Brilliant African Pop Artists Thrive in Age of Xenophobia - Rolling Stone
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Brilliant, Genre-Blurred African Pop Artists Thrive in Age of Xenophobia

Orchestra Baobab, Spoek Mathambo, Les Amazones d’Afrique, Oumou Sangaré, Janka Nabay and a wealth of music exploding from the motherland

Les Amazones d’AfriqueLes Amazones d’Afrique

Les Amazones d’Afrique are a West African supergroup.

Valerie Malot

African music is at the core of a vast array of music from the Americas: gospel, blues, jazz, rock & roll, R&B, samba, son, soul, salsa, disco, calypso, reggae, hip-hop, house, techno. Back in the motherland, meanwhile, feedback loops involving these hybrids shaped others in turn – one reason African pop is such a rich, hall-of-mirrors listening experience. And its irresistible groove poetry speaks for itself. With new immigration paranoia stifling cultural exchange, a burst of 2017 releases GPS-ing some epic African journeys is both encouraging and frustrating – evidence of what a nation misses when it’s busy building walls.

Foremost of the current bumper crop is Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab, one of the most sublime dance bands in Africa, who have released their first LP in nearly ten years, Tribute To Ndiouga Dieng. Baobab evolved from the Star Band in late Sixties/early Seventies Dakar – a musically-rich port city, not unlike New Orleans – and made melting-pot sounds: deep-rooted African styles stewed with colonial flavors. There was the French influence, naturally, and via the southern Casamance region, the Portuguese. There was American jazz, soul, rock and Caribbean tinges – foremost the Cuban sound that began shaping West African musical DNA deeply in the 1940s, when 78s by Conjunto Matamoros and others washed ashore with sailors and started blowing minds.

All their records are seductive, but the defining Baobab document remains the album issued in Senegal as Ken Dou Werente in 1983, in England as Pirate’s Choice in 1989 and expanded for U.S. audiences in 2002, when the band rebooted for their first proper international tour after 15 years of retirement. Why did they quit? Audience tastes change, and their elegant polyglot sound was overshadowed by the more agitated, indigenous style of mbalax, which Baobab nodded to but which younger acts (most famously Youssou N’Dour and Etoile De Dakar) fully owned. Like the Buena Vista Social Club project, also spurred by the British World Circuit label, Baobab was a throwback whose pre-independence echoes became popular in the West, maybe tellingly. But decades of cultural self-determination in Senegal also provided new perspective on the music’s thoroughly African beauty.

Dieng, one of the group’s trio of lead singers, died last year. He was the griot, the group’s key Wolof voice, the one behind the galloping “Werente Serigne” on Pirate’s Choice, the guy who sang about the slave-trade history of Goree Island while playing tour guide to Trey Anastasio and Dave Matthews for a VH1 documentary-cum-concert back in 2004. (He also taught Matthews how to passably sing backing vocals on “Utras Horas.”) Co-founding frontmen Balla Sidibé and Rudy Gomis carry the torch, with vocal assists from ex-bandmate Thione Seck and countryman Cheikh Lô.

More pronounced than Dieng’s absence is that of Barthelemy Attisso, whose signature quicksilver guitar leads branded the band from the get-go. Why one of the planet’s greatest electric guitarists would retire from Baobab to resume his law practice in Togo, and not the other way around, is puzzling, but c’est la vie. Beninese guitarist René Sowatche pinch hits respectably here and there, but it’s Abdoulaye Cissoko’s kora which takes center stage. A new element in their mix, the kora makes Baobab’s sound more ancient and, in an Afrocentric-fusion sense, more modern. It also makes it less distinctive and a little less intense. See “Foula,” which smoothes out the group’s antsy mid-Seventies recording of “Kanoute.” “Sey” also dates back to the Seventies, when the band recorded a galloping version with dissonant Attiso riffing. The remake here is more supple, Sowatche stoking a fire and Seck – who sang the original before leaving Baobab to become a solo star – showcasing a remarkably preserved voice. “Woulinewa” is another oldie, a stately reading of Kebendo Jazz’s “Woulignewa,” the magnificent, dizzying late-Sixties Afro-Cuban jam that turned up on Afro Latin Via Conakry, an outstanding Guinean compilation that parallels Baobab’s early sound. Here, Cissoko’s kora again stands in for the original guitar, conjuring steel pan tones, while Issa Cissokho’s sax supplants the original’s breathtaking, note-stretching trumpet solo.

At a recent Dakar show, some Dieng songs were sung by his son Alpha, who was born the night of a Baobab gig in 1972; Sidibe recalled celebrating after the show. Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country; it isn’t on any immigration-ban lists yet, so hopefully Americans will get another chance to see the band stateside. The nation has maintained good U.S. relations over the years. Yet it stands to lose tens of millions of dollars of U.S. aid money flagged for health care, thanks to Trump’s anti-abortion global gag rule. This will have the biggest impact on women’s health care services in the region, which need all the help they can get.

That’s one issue inspiring Les Amazones d’Afrique, a West African supergroup whose République Amazone is deep ancient-to-the-future pop. Mariam Doumbia (of Amadou & Mariam) and Mamani Keita helped conceive the project in Bamako, recruiting countrywomen Kandia Kouyaté, Mariam Koné, Massan Coulibaly and Mouneissa Tandina along with Gabon’s Pamela Badjogo, Benin-to-Brooklyn émigré Angelique Kidjo, and Lagos–to–Hamburg émigré Nneka. Intent on advancing gender equality in Africa and supporting the Panzi Foundation, which works with victims of sexual violence, the 10-woman crew hired Liam “Doctor L” Farrell, who imprinted Mbongwana Star’s fantastic 2015 debut with dub-distortion flavor à la Congolese beat pioneers (and Björk tourmates) Konono No. 1. He brings similar Congotronic sonics here: electro-kalimba, flanged talking-drum tones galloping around rapid-fire handclaps and hand-drum beats, plus layers of vocal processing and some ripping electric guitar. The styles swing wildly, from the Labelle-meets-Lee Perry haze of Nneka’s “La Dame and Ses Valises” through the Wassalou free-jazz space funk of “I Play the Kora.” It’s not your mom’s Afropop, though some of the singers may be old enough to be her mom.

Oumou Sangaré, one of the great queens of Malian music, was part of the project’s concept, though she didn’t wind up on the LP; maybe because she had her hands full with her own record, along with side hustles including a hotel, an automobile line (the “Oum Sang”) and a rice brand, not to mention work with the United Nations. Since her last LP eight years ago, Sangaré left World Circuit to record with the Parisian indie No Format label, and her sound, still rooted in her Wassalou traditionalism, has become more beat-forward. “Yere Faga,” a song about suicide, pairs her with Africa’s ultimate drum machine, Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat co-creator Tony Allen, who motors a psychedelic mix, with backing vocal bursts and Hendrixian guitar noise flashing by like comets. The video finds her in a smoky warehouse full of tires, rocking electric blue lipstick and a regal blonde weave, making a pitch for staying alive while a badass young dancer stalks the streets of Bamako, ultimately rallying her comrades from a shebeen table-top. On other tracks where the production touch is lighter, Mogoya is rooted in the sound of the traditional kamele n’goni harp, while the title track is a gorgeous blues unspooled over flickering synths and what sounds like a cello in an ice cave.

Of course, electronics are as “traditional” for African musicians by now as they are for the rest of the world. Nigeria’s William Onyeabor, who died in January, pioneered an Afrobeat offshoot in the Seventies and Eighties driven by synthesizers and drum machines. It had a fantastic revival over the past few years thanks to reissues on the David Byrne-founded Luaka Bop label, which is now working with Janka Nabay, a Muslim expat living in the States and continuing the electro-funk tradition, reimagining the “bubu music” of his native Sierra Leone.

Nabay’s career got jumpstarted in the Nineties when, in the midst of a bloody, protracted civil war, he won a Freetown talent contest by electrifying what had been regional Ramadan processional music played on bamboo flutes and percussion. Nabay flipped its rhythms and drones and, in time, began addressing the war in his lyrics. As factions began using his used his music to rally people, he was caught in the middle, and eventually fled to Senegal, where he got a U.S. visa. He ended up in New York City, connected with some young Brooklyn musicians, put out an EP on the indie True Panther label, and began a new stage.

Build Music, his second Luaka Bop set, is a head rush of oddball melodies, guitar loops, and beats that sync up ass-backwards, magically. See the title track, with its mosaic of handclaps, agogo bell, and day-glo synth smears; and “Angbolieh,” which weaves sampled bubu flutes into a dreamy, drone-glazed mix. The lyrics mash-up English, Sierra Leone Krio and bits of Arabic – Nabay is trying to connect across multiple platforms in his adopted home. It ain’t easy: “Santa Monica” is part memoir about being hassled by cops before performing at the Getty Museum, the words “investigation interrogation” looping vertiginously over chattering guitars and dance-party beats.

Johannesburg’s Spoek Mathambo is another beat scientist averse to the obvious: his debut featured a head-turning cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” (with a sly nod to Grace Jones’s version), and his second LP, Father Creeper, was issued in the U.S. by the diversifying Seattle indie-rock hosts Sub Pop. Like Prince, to whom Mathambo been compared, this is a creative mind intent on leading, not following. Mzansi Beat Code, his best set yet and one of the year’s most thrilling pop rides by any measure, is less an avant-pop LP with club-music fixations than a killer DJ mix with a muscular song sense. In some ways, it’s the object-lesson counterpart to Mathambo’s Future Sounds of Mzansi, an essential 2015 documentary on South African electronic music which he produced. “Want Ur Love” has Mathambo’s band stutter-strutting digital funk under the sister-duo Kajama, who deliver the year’s most resonant chant so far: “For fuck’s sake, love!” Some grooves lock into established styles like kwaito, South Africa’s recalibration of Chicago house (“Black Rose,” “The Mountain”), and the starker, darker gqom – check “Sifin’imali Yethu,” abetted by moniker-prize-winner DJ Jumping Back Slash and a weirdly menacing reprise of Shaggy’s ’95 dancehall crossover smash “Boombastic.” Other beat equations are playfully tough to pin down: see “Volcan,” with Tijuana indie-rock comer Ceci Bastida. Mzansi Beat Code ends with “Pula,” which winkingly shuffles a barrage of modern styles with the Eighties “township jive” sound Paul Simon tapped on Graceland – still probably the most high-profile African pop fusion LP in history. But maybe not forever. 


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