Zemelewa (Grigri Discs, 2012)
It only takes a brief look at the liner notes to know that there’s a story behind Zieti’s debut recording Zemelewa, out on the Grigri Discs label. Ten years in the making, Zieti has overcome vast distances, political upheaval and war to create a sound that is both vibrant and engaging. Rooted in the kaleidoscope colors of the Afropop sound, Zemelewa dips into West African funk, Congolese rumba and 1970s Afrofunk to brighten its sound. The result is fabulously fresh and deliciously addictive.
It was more than ten years ago when American musicians, guitarist Michael Shereikis and drummer Alex Owre, teamed up with Ivorian musicians Yeoue Narcisse and guitarist and vocalist Tiende Laurent. The group started rehearsing in a recording studio fashioned out of shipping crates in Abidjan. But fate took an ugly turn with Mr. Shereikis and Mr. Owre returning to the U.S. and war breaking out in Ivory Coast. Mr. Shereikis explains, “Before I left the country, we had gone into the studio and recorded ten tracks. That recording was lost, which was a major blow to all of us. It sounded great though, and a lot of songs on Zemelewa come from that time.”
Despite Ivory Coast’s civil war, separation and times where the safety of some of the musicians was in question, Zemelewa finally came to fruition with work being done in studios in Abidjan, Silver Spring, Md, Freedom, Me, Catonsville, Md and Takoma Park, Md.
Mr. Shereikis explains working on the sound, “I fleshed out what we had done together, the way I remembered it as we played and recorded it. I added a few other colors and element to give it a bit of edge. None of these choices were calculated, beyond my hope that they would make Narcisse and Laurent happy and give this music its full worth.”
Zemelewa has indeed found its full worth. Sly and hip, Zemelewa is brimming over with heady African percussion lines, potent vocals and meaty guitar licks in full flowered tracks. Opening with the breezy title track “Zemelewa,” Zieti draws the listener in with saucy flashes of accordion and organ against a lush backdrop of guitar, bass, drums and African percussion. There’s plenty to ohh and ahh over with tracks like “Zion Do” with its dashes of flute and harmonica against some tight, neat vocals, or “Tindehe” with its rich, meaty opening and bright, breezy lushness. Listeners are treated to gems like “Patriote” and “Politiki” with its healthy dose of Afrofunk. My personal favorite is “Bah Bohi” which possesses a lazy soulfulness that’s hard to resist.
With lyrics sung in Guere, Zemelewa remains accessible, as Mr. Shereikis explains, “You don’t have to understand the worlds to appreciate this music. As you’re tapping your foot, Narcisse’s unique phrasing and tone convey a visceral sense that this is message music.”
Zemelewa is simply stunning and we hope that the next offering from Zieti comes with a lot less struggle.