African Music Review: The Best [and the Worst] of 2010.
It’s that time again. Time to make the obligatory, end of the year “best of” list and please people with my choices and comments or annoy people who didn’t see CDs from their country or by their favourite artists on it.
Well, let’s say for starters that this is a list that contain CDs that I have received this past year. Needless to say, I have not received or reviewed every CD release of African music in the past 12 months. CD sales are down and it harder than ever to get some record labels to send music to radio stations.
Some good CDs I didn’t even bother to pursue because it’s like pulling teeth to get them from certain labels. It can get embarrassing to constantly e-mail them to beg for a CD that you will be doing the artist a favour by airing and publicizing. On the other hand, one gets barrels full of unsolicited rubbish weekly.
Many of these, accompanied by press releases touting the amazing ability of the recording to be cutting edge, hip “world music” that is electronica, jazz, soul, pop, reggae with a touch of traditional Maori elements, all simultaneously.
Desperate and nondescript nonsense that is best used as a frisbee or shiny Christmas tree ornament. Of course, even if one uses objective criteria to judge music, one still ends up with a list on one’s likes.
It’s no different with me and there is only one CD on this list that I don’t own as I don’t really care for it but inclusion is acknowledgment that it is really good. So, with that long caveat, here is the First World Music Top Ten African CDs for 2010.
1] CARLOU D.— MUZIKR. WORLD VILLAGE
Amid all the dross of unsolicited promotional CDs that littered my mailbox this year, I found a nugget of purest gold. “Muzikr” by Carlou D. is the best CD of the year. Conceptualised to bring the zikr out of its esoteric strictures by the addition of contemporary Senegalese instruments and melodies, it was perfectly executed. Carlou D’s singing is muscular, confident, nuanced, simultaneously youthful and mature. The album exudes joy for life, love, dance, song and spiritual peace within its cohesive structure. So refreshing to hear contemporary modern Senegalese music without an preponderance of claviers hogging the melody lines. A worthy gold medal winner.
2] KHAIRA ARBY—TOUMBOUTOU TARAB. CLARMONT
I’ve been listening to Koroboro music for decades. I own two cassettes and one CD by this woman before this last recording but this is the first time most world beaters and afro poppers had ever heard of her. Inevitably, there was a lot of press and cyberspace column inches devoted to this “new” talent, most burdened by stupidity and hyperbole. One “African music expert” likened her to Aretha Franklin in his review. [sic] The album is indeed exciting and the live performances by the band during their American tour, electrifying. Thanks to the dazzling wizardry of her 21-year old Abdrahamane Touré on electric guitar, American listeners thought they heard rock influences and sensibilities in his melodic architecture, making it easy to “get with it”. But songs like “Khaira” and “Goumou” are irresistible for the complete elemental input. Handclaps, sokou, background singing. Indeed, the virtuoso playing of Ebalaw Yattara on n’goni was as impressive to me as Touré’s guitar playing. Unfortunately, Carlou D. gets the edge and “Timbuktu Tarab” gets silver.
3] KONONO N°1—ASSUME CRASH POSITION. CRAMMED
This Congolese outfit came back in 2010 bolder than ever with this album. Featuring the same rough-hewn compositions on electrified likembé and recycled scrap metal percussion and amplifiers. Complex, insistent and constantly shifting melodies and rhythm, all contrive to showcase a testament to African resilience, ingenuity and creativity in less than optimal living conditions in Congo 2010. This music will invade your mind and body like a phantasmagoric body snatcher. Bronze.
4] ALI FARKA TOURÉ & TOUMANI DIABATÉ—ALI & TOUMANI. NONESUCH
Just like there will be no true Beatles reunion, there will not be another Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté album. Death made sure of that. This follow up to the Grammy award winning “In the heart of the moon” is more of the same, superior, contemplative music that people of quality and taste can appreciate. The young people have their own. We mature people of a certain vintage and temperament have ours. I prefer ours. With only guitar and kora, they set the mood. Percussion, contrabass and occasionally, Ali Farka’s vocals [Toumani doesn't sing] adds variety. A masterpiece.
5] SOUMAORO IDRISSA—DJITOUMOU. LUSAFRICA
This follow up album to “Kotè” is full of originality and experimentation. It’s a risk that pays handsome dividends. No recycled songs here. I did recognise the familiar refrain on “Yèrè Djaté” but that doesn’t count and besides, I don’t expect the non-Malian listener to recognise it. The only jarring note musically to my ears was a harmonica that sounded like a clucking hen in places but after a while almost didn’t hear it. There are also two songs with an Eastern European feeling. All I can say is, interesting. Anyway, “Djitoumou” reveals Soumaoro to be an artist with a singular vision. It displays a varied sonic palette which incorporates elements of classic [not neo] blues, soul and country. It’s as modern and more original than anything a young African rap imitator can muster. Highly recommended.
6] KEÏTA SALIF—LA DIFFÉRENCE. UNIVERSAL MUSIC FRANCE
He may be wary of touring Europe and North America to make money but his creative expression on record sounds far from tired. In fact, Keïta has never sounded more emotional and expressive in his singing. Many of the songs sound introspective but it is only the title track that can be said to actually be so. On “La Différence”, Keïta sings for the first time in his career about the condition with which he was born; albinism. And if you find something familiar about the rest of the songs, you are not wrong. They were released earlier on previous albums. These re-workings are different enough to make a qualitative distinction. Not better. Just different. Produced with the highest quality production. The addition of oud, piano, accordion and cello enhance this moving and evocative collection.
7] KEÏTA ALY—FARAFINKO. CONTRE JOUR
Not only is Aly Keïta a balafola of the first order but he also builds his own magnificent instruments. The sonority of the bala on his sophomore album [Farafinko] is without peer. Keïta’s fluid playing produces mellifluous roulades like a waterfall. This album is great and should not be overlooked simply because it lacks Auto-Tuned vocals, synthesised music, derivative rap and other rubbish. All the better to focus on Keïta’s playing. There’s not a big enough oeuvre of solo, instrumental recordings of African instruments. Keïta’s “Farafinko” ups the number.
8] DÉMÉ VICTOR—DÉLI. CHAPA BLUES
At number eight is another sophomore effort. I’m so glad that Démé is getting some commercial success now after a long struggle in Côte d’Ivoire before returning to his native Burkina Faso. This album picks up where his debut solo opus left off; a collection of soulful ballads based in Manding tradition and a few up-tempo numbers. Guitar, bass, kora, accordion harmonise to create the soundscape. There’s also violin, a little to sweet and intrusive in places but not repellent enough to be objectionable. I was glad to see him live in Central Park, NYC this past summer. Backed by his core band and stripped of the European studio arrangements, the elemental quality of the compositions worked very well. And Démé’s voice, simultaneously plaintive and soulful, imbued the crowd with warmth and good feeling.
9] ASMARA ALL STARS…ERITREA’S GOT SOUL. OUT HERE
This was a pleasant surprise. It is rare to get music from Eritrea. This album came together courtesy of a white French producer. Many of the participants did not see his vision initially which was to assemble the best musicians in the country for an all star band to record an album of modern Eritrean music and sung in all the languages of Eritrea. But after a few auditions and rehearsals, others quickly came aboard. The album is a bit uneven but the sound is fresh and there are some gems. The surprise was how much reggae has influenced contemporary Eritrean musical sensibilities. That I did not expect. The opening track, sung by Faytinga, exemplifies this very well. The jaunty reggae melody is book-ended by traditional drums. An interesting aural treat. If only to have Eritrea represented in your African music collection, you must get this.
10] MARIEM HASSAN—SHOUKA. NUBENEGRA
The voice of Mariem Hassan is hard, gritty, rough and stark as the life of any Sahraoui refugee must be. And the music matches. The Sahraoui people are really Imazighen originally but now identify as Arabs. Their music resembles that of the Maures of Mauritania. They’ve kept some of the modal qualities but they cleave less tenaciously to the classical formality of musical presentation. Indeed, tidnit and ardin both seem to have been universally jettisoned for the electric guitar. Tbal and handclaps are constant though and the arrangements are augmented with clarinet and ney. There could have been more driving, propulsive numbers like “Maatal-la” and “Ragsat naama” for my taste and at 16 tracks, the album is too long. Still, this is a great document of contemporary Saharoui music and merits its place in the top ten.
BEST COMPILATION OR REISSUE OF 2010.
LURA…BEST OF LURA CD & DVD. LUSAFRICA
She only has four CDs on the international market and it might seem presumptuous of her record label to think that she was so good that after such a scant output, a “Best of” compilation was warranted. Actually, it was thoroughly merited. A very good decision.Lura’s best asset is her ability to sing many genres equally well. Morna, coladera, funaná, batuku, kontradansa all fare well with her interpretation. With Toi Vieira at the helm of arrangements, she’s in solid hands. Hardly a misstep anywhere. And the bonus DVD show of her dancing and personality very well from the stage.
BEST LIVE RECORDING OF 2010.
THANDISWA…LIVE IN CONCERT. GALLO
The competition wasn’t too thick this year but this one was the best. “On Air”, the posthumously released live recording of Cheikha Rimitti didn’t have the variety as Thandiswa Mazai’s. A very, very good live recording.
BEST LIVE CONCERT OF 2010.
ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO @ TOWN HALL NYC ON MARCH 26TH.
She is the best communicator from the stage. She rules and commands and the audience obeys. Blink, and you’ll miss something. I can’t imagine people tweeting from her show but there are extreme narcissists out there. This was a great show. She had the audience eating out of her hands.
WORST CD OF 2010. AVOID THIS ONE LIKE THE LATEST DISEASE.
VARIOUS ARTISTS…SHANGAAN ELECTRO. HONEST JON’S
In the past I’ve criticised white Europeans in America and Europe for producing African artists while not understanding African music. Some of these aim to destroy African music in the first place with narcissistic, forced hybridisation resulting in pure, unadulterated rubbish. This piece of drivel is entirely home grown in South Africa and would have stayed there except for some couch potato in Brooklyn looking at a You-Tube clip and thinking this was good music worthy to be put on CD and distributed from the US to the world. NOT! This repetitive, unsophisticated, synthetic crap sped up to 100 MPH will induce schizophrenia in anyone who listens to it. You will hear voices in your head telling you to kill people.
RECORD LABEL OF THE YEAR: LUSAFRICA
Great music. They respect African music. Their output doesn’t take the music far from its roots. Nice people to work with too. They are very responsive to deejay requests for promos. Good job Lusafrica! I look forward to working with you in 2011.
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.