I’m not one for resolutions, for they don’t work, but I do have a couple of traditions for New Year’s Day. One, shared with a longtime friend, is to check what day is Easter on the calendar, and then to message each other (it’s April 1st this year, in case you were wondering). Another is to play some good music. It’s not that I play crap stuff for the remainder of the year, but let’s say that I try and uphold some standards of quality. Today, more by accident than by design, the first couple of artists happened to be African; hence the idea of having an African NYD edition of Song(s) for the Road. All the linked songs are available on Youtube, but the invite is always to try and buy the records if available and if you can.
Tony Allen plays with Afrika 70 – No Accommodation for Lagos
I’m a sucker for Afrobeat. It might be a heavily stereotyped idea, and I might be in for the disappointment of my life the day I finally get there, but I imagine the likes of Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti, Ofo & The Black Company and, indeed, Tony Allen to be blaring throughout Lagos whilst everyone moves to rhythm. All day long. Tony Allen, to me, is the man. Drummer for Fela Kuti, and if you’ve ever heard Fela you know you need a lot of stamina and metronome-like precision, he then went solo and began dishing out pearls like this one. No Accommodation for Lagos clicks 60 minutes and yet there are only six songs. The topics are a far cry from N’Sync’s: it’s either denunciation of the precarious lifestyle of those who are forced to move into the big city, a plead for road safety – Look left, look right he says – and hymns to love. All accompanied by sounds funkier than funk itself and horns solos that could send people to Nirvana (not Kurt Cobain’s band, the other one). The opening song, for instance, runs for nine blissful minutes before Tony decides it’s time to start singing. If you don’t mind shoulder gymnastics and odd looks from other motorists, it’s a great album to listen to on your daily commute.
Tinariwen – Elwan
I’ve started seeing a few noses turning up at the sight of Tinariwen. They’ve gone commercial. They played on KEXP. You just see them in big festivals. Tamikrest, Bombino [insert other Touareg group] are much more authentic.
Frankly, in my humble opinion I think it’s all bollocks. Tinariwen had the luck of being the first of the incredible bands that took Songhoy music, and its bluesy influence, shook and stirred it with their own desert sounds and came out with what they’ve been incredibly successful at ever since. And, honestly, if they’re enjoying a bit of wealth because of this, all the better. I don’t understand why, to be appreciated by some, artists need to remain dirt-poor. If you’ve got talent, it’s right in my books to be making a living out of it. Besides, I’m sure it makes 1,000 Tinariwens to make the money of half a Justin Bieber.
Anyhow, bickering aside, let’s talk about Elwan. Whilst it’s true that Tinariwen have a knack to get the *great* hit out, I’ve always found their LPs to be a bit on the lacking side. Tassili, for example, seemed to be the same guitar chord repeated for half of the album’s songs. In this respect, my preference went to the likes of Bombino, or Imarhan, whose debut album was so great that I actually emailed British Airways to complain when they took it off their in-flight entertainment section (they promised alternatives, but so far zilch). Still, Elwan is different. It rings true, honest and if at times it’s melancholic, it’s because it is – just read the lyrics of Ténéré Tàqqàl – and it’s an all-round gem. Most certainly their best, at least for me.
Mulatu Astatke – New York-Addis-London
You’ve got to give the genre the credit it deserves. When it comes to finding new names for its sub-streams, jazz is in a class of its own in terms of coolness. Ethio-Jazz. Come on, say it, roll it on the top of your tongue, and tell me if it doesn’t sound cool. It does, doesn’t it?
Mulatu Astatke is another one of Africa’s great exports. Sent in Wales to learn engineering, he instead studied music and became a strange mélange of Herbie Hancock and the Buena Vista Social Club. Don’t know if it’s true, don’t know if you can still consider his music jazz, I don’t even know if this is anything you’d be likely to hear in a bar in Addis, but whatever. I like it.
Fatoumata Diawara – Fatou
It feels that there’s somehow of an over-representation of Mali singers in this post but I suppose it’s one of the dangers of the job; if Mali’s industrial prowess was on par with its music output, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the country’s leadership elbowing back Trump in a group photo scrum at the next G20 meeting. But I digress.
From the desert blues of the north to the riverine sounds of the various Ali Farka Touré and Songhoi Blues (damned whoever suggested them to do duets with Iggy Pop and others), one would think it’s a bit of a sausage fest, but you’d be wrong. There’s Rokia Traoré, half of Amadou et Mariam (no points for guessing which one) and the delightful, etheral Fatoumata Diawara.
I suppose a good way to describe her is to think at Beth Orton’s love for acoustic guitar meets Tori Amos’ voice. I haven’t the foggiest of the ideas about what she sings about, apart from what I can gather by listening to her French shows, but even when the songs deal with sad themes – I can’t think Clandestin is garnished with Earth, Wind & Fire-style cheerfulness – she’s got grace, elegance and style by the bucketful.
And finally… FOLI (there is no movement without rhythm)
Ok, this isn’t a song, or a music video. It’s not even from a music group, but still it’s been one of my favourite African music video for ages. Made by Thomas Roebers and Floris Leeuwenberg, it follows the people of Baro, a village of 15-something-thousand people in Guinea, West Africa, and explores the musical attitude of the Malinke, or Mandingo, tribe. It’s worth following to the end for its message and rhythm. If you can say something more than “I can see that the dancers haven’t ever skipped a leg day ever” then you’ve got a poetic streak that far outstrips mine.
That’s it, merry 2018 to everyone and good listening. If you have other tips for African music – I’m feeling a bit low on my knowledge on the half of the continent running from the Congo down – please share!