Sunday, May 22, 2011


Until recently if you were to Google the word ‘jihad’, guess which region of the world you’d be referred to, Palestine maybe, or Iraq? Think again. Actually you’d find out much about the history of West Africa, including Mali, no, ESPECIALLY Mali, in the 1800’s. Timbuktu was a major center of Islamic learning at one point, and still is somewhat even to this day, in fact. This is the path that Islam took across the desert generally, first stop Timbuktu, established on the edge of the Saharan desert and the grassy Sahel. From there it’s but a short hop to the forests and the coast. These incursions gradually changed the nature of the native-grown empires, such as the Songhai. One of the most famous incursions was a Morocco-Spanish one in 1590 that forever changed the history of the region. Their soldiers got left behind.

Ali Farka Toure’ was descended from this small increasingly-mixed group called ‘Arma’, thus making any conclusions about his music comprising the ‘DNA of blues’ largely meaningless, circles interlocking and turning back on themselves to infinity. If Ali Farka Toure’s music indeed is the origin of blues, then it itself may ultimately derive from Spanish and Arab traditions up north. It doesn’t matter, of course. His music was legendary because it was good, and comprised something of a transition style between the raw jangly Tuareg style farther north (only recently come to full fruition) and the more polished Afro-pop styles of the West African coastal regions. For lack of a better term, it can probably be best described as ‘Sahel folk,’ acoustic guitar-based folk-blues ballads lamenting the joys and pains of life and love on the vast African Savannah, albeit in languages most of us don’t understand. And if you were to guess what the music of a son of Ali Farka Toure’ might be like, ‘The Secret’ by Vieux Farka Toure’ might come pretty close, the same folk blues, but with a harder edge and a bit more urgency to it. Ali considered himself first and foremost a farmer, after all.

‘Sokosondou’ gets things off to a rockin’ start, displaying Vieux’s signature guitar style, something like dad Ali’s gone electric, something of a running style that seems to have no beginning nor end, a largely unpunctuated style, a snapshot of Vieux’s oeuvre in process. ‘Aigna’, featuring Derek Trucks on slide guitar, ups the ante a notch, slow with slide wailing, vocals a repetitive chant that gives Derek lots of room to shine. ‘All the Same’, featuring Dave Matthews on vocals gives some insight into Vieux’s lyrical preferences, like ‘when you look at them are they all the same? Smiles and promises… cry real tears till you believe… they don’t want you, want what you got… look at me because I believed, turned my back felt the knife sink deep,’ etc. etc. Betrayal seems to be a big theme. This song also lets Vieux pick some blues licks, too, on his own, shades of Derek. ‘Ali’ sounds a lot like dad, not unsurprisingly, but Vieux’s own take, the slow rhythmic chanting over thumping percussion. ‘Watch Out’ features Eric Krasno, the album’s producer, on guitar and Ivan Neville on organ= funk, rockin’ and bopping. There’s even some genuine guitar interplay, not easy, since Vieux’s style is so singular. I’m not sure if Eric could have done this on day one… nice.

‘Wonda Guay’ is a mid-tempo folksy number, familiar Vieux turf, but title song ‘The Secret’ featuring dad Ali Farka Toure on one of his final efforts, is an especially nice instrumental number that lilts along effortlessly gliding between acoustic and electric guitars, dad and son. From that point on, Dad is gone, and Vieux asserts himself. ‘Borei’ rocks, and Vieux wails, guitar and vocals, too. ‘Sankare Diadje’, with its sing-song lyrics, is a change-up. ‘Gido’, featuring the venerable John Scofield, may have been an experiment, but becomes one the of the album’s best songs, killer guitar and minor keys, brooding and mysterious. Vieux should explore this Middle East feel further. He IS Muslim after all. ‘Amana Quai’ is Ali-esque to start, then shifts the tempo up, chanting and wailing, guitar crying. ‘Touri’ is slow and anthemic, like the final good-bye, a last look back to Dad, church organ playing the closing hymn. All in all, it’s a good album. About the worst you could say is that he doesn’t mix it up enough, too predictable. But wait a minute…

Then there’s the live show, specifically the live show a few nights ago in the Silverlake district off LA. Forget the slow folk ballads. This is kick-ass power-trio blues. I’ve seen Vieux twice before, but I’ve never seen this. This is what a post–psychedelic Hendrix might have sounded like, back to blues, thick and heavy, laying down grooves in sonic washes. Drummer Tim Keiper is a revelation, too. He gets to cut up on stage like he can’t on disc, showing his own style of talking drum kit. The ultimate Vieux Farka Toure’ album just might be a live one. Till then ‘The Secret’ will do nicely. Check it out. Better still, if you can catch these guys on the road this summer, do that, too. Don’t forget to dance.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

‘Hammock House- Africa Caribe’ by Fania All-Stars, remixed by Joe Clausell

The term ‘Afro-Cuban’ was always something of a misnomer, and ‘Afro-Caribe’ is no different, applying logic to some past event that was probably anything but, what I call ‘back-filling’ logic. Need to fill a hole? I can get you a special price on some day-old logic. Seriously, though, I don’t think anybody sat around thinking and philosophizing and finally deciding ‘let’s mix some African and some Spanish or ‘Latin’ music together and see what we can come up with. No, like most all forms of evolution-whether biological or cultural- the thing was born and the whys and wherefores came later, even from the best little Darwinist laissez faire evolutionists. Probably the best that could be said is that a genre of music distinctly Cuban arose and its most distinctive propagators were of African descent. From there the name game goes downhill- ‘Puerto Rican music’, ‘chachacha’ and, God forbid, ‘Salsa’, a term as ambiguous as ‘zydeco’ (from les haricots- beans). Give me some dirty rice and I’ll have a meal.

The fact that this killer ‘Afro’ music originates in the Caribbean country with possibly the least percentage of African blood- Cuba- is something to discuss over drinks. In fact the Caribbean countries with purest African blood seem to prefer reggae… or gospel. Go figure. Sometimes a culture survives best where it is most threatened. Enter Fania Records and its house band Fania All-Stars at about the time of ‘salsa’s greatest popularity, the late 60’s and early 70’s. Consisting chiefly of Celia Cruz, Ray Baretto, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe, and others, Fania quickly set the standard for ‘salsa’, doing a great service by exposing non-Latin peoples to the ‘real thing’, as opposed to the pop stylings of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. The movement arguably peaked with Ruben Blades, and from there entered a period of long decline until 2005, at which point the assets were sold. Ironically that sale was the beginning of its comeback, as the archives have been opened for review, reassessment and marketing to an entirely new audience.

Hammock House ‘Africa Caribeproduced and mixed by the legendary Joaquin “Joe” Claussell is the latest- and maybe best- attempt to revisit the Fania catalog. Clausell is not only of Puerto Rican heritage, but also one hotsh*t New York City DJ/producer, and what he’s done is admirable, arguably remarkable. In one fell swoop he’s almost single-handedly stripped the heavily ornamented ‘Salsa’ sound and returned it to its African roots. The African roots, of course, are percussion, something almost unknown in European ballad traditions until the cultures themselves were mixed. The more recent European orchestral tradition was heavily evident in Cuban mambo, until salsa trimmed it back and slimmed it down. Joe Clausell takes it a step further, until it actually begins to sound African again.

‘African Fantasy’ by Lou Perez opens the album and sets the tone, strong on flute and percussion, probably the world’s two oldest instruments (fife & drum, anyone?). Add to that a singular piano style and you’ve got something that can hold its own with the best of jazz, Latin or otherwise. ‘Undeniable Love’ by Jai Veda is a revelation to me, by an artist heretofore unknown to me. If that’s one of the goals of this remix, then they may be on to something. The voice is sweet and the guitar is transcendant. Who dat? ‘Mambo Mongo’ by the legenhdary Mongo Santamaria stays fairly faithful to the original, with a brassy jazzy mambo sound, while ‘Chango’ by Celia Cruz is positively astounding, a direct sonic connection to the recent ‘Afro-Colombian’ efforts of Toto la Momposina. Now I think we’re getting somewhere. This is the real thing, still jazzy enough for urban tastes, but the African dirt and pulse never hidden too far below.

‘Lucum’ by Eddie Palmieri has it all, except lead vocals- brass, killer keyboards, and guitar. Something only lightly acknowledged in the salsa literature, and forbidden in realated Afro-Beat forays, it’s no accident that ‘salsa’ arose largely AFTER the advent of Santana and his guitar. ‘Exodus’, by Ray Baretto, is a delightful interlude, at once a somnolent soliloquy and a rousing African wake-up call. It’s based on the theme to the 1960 movie, and much better without the Pat Boone lyrics (‘this land is mine’) IMHO. There’s more. And hopefully there will be MUCH more… in the future. This is what re-mixing is all about. Heretofore something of a skeptic, especially when big city club DJ’s are ripping off starving third-world musicians- without compensation- for the amusement of the rich and famous, I find projects like this to be a revelation, the stuff of archeologists and reconstructionists, putting a fresh spit-shine on musty archival material. That’s Hammock House ‘Africa Caribe’, remixed by Joaquin ‘Joe’ Clausell. Check it out. There’s really nothing quite like it.

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