Tuesday, May 18, 2010

'82' by 'Just a Band'- Ethereal Soulful Hip Hop Trance?

It was bound to happen... and it IS happening... little by little. The new cultural democracy fostered by the likes of MySpace, FaceBook, and YouTube is slowly bearing fruit... which is no surprise. When record companies crumble, after all, something will rise in its place, likely something very similar to what precipitated the crash in the first place. Flowers love ashes. What IS surprising, though, is that that democracy is crossing borders, to the unmediated delight of all of us who care about successful cultural syntheses. Maybe there IS some hope for our fragile planet of excitable primates after all.

So forget the band's lame name (btw I do offer a band-naming service at very reasonable rates). Forget the Shaft-like tough guy 'Makmende' ('make my day') viral video bad-acting mock-movie-trailer showcase for their song 'Ha He' that rocketed off the U-tube charts... consider the short-attention-span source. Forget the PR rap about how these guys deserve a scoring handicap since Kenya has power blackouts three days a week. That's pure, uh... exaggeration. Sure the power goes out once in a while, but nothing compared to Ethiopia... or even Tanzania. Kenya's pretty civilized... by sub-Sahara African standards at least.

Let's just consider the music. The pop music world is currently 'populated' (pun intended) by many diverse genres that seem to have little to do with one another, with even the best of it somehow lacking in something... something important... something unexplainable. But taken as a whole pop music is incredibly rich and diverse, an incredible story of cultural evolution over the last fifty years, if not longer. The history of the music by American blacks is more clear and concise, from gospel to blues to soul to hiphop, a tale of cultural self-discovery that has yet to reach its final chapter. And now a quantum leap has occurred, a leap across borders.

If combination is the essence of creativity, then that is exactly what 'Just a Band' has accomplished with '82'- the year band members Blinky, Dan and Jim were all born btw. The album opens with “Save My Soul”, an ethereal trance-like chant with its roots in pure gospel- 'you're gonna save my soul...I've been inside too long... you're gonna take me home'. Many Westerners might be surprised at the influence of gospel music in Africa and especially the African diaspora in the Caribbean, such it usually rates no street cred behind such trendy catchwords like Afro-Pop, Afro-Beat, etc., but the influence is there and strong. “Ha-He” is the funky epic rocker that inspired the 'Makmende' story, a killer tune, though the lyrics are incomprehensible except for a few references to 'defying gravity', no big deal for a Clint Eastwood-inspired superhero. “Extra” completes the killer trilogy, a playful childlike hip-hop that shows a wonderful sarcastic edge to their streetwise intellect- 'I wanna' be darker... thinner... better... cooler... wiser...'. These guys are wise beyond their circumstances, and their English is good, giving us a rare insightful look into the mindset of young modern- and most importantly intelligent- Africans.

“Kaa Ridho” is a song sung in Swahili, a kind of afro-rap, with some nice piano, while “Migingo Express”, also in Swahili, is more Afro-pop, with some Dylanesque harp, but the album is bogging down a bit at this point. “Usinibore” brings it right back with some trancey 'tronic existential chanting- 'Just because I'm an African with black skin... don't tell me what I can and can't do... I can change the world'. “Sunrise” continues in the same vein – yes, THAT vein- hypnotic, conga-laced afro-trance- 'all I want is to see your face changing... sun rising', but that's as close as the band gets to a love song. “Huff + Puff” is a bouncy electronic number with a catchy disco beat, and “Uko Mbele” plays for some commercial cache with lyrics like 'can I walk in the rain with you?', but the album has pretty much shot its wad by this point. The black-eyed phea-male vocals on the next two songs- “Forever People(Do It So Delicious)” and “Stay”- are good enough, but don 't really move the album forward, just philler. Ditto “BoogieDeeBweet”, an an electronic instrumental afterthought. That's the beauty of laptop listening- delete buttons.

This band's meat-and-potatoes (or chicken masala maybe?) is their successful combination of electronica and hiphop. The icing on the cake is their street-wise intellectuality that goes way beyond the boring pidgin poop that's become the norm for foreign bands... or hiphop, either, for that matter. Electronica needs an edge. Hiphop needs some smarts. Neither needs so much 'tude. These guys pull it off. That's '82' by JAB ('Just a Band'). Hardie K says check it out.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

ROCKY DAWUNI’s` ‘Hymns for the Rebel Soul’- THE FUTURE OF REGGAE?

Okay, so I’m wrong sometimes. Not good enough? Okay, so I’m wrong lots of times. Still not good enough? Mea culpa mea culpa mea culpa mea culpa hari Krishna hari Krishna hari rama hari hari… just kidding. But what happened is that Rocky Dawuni played at the California Plaza water court in LA last year, and- not being familiar with his music beforehand- I was put off by his flying locks and macho strut, like God’s self-appointed peacock come to give form and color (and pheromones) to an otherwise murky muddy black-and-white world. We the lockless ones can be like that sometimes. We’ve got pheromones, too (in all fairness, I can be even harsher on beautiful women pretending to be accomplished artists). So, unimpressed with the first song or two, I left in a huff, assuming the man was more strut than strum. I then proceeded to skewer the man in this little musical blog I do. Fortunately I listened to his MySpace offerings before publishing, which- especially the song ‘In Ghana’- were pretty damn good. I stood corrected.

There is a point to be made, though- music with a message risks losing that message if it becomes too obscured behind flashy showmanship. And reggae is nothing if not music with a message, whether religion, politics, marijuana, or... some combination. Too often since Bob Marley’s death this all gets packaged up into some sort of self-styled smoke-enlightened messiah complex which pretends to know answers to all life’s mysteries- including questions not even asked yet- that bends dangerously close to conspiracy theory’s know-it-all younger brother. The themes get too heavy sometimes, and the music gets lost. The trick is to wrap up heavy themes in small sweet packages, like the proverbial spoonful of sugar. Musicians should stick to what they know best, also. We’re all in trouble when we start getting our politics from celebrities like singers and actors and comedians and… hey, wait a minute…

So now I’m thoroughly chastised, because rocky Dawuni’s new album- ‘Hymns for the Rebel Soul’- is killer. Dawuni stakes out his turf right away with ‘Download the Revolution,’ a slightly ‘tron number that updates Gil Scott-Heron’s observation/dictate ‘the revolution will be televised.’ With lyrics like ‘conscious music revolution… to wipe away musical pollution’ you get the idea. Next, ‘African Reggae Fever’ is a self-congratulatory little dittie, with a nice gospel-like opening, that serves to advance Dawuni’s mission to unite Africa in some sort of reggae-inspired cosmic consciousness. ‘Extraordinary Woman’ then gets into the heart of the album, literally, pure love song, pure hit material. ‘When I first saw you in that crowd, sweet emotion swept throught my soul’… sounds like love to me. Maybe the album’s best song- ‘Walls Tumbling Down’- sits right in clean-up position in the batting order. Here Dawuni accomplishes the difficult task of sliding a political message in with irresistible licks, and does it with a master’s touch- “me again… knocking on your door… till all your walls come tumbling down… me again, like Jericho before.. Babylon walls come tumbling down”, speaking for all the little people who’ve demanded justice and had to wait in line until ‘the time is right.’ After that ‘Master Plan’ is a nice change of pace, complete with bird calls and some really nice brass, albeit with a message slightly muddy.

At this point the album’s a hit regardless of what Dawuni wants to do. He could hum nursery rhymes for the next fifteen minutes, and it’d still be a great album. But he keeps laying down more grooves as if it were effortless. ‘Road to Destiny’- “never give up hope… on the road to destiny”… this is good stuff. Dawuni shows maturity and social responsibility with ‘Take It Slow (Love Love Love)’- “listen to my music before you go”, notable in a continent where AIDS is the leading cause of death and machismo is slow to tolerate affronts to its dignity. Jerusalem’ even pays tribute to the Jewish culture’s massive contributions to our modern world with a melody that sounds a lot like Manu Chao (clan destino, maybe?) and echoes Bob’s ‘Lion in Zion’, even going so far as to hypothesize that Israel’s problems are due largely to jealousy: ‘though you sit in isolation… you are the whole world’s inspiration.’ It’s a sign of political maturity to stake out an unpopular position, especially in an Africa that is increasingly Muslim… and for good reason.

Reggae is an important moral force in the African diaspora, and that means a lot here on the ground in Ghana (I like to travel to the countries I’m reviewing to get a better feel of it). It’s no accident that it emerged from the trenchtowns of Kingston, the one city in the Caribbean that can easily rival Africa’s biggest and baddest. In a continent where the most developed country- South Africa- is arguably the most socially horrific, answers don’t come easy. Street crime is out of control at almost unimaginable levels in the very countries where AIDS runs rampant concurrently with political corruption. With the exception of Islam, there are few moral compasses to be had… except for Rastafarianism… and reggae music. Rocky Dawuni does not shirk from his social duties here, and he does it with licks and chops that rival the best of them. The album indeed is more about social responsibility than rebelliousness, which is overrated anyway IMHO. If there’s any justice in the world, this will be Rocky’s breakthrough album. Simply said, it’s probably the best reggae album I’ve heard since you-know-who. Hardie K says check it out.

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