Music shines light on the Dark Continent
This past summer was a time when Africa appeared as more than a blip on Aspens radar. The Aspen Writers Foundation Summer Words conference focused on Africa and featured some of the finest writers from Nigeria to South Africa. The Aspen Music Festival and Jazz Aspen Snowmass teamed to present Wynton Marsalis Congo Square, a brilliant piece, performed by Marsalis Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Ghanas Odadda! ensemble, that illuminated the ties between African music and New Orleans jazz. A highlight of the summer at the Belly Up nightclub was a show by Nigerian singer-saxophonist Femi Kuti, which featured 13 performers onstage.And it may be that the best is yet to come. The Festival in the Desert, a concert tour that takes off from a massive annual festival in Mali, makes a stop at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen on Thursday, Nov. 1. The show features Tinariwen, a Malian band that opened for the Rolling Stones at a concert at a Dublin castle in August, and guitarist Vieux Farka Tour, son of the late Malian music icon, Ali Farka Tour. And Senegals Youssou Ndour, an African superstar known best in the U.S. for his collaboration with Peter Gabriel, appears at Belly Up in Aspen on Dec. 3.Following are reviews of recent recordings of African and African-inspired music.
Habib Koit has occasionally been refereed to as the Jimi Hendrix of Africa, a comparison which is only bound to throw off listeners. Yes, Koit, another Malian, and who performed in Aspen this past summer, is a superb guitarist. But stylistically he couldnt be more unlike Hendrix. Koit plays acoustic guitar and, with his gentle style, built on rolling, shimmering trills, it would as hard to imagine him with an electric guitar as it would Jimi with an acoustic. On Afriki, he is backed by a parade of musicians, from backing singers to percussionists to a string section, but this squad of players is all in the background, leaving the focus on Koits soothing voice and melodic guitar. Even on Africa, a typically uplifting song that encourages African self-reliance, where the horn section is led by former James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, the sound is restrained.
Tinariwen is made up of Touaregs, a distinct ethnic tribe spread out over northern Africa. More specifically, Tinariwen, which numbers 14 members on Aman Iman, are from a group of Touaregs from a mountainous area of Mali that has been clashing with the national government since the country gained independence in 1990. The songs here focus on the Touaregs struggle – about displacement, the deaths of their leaders, the need for unity. So it is little surprise that the sound has a tougher, louder edge than Koits. Aman Iman shows a close relation to American blues, especially the gritty, one-chord style favored by John Lee Hooker. There is a prayerlike quality to the voices, which is echoed in the call-and-response structure and hand-clapping, both hallmarks of the gospel of the American South.
Farka comes from the Malian word for donkey, and the 26-year-old Vieux Farka Tour seems to have some of the animals stubbornness in him. His father, the late singer-guitarist Ali Farka Tour, became a celebrated player, recording with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, ranking No. 76 on Rolling Stones list of the greatest guitar players, and having his music in the American film, Unfaithful. But it took a good long while for the older musician to be recognized, and he didnt want his son to endure similar hardships. He forbade his son from playing music. But the younger Tour practiced secretly learning not from his father directly, but from his fathers recordings.On this, his debut, Tour shows that the genetic element is strong, his fluid guitar lines accenting spacious songs of the spirit and communal life. Making guest appearances are Toumani Diabat, a sensational player of the lutelike kora, as well as Ali Farka Tour, who lived long enough (he died in March 2006) to help launch his sons career.
A 12-piece, multicultural ensemble centered in Brooklyn, Antibalas takes as its primary inspiration the Afropop pioneered in the 70s by Nigerian singer and activist Fela Kuti. But while the group borrows Felas in-your-face politics (Antibalas is Spanish for bulletproof”) and his big-band, horn-heavy sound, it doesnt aim for a retro take. Antibalas has collaborated with such forward-thinking musicians as Medeski, Martin & Wood and TV on the Radio; Security was produced by John McEntire, drummer of the experimental Chicago rock band, Tortoise. Here, the band produced a pulsing sound that leans at times toward minimalism. The politics are a continuation of 2004s Who Is This America?”; the lyrics, sometimes specific, sometimes far short of that, jab at the secretive, divisive tactics of contemporary American government.
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Singer-saxophonist Femi Kuti, the son of Fela, offers up on this two-disc collection both a more precise and a more adventurous take on his fathers Afropop. Disc One features aggressive music, a mix of American funk-jazz and Nigerian sounds, that address social issues like AIDS and political corruption. Among the highlights is a version of his fathers Water No Get Enemy, featuring American stars DAngelo and Macy Gray. Disc Two has remixed takes on the songs; the finale, Missing Link, features rapper Common.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org