Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Mali’s Tinariwen is one of only a handful of artists in the history of modern alternative popular music- The Beatles, Stones, Bowie and Elvis in the UK; Dylan, the Dead, Springsteen and Patti Smith in the US, Marley in Jamaica, Manu Chao in Europe, Carabao in Thailand, Mana’ in Mexico, and maybe… maybe… Cheb Khaled in Algeria- that is/was truly larger than life, whose reputation precedes them, that the term ‘classic’ becomes affixed to without hesitation. Of course first they must make it past the bewitching age of twenty-seven without self-destructing or fading away into uselessness, but most of all these are all bands or artists that mean something. There is something more important than album sales going on in each of these cases- politically, socially, and artistically- though the musicianship is never in question for any of them.

Of course as a band already well into middle age Tinariwen hardly has the oeuvre that the other artists had at a much earlier age, but then much of their best work probably still lies ahead. How many of the others can say the same? I bet they’ve got some of the best stories. And if life growing up in the desert seems like a curse, consider that they’ve also been very lucky coming from one of only a handful of places- besides Mali, maybe only Cuba, New Orleans, and where else?- that is truly musically magical. Thus when the Festival du Desert in Timbuktu was first getting off the ground less than a short ten years ago, you had the likes of Ali Farka Toure’, Oumou Sangare’, Justin Adams, and Robert Plant… yes that Robert Plant, there as participants and witnesses to something extraordinary about to take place, the unification of Mali by music, something still only tentative politically.

When I first became aware of Tinariwen only three short years ago, they were my big discovery of the year. Out of some 100+ CD’s that I gathered as part of my birthright as a first-time paying member of the World Music trade conference WOMEX, a short 3-song sampler by Tinariwen was my favorite. I turned other non-industry people on to it. Little did I know then of their preceding legend, guns and guitars and revolutions and revelations and all that, even less that they were about to break BIG, or big by world music standards anyway. Within a year they were opening for the Stones and touring small clubs in the US non-stop. Then I found out that not only had they already played the Festival International in Lafayette, LA, but they’d played for coffee at NAU in my own adopted home town of Flagstaff, AZ, courtesy of Blackfire’s Benally family, they themselves also veterans of two Festivals du Desert. I still have black-and-blue marks from my self-inflicted back kicks over that one.

Fast forward to the present and Tinariwen is past the heady days of their triumphant international debut and ready to prove their staying power. To take twenty years to produce an album or two is one thing. Can they do it every year or two? If their new album is any indication, I suspect they can. Imidiwan (‘Companions’) shows no signs of the slowing down, toning down, self-conscious caution, or the- God forbid- cover album that frequently afflicts a red-hot band’s senior thesis. Too often a real ‘thriller’ gets followed by something ‘bad.’ And they now have to contend with many imitators and band-wagoneers, too. Anybody can do their version of ‘desert blues,’ but there’s more to it than that. Many bands play ‘Afro-Beat’ also, but how many can sound like Fela? It’s the same with Tinariwen. If they were a one-trick pony, they’d have washed up on the sand long ago. Imidiwan shows the full range of their repertoire.

In my lifetime, most of the albums I’ve listened to I’ve only heard once, and maybe half that many again only twice. Though I listen more than that to any album I review, I probably listened to Imidiwan five times… in rapid succession. That’s the highest compliment I can pay any album. They’ve still got the magic. The opening song ‘Imidiwan Afrik Temdam’ is classic Tinariwen, meditative and reflective as the desert wind, and the second song ‘Lulla’ follows in the same vein, adding those soothing female background vocals that balance the sometimes-raw Tinariwen sound so nicely. Tenhert’ is a rap-and-boogie-woogie number and ‘Enseqi Ehad Didagh’ a slow earthy blues. Tahult In’ follows in the boogie vein, which is a pleasant evolution to the Tinariwen repertoire, an enhanced down-to-earth melodical feel. In general, the album maybe veers a bit toward Ali Farka’s earthiness, and away from raw desert edginess. Chabiba sounds so much like an American folk lament that I halfway expected to hear Townes Van Zandt join in on a verse. Maybe success is mellowing Tinariwen out… or maybe not. Maybe it’s rounding them out. The closing song ‘Desert Wind’ is a five minute instrumental that needs no DJ remix version to define its sense of space. The space is infinite. That’s Imidiwan by Tinariwen. The desert just got less lonely. Check it out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

“AGUA DEL POZO” by ALEX CUBA- More Pop, Hold the Salsa

He may wear an Afro and he may be Cuban, but Alex (Puentes) Cuba is definitely not Afro-Cuban, at least not his music… well, not much anyway. This is pure Latino-pop, Cuban style, gone north to British Columbia, Canada, for special seasoning. Latin music hasn’t seen pop hooks like this since Gloria Estefan or Ricky (who?) Martin, Shakira notwithstanding- or maybe notwithshaking, her own considerable hips. His lyricism, his romanticism, his optimism- and his pure pop hooks- are all imminently notable. Nelly Furtado took note, and booked him as a collaborator on her new Spanish-language album Mi Plan, title song cowritten with- you guessed it- Alex Cuba. Mae Furtado didn’t raise a fool for a daughter; this is a good career move for Nelly, deflecting anxieties over how to follow her previous smash hit album while moving on to that lucrative Shakira turf as an extension of her own more-adult-than-Britney-but-still-sexy-as-Hell middle ground. Don’t underestimate Canadian loyalty in her nurturing of Alex either. They’re both immigrants.

It’s obviously a good move for Alex Cuba, too. The man has got some commercial instincts, in addition to his considerable musical talents. The middle ground is obviously where mass popularity lives, by definition, and that’s the turf he claims on this album. It’s seems to be a shift he’s comfortable with also, away from strict Afro-Cuban music toward ballads and boleros and trova and… silly love songs. The first song on the album ‘Amor Infinito’ makes clear the intent- amor infinito… que siento contigo... que habla de mis sentimientos (‘the infinite love… that I feel with you… that speaks of my sentiments’) and weaves its way through the entire album.

Alex hasn’t left his Afro-Cuban roots totally behind, though, certainly not in the two songs co-written with his twin brother and sometime collaborator Adonis, the title song and Vampiro. Thought maybe 'Agua del Pozo' (‘Water from the Well’) would be reflective and existential or maybe something deep and meditative as if coming from the Dalai (‘deep sea’) Lama himself? Think again. It concerns itself with the usual Afro-Cuban obsessions of moving and shaking, butts not politics, ‘me gusta como te mueves… sacando el agua del pozo’ (‘I like the way you move it, taking water from the well’). So much for deep thought, but it DOES feature hot Santana-like guitar licks.
Vampiro’, with the help of some brassy riffs, flirts with the dark side a bit- esta noche quiero estar contigo, amarnos escondidos… ser vampiro de tu amor (‘Tonight I want to be with you, hidden away loving each other… being the vampire of your love’)- but not much. Most of Cuba’s lyrics are playful and dreamy- almost childishly optimistic and na├»ve- and affirm that ‘happy ending’ faith with little but symbolic intervention, like the dreamy light pop of ‘Pide Un Deseo’ (Make a Wish)- porque una estrella cae, porque puse mi arma en el cielo de vencer ella (‘because a star falls, because I shot it down just to get her’).

Even when Cuba tries to get mysterious and metaphysical as in ‘Fiesta de Religion’ his optimism and light smooth jazzy touches hardly miss a lick, talking about ‘donde se hablan los verdades’ (‘where the truths are spoken’), more credit than a lot of people would give religion, even Santeria. Ever the romantic, his faith lies more typically in love, as in the closing song “De Manera Que,” dame un poco de tu fe…hazlo de manera que… siento que no cambian los anos que hice mi amor (give me a little of your faith… so that… I don’t feel that the years are passing while I love you”).
About the only thing ‘wrong’ with the album is that it’s maybe a bit too long, and that’s a spurious complaint, one easily lived with, like too much of a good thing. The salsa-lite numbers sink in effortlessly, even if the slower numbers take an extra listen or two. All he really needs now is a big hit to carry him over the top, and whether he or Nelly or someone else sings it doesn’t really matter. There are half a dozen songs on "AGUA DEL POZO" that could potentially chart out on the Latin top 40, so it’s just a matter of time. 'Si Pero No' is maybe the best bet since it’s already hit the iTunes download charts and you don’t exactly need an MA in Spanish Lit to understand the indecisions of life and love.

I don’t think we’ll be talking about the ‘Kamloops Sound’ any time soon, but Alex Cuba has got a busy career ahead of him. The question is, “Are we ready?” The next question is, “Could he do it in English without losing that saborrrrr….?” Stay tuned… but first, give it a listen, "AGUA DEL POZO," and prepare to get hooked. Now if only the US and that other Cuba would settle their differences…

(Author’s note- Pardon any mis-translations, but I can only translate what I can hear, and we ‘journalists’ don’t get lyrics sheets. Sometimes the CD beta-versions we get don’t even have song titles! So I do the best I can. Just last week I finally heard the correct lyrics to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for the first time from Paul Anka’s version- though I think maybe my own lyrics were better. Still I think lyrics are important, however tentative or partial. I for one don’t believe that the final solution to the world’s- and world music’s- ‘language problem’ is ‘English Only.’ So I persevere. Tamashek anyone?

On another note, I’m including a free song download for the first time. If it’s hassle-free, then I hope to do it more, artist willing. Considering that I frequently blog up from remote corners of the world, ‘hassle-free’ is not always the operative concept. Lastly, thanks to those of you who follow my blog, especially those of you who let me know one way or another. This blog’s for you. Enjoy.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Les Triaboliques’ “rivermudtwilight”- Guitar String Theory 401 (frets optional)

Justin Adams is on something of a roll these days, at least as rolls go in the world music genre. In addition to his day job as Robert Plant’s main axman, he’s one of the masterminds behind Festival du Desert and the ‘Saharan blues’ group Tinariwen’s rise to prominence in the last few years, along with their many imitators. He also has a successful collaboration in process with Gambian griot Juldeh Camara, a collaboration that’s kept them at the top of the WMCE for most of the last four months. Now he’s got a new album out, “rivermudtwilight” by Les Triaboliques (The Triabolical Ones), in collaboration with two other world music veterans Ben Mandelson and Lou Edmonds, themselves also guitarists though manning a plethora of diverse, if similar, instruments for this project, notably the oud-like cumbus and fretless kabosy. Considering that he wrote all but two of the album’s songs, it’s notable that he’s willing to share the spotlight in what could be a timely Justin Adams solo effort. But the collaboration is a good one. They sound as if they’ve been playing together for years; maybe that’s because they have.

I guess it was only a matter of time before Western musicians with experience in world music bands would come home and form their own bands. Next, musicians from Chinese world music bands will join with Moroccan ones I suppose. If some people lament the golden age of the BAND as metaphysical entity, I welcome the current age of band as project, multiple collaborations on many levels. But that impermanence doesn’t have to imply carelessness or sloppy work. Indeed Les Triaboliques have anything but a ‘trevil-may-care’ (get it? Triabolical/trevil?) attitude, in what are some exquisitely crafted songs spanning the folk traditions from Africa to Andalusia to Aberdeen. With the possible exception of ‘Ledmo,’ something of an acid-grass instrumental doodle, the majority of songs are nothing if not intense, albeit not necessarily fast, songs.

The album’s opening song ‘Crossing the Stone Bridge’ sets the tone, and along with ‘Black Earth Boys’ may be the most accessible song on the album, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best. The ballads ‘Turns the Worm’ and ‘Shine a Light’ positively beg you to enter the dark side- if only for a moment- and the traditional ‘Jack o’ Diamonds’ could hold its own with ‘John Barleycorn’ as an example of a traditional song successfully gone pop. On the title song Adams indulges in a little ‘chicken pickin’ as the vocals intone ‘got to find a simple life’ in a compelling dirge-like lament. In fact all of Adams’ compositions show a surprising poetic sensibility that is rare in any form of popular music, not least of all ‘Crossing the Stone Bridge’ (‘we belong to the earth… everything is recorded’).

‘Afsaduni’ has a strong Arabic connection while ‘Gulaguajira- I the Dissolute Prisoner’ invokes an Afro-Cuban feel, albeit mixed with Russian lyrics. In what seems something of a British tradition, Les Triaboliques give ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ a go… and nail it. I almost cried. That song has been re-defined as a medieval English ballad meandering through the centuries to re-emerge as conditions dictate. Last but not least ‘Phosphor Lane’ closes the album in something like an inverse Jimi Hendrix version of ‘Star Spangled Banner’, an anthemic closing ceremony.

Les Triaboliques re-invent the stringed instrument as a tool of the earth, its favorite son and favorite father, playing the blues while wiping away the sweat. Thus the blues returns to the dirt from which it came. The album evokes nothing so much as a bygone era, an era in which strings were plucked like so much wheat- or cotton- being harvested, whether in England or the High Atlas or the remote steppes of Asia. This is the Medieval Era of darkness, superstition… and magic, an era in which cultures that had long gone forth and divided began to reconnect with one another. Fortunately you don’t have to wait for these minstrels to wander to your town in order to hear the message. The hard work’s been done for you already. You can just click ‘Download.’ That’s “rivermudtwilight” by Les Triaboliques. Check it out.

Monday, September 07, 2009


Coachella and Lollapalooza may take the limelight, but world music has some good festivals, too, and a couple of the best are yet to come. The Chicago World Music Festival features such notables as Blick Bassy, Hanggai, Los de Abajo, Cheb i Sabbah, and Markus James, as well as such up-and-comers as Watcha’ Clan, Fishtank Ensemble, Kusun Ensemble, and Momo. The festival will take place from September 18-24 in various locations around the city. Find more at www.worldmusicfestivalchicago.org.

Not to be outdone, !Globalquerque!, the Albuquerque world music festival, will take place Sept. 25-26 on three stages at the Hispanic Cultural Center. As of press time the scheduled bands include those same Blick Bassy from Cameroon and Kusun Ensemble from Ghana, as well as Novalima from Peru and Vasen from Sweden, and many others from the ethnic nooks and crannies of the US and world, including and especially New Mexico’s own Robert Mirabal of Taos Pueblo, Dine’/Kiowa Toppah & Yazzie, and Dwayne Ortega and the Young Guns. This is a pretty impressive lineup for a city that ranks only 59th among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Always looking for new angles to get the music to the people, organizer Tom Frouge has even added a pre-show !Localquerque! in conjunction with the NM State Fair on Sept. 20. These are top-notch world music gatherings that would usually only happen in a major city with major funding, so good work, guys! Find details at www.globalquerque.com.

Back in LA, the Levitt Pavilion at MacArthur Park wraps things up this week with its traditional 1-2-3 punch of Korean Music-Central American Independence Day-Mexican Independence Day Celebrations on Sept. 11-12-13 respectively, ending another great season of free music for all us folks, down in LA’s inner city barrio area. Find out more at www.levittpavilionlosangeles.org. Since Levitt Pasadena and Grand Performances downtown have already finished their summer music schedules, that’ll pretty much wrap things up for LA this summer as things begin to move inside for the winter in what is arguably America’s most ethnic city. Those who knock LA as being celluloidal and characterless haven’t been to the barrio, or Little Ethiopia, or Little Armenia, or Koreatown or Japantown or Chinatown or Thai Town, all with their own celebrations and cultures and languages and immigrants, sometimes still more attached to the homeland than to America. This is notable, and perhaps even preferable, to the traditional ‘melting pot’ concept.

Are you interested in something a bit different? A celebration of Thai culture called Himmapan 2nd World just may be coming to a venue near you. Created and organized by Todd ‘Tongdee’ Lavelle and supported by the Thai Foreign Ministry and Singha Beer, the shows feature twenty Thai and Thailand-based world music artists, and will appear in at least ten US cities this September, comprising the Northeast, Chicago, Pacific Northwest, California, and Texas. And if you’re thinking of some predictable ballet folklorico, well think again. Thailand has contemporary culture with the best of them, and many different regions and traditions all part of the mix. Long-haired pony-tailed Fulbright Scholar Todd is himself something of a local legend in Thailand, one of the few Westerners to fully break through the cultural barriers and become integrated into the highest levels of Thai society, giving speeches and hosting TV programs, even becoming a self-styled ‘cultural ambassador.’ He’s also a musician and promoter, organizing the annual ‘Rhythm of the Earth Fest’ in Bangkok every year, among others. It should be a good show; there should be more. Find details at http://himmapanworld.com/. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

“Ake Doni Doni- Take It Slow” by Cheick Hamala Diabate- Griot-pop For the People

Our wild crazy modern global village creates some pretty incongruous combinations, but a griot in Washington, D.C.? Yep, and his name is Cheick Hamala Diabate (yes, one of those Diabates), doing everything a griot is supposed to do, including playing music. Of course the griot’s duties go beyond music, into history, hagiography, and even advice to those lost and found in love. The best analogy might be to the Baptist preacher in African-American communities in the US Deep South, where there is little separation between church and state. They must be always at the ready to explain the world to those hungry for understanding, preferably before the undertaking. For such occasions music plays an almost supernatural role of transcendence, a language connecting disparate worlds, just as it does for many of us late-20th century pilgrims and forest-dwellers now gone millenial digital.

Except in the case of Cheick Hamala Diabate, he’s preaching and teaching and singing the gospel for expatriate Africans, particularly West Africans, particularly Malians. More and more ex-pats in the US assimilate less and less, preferring instead to mix and match what works best from both worlds, particularly in large cities where the force of their numbers allows for true community. It’s a dirty little secret- the ‘melting pot’ never had meaning beyond the European- mostly northern European- communities of early US history. Of course this is a wonderful opportunity for us ‘normal’ W-A-S-P Americans who have long ago shed our stingers, preferring instead to extend our fingers into every cultural nexus that presents itself within our reach. Often this requires nothing more than a trip to the other side of town, like another dimension right there hiding in plain sight. But music’s even better- you just push a button and turn up the volume- if you know which button to push. Thanks to Google and MySpace, we’re now limited only by our imaginations… and search exhaustion.

Part of Diabate’s musical mission is to reunite his first instrument, the African n’goni, with its long-lost American third-cousin-twice-removed, the banjo. To this end he has mastered both, and even introduced the banjo to his fellow countrymen back home. He has also learned the guitar, which he plays left-handed and upside down (I guess he tired of looking for left-handed guitars). In the process he has collaborated with such US musical luminaries as Bela Fleck and Bob Carlin, even picking up a Grammy nomination in the process, not bad for a country preacher. Now if you’re thinking that maybe an hour of dirge-like droning or African bluegrass isn’t exactly your style, think again. This is pure Afro-pop, thanks to his back-up band Chopteeth.

The title song Ake Doni Doni- ‘Take It Slow’ is a rocking jazzy number sung in English about the dangers of HIV and the need to… you guessed it. Sex is better that way anyway, isn’t it? For some reason that song closes the album, though I personally would have preferred it as the opener. The song that DOES open the album is the mid-tempo ‘Den Wourou Lalou’, which features some bouncey Farfisa-like organ, slick guitar and some wailing female backup vocals while intoning in English to “get an education,” etc. It’s a nice song, but a bit indecisive as the opener. The second song ‘Wanto Doke’ quickly rectifies that, a straight-ahead mid-tempo griot rap that features Diabate’s own superb vocals and some more smart guitar. Unfortunately these and most of the album’s lyrics are in African dialect- I’m guessing Bambara- but feature more advice on the need for self-reliance and responsibility.

From there the album ranges from the slow brooding vocals of ‘Tounka Mani’ to ‘Oude Diallo’s ethereal female wailing to the lively brass and funky banjo of ‘Djeli Fily Tounkara.’ True to griot form the album slows down and grows more pensive toward the end- except for the title song- with the hypnotic instrumentals of ‘Den Den’ and ‘Baba Sissoko Dabia’s slow lilting repetitive talk-over. This would have been a good song to end on, a nice slow walk after a good long ride. That’s a rather small complaint for a really good album. A special note of mention should go to Cheick’s daughter Astou Diabate, who does a fine job throughout, while getting scarce mention in the notes. I hope Cheick’s not hiding her away, trying to marry her off to some lawyer. I’m guessing Cheick’s not really his name either btw, more of an honorific, usually spelled ‘sheikh’ in English. He’s a Muslim preacher you see, the religion of Mali and much of West Africa. Fundamentally the teachings are the same as Christianity; the God IS the same. The music is at least as good, maybe better. Check it out.

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