Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Khaled – Liberte

This auspiciously mostly-acoustic cd is not a radical change from the slick electronicized dance material the famous Algerian rai-rocker has ground out for most of his career. There’s still drum machine on many of the cuts (especially the trip-hop and downtempo numbers), along with synthesizers faking brass and string parts (and also adding a completely unintentional, comedic 80s feel in places). But there’s also a full acoustic band here, a welcome continuation of the turn back to real North African rai that the former Cheb Khaled has taken over the last ten years – let’s not forget that the Algerians invented trip-hop in the first place. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that musically at least, this is one of Khaled‘s best albums, right up there with his earliest stuff from 1982-83. This cd is back-loaded, almost the equivalent of two albums: the poppier stuff first, followed by the more traditional songs, rich with oud, flute, violin, rattling percussion and fullscale orchestration in places. Over the past almost thirty years, Khaled’s voice has also taken on a darker tone, lending a welcome gravitas to many of the songs.

Of the initial cuts, the title track kicks off with a long accordion and vocal jam and grows to a bouncy midtempo dance number that takes on a somewhat western feel with jangly guitar and synth. The most intense song on the cd is the dark, spare, Rachid Taha-inflected requiem Papa, Khaled’s anguished, melismatic French-language vocals laden with pain and loss. After the hip-hop flavored Raikoum, it’s all oldschool and and it’s very compelling, from the somewhat mysterious, shuffling Sbabi Ntya to the sparsely but beautifully orchestrated Soghri. The cd wraps up with a funky song that gradually adds layers, right up to a gorgeous, dramatic, lushly Levantine outro, and then a midtempo ballad with a nice bass-and-piano groove and a haunting violin solo. For non-Arabic speakers, this works equally well as chillout or dance music – it’s a great way to get to know one of the most important figures in the world of Middle Eastern music over the past few decades.

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

CD Review: Sister Fa – Sarabah – Tales from the Flipside of Paradise

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.

August 6, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

CD Review: Toumast – Ishumar

Hot on the heels of Tinariwen, here’s another expatritate Tuareg band, a very good one. Like their brethren (the two bands share several members), what Toumast play is ostensibly rock, but not what Western ears are used to hearing, although their music contains more definably Western tropes: chord changes, distinct verses/choruses and familiar guitar licks. The band name means “identity” in Tamashek, their native tongue, a matter of great importance for nomads who’ve been uprooted and persecuted in their native Mali for decades now. Like Tinariwen’s music, much of this is beautifully hypnotic, but Toumast is more energetic and melodically-oriented. Their songs are long, often going on for six minutes or more, replete with surprise false endings, crescendos that explode out of thin air, and upper-register blues guitar played with a clean, trebly tone. Their lead guitarist has a unique, percussive style, sounding as if he’s slapping at the strings like an American funk bass player would. Their lyrics are imbued with nostalgia and sometimes outright rage.

The album kicks off with Amidnine, an afrobeat-inflected number that meanders but eventually picks up steam. The following cut Ammilana opens with a chorus of women’s voices, haunting over a hypnotic 3/2 groove with a surprise crescendo driven by the bass before one of their trademark false endings. After that, Dounia opens with the guitar playing a funky bassline as the beat kicks in…and it’s pure 70s disco! The next track, Ezeref begins with an ominous melody that turns out to be straight out of The End by the Doors. Then, on Ikalane Walegh, they mine the Burning Spear catalog for the classic lick from Marcus Garvey, but play it faster, with gently Hendrix-inflected guitar. Finally, about halfway through the song, doubletracked guitars kick in and it bursts into flame.

Innulamane builds on a hypnotic chord until another recurrent lick is introduced, this one from Los Angeles by X. Say what you want about this band, you can’t say they aren’t adventurous listeners! The seven-minute epic Kik Ayyitma, perhaps the best cut on the album, builds its drama quietly from an ominous guitar intro followed by a rousing call from the singer, as the drums build almost unnoticeably until the deluge is unstoppable. After hearing this, one can only wonder how many other sons (and daughters) of Tinariwen are out there, doing the same thing, spreading across the desert via lo-fi cassette recordings. Fans of any hypnotic genre, from dub reggae to Mississippi hill country blues will find much to feast on here. Excellent album, four stars. Toumast make their New York debut sometime in the fall of 2008: watch this space for details.

March 16, 2008 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tinariwen – Aman Iman: Water Is Life

It’s not often that a band lives up to its press. This time, believe the hype: Tuareg nomad rockers Tinariwen are every bit as good as the recent lovefest in the Western press would have you believe. And they deserve it: it’s something of a miracle that this band exists at all. A close-knit but diverse group of Tuareg freedom fighters driven from their traditional stomping grounds in their native Mali by a repressive regime and the encroachment of Western multinationals, they add electric instruments and a small dose of rock riffage to the ambient, chorus-driven traditional desert songs of their native culture. The result is hypnotic and very captivating. Ali Farka Toure is the obvious comparison, but Tinariwen’s material stays closer to the original source. Musicologists will have a field day with this stuff: what they play isn’t a simple chicken-or-the-egg question. When American and British rockers started stealing melodies from across the third word back in the 60s, third worlders were doing exactly the same thing, appropriating rock arrangements, motifs and instrumentation, and it’s clear that Tinariwen have done this to a certain extent. But they aren’t really a rock band: their music is world music in the best sense of the word, original songs based on ancient traditions which also draw on contemporary Malian artists like the aforementioned Ali Farka Toure and Baboucar Traore.

Chord changes aren’t a big part of Tinariwen’s music, yet their sound is as anthemic as it is trance-inducing. While a lot of the songs on this album are very danceable, they don’t bear much if any resemblance to the perennial smiley-facedness of mainstream African pop. Much of their music has a somewhat grim forebearance, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that this is music made by exiles. Their lyrics are in Tamashek, the Tuareg language.

The cd opens with Cler Achel, a slinky groove with call-and-response male/female vocals, two guitars trading off different textures (slightly distorted rhythm with resonant reverb vs. a reverb-driven lead with a lot of fast hammer-ons, providing a sitar-like effect). Very gripping. The next song Mano Dayak begins with a slow intro into a hesitation rhythm, blending electric and acoustic guitars. Eventually a choir of women enters, their voices keening eerily in the upper registers.

Matadjem Yinmixam follows, closer to Ali Farka Toure than the other songs on the album, with meandering, sputtering lead guitar over an insistent staccato rhythm. And finally a chord change (up to a fourth) at the end of the verse! It’s very anthemic as the female backing singers kick in on the chorus. The next track, Ahimana begins with a spoken word intro and then call-and-response with the women in the choir, very hypnotic in syncopated 6/8 time, the vocals just a little behind the beat. After that, the cd continues with the quiet, subdued Soixante Trois. Toumast, arguably the best song on the album brings in layers one at a time: spooky electric guitar hammer-ons, then distorted, staccato electric rhythm guitar, bass, and the drums and vocals. It’s the best song on the cd, with a nice, terse guitar solo after the first verse.

The dark, relentless Ikyadarh Dim features just acoustic guitar, percussion and a single vocal with an additional harmony voice added on the chorus. At one point someone in the band exhales audibly: out of fatigue, exhilaration, exasperation? The hip-shaking yet hypnotic Tamatant Tilay could be a big Mississippi hill country blues number, like something straight out of the T-Model Ford catalog, if it had English lyrics. Likewise, the next track, Assouf is a burning, open-tuned minor-key blues number. The cd closes with the pretty, pastoral, acoustic Izarharh Tenere, somewhat evocative of the Stones’ Moonlight Mile. All in all, a great album, absolutely one of the best of the year, something you should own if you have any sense of adventure.

Memo to Tinariwen management: get this band on the jam band tour. Haitian rockers Tabou Combo made a pile of money off of rich hippies who have nothing better to do than run all over the country with Phish, and so can these guys. Consider it a unique approach to foreign aid: it would be particularly appropriate given everything the band has been through.

December 10, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment