Today on Driftwood well take a look at two releases from Africa and one from east Asia. Unusual instruments (like the jeli n’goni, the direct ancestor of the banjo), amazingly simple modes and melodies, deft use of 32nd notes, and a ton of vocals are the order of the day.
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba
I Speak Fula
[Sub Pop!/Next Ambience (2009)]
The jeli n’goni is an unlikely candidate for hip instrument status. It is as if a psaltry player who had learned to play from his grandfather decided to plug the thing in and start jamming with Eileen Ivers. The n’goni is an instrument of the Malian court; griots composed and played songs about the exploits and grandeur of the Bamana dynasty. They did not slide and bend notes like John Lee Hooker.
In 1985 while playing in the ensemble of Nainy Diabate, 19-year-old Bassekou Kouyate put a strap on the n’goni, stepped up to the front of the staged and . . . blazed. This diminutive ancestor of the banjo has four strings suspended above an animal skin stretched over a calabash, but it is as exciting to listen to as any kora … or electric guitar.
N’goni ba has four n’goni players (with a guest appearance from kora player Toumani Diabate), and the interplay among them recalls, of all things, the Allman Brothers. Kouyate was famously able to jam with Taj Mahal in 1990 without ever having heard the blues before. Since then he has heard plenty of blues, and many of its excesses—blinding fast runs, extended soloing, improvised interplay—are present here.
But this isn’t all foreshadows of the blues. On “Musow” you will hear the inspiration for many of the Remain in Light-era Talking Heads collaborations with Brian Eno. This song projects an entirely different type of menace than what one associates with the blues: It is frenzied, edgy, and driven.
Kouyate’s wife, the so-called “Tina Turner of Mali,” Amy Sacko, leads the singing on I Speak Fula. She is a much more restrained vocalist than Ms. Turner, but there is a husky power to her singing that makes histrionics unnecessary. On many tracks, the blending of several voices creates a multi-timbering sound that is almost too seamless to be called harmony.
The loping rhythm of “Torin Torin” and “Falani” and the keening sound of “Saro” bear the closest resemblance to the Touareg music of the north of Mali. Although there is an obvious relationship, nothing on I Speak Fula has the ferocity of the neo-Berber music of, say, Tinariwen, with its ululating women and biting guitars. N’goni ba is the sound of a sedentary, sophisticated empire, not of refugee desert nomads. As such, it is distinguished by delicate and complex arrangements and imbued with more melancholy than anger.
—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)
Baka Beyond the Forest
[White Swan/Carthage Music/March Hare Music WS 0011 (2009)]
Baka Beyond, the multinational group put together by British guitarist/producer Martin Cradick that features 16 female and four male singers and a half-dozen percussionists from Cameroon, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Ghana, fuses the rhythms, collective singing, and natural sounds of the Baka people of Cameroon’s forest with the musical traditions of Europe’s Celtic lands. With their third collaboration, Baka Beyond the Forest, Cradick and the Bakas turn their focus to Yelli, a ritual, wordless singing style traditionally sung all night by Baka women while their husbands hunt in an attempt to capture the spirit of the animals through song. While basic tracks were recorded on a solar-powered machine in the middle of Cameroon’s rainforest, Cradick later replaced some voices with bass and acoustic guitar and added hi-hat rhythms, along with flutes, keyboards, and traditional West African instruments including the single-string bamboo flute (ndong), thumb piano (iloung), and seven-stringed harp (ieta). Vocals by Cradick’s wife, Su Hart, are featured on a pair of Gaelic tunes. On “Illa Dhuinn” she is accompanied by by harp lute (ngombi), uilleann pipes, and percussion, and during “An T-Oighr’Og,” recorded at the Globalquerque festval in New Mexico, her vocals are set over a loop of Baka percussionists and Yelli singing from the original sessions.
—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)
Dengue Fever Presents: Electric Cambodia
[Minky MKY1 (2009)]
Dengue Fever Presents: Electric Cambodia is, unfortunately, an example of wasted potential. The songs listed, reminiscent of the Beach Boys (if Brian Wilson were fourteen different female Cambodians), were lifted from the late 60s and early 70s and poorly transcribed from cassette tapes to compact disc. The end result is that of tinny, fuzzy songs that fail to properly convey the source material.
The songs are all engaging and have a pleasant rockabilly sensibility, but don’t contain enough of an Eastern flair to differentiate them from run-of-the-mill rock. Thankfully, the last few tracks, “Snaeha,” “I Will Starve Myself to Death,” and “Cold Sky,” however, are genuinely fun to listen to, probably because they are the least “rock” of the tracks offered. These pieces are more focused on traditional melodies and instruments and, when merged with rock and roll, genuinely sound like East meets West.
—Michael Tager (Baltimore, MD)
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