By Douglas Heselgrave
Apologia: Ok, I know that none of these artists is likely to appear on Austin City limits or play at the Willie Nelson picnic any time soon, but each of these records is so good in its own way – and there are plenty of roots sounds to hear for those with sharp ears – that I couldn’t resist showcasing them here. To put it into context, I remember that one of my first assignments when I was a journalist in Hong Kong was to review Gillian Welch’s ‘Time: the Revelator’ for a world music column – reminding me that one person’s country music is another person’s exotica. So, here goes –
Ali and Toumani – by Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate
Ali and Toumani is the second CD released since the death of Ali Farka Toure in 2006. Like its predecessor ‘In the Heart of the Moon’ – Toure’s first collaboration with the virtuoso kora player Toumani Diabate – the songs on ‘Ali and Toumani’ showcase a gentle meditative side of Malian acoustic music. Often heralded as the musical missing link between West African music and the country blues, Toure’s ‘John Lee Hooker in the desert’ guitar playing has never sounded as assured and effortlessly beautiful as it does here. Recorded in London shortly before the guitarist’s death, these songs exude an undercurrent of urgency as the two musicians elected to re-record some of Toure’s ‘greatest hits’ in a modern studio for posterity. For this session, Toure brought his son, Vieux Farka, into the studio with him to play percussion as a way of passing the torch on to the next generation. (Vieux Farka Toure has since recorded two worthy albums of his own) “Ali and Toumani’ is an indispensable album that only gets better with repeated exposure.
Zebu Nation – by Razia
Razia Said was born on the East African island of Madagascar where she began singing at the age of three. She divided the rest of her childhood between living with her mother in Gabon, West Africa and attending boarding school in France. As a young adult, she moved to Harlem to work as a pharmacist while continuing to sing and play music loosely based on African traditional styles. Reports of the devastation of her homeland’s natural environment inspired her to return to Madagascar with a film crew and group of musicians in an attempt to explore and capture some of its vanishing culture. The music Razia plays sounds quite a lot different than much of the African music that has been released in the west. Most of the songs prominently feature a traditional Malagasy accordion, so to my untrained ears, the resulting sound is often reminiscent of Cajun or Zydeco music. Singing in English and Malagasy, Razia has created a lovely, touching musical portrait of a vanishing culture that – like the previously mentioned CD from Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate – reveals more of its depths each time it is played. Razia is definitely an artist to watch.
Rise and Shine – Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars
The Refugee Allstars debut CD, ‘Living Like a Refugee’ was the feel good CD of 2007. Essentially the soundtrack to a documentary that followed a group of refugees from war torn Sierra Leone to a camp in Guinea where they began to play music as a way to pass the time, ‘Living Like A Refugee’ was more a celebration of survival than an enduring musical masterwork. The playing was loose and rough, and the singing was rougher still. So, this time out, with their stories already told, the players who make up the Refugee Allstars must have realized that they’d have to prove themselves all over again with this album. To a large extent, they’ve succeeded very well. Produced by Steve Berlin, the sax player from Los Lobos, ‘Rise and Shine’ is a bit more polished than its predecessor – time signatures and harmonies have been worked out more carefully – but it still exudes a rugged charm that is immensely appealing. By combining the blues with early seventies reggae inflections and African highlife melodies, the Allstars have created a sound that is at once very familiar and all their own. A testament to the healing power of music, ‘Rise and Shine’ is destined to become one of the most instantly likeable releases of the year.