Top of the World
The editor's choice selection of the 10 best new releases, a track from each album appears on the issue's CD covermount.
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou
Listen to the opening track, ‘Ne Te Faches Pas’, and you’ll hear a powerful muscular testament to the rebirth of a great African band. A punchy, stabbing horn section, jangling electric guitar solos and vocals occasionally interspersed with what sound like yelps of excitement. The exuberance is perhaps explained by the fact that this is Poly-Rythmo’s first new album in 20 years. The band was founded in Cotonou, the largest city in Benin, by Mélomé Clement in 1968 and had huge success in West Africa in the 70s. Reissues of tracks from this period on Soundway and Analog Africa sparked interest from an international audience and the band were re-discovered, still just about active (see Songlines #66). Their European tours and this album justify the faith their manager, Elodie Maillot, the French radio producer who tracked them down, had in them.
Poly-Rythmo have a distinctive sound, courtesy of the percussive grooves, the insistent brass, and infectious guitar work of Fifi Le Prince. Mélomé Clement and Vincent Ahéhéhinnou, two of the original vocalists and songwriters, remain with the band alongside a younger generation of musicians. This is a diverse set, including ‘Tegbe’ with percussive vodoun (voodoo) rhythms, ‘Koumi Dede’ with Cuban-style piano, and ‘Ma Vie’ with vibrant saxophone and guitar solos. There’s a fiery, fast-paced version of ‘Gbeti Madjro’, one of their hit songs by Mélomé Clement, with guest vocals from compatriot Angélique Kidjo. World Circuit’s new diva, Fatoumata Diawara is an even more striking guest duetting with Vincent Ahéhéhinnou in ‘Mariage, C’est Moi ou C’est Lui’. Likely to attract most attention is ‘Lion is Burning’, a driving chunk of funk featuring Franz Ferdinand’s Paul Thomson and Nick McCarthy who, like many fans, discovered Poly-Rythmo from the reissues of their old vinyl tracks. A storming finish to a great album from a brand new veteran band.
Rakhshani Love Songs & Trance Music from Balochistan
This is music from a sadly neglected part of the world. Hopefully this great double CD will bring attention to the very special music of Balochistan and put its people more firmly on the map. The 10-15 million Balochis live at the meeting point of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan; what they consider to be Balochistan is split by the three countries, with close to ten million of them in Pakistan.
Abdulrahman Surizehi was born in Iran but since 1987 has been resident in Norway. Here he’s assembled a fine band of Balochi musicians that really show the music off. Surizehi plays the benju, a keyed dulcimer that is virtually unknown anywhere else, and is taken to great heights by Balochi musicians. He’s the acknowledged master and you can hear the exceptional delicacy and virtuosity of his playing on ‘Bya Bya’. Other instruments include the tamburag lute and the sorud, an extraordinary fiddle carved to look rather like a skull, used mainly in trance music.
The first disc features love songs sung and accompanied on benju by Surizehi. The intricacy of the accompaniment and the web of sound the instrument creates is gorgeous. On ‘Koshta Mana’, the sorud takes over the melody. But it’s on the second disc of trance music that Surizehi bows out (apart from on the final track) and the sorud, played by Abdullah Baloch, comes to the fore. Here there isn’t the delicacy and elegance of the benju love song, but play it loud and its intensity is captivating. The sorud has a scratchy, nasal tone and Baloch throws squeaks and exaggerated effects into his playing. The rhythm is insistent with an unchanging chord strummed and strummed repetitively on the tamburag. The best recording I’ve heard of this sort of music is on Shanachie’s amazing album The Mystic Fiddle of the Proto-Gypsies, but as a rounded introduction to the beauty and wildness of Balochi music, this album is something special.
Aratan n Azawad
No surprise that Terakaft – the name means ‘caravan’ in Tamasheq – stayed pretty close to the sound of the mighty Tinariwen on their first two albums. The overlap of personnel between the two bands has been considerable and Terakaft’s two guitarists Liya Ag Ablil (aka Diara) and Sanou Ag Ahmed both played on Tinariwen’s last album, Imidiwan. The third release from Terakaft is full of the loping camel-gait rhythms, hypnotic moods and snaking guitars that seemed so exotic when we first discovered the Touareg desert blues – but which are today in danger of becoming over-familiar. Fortunately, Terakaft appear to have realised that these days a little variation on the basic template is increasingly required and Aratan n Azawad sounds like a band trying to push the envelope.
Much of this may be down to the production, which has cleaned up the guitars, shedding some of the grittiness in place of a cleaner, chiming sound that harks back to 1960s California. Someone in the band clearly has an astute ear for Western pop and an understanding of how to blend such influences into the core Touareg sound. ‘Idiya Iohena’, for example, bounces along on a rhythm reminiscent of T-Rex’s ‘Ride a White Swan’. ‘Akoz Imgharen’, too, is another departure with a pop chorus and some Dick Dale-style surf guitar. On the other hand, ‘Wer Essinen’, with its hypnotically swirling guitars is one of the finest examples of the classic desert blues sound I’ve yet heard. An album that raises the bar. It will be fascinating to hear Tinariwen trying to top its achievement on their next release.
Talvin Singh & Niladri Kumar
The Mercury Music Prize - arguably Britain’s premier album award - has a reputation for destroying rather than making careers. Roni Size, Ms Dynamite and Speech Debelle are among those who triumphed and were then lost from view and the 1999 victor, Talvin Singh, similarly seemed to disappear. It’s now two decades since he helped to create the oriental drum’n’bass fusions of what became known as the ‘Asian Underground’ and the expanded reissue last year of his Mercury-winning OK was a timely reminder that he was a genuinely innovative composer. His return is more than welcome on this splendid collaboration with sitar player Niladri Kumar, boasting both a maturity and a continuing sense of sonic adventure that suggests the last dozen years have not been entirely fruitless. Perhaps Kumar is the kind of foil Singh has previously lacked (in contrast to, say, former colleague Nitin Sawhney, whose career has been propelled by his felicitous choice of sympathetic collaborators). Certainly, Kumar’s playing makes a stellar contribution, combining classical mastery with the kind of dynamic note-bending a rock-blues guitarist might envy, particularly when playing his customised five-string electrified version of the instrument, which he calls a ‘zitar’.
Singh’s percussive accompaniment is similarly inventive, his clever ‘tablatronics’ creating breathtaking polyrhythms and chopped-up beats on tracks such as ‘Ananta’ and ‘The Bliss’. His technical dexterity as a tabla player is brilliantly married to his formidable ability as a sequencer and programmer, building up stunningly textured layers of electronic sound. A stupendous comeback.
Alison Krauss & Union Station
Paper Airplane is the first release by Alison Krauss & Union Station since 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways. All of the qualities that have made the multi-Grammy Award winning singer-fiddler from Illinois and her collaborators – Barry Bales (acoustic bass), Jerry Douglas (Dobro and lap steel), Ron Block (banjo, guitar) and Dan Tyminski (guitar, mandolin, lead and vocal harmonies) – the poster children for the 21st century bluegrass revival are present in these 11 tracks.
Although she doesn’t write her own material, Krauss has a veteran’s knack for knowing which vehicles are best suited for her artistic vision. The title-track, for example, was written by Robert Lee Castleman (one of the most regular contributors to the Krauss’ repertoire), mines an unsettlingly melancholic mood that represents a broader existential struggle, which defines the album’s overall theme. ‘It represents a trial – like a trying time that has an end,’ Krauss has said. ‘Dust Bowl Children’ describes another type of trial, this one stirred up by Mother Nature; it’s a throwback flat-picker’s showcase written by Peter Rowan and sung by Tyminski (the singing voice for George Clooney in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?).
When T-Bone Burnett wrangled together Alison Krauss and Robert Plant to produce the 2007 blockbuster album, Raising Sand, an entirely new audience was exposed to Americana music. If that same audience follows Krauss’ career to Paper Airplane, they will be similarly rewarded.
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80
From Africa With Fury: Rise
Last year, Femi Kuti made the finest album of his career with Africa For Africa [reviewed in #73], a back-to-basics record of stinging Afro-beat grooves to which the great Fela himself would have been proud to put his name. Comparisons – especially fraternal ones – are odious but with his second album Fela’s youngest son may just have topped his elder brother’s. Effectively, Fela, Femi and Seun represent three generations rather than two: there’s 20 years between the two brothers; almost the same difference in age as between Femi and their father. The 27-year-old Seun sings, writes, plays sax and leads his father’s old band with an energy and intensity that’s breathtaking. Much of the musical and lyrical vocabulary suggest the fruit has not fallen very far from the parental tree – the simmering Afro-funk, the call-and-response vocals, the explosive horn playing and Seun’s righteous lyrics about struggle and injustice on tracks with titles such as ‘African Soldier’, ‘Mr Big Thief’ and ‘Slave Masters’ all recall Fela at his finest.
What is different, however, is the presentation. It’s not exactly slick, but it is streamlined where Fela was sprawling, preferring tight, concise arrangements to the loose, extended improvisations that often found Fela filling a side of vinyl with a single track. Much of this is down to the intelligent, empathetic production of Brian Eno and John Reynolds. The results leave you wondering what Fela might have sounded like with someone like Brian Eno to add a sharper focus to his genius. And that is surely the highest compliment you can pay Seun Kuti about this blazing, brilliant album.
Raise your glasses and drink a toast: the new CD by Finnish harmonica quartet Sväng has arrived. This brilliant foursome – the harmonica equivalent of the Kronos Quartet – has everything a band needs: awesome playing, a vivid musical imagination, a great gift for entertainment and a deep passion for music. The fact that they do all this on the harmonica just adds to the wow factor – they are among the greatest ambassadors of all time of this oft-maligned instrument.
Their harmonicas come in different sizes. The bass harmonica, for instance, is like a gorgeous rich cello, though in practice it’s extremely quiet and has to be mic’d. The resulting harmonies are astonishing; together these musicians create a wide range of emotions, colours and textures against a backdrop of amazing virtuosity. Sväng’s combined musical experience across different genres and backgrounds is on show here: there are tunes of celebration, such as the opening track with its hints of a Romanian dance raising a glass to life, and haunting nostalgia in ‘Menneet’ inspired by Janá?ek. A Finnish snake and a Swedish polska meet in ‘Kyykäärmeen Polska’. The Finnish rustic humppa dance gets some zany treatment, showing off Sväng’s ability to produce all sorts of sounds from their instruments, and ‘Waiwainen Walitan Waikiast’ is a beguiling mixture of hymn tunes, Messiaen and Radiohead. Sväng will take you to musical places you never dreamt existed.
Alireza Ghorbani & Dorsaf Hamdani
Iranian singer Alireza Ghorbani and Tunisian singer Dorsaf Hamdani here have teamed up for a celebration of the poetry of the renowned 11th century Persian Omar Khayyam, famous for his Rubayyat - brief poems dedicated to spiritual love. Frowned upon by the more puritanical – Khayyam drew from images of physical love and the drinking of wine - in most of the Middle East he is still venerated, and his poetry has a considerable following in the West.
The poems are sung in Persian and Arabic and the music is based on Persian and Arabic traditions. Although akin to each other, these traditions have differences in tuning, scales, vocal technique and instrumentation, and the two do not very often meet each other. Any latent discordances are brilliantly bridged by composer and tar (long-necked lute) player Ali Ghamsary, via a range of musical inventions in the composition and the instrumentation, scored for an ensemble of first-class musicians. Another innovative aspect is the blend of male and female singers, something not permitted in Ghorbani’s home country. It’s appropriate though: as the liner notes state, Khayyam ‘wrote his quatrains also to resist the narrowness of the spirit and the morality of his epoch.’ Hamdani’s skilled voice matches Ghorbani’s in terms of power but, of course, differs in its distinct Arabic style.
The track ‘Enivrement’ (Inebriation) is an epic showcase of the pair’s talents. Over six minutes, it builds up from a gentle opening on the tar to culminate in a frantic improvisation between percussion and kemençe, and concluding with a spine-chilling solo chant by Ghorbani elaborating on Khayyam’s verse lines.
Neil van der Linden
What an assured and brilliant debut this is. Rua Macmillan was awarded the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2009, and studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. The highlander from Nairn starts with a remarkable flourish as ‘Traditionally Incorrect’ kicks off, before ‘The Crooked Horn’ allows Macmillan to fly circles round the figures of guitarist Tia Files’ solid rhythmic backing. Then a driving rhythm with Alasdair Macleod on drums lights up ‘The Chancer’, a tune picked up from a nightclub in Dumfries following the Trad Awards. The closing title-tune of this opening salvo is reminiscent of the vintage play between Thompson and Swarbrick in early Fairport. It’s a fabulous opening – featuring brilliant traditional techniques bending into new shapes.
That initial rush is kept up more or less throughout. We get quicksilver jigs – the traditional ‘Donnie McGregor’s’ and two tunes from Allan Henderson and Jerry Holland, while further down the line the lullaby ‘Bidh Clann Ulaidh’ (the tune which won him his 2009 Young Traditional Musician of the Year award) sweeps away any competition. This is an album that could well be garnering Rua Macmillan with yet more awards in the not too distant future.
Amine & Hamza
Amine & Hamza’s previous CD Things May Change managed to amaze and alarm in equal measure: a testosterone-driven, Oriental jazz fusion that left the listener wide eyed and gasping for breath. These Tunisian brothers are heroically virtuosic oud and qanun players but age and experience have mellowed their approach, making Perpetual Motion a much more considered and mature affair. They have also been inspired in their choice of collaborators, who bring a glorious variety of timbres and textures to the sound. The Boston String Quartet’s lush but simple parts lend a welcome sense of structure to the more free-form arrangements and singer Maroua Kriaa – still relatively unknown outside North Africa – delivers her two songs in a poised yet passionate way that is reminiscent of a young Fairuz.
The whole feel of the album would best be described as modern Mediterranean, typified by the nine-minute slow-burn of the track ‘Omar’, which blends rippling Andalusian guitar arpeggios with tasteful solos from the two brothers. Having proved that they can shred for Tunisia on earlier recordings, Amine & Hamza’s more measured style is a very welcome development. It’s almost as though fellow Tunisian Anouar Brahem has had a quiet word in their ears: a little of his characteristic shadowy understatement makes for a beautifully balanced release.