Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Les Triaboliques – rivermudtwilight

This is one of those rare albums whose title perfectly describes it. With an earthy, after-the-rain feel, it’s the brainchild of a trio of old British punks. Justin Adams is the least punk of the three – lead guitarist in Jah Wobble‘s band, collaborator with Tinariwen and Juldeh Camara (and recently with that has-been 70s rock guy), he’s one of the world’s foremost desert blues players. Lu Edmonds was in the Damned and then the Mekons, eventually took the same route Joe Strummer and dozens of his contemporaries would take into world music and is adept at a museum’s worth of stringed instruments. Ben Mandelson was in Magazine and would go on to found Globe Style Records, home to such diverse acts as Varttina and the Klezmatics. The debut collaboration between the three is a frequently  mesmerizing, otherworldly blend of desert blues, Balkan songs, vintage Americana, Britfolk and a gypsy caravan of styles from around the globe. It’s one of the best releases of the year in any style of music.

The first and last tracks are the most hypnotic, the former clanging like a stripped-down Tinariwen until a catchy, elliptical theme finally emerges, the latter a breathtaking amalgam of styles from Middle Eastern improvisation (played as a guitar taqsim by Adams) leading into a big blue-sky theme similar to early Pat Metheny. Spiced with guest Salah Dawson Miller’s guiro, Gulaguajira sets a vivid Russian prisoner’s lament atop a latin groove. The lush mesh of a phalanx of jangling, clanking, plinking, thumping stringed instruments – guitar, mandolin, saz and cumbus (Turkish lutes) and others is rich with suspenseful overtones, particularly on the tricky, sidestepping Afsaduni (I Have Been Corrupted). The single best song here is the eerie, atmospheric nocturne Shine a Light, an antiwar vocal number intoned ominously by Adams.

Heavy metal disguised as dusk-core, as the label calls it, the title track is surprisingly effective and psychedelic even if it kicks the hypnotic vibe to the curb. There’s also a stark Balkan lament, an even sparser one-chord jam on the old folksong Jack O’Diamonds (no relation to the Fairport Convention version), and a delightful John Lee Hooker style boogie flavored with exotic instruments (only the British would come up with some thing like that). The only misstep is a pointless cover of Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood which owes more to the odious Santa Esmeralda than to the Animals. This is one of those albums that’s as fun to hear as it must have been to record. If you can’t wait til Tinariwen’s new one comes out, this will do just fine.

September 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Samba Touré – Songhai Blues

This is an exciting album for desert blues fans fans and fans of West African music in general. Malian guitarist Samba Touré‘s obvious influence is Ali Farka Toure (no relation), with whom he toured internationally as a guitarist in the late 90s. Yet Samba Touré’s got his own, uniquely individual style. It’s more upbeat than the Tuareg music of Tinariwen and their brethren, with a light touch and considerably more speed than most desert blues players, although Samba Touré pretty much eschews chord changes. Likewise, the instrumentation on this new cd is imaginative, drawing from traditional Malian music and including sokou (traditional violin), gnoni (four-string guitar), flute, and electric bass along with a small army of percussion. What’s also notable about this release is how the interlocking layers of guitar work off each other, and how they work within the interplay of the other instruments. Desert blues is one of the world’s most psychedelic styles of music, but this really takes it to another level. The lyrics are in Touré’s native Songhai.

The opening track – a call for unity and celebration of the diversity of Malian ethnicities – is characteristically hypnotic, sokou swirling around Toure’s electric guitar. Lyrically nostalgic, the cd’s second cut is slinky, ringing, fast desert blues with flute and a gorgeous mesh of ringing guitar layers. The third track has call-and-response vocals and a bit of a crescendo, the bass and sokou rising out of the mix like a fish leaping from the surface of a lake, and it’s adrenalizing.

Some of the other numbers work a repetitive, circular riff over and over (these are long songs, most of them clocking in at six or seven minutes). A celebration of Malian identity works off a theme that will be familiar to all Ali Farka Toure fans. There’s also an insistent, clanging number that gives a shout-out at the end to Touré’s mentor, a slight departure into funk and a vivid, fullscale tribute to Ali Farka Toure that ends the album. Somewhere an icon is smiling.

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

Concert Review: Tinariwen at le Poisson Rouge, NYC 4/24/09

The sold-out club was treated to a show mostly reprising the self-described “most popular African band in the world”‘s fascinating, spikily hypnotic new dvd Live in London.What was most striking about Tinariwen’s show was how lyrically-driven their songs are. There was plenty of improvisation, but most of it was carefully, patiently cached in the nooks and crannies of their intricately meandering songs: all indications to the contrary, the expat Malian Tuareg rockers are not a jam band. One can only wonder what these guys have been thinking, singing in their native Tamashek to American audiences: they could be saying “Bite me,” over and over and nobody would know the difference. Reputedly their lyrics have the same fiery and fearless, politically-charged fury as the Clash along with a generous dash of desert mysticism. As with the dvd, they opened quietly as a trio with the song Chet Boghassa, one of the guitarists holding down a steadily rhythmic one-chord pattern over which the starkest of guitar sketches could be drawn before bringing up the full six-piece contingent. Resplendent in their desert robes and shesh headcoverings, they delivered the songs methodically without much interplay with the crowd. On a few occasions, members of the band (especially the bassist, who proved to be most gregarious, and something of a ham) would make a tentative inquiry in French to see if they could connect with anyone. Not much response, and no fellow Tuaregs in the house either (their diaspora is mostly urban European).

 

As with their big inspiration Ali Farka Toure, chord changes are few and far between in Tinariwen’s music, meaning that dynamics are everything, not only volume-wise but notably in the attack and sustain of the band’s mosaic of sound. On a couple of occasions, once merely as an aside while tuning up, one of the guitarists showed off remarkably blazing speed with a handful of almost bluegrass runs up the scale. Otherwise, the group and the songs formed a cohesive whole, the bassist taking the longest solo of the night, all of twelve cascading, smartly chosen, bluesy notes to end one of the more driving numbers. The most overtly bluesy, western-influenced number, Assawt N’Chet Tamashek, was held back just a hair enough to keep it from careening into a mad stomp, the percussion echoing the bouncy edginess of the guitars. The rest of the show was a dusky clang, overtones quickly rising and then just as quickly fading as the resonance died. Their guitar sound is very 1960s, and on a single occasion one of the players quickly tossed off a tongue-in-cheek Mike Bloomfield lick, perhaps to see if anybody else would be in on the joke.

 

Hassan Hakmoun opened with a very brief, four-song set which was absolute heaven for fans of low frequencies, playing a loudly amplified sintir (Moroccan three-string bass lute) and backed only by his longtime percussionist. Playing with his thumb, Hakmoun would find a phrase and run it over and over again while the percussion crackled and sparkled above the booming atmospherics. Then he’d slap at the strings like an American funk bassist, which proved far less interesting. He’s starting a restaurant in the East Village (424 E 9th) named after his instrument, grousing about how much the local block association “just wants to see you suffer,” but apparently Sintir has won out and will be opening soon.

 

The concert’s only drawback was completely beyond control of the bands. Some moron in the far corner felt compelled to whistle at earsplitting volume whenever there was the slightest pause, or the music got quiet (this is not a Tuareg custom). We ought to amend the law to allow amnesty for those of us who might be tempted to exercise vigilante justice on fools like that.

April 27, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: The Rough Guide to Blues Revival

Every now and then we all go to a concert where the opening act blows the headliner off the stage. This is the cd equivalent of that experience. Forget for a moment that this is titled the Rough Guide to Blues Revival (a dubious concept from the get-go): what’s most exciting here is the free bonus cd by 40-year-old Malian bluesman Samba Toure, a protege of Ali Farka Toure. In a particularly smart marketing move, the compilers decided to sweeten the deal by including it in the package at no extra charge, and for fans of the desert blues pantheon (think Tinariwen, Boubacar Traore, Vieux Farka Toure et al.) it’s a treat, ten sun-baked, trance-inducing tracks of eerily snaking guitar enhanced by fiddle, bass and percussion. By comparison to his mentor (no relation), Samba Toure delivers his vocals in a low, growling style in his native dialect.

 

Stylistically, Malian desert blues most closely resembles the Mississippi hill country style with few if any chord changes, instead building dynamically with a typically hypnotic feel. To call this stuff blues is sometimes a stretch, although Ali Farka Toure was influenced by American electric guitarists, an effect that translates to a certain extent here. Here, the instruments swirl and whirl around each other, stark sheets of fiddle mingling with the staccato ring of the guitars, the occasional flight of a flute line and the ever-present, persistent eight-note beat of the percussion. One of the tracks is happy, upbeat, tersely produced Afrobeat pop; otherwise, the songs aptly evoke the “cameraderie of the cigarette,” as Tinariwen’s Ibrahim Ag Alhabib has characterized the casual but impoverished nomadic milieu, passing a single smoke around a circle of conversation. The best cut here is the last, Foda Diakaina (called an instrumental but it’s not), dizzying flute spinning around the guitar, bass eventually climbing to the heights with the rest of the band.

 

As far as the rest of the anthology goes, the selections here seem absolutely random, like the kind of cd that you find at the counter at the druggist or off-license for a fiver or less. For apparently no rhyme or reason (other than the label telling the compilers that if they want the rights to the hit, they’ll have to also take a couple of duds along with it to seal the deal), this mixes choice cuts by the Blind Boys of Alabama (You Gotta Move rearranged gospel-style), a quiet, Hendrix-inspired number by Deborah Coleman and tracks by Irma Thomas and Shemekia Copeland along with possibly well-intentioned but ultimately cold, cliched, stale stuff by baby boomer faves like Robben Ford, Eric Bibb, and Kim Simmonds & Savoy Brown. There’s also some more recent material including an utterly bizarre Pipeline ripoff by CC Adcock. The cd is out now worldwide except for the UK where it will be available May 5.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DVD Review: Tinariwen – Live in London

Many of the Malian Tuareg rockers in Tinariwen are freedom fighters, heroes to their compatriates, especially in the diaspora. Frontman and group founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib served in the Tuareg resistance for many years, notably as driver for rebel leader Iyag Ag Ghali, leading numerous successful raids against predatory government troops. When Alhabib was a young child, his father was murdered by the government; Alhabib subsequently was forced into exile in Algeria. Aside from finding reliable food and shelter, his first motivation for joining the Libyan-supported rebels was revenge. But soon he discovered that the guitar is mightier than the sword.

 

Alhabib founded Tinariwen – meaning “deserts” in his native Tamashek language – as a trio in the late 70s. There were no Tuareg newspapers in the desert, but there were cassette players, and Tinariwen’s music – just as Chuck D said about rap in 1988 – became its own version of CNN for their own frequently persecuted countrymen. Most of their lyrics are in Tamashek, and surprisingly, not frequently dedicated to either revenge or politics, instead updating centuries-old, mystical desert songs or simply longing for return to a long-lost land. Like everything else the band seems to do, they are resolute and defiant, transcending any potential use as propaganda. The music on the full-length concert section of their new DVD most closely resembles a more intricately arranged version of the desert blues popularized by the late great Ali Farka Toure and then Boubacar Traore. A sense of forebearance pervades everything: the songs unwind slowly and hypnotically, rarely changing chords, rarely reaching any kind of crescendo. It’s not loud music, perhaps as a matter of taste for the band, perhaps because in the desert, there is no electricity: guitarists use car batteries to power their amps, and if you’re going to jam all night (as can be the case), you have to conserve and keep the volume down.

 

The Tuaregs, like the Roma in Europe and the Indians here, are commonly associated with witchcraft, something that Alhabib is not shy about alluding to, if only as a defense mechanism when dealing with those in the ethnic majority. Perhaps as a result (or perhaps because those all-night desert jams tend to be fueled by ganja as much as by battery juice), there’s an otherworldly feel to Tinariwen’s music. Recorded live at the Hammersmith Odeon in a suitably dodgy London neighborhood, the DVD is filmed in the classic 60s/early 70s music doc style, lots of close-ups of fingers and fretboards. What jumps out at the viewer first is that while there are sometimes seven or eight people onstage, the sound is strikingly clean and uncluttered. Nobody’s soloing over anyone else, in fact, no one is usually soloing at all. The busiest player is the bassist, and unless you have your DVD hooked up to a good stereo system (very highly recommended, because the stereo quality of the DVD is excellent), he’s very low in the mix.

 

What else is immediately obvious is that this is lyrically-driven music: the crowd know a lot of the lyrics and sing, or at least chant along. Taken as as whole (other than a brief and very well-received departure into hip-hop on the second song of the show), it seems like a long invocation, a secret rite that feels almost voyeuristic to watch, at least through western eyes. World music fans will devour this: if, as their label asserts, Tinariwen are the world’s favorite African band, this will secure their spot at the top. .

 

An interview with Alhabib – in heavily Tamashek-accented French, with excellent English subtitles – is also included. Dour and frequently inscrutable – given his past, this is hardly unexpected – he lightens up the most when the topic of his native land comes up. Yet as much as he seems to long for a permanent return to his country, he also seems resigned to life on the road, playing in front of thousands of westerners who don’t understand a single word but find common ground in the stoically hypnotic, slowly undulating music underneath. There’s also a very informative seven-minute interview with producer Justin Adams – in English – as well as a brief  – and also very informative! – demonstration on how to tie a shesh, the headscarf that the Tuaregs use to keep the sun off the head and the desert sand out of the mouth.

February 25, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , | Leave a 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