Friday, August 22, 2008

Album Review: Kasai Allstars-Congotronics 3

"In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of his Enemy by Magic," the debut full-length album from Kasai All-Stars, is an unabashedly raw, aggressive explosion of sound, soul and color. Out July 15, 2008 on Crammed Discs Records as the third edition of the Congotronics series, its deep trances and winding rhythms tap into the primal essence of why music is a universal language.

The Kasai Allstars is a collective of twenty-five musicians from six bands and five tribes – the Luba, Sonye, Lulua, Tetela and Luntu – all of whom originally come from the Kasai region in the center of the Congo. Their music is drawn directly from ritual festive music played before the arrival of European colonizers and missionaries who found the highly erotic dances and pagan trance ceremonies satanic and unholy. The traditional musical practices were eventually banned pushing them to the brink of extinction. Even the actual traditional instruments all but disappeared.

Today the Kasai Allstars are reviving the practices once shunned by their colonial oppressors by fusing several different styles and cultures into a new "Allstar" sound. Using acoustic instruments with electric guitars, distortion-laden thumb pianos (with DIY amplification) and soulful vocals, they have a sound unlike any other. Their ability to layer repetitive patterns and progressions builds a rich texture to create a powerfully rich composition. The album is almost underproduced, emphasizing the raw, uninhibited nature of the music. After appearing on Congotronics 2, the Kasai Allstars are making a very strong first impression on the international music scene with their first full-length release.

Kasai Allstars

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Album Review: Burning Spear-Jah is Real

I don't know what I'll be doing when I'm 63, but it probably won't be releasing a full-length album on my own record label and traveling to Africa as a cultural ambassador for peace. For Burning Spear, whose new album Jah is Real came out August 17th on Burning Spear Records, that's icing on the cake of a legendary career in which he's released fifty-one records, been nominated for eleven grammies, starred in a feature film, and toured the world several times over.

Jah is Real is proof Burning Spear is as dedicated to Marcus Garvey's message as he was the day he first walked into Studio One. Tracks like One Africa, Grandfather, and Stick to the Plan all emphasize Marucs Garvey's Pan-African message. Run for Your Life advocates self-reliance, recounting the story of the founding of Burning Spear records. Bootsy Collins plays bass on a few tracks, injecting some extra funk into the proceedings, and Brian Hardgroove of Public Enemy laid down a funky drum and bass remix of Step It to close out the album.

Spear doesn't just advocate African Unity in his music, he backs up his words with his actions. At the request of the United Nations, he traveled to Kenya, the African nation from which he took his name, after a rigged election caused widespread violence earlier this year. He came as an ambassador of peace and was welcomed as a long-lost king as he performed for 65,000 people in Nairobi and brought them together peacefully as Africans, something Kenya badly needed in the post-election violent times.

The Spear kicks off a tour of the United States and Canada at the Irving Plaza on August 31st . He'll be playing eleven shows in ten cities throughout the month of September. If you love reggae, buy a copy of Jah is Real or catch one of his live shows. Burning Spear is as authentic a reggae legend as there is living today, and he isn't showing any signs of slowing up.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Album Review: Famoro Dioubate's Kakande-Dununya

Dununya, the new album by griot balafon master Famoro Dioubate and Kakande, his 9-piece ensemble, is a testament to West African music's ability to stand the test of time and evolve. Kakande seamlessly combines traditional African and contemporary Western instruments and influences to foster a fresh, original sound.

Kakande is guided by the eight-hundred year old tradition from which Famoro Dioubate descends. He is a griot or jeli--a family line of musicians, historians, and dispute settlers--and his grandfather, El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyate, is one of the most revered balafon players in West African history. Dioubate was mentored by his grandfather from an early age and performed with the Guinean National Ensemble by his grandather's side. The depth and profound nature of Kakande's sound pays homage to the traditions Dioubate brings to the ensemble.

Kakande employs a diverse instrumentation with the cello and electric guitar featured prominently along with the balafon, djembe, and flute. Dununya exhibits exquisite range, going from slow, deep, relaxing grooves to more upbeat danceable rhythms from track to track. Dioubate's arrangements push the music of his ancestors into the next generation incorporating western instruments and influences into the ensemble while simultaneously maintaining an authentic African sound.

One track from the album that perfectly exemplifies Kakande's evolved sound is Souaresi. The cello, flute and saxophone blend perfectly with the balafon and voices to foster beautifully deep, melodic lines and pitches. The cello especially adds an extra layer of texture that brings an elegant western class to accompany the majestic African sound. It contrasts beautifully with the polyrhythmic arrangement and adds heavier bass to the lower register to round out the total sound. Missia Saran Dioubate's vocal lines are especially beautiful as her voice soars over the flowing backdrop the ensemble provides.

Kakande's Dununya is eleven tracks of beautiful music that will make you dance, relax, invigorate your soul, and educate you about the traditions of West Africa. Famoro Dioubate is part of a recent wave of African musicians in New York City who in collaborating with different artists, broadening their musical horizons, and celebrating African music's ability to evolve and grow to take new shapes and forms, are fostering a new African sound, one that celebrates Africa's musical history while embracing its future.


Chicago Afrobeat Project at Drom-August 9, 2008

The Chicago Afrobeat project lit up the stage at Drom Saturday night when they brought their midwest afroswing to the east village club on the back end of nationwide tour that took them west to California and Colorado before coming to the east coast. The seven-piece ensemble was joined onstage by two dancers from the Muntu Dance Theater of Chicago during the second set at which point the show went from a dope band laying down some beats to a spectacular audio-visual presentation that doesn't come around very often.

The Chicago Afrobeat Project got their start playing parties in the Chicago loft scene and has been touring the country spreading their politically charged Afrobeat message for the last six years. Their sound encompasses a wide range of influences and styles including jazz, funk, rock, afro-cuban, and West African highlife and juju. Perhaps the most prevalent sound in their arsenal is the soulful jazz element supplied by Kevin Ford on Fender Rhodes piano and David Glines on guitar. They both emphasize a light, jazzy style that cuts across the heavy percussion and bass arrangement and provides a perfect backdrop over which the horns glide.

(A) Move to Silent Unrest, the band's second full-length album, came out last year and exhibits the same range and variety as their live show; they have the ability to do deep, slower, jazzy songs, and then switch up the pace with an aggressive, faster, more hard-driving cut. Their rhythm section composed of Thad Landis on bass, George Jones on congas and percussion, and Marshall Greenhouse on trap drums, know how to move a party. Greenhouse especially can drum himself into a frenzy, sometimes bearing a resemblance to Animal from the Muppet Show.

The Chicago Afrobeat Project have an unparalleled live performance that features beautiful African dancers, polyrhythmic percussion sessions, and nasty soloists. They make it to the east coast a couple times a year, so definitely check them out when you get the chance. I highly recommend picking up their album in the meantime, especially if you're looking for something to play at your next dance party.

chicago afrobeat myspace

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Album Review: One Day as a Lion

One Day as a lion is Jon Theodore and Zach de la Rocha saying we don't need anything but a keyboard, drums and a microphone to kick the shit out of you. They waste no time in doing so from start to finish on their 5-song EP out July 22nd on Anti Records.

One Day as a Lion is an ongoing collaboration between De la Rocha and Theodore in which they create a simplified, harsh sound that simultaneously showcase their voices. Theodore's unabashedly aggressive style meshes perfectly with De la Rocha's attacking vocal approach. Their arrangement sets the stage for a rhythmic and lyrical attack that holds no punches and brings it raw.

Zach de la Rocha is a better rapper than singer, but he still brings the rage when he uses his singing voice on tracks like Last Letter and If you fear Dying. By singing instead of rapping, he adds an elongated sustained element that contrasts Theodore's fanatically syncopated drum lines.

Rock the Bells NYC-August 3, 2008

The New York City installment of the International Rock the Bells hip-hop tour on Sunday may have been the best hip-hop show in history. In a night where Dead Prez, De la Soul, Biz Markie, Afrika Bambaataa, the Pharcyde, Raekwon, Ghostface, Scratch, Supernatural, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, Method Man, Redman, Slick Rick, EPMD, Keith Murray, Nas, Jay-Z and all four original members of A Tribe Called Quest with Busta Rhymes hit the stage, the 15,000 hip-hop fans who made it to the Jones Beach theater witnessed an historic event.

The doors opened at 12 noon. After I took three trains, one bus, made it through security and got in to the theater around two, Dead Prez had the crowd jumping to their anti-establishment message giving shout-outs to Crown Heights, Brooklyn along the way. Immortal Technique followed and continued the anti-government vibe.

De la Soul got on next and took things to the next level. They've been known to get a few crowds moving since their debut 21 years ago, and they were joined on stage by old school cats like Dres from Black Sheep who performed The Choice is Yours, Q-tip to do Buddy, and Biz Markie who brought the house down with, of course, You Got What I Need.

Next up was the Pharcyde, who before Rock the Bells hadn't played a show together in 11 years. Raekwon and Ghostface followed and had the sold-out theater chanting Wu-Tang. They were joined on stage by Cappadonna and played Wu classics like C.R.E.A.M., Victory, and a
tribute to the late O.D.B., I Like it Raw. Scratch and Supernatural came out after and Supernat kicked a freestyle that incorporated any object the crowd could hand him or reference in any way including t-shirts, cameras, jewelry, blunts, lighters, and a pair of underwear.

Mos Def came out next just as the Sun dipped behind the back of the stadium donning a kaleidoscopic basketball uniform repping Bed-Stuy. He did a few songs from the New Danger before being joined on-stage by Talib Kweli at which point they kicked it back to Black Star
performing songs like Brown Skin Lady, Definition, Respiration, and K.O.S. Determination. The reunited duo was joined onstage by Pharoahe Monch when the dj dropped Simon Says, and the crowd went nuts.

Method Man and Redman followed Mos Def and seriously got the crowd jumping. They climbed on top of the speakers, jumped into the crowd, stopped the beat to hit a blunt, and did anything else they could think of to incite the crowd. Guest MC's during their set included Slick Rick, who spit the first few bars of Lodi Dodi, Raekwon, EPMD, and Keith Murray who did his verse from the Def Squad version of Rapper's Delight.

Nas came out next and played possibly the best set of the show. He had a 6 piece band as well as Dj Green Lantern on stage with him. He kicked it back to Illmatic and brought it back to his new album making all the stops in between. The entire concert just about stopped in its tracks when midway through his Nas' set Jay-Z came onstage with a Yankees hat tucked low over his eyes. Nas put on his Mets hat, and the two rival MC's rocked a brief song before Jigga ran back off.

Finally, Q-Tip came onstage around 11 to close out the legendary night. He played his new single and other solo hits with Mos Def before all four original members of A Tribe Called Quest, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, Q-Tip, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, came onstage together in New York City for the first time in ten years. They played all the old-school joints off of The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, but the highlight of the concert was when Busta Rhymes came onstage during Scenario. In a night where hip-hop history was taught while simultaneously celebrating new school stars, Rock the Bells lived up to its billing as a world-class hip-hop forum, and then some.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Fu-Arkist-Ra and Sweet Plantains String Quartet at Joe's Pub-July 27, 2008

While hip-hop and afrobeat aren't generally associated with cellos and violins, that didn't stop the Sweet Plantains String Quartet and Amayo’s Fu-Arkist-Ra from putting on a show packed to the brim with soul, funk and flavor Sunday night at Joe's Pub. Both groups have a reputation for bending genres and originality—Fu-Arkist-fuses afrobeat with free jazz, funk, dub, and classical music incorporating an inventive array of instrumentation and styles, and Sweet Plantain takes a contemporary approach to classical music bridging the gap between hip-hop, jazz, and latin improvisational styles with a classical repertoire. Needless to say, it was unique night.

The Sweet Plantain String Quartet started the night off. Composed of four classically trained musician—violinists Eddie Venegas and Romulo Benavides from Venezuela, Cellist David Gotay from the Bronx, and Violist Orlando Wells from New Jersey—they’re not your average string quartet. The group's mission is to give voice to a contemporary, urban, Latino sound, and much of the group's repertoire is rooted in improvisation. Throughout the course of a set they go from funky to fancy, graceful to gruff. Musically, they were all over the map: they played Afroblue by John Coltrane, a classical rendition of Excursions by A Tribe Called Quest, and Jenny’s Blues, a piece that had a New Orleans blues feel supplied by a strong back beat, Eddie Venegas’ trombone solo, and Romulo Benvides playing a staccato violin to mimic a banjo.

The Sweet Plantains transitioned out of their set with a cover of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Water Get no Enemy. Amayo joined the quartet on stage, and the music didn’t stop as all nine members of the Fu-Arkist-Ra joined them onstage and fell into the groove. I don’t know what was more impressive, the seamlessness with which the two ensembles merged their sounds, or their ability to successfully navigate and share the stage.

Everything about the Fu-Arkist-Ra, is unique, but their instrumentation is definitely something you’ll rarely see: electric keyboard, three vocalists, chekere, cello, flute, trap drums, congas, bass, guitar, and an 8-foot Nigerian Ife drum. Their interesting mix of instruments creates an original, unique sound on its own, but when the Sweet Plantains Strings joined them onstage, another layer was added to really make something special. The ensemble laid down a deep winding groove—a churning bass line and multi-layered percussions combined with off beat cello and keyboard lines. It was like an afrobeat score to a scary movie.

Overall, it was one of the more unique shows to which I’ve been.
The rare mixture of musical elements fostered a sound and fusion that doesn’t come around very often. Every time I’ve seen Amayo’s Fu-Arkist-Ra, I always walk away with the same lasting impression of an energy-packed show that keeps the crowd engaged from start to finish. I was especially impressed by the Sweet Plantains as well. Their ingenuity in arrangement and propensity for fusing classical and contemporary genres is unmatched. Both groups are at the forefront of creating new soundscapes and pushing the limits of contemporary music.