Last night before a screening of the LCD Soundsystem concert documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits, the movie theater ran a preview for the 25th Anniversary concert film of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Although I was largely insulated from the debate surrounding the album at the time of its release, I have over the years engaged in numerous discussions regarding the question of appropriation (and/or misappropriation) of other cultural traditions by Western artists. For the time being, I would like to table that discussion for another day and focus on one of the many positive elements that came out of Graceland; specifically, the (re)introduction of African musical traditions into the mainstream culture of the United States. Simon wasn’t the first nor would he be the last musician to find inspiration from non-Western forms of music. You need only look back at the work of the Beatles and George Harrison who introduced the sitar into a number of their classic songs or the ground-breaking experimentalism of the Talking Heads in the late 70s whose art-house rock was fertilized with strains of non-western music. Not to mention, great African artists such as Fela Kuti had a profound presence in the American musical landscape and if you are a Funk or Jazz fan you are aware of the impact that Afro-Beat had on many of the great innovators of the 60s and 70s. However, I think Graceland opened a door for a larger audience that for too long was unaware of the gorgeous and diverse body of work produced throughout the African continent.
Over the years, I’ve been drawn with increasing frequency to various strains of what is often dubbed “World Music” from two very different reasons. One is my undying curiosity and fascination with learning, understanding, and experiencing as much music as possible. The other, I believe, comes from some sort of unconscious cultural/genetic origin. Having been raised in a Cuban-American community, I heard a lot of music from the Caribbean and Latin America, both of which are heavily influenced, indebted and cross-pollinated with music from Africa for various historical reasons. The rhythms of the Caribbean owe as much to their Spanish ancestors as they do to their West African brethren. Also, if you dig even further, Spanish culture and music was heavily influenced by the presence of the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula for over 700 years and, accordingly, Islamic and Middle Eastern culture. So, basically, if you really look back and open-mindedly enough, you’ll see how much our musical traditions are interrelated.
And, this is all a very long way of introducing two very excellent and distinct records owing their inspiration and genesis to uniquely African roots.
The Very Best MTMTMK
When I first heard The Very Best’s newest single “We OK”, I couldn’t wait for the full record to be released, anticipating that it would receive repeated listens and bring about lots of mirth-inducing movement. And, fortunately, I was not disappointed. In case you missed my previous post on the Very Best, this group is a collaboration between musicians from Malawi and the UK. Accordingly, the music on this record contains a fusion of differing traditions: UK/European Techno/Dance and Afro-Dance/Pop. Although situated in South Eastern Africa, Malawian popular traditional music has also been influenced by music from the Congo and South Africa, so it too represents a blending of numerous cultures. It is all these mixtures that make MTMTMK such a breathtaking listen. On the surface, it is unlike anything you are likely to hear on the radio, yet upon closer listen you’ll hear familiar beats and rhythms. Personally, I’m partial to the more up-beat and lively Afro-Dance tracks such as “Kondaine”, “Moto” and “Bantu” with their preponderance of vocal tracks, creating the feeling of large ecstatic group of musicians jamming – I’m guessing most of these tracks are just looped and layered voices but a boy can still dream. “We OK” is the crowning achievement of the album with its inspirational message of optimism and hope. I would hope that somehow it could find its way into the larger cultural landscape. So get ready for a truly body-shaking, smile-inducing listen.
Listen to the Very Best’s MTMTMK in its entirety here.
Or visit their website for more information here.
Debo Band s/t
Venturing North from Malawi, the next album draws influence and inspiration from Ethiopian pop music. From the outset you’ll notice the variation in instrumentation (a lot more guitars and horns), a decidedly Middle-Eastern influence, and a slower smoother rhythm with far less percussion. At times the sound isn’t too different from 70s Funk or Jazz. But then again, as discussed above, Funk and Jazz drew heavily from African music, given the large number of African-American musicians who started touring in Africa in the 60s and 70s in connection with the rise and growth of Pan-African democratic movements. Also, for those familiar with the soundtrack for the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, you’ll notice a striking similarity to the bass lines and rhythms from that work too – which is to say Andrew Lloyd Weber likely was borrowing heavily from these traditions. These comparisons aren’t meant to discredit the work, but rather to show the cross-currents of influence. Among my favorite tracks are the upbeat “Asha Gedawo”, which sounds perfect for large celebratory gathering; the Eastern-European, Gypsy (the culture not the musical) tinged “Ykefer Wegagene”; and, the haunting “Medinanna Zelesegna”, a sparse tune consisting of strings and a single male voice chanting in a style evocative of Qawwali, Sufi devotional music. Even if you aren’t familiar with all the referenced traditions, I think you’ll find this record a fabulous adventure and experience.
Listen to the Debo Band’s s/t album in its entirety here.
For non Spotify users, you can sample the Debo Band here.
And, if you like what you here, get their record from Sub Pop here.