Tom Orr is a California-based writer whose talent and mental stability are of an equally questionable nature. His hobbies include ignoring trends, striking dramatic poses in front of his ever-tolerant wife and watching helplessly as his kids surpass him in all desirable traits.
Burning Spear- Live at Montreux Jazz Festival 2001 (Burning Music Productions BM 314, 2002)
Culture- Live in Africa (RASCD 3270, 2002)
Burning Spear and Culture are two of the most unwaveringly committed practitioners of Jamaican roots reggae the world has ever seen. Their continued global popularity is exemplified in numerous ways, including the strength of their live performances.Burning Spear (born Winston Rodney) has nearly 35 years of reggae stardom under his belt, and despite being rather gray in the dreadlocks these days, he shows no signs of throwing in the towel. From the start, his music has focused on the African repatriation philosophy of Marcus Garvey and the power of reggae as a uniting, healing force. Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival is a solid sampling of his mesmerizing, shaman-like onstage persona as he runs down a selection of mostly older material. As always, his backing band (including, crucially, a horn section) is top notch, deftly nailing the main body of each song as well as dropping into tight dub passages while Spear himself spaces out on percussion. The songs, including such classics as “Man in the Hills,” “Slavery Days” and “Columbus,” remain true to the intensity of the original recorded versions, though Spear frequently re-configures the vocals with scat spontaneity and chanted emphasis on key lyrics. He remains one of reggae’s greatest singers, laconic and understated at times, soaringly authoritative at others. Burning Spear has made several high quality live albums over the years, and this one easily assumes a place in his prolific and impressive body of work. (E-mail: email@example.com)
Though they remain a harmony trio, Culture has become increasingly synonymous with lead vocalist and songwriter Joseph Hill. Hill also emphasizes the importance of Marcus Garvey and African roots, but where Burning Spear often comes across as a stern teacher, Hill is more like a lively Rastafarian street preacher. Recorded at a reggae festival in South Africa, Culture’s live disc scores high marks also, as much for including songs from all phases of their career as the hard-hitting strength with which they are delivered. Hill engages the audience like an old friend, giving shout-outs to Nelson Mandela and radiating good vibes at every turn. The sound is a little ragged at first, but by the time Culture launches into a fervent “Disobedient Children,” things are locked up tight and you’ll be in the spirit and in the groove just as surely as if you’d been there. Loose, energetic and full of fire, this is a mightly testament to the power of live reggae. (www.rasrecords.com)
Their Greatest Hits (Heartbeat 11661-7575-2, 2002)
For whatever reason–maybe because they didn’t sport dreadlocks or have a militant name–the Maytones tend to be overlooked when one speaks of the initial surge of Jamaican roots reggae in the 1970s. Also, in a time when the vast majority of reggae groups that emphasized harmony singing were trios, the Maytones were a duo. Leave it to Heartbeat Records, who excel at releasing contemporary reggae as well as crucial reissues, to remind us all of how much more a prominent place in reggae history the Maytones ought to have. Lead voice Vern Buckley and harmony singer Gladstone Grant blend flawlessly over rhythms laid down by an epic cast of Jamaica’s finest players. The songs–“Holy Ground,” “Judgement a Come,” “Money Worries,” “One Way,” etc., are mostly of the roots and culture variety, though the angelic quality of Buckley’s and Grant’s voices wrap superbly around a few love songs as well. The disc features some extended dub mixes with guest toasters including the late great I Roy, and the production work of Alvin Ranglin crisply accentuates both singers and players. Fans of such groups as the Mighty Diamonds, the Heptones and Justin Hinds and the Dominoes will love this, but roots reggae adherents in general won’t want to be without it. (www.rounder.com/heartbeat)
Even in the darkest days of apartheid, some of the most defiantly beautiful music came from South Africa. Today, the nation remains troubled and the music remains beautiful. Alexandra Township, just outside Johannesburg, is a place where music has long flourished despite poverty, oppression, limited resources and nothing like the same level of dubious fame affiliated with places like Soweto (though Nelson Mandela once went into hiding there).
Listening to the Alexandra Youth Choir (first established in 1988), the feeling of gospel-fervor faith in the face of adversity is evident, along with the enduring power of traditional Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa songs.
The 20 selections here showcase considerable range, from glorious call-and-response to sweet surrender spirituals and foot-stomping testimonials. There’s some perfectly suited instrumental accompaniment here and there, but the majority is just harmonious voices singing as one mighty force. A perfectly wonderful CD, full of passion and power that gets to the very core of you.
The Naxos World label hasn’t been in existence for very long, but quality releases such as this show that their future is likely to be very bright.
The first volume of this series, 1996’s Ambiances du Sahara, was a sprawling treasure chest of music from the vast regions covered by the world’s largest desert. The critical praise it received was considerable, and the recently released second volume takes another bountiful trip around the same countries to come up with a further load of riches. Africa’s Saharan countries create music as enjoyable as it is subject to analysis- the likelihood of it being the basis of American blues, its Arabic roots, etc.
Desert Blues 2 starts off with strong selections from Majid Bekkas and Boubacar Traore, featuring melancholy guitars and vocals winding around nervously tapping percussion. Gradually, over the set’s two-disc length, the songs run a gorgeous course between bright and celebratory and solitary and very bluesy indeed. The same multiple facets as volume one are in evidence, along with the same balance of familiar and lesser-known names. Plenty of calabashes and n’goni lutes are heard, but there’s also bottleneck guitar spacing out alongside kora, Tuareg and Gnawa sounds that keep the journey a spiritual one, music that could’ve come from the Mississippi Delta if not for the growly non-English lyrics, ancient pentatonic scale riffs serviced by modern dance grooves and loads more of the same kind of diversity you’d expect to come from and area roughly the size of the U.S.
A fair number of the songs are by women, and the set is also reflective of their artistic emergence from certain countries and cultures where their role has been secondary. There’s a lot going on here, and anyone who bought the first volume with the thought that there must be much more will find out how right they were. Reves D’Oasis will refresh and rejuvenate you like bountiful flowing water found in the midst of barren desolation.
From his days as featured singer with the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs through his high-profile solo career, Mali’s Salif Keita has possessed one of the world’s greatest voices. Still, he has made his share of uneven albums. While 1999’s rockishly disappointing Papa left him no place to go but up, Keita’s latest release triumphs not only in comparison but in its own right.
Moffou , easily Keita’s best since his 1987 landmark Soro, is a feast of acoustic instruments, spiritually soulful singing, richly subtle rhythmic undercurrents and an African roots sensibility unlike anything this remarkable singer has embraced in a long time. There are a couple of voice-and-guitar tracks on which Keita’s slightly raspy, Islamic-inflected tones effortlessly cut to the marrow, songs where the nuances of rhythm and melody are so tightly entwined as to be virtually inseparable, and one irresistible dance jam, “Maman,” with a solidly airy groove that will have remixers scrambling for their knobs.The instrumental backing includes the sharply attuned work of longtime guitar collaborator Kante Manfila along with a crafty balance of flutes, accordion, n’goni lute, varied percussion and more. Moffou. Other recordings available: Remixes from Moffou
Even if your global music collection is fairly extensive, chances are you don’t own a great deal of music from Niger. It just so happens that the music of Niger hasn’t been as widely recorded and distributed as that of some other African countries in the same general area (Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, etc.), and if the high quality of Alatoumi is any indication, it’s a shame.
Mamar Kassey (the name sounds like one person, but it’s a band) play deliciously twangy roots music not unlike what you’d hear coming from other lower Saharan regions, but it jumps with a passion very much its own thanks to a tightly intertwined mix of modern guitar and bass sparring intensely with not-so-modern lutes, flute and percussion.
Some of it is as funky as can be, but the disc is incredibly alive in its more thoughtful moments as well. Lead vocalist/flutist Yacouba Moumouni’s voice has a wailing Arabic keenness to it, and on songs like "Dommo," it straddles the rising and falling rhythms and hair-standing-on-end female background vocals with style and grace. His sparse but deft flute work is nice too, helping to bring out the intricacies of instrumental passages where shades of Senegalese m’balax and Nigerian juju are heard.
Alatoumi is terrific from start to finish, easily one of the best African releases of the year. Anyone who may have regarded Niger as a non-presence on the music map had better seriously change their way of thinking.
Peru’s Tania Libertad could be categorized alongside Susana Baca easily enough. Both women base their sound around Peru’s African roots, and both sing with considerable range and depth. But where Baca’s sound most often opts for a small-scale intimacy, Libertad engages with a grander, more orchestrated sound.
The characteristic Afro-Peruvian percussion foundation (including the cajón box drum) is present, with guitars, bass, violin, accordion and saxophone, giving many of the songs a sparkle that takes things beyond the Peruvian border.
The African connection is particularly strong- Libertad duets beautifully with Cape Verde’s Cesaria Evora on one track and utilizes Senegalese players and instrumentation on a couple of others. Vocally, Libertad resembles not only Susana Baca but Colombia’s Totó la Momposina as well (in fact, the African touches on Costa Negra are every bit as successful as those on Momposina’s Pacanto album, albeit with a different regional sensibility).
Tania Libertad is poised to become a major voice on the global scene, a voice with the strength to both ride the grooves and envelop the emotions. Costa Negra has plenty of both, and that’s what makes it so satisfying.