Monday, December 14, 2009

CEDRIC WATSON AND BIJOU CREOLE- ‘L’esprit Creole’: Zydeco’s Next Wave?

Though zydeco was one of the first ‘world music’ sub-genres out of the gates, its history has been a bit uneven. On the one hand it has the unique distinction of being one of the few styles of ethnic music from the lower 48 US states, complete with non-English lyrics and all. That’s both blessing and curse, of course, because on the other hand their natural ethnic fan base is limited, and the tastes of hipsters and intellectuals is both fickle and short-attention-span. A small genre like zydeco needs a star, too, and it’s been a long time since Clifton Chenier has lead the pack with his almost-Marley-like status within music circles. Sure, there’s been Buckwheat Zydeco and Queen Ida, but mass cross-over appeal is still lacking there. In a way zydeco has almost been a victim of its own success, since once a new genre gains exposure it’s then subject to a syndrome somewhat analogous to ‘produce or perish.’ Fortunately it gained recognition as a separate genre for Grammy Award purposes, so that’s an important recognition of its unique accomplishments.

For years now rural Cajun and zydeco music in southern Louisiana have been cross-fertilizing not only with urban New Orleans jazz and funk, but also with the music scene in southern Texas, including the always quirky alt-country scene in Austin and the Tex-Mex scene in San Antonio. This has been a creative milieu for all parties involved, offering links to polka, salsa, blues, and folk Americana in addition to the more obvious connections. Enter Cedric Watson on to the zydeco scene based in Lafayette, Louisiana, a country boy from Texas intent on re-inventing himself along the lines of his Creole ancestry and re-inventing zydeco music in whatever way works best, acknowledging its traditions while stretching its boundaries. His newest album L’Esprit Creole (‘Creole Spirit’) with his band Bijou Creole goes a long way to doing just that. The eponymous opening song ‘Bijou Creole’ sets the tone for the album, a rocker in classic zydeco style, with lots of accordion and lilting melody dutifully listing their qualifications- ‘c’est la belle musique… bon musique’… etc. You get the idea.

Le Sud de la Louisiane’ continues along the same lines while adding a significant blues-rock-jazz groove to the mix, complete with lead guitar, brass, and various dramatic flourishes. Mais La’ returns to traditional Cajun forms, with lots of accordion and funky folksy rhythm. J'suis parti au Texas’ lets Cedric show off his Cajun fiddle, almost ‘Orange-Blossom-Special’-like imitating the sound of an old car trying to make it across the state line. With the next song ‘Zydeco Paradise’ they hit their creative stride, opening with a spacey abstract intro and segueing into a zydeco style with a distinct Memphis feel. ‘Lafayette Lala’ and ‘J'suis Gone à La Blue Moon’ return to classic accordion-driven zydeco musical and story-telling form, lettin’ the good times roll and hanging with ‘mes amis’, but by then, the secret is out- these guys are capable of more than just your typical boogie-woogie. Of course what would a French Creole-language album be without a song called ‘C'est La Vie’? Not much I reckon, and they do the concept justice with their slow introspective ballad evoking the values of reflection and perseverance. The rest of the album keeps up the good work, mostly rocking, but also with real country licks on ‘Cher 'Tit Coeur’, and finally terminating in a purely fiddle-based instrumental number ‘Blue Runner’ that rocks just for the Hell of it, reminding us that we’re here to dance, not think too much.

So what has Cedric Watson got that any other zydeco fiddle-slinger doesn’t? Listen to the thirty-second opening to ‘Zydeco Paradise’ with its poly-rhythms and jazz-space and you tell me. Those thirty seconds alone could be the birth of an entire new genre, where country-boy zydeco meets sassy miss New Orleans and gives birth to a savant son who can view Heaven in a glimpse, and lay down the soundtrack to it in a flash. Is the country boy with the floppy straw hat the guy to take zydeco into the next orbit? He just might be. There is musical vision there the surface of which has only been scratched. Why else would he choose to be marketing himself through world music channels? There’s a big world out there, and I think Mr. Watson is looking beyond the next crawfish festival to put the ice cream on his apple pie. I just want to know one thing- when are they going to erect a memorial at Jay’s Lounge and Cock Pit in Cankton? While I wax nostalgic over a Saturday night long ago, y’all can check out ‘L’esprit Creole’ by Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole. It’s good.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

BASSEKOU KOUYATE & NGONI BA- ‘I Speak Fula’: Is it African Bluegrass or Blues… or Jazz?

World music can be like a genome project sometimes, except here the DNA involved is an aspect of culture, not biology, and in this case music, descended through history along many crooked lines of mutation and permutation. Ali Farke Toure’, the great African singer and guitarist, was one of the first to stir the pot with his proclamations as to the African origin of blues, and its cross-fertilization both ways, easily attested to in his own music. Of course it’s not just the music but the instruments themselves that have African origins. While it’s long been known that the American banjo had such African origins, it’s only been recently that that point has really been driven home and African ngoni players have actually sat down and played with their American banjo-picking counterparts. Of course the American banjo has come a long way since its introduction into the larger culture as a familiar part of minstrel shows, to its position at the forefront of American bluegrass music. The African ngoni has had a similar ride from the background into the forefront of African music.

Bassekou Kouyate is to the Malian ngoni much the same as Earl Scruggs is to the American banjo, revolutionizing its style and status, including the introduction of new picking styles that serve to make the ngoni a lead instrument and not just background harmonic filler. To this end he has accomplished another innovation- a band composed entirely of ngoni’s, albeit of different sizes and pitch, hence the appellation ngoni ba. Imagine a band composed entirely of American banjos! But the Malian ngoni as played by Bassekou Kouyate serves a much broeader function than the American banjo, more similar to the role of guitar in American popular music. Perhaps only an innovator such as Bela Fleck has been as inventive with the banjo, and it’s no coincidence that he will be sharing the stage for many of Ngoni Ba’s upcoming tour of the US early next year.

While others have similar notions of crossing over into the American mainstream, notably Issa Bagayogo with his ‘techno’ style of ngoni music and Cheick Hamala Diabate’ with solid English lyrics and superb mastery of the American musical idiom, Ngoni Ba perhaps stays closest to the historical tradition. On ‘I Speak Fula’ the emphasis is on the picking, though he gets splendid support from wife Amy Sacko on vocals and guest stars such as Toumani Diabate’ and Ali Farka’s rising son Vieux. The album starts off briskly with the title song ‘I Speak Fula’, a fast percussive number with a pleasant mix of male and female vocals, then slows down a bit with ‘Jamana be Diya’, a deep moody ballad. ‘Musow - For our Women’ raises the tempo- and anxiety- level again, with some superb wailing female vocals by Sacko laid over a nervous jittery percussive track and some stylish finger-picking by Kouyate. This is one of the album’s best songs.

‘Torin Torin’ is something completely different, and sounds almost Celtic in its use of female vocals and choruses. ‘Bambugu Blues’ then gets down and dirty with some slow earthy blues that almost sounds like it’s being played back slow motion. From that point on the pattern is established and it’s just a matter of the featured players taking their turns and their bows. ‘Amy’ features Zoumana Tereta on zoku fiddle and ‘Saro’ features Vieux Farka Toure’ on jangly guitar. ‘Ladon’ is a piece of mostly instrumental virtuosity and ‘Tineni’, featuring Toumani Diabate, is a long slow ballad with kora that serves to accentuate the harmonic potential of the ngoni. ‘Falani’ and ‘Moustapha’ wind things up by winding them down, s-l-o-w-l-y and with feeling, till there’s but a single instrument serving a solitary singer, with another voice or two in the background chanting affirmations. It’s all in Fula of course, the language of Fulani people and Ali Farka himself, so I can only imagine what they’re saying, but sometimes it’s better that way. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this album is the reception it’s received already. Only just released in Europe, it’s riding high in the WMCE. This is Ngoni Ba’s only second album, but it surely won’t be their last. That’s ‘I Speak Fula’- available online now and early next year in US record stores. Check it out.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


No one has ever accused me of being reggae’s greatest fan, though I’ve always liked it. It’s just that after its early good-time urban Caribbean florescence and its Marley-defined climax, the good-timers turned to dancehall, leaving reggae itself with some big shoes to fill and a messiah complex that was more burdensome than enlightening. Fast-forward thirty years and the results are interesting. Ol’ Bob was prolific in more ways than one, of course, and little by little a new generation of Marleys indeed HAS been filling his shoes, albeit one toe at the time. Meanwhile a plethora of music from Africa has given plenty of alternatives for exotic palm-fringed listening, including several opportunities for reggae-style music without all the rasta-stuff. The first probes of African music thirty years ago, that uncovered Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, were indeed attempts to find suitable Marley substitutes. I reckon they did. Just because reggae created a new genre of ‘world music’ doesn’t mean they had any monopoly on it.

Like other genres previous and subsequent, reggae had repercussions far beyond its original borders, particularly within the Caribbean, where it is pretty much THE de facto collective national anthem of the region, at least of the modern English-derived cultures. That extends as far as Guyana on the north shore of the South American continent, and includes the Virgin Islands, of course, including the US Virgin Islands, which is where I Grade Records is based. It’s not a bad place to be, where the States meet the islands, and now something of a secondary center for reggae music. Well, early results for I Grade Records have been good and they’ve got a compilation album to prove it. It’s called ‘Joyful Noise’ and it’ll be available to the public in January.

Best of the lot is probably Duane Stephenson from Jamaica with the album’s killer opening song ‘Hard Times.’ It’s classic reggae, with the classic beat and classic lyrics, like ‘Hard times… hard times… I’ve got to run and hide and find a place to lay my head.’ He also contributes another song, also classic in style, the downtrodden but optimistic “I’m Fine,’ with lyrics like ‘I’m sitting in the corner but I’m fine… nevermind.” Queen Omega seconds the emotion while offering a solution with ‘Footsteps’- “Jah is our only friend, he sticks with me to the end.” Yes, for Rasta-based reggae, Jah is still the be-all and end-all, while Jesus doesn’t rate quite so highly, as in ‘We Want Reparations’ by VI’s own Batch- “in Jesus’ name they were so deceptive”- notwithstanding Promised Land Ethiopia’s history as one of the oldest of Christian countries. The chain of injustice goes all the way back through recorded history, as remembered in Pressure Busspipe’s ‘Modern Pharoah’- “Release all the shackles and chains… I’ll never be a victim no more.”

Reconstructing history to suit modern tastes and trends is always tricky business, of course, and the songs that work best are the ones that deal with it on a personal or moral level, not a vengeful one. Reggae has always been at its best with positive and optimistic messages. Guyanese Jahdan Blakkamoore is one of the best at this, with ‘Flying High’- “a new day is dawning and a new song to sing” or ‘Red Hot’- “you can really make a difference if you’re willing… we’ve never known how it feels to be loved, wanted, cared for…”. This is good stuff. Of course reggae has always been better at its lyrics than its melodies, and this compilation is no different, not that the music is weak, just repetitive. Some songs, indeed, are musically almost carbon copies of each other, the same tune but with different words. Only when reggae gets its music up to the same level as its lyrics will it be able to take its rightful place as one of the music world’s great genres. Until then, ‘Joyful Noise’ is as good- or better- than anything out there. Give it a listen.

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