When it comes to musical styles, there is beauty in purity. Traditions lasting a century (eg. jazz) or many centuries (eg. West African drumming) accrue value through generations of musicians adding to a common style. As time progresses, the music experiences gradual change.
There's also virtue in cross-pollination. As time has passed, jazz has absorbed many other forms of music, from European classical to funk, and as a result it has become more diverse, more dynamic, and more versatile.
West African music has an interesting cultural history, which brought it through several rapid changes in the last century. As European colonists assumed control, they brought their musical culture with them: church vocals, marching band music, and small group music. The African colonists could not help but assimilate these changes in instrumentation and style. Centuries-old traditions began to fray and blend.
Perhaps the most exciting change in West African music happened during the '50s and '60s, when New World music bounced back through sea trade and radio broadcasts. Cuban music and jazz in particular resonated in countries like Senegal and Ghana. This cross-fertilization gave birth to a number of brand new styles: highlife, juju, and (later) Afrobeat. Each one had its own flavor and its own influences, and each one told a different cultural story.
These three reviews focus on recent records which reflect the blending of American, Cuban, and other Caribbean music with traditional West African styles. The offspring of these matings are quite different and quite beautiful.
Specialist In All Styles
Hot on the heels of the recently reissued 1982 classic Pirate's Choice, Orchestra Baobab recently re-formed to deliver an update to its signature Afro-Cuban sound. Unlike music of the same name which comes from the diaspora traditions of Cuba, Baobab goes at it the other way around. Whereas traditional Afro-Cuban music reflects the West African roots of the Cuban people, this version arose from a direct reflection across the Atlantic. During the '50s, Caribbean music hit hard in Senegal and Ghana. Claves, timbales, and maracas became standard fare during the birth of Highlife music. Musical forms changed; new harmonies and vocals reflected this cross-cultural pollination.
In the '80s, Orchestra Baobab was the most popular band in Senegal. Its music was fundamentally affable.
Those Senegalese roots refuse to die, and that's what gives this music its characteristic color. West African guitar styles, born from highlife, criss-cross and intersect in a decidedly rhythmic fashion. The vocals, which quite frequently veer into Buena Vista Social Club territory, still retain a folk element. Senegalese singing has a certain level of intensity, a certain minimalist searing energy, which can never be sublimated. You can't listen to "Ndongoy Daara" without feeling you've come close to vocalist Assane Mboup's heart. No way.
That said, Specialist In All Styles has an unswerving sense of raw celebration. Each tune, whether salsa or son or another flavor, begs the listener to get up on his feet and dance. Even the protest tune "Ndongoy Daara" has a fresh, lilting feel. Ten minutes later, the massive "El Son Te Llama" brings guajira into a direct collision with mbalax, and in the process comes right down to roots. Pure groove. With "Gnawoe," you find yourself somewhere between the island and Veracruz, easy guitar solos connecting the dots. But don't look here for extended improvisation; the spirit of thie music is pure dance.
For a band that's been dormant so long, this awakening is a welcome event. Great music often comes from a collision of styles, and more than four decades after Cuban music hit Senegal, the mixture remains at a boil.
In the aftermath of Fela Kuti's highlife-jazz-funk invention called Afrobeat, few groups have come close to the freshness, energy, and poignancy of his work. One reason is logistical: it can be hard to keep a large group together long enough to develop a coherent voice. Another reason is the cultural barrier that can prevent Western musicians from penetrating the inherently African sound of Fela's music. Finally, it seems impossible to build a critical mass without invoking some sort of collectivist mentality. Even though Afrobeat's inventor was a leader of the highest order, his band retained a looseness that made every voice equally important.
Antibalas, otherwise known as the Antibalas Orchestra, has surmounted each of these obstacles. The New York collective draws its members from around the world, and each musician brings something unique to the group. Talkatif represents a logical progression from the group's previous record, Liberation Afrobeat (Ninja Tune, 2001). It has the same rhythmic freedom, drawing from Cuban and other Latin American styles in addition to the West African concept of interlocking beats. The underpinnings remain deeply rooted in funk, and a strong jazz element creeps in through the instrumentation and voices of the melody instruments. James Brown, anyone?
But what distinguishes this record is its coherence. The rhythm section, such as it is, has a fine-tuned sense of balance. Repetition, which occurs everywhere on this record, exists to serve a greater goal: providing a skeletal framework on which to hang the melody and shake the booty. Each instrument in the rhythm section (which at times can be every instrument!) makes itself known through crisp, carefully placed notes. When the horns step in to assert fanfares or harmonized themes, they seem completely logical. Guitarists toss in angular lines that accrue an unstoppable momentum. And as instrumentalists soar into solo space, their travels never lose sight of the ground.
Notable musicians on Talkatif include trumpeter Jordan McLean and keyboard player Victor Axelrod, each of whom improvises memorably across groove space. The percussionists, who can be quite difficult to resolve, have a knack for filling the right spaces and leaving holes where they sound right. But in the end, this is a group thing. Whether playing horns, drums, guitars, keyboards, or voice, every player is part of a greater whole. And that's the magic of Talkativ.
Visit Antibalas on the web.
Saka Acquaye and His African Ensemble
Ghana: High-Life And Other Popular Music
With all the sophistication that accompanied highlife's ascendancy as the popular music of West Africa, its roots remain somewhat obscured. Highlife, born in Ghana, incorporates rhythmic styles and instruments from Cuba and the Caribbean, jazz styles from America, and traditional music from West Africa. In the '50s, it was a revolutionary mix. By the '60s, highlife was rapidly becoming an institution.
This record offers an unusual snapshot of highlife in its rawest form. Saka Acquaye, a multi- instrumentalist who formed his African Ensemble in the '50s, leads the group of eleven musicians featured on this reissue from 1969. Up to five players are busy at the drums at any given time, which imbues the music with an assertive polyrhythmic texture. "Drum Festival," a percussion-only piece, showcases the ways this group can assemble a vehicle from moving parts.
While the styles and approaches vary from piece to piece, the common theme is elaboration of images, moods, and morals through song. The opening track, "Sugar Soup," digs deep into West African folk music to tell the story of a girl who goes overboard preparing a soup for her lover. The vocals here betray their West African roots, with distinctive call-and-response units based around a simple repeated theme. "Saturday Night" opens with a horn fanfare, bringing Cuban drums and the unusual voice of the vibraphone to the fore. A popular tune at the time, it has a very catchy swing feel.
"Concomba" highlights the cultural collisions that resulted in highlife: basically a calypso tune, the piece features chord changes and a nice vibraphone solo, plus (of course) a richly textured rhythmic foundation. As a reflection of highlife's origins, it also points toward the direction the music would subsequently head.
Saka Acquaye's ensemble does a nice job of tying things together. This music has a raw feel, unlike a lot of the highlife that was coming out of Nigeria at the time. It's simpler, more organic, andsignificantlymore African. Its back-to-roots approach might make it difficult for Western ears to appreciate, but if you're open to raw culture, this record is a fun ride.
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Tracks and Personnel
Specialist In All Styles
Tracks: Bul Ka Miin; Sutukun; Dée Moo Woor; Jiin Ma Jiin Ma; Ndongoy Daara; On Verra Ã‡a; Hommage a Tonton Ferrer; El Son Te Llama; Gnawoe.
Personnel: Balla Sidibe: vocals, timbales; Rudy Gomis: vocals, maracas, clave; Ndiouga Dieng, Assane Mboup, Medoune Diallo: vocals; Bartholemy Attisso: vocals, solo & rhythm guitars; Issa Cissokho: tenor saxophone; Thierno Koite: soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones; Latfi Ben Geloune: rhythm guitar; Charlie Ndiaye: bass guitar; Mountaga Koite: drums & congas. Guests: Ibrahim Ferrer: vocals; Youssou N'Dour: vocals; Thio M'Baye: sabar drums.
Tracks: Gabe's New Joint; Talkatif; Hypocrite; World Without Fear; War Is A Crime; Nyash; N.E.S.T.A. 75.
Personnel: Jordan McLean: first trumpet; Anda Szilagyi, Todd Simon: trumpets; Micheal Herbst: tenor saxophone; Martin Perna: baritone saxophone; Stuart Bogie: alto saxophone; Aaron Johnson: trombone; Mike Wagner: trombone; Ernesto Abreau: lead conguero; Fernando Velez: congas, percussion; Duke Amayo: vocals, congas, percussion; Phil Ballman: drum set; Giancarlo Luiggi: shekere; Dylan Fusillo: sticks, percussion, drum set; Del Sribling: bass; Gabriel Roth: guitar; Luke O'Malley: guitar; Victor Axelrod: keyboards.
Ghana: High-Life And Other Popular Music
Tracks: Sugar Soup; Down the Congo; Saturday Night; Drum Festival; Concomba; Beyond Africa; Congo Beat; Echoes of the African Forest; Bus Conductor; Ebony; Kenya Sunset; Awuben; Akudonno.
Personnel: Saka Acquaye: drums, flute, and tenor saxophone; Garvine Masseaux: vibes & drums; George Brooks: double-bass; Edward Cooper: trumpet and mellophone; Wilfred Letman: trumpet; Charles Earland: tenor saxophone; Walter Miller: guitar; Robert Crowder, Joseph Acquaye, Benny Parkes, Sunny Morgan: drums.