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2011 – Reviews


African jazz in 2011: a people’s art featuring trradi-modern banjo

Reviews archived from intuition online:

Dibango, Dludlu & Dana deliver

Dr Nico's incomparable influence

Kalawa Jazmee and Tutu Puoane triumph at South Africa's Music Awards

Congo Queen

Seun Anikupulako Kuti & Egyot 80 at the Royal Festival /Hall on 13./4/11 - Fela's son Seun trumps all

An introduction to African jazz

To see recommended recordings for 2011 click here.

African jazz in 2011: a people’s art featuring tradi-modern banjo

Live recordings made in Africa with full on audience participation predominate among the best releases of 2011. The best release of the year slot goes to Hugh Masekela. Seventy two year old Bra Hugh doesn’t blow quite as hard as he once did nor is his voice quite so smooth but on his DVD/CD set “Live at Carnival City” he makes up for this in spades, performing his heart out fronting a ,tripped down four piece band consisting of new young musicians together with veteran stalwart Fana Zulu on bass. There’s no vocal chorus, no horn section, no percussionists and yet this release features more performers than any other new African jazz release this year. How come? Bra Hugh’s young audience sing along from the  first the few bars until the last note. Whether this ecstatic audience fired up Bra Hug and his band or whether they did the same to their audience isn’t clear- most probably it was a symbiotic process but the results are recorded for us all and this is one of Masekela’s best ever creations.

 Mbilia Bel’s CD/DVD set “Bakolo Mindule” is a flawed release. The sound drops out at times, the editing is problematic and about a third of the tracks don’t feature Bel at all. But the performance at the core of this issue, consisting of Bel singing and dancing to the Tabu Ley Rochereau compositions for which se is best known, in front of a small rumba band is as close as we mortals can get to perfection. Her audience are on their feet from first to last and the brightly lit Kinshasa TV studio enables the viewer to see and read the expressions on their faces. Bel’s audience, much of which is middle aged by now, is in love. When you see the grace with which she moves and hear her magnificent voice you will start to understand and when,with repeated listening,you grasp just how subtle and supremely sophisticated her sense of timing is you will fall in love with her too.

Lágbájá’s v video CD  “E Gbà Mi O!” consists partly of promo clips for songs previously released on his recent studio CDs and partly of new live material. The combination hangs together well and this release is a coherent work of art which marks a strong return to form. If contemporary African jazz has a figure as important as Franco, Fela or Kippie Moeketsi it is surely Lágbájá.  Lágbájá is an anonymous masked artist whose name means “somebody” or “anybody” and t the most memorable parts of this release are about what Lágbájá’s identity means. At one point,the camera pans across an empty stage in front of a huge crowd loudly chanting one of Lágbájá ’s unmistakable choruses. A sax solo starts and the audience explodes with delight while the camera frantically searches for the elusive. Lágbájá who slowly emerges in the middle of the crowd wearing is mask and playing his sax like a god.

Lágbájá ‘s  creative burring of the distinction between himself and his audience would please the late avant-garde multi instrumentalist, composer and author Francis Bebey whose landmark 1969 book “African Music: A People’s Art” is a meditation on this very subject. The towering authority with which Bebey wrote derived largely from the fact that he was an African and a great musician. It is fitting that a year which has brought us so many great releases illustrating the creative relationship between African jazz and it’s audience should also bring us a monumental 4 disc retrospective of  Bebey’s own work. His “Belle Epoque” isn’t an easy listening experience. It might have been better to group the pieces together by style or period because this music is very diverse. The documentation leaves much to be desired too – the set would be enormously enhanced by song translations and personnel detail. But the music itself is, for the most part, charming, challenging and utterly unique. An essential release which will grow on you with repeated listening.

 The reissue of the year however is Sathima Bea Benjamin’s “Sathima sings Ellington” produced by her husband d and fellow Ellington devotee Abdúllah Ibrahim. Benjamin is best known as an interpreter of Ellington’s songs and it’s not difficult to hear why on this glorious 1979 set augmented by several non Ellington bonus tracks of an equally high standard. An essential purchase with immediate appeal and lasting charms.

 An equally great release from the same era, but which has never seen the light of day before is  “Elton Dean's Ninesense Suite Becket/Miller/Moholo ” featuring fellow South African exiles: drummer Louis Moholo –Moholo and double bassist Harry Miller. This release is a supreme example of what used to be called Free Jazz when it was recorded live in Germany in 1981 and 1982 but which is more frequently referred to as improvised music these days. It demonstrates what happens when great African musicians are forcibly prevented from interacting creatively with their African audience in the way Bebey describes. The freedom and passion in these great performances is as much political as musical. The exiled South Africans had fire in their bellies and the best of the music they made will probably never be matched. Indeed like First World War poetry’ it continues to inspire in such a way that one hopes no one will ever again have to experience what its creators endured. At the same time one can’t help but acknowledge the extraordinary power and magnetism of what the South African exiles did. Certainly they galvanised the generation of Free Jazz musicians they encountered. The power of their music and politics was contagious – which explains in large part the quality of performance and commitment they elicited in their musical collaborators and from Western audiences. That is why their every recording is so sought after and is what fuels a veritable industry unearthing and releasing more and more recordings. Not all such issues and reissues are all tat good – but the best of these musicians performances are like the  Holy Grail and this is certainly one such recording: featuring what is perhaps Miller’s finest ever recorded performance  and Moholo in exceptional form.

 Freedom in contemporarily South Africa is a more complex and elusive concept. The first Blu-ray release in African jazz ,Thandiswa’s  “Dance of the Forgotten Free” explores this theme intelligently and is highly recommended. Unforgettably, she marks the start of her strong live set by kneeling down to light an offering to evoke the spirits of the ancestors. The standard of musicianship is high with contributions from Malombo drummer Tabang Tabane, gifted young guitarist Sunnyboy together with a superlative horn section (Bez Roberts and Adam Howard) all topped off with Thandiswa’s powerful, unmistakable voice and her hit songs.

The best new jazz from South Africa this year however comes in the form of trumpeter Brian Thusi’s second CD “Future Talk”. The sleeve notes describe his outfit as a “collective” and it does sound like a genuinely collaborative effort featuring a host of younger and new musicians listening to one another and giving their all in a manner that would please Messrs Moholo and Miller. This surely, is what freedom is really all about.

 Sadder news from South Africa concerns the death of saxophonist and composer Zim Ngqwana, the post apartheid musician most closely allied with free jazz.  Zim’s recordings sometimes erred n the side of pretension but I was lucky enough to hear him live in his prime performing for of a large audience at the open air Heidelburg Kloof jazz festival outside Johannesburg in 1998  and his set, consisting mostly of  material from “Zimology” was a revelation. The entire  audience seemed to know every note of this recording and danced throughout. He was a free jazz giant in a genuinely African manner of which Francis Bebey would have thoroughly approved.

 Happily the promising new arrivals on the African jazz scene far outnumber the musicians who passed away or retired in 2011. Best of the lot are the Addis Acoustic Project who have breathed life into a set of Ethiopian jazz standards from the 1950's and 60’s. Theirs is a beautiful CD which even gives veteran Mulatu Aststatke’s fabulously good new CD “Mulatu Astatke Steps Ahead” a serious run for its money. Another stunning debut comes from baritone saxophonist Abidemi Adebiyi Adekunle  who stole the show at live performances to promote the latest Egypt 80/ Seun Anipulako Kuti CD “From Africa with Fury: Rise.” His showing on the recording is equally strong. Kevin  Mfinka from Congo Brazzaville makes a strong debut too on “Congo Bolingo” especially in the style and quality of his percussion playing. From South Africa come a first solo CD from Thandiswa’s promising young guitarist Sunnyboy; Bernice Boikanyo, a strong and distinctive sounding new kit drummer and best of all the pianist, female vocalist and composer Nikiyase whose first CD “Mudar É Bom” has everything one could ask of a newcomer: abundant talent, originality, ambition, optimism and exuberance. Another promising new pianist is Sbusiso Dlamini whose CD with Ological Studies suggests he has the potential to develop into a star.

 Apart from the plethora of release lit up by creative interaction between performers and their audiences, the other striking thing about 2011’s release is that the most keenly contested category, perhaps surprisingly, is that of arranger. Releases from Mulatu Astatke, Lekan Animaushen, Manu Dibango, Abdullah Ibrahum, Hugh Masekela, Nyboma and Caiphus Semenya feature some of the best arrangements of their illustrious careers. It seems therefore that the reason for this trend is simple: arranging is what African jazz musicians like to do when they get old. Several less well established stars pitch in too: notably Simphiwe Dana and especially Lawrence Matshikiza for his work with Siphokhazi. Choosing just one of these as the best of the year has been a delightful dilemma. In the end Caiphus Semenya gets the nod for being such a noteworthy arranger throughout his entire career: the crispness, clarity and art with which he marshals is musicians on his “Live at Carnival City” is the unique, unmistakable hallmark of this grandee of African jazz.

 The biggest disappointment of the year has been the lack of new recordings from the gifted Kenyan saxophonist/singer/composer Joseph Hellon who was arrested last year. The good news earlier in the year was that he was out performing again. A new live DVD with pianist Aaron “Krucial” Keys was announced and presumably recorded too but, as far as I can tell, hasn’t actually materialised. The track listing included many of his best compositions plus a cover version of Mafíkizlo’s “Hamba Nawe.” Let’s hope Hellon and his DVD surface in 2012.

 There hasn’t been much jazz from DR Congo either in 2011 aside from Mbilia Bel’s live set described above and her strong studio CD “The Queen.” The impression gleaned from talking to Congolese friends and watching the inspiring documentary “Benda Bilili” about a group of disabled musicians from Kinshasa, the capital city of African music, is that the economy in Congo is more difficult than ever for musicians. Koffi Olomide’s’ “Chante Lutumba” and Ferre Gola’s exquisite “50 ans de la Musiqe Congolaise” remind us of what we’re missing. Listen for example to Ferre’s singing on “Mi Amor” (track 11 on the CD) which is one of the high points of African jazz in 2011.

And the banjo? Those willing to branch out and experiment with different aspects of Congolese music are pointed in the direction of  “The Karindula Sessions: Tradi-modern Sounds from South East Congo,” a CD/DVD set featuring an outdoor acoustic performance on traditional instruments played in a contemporary style with Bebeyesque blurring between performers and audience throughout. Lovers of OK Jazz bass lines will be thrilled to the bone by the giant banjo playing. In a similar vein,the movie “Benda Bilili “ is strongly recommended. The sight of Staff Benda Billili’s musicians jumping out of their wheel chairs to dance will live on in the mind forever and proves that the musicians who make African music and the people who listen to it are completely and utterly irrepressible -  just like Francis Bebey said and just as South African jazz musicians proved at home and abroad during apartheid. The jazz establishment underrates this music at its peril. In the twentieth century music was dominated by echoes and imitations of African sounds from all over the African Diaspora but slavery and colonialism are history. Who’s going to stop the real thing from taking over, now that we can hear the giant banjo and see what it does to people?

December 2011

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 Reviews archived from intuition online

The following reviews originally appeared at Intuition online between April and December 2011 They can also be read at the music section of  where all these archived reviews originally appeared, thanks to the curiosity and foresight of the great team who put intuition-online together.

Dibango, Dludlu & Dana deliver

Dim the lights, lean back in your easy chair and enjoy – as you’d expect from someone with Manu Dibango’s pedigree his new CD “Ballad Emotion” is a class act and arguably the best sax release from Africa for quite some time. The veteran Camerounian’s much yearned for new recording is a slow to mid tempo mood piece consisting mostly of beautiful arrangements of African American jazz standards. It’s difficult to think of a cooler way to chill. His vibraphone playing here is exquisite too.

Guitar lovers are also in for a treat with Mozambiquan Jimmy Dludlu’s new CD “Tonota.” The opener “How About The Ones in The Village” is one of the best tracks of the year.  Dludlu is much more than a good guitarist with a  Lusophone lilt and a great percussionist (John Hassan) –as demonstrated in the series of hit records he’s made over the years with the superlative house afrika duo Revolution where his guitar  and Hassan are entirely absent. Dluddlu seems to draw on this experience at some of the best moments on “Tonota” where he imports and mixes in house like elements as in the opening track and on “Shisa Nyama.” The other great attribute demonstrated in his work with Revolution has been his uncanny ear for haunting snippets of melody - on this new release listen to “Blues for Haiti” and “Karingana” a few times which both demonstrate this gift. But it’s as a guitarist that Dludlu really excels. Even in an age when technically superlative playing seems commonplace, Dludlu’s virtuosity dazzles – and when fired up he’s a real force to be reckoned with exuding panache and originality especially when those fingers and notes seem to cascade at the speed of light whilst seemingly bending space and time  in the way that only the greatest musicians can. He also retains an ability to surprise and delight for example on the lovely “Matter of Bread and Sugar.” The only problem for musicians of Dludlu’s quality is that they sometimes resort to cliché and sound as though they’re treading water. Dludlu does this at times (tracks 4,5 and 7 for example) but where he shines on “Tonota” he is at his very best and this is therefore one of the must have releases of 2011.

South African diva Simphiwe Dana has a unique, extraordinary sound. There’s no mystique about this – she has a voice like Marmite and engagingly reveals in an in interview included in her first DVD “An Evening with Simphiwe Dana” (also available on CD and Blu-ray) that she had to mime much of the time when she sang in a choir because she simply couldn’t reach the right notes. Anyone seeking X-Factor perfection in their jazz singers should skip the rest of this review and move on. But her new release shows that Simphiwe is special – she has composed and adapted a body of music to work with her vocal chords and trained a chorus and large ensemble of musicians to make music in a style which works for her. This would count for little if people didn’t like it but it is self evident from this performance that her audience adore her. For the rest of us, this release offers the best insight yet into her talent and appeal. It certainly gives the lie to the theory that her music and success are all down to her good looks, considerable style and clever marketing. On the contrary, her record company Gallo, deserve credit for spotting, sticking with and successfully promoting such an unusual and rare talent. Even doubters and those turned off by her voice won’t fail to admire the musicianship of giants like Herbie Tsoaeli on double bass and a cameo appearance by the superlative saxophonist Sydney “Ace” Mnisi.  To sum up, this is a rewarding release from one of the most distinctive artists in contemporary jazz.

1 December 2011

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Dr Nico's incomparable influence

one can argue about who is the greatest African jazz musician: Franco, Fela or Makeba perhaps? But as to who is the most influential, there isn't a shadow of doubt about it - Dr Nico is by a mile not merely the most influential African jazz artist, he is unquestionably the most influential African recording artist of all. A recent two disc compilation "Afro Latin via Kinshasa" features Dr Nico's lead electric guitar on roughly a third of the tracks spanning the 1960's from his time with Le Grand Kallé's seminal African Jazz through his period alongside Tabu Ley in African Fiesta and then in his own bands. The compilation reflects the arc of his career and sets it in context alongside tracks by his contemporary guitarists such as Franco and Bavon Marie Marie. One can also hear some of the great musicians Dr Nico worked alongside: Le Grand Kallé whose soaring voice is still one of the most beautiful sounds in all African music; the transcendent translucent trumpet tone of Willy Kuntima and the skilled intermeshing rhythm guitar of Nico's brother Dechaud. But even five decades later it’s Dr Nico's guitar which grabs one's attention on "Carrefour Addis Ababa," "Ritmo ya Suka," "Kiri Kiri," and "Ngonga" for example.

What Dr Nico did was rooted in traditional Congolese dance music. An intriguing but all too brief CD "Survivance" from Franklin Boukaka enlightens us about this process by replacing the lead guitar with two mbira thumb pianos neatly illustrating the origin of what Dr Nico was doing along with his brother Dechaud. This lovely Boukaka release from 1967 has been reissued on the elusive Bolibana label and despite being less than twenty minutes long is well worth looking for. Apart from anything else it demonstrates that it is erroneous to describe Dr Nico's style as Latin or Afro Latin - it is in fact thoroughly and authentically Congolese.

Dr Nico's influence on his contemporaries was near universal. Virtually all the electric guitarists featured in the other three double CD sets in the "Afro Latin via" series ~("Dakar," "Bamako" and "Cotonu") are indebted to Nico as are the Tanzanian guitarists featured on the recent and pleasing retrospective collection "Sounds of Happiness, Poison and Ululation" by Western Jazz Band.

What would all this music have sounded like without Dr Nico's influence? The tracks on "Afro Latin via Kinshasa" featuring Le Grand Kallé's African Team give us an insightful answer. This was the outfit Kallé formed after the departure of Nico from African Jazz. In African Team he dispensed with lead guitar altogether. The resultant sound is much more Latin and indeed, to this critic's ears, African Team remains the definitive Afro Latin band.

Why did Nco have such massive influence? The best place to look for an answer in the current cop of releases is to be found n Mbilia Bel's fabulous though poorly engineered new live CD/DVD set "Bakolo Mindule". Coming hard on the heels of her recent strong studio set this release demonstrates effortlessly why Bel is such a great artist - arguably the best living female musician in Africa. Her Achilles heal since parting company with her husband and musical collaborator Tabu Ley Rochereau, who cut his teeth alongside Dr Nico in Le Grand Kall'és African Jazz, has been material. It's the ex Beatle problem - everything she does is compared unfavourably with what came before. Tabu Ley's stature as a composer n African jazz is akin to Gershwin's in African American jazz - an impossible act to follow. But on "Bakolo Mindule" Bel has no such problem - the bulk of the songs in her live set are the Tabu Ley standards such as "Esui yo Wapi" which were composed for her and which she has lived for thirty years. These compositions fit like a glove and give her the perfect opportunity to exhibit her outstanding e sense of timing. For make no mistake: in that department Bel is on a par with greats like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. And where is Dr Nico's influence in all this? Watch how Mbilia Bel moves: she's a supremely gifted dancer too - even though she's in her fifties and is singing at the same time. Look at the expression on that famous face - watch how her musicians and audience respond. There's no getting round it: there's pure joy in that room and everyone wants to dance all night. That's what Dr Nico did: for more than fifty years his style of playing has had a whole continent on its feet. It's an incomparable achievement and it's ripples reverberate still - his style is one of the building blocks not only of much in contemporary Africa but in innovation in the West too thanks to acts like Vampire Weekend

.1 November 2011

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Kalawa Jazmee and Tutu Puoane triumph at South Africa's Music Awards

From a jazz perspective there are two big stories from this year's South African Music Awards (SAMA). Firstly,Tutu Puoane won the SAMA for Best Traditional Jazz Album for an unprecedented second year in a row with her lovely big band CD "Mama Africa." Not since Moses Taiwa Molelekwa won both big jazz prizes (traditional and contemporary) in 1994 at the age of 21 with his debut CD "Finding Oneself" has any jazz artist made quite such a splash at SAMA. Well done, Tutu. Fittingly, in the year which marks the tenth anniversary of Molelekwa's death, the best track on Tutu's CD is a cover version of his best known composition "Mountain Shade" which first appeared on "Finding Oneself." But the best place of all to ,start an acquaintance with Tutu's magnificent music and voice remains "Mpho" - the heart wrenchingly gorgeous standout track from her CD "Quiet Now" which won her the same SAMA last year. On "Mpho," Tutu will take your breath away.

2011's SAMAA for Contemporary Jazz went to Ological Studies CD "OS Freedom." The piano playing of their composer Sibusiso Dlamini is impressive even by South Africa's high standards - for example his two minute solo piece "Praise Medley" is a tour de force and further proof that pianist Molelekwa's influence is alive and well in South African jazz. Ological Studies are also Molelekwa like n their use contemporary dance rhythms - on the track "Siyakudumisa," for example.

In fact it is often the case at SAMA that much of the most interesting new music explores the links between jazz and the dance floor. A key player in this is the record label Kalawa Jazmee and from a jazz perspective it is their triumph at SAMA 2011 which is the second really big story. Kalawa Jazmee is easily the most influential record label specialising in new dance music fused with electronica and elements of jazz in Africa and has been since the mid 1990s; so their triumph at this year's SAMA is richly deserved. Their new signing Professor won Best Male Artist, Best Kwaito Album and Best Song ("Imoto") for his CD "University of Kalawa Jazmee."

As if thus weren't enough, Thandiswa, winner of Best Female Artist and Best Urban DVD for her "Dance of the Forgotten Free" is a Kalawa Jazmee graduate too. This concert recording is the first ever African jazz release in BLU-RAY format . Gloriously it kicks off with Thandiswa lighting an offering to invoke the spirits of the ancestors on stage and features a new version of her biggest Kalawa Jazmee hit the Kwai jazz standard "Thah'isgubhu" performed with Bongo Maffin. Thandiswa is also lead vocalist on the SAMA 2011 Remix of the Year "Turn on the Sun" which is a fabulous track remixed by Black Coffee from Stmela's comeback CD "A Lifetime".

Kalawa Jazmee fans are further advised to check out the tenth instalment of Oskido's "Church Grooves." Even after so many years at the top, Oskido is too leftfield and edgy to win or even be nominated for a SAMA in his own right but you can't avoid him on the dance floor in South Africa and his fingerprints are all over most of what Kalawa Jazmee has achieved over the last fifteen years. Standout tracks on his new CD include the outrageously sexist hit "Gubuluzing" and "Nationalisation" which features a speech by the straight talking leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema: a hero to the majority of Oskido's audience who is reviled by the right wing establishment, which controls most of South Africa's vast wealth.

Even more essential listening, and to these ears,the very best track from this year's SAMA, is Kwela Tebza's "Tshole" from their CD "Gauteng Made in South Africa/Mzansi," winner of the Best Urban Pop Award. Kwela, which dates back to the mid 1950's, is a penny whistle dance genre which is the forerunner of much in township jazz and South African popular music. Kwela Tebza have revived the penny whistle sound and incorporated contemporary dance floor beats and production values. The resulting dish is a supremely potent, addictive, infectious mix of the old and the new. South Africa simply adores Kwela Tebza. I too find I need several doses a day. If you only listen to one African track this year, make sure it's Kwela Tebza's "Tshole." Just be warned: the risk of getting hooked is high….

Finally, the late jazz electric bassist/composer Sipho Gumede won a SAMA Lifetime Achievement Award. Anyone wondering why he's so widely regarded as the African continent's greatest ever electric bass player is advised to check out his compilation "Gone But Not Forgotten," available on CD and DVD.

1 October 2011

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Congo Queen

There aren't many artist's around the world who could get away with titling a CD "The Queen" but Mbilia Bel can. She sings, dances and looks like a goddess and has done since the early 1980's. From the Northern border of South Africa to the Sahara Desert she is almost universally regarded as Africa's best female musician. Mbilia Bel's velvet voice seduces men and women of all age groups, not erotically or romantically, nor with any pyrotechnics but rather with an expert knowledge of exactly what it takes to make us dance.

Listening to the first half her new CD "The Queen" is like being whisked gently along e in a murmuring limousine. It isn't just Bel's exquisite voice. The standard of musicianship here is exceptional. Producer Ibrahim Sylla has used many of the same musicians he used on the two albums he made with Madilu System both of which were instant classic and huge sellers. Keyboard and drum programming maestro Manu Lima provides his delicate, understated but undeniably hot rhythms; sublime lead guitarist Dally Kimoko once again complement his sound and Madilu's favourite backing singers Nybom and Ballou Canta add further class and beauty on vocals. Best of all Bel is reunited with veteran horn players from her days with Tabu Ley Rochereau's Afrisa. There are guest vocal appearances from Guinee's premiere male vocalist Bambino and Sregio Polo, the jazziest of Cameroun's Makossa artists. The first half of the resultant CD is pure joy. It is so beautifully crafted as to sound effortless. At first it sounds pleasant but as the understated dance floor intentions work their into the listener's soul with repeated listening you will be hooked and become one of her majesty's numerous subjects. But be warned, Bel isn't perfect - the limousine gets stuck in an interminable traffic jam about half way through the CD when she tries out all manner of crossover tracks none of which quite succeeds. Fortunately the antidote is at hand: just play the style jazz Congolais half of Mbilia Bel's "The Queen" over and over again.

Ferre Gola, widely regarded as the best of DR Congo's younger male vocalists tries to do much the same as Bel on his CD/DVD set "50 ans de la Musique Congolaise." Gola's weakness is that he isn't yet one of the great Congolese composers - so the decision to do an album of cover versions is inspired. He's chosen material that suits him and much of his singing is of a very high calibre indeed as is the input of an unidentified lead guitarist. The CD of this live set doesn't quite work - it's marred by cheesy keyboards - but seeing the performance on DVD is well worth the effort, Ferre is a gifted and graceful performer and most of the time he is surrounded by dancers who give an object lesson in how to dance to Congolese rumba. There are performances from the catalogues of the most influential of all African bands, African Jazz; by its alumnus Tabu Ley Rochereau; songs from Franco's OK Jazz and its alumnus Carlyto plus several tracks which are in later Congolese styles all topped off with a couple of Ferre's own recent numbers. Most of the compositions are standards and the DVD will appeal both to aficionados of Congolese music and newcomers who would like an accessible overview of Congo's music. If you've ever wondered why the Congo's music dominated Sub Saharan Africa for so long or would like to find out, these compositions and Ferre's DVD are a good place to find out.

Apartheid meant that South Africa never fell under the Congo's hypnotic sway. Even Mbilia Bel is relatively unknown. But of course South Africa has wealth of talent of its own especially when it comes to female jazz singers. Two of the best have new release. Siphokazi's third studio album "Ethembeni" is a return to form and contains many beautiful moments. Hers is an underrated talent that is unlikely to fade from view. Possibly her rival Thandiswa suffers from the opposite problem. She was such a big star at the start of her career with the Kwaito/kwai jazz group Bongo Maffin and so successful with her first solo album ("Zabalaza") that it's difficult to know what she can do now. Her second live DVD "" Dance of the Forgotten Free" also available on CD, and Blu-ray captures her in her prime. She knows how to work a crowd and her audience loves what she does. The musicianship is good too - especially the horn section consisting of Adam Howard and Bez Roberts who are South Africa's coolest white jazz musicians since Chris McGregor and who I haven't seen on film before. But overall one is left with the lingering suspicion that like so many kwaito stars - has Thandiswa peaked?

Someone who is certainly peaking right now is Bra Hugh Masekela who seems to be on a roll. His latest CD/DVD set "Live At Carnival City" is by far his best live film. He uses a stripped down band consisting of four superb and mostly young musicians. There are no backing singers, no horn section, no percussionists. The lack of backing singers is no problem whatsoever - the ebullient student audience provide skilled call and response singing throughout the show, embodying the blurred distinction between performer and audience which is such a feature of all African music. The lack of horns and percussion gives Bra Hugh more space to shine - or should I say burn because Masekela is on fire in this performance and his young band is excellent too especially Malawian guitarist Erik Paliani who plays in a strongly Congolese style and even outshines the Mozambican star Jimmy Dludlu who guests on a couple of tracks. The presence of Congolese style jazz guitar points to the tue significance and secret of Masekela's post apartheid success in South Africa. He fell heavily in love with Congolese jazz - especially Franco's OK Jazz while in exile - and his South African audience has learnt to adore what he does. In so doing Bra Hugh has started to heal the biggest musical wound which apartheid censorship inflicted on South African jazz.

Seun Anikupulako Kuti and Egypt 80's "From Africa with Fury - Rise" is only Egypt 80's third CD of the last two decades. Still led by the great Lekan Animashaun now in his sixth decade of working with the Kuti family, the band features a rhythm section which is one of the most unusual in all jazz incorporating clefs, giant conga and tenor guitar together with a world class horn section. On the evidence presented so far from their live performances and on this CD the new baritone saxophonist , Adebiyi, is simply the best baritone player ever to have emerged from Africa and a major new star.

Seun does a good job fronting the band but it's notable that the best composition on the CD "African Soldier" like the excellent "Na Oil" on their last release is by another baritone saxophonist Rilwan "Showboiy" Fagbeni who doesn't play on this recording. For more on thus great band's current line-up, see my review of their show at London's Royal Festival Hall also published in this month's intuition-online.

1 May 2011

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Seun Anikupulako Kuti & Egypt 80 at the Royal Festival /Hall on 13./4/11

Fela's son Seun trumps all

Nigerians and music lovers revere Seun Kuti's father Fela. He and fellow musicians, notably drummer Tony Allen and baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun created the afrobeat genre and Fela's political courage and message have made him a modern icon.

Fela believed passionately in the African extended family. His wives and daughters performed as his singers and dancers and his son Femi became featured alto saxophonist before striking out on his own. Seun, his youngest son started singing with the band at the age of 9.

More than 20 years on Seun still sings with Fela'ss fabulous big band Egypt 80; and the band is still led by Lekan Animashaun, now in the sixth decade of an illustrious career. If their London show is anything to go by, Egypt 80 remain absolutely unmissable.

How does such an old band sound so fresh? One reason puts all others in the shade. Every other afrobeat act tries to sound like Fela's first afrobeat band Africa 70 and its superlative drummer Tony Allen. But not Egypt 80. When Allen departed and Africa 70 disbanded, Fela and Lekan Animashaun decided to do something different. Instead of trying to find another Tony Allen - an impossible task - they radically redesigned the entire rhythm section. The rhythm section of today's Egypt 80 retains this unique sound and many of the best musicians from Fela's day. Clefs player, Wale Toriola stands in front of the band and hiss subtle, distinct tick tock is the hallmark and heartbeat of Egypt 80. Then there's Kola Onasanya on giant conga who goes back to Fela's day too and plays exuberant solos on his enormous instrument as well as underpinning the drums. A third unique element dating back to Fela's day is that of Davi Obayendo on tenor guitar. Drummers and bassists have come and gone over the years but the distinctive elements are all still in place. Even in the sombre Royal Festival Hall this magnificent rhythm section had members of the audience on their feet from first 'til last. Hearing and seeing them live,one cannot help but conclude that Egypt 80's rhythm section is one of Fela's greatest musical creations.

The brass section is world class. The great Lekan Animashaun has retired from baritone sax and leads the band from the piano but his chosen successor, Abidimi Adebiyi Adekunle, is the star of the current Egypt 80 line up. Every solo is greeted with thunderous applause. It's worth going to see Egypt 80 for his performances alone but the other horn players aren't far behind. Tenor sax stalwart Oyinade Adeniran dates back to Fela's day and glues the horn section together much as Lekan Animashaun used to. But the key solo instrument right back back to Fela and Animashaun's highlife days is trumpet. Current incumbent of the first trumpet chair, Muyiwa Kunuji, fulfils his role perfectly: he's one of the best in West Africa.

It'd be easy to dismiss Seun Kuti's role in all this as shallow and opportunistic but he's been singing with this band since childhood - long before afrobeat became fashionable again - and it shows. After twenty years performing with Egypt 80 he meshes well with the band. He looks, struts and rants like dad. He may not have his vocal chords or skill as a composer; nor is his sax playing on a par with his brother Femi, but the really big inheritance -Egypt 80 - trump everything and everyone else in all afrobeat.

1 May 2011

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An introduction to African jazz

African jazz is what happened when Africa started hearing African American jazz. The global swing craze of the 1930's and 40's led to the inception of new hybrid African music styles, especially in the biggest Cities - Johannesburg, Lagos and Kinshasa.

The website www.africanjazz.info is delighted to be celebrating its fifth birthday with this article at Intuition.



Afrobeat is a fusion of big band Jazz, funk and highlife that was created by the Nigerian political activist Fela Kuti. His best band Africa 70 featured Tony Allen, widely regarded as Africa's greatest e kit drummer. Jazz musicians Roy Ayers, Lester Bowie and Ginger Baker together with Paul McCartney stated incorporating Afrobeat in their music in the early 1970's. By now Afrobeat is global in the sense that it's played world over by musicians of numerous nationality.

Fela and Africa 70 had a purple patch in the mid 1970's and their music of that period is unquestionably some of the best in African jazz. "Anthology 2" combines an excellent 2 CD compilation of Fela's best work from this period with a previously unreleased DVD of a performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Little of Fela on film survived the army raids on Kalakuta Republic, the compound where Fela lived out his politics in trademark Speedos with his band and innumerable wives amid thick clouds of cannabis smoke. This DVD is virtually the only footage we have of Fela with Africa 70. It's easy to see why it wasn't released. This was a "Let it Be" like effort made as the band was in the process of breaking up; Fela looks a bit out of sorts and both he and his band are slightly below par. But which would you rather have? The Beatles on a bad day or no Beatles at all? Fela, Allen and Africa 70 really are that good and he was happy enough with these performances to put them out on vinyl and didn't see any need for studio versions. The songs, "Authority Stealing" and especially "VIP" bristle with wit, political anger and sophisticated sensual rhythm all considerably enhanced by seeing Fela, The Black President, goad his German audience and dance like a demon. Possibly some band members thought Fela guilty of exactly the same hubris and hypocrisy which he scorned in Nigeria's political leadership but that detracts nothing from this great music.

Fela's spiritual heir Lágbájá is possibly past his recent purple patch too but his last twin CD release is worth seeking out. The title tracks on both "Sharp-Sharp!" and "Paradise" are especially good. Lágbájá means "somebody" or "anybody" and along with his mask is a key part of his anti celebrity persona. It's fitting therefore that he is barely known outside Nigeria. He's massive in Lagos and simply doesn't need fame anywhere else - but we need him because, arguably, he's the best living jazz musician in Africa.



The closest South African has come to producing jazz artists to match Fela's stature are the biggest stars who went into exile during Apartheid like Hugh Masekela, the late Miriam Makeba and Abdullah Ibrahim. Certainly Bra Hugh tops the bill wherever he goes and his new CD "Jabulani" shows us why. It's a recreation of township wedding music from the 1940's but if this makes it sound dry and worthy Bra Hugh will put you right. In his sleeve note he explains:

"In the townships, being unable to dance is a sign of dementia and total social bankruptcy."

"Jabulani" is a full on party album and his best recording in years. Production by Don Laka, creator of the hybrid hip-hop style Kwai Jazz, is a big part of the picture. He's long been South Africa's go to guy when someone wants a hit and he pulls out the stops on this jubilant CD.

For many South Africans however it's not the musicians who went into exile who are heroes it's the ones who stayed behind and played for them during the struggle. The short lived Jazz Epistles in which Masekela, Ibrahim and the equally wonderful Jonas Gwangwa made their names and recorded South Africa's first jazz LP in 1960 epitomise this. To the outside world it's the three exiles who became stars. But all three say the greatest member of the band was the saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. Kippie didn't go into exile. He toughed it out at home and died in relative obscurity in 1983. But to this day he is revered above all jazz musicians in his home land and South Africa's premiere jazz club, Kippie's, is named after him.
The recent two disc compilation "Next Stop Soweto Vol 3" features two Kippie Moeketsi tracks. "Switch" performed with Chris McGregor is one of his most prized recordings and "Orlando" with Dennis Mpale is a gem - previously unreleased on CD and reminiscent of his best known piece "Tshona" recorded with Pat Matshikiza.

Philip Tabane who features on the same compilation led his band Malombo since the early 1960's. His DVD "Live at the Market Theatre Johannesburg" (also on CD) shows that he is one of the great 1960's guitar heroes.

Post apartheid jazz has been music of extremes: unparalleled hope and creativity marred by senseless violence and tragedy. The death of Moses Taiwa Molelekwa ten years ago at the age of 27 is a prime example. Moses reigned supreme as the greatest African musician of his generation and his demise left a gaping scar in African jazz. As pianist, composer, producer, band leader and innovator Moses was in a league of his own. Happily his music lives on as demonstrated in the recent release of his CD "Live in Joburg Nineteen Ninety Nine." Stand out tracks include "Genes and Spirits" and "Itumeleng."



When it comes to African Jazz one band towers above the others. The Congolese big band OK Jazz was Sub Saharan Africa' s dominant musical force from the late 1950's until 1989 when its leader and virtuoso guitarist Franco passed away. After Franco, Vice President, Le Poète Lutimba Simaro who's been in the band since the early 1960's took up the reins. The band, later renamed Bana OK (= children of OK Jazz) continues to this day and is without a shadow of doubt the greatest jazz band in Africa. Anyone doubting the veracity of this needs to put on their dancing shoes and check out the reissue of their best DVD. "C'est La Fête" as it's now called was originally recorded in 2003 and features a great performance by the entire band especially veteran vocalist Josky Kiambukata and the scintillating young lead guitarist Olivier Tshimanga who like so many great musicians over many decades is a product of Simaro's uniquely laid back, hands off style of leadership. Simaro, the coolest man in African jazz, makes his customary brief appearance in a big hat, platys some crisp, elegant rhythm guitar and quietly slips off stage after a few minutes. Under his leadership Bana OK are so good, he simply doesn't need to be there!

Franco's long term rival Tabu Ley Rochereau started his career in the seminal band African Jazz alongside Manu Dibango, Le Grand Kalle and Dr Nico. The two CD compilation "Voice of Lightness Vol 2" is worth purchasing just to hear Africa's most influential musician ever - the guitarist Dr Nico - on "Ohambe" which hasn't previously appeared on CD. Anyone wondering where Vampire Weekend get their bite should start with D r Nico. Like Hendrix in rock, Dr Nico's influence is omnipresent in all Congolese derived music.

1 April 2011

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