South Africa's Sheer Sound label launched its Sheer Africa series a few years ago in order to highlight specific instruments and styles from the continent. Each edition has benefited from attractive art and comprehensive, informative liner notes that describe each track and performer in enough depth to allow plenty of further exploration.
Other releases focusing on gospel, jazz, and kwaito have provided broad, informative surveys that illuminated these popular South African styles and helped introduce them to an international audience. Other more recent Tales have addressed so-called "African Folk" and "African Moods" (in a rather unadventurous fashion), as well as the music of Zimbabwe (most righteously).
These four excellent discs, all dating from 2003, provide excellent surveys of signature instruments from the continent: the kora, mbira, marimba, and drum. The first three volumes are ideal places to start if you're new to the instruments; the latter showcases South Africa's own Soweto Percussion Ensemble.
Tales of the Kora
Given its characteristic bright resonance, not to mention the centuries it has spent embedded in West African music and culture, the kora is probably the area's most distinctive instrument. The 21-string harp is traditionally played by special musicians known as jeli, or griots, who inherit their primary social rolesmusic, storytelling and tributefrom generations of oral tradition. It's found throughout the territory once occupied by the Ancient Empire of Mali, which includes Mali itself, but also parts of Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, and especially Senegal and the Gambia.
The liner notes to this extremely broad-ranging collection offer insight about the roles of legend and history in shaping kora music, as well as the images of the large instrument under construction and in action. Equally importantly, they provide key details about the fourteen different groups featured during the disc's abundant 74 minute playing time. Wisely opting for open horizons, compiler Richard Woodin included not just griot masters like Ballake Sissoko, Toumani Diabate and M'Bady Kouyate, but also several other flexible artists who have used the kora to enrich their own broader sound.
Malian vocalist Kandia Kouyate comes running out of the gates with piercing, emphatic vocals atop an instrumental mix that includes kora, n'goni (lute), balafon (marimba), accordion, and drums. Two tracks later, Senegal's Baaba Maal directs his own sharp voice toward the subject of love ("a garden of sunshine"), riding a propulsive groove. Using studio tools and electronics, contemporary artists like Djeli Moussa Diawara and Pops Mohamed embed the kora in layers of texture (the latter including distinct jazz elements). Other tracks bridge West African Manding music with popular styles and inventive instrumental combinations.
Overall this is a sharp mix that emphasizes contemporary sounds over ancient tradition, to the extent the kora itself can be separated from the latter. And it works, revealing how well the kora has been adapted in the modern age without losing its identity.
Tales of the Mbira
Perhaps no instrument is as distinctively Southern African as the mbira, a hand-held device with small metal keys attached to a wooden box. The so-called "thumb piano" has long been central to marathon religious ceremonies ("bira") with which it shares its nameand among the Shona people who constitute the majority in Zimbabwe, it's intimately connected with ritual, trance and ecstatic healing. In recent years, especially since independence, it's been adapted to various modern styles. (In neighboring countries, various mbira relatives go by other names, including likembe, sanza, kalimba and budongo.)
The informative images which accompany this fourteen-track collection, subtitled "modern and ancient," illustrate the way the mbira is often traditionally placed within a calabash resonator and attached to small pieces of metal. The resulting rounder, fuzzier sound complements the hosho shaker which usually serves as accompaniment.
One of Zimbabwe's most outspoken and best known musicians, Thomas Mapfumo, lends a six-minute piece that blends mbiras with guitars in the modern way he has branded "chimurenga" ("struggle"), allowing them to mingle and exchange roles that support his bright, harmonized vocals. His brother Max leads a similar but not quite as jubilant adaptation later on, followed by three groups who place the mbira in starker, more traditional settings alongside hosho shakers. Deeper tones can be found in Mbira Dzenharira's opening piece, and a bizarre ambient techno take by Pops Mohamed closes out the disc.
Of the four compilations reviewed in this article, this is the most consistently memorable and moving.
Tales of the Marimba
Mallet instruments with wooden keys have popped up in traditional music from around the world, notably Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, where they occupy central roles in local styles. More recently the marimba has been absorbed by the African-American jazz tradition as a warmer substitute for the vibraphone.
This fourteen-track "modern and ancient" compilation emphasizes Southern African approaches to the marimba; eleven of those tracks come from South Africa itself. Two of these Tales (by Cissoko and Brice Wassy) feature the West African balafon, a close relative with different construction and a solo role, as opposed to the orchestral combinations that tend to dominate in the south. That decision is a mixed blessing, since the balafon, which is heavily embedded in ancient Manding music, could have been the subject of a vibrant album all its own.
In any case, this is joyful, polyphonic music which rewards repeated spins. Johannesburg's Akwaaba combines multiple marimbas, distilling the instrument's warmth in the mbaqanga (township jive) style. The fifteen-strong Amampondo group layers instruments, including horns, into a pulsing, polyrhythmic whole; an older Amampondo piece has a more ritual sound. Other highlights include contemporary sounds from Kholeho Mosala and buzzing dance music from Botswana's Map Marimba Band. As for the balafon tracks by Cissoko and Brice Wassy... they're plenty good enough to merit the instrument fifteen tracks in its own collection.
Soweto Percussion Ensemble
Tales of the Drum
Departing from the diversity of artists that characterizes the other instrumental editions in the Sheer Africa series, this disc focuses on a single group: the Soweto Percussion Ensemble, which was formed over a decade ago. But thanks to the multitude of instruments wielded by members of the band (currently an octet), its music is timbrally and stylistically rich.
The SPE's intensely polyrhythmic style, as well as some of its instruments, are more familiar internationally from West African music. But this community-based group has made a mission of incorporating local traditions into a shifting, propulsive whole that emphasizes tribal dance and ceremonial patterns. Among the percussion instruments with prominent roles on Tales of the Drum are the djembe, talking drum, marimba, conga, noro and khetebu (the latter, from the Tsonga people of South Africa, are also known as "bush toms" and lead some of the most intricate music). Playing these instruments with hands, sticks, and mallets, the eight musicians interweave patterns, often atop a relatively stable bass drum foundation.
In addition to the expected drumming, three pieces also make use of vocal leads and accompaniment, as well as occasional outsized riffing, to introduce themes and help vary the overall flow. The lyrics, which are not translated in the liner notes, reflect on human needs and peace. The most striking and unexpected piece comes close to the end in the form of a joyous marimba celebration with nice balance across the spectrum. (This piece also appears on the marimba collection above.)
Not everyone can sit through 45 minutes of more or less uninterrupted drumming by one group, but the Soweto Percussion Ensemble draws from enough different sources to keep the trip interesting.
Note: These recordings are available from One World and other sources on the web.
AAJ: South Africa
Tales of the Kora
Kandia Kouyate (featuring Mamadou Diabate) - Gnanama; Djelimousa "Ballake" Sissoko - Deli; Baaba Maal (featuring Kaouding Cissokho) - Cherie; Kaouding Cissokho - Saya Djangaro; Toumani Diabate and Taj Mahal - Queen Bee; Seckou Keita - Diamana Mousso; Trio Ivoire (featuring Tata Dindin) - Kano; Dembo Konte & Kausu Luyateh - Simbomba; Djeli Moussa Diawara - Ayo; M'bady Kouyateh- Koumbe; Jaliba Kuyateh and The Kumareh Band - Population; Alhaji Bai Konte - Alla L'aa Ke; Pops Mhamed - Spirit; Toumani Diabate And Ballake Sissoko - Samaman.
Tales of the Mbira
Mbira Dzenharira - Kumatendera; Thomas Mapfumo - Nhamo Zvakare; Samite - Silina Musango; Mahube - Oxam; Ephat Mujuru & Dumisani Maraire - Chemutengure; Andy Brown & The Storm (feat Adam Chisvo) - Nhasi; Stella Rambisai Chiweshe - Ndinderere; Chiwoniso Maraire - Mai; Mike Mopo & Zinawa; Max Mapfumo & Doripo Crew - Mutserendende; Temba Manjononjo Neteerai Chivanhu Sounds - Tambo; Nyemako Mbira Crew - Nyasha; Mhuri Yekwa Gwenhere - Masiya Ndaita; Pops Mohamed - Melody.
Tales of the Marimba
Giya Marimba - Man'gombe; Gingirikani - Nongani; Amampondo - Ingxoxo; Heshoo Beshoo - Luvuyo; Jika Marimba Vibes - Phambili; Akwaaba - Sweet Lovey; Afrida Marimba Band - Makanani; Kholeho Mosala - Ha U Fela; Brice Wassy (feat Lansana Diabate) - N'ga Funk; Cissoko (feat Kouyate Lansine) - Diali Kunda; Amampondo - Sasenzi Na?; Soweto Percussion Ensemble - Mavuka; Map Marimba Band - Ndinolila; Afrida Marimba Band - Mama Africa.
Tales of the Drum
Tracks: Umzabalazo (Protest) - First Movement; Umzabalazo (Protest) - Second Movement; Shangaani; Mzansi; Ba tlhokile (The Needy); Ijuba (Dove); Abakithi; Mzingili; Ijuba 2 - First Movement; Ijuba 2 - Second Movement; Keep Home Fires Burning; Mavuka; Untitled
Personnel: Soweto Percussion Ensemble: Bhekizizwe "Gugu" Ngwenya: djembe, talking drum, lead vocals; Thebe Motlhakeng: djembe, marhonga; Molefe Makananise: nora, teloko, bass marimba; S'Bu Sibisi: khetebu; Mathulwe Mashilo: murhundzi, alto marimba; Nhlanhla Radebe: traditional African conga; Samuel Masilo: traditional African conga, tenor marimba. Guest: Thebe Lipere: djembe, producer.