CD reviews: Sounds of Africa | AspenTimes.com

CD reviews: Sounds of Africa

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesAustralian singer Xavier Rudd collaborated with the South African duo Izintaba on the new album, "Koonyum Sun."
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When Amos Lee canceled last Friday’s Belly Up Aspen show, due to illness, it was a big bummer. Not only was the show sold out, but Lee, a 33-year-old singer-songwriter, may have been on the crest of his career; his excellent album, “Mission Bell,” had been released a week earlier, and went to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart.The big consolation was that Vusi Mahlasela, scheduled as the night’s opening act, did play his set. And the South African made it worth the while for those who attended. (It helped that Belly Up turned the appearance into a free show.) In his home country, Mahlasela is known as “The Voice,” and it proved to be a powerful instrument. The sizable crowd was reluctant to make its way toward the stage at first, but Mahlasela’s impassioned singing seemed to beckon them forward. He is also an excellent guitarist, juxtaposing American blues-folk styles with more African patterns.More sounds from South Africa arrive Friday, Feb. 11, as a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs at the Wheeler Opera House.Following is a look at recent African-oriented albums.

produced by Rudd (Salt Records)Leaning toward Africa for inspiration and sounds doesn’t seem like a big leap for Xavier Rudd. The Australian-born singer-songwriter has shown a distinct reggae influence in his rhythms and lyrical themes. He also has a preference for instruments tied to indigenous cultures; he extensively plays the didgeridoo, the wind instrument that originated with Australian Aboriginals (and which Rudd refers to as the “yirdaki”).On “Koonyum Sun,” Rudd teams with Izintaba, the duo of bassist Tio Moloantoa and drummer Andile Nqubezelo, South African musicians who played together in the band of the late African reggae singer, Lucky Dube. Their presence adds a distinctive element to Rudd’s folksy rock. When Moloantoa and Nqubezelo sing, it has a chanting feel; the wonderful “Time to Smile” echoes the feel of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” When the two get cooking as a rhythm section, as on “Set Me Free,” the bounce and spirit are of African origin. Rudd seems inspired by the new dimension; “Koonyum Sun” (the name is taken not from Africa, but a spot on Australia’s east cast) finds him hopeful, impassioned and grooving.

produced by Nick Gold (Nonesuch)In 1996, a group of Malian musicians were scheduled to arrive in Havana to explore a collaboration with Cuban players. The Africans never made it, so the Cubans settled in with British producer Nick Gold and became the Buena Vista Social Club, whose eponymous album was a phenomenon.Finally, the album that should have been, is. “Afrocubism,” recorded in Madrid, pulls together Buena Vista singer Eliades Ochoa and his Grupo Patria and West Africa’s very best, including kora player Toumani Diabate, guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, and Bassekou Kouyate, the extraordinary ngoni player who appeared in Aspen last year as part of Bla Fleck’s Africa Project.For me, the music on “Afrocubism” is the equal of “Buena Vista Social Club,” and goes one better in experimentation, reinterpreting the original exchange between Caribbean and African that first resulted in the Afro-Cuban style.

produced by Fernando “Dinky” Redondo and Aaron Feder (Amphora Records)Bandleader and guitarist Aaron Feder is a native of Chicago, the group is centered in Barcelona, the players come from South America and Africa as well as Europe and the U.S. – but the sound is solidly in the Afropop mold. Feder formed Alma Afrobeat Ensemble in 2003, as a tribute to the late Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti. On this, their first album, they haven’t come far from that origin; the music mimics the propulsive, horn-heavy mix of jazz, funk and African rhythms that Kuti stirred up in the ’60s and ’70s, with Feder’s snaking guitar as a distinguishing feature.

(National Geographic Music)North Carolina-based, instrumental quartet Toubab Krewe is far less concerned with devotion to African roots than Alma Afrobeat. They signal it in their name: “Krewe” is not an African term, but a New Orleans word for a Mardi Gras organization. Sure enough, “TK2,” their second studio album opens with some old-school New Orleans piano playing.But before the first track, “Mariama,” ends, things get more complex. The beat remains vaguely New Orleans, but the kora, an African string instrument, is introduced, and we’re not in Louisiana anymore, not exactly. The following track, “Nirvana the Buffalo,” opens with aggressive surf guitar over hand drums. Later on there are blues motifs and hard rock. But the group keeps coming back to African styles, giving the album just enough grounding. By now you may be wondering about this word, “toubab.” I’ve come across two meanings: “outsider” or “white man.”

produced by Joseph Shabalala and Mitch Goldstein (Listen 2)The durable South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo digs into the songs of their childhood. The songs, virtually all in the Zulu language, stress family and natural surroundings; there are songs about clouds and chickens, two about donkeys, and several about staying close to home. But until you get to the final track, “Old McDonald … Zulu Style,” with the familiar tune and “ee-eye-ee-eye-ohs” intact, you probably wouldn’t notice that this is, in essence, a children’s album. Black Mambazo, still led by founder Joseph Shabalala, doesn’t adjust its sound, making the same harmonious, call-and-response vocal music they have for nearly 50 years.stewart@aspentimes.com


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