using for so long now, they set the tone for the night by getting at least 80% of the crowd on their feet and dancing throughout their too-brief 40-minute set. Among the songs were a wistful Marleyesque reminiscence about a night spent on a rooftop; a rousing anthem with a big, dramatic overture of an introduction dedicated to peace in the Middle East; a bracing minor-key narrative about a weed dealer in the hood hiding out from the cops; a fiery, upbeat song about the dispossessed underclass featuring a brief diversion into dub; a Brazilian-inflected dance tune, and then one dedicated to Senegal. The keyboardist took a solo using a stark, reverberating oldschool Arp synth setting, from minor-key wariness to soaring, jazzy flights down the scale and earned a roaring ovation. A surprising number of people left after they were done – their loss, because in his New York debut, Malian desert blues scion Vieux Farka Toure put one of the most exhilarating displays of guitar virtuosity this city’s seen in recent months.

It was the last stop on Ali Farka Toure’s oldest son’s latest American tour – he opens the World Cup festivities with a performance in Johannesburg this summer – and as expected it was a party. Playing through an icy wash of chorus and reverb somewhere between Albert Collins and late-period Ike Turner, he ran a series of simple, catchy, blues based phrases at mind-boggling, 32nd-note speed. Watching this guy fire off one endless salvo after another brought to mind an old John Coltrane comment: a writer once asked why he played so many glissandos, to which Coltrane retorted, “Those aren’t glissandos – they’re arpeggios.” Most guitarists of the Steve Vai or Buckethead school play like a fireman who’s lost control of a high pressure hose, hanging on for dear life as it randomly knocks over everything in its path. Toure shreds – but soulfully. His first-class four-piece backing unit – drums, calabash and an acoustic rhythm guitarist often playing in tandem with the bassist – were tight, inspired and seemingly invigorated for one last show, following every cue in a split-second as Toure would introduce a new rhythm or motif, or pull back and give himself a breather, getting a clapalong or some call-and-response vocalese going with the crowd.

The secret to his success? Simplicity. While his famous father would stay in the same key for twenty minutes at a clip, this particular Toure fils likes two-chord vamps, funky minor-key riffs and what he calls reggae but is basically just raw, primitive, pounding rock (the percussion section had a blast with a couple of these). He started the first numbers out slowly, rubato, feeling his way into them (once with a stark Middle Eastern riff) until the band picked up and then the race was on. The quietest number pulsed and blasted along on a slinky 6/8 soul beat, crazed, percussive sharpshooter guitar juxtaposed with silence as Toure methodically chose his spots. The drums went three on four for an especially hypnotic effect during the loudest and most intense of the final numbers.

By the time they reached the encore, Toure seemed pretty much out of gas but reached back for three long, incendiary crescendos, various members of both bands dancing around the stage (one of the promoters as well, though she was shy), finally leaving the stage to the percussionists who kept a volcanic rumble going until it was clear that the rest of the band really wasn’t coming back.

April 29, 2010 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – I Speak Fula

‘Even if there is a war going on and it is difficult to travel, a griot, with his ngoni slung around his back, was always allowed through, because it was known that he was going to play for a leader, and perhaps act as an intermediary for political negotiations,” remarked Bassekou Kouyate recently. Where he comes from, music has a few more more important functions than mere entertainment. The Malian bandleader’s axe of choice is the ngoni, a stringed instrument commonly referred to as the ancestor of the banjo with a similar clanking tone, rapid attack and decay. He gets major props in his native land for resurrecting the instrument from obscurity, adding both new techniques as well as western influences and modern electronic guitar effects. It’s not known if he’s ever been pressed into duty as a negotiator between warring factions. On US tour with Bela Fleck starting this month promoting their somewhat defiant new album I Speak Fula, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba have come to conquer.

This is urban Malian music: spiky, circular and hypnotic in the indigenous folk tradition, but packed with imaginative licks and production touches that reveal how diverse Kouyate’s influences are, from fellow Malian Ali Farka Toure to Hendrix. It’s a mix of originals as well as new arrangements of historical ballads from over the years. What Tinariwen has done for the Tuaregs, these guys could do for what’s coming out of the cool kids’ ghetto blasters on the streets of Bamako – this stuff absolutely rocks.

The cd opens energetically with boisterous, spiraling ngoni and kora (West African harp)- throughout the album, interplay, much of it absolutely psychedelic, abounds. The first of the two most extraordinary tracks here is a tribute to Kouyate’s brother – who died while the album was being recorded – with Kouyate and Malian desert blues scion Vieux Farka Toure playing dizzying wah-wah clusters around each other. The other, Ladon, is a feast of scurrying blues runs, Kouyate showing off his bag of tricks with a big rapidfire crescendo of blues licks that could be American, or not. The band builds this to an unexpectedly explosive coda at the end: acoustic Malian heavy metal.

The closest thing to rock here is the impressively feminist Musow, fast and flurrying with wah-wah ngoni, building up to the end of the verse with a neat three-chord sequence, along with a big 6/8 ballad that could be British or Appalachian except for the language, Kouyate coming in hard against Vieux Farka Toure’s pensive, spacious guitar, nudging the guitarist to elevate his game. There’s also a swaying number that incorporates what sound like elements of both delta and Piedmont blues (or maybe not – this is where all that stuff originated, anyway), a dedication to Kouyate’s wife and bandmate/singer Amy with an intense, hypnotic jam between ngoni and Zoumana Tereta’s fiddle, and the pensive Moustafa, where the ngoni sounds almost like a vibraphone. Definitely the most exciting thing to come out of Africa since Tinariwen’s latest, last year. The album, believe it or not, is out on Sub Pop (the folks who brought you Nirvana).

February 5, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Amadou & Mariam – The Magic Couple

One of the real feel-good stories of recent years, Amadou & Mariam went blind at an early age, met while he was running a music school for the blind in their native Mali, and the rest is history. Just off a national tour opening for Coldplay this summer (whom they no doubt blew off the stage), their new cd collects some of the most inspired tracks from the duo’s 1997-2002 period, available for the first time in the western world. Some of the songs take a darkly bluesy western rock song structure and imbue it with austere, hypnotic desert blues guitar and violin, American piano and organ and the couple’s understatedly warm harmonies. Others hew closer to the minimalist, otherworldly desert blues style popularized by Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen. It’s nothing if not psychedelic. The duo sing in French as well as native dialects, taking turns on lead vocals – Mariam has a uniquely and sweetly winsome delivery; Amadou’s also an excellent singer with a contrastingly bittersweet, soulful voice. What’s most striking is that this isn’t just pop music – the songwriting is artsy and complex, with playful, imaginative, completely out-of-the-box ideas and  tinges of both Bob Marley and Pink Floyd. Some of these songs are unselfconsciously romantic; others are more philosophical or socially aware.

The cd opens with Je Pense a Toi (I’m Thinking About You), a stark bluesy minor-key love ballad with characteristically tasteful incisive desert blues guitar. Sarama (la Charmante) has the piano playing Ali Farka Toure riffs. On the insistent harmony-driven antiwar song Combattants (Soldiers), Amadou solos through a Leslie organ speaker. The reggae feel is pervasive: on C’est Comme Ca (It’s Like That), there’s a brief interlude that hints at dub, with a cool bass solo. Chantez Chantez evokes some of the faster material on Marley’s Exodus album, with a bracing Chicago style blues guitar solo straight out of the Magic Sam riffbook. There’s also a funky soul-inflected number with flute and wah-wah guitar: sixties soul as played by Jethro Tull? The desert blues numbers are uniformly excellent as well, often spiced with horns, organ and lush layers of interweaving guitar lines. With those beautiful vocals and the recent Coldplay tour, this remarkably accessible album comes out at a particularly auspicious moment in the couple’s increasingly celebrated career. Good for them.

July 25, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment