West Africa Roundup, Part 2: Senegal, Benin, Cape Verde


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This second update of new music from West Africa touches down on musicians in three countries with dramatically different approaches. Senegalese singer Thione Seck has created a multiethnic international fusion that combines West African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian styles in an integrated whole. Benin's Gangbé Brass Band incorporates interlocking drumming, a rich instrumental sound, and warm vocals to tie together strains of music that stretch as far away as New Orleans and as close as Nigeria. Finally, Cape Verde's latest superstar vocalist, Lura, has concocted a honey-sweet collection of hip-swaying grooves that impart a genuine sense of joy about life itself.

(For the first part of this series on West Africa, click here.)

Thione Seck
Stern's Africa

When Youssou N'Dour integrated Senegalese percussion with Egyptian strings and meditative religious vocals, he hit upon a mix with surprising international appeal. Egypt won awards, exposure, and critical applause as a result. Another Senegalese singer, Thione Seck, takes that formula one step further with Orientation, adding Indian styles to the ones from Senegal and Egypt, blending these three sources into a heterogeneous and compelling composite.

Seck is a powerful Senegalese vocalist whose piercing attack shares features in common with his countrymen Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour, insofar as each phrase he utters rings in the air long afterward. He's adopted that voice to the more melismatic, ornamented, and linear flow of Arabic and South Asian music. On "Yaye," for example, he utters repeated phrases with long extensions, and the tail ends assume special importance by virtue of the varying ways he stretches them out. This dramatic delivery is supported by plush layers of strings and occasional violin counterpoint. It's hard not to come out of this as if it were a meditative religious experience.

The Egyptian and North African aspects of the square percussion on "Blain Djigueul" lend the tune a simmering, bubbly energy and contribute to an overall lightness, despite the overt passion of Seck's delivery. Droning strings lead into legato orchestral maneuvers on "Ballango," eventually birthing a festive jam where Seck's phrases interlock with sitar accompaniment and an intermittent female chorus. The upbeat, percussion-rich "Djirim" is probably the most user-friendly track on the record, given its catchy melody and warm choruses.

Like N'Dour's album, Orientation was recorded in situ—in this case in Dakar, Paris, Cairo, and Madras, with over forty musicians. Also like Egypt, it sat around for a few years before seeing eventual international release. But that wait was well worth it. It's thrilling to hear how Seck melds traditions, and his voice is as rich, emotionally charged, and flexible as always. Amazing stuff.

Gangbé Brass Band
World Village

Deriving as they did from military marching bands, brass bands have sprung up all over the world, at least in the places where Europeans stuck around long enough to leave their musical mark. In locations as far-flung as New Orleans, Serbia, and Mexico, brass bands have become an essential part of local musical culture, having adopted their own regional identity. It's fascinating to see how the same instrumentation can be employed to yield such different results, depending on the context.

The Gangbé Brass Band hails from the West African nation of Benin, nestled near the crook of Africa to the northwest of Nigeria. The group may include four trumpets, trombone, saxophone, and euphonium, but it's equally rich in the percussion department (no surprise, really) and every member of the band also sings. So you may as well throw out any preexisting notions of the Benin brass sound, because it draws heavily from voodoo rhythms (in many cases overlapping with Afro-Haitian and Afro-Cuban relatives), New Orleans and Lagos funk, and singing in a total of six languages. Whendo ("Roots") is the group's second recording.

Certain pieces, like the feel-good celebration "Oblemou," display obvious influences from the Caribbean and New Orleans in song form and funkified rhythms, but the wildly interlocking and constantly changing drum patterns add a layer of local color that brings the music closer to Fela Kuti's Afrobeat. "Remember Fela" touches explicitly on that subject, and it's interesting to hear this big band play in this style, blending West African and New World rhythms and entering into a trance-like jam state, if only for four and half brief minutes.

The most successful tunes on the record combine more or less equal amounts of voice, drums, and horns into a greater whole. It seems like the many flavors of Benin (and beyond) reveal themselves most vividly in this context. But the band deserves credit for stretching out in other directions, as do the socially conscious lyrics, which touch on departed fathers, the rewards of virtue, how wars get started, and the importance of listening to avoid conflict, among other topics.

A texturally and culturally rich excursion from Benin's brass ambassadors.

Note: the Gangbe Brass Band will be touring the US in October and November. Click here for the full schedule.

Di Korpu ku Alma

There's something inevitably romantic about music from Cape Verde, at least as it's been delivered to the world by the West African archipelago's torchbearer, Cesaria Evora. The subtle but moving rhythms, interlocking acoustic accompaniment, and warm vocal messages combine to transport listeners to a peaceful place where music and motion are one and the same.

Lura, the latest young female star from Cape Verde to make an international mark, continues in this romantic style on Di Korpu ku Alma ("Of Body and Soul"). Her lyrics celebrate everyday experiences, stress the importance of family and working together, envelop the ecstatic joy of infatuation, and occasionally cast darker glances upon doubt and danger. But the music feels unrelentingly positive, whatever the message, sitting atop a shifting bed of guitars, piano, and multiple percussion, sometimes broken down, as on the voice-guitar duet "Es Bida."

In the three decades since Cape Verde gained independence, local styles like funana and batuku have enjoyed a resurgence, and Lura explores them in a simplified, reinvented fashion, especially the multiple appearances of batuku, which originated on her home island of Santiago. (By contrast, Evora is from Sao Vicente.)

In addition to a fourteen-song, hour-long audio recording, this package also includes a DVD featuring a live performance at Paris' Le Grand Rex, where Lura opened for Cesaria Evora in April, 2004. She sings seven songs from the record, plus one more, with relatively simple accompaniment. Her rich voice, tending to the low range but capable of occasional flight, seems to come alive on stage, and the audience reacts enthusiastically.

The party song "Na Ri Na" (track two on the CD and track five on the DVD) is quite obviously the "hit" of the record, insofar as it gets members of the audience to sing along and sway to its sing-song melody. (I guess I'm cynical, because one can only chant "Na Ri Na" so many times before the mantra grows old and it's time to move on. Most of the people in the audience see no problem with it, though.)

Other DVD features include a portrait, a photo gallery, and two relatively low-budget music videos (including, of course, the aforementioned "Na Ri Na"). Lura has a tendency to pose a little too obviously for the camera, drawing attention to her good looks, sunny smile, and overall radiance. I suspect that behavior will gradually fade with age, and Lura is certainly talented enough to have a long, rich, and rewarding career in this music.

Track listings


Siiw; Yaye; Blain Djigueul; Woyatina; Mapenda; Mammignoul; Ballago; Assalo; Mouhahibou; Djirim; Doom; Mouhamadou Bamba.


Noubioto; Oblemou; Remember Fela; Yemonoho; Johodo; Awhan-Ho; Gbedji; Jesu Ohun; Segala; Glessi.

Di Korpu ku Alma

CD: Tabanka Assigo; Na Ri Na; Vazulina; Mundo Ê Nos; Ês Bida; Tó Martins; Batuku, Padoce de Céu Azil; Oh Náia; So Um Cartinha; Raboita di Rubon Manel; Tem um Hora pa Tude; Nha Vida; Ma'n Ba Dês Bês Kumida Dâ.

DVD: Tó Martins; So Um Cartinha; Vazulina; Raboita di Rubon Manel; Na Ri Na; Nha Vida; Lua; Batuku. DVD Extras: Lura Portrait; Videos: Na Ri Na, Vazulina; Photo Gallery.

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