Black Mambazo, Afro Celt Sound System, Femi Kuti, and Angelique Kidjo

African Rhythms, World Sensibilities: Ladysmith

Politics as a subject is sometimes less about the real world than about the artist’s supposed feelings and good intentions. Artists who say Yes are usually more welcomed than those who say No. South Africans do have much to be proud of: cultural and political change that also contains a spiritual dimension is rare. Intimate, passionate, and sweet is Joseph Shabalala’s solo performance of “Thula Thula.”

By Daniel Garrett

 

By Daniel Garrett

Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Long Walk to Freedom
Producer: Joseph Shabalala
Heads Up Africa/Gallo Music International, 2006

Afro Celt Sound System
Anatomic
Producers: Simon Emmerson, James McNally, Martin Russell, and Simon Massey
Real World Records, 2005

Femi Kuti
The Best of Femi Kuti
Barclay/Universal Music, 2004

Angelique Kidjo
Keep On Moving: The Best of Angelique Kidjo
Wrasse Records Ltd./Columbia (Sony), 2001

Listening to the latest Ladysmith Black Mambazo recording Long Walk to Freedom is like a visit to a grandparent one has not seen in a while, a visit that was occasioned by other concerns but a contact for which one is very grateful. I had been listening to the music group Afro Celt Sound System, and that reminded me of Ladysmith and other African musicians, such as Femi Kuti and Angelique Kidjo. One of the most fascinating recordings I have heard in a long time is Anatomic, the album by Afro Celt Sound System, a band that mixes Irish and African music. The word experiment is used to describe works that are little more than pastiche, but Afro Celt Sound System is genuinely experimental, and its experiments, inventions and explorations of technique and sounds, are beautiful successes. Afro Celt Sound System consists of Simon Emmerson on guitars, bouzouki, cittern, and mandolin; James McNally on keyboards, piano, whistles, and bodhran, accordion, harmonium, guitar, and kalimba; Iarla O Lionaird on vocals; and Martin Russell, also a programmer and engineer, on keyboards. The music group blends the contemporary and the old, the western and the African, without diminishing any of the elements; and contemplation is bound with pleasure, and dance and spirituality are joined. (In one of his essays, Jacques Barzun talks about Coleridge, Shakespeare, and cultural shifts—and he says that people locate ideas and forms they need in other cultures, or in alternative culture, that are lacking in their own primary culture.) On Anatomic, the group’s guests include: singers Dorothee Munyaneza and Sevara Nazarkhan, and kora player N’Faly Kouyate, and Johnny Kalsi on dhol drums and tabla. (Munyaneza calls to mind Miriam Makeba, and Nazarkhan reminds me of Aster Aweke.) The songs on Anatomic are “When I Still Needed You,” “My Secret Bliss,” “Mojave,” “Sene,” “Beautiful Rain,” “Anatomic,” “Mother,” “Dhol Dogs,” and “Drake.” The duet in “My Secret Bliss” is a duet of cultures and genders: a symbol of difference and interaction. (The Ladysmith Black Mambazo recording Long Walk to Freedom also contains intriguing duets, such as that between the group and Emmylou Harris.) The Afro Celt Sound System music has great energy: one is elated by it. This is music that seems to have been made far beyond mundane concerns—it opens up large vistas for the listener.

On Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s first song “Nomathemba,” written by the group’s musical director Joseph Shabalala, the acoustic sound is warm, soothing, and uses acappella call and response voices. The next song on Long Walk to Freedom is “Hello My Baby,” an endearing invitation to love, featuring kissing sounds (reminds me of Fats Domino and doo wop singing, while being identifiably African) and also featuring the vocal participation of the women’s group Zap Mama. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” is more recognizably African, and busier, than I recall the Paul Simon version of the song being; and on it Melissa Etheridge sings and her inflections are sensitive and suggestive, and I could not have anticipated how well she would fit within the chanting and percussive rhythms of this earthy and spiritual music (the arrangement is by jazz musician Joe McBride). Sarah McLachlan, a singer I like very much, is featured in harmony with the group on “Homeless,” a song written by Shabalala and Paul Simon; and the lines in which McLachlan takes the lead are soulful. Natalie Merchant sings with her customary authority and interpretive understanding in “Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain,” while “How Long” features Ladysmith Black Mambazo alone. “Mbube,” a traditional version of the well-known song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” has Taj Mahal’s blues guitar and voice and Mahal’s guitar-playing is probably the most striking thing about the song but his voice, now, has no charm for me—it’s a little too gruff. Emmylou Harris’s voice is poignant in her collaboration with the group on a medley of “Amazing Grace” and “Nearer My God to Thee,” with the shifts from one song to another actually being exciting—a distinctive achievement with such traditional songs. “Nkosi Sikelel IAfrica,” which—I don’t know why the “I” is needed before Africa—can be translated as “Lord Bless Africa,” is an anthem in South Africa, and features the group alone, as does “Inkanyezi Nezazi,” both good. The song “Shosholoza” has Lucky Dube, Hugh Masekela, and others: it sounds like a community sing and I can believe there is something healing in the sound. The album’s title track, “Long Walk to Freedom” written by Joseph Shabalala, has a mix of English and African languages, and celebrates South African progress. (Politics as a subject is sometimes less about the real world than about the artist’s supposed feelings and good intentions. Artists who say Yes are usually more welcomed than those who say No.) South Africans do have much to be proud of: cultural and political change that also contains a spiritual dimension is rare. Intimate, passionate, and sweet is Joseph Shabalala’s solo performance of “Thula Thula.”

The Best of Femi Kuti presents the son of the legendary African musician Fela as someone who has become a world-class musician: Femi Kuti creates African music utilizing African beats and rhythms, jazz, soul, light rock, and even balladry, for a modern African popular music at a very high level of quality. The collection’s beginning song, “Truth Don’ Die,” is party music with a purpose: a condemnation of lies and liars in a lengthy band jam, featuring a fast beat, intense horns, and Femi Kuti’s sincere, sturdy talk-singing. In “Beng Beng Beng” Femi Kuti narrates a sexy tale in a ferocious voice—full of heat and intelligence and music—and that he sounds as if he is improvising adds an irresistible element, while in the song “What Will Tomorrow Bring?” a saxophone seems to play against a wall of sound made by other horns and rhythm instruments, and Femi Kuti’s voice is first conversational before becoming passionately inquiring about Africa in general and Nigeria in particular. The mood created is as contemplative as it is dramatic and musical. (What is music, but a welcomed and pleasing sound?) A song that manages to be both melancholy and uptempo, “Sorry Sorry,” blends strings and rhythms with political lyrics, and is followed by a song both humorous and serious—“Scatta Head,” which notes rigorous analysis and the inclination toward drunkenness and the possibility of violence. Although Femi Kuti does not sound like other artists, the pleasure and intelligence Femi Kuti offers remind me of Stevie Wonder, David Byrne, Bob Marley, and Caetano Veloso. “Do your best, leave the rest,” advises Kuti in “Do Your Best,” a song on which he’s joined by the rapper-actor Mos Def, who fits his rap and modulates his tone into the song (his rap is quick, rhythmic, his tone sure). Words articulate resistance to egocentricity and material culture, and advocate morality and adaptation, in the next song, “Walk on the Right Side,” all part of wisdom shared by a woman acquaintance of the narrator. “Traitors of Africa,” about neo-colonial collaborators, mixes traditional and modern instrumentation, and there is something angular in attitude and tone about the song—something abrasive and awakening about it, and the music has a wonderful live sound. The song “97” commemorates a difficult year that Femi Kuti had, one of family deaths, and it’s the rare song in which grief has a right to be made public—and the implications involve social values, the way modern medicine works, and more. “For this suffering, there is no need,” sings Femi Kuti in “Fight to Win,” adding “our leaders refuse to listen” and “we will fight to win.” In the song “Missing Link,” the rapper Common joins Kuti, opening the song with a calm slow-paced commentary, in which Common says, “I live in a place where they embrace chaos” and Common connects Harlem and Africa, noting that love is the missing link in each place—and suggests love for both places. When Kuti enters it is with a raging stentorian voice, but, oddly, neither man seems at the center of the song, which leaves a space for silence, for contemplation: for us. “What do we do? We have to bring our good self…and rectify things,” says Femi Kuti. Predictably, the song entitled “Stop AIDS” encourages self-protective sexuality, saying “Stop AIDS, fight AIDS.” All in all, the collection is smart, fun, political, sexy.

I have liked Angelique Kidjo for years, and her Best of Angelique Kidjo is warmly welcomed. Angelique Kidjo hums the famous melody of “Summertime,” before singing the song in an African language, making a connection to western song and African-American experience and giving us something new. (Angelique Kidjo’s country is Benin.) Kidjo possesses Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” with her customary chants, rhythms, and shouts: it’s unrecognizable as his and it is extraordinary. Kidjo’s voice is a phenomenon of strength, a contralto that could be iron if iron were flexible, and her phrasing is direct and expressive, pure joy, in “Agolo,” which she wrote with Jean Hebrail, though she takes a more mellow, somewhat sad pace and tone with “Fifa.” There is an intense, fast rhythm that I cannot quite name in “Batonga,” as it does not remind me of other African music, or of western African-American dance music. It could be music intended to accompany a modern ceremony of bohemian initiation in an African suburb in Paris. “Wombo Lombo” is one of Kidjo’s more traditional sounding songs in terms of chanting and harmony but it also has some English lyrics and structural idiosyncrasies in accord with the western popular song. Downbeat is “Malaika,” a traditional Tanzanian chant. One of the anthology’s highlights is “Open Your Eyes,” written by Kidjo with Kelly Price and Jean Hebrail, a duet between Kidjo and Price, featuring the lines “the world has another face, open your eyes” and “we need to love each other freely.” Price’s singing has conviction, as if she has the opportunity to articulate a truth her usual rhythm and blues music does not allow. Kidjo and Hebrail’s “The Sound of the Drums,” about cultural and spiritual return, in two languages, one English, follows, and then there’s “Adouma,” which could be a war call for all I know—Kidjo seems to do call and response with her own voice, and there is intense drumming, and I think the song sounds great. Carlos Santana is featured in “Naima,” and something melodic about “Tourner La Page” (C. Nougaro, P. Saisse) calls to memory a Sondheim song. “Babalao” starts distinctively, with chanting for a religious figure, and though pleasant (with a simple melody) it does become repetitive; and it is followed by “Agossi,” the grave and spare “Idje-Idje,” and “Tombo,” “We We,” and Bella and Bellow’s “Senie.” The anthology works as an introduction to Angelique Kidjo’s work and also as a summary of it: she is a wonder.

Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox. His commentaries on Ben Harper, John Mayer, Wynton Marsalis, Howlin’ Wolf, Terence Trent D’Arby, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, TV on the Radio, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Ricky Martin, the Rolling Stones, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” appeared on Offscreen.com, and featured Kathleen Battle, David Bowie, Common, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Yo Yo Ma, and Caetano Veloso. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. His extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on the web site of IdentityTheory.com.

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