This is the rare hip-hop album that’s as interesting musically as it is lyrically, in fact more so. That’s because Ghanian-American hip-hop artist Blitz the Ambasssador is also a bandleader, mixing Afrobeat with funk, the occasional slow jam and roots reggae for a completely unique sound. The hooks here are wicked: like Blitz’s lyrics, they come at you hard and fast. There are a lot of musicians on the album: the core band, with Raja Kassis on guitar, Ramon de Bruyn on bass and a soaring horn section with Jonathan Powell on trumpet, Ron Prokopez on trombone and Ezra Brown on tenor sax is killer, with a mix of real percussion and canned beats that sound organic more often than not.
The opening track sets the stage for everything that follows: snakecharmer flute kicks off a balmy, hypnotic Afrobeat instrumental, slinky guitar intermingling with the horns and Blitz’s rapidfire lyrics: he wants to leave no doubt that he’s arrived, “Top ten on itunes without a deal.” A love letter to Africa personifies the continent as a woman: “Most of the men that said they loved you robbed you blind,” Blitz snarls, the sway behind him building to a biting, staccato Afro-funk interlude. He delivers a couple of joints in his native dialect over catchy, Ethiopian-flavored, hypnotic vamps; the reggae-flavored Best I Can gives a shout-out to the American hip-hop artists who inspire their African colleagues, Blitz making it clear that all he’s interested in is rocking the mic, not striking any stereotypical, corporate faux-gangbanger pose.
The next track is a slow jam with a breezy sax solo, segueing into the album’s best cut, the absolutely gorgeous Accra City Blues. A lament for a lost girlfriend in both English and Blitz’s native tongue, it’s packed with delicious touches like a sax solo run very subtly through a phaser, and an eerily twangy, absolutely noir guitar outro. With its mighty horn hook, Free Your Mind is a call for solidarity against corruption and African tyrants that couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. The brief Victory is the most traditional, American-style rap number here, which segues into the bitter, knowing title track, illuminating the struggle that African immigrants face here as the band works a richly psychedelic early 70s style wah funk groove. The album winds out with a surprisingly mellow, thoughtful acoustic guitar interlude. So many different styles of music here, so many different possible fans: this guy’s no dummy. Blitz the Ambassador plays the cd release show for this one at SOB’s on May 4 at 9.
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.
Friday night at BAM Cafe the line at the base of the stairs snaked all the way around to the front doors: those who didn’t have the presence of mind, or simply the good fortune to get to the venue by half past eight, didn’t get in to see Blitz the Ambassador and his soaring Afrobeat band. As the bartender/emcee emphasized before the show began, concerts here on the weekend tend to fill up quickly these days. Yet there seemed to be considerable extra space in the room – there was a good crowd, but by no means a packed house. Take that into consideration the next time you see something on the calendar here that looks enticing.
About the show: Blitz the Ambassador’s band soundchecked at about quarter past eight, and sounded great. As it turned out, they hit the stage a half hour late, at 9:30, undoubtedly cutting into their time onstage. The Ghanian-born hip-hop artist switched between English, French and his native patois, delivering rapidfire, smartly conscious lyrical passages with long breaks for jamming. This band is about the music just as much as the lyrics: it makes sense that he would quote at length from the Public Enemy classic Welcome to the Terrordome at one point. A little later, he asked the crowd if they’d let him play dj, then led the band – a blistering horn section plus tasty guitar, melodic bass and drums – through a series of intros and hooks to famous African songs from over the decades, winding up with a Miriam Makeba theme which resonated potently with the older segment of the audience.
He’d opened his set with a catchy, hook-driven number in his native tongue that translated as “welcome.” The most classic, Fela-style song of the night was a fervent anticorruption anthem: Blitz made no secret of having zero tolerance for that stuff. But the most vivid moment of the night was when he went off on corporate radio. “If you wanna kill the radio, we gotta take it back to the drum, back to Africa,” he insisted, throwing his djembe over his shoulder and joining the band in an insistent, hypnotic, circular groove. The audience – an impressively diverse mix of ages and nationalities – followed his words closely and approvingly.
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.