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Continental Classics

2009-05-24 16:59
Contintal Classics

While Satchmo had a point, when it comes to exploring African music that folk tag can become a bit messy. Anyone looking for pointers by perusing the winners of the world music category at the Grammy Awards each year would be forgiven for thinking that choral sounds are all that come out of the African continent. So what the hey, this Africa Day we decided to sidestep the world music stereotypes and celebrate some of those Afropolitan classics that challenged the clichés, crossed borders, and sometimes just made for a damn good party. There's something for everyone here - from the righteous Afrobeaten political fire of Fela Kuti and the soul disco funk of Manu Dibango to the Algerian dance pop of Rai's King Khaled, some ecstatic Ethiopian free jazz, retro-futuristic Congolese electronica and all sorts of 21st century fusions.
1. Brian Jones presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka (1968)
A junkie Rolling Stone jets off to Morocco's Rites of Pan Festival and discovers a trance music masterpiece? Not quite. The Master Musicians of Jajouka (as they became known) had been using hypnotic percussive rhythms, ancestral vocalese and collective traditional flute and reed instrument improvisations to achieve altered states of consciousness for centuries. These edited excerpts of their ritualistic live performances - that were known to last for hours - weren't the first 'field' recordings of Moroccan traditional music, but they were the first to put trance on the world music map, foreshadowing its pivotal role in the electronic, rock, and dance revolutions to come. These arent just interminably noisy jams either, with the more cacophonous climaxes shadowed with dynamic female chants, subtle male vocals and ambient traditional flute solos. Listen 

 2. Gétatchèw Mèkurya - Ethiopiques, Vol. 14: Negus of Ethiopian Sax (c. 1972, 2003) 
Traditional warrior music aimed at amping soldiers up before battle is the inspiration for this Rosetta Stone of Ethiopian free jazz. While the saxophonist insists he'd never heard Afro-American free jazz, his abstract expressionist playing certainly runs its voodoo down through frenzied multiphonic runs and sustained solo drones that soar over the simple melodies and rhythms of his backing band. Recommended for fans of hard blowing sax spiritualists such as Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. Watch live video with Dutch avant-rockers The Ex.

3. Manu Dibango - Soul Makossa (1972)
Remember Kool and the Gang's classic "Jungle Boogie"? Well it was Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango's sleekly funky disco smash hit "Soul Makossa" that was its inspiration. A floor filler in European and American discos the percolated soul funk jam reached number 21 on the Billboard R&B charts and number 35 on the pop charts in the summer of 1973. The LP peaked at number 11 on the R&B charts. Watch video.
Fela Kuti and the Afrika -70 – Zombie (1977)
Fela Anikulapo (Ransome) Kuti's discordant sax solos and drummer Tony Allen's polyrhythmic percussion fuelled a cacophonous big band fusion of jazz, funk, West African highlife and traditional Nigerian Yoruba chants into a ridiculously catchy Afrobeat defining groove that parties with a serious purpose. It's a futuristically funky black consciousness critique of post-colonial African politics and identity that pivots around the 'Elvis of Africa''s bitingly satirical title track which struck such a chord with Nigerian citizens that they actually parodied the oppressive military government's army by shouting "Zombie!" whenever they encountered a soldier in the street. It was this combination of sonic experimentation and radical politics that had the likes of Paul McCartney, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Cream's Ginger Baker scurrying to Lagos to take tips. Listen to "Zombie" and Buy the CD

5. Bonga - Angola 72 (1970s)
Thanks to its stripped down canvas of mournful Portuguese hued fado vocals and Flamenco guitar filtered strums it's tempting to pigeonhole Kuenda Bonga (Barcelo de Carvallo) as just another Afro-Latin balladeer. Most Western critics did. But to do so is to overlook the revolutionary impact of this post-colonial Angolan singer songwriter's debut. While the album was banned in Angola and Portugal due to its uncompromisingly political message, it's Bonga's singular serenading style of layered lyrical spontaneity that makes this a unique singer songwriter record.
6. Orchestre Baobab - Bamba (1980s)
The Afro-Cuban roots rhumba of 2002's Specialists in all Styles and 1982's Pirate's Choice may get all the critical kudos, but it's this rocking two-LPs-on-one-CD set of Senegalese genre surfs that dragged 80s West African pop in exciting new directions.  It's a perfect future mbalax funk primer for rock-centric listeners with rhythm guitarist Papa Ba's  rocksteady groove, Charles N'Diaye's locomotive reggae bass, Issa Cissokho's tenor sax solos, and lead guitarist Barthelemy Attisso's experiments in shoegazing melodies and wah-wah soaked psychedelia providing a potent counterfoil for Thione Seck's emotive call-and-response vocals on "Mouhamadou Bamba", the Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" riff-off  "Autorail" and percolated 14 minute jams like "Sibou Odia". Listen to "Autorail"

7. King Sunny Ade – Juju Music (1982)
Seven seminal juju jams that catapulted the King of Nigeria's dance-inducing fusion of Western pop rock and traditional African guitar traditions onto the global stage. While "Ja Funmi" and "Ma Jaiye Oni" are top examples of Ade and his 20-piece African Beats ensemble's brand of talking drum-driven grooves, multiple guitar conversations, and lilting vocal harmonies at their most contagious, it's the more experimental jams that raise the roof. "365 Is My Number/The Message" is a flamboyant fusion of African soul, dub reggae, and stylish synths; while "Sunny Ti de Ariya" is a mesmerising de-and-reconstruction of tribal African percussion cliches that showcases Ade running Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" voodoo down with some judicious Hawaiian slide guitar vamps. Without this album, there'd be no: BLK JKS. Watch Juju documentary clip by filmmaker Jacques Holender. Buy the CD.

 8. Salif Keita – Soro (1987) 
Marrying the spiritual sounds of an ancient Malian griot music tradition with electric rock guitars, synthesisers and programmed drum sequences might sound like sacrilege to some ears, but it was precisely this unapologetically crossover pop recipe that gave The Golden Voice of Mali his global breakthrough. Africando prophet Ibrahima Sylla's state of the art Western pop production almost upstages the meandering Malian rhythms and choral female backup vocal interplay but it's Keita's potently spiritual soars, swoops and caresses on bruised ballad "Cono" and the complex, shape-shifting three part title song suite "Soro" that gives this world music melting pot its soul. Buy the CD

9. Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck - Djam Leeli (1989)
Less is so much more on this seminal set of acoustic finger picked African blues from two of Senegal's musical pathfinders. While Maal later went on to commerical succcess with the flamboyant pop and dance floor fusions of Lam Toro and Firin a Fouta, on this collaboration with longtime collaborator Mansour Seck the mood is all about sharing the soulful roots of their West African guitar 'n vocal traditions, augmented by some spare electric guitar, balafon and kora colours. Watch Laare (the loved one) video and Buy the CD.

10. Youssou N'Dour – Set (1990)
1984's Immigres may have been the 35 minutes of roots music that inspired ex-Genesis star Peter Gabriel to take Senegalese's most charismatic crooner under his wing and invent world music, but it would be this set of 13 uncompromisignly African pop songs that really secured Youssou N'Dour global fame. With producers Michael Brook and Daniel Lanois eschewing the temptation to water down the African sound for Western ears, N'Dour and his band, Super Etoile de Dakar segue from urgent mbalax anthems about global peace "(Set") and ecological protest songs (Toxiques") to soulful classical string sextet collaborations ("Xale") and back. Buy the CD.

11. Thomas Mapfumo - Shumba (1990)
A quintessential introduction to the Lion of Zimbabwe's epoch-defining "chimurenga" sounds which became massively popular during Zimababwe's independence struggle. Blending breezy mbira-led grooves and signature falsetto soars into an uplifting spiritual brew, Mapfumo overhauls the Afro-pop tradition with a mellifluous jazz, soul and folk filtered tapestry of socially conscious protest songs that range from revolutionary reminiscences and odes of reconciliation to Pan Africanist prayers for peace, and even a couple of playful party starters about getting drunk. Listen to "Shumba"

12. Khaled - Khaled (1991)
Algerian pop music invades the global dancefloor on this trailblazing set from the Algerian-born, French-raised, King of Rai Che Khaled. It's an unapologetically crossover chart attack with producers  Don Was and Michael Brook airbrushing the 
catchy Arabic keyboard melodies, punchy Algerian percussion and oud, derbouka and bendir textures with some R&B brass sax bleats ("Didi"), synthed up drum machines ("Mauvais Sang") and scratch-rhythm guitar on pop reggae ("Ragda"), Fourth world disco funk ("Sbabi"), faux-French cafe flamenco jazz jams ("Wahrane") and electric guitars ("El Ghatli" and "Harai Harai" take it all the way home to Algerian tradition. Watch: "Didi" video and Buy the CD

13. Oliver Mtukudzi - Tuku Music (1999)
Ubuntu is the musical mantra on this signature set from Zimbabwean guitarist and vocalist Oliver 'Tuku' Mtukudzi which melds influences ranging from airy mbira (thumb piano) rhythms and the drumming patterns of his Katekwe clan to South African mbaqanqa guitar grooves and the classic American R&B balladry of Otis Redding into gritty, yet inspirational tales of everyday life that take in AIDS, poverty, questions of changing African identity and more. Buy the CD

14. Souad Massi - Deb Wrasse (2003) 
Imagine an Arabic Tracy Chapman infusing Algerian and Andalusian music with Algerian rai, Spanish flamenco, Arab classical music, East African jive, West African juju and first world folk and you'll appreciate just how versatile this Algerian songstress is. It's a truly genre-imploding outing with Massi cementing her artsitic freedom on dynamic flamenco guitar solos, cool French chanson, feverish folk rock strums and intropective ballads. Chill out to Moudja ("The Wave") or feel blue to Ya Kelbi! ("Oh! My Heart).

15. Konono No.1 – Congotronics (2005)
What happens when a Congolese big band has no actual equipment to broadcast their traditional thumb piano music in the street at their version of Mardi Gras? Simple, they blast out their ensemble vocals through megaphones, amp up their likembes, homemade pots, pans, whistles, and brake drum percussion, and pump it all through a homeade PA that hums 'cos its made out of car parts! Cacophonyous busking? Hell no! Not when they embrace the DIY ethic in the studio a few years later to compose this retro-futurist musical melting pot that shapeshifts between tradition and innovation in a freewheeling funky avant-garde electronica suite.  Listen to "Paradiso" (live) and Watch "Lufuala Ndonga" video. Buy the CD.

16. Ali Farka Toure - Savane (2006)
The breathtaking folk blues improvisations of his collaboration with Toumani Diabate, In The Heart of the Moon may be the Grammy-winning pick, but it's this posthumously released last will and testament that nails why Toure was so much more than just Mali's "godfather of the desert blues". It's a riveting road map of what blues fan and film director, Martin Scorsese so memorably tagged as "the DNA of the blues". Actually, with Toure’s bittersweet sweet rasp and roots-soaked rhythmic finger picking improvisations ("Beto") charting the call and response codes of an acoustic storytelling tradition of African guitar masters that spans centuries through single string reggae sketches (“Savane”), country blues celebrations (“Penda Yoro”) and vintage African folk conversations (“Ledi Coumbe”) with the ngoni (lute) and njarka (desert fiddle), this music goes way back beyond the blues to map the sound of Mali itself. This was a sound Touré believed was nothing less than the world’s musical heart: "Mali is first and foremost a library of the history of African music” he would often say. “It is also the sharing of history, legend, [the] biography of Africa." Watch Savane video EPK

17. Angelique Kidjo - Djin Djin (2007)
Roughly translated as "seize the day", Djin-Djin finds the classy African songbird hiring an all-star line-up including Josh Groban, Alicia Keys, Peter Gabriel, Joss Stone, Carlos Santana, Ziggy Marley and more to make a point. Her urban jazz tête-à-tête with Alicia Keys and saxophonist Branford Marsalis ("Djin-Djin"), acoustic soul ballad conversation with Peter Gabriel ("Salala") and a compelling critique of post-colonial identity with Malian husband-and-wife stars Amadou & Mariam Senamou ("C'est l'Amour") are all subtle, spiritual Afro-pop postcards. She also gives Brit-soul babe Joss Stone a lesson in real funk on an extreme Afrobeat makeover of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and gets jiggy with Ziggy Marley on jamming Diaspora duet "Sedjedo" before transforming Ravel’s “Bolero” into an iridescent vocal hymn ("Lon Lon"). Watch Djin Djin video EPK and Buy the CD.

18. Lionel Loueke - Caribou (2007)
After an African jazz guitarist who does more than just stroll in the shadow of George Benson or Wes Montgomery? If so, then this Benin-born, Ivory Coast-based guitarist's debut on the prestigious Blue Note label should strike a major chord with you. With Grammy-winning pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter signed on as sidemen you know that this guy has got some serious chops. "Karibu" (Swahili for welcome) is a taxing opening gambit that finds Loueke riding an unusual time signature while fleshing out his whispered baritone and falsetto scats with clicking mouth percussion and some nifty electro-acoustic effects. Right, so this cat’s clearly able to fuse contemporary jazz conceptualism without airbrushing away his own African musical muscle. But it’s not just his technique that keeps you listening. "Agbannon Blues" may be penned in the unusual 13/4 metre, but its fuelled by such a laid back funk that it might as well be 4/4 swing. "Ditto Seven Teens", a 17/4 head rush boasting some of Hancock’s most volatile soloing in ages. Loueke does standards too, eliciting Wayne Shorter’s reedy soprano runs to translate John Coltrane's ballad Naima from an intimate Valentine into a rigorous walk along the beach. Watch Karibu video EPK and Buy the CD

19. Cesaria Evora - Radio Mindelo (2008)
Now an old lady, a living legend "rediscovered" by the international world music circuit in the 80s, Evora performs her famous "barefoot diva" sets live to worshiping, clapping-along audiences from Paris to New York and records her albums using top studio tech. But it all started in Mindelo, Portuguese colony island of Cape Verde in the pre-independence early 1960s, with a craze for a very emotionally expressive varied-tempo music type called coledera, a variation on the traditional mourning songs of the region. The songs collected here are the young Cesaria Evora's very first recordings. The sound has its own charm, a slightly tinny timbre echoing the sound of old gramophones, through which Evora's perfect and powerful 20-year-old voice laments, coaxes and protests in this important political period, singing words partly responsible for making her a cultural icon, although it would be many years before her fame took her music beyond the region of her birth and made her the queen of this mournful style. Buy the CD

20. Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali (2008)
Blind Malian husband and wife embrace the potential of a truly global collaborative groove on this sublime set of ethereal electro-soul pop smiles ("Sabali"), airy Afro-Eurasian dub excusions (“Djuru”), funky Francophone rockers (“Masiteladi”), desert blues deconstructions (“Bozos”), English chamber rock ballads (“I Follow You”), and irresistible auto-tuned West African dance grooves ("Sekebe") that always lets the soul of their genre surfing brew sing. So, turns out that 'world' music tag needn't be a pigonhole after all. Watch "Sabali" video

"All music is folk music - I ain't never heard no horse sing" said trumpeter Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong famously.
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