Angélique Kidjo CD is a multicultural joy
The musical exchange between Africa and the rest of the world carries on, with satisfying results. Following are reviews of recent CDs by African artists or by artists inspired by African sounds.Angélique Kidjo, “Oyaya!”produced by Steve Berlin & Alberto Salas (Columbia)Here’s internationalism at its height. Singer Angélique Kidjo, born in the West African country of Benin and who splits her time between homes in Paris and Brooklyn, in collaboration with producer Steve Berlin, a Philadelphia-born member of the Mexi-Cali band Los Lobos, get together in Los Angeles with musicians from Africa and Latin America to explore the music of the Caribbean islands.If you didn’t know any of this history, and just listened to “Oyaya!” – meaning “joy” in Kidjo’s native Yoruban language – you’d think this was a Cuban product, maybe with touches of salsa and calypso thrown in. Inspired by reflections on the slave trade that brought Africans to the Americas, “Oyaya!” is intended to trace the diaspora of African music. But in Latin America, especially Cuba, the African roots of the music have been so fully turned into its own distinct sound – usually called Afro-Cuban – that those roots are obscured here.No matter. This is outstanding music, and the conceptual aspects take a back seat to the exuberance and beauty of the songs, all of which were written by Kidjo and her partner, Jean Hebrail.
Antibalas, “Who Is This America?”(Ropeadope)Antibalas doesn’t sing much. The 14-member, Brooklyn-based, multicultural band spends too much time throwing down deep Afro-beat grooves, blowing jazz-funk horn parts and generally making a world dance party to focus on singing. But on “Who Is This America?” the sparse lyrics say much: on the opening track, “Who Is This America Dem Speak of Today,” the group’s Nigerian-born singer Amayo asks, “How is the states now?/State of confusion/Stage of commotion/State of individualism.” With members from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and America itself, Antibalas – whose name comes from the Spanish for “bulletproof” – can pose these questions and search for the answers from an all-encompassing perspective.”Who Is This America?” has political overtones throughout. In fact, everything Antibalas does is infused with political meaning; the band was formed seven years ago to carry on the torch of Fela Kuti, the late Nigerian Afro-beat progenitor whose outspoken views landed him constantly in trouble and occasionally in jail. Like Fela, Antibalas knows how to fuse sound and substance, so that the music does indeed become the message – consciousness-raising through body-shaking. And this music doesn’t skimp on the groove.Youssou N’Dour, “Egypt”produced by N’Dour & Fathy Salama (Nonesuch)As much as any current musician, Senegalese singer-songwriter Youssou N’Dour has internationalized African music, mixing Senegal’s mbalax style with the sounds and rhythms of the Caribbean, the U.S. and other African regions.
“Egypt” is something different, very different, in style and theme. Here, N’Dour explores Islam’s Sufis, a religious sect that stresses mysticism, celebration and tolerance. In doing so, N’Dour narrows his musical focus to Senegal and Egypt. Further, it is an orchestral sound, with Egyptian arranger and conductor Fathy Salama leading an orchestra of Middle Eastern strings and wind instruments – a far cry from the percussive, pop-leaning albums of N’Dour’s recent past.Lyrically, “Egypt” is a highly devotional album. It opens with “Allah,” a gracious, light-toned tribute to the Lord. The rest of the tracks are equally devotional, directed to the more distinguished saints of Senegalese Sufiism.This is mesmerizing, dramatic music, and a step apart from anything I’ve heard before.Miriam Makeba, “Reflections”produced by Ringo Madlingozi and Nelson Lumumba (Heads Up Africa)Miriam Makeba has been a pioneer in blending African and Western music. The South African singer, renowned for her 1957 hit “Pata Pata,” was the first performer to leave her country because of its apartheid policies. She came to the States in the late ’50s and earned a Grammy for her album with Harry Belafonte, “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba.” After marrying Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, the couple fled to Guinea. Her appearance on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” tour returned her to prominence; the breaking of apartheid returned her to her native South Africa in 1990. With all the travel, Makeba’s music has taken on multiple flavors: African pop, American jazz, pop and folk, Brazilian bossa nova and more. “Reflections” is a retrospective of her songs, but all rendered in new versions that reflect just how international her perspective has become. She sings in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese, as well as African languages, and the range of pop styles is eye-opening. Her old hit “The Click Song” gets a South American beat; there’s a sunny, shuffling version of Van Morrison’s “I Shall Sing,” and a pair of tunes by her countrymate, trumpeter Hugh Masekela: the torch ballad “Where Are You Going?” and the fusionesque “African Convention.” “Love Tastes Like Strawberries” is wonderful, dreamy and percussive; “Quit It” is a gem of ’60s-style soul. Everything gets a lush pop treatment here, appropriate for Makeba’s smooth voice, but nothing is overdone and the diversity of sounds, styles and songs makes “Reflections” worth a long look.
Oumou Sangare, “Oumou”produced by Nick Gold, Amadou Ba Guindo,Massambou Wele Diallo and Boncana Maïga (World Circuit/Nonesuch)And some musicians prefer to keep the music home-cooked. In the liner notes to “Oumou.” a two-CD retrospective that includes a handful of new tracks, Mailian singer Oumou Sangare is quoted: “Why bother to play other people’s music, when our own is so rich?” There is only a touch of foreign influence here: Nick Gold produced many of the tracks in his London studios, and among the musicians contributing is former James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.Still, it’s hard to hear anything but indigenous ideas here. Any connections to American music are remote, giving this the feel of something truly exotic. Sangare takes the roots music – known as wassoulou – of her country and makes it her own. The songs, some traditional and some originals, lock into repeating rhythms and string melodies while Sangare sings in an urgent voice about such topics as female suffering, polygamy and death, and more uplifting subjects like the hope represented by youth, and the Malian farmland.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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