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African Music Review ’09: The Best [and the Worst] of 2009.

20 October 2010 20 October 2010 No Comment Print This Post Print This Post

This past year saw some great African music released. I’ve been privy to rumblings of discontent on this point but I feel that if any deejay or critic is not seeking out music and waiting instead to be spoon fed with masterpieces from Putumayo, or if they only include American releases of African music on their lists, well that’s just lazy and there will naturally be disappointment.

Throughout the year, I have procured music from Europe and Africa to access, air and share. That’s what real music enthusiasts do and therefore, my best of list will contain ceedees that other deejays have not yet heard. The variety of good albums from different countries and genres was a bounty and more than made up for the usual amount of dross which also slipped through the cracks in 2009.

I tried to be objective and consider voice, rhythm, melody, arrangement, execution, innovation, and lyrics in choosing the top ten and it can not be helped if it turns out that they are also my favorites. At least you can be sure that I did not choose a top ten based on arrangements I made with record labels to steer visitors to buy their products on Amazon for filthy kickbacks. That, I most certainly did NOT do. There will be ample opportunity to hear programmes produced around this list on radio.

I will be hosting a top ten countdown on AfrobeatRadio which is broadcast on WBAI Pacifica. That will be on Saturday December 26th at 2:30 PM. I will also be guesting on WHCR with the same special. That will be a one hour show but, on the 27th, our regularly scheduled programme on WVKR will be three hours as usual and will feature a top fifteen [the top ten plus the next five] countdown with two songs played from each album. Don’t miss it. So, from one to ten, here is First World Music’s list of the best African music in 2009.

Oumou Sangare

The best of the lot. After a six year hiatus, Sangaré Kono (Songbird) returned to the scene 1n 2009 with this great recording. Hers is one of the great voices in popular global music and not hearing it for six years was like living through a drought. More than fifty musicians are credited on “Séya”, but very well managed by producer Cheikh Tidiane Seck. The arrangements, by Chiekh and Massambou Ouélé, make sure that these richly textured sonic soundscapes fly and create some of the best fusion music this year. They respect the traditions but tastefully modernises them without uprooting and supplanting them. Above all, this path is validating and affirming. Something which Africans so badly need. The interesting entrances to many of the songs reflect attention to detail. The collection is satisfying to both body and intellect. With the tragic passing of other great Ouassolou konow this year [Sidibé Coumba and Diakité Ramatou] she is more of a treasure than ever before. Long live the Queen. Gold. Label – NONESUCH.

Issa Sow

Quite a lot of Foulani artists released music this year. This is the best. This model was driven by the ritti of Issa Sow. In some tracks he dueted with a European string section and created the best, most compatible, most successful blending of European and African traditions in a long time. Uplifting and majestic! The great voices of the invited guests are some of the best in the business; Omar Ka, Malick Pathé Sow and Abou Diouba to name but three. Fellow rittifola Diouldé Camara took another direction and ended up with a so-so album. He coulda been a contender instead of an also ran. Issa’s path lead him to silver, missing gold by a hair. Label – HOME RECORDS.


Cabo Verde, like Mali, seems like a country that prefers women’s voices. A bevy of chanteuses from, or with some ancestral ties to that archipelago, had ceedee releases in 2009. Among them were Sara Tavares, Lura, Nancy Vieira, Cesaria Evora and Maria de Barros. And then there was “Stória Stória” by Mayra Andrade. A decisive  cut above. What a gorgeous bouquet of thirteen songs, redolent of irresistible, organic fragrances that excites and stimulates the senses. Unbelievable that someone so young could make music of such depth and maturity! Of course, credit must also go to the producer and the Brasilian musicians. The one and only Jacques Morelenbaum is credited with the string arrangements on smooth creme brulées like “Odjus fitchadu”. Gorgeous in the extreme. Bronze. Label – STERN’S.


This alumnus of the Rail Band came back in 2009 with a solid solo ceedee to prove that he has lost nothing of his playing and arranging acumen with the passage of time but has in fact honed his ability to compose catchy hooks in contemporary compositions, moving the Manding tradition forward. Highly recommended. Label – EMARCY.


Ilyas is a singer and violinist who is a member of the oldest taarab orchestra, “Nadi Ikhwani Safaa” and most of the 17 members of the new orchestra formed specifically for the recording of his first solo album are from that group. The kanounist; Rajab Souleiman, was borrowed from Culture Musical Club. The music is so well composed, it brings out the invention and creativity and virtuosity of all participants. Ilyas‘s voice is not the biggest but it is useful enough to skilfully execute the vocal melodious techniques, such as mawwal, matching the music in colour and nuance. Happy to include something from east Africa, on the merits. Label – CHIKU-TAKU.


There is such a qualitative difference  between “Zabalaza” [her debut solo ceedee] and “Ibokwé”  that Thandiswa deserves the prize for most improved. It’s not just because the stylistic equation is inverted but because focus and consistency has produced a holistic and cohesive product.  Earth Mother’s direction on this one is more deeply rooted. The distinctive harmonies on the backing vocals could only come from one place. It’s the first sound one hears. “Iyéza”; the first track, opens with an insistently repeated, primordial siren sound motif, and the listener is a happy captive. It gets better from there. Another of the great voices in African music. GALLO.

A tie. These two are veritable living national treasures, storehouses of knowledge and guardians of the word. They both recorded and released great albums this year, neither of which are museum pieces. Not that there would be anything wrong with that, but framed in a setting with nods to modernity, it still makes the important moral and historical lessons accessible and relevant. Superb!


I love this one. This young man knows what everybody acknowledges; Mali is the powerhouse in African music and talent. It’s amusing to me how many barely known journeyman musicians from Europe or America want to play with Malians and make a name for themselves with that cachet. And so, what did Blick do when he was ready to record his debut solo ceedee? He went to Bamako to record at Salif Keïta’s recording studios with Malian musicians and Malian instruments. The difference is that this kid has talent, charm, looks and a voice that can capture the same demographic that Marvin Gaye held in his thrall. Most people think of fusion music as between African and European or American musicians. Viewing such music in the prism of such a narrow paradigm is a way of not recognising intraAfrican collaborations. This indeed is fusion music as African-American soul influences comes to a confluence with Malian melodies and instrumentation and Bassa lyrics and rhythms. Wonderful! Label – FOUR QUARTERS.


10] PETER SOLO—MIADOMÉ. I heard a song by this artist on Radio France Internationale, just one of the many internet sources that I listen to to keep up with new ceedees and artists. We became “friends” on MySpace and his manager sent me the ceedee. I am glad he did. This was a true revelation. A strong voice backed by a great mix of afrobeat and afropop with hints of reggae and Gnawi as well as Togolese influences. It’s encouraging to know that small, unheralded labels can produce competitive product. Well done.

So there it is. Ten ceedees by artists hailing from 7 countries; Mali, Guinée-Conakry, Togo, Cabo Verde, South Africa, Senegal and Cameroun. Preliminary responses from this list point to my omitting some ceedees such as the latest Cesaria Evora or . Well, it’s hard to rate ceedees that the labels never sent and have not listened to.

The competition this past year was tough with many quality recordings not quite making it to the top ten. To put a ceedee at #11 was agonising. I thououghly enjoyed Ricardo Lemvo’s “Retrospectiva”. Lura’s “Eclipse” grew on me. Conti Bilong’s “Bana” was a winner as well. Ti-Coca’s late entry must also be considered as well as Tinariwen who just squeezed into the last spot.



The competition wasn’t too thick this year but this one was good.



Who could have topped this spectacle? Many names I could mention but nobody did. If you missed it, you missed a fantastic exposition of Imazighen culture and music in an unforgettable night from two masters. The way they communicated with the audience and controlled the controlled the flow of the ambience was just amazing. They whipped the crowd into a frenzy of butt-shaking dances and calmed us down with wistful lullabies and roused the patriotic with anthemic, flag-waving odes. I was totally spent and satisfied when it was all over.


There is an entire industry being built up around this concept. Labels are being formed whose sole purpose is mining the globe, but especially Africa, to put oldies out on ceedee for consumption in Europe and America. Soundway is one. Strut is another. They don’t produce anything new by active artists and I don’t know if they even pay the artists for using their songs for these reissues. Generally speaking, I am not of the view that these are gems from some “belle epoque” that was missed and so, must be revisited. For me, I find that the belle epoque is now and in the future, not in the past. I do not feel nostalgic for these past eras. I look always forward. Great African music is being created NOW. Frankly, I have not listened to many of these reissues. I bought Cesaria Evora’s “Radio Mindelo”; “lost” recordings from her youth. Her voice was unripe back then. I also bought Orchestra Aragon’s four disc, 70 year retrospective. This gave me much pleasure. It is my choice for reissue of the year.


It’s a tie for these two unspeakably revolting stinkers. These two are so irredeemably awful, they deserve to be honoured. They are like poison ivy rubbing against the psyche. True, there are many good European producers of African music but there are many ambitious but ignorant ones too. When they conspire with African musicians who want to take their music to “the next level”, beware! The last Amadou and Mariam was the most offensive third rate pop and first rate rubbish and was produced by some guy named Damon Albran. Maal’s ceedee was produced by one Barry Reynolds. What were they thinking? “Sabali” has got to be the worst song since “Hey Micky” or “Ebony and Ivory”. Consumers are being duped into thinking this is African music. It is not. This is American and European music with a blind black man and woman at the mike singing in their native dialect. That’s all. As for Maal, I heard a bootleg copy in Harlem before the legal release. I thought it was a crashing bore. Months before, I had exchanged several e-mails with Palm Pictures personnel in New York and Los Angeles in an effort to procure his live “On the road” album. I was given the run around and never got the ceedee. When they sent “Television”, unsolicited, to my post office box, I did something I never did before in 20 years of radio deejaying. I sent it back to the label, with a letter of explanation and a review. There had to be a response to that. Now, everybody knows that Baaba Maal has been playing second fiddle to Youssou in Sénégal for his entire career. By now, he’s slipped from second to who knows where with singers like Titi, Pape Diouf and now Daby Baldé consistently outselling him. This must have had a negative psychological effect on him hence this offering; a malodorous concoction, carbonated by flatulence and sweetened with high fructose sludge syrup. Bleached of exciting, local properties and diluted to even lower than sub-standard American and European pop aesthetics, it can only appeal to “westerners” who have been stoked by a contemptuous narcissism into consuming this tourist trade version of African music. If this “music” was a food, consumption would make you unhealthy, unhappy, fat and fugly. But if you don’t mind that, enjoy!

Written and presented by Akenataa Hammagaadji.
Akenaata Hammagaadji is an African music expert and cultural critic. He is the radio host of First World Music; an African music programme broadcast from WVKR. His insightful music reviews, which goes beyond music into cultural dissections, can be found in his weekly First World Music Newsletter, now a blog on afrobeatradio.net.

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