Category Archives: Film Reviews

Resistance Was Not Futile

Rhythm of Resistance – Black South African Music
Rhythm of Resistance – Black South African Music (Digital Classics DVD DC 10022, 2007)

First seen in 1979 and now re-released by UK-based Digital Classics, Rhythm of Resistance remains an essential, powerful document of how necessary a role music played in sustaining the everyday lives of South Africa’s black majority during the dark times of apartheid.

Filmmaker Jeremy Marre, while constantly trying to evade the presence of the South African police who shadowed his every move, captured scenes that would be comic in their absurdity if the reality of them weren’t so tragic. We see the anally exacting lengths that white overseers went to in censoring music thought to be rebellious in nature. We see Zulu culture celebrated covertly due to its public suppression. We see the singing duo of Johnny Clegg and Sipho MChunu (who later formed the nucleus of the groundbreaking band Juluka) raising eyebrows simply because one of them is white and the other black. And in one surreal sequence that’s alone worth the price of the DVD, we see a bewildered-looking white man, chosen off the street for his supposed impartiality, judging a secret all-night singing contest inside a black worker’s hostel.

It’s not all irony, though. The sheer diversity of South African music is examined as well, from the Venda drum-powered sound Philip Tabane and Malombo to the stomping mbaqanga of the Mahotella Queens and the a capella singing of Ladysmith Black Mambazo a few years before their rise to international stardom.

While some might dismiss this fine film as a museum piece depicting a bygone era, its relevance extends beyond time and place. We live in a world still rife with oppression and suffering, and music will always be both a balm to soothe those who suffer and a weapon to combat those who unjustly wield political, financial or religious power.

Buy Rhythm of Resistance (NTSC system DVD).

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A Portrait of Marimba Masters from Pondo Land

Amampondo

Amampondo – An Image Of Africa – Live In Cape Town  – Umfanekiso we Afrika (Mountain Records, 2006)

This enthralling DVD by South African group Amampondo reveals a fascinating story about urban African musicians who returned to their ancestral roots. The majority of the members of Amampondo are were born in the coastal city of Langa. It was there that they decided to research the musical roots of their forefathers. The majority of the ancestors were originally from Pondo Land and thus the name Amampondo: the people of Pondo Land.

As the DVD reveals, the musicians have gone beyond South African music. In their travels throughout Africa, they have acquired new songs and instruments. 

The first part of the video is a live performance, where you can enjoy the beautiful harmony of up to four marimbas played simultaneously. Each marimba us tuned differently and varies in size. The marimbas used are: tenor marimba, bass marimba, double bass marimba, and soprano marimba. in addition, the group uses large ancestral drums, congas and other percussion instruments. The percussionists are accompanied by four singers and dancers.

Dressed in traditional outfits, with beautiful body paint, Amampondo introduces amazing instruments throughout the live concert, like the enormous Ugandan akadinda, a xylophone that is played by four musicians on stage, creating a trance-like experience. 

Other instruments used are a flute from Botswana, the mouth bow, traditionally played by mothers. as a tribute, Amampondo invited three female elders to sing and play. There are also animal horns and jew’s harp (played by the female elders).

The second part of the DVD is a great documentary about Amampondo, showing their hometown, interviews and life in Langa. What’s interesting is that while other urban black South Africans embraced pop and Western culture, Amampondo brought out their roots. They are modern men who have decided to preserve a venerable culture. 

Buy Amampondo – An Image Of Africa – Live In Cape Town.

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Cuban Reggaetón Liberation

Various Artists

Liberacion, the Songs of the New Cuban Underground (Petrol/EMI, 2007)

Cuba produces an impressive amount of cutting edge music. Some have focused on timba, others on rock and hip. This DVD focuses on the reggaetón scene in Santiago de Cuba.

What’s really exciting about Santiago de Cuba’s reggaetón is the rich variety of sounds. While a lot of recent US-produced reggaetón sounds slick and repetitive, Cubans, as usual, add more spice to the mix.

The young multi-talented singers and musicians combine witty lyrics and basic reggaetón beats with funk, rock, son and more. That makes the music richer, more appealing and innovative.

 

Some of the versatile singers featured are El Médico, Candyman, Donato, Lady Ragga, Black Boy and other young talents. 

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Unhurried Rhythms and Images of the Peoples of the Desert

Various Artists – Spirit – Peoples of the Desert

Various Artists – Spirit – Peoples of the Desert (Palm World Voices PALMDV3133, 2006)

A soothing antidote to any lingering remains of the all pervasive festive season schmaltz and late winter blues, Spirit is the latest presentation in a series of lavishly decorative and weighty packages of CD and DVD from Chris Blackwell’s (he of Island Records and Palm Pictures) Palm World Voices.

It’s a thoughtful and cohesive compilation, culled largely from albums of the 1980s and 90s, including elegant tracks from Turkish guitarist Erkan Ogur, “Çavin Ote Yüzünde” and from ‘ud player,

Anouar Brahem, “Conte De L’Incroyable Amour.” The relaxing segue of the first two tracks, Bel Canto’s “Buthana” and Desert Equation from Sussan Deyhim and Richard Horowitz, takes you instantly into a better frame of mind. Following through with Spirit’s theme of ethereal ambience, reminiscent shades of early Mercan Dede can be heard in the unhurried rhythms and sounds of both

Jamshied Sharifi’s “Anahita Will Sustain You” and Omar Faruk Tekbilek’s “Long Wait” – there’s a wealth of equally cool mellowness from start to finish, very suitably rounded off by the mesmeric “Assoul” from Tinariwen.

On the DVD, the CD tracks accompany splendidly dissolving and overlaid images of desert life and landscape, which could be viewed as a bit romantic and arty, so what? It will certainly have you hungering for warmer climes.

The accompanying book, rather more of a booklet and generously illustrated with photographs, is authored by Robin Denselow, the respected British music journalist. There’s plenty of description and background to history, music, religion, legends etc. but other than minimal listing, if you want to know more about the individual musicians and bands you’ll have to go a-googling.

Buy Spirit – Peoples of the Desert

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Mandela, a Mesmerizing Boxed Set

Palm World Voices - Mandela
Palm World Voices – Mandela

Palm World Voices – Mandela (Palm Pictures, 2006)


Mandela
is the latest installment of the must have Palm Pictures series Palm World Voices. The beautifully packaged boxed set collection includes a DVD, a soundtrack CD , a 48-page book and a National Geographic map. It is scheduled for release July 18, coinciding with the South African leader’s 88th
birthday.

The DVD is titled Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation. Shot during the historic 1994 presidential election, it narrates the history of Nelson Mandela and his effect on South African politics up to the presidential
election, using interviews with Mandela himself, family members and many
important leaders in South African life. The documentary includes fascinating
archival footage, which shows the brutality of the apartheid regime in 20th
century south Africa.

The soundtrack CD includes some of the key figures in South African jazz and
popular music. Some of the artists included are: Vusi Mahlasela, the Manhattan Brothers, the late Brenda Fassie, the “white Zulu” Johnny Clegg, legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and the African National Congress Choir.

The 48-page book includes dozens of photos and art images, and an essay by British journalist Robin Densenlow.

The boxed set also includes a 20″ x 30″ National Geographic map.

Buy Palm World Voices – Mandela

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Fascinating Musical Travelogue of Brazil

Moro No Brasil
Moro No Brasil
Described as a travelogue, Moro No Brasil is Mika Karsmaki’s vision of Brazil’s music. He begins by researching the music of the Brazilian aboriginals, on this case the Fulni-O Indians.

Karsmai travels hundreds of kilometers throughout Brazil, encountering rural folk music, urban entertainers and even some Brazilian musical stars, like Seu Jorge.

Part documentary, part musical video, the video is a fascinating watch.

Buy the DVD, Moro No Brasil
and the CD: Moro No Brasil soundtrack CD

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Youssou N’Dour DVD, Live in Montreux

Youssou N'Dour - Live at Montreux
Youssou N’Dour – Live at Montreux

Youssou N’Dour

Live at Montreux (Eagle Rock entertainment, 2005)

Youssou N’Dour is one of the biggest world music stars up to date and has gone through many musical stages. His video Live at Montreux is a historical account of what
N’Dour sounded like in 1989. The videotaping was carried during the famous Montreux Jazz Festival and it features
N’Dour with his legendary band, Le Super Etoile de Dakar.

There are powerful performances of N’Dour‘s biggest hits at the time, like Immigrés and Shaking the Tree. His masterful band combined the best of West African drumming (sabar and tama) and stringed instruments with electric instruments.

The video includes five bonus performances also recorded in Montreux in 1995.

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Africa Calling

cover of Africa Caling
Various Artists – Live 8 at Eden Africa Calling

Various Artists

Live 8 at Eden Africa Calling (Real World/Rhino R2 970505, 2005)

Live 8 at Eden – Africa Calling was part of the Live 8 series of concerts to raise money for “Make Poverty History”. This concert brought together traditional African music, Arab-African music and Western influenced music. The group of artists represented on this DVD take you from the far north in Algeria to the extreme south in South Africa. It truly represents all the beauty of Africa and some of the harsh realities. We have artists on this CD who have been refugees, political prisoners and even a child soldier and yet their music still has the distinct feeling of hope and a love for life.It was a pity though that many of the artists were missing either their entire band or parts of their groups, which I thought took away from some performances.

However, Geoffrey Oryema from Uganda performed on his own with simply his voice and his guitar. His voice is completely mesmerizing. It is at once gentle and soothing, moving seamlessly into a commanding and very powerfully stirring delivery. In the first song he sings, Lapowny, he uses his guitar as a string instrument and a percussion instrument and it is just fascinating to watch how he uses it to express himself. Quite frankly I am not sure that having a band behind him wouldn’t have taken away from the simplicity of his delivery, which is so strong. Geoffrey Oryema is definitely one from this DVD that would be worth learning more about.

African music cannot be pigeonholed into one category as this DVD well shows. The musical influences and instruments from all corners of the world have been
incorporated into the traditional music of Africa with the result being these wonderfully vibrant styles of music. The best representation of the traditional
and modern blends can be seen in the music from Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is the only country represented which has a variety of its music shown. Ranging from the
very political and westernized style of music of Thomas Mapfumo “The Lion of Zimbabwe” and The Blacks Unlimited, to Chartwell Dutiro and his traditional mbira, to Siyaya who present traditional fables through song, dance and theater.

Thomas Mapfumo And The Blacks Unlimited have evolved over the last few decades and although starting out with all Western instruments they did eventually include some traditional instruments, in particular the mbira (a thousand year old instrument played with the thumbs). The style of their music had to adapt to the traditional instrument and resulted in a music style very representative of the modern Shona. With the mbira and his unique horn arrangements he presents the Chimurenga style, which is uniquely Zimbabwean. For many Zimbabwean’s he is revered not only as a musician but a man who is unafraid of speaking the truth even when it is about Mugabe, who at one time he viewed as the hero of the fight for independence.
Shikisha, meaning “belt it out, to sing and dance like you’ve never danced before” could not do more justice to their name. This group of Zulu women from South Africa, are a very fine representation of the best of the traditional South African music. Dressed in traditional beaded costumes they sing and dance uninhibitedly with such joy that you can’t help but be completely drawn into their music.

It was interesting to see that from Mozambique and Portugal is included a singer, Mariza, who was born in Mozambique and grew up in Portugal. It is not often that a white African is included in anything representing Africa, which seems odd since Africa is made up of many different people including European descendants. It once again demonstrates that the designer of this concert knew Africa well and included all of Africa not just what the West considers to be African. She represents the “fado” style of music, which complements so well her ability to bring out the emotion in her amazing voice. Fado music is thought to have evolved from African slave rhymes combined with Portuguese and Arabic music.

Youssou N’Dour
Et Le Super Etoile are probably the most well known group included in this concert. He is joined by Dido for one of his songs. Dido’s
strong voice melds well with N’Dour. As usual, N’Dour gave a stellar performance. The first two songs he does, Set, are very much Western influenced with a bit of Africa thrown in to finish it off. It is not surprising that he has had such an appeal in the West, as his music is very easy for the Western listener to get accustomed to. The third song, Birima, has a much more African sound with a style of electric guitar playing that is uniquely African. With his ever-evolving music style he is the one African Artist that seems to have transcended the barriers of language and has consistently represented the heart of Africa and it’s issues.

There are so many artists included in this concert that it is impossible to dissect every performance. There are however two other performances I must mention. In a style taken from the US, Emmanuel Jal and Daara J have taken on the hip hop and rap world and merged it so successfully with Africa.

Emmanuel Jal was child soldier in Sudan who was rescued at the age of 12 by a British aid worker. He is one of the artists on this CD to watch. His lyrics and the inclusion of a very Arabic style of music mixed with a hip-hop base work so well.

Daara J who were the last group to perform are a young group of hip-hop artists from Senegal who are taking on the world with their socially conscious songs. Again they have taken hip-hop and put it into the mix with their own take on Senegalese music and produced a style that has the power to make the jump from Africa to the West. The songs they perform are Exodus, Mic Check and Sunu Mission and I couldn’t pick a favorite if I had to. They are a very young group and their growth will be fascinating to watch. They get my vote as the group who can take on any hip-hop group and come out on top.

There are two DVD’s in this set and included on this is a documentary called “Africa Calling At Eden” which discusses some of the issues with putting on the concert and gives you a little background on some of the artists. Definitely watch it. It touches on the way African’s view their issues and what they are doing to try to overcome them.

The great thing about this DVD is that it is not only a wonderful concert but also a lesson on the varied culture and people of Africa. There are few regions
of the continent that are not represented here.

I have yet to find a collection of African music that can even hold a light to the collection of musicians and styles represented in this concert. If you were
only to buy one CD/DVD to represent the entire continents music you will be spending your money wisely to buy this one. You’ll enjoy the music and performances and hopefully come away with a better understanding of the diversity of the continent and its issues.

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Calle 54: Taking it to the street

Calle 54
Calle 54
Calle 54
Directed by Fernando Trueba
Miramax Films (2000)

I’m not sure if Calle 54 is an actual street, but the music documentary, Calle 54 directed by Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque), is one of those streets that demands frequent visits. A
friend of the director turned him onto the music of jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera back in the 1980’s and in 1995, the director met Paquito during a shoot of the final scene of the film, Two Much. Trueba cited, “It was the highlight of my film career.

A magical night. I was filming the miracle of music. That’s when I began dreaming of a whole film about this most exciting form of music.”–Latin jazz. Calle 54 not only features the crème of the crop and a vast array of musicians, but Trueba captured one of Tito Puente‘s last performances. It’s also been several years since the release of Calle 54 so some of the older musicians might have passed on by this time.

While Calle 54 is not a feature film, the director narrates his involvement with the film and the artists’ biographies in voice-over. And each of the 12 musical performances offer dramatic arcs, interesting characters (the
soloing musicians) and intriguing stories of the performers, many of which are the sons or daughter of famous pianists or saxophonists. The lineup includes, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera , Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias, Spanish pianist Chano Domínguez, trumpeter/conga player Jerry Gonzalez with the Fort Apache Band, pianist/composer Michel Camilo, saxophonist Gato Barieri, timbalero/vibraphonist
Tito Puente, conductor Chico O’Farrell, pianist Bebo Valdes, bassist Cachao, pianist Chucho Valdés and rumba drummer/vocalist Puntilla & Nueva Generacion. All of these artists are also featured on a soundtrack CD put out by Blue Note Records so if
you don’t like to sit in front of a TV screen, you can still enjoy the artists’ rich performances.

It’s hard to pick only a handful of performances to review since the entire film features a collection of magical moments. Paquito D’Rivera starts off the film. Son of a classical saxophonist and a child prodigy, his big band includes everything from bandoneon, vibraphone, charango, various percussion, piano, horns and a combination saxophone clarinet performed by Paquito of course. As the camera lenses hopscotch around the stage zooming in on close-ups of solos and virtuoso performances, we hear everything from tango, rumba and are swept away on sweet lyrical passages and mind you, this all happens within the time frame of a single song. The musicians are all in top musical form and the composition like several that appear later in the documentary, is full of surprises, the work of an inspired composer.

After this power performance, we are whisked over to another stage where the Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias performs, Samba Triste with a trio (double bass and kit drums). Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil and the daughter of a pianist, Eliane started playing piano as a teenager and she trained with Vinicius de Moraes until his death. In this documentary she is a barefoot blonde wild child dressed in an elegant black dress. When she plays piano, her whole body sways to her syncopated rhythms–she closes her eyes, throws her head back in ecstasy and performs with total abandonment. Her performance is so mesmerizing that I wished I could have been her for the duration of her performance and feel that musical bliss. After she plays her final note, the camera zooms into her face and she looks as if she just touched God.

Other highlights include a stop in Cadiz, Spain, where pianist Chano Domínguez marries Latin jazz with flamenco. Trueba cites, “Chano Domínguez was the first ‘bilingual’ musician of this form. His music produced a miracle, a handshake between Monk (Thelonius) and Camarón (de la Isla).” And sure enough, we are shown a performance with jazz double bass (played like a flamenco guitar), kit drum along with flamenco vocals, claps and a shaggy dancer in loafers that hops and struts on the stage like a very proud rooster. In another performance, Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri resembles a Native American elder wearing goggles. He punctuates his theme music with “hey, hey, hey,” further adding to the effect.

Two Much film composer and pianist Michel Camilo and his trio deliver an inspired performance in which the pianist’s hands rip at the keys of a grand piano.

The late Tito Puente and his hot band of musicians, especially the flautist, show younger musicians why he’s the King of Timbales. Chico O’Farrell, a Cuban conductor of Irish stock, and his orchestra consisting of a large horn section, percussion, bass and piano appear in nostalgic black and white. Again, we hear lyrical
passages alternating with passionate Afro-Latin frenzied sections. A slow piano part at the end of the song feels like rain dropping onto soggy pavement, and the dialogue between congas and bongo and some fine horn playing are also worth a mention.

Finally, father and son, Bebo andChucho Valdés appear several times in the duration of the film. Bebo performs a duet with bassist Cachao, Chucho performs an unforgettable solo work and then father and son come together to end the film with a piano dialogue. By this time, most people viewing the film will
be breathless having watched all of these musical athletes. The music they perform is complicated and demands focus, but these musicians play as though in a trance. While the Buena Vista Social Club musicians were yelling for someone to put out the fire, the
Calle 54 musicians are exorcising their inner demons through virtuosic performances. In fact, a good double bill would be Buena Vista Social Club and Calle 54. That would be my idea of heaven and it doesn’t cost anything, but your attention. It’s time to revisit Calle 54. If you haven’t been there yet, then let this review be your passport.

Tracks:

1. Panamerica-Paquito D’Rivera
2. Samba Triste-Eliane Elias
3. Oye Como Viene-Chano Domiguez
4. Earth Dance-Jerry Gonzalez & The Fort Apache Band
5. From Within-Michel Camilo
6. Introduccion/Llamento y Tango/Bolivia-Gato Barbieri
7. New Arrival-Tito Puente
8. Caridad Amaro-Chucho Valdes
9. Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite-Chico O’Farrell
10. Lagrimas Negras–Bebo Valdes & Cachao (Israel Lopez)
11. Compa Galletano–Puntilla & Nueva Generacion
12. La Comparsa–Bebo Valdes & Chucho Valdes

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