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Part 25 - Ben Zabo: It's a Blinder - But It's Not Afrobeat

Chris May By

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Ben Zabo

Ben Zabo

Glitterhouse Records

2012

The extraordinary success of the musical Fela!, and the resurgence of interest in all things Fela Kuti, has made "Afrobeat" a popular buzzword among label publicists. The invocation is often fanciful; albums claiming to be Afrobeat releases regularly land at Afrobeat Diaries which have little, if anything, to do with the music.

The latest such arrival is from the Malian group Ben Zabo. "Malian Afrobeat may be two words that you don't hear together very often," chimes the press release, "but 2012's most exciting new Afrobeat band may well be hailing from Bamako, Mali."

An exciting new Afrobeat band may, indeed, be hailing from Bamako in 2012. Here's hoping. But it is not Ben Zabo, whose connection to the music—instrumentally, rhythmically and structurally—is, in any meaningful sense, nonexistent.

That is one reason why Ben Zabo is being reviewed in this column, which does what it can to protect Kuti's legacy.

The other reason is that Ben Zabo is a blinder, and, while it is not Afrobeat, it is likely to be enjoyed by Afrobeat enthusiasts. Unlike much of the Malian music that has acquired an international audience—which tends to be understated and introspective (the desert blues of guitarist Ali Farka Toure is representative)—Ben Zabo's music is hot and raucous. That much it shares with Afrobeat.

The 24-page liner booklet tells us it also shares Kuti's polemical lyrics. In the absence of any liner translations (Zabo sings in Bomu), most listeners will have to take that on trust. Zabo is from Mali's ethnic minority group the Bwa; his album is said to be (and may actually be) the first international release by a Malian of Bwa descent singing in his mother tongue. That is to be welcomed, and lyric translations would take nothing away from it.

Kuti avoided the need for translations with his use of Broken English, an inspired innovation. He composed and sang in the language so that his message could be understood widely in Africa, and beyond it, not just by Yoruba speakers. For good measure, he printed the Broken English lyrics on his album sleeves. If Zabo's lyrics really are as pertinent and educative as Kuti's, why not make them accessible to non-Bomu speakers?

Musically, most of Ben Zabo is up-tempo and ferocious, a mix of Bwa rhythms and melodies, rock and a little blues and funk. The killer track is "Cinquantenaire," which, presumably, celebrates Mali gaining independence from France in 1960. There are gritty cross-rhythms and steaming balafon and tenor saxophone solos. "Sènsènbo," again featuring balafon, is almost as good, and the opener, "Wari Vo," on which the tenor saxophone is augmented by an (uncredited) trumpet, is not far behind. Pace and temperature lessen only at the album's midpoint, on "Dimiyan," an anthemic ballad resonant of Senegalese veterans Touré Kunda.

Ben Zabo rocks. But it is not Afrobeat.

Tracks: Wari Vo; Sènsènbo; Danna; Dimiyan; Cinqantenaire; Bwa Iri; Ya Be Ma'e.

Personnel: Ben Zabo: lead vocal, guitar; Yodé Nepehi Richard: tenor saxophone; Soboua Dieudonné Koita: lead guitar; Chris Eckman: organ; Siméon Diarra: bass; Jean Diarra: drums; Kassim Keita: percussion, balafon; Blaž Celarec: percussion; Virginie Dembélé: vocals; Patricia Koita: vocals.

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