Nov 10, 2021

Digging deeper into forgotten corners of global groove

Originally published by BY

For casual but curious collectors of eclectic sounds and global grooves, Analog Africa might be the Holy Grail. Since being founded in Germany by Samy Ben Redjeb in 2006, the Tunisian crate digger's deeply personal and highly idiosyncratic imprint has birthed a steady stream of 40 peerless releases and counting—carefully curated collections of rare and obscure analogue-era recordings which invariably act as thrilling sonic transporters, touristic time capsules and irresistible dance-floor fillers.

The story begins in 2000 when part-time DJ Redjeb began working for a German airline which took him in and out of major African transport hubs, offering the unusual opportunity to scour obscure and forgotten vinyl records which had nearly always never been heard outside of their target market.

An initial fascination with the music of Zimbabwe led to a pair of loss-making debut releases dedicated to the country's most-storied groups—The Green Arrows, and Hallelujah Chicken Run Band—released in 2007, before circumstances took Redjeb to Cotonou, Benin, where he uncovered a stash of thousands of records that would lay the path for the following four releases which define the label for years to come. 

Analog Africa's first multi-artist compilation African Scream Contest -Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin & Togo 70s (2008) put the label on the map and in the heart of curio collectors and groove-fiends, and was followed by the seminal Legends of Benin and two complete volumes dedicated to the fabled Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Along the way listeners became accustomed to the label's distinct coffee table-worthy cover art, filler-free taste, impeccable sequencing and Samy's own rambling, idiomatic first-person liner notes, typically contrasting spontaneous audio epiphanies with the arduous process of tracking down musicians or their surviving relatives to strike a deal for release.

Focused on the pre-digital golden age of the '70s and '80s, subsequent releases have covered 20 countries across Africa and South America, with standalone compilations transporting listeners to hear the rarely catalogued music of Angola, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Senegal, Cameroon and Somalia, amongst others. Meanwhile complete volumes have documented mythical figures including Guinea's Amara Touré, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Verckys, Cape Verde's Bitori, Colombia's Aníbal Velásquez and Cameroonian soldier-turned-politician Hamad Kalkaba; as well as historical outfits like Benin's Orchestre Super Borgou De Parakou and Somalia's Dur-Dur Band. Collectively, the catalogue captures the collision of heady innovation amid an optimistic milieu, at the moment when traditional forms collide with new trends and technologies in often young independent nations.

Most recently, the label's 30th non-limited release La Locura de Machuca 1975-1980 chronicles, in Redjeb's words, the "story of a crazy producer from Colombia who did really special things." After that, he lets slip, will be a compilation of early '80s Edo Funk tunes from Nigeria's southern state in the thrall of pioneer Sir Victor Uwaifo. But with so many riches already unearthed, after spending much of 2020 delving deep into Analog Africa's existing catalogue during lockdown, this writer was more concerned with looking backwards.

All About Jazz: What is it that makes your ears perk up when you hear certain pieces of music— what, for example, was it about the forgotten Somali disco tunes featured on your recent Mogadisco compilation that you wanted to share with the world?

Samy Ben Redjeb: Sometimes you ask yourself why you like or love this person and you can't put your finger on it, you just like it—I don't really have my own way of describing why I like certain music or not, it's a bit too difficult to translate emotions into wording. You can't put a finger on it sometimes, it just gives you a good feeling.

AAJ: Ah, but for you there's a commercial element— you also need to know that other people might feel the same.  

SBR: My label was built because I started to get really excited about Zimbabwean music—I [thought] if I like it, why wouldn't other people? The label is basically a reflection of my own taste, and the people who like Analog Africa are people who trust my taste. So generally the compilations are made for myself, then hoping other people are going to like it—there is no other way. I'm sure there are people who go on Discogs and decide they want something because 2,000 other people want it—but I don't function like this.

AAJ: But you must find some records that you love are less successful in the marketplace ...

SBR: Yes, But I know this before I even release it. It doesn't really matter because it's not only about sales, it's about cultures, it's about showing ... I always like trying to compare what I do to someone who makes a lot of spices available for a cook —he takes a bit of this, a bit of that—what I'm trying to do is showcase as much variety as possible. And if possible music that hasn't really been showcased before, it makes it more interesting. It's not a must.

Now I'm releasing a compilation by a label from Colombia called Machuca, which is the beginning of a style of music called champeta, which is basically African music recorded by Colombian musicians. When they started it was very experimental—sometimes a bit too crazy for most— and I know that it's not going to sell as well as if I just release another Afrobeat compilation. But for me it's more interesting to do something different instead of something that's already been done, that I know would sell more.

AAJ: Before you founded the label, you hosted an African club night in Dakar, Senegal—is that what started you digging for these wonderful forgotten records?

SBR: At that time I was DJing in hotels and I was basically playing just the charts, pop music, disco —and at some point I started doing African nights but it was not that kind of music I was looking for. The music I liked was just too raw to be played in discos. The first digging trips I did were not to play music for people but for me to discover music that I really loved.

AAJ: Looking back on the past 20 years digging, what was your greatest single find?

SBR: I have to say one of the most epic moments for me was to find that warehouse in Cotonou in Benin. That's the turning point for my label, really. For example, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo—I think I found almost everything they recorded in that one place. They recorded about 500 records and I think I found 450. The next two or three compilations I did was basically based on what I found in that place. That was the turning point for me—when I was there, going through the records, I understood straight away. I think everyone has like one godly present in their life and I think that was mine. 

AAJ: When faced with that amount of material—how many tracks do you listen to putting together a single compilation?

SBR: Well, let's say for Angola Soundtrack [The Unique Sound Of Luanda 1968-1976] I probably listened to 1,000 songs that were diluted into 14. And for African Scream it was even more than that—but it doesn't mean the other songs are not so good. Sometimes I take one song out just to put another song in because it's going to make it flow better, or if one song is too similar to another one. Once you have the songs, putting them into the right running order takes months.

AAJ: How many get away—how often are there tracks you can't locate, or can't afford?

SBR: Let's say from the 500 songs I released so far, there are maybe 10 artists I didn't manage to find. If you don't find the artist, and you don't find the producer, and he doesn't have children ... but generally if you really, really want to find someone, you will manage.

AAJ: You often write about the negotiation process in your notes. How do you decide what to pay an artist?

SBR: Basically what I do is go with an average pressing—generally I would say, if all goes well I would sell maybe 5-6,000 LPs and 1,000 CDs, so let's say that's between 6-7,000 in total. So basically I don't pay royalties—the company who says they will pay royalties is all lies because they don't have the manpower to calculate royalties on every song for every artist every six months. So generally what happens is they pay the first two royalties [checks], and then afterwards it trickles down and you get bills where they tell you have $1.27 or $2.69 or bullshit like that. I don't believe in that, so I calculate, say I have 7,000 units, all are sold, 15 per cent royalties [for physical sales; or 50 per cent for digital] for the artists is say 10,000 euros— which divided by the number of songs gives me 600 to 700 euros, so that's what I offer. Companies don't [normally] do that because they're basically paying all the royalties in advance that way, which is a risk. But I prefer to do it because it gives me a better feeling that I have been correct, and I already know that I will manage to sell this [number], even if it doesn't sell it in a year, it will sell in two.

AAJ: There's an element where your work goes beyond music—the research and storytelling aspect of your curatorial process—it's history, culture, anthropology...

SBR: Sometimes when people help me to write liner notes—for example a professor of Colombian and Brazilian music— I always tell them I don't want them to sound like professors. I don't want them to be academic. I always say, write whatever you want but also remember that the people who create the music generally are not from that field and they need to understand whatever you write. I would find it very strange if, for example, someone from the north of Brazil goes through the liner notes and doesn't understand a single word about the very music that he's involved in. I try to write very basic—the people who read the liner notes may be Japanese, Spanish, Italian—I try to write in my own words. I'm not an academic and I believe that most of the people that buy our compilations are not academics, so I try to write more like a storyteller.

When I DJ, sometimes they invite me into high-society parties and I really hate that, because the music I play is by simple people and I identify very much with them. Obviously it's very interesting when you find a song made for local consumption—it didn't go out of the state or country—and then suddenly you play it in Hong Kong or New York or Berlin, that's very interesting to see. But I also don't like that sometimes you take music totally out of context and play it for people who have nothing in common with the people who created that music.

AAJ: On that note—some of your records can command two or three times the original price on Discogs when they go out of print. How many copies do you normally put out of a compilation, like say, your most recent, Mogadisco?

SBR: We did 4,000 of Mogadisco first, but I think we repressed. I'm in the process of creating; once the compilation is done, I go to the next one, and I don't deal with sales. I don't even have access to my own bank account. I'm employed by my own company. I have a manager, I don't want to receive invoices, to get papers. The five employees are getting paid and we're managing to put out music—it's like a circle, you produce, you sell, with that money you pay your people and the next production —and it's just a circle that basically goes around and as long as that wheel is turning ... if somebody had told me [before], "listen you would be able to survive from your work," I would have signed that straight away. And that is what is happening now and I couldn't ask for more. I'm not someone who is very interested in material things ... I'm not too fussed.

AAJ: Except when it comes to wax...

SBR: Yeah, I'm not even too crazy about wax, it's just that the wax is a format where I find the music I love—but once it's digitized the vinyl loses a bit of the importance, to me it's really about the music. The people that say vinyl sounds so much better than digital or CD— well, it's more about the experience of putting on a record, a vinyl is really fragile so you care more about it, it's gatefold, you have a big booklet—it's not about the vinyl, it's about the experience of it.

AAJ: For real? You're telling me the vinyl versions of your own records don't sound any better?

SBR: I can play the vinyl, I can play the CD, and you will not hear a difference. The CD can sometimes even sound better—-when you cut the vinyl you lose a bit of the mids and highs, it's a bit more round, depending on the record. For the Machuca , I asked my sound engineer especially, "I want it to sound like a bunch of skeletons playing on tins." So the mids and trebles are quite rattley. So when he cuts the vinyl a bit of this is going to go down—so I know already the CD is going to sound better for this particular compilation.

I love vinyl because that's where I found 90 per cent of all the music I release, and when I want to find a song I know it's only going to be on vinyl. But if I found good music on cassette, or on master tapes, I would love it as much. And because in the scene I am in there are so many people who are completely vinyl junkies, I really got turned off by that. I don't want to become like this.

AAJ: A lot of the most exciting African music from the golden period you document took a heavy influence from the funk and soul sounds coming from the US. It may have been a one-way street —at that point anyway—but why did West African musicians especially respond so strongly to Western trends?

SBR: James Brown was something else, because he also had a really strong message which really impacted Africa very strongly, especially in the late '60s and early '70s—but if you listen to Poly-Rythmo and all these other guys it was not just straight funk, it was not like American funk, it was really their own creation and this is what makes it interesting. The thing that is most interesting is when they do funk without even knowing they're doing it, just because the rhythm section improvises it—I mean the funk is not really a style, it's more a vibe, a rhythm, than a style to me. So I'm pretty sure there are African musicians who never came into contact with funk, but the way they play it is just funky because that's what the music is dictating.

When you talk to the musicians they tell me funk is very easy to them, it is never a problem—Afrobeat is a bit more complicated because it's a whole orchestra, you need brass, and not every band has that—but funk was not a problem for any of those bands. Any kind of western music was not a problem for any African bands.

AAJ: What instruments do you play yourself?

SBR: I don't play any instruments. When I started playing I realized I'm only going to reach a certain level but I'm not going to become excellent. Anything where I'm not going to be excellent, I'm not going to do it.

AAJ: At the end of last year you released Mogadisco—Dancing Mogadishu (Somalia 1972-1991), your first compilation from a country in the Arab World; was there any reason you turned to this part of the globe now?

SBR: There is no reason, if they were Christian I would have done it anyway, there is really nothing to do with [religion], it's just [that] I discovered this music five or six years ago and it takes time, it's complicated to do a project like this. First the need to travel—if Somalia was easy to travel to I would've already been there like 10 times, but I've been only once and it's an overwhelming experience—it took me four years to get there, I stayed for five or six weeks and brought back enough [digitized music] to do two or three projects, and then I'll see if I have the courage or the will to put myself into a situation like this again.

AAJ: What about the music of your home, Tunisia?

SBR: For me I need one song to make me sit up and look for more, and I've never encountered a Tunisian song that I was like, "wow, I want to discover more of that." Despite the fact Tunisia had the most futuristic bands, they didn't have the richest industry, and there was not so much crossover—maybe there was but I have not had the chance to come across it.

Also when you are born into a country you're more curious to see what is happening in other places, areas you don't know, that makes it a bit more interesting, the curiosity to check out if there is something there.

AAJ: So what does attract you to a particular country?

SBR: Just the music, there is no big difference between Benin, Somalia, Ghana, Senegal, or whatever countries I've been to, it just sounds different and that's why I was interested. But it's not a calculated thing, like "now I'm going to do Islamic countries in Africa"—I've never really thought about it, it's just "this is interesting music, let's see if there's an opening to do something with it." I've released music from 20 African countries and I've been to 28, I think.

AAJ: So far you've avoided releasing music from two of the countries which have been most heavily covered, and fetishized, by Western labels—Nigeria and Mali—is that simply because the market's already saturated, or all the best tunes have already been heard?

SBR: Not really. The Malian music that has reached Europe is really the traditional music, but produced by European musicians in most cases. But the music from the '70s that is really, really interesting, I don't think there's so much that has been released yet. There's a producer in France, Syllart Records, and he basically struck deals with different producers here and there and bought the rights to things, and every time you release something he says, "I've got the rights to this, I've got the rights to that," although you don't even know if it's true or not. If it's already a bit too crowded, it's not really interesting you know.

AAJ: What's your relationship like with the other European labels releasing vintage music from Africa and around the world?

SBR : I don't think I can say that. I tend to say I'm part of the scene, but I'm not really in it because I don't deal with record collectors, dealers or other labels. I don't have a bad relationship with any of them but it's not that there is a relationship. I think everybody is doing his own thing and we try not to step on each other's toes.  

AAJ: Let's put it another way—I'm a fan of Analog Africa, I've already heard all your releases, what should I listen to next?

SBR: My favorite label is Soundway [Records], for me they are the best. The founder [Miles Cleret] recommended me to work with Nick Robbins who is my mastering engineer in London. He sent me a few records for African Scream. I know the work he's doing and that's absolutely no reason why I shouldn't like him and respect him. Also he's a very correct guy, at some point he knew I was working on a Ghana compilation, and he said, "listen Samy, I'm also working on a Ghana compilation, here are the songs I'm planning to release, let me know if there is one you are also planning and I will remove it from my list." And I was like, okay this guy is really cool. Not everybody would do that.

Someone else I like a lot is the guy from Strut—he's the guy who managed to get me my distributor in the States. One that influenced me a lot is Buddha Music with the Éthiopiques series. And also Ellipsis Art, that went bankrupt because they always used to do huge booklets. These are the labels I'm really close to.

AAJ: It's been a relentless life and a seemingly endless search, do you ever get tired of it, ever think of giving it up?

SBR: Not really, but I think I will get to 50 [releases] and 50 will be the last one. I'm now releasing number 30 ... and I'm now 49-years old. 

Originally published by BY

Nov 9, 2021

Johnny! – Karl Hector presents: Johnny!


Ghanaian Afro-Rock from German producer/composer JJ Whitefield, inspired by his Karl Hector & The Malcouns and Whitefield Brothers projects.

Fans of Zamrock, Ebo Taylor, Khruangbin and William Onyeabor will find joy in Johnny!’s hypnotic grooves.

JJ Whitefield, who in the early ‘90s revived the gritty, analogue Funk sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s with his Poets Of Rhythm, has been working with Now-Again Records for over decade, releasing a flock of acclaimed projects with Karl Hector & The Malcouns, Whitefield Brothers, Rodinia and the Original Raw Soul anthology.

He first started exploring African rhythms with the Whitefield Brothers in the late ‘90s, continuing in the ‘00s with Karl Hector & The Malcouns. He’s been instrumental in launching Ghanaian Afro Beat/Funk legend Ebo Taylor´s international career, decades after the maestro recorded the landmark albums that have inspired thousands. Whitefield recorded two new studio albums with Taylor and toured in his band between 2009 and 2013, where he met Taylor’s son Henry and percussionist/Singer Eric Owusu.

The trio now front the Johnny! band and find inspiration not only in Ghana’s hypnotic grooves, but also the full frontal fuzz guitar assault heard on the legion of 70s Zambian Zamrock albums reissued by Now-Again. Indeed, Whitefield credits his tours with Zamrock godfathers Rikki Ililonga and WITCH’s Jagari Chanda as instrumental in creating the Johnny’s sonic backdrop. The band is rounded out by Turkish drummer Bernd Oezsevim (Woima Collective, Rodinia) and Indonesian bassist/multi instrumentalist Tomi Simatupang (Whitefield Brothers).

This is what was oft-called “Afro Rock” at the core, with the possibilities to stretch out into swinging highlife, sweet soul or psychedelia . The results, point at a new direction for the music inspired by the Great Continent. One that takes a direction once mocked as derivative and asserts its importance on the globe’s current musical stage.

Sep 14, 2021

Los Camaroes - A Journey Into Cameroonian Music

For its 3rd releases, Nubiphone is proud to present you a compilation of the best early 7inch releases of the mythical Cameroonian band Los Camaroes.

10 raw tracks taken from various singles from 1968 to 1975, that present the musical diversity played by those seven young people: Bikutsi, Afro-Funk, Jerk, , Soukous, Rumba & Blues music. The band led by the charismatic lead vocal Messi Martin that managed to modernized Cameroonian music. Deluxe edition that includes an 8-pages booklet, with exclusive pictures, biography in both English and French languages.



Sep 3, 2021

Cameroon Garage Funk (Pt. II)


The globe-trotting team over at Analog Africa are at it again, delivering another beautifully crafted package that shines a light and some of the lost scenes of yesteryear. After 15 years in the game, you’d think the label might be running out of rare gems to find, but here we are clutching 16 tracks of Cameroon garage funk which range from fuzzed-out freakouts to hip-shaking Latin groove. 

An esoteric endeavor even by this label’s standards, main man Samy Ben Redjeb chanced upon this scene after time spent with the phenomenal Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Discussing their heyday and past sounds led Ben Redjeb to their old producer, and in turn, the premises of Niger's national radio station for a little crate digging. Drawn to one shelf in particular, he discovered a bunch of Cameroon 45s, nearly all bearing the mark of French music label Sonafric.

Thus began label head’s ‘Sonafric Safari, a trip which saw him travel from Douala to Yaoundé via Bamenda like some kind of vinyl obsessed Dr. Jones. Finds were scarce, as was any information, and it’s only now after hours interviewing various music figureheads that we get a snapshot of this underground scene that set 70s Yaoundé alright. With venues of the day hosting everything from soul nights to French yé-yé it’s no surprise that this compilation seems a bit more scrappy and scattershot than other releases but still filled with plenty of welcome surprises.

With the country at the time lacking any real recording industry or facilities, getting your song out there to the masses was a real hustle in itself, one often requiring the use of an Adventist church and an open-minded engineer. What’s left for history is a set of DIY tracks which willed themselves into existence through pure determination and a level of energy that still reverberates today.

The likes of Joseph Kamga’s ‘Sie Tcheu’ fit the comp's title admirably, boasting raw funk guitar, organ solos, and a bassline that refuses to quit. ‘Yondja’ on the other hand proves a more Afrocentric treat, the western funk groundwork mixed with spidery piano work, horns, and percussion that’s tighter than a diving bell. The Damas Swing Orchestra proves another winner, the group using its short track runtime to deliver a nocturnal groove while sprinkling samples of crowd cheers over the top. It’s smooth, a little jazzy, and about 15 years ahead of its time.

More than anything, the 16 numbers on show reveal what a melting pot the city’s club scene was at the time. French language numbers are belted out - at times off-key - while artists with names like Johnny Black do their best James Brown impersonation in recording rooms with just one mic. Once again this boutique label has moved mountains to give lovers of African music, as well as musicologists, a real treat. It may just be a glimpse, but damn does Cameroon circa 1975 sound like a lot of fun.

clashmusic.com 

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The title of Analog Africa’s latest compilation manages to give you a spot-on idea of what you’re going to get, while simultaneously leading you astray. It’s that attributive noun in the middle, really. People have talked mistily about ‘garage’ bands as a broad concept for maybe half a century now – and it was by definition a thing of the past when the Nuggets collection, from 1972, threw the idea out there – and in that time, like basically every musical genre or grouping that ever took hold, it’s been appropriated, misattributed and diluted until it’s scarcely identifiable.

As I say, that’s the price of recognition, not much point complaining about it: 20 years ago, when the very well-heeled Strokes’ very professionally recorded debut album was held up as an avatar of ‘garage rock’ in the wider imagination, it was kind of irksome for heads, but no-one died or anything. The term has always been a dually-functioning one as regards social signifiers, in any event: the idealised American garage bands of the 1960s played in the garage because they were kids who couldn’t afford actual studios, and because they came from middle-class families with sufficiently equipped houses.

Cameroon Garage Funk’s sleevenotes, though illuminating, don’t go into enough detail about the featured groups for us to make many conclusive statements about their backgrounds, let alone whether their family homes had garages. They do however describe a church in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, which had some basic studio gear and an employee willing to record bands on the downlow when the priests were elsewhere. For a few years in the 1970s (all but one of these songs were recorded in that decade), this was the most viable way for the country’s musicians to commit themselves to tape, and accounts for the bulk of what Analog Africa’s Samy Ben Redjeb has selected here. All done live into a single mic, too, and when I say you can often tell it’s said with high admiration: this music, from before I was born on a continent I’ve never visited, buzzes raw enough to have me feeling like I was in the room shuffling clodhoppingly. That’s the nub of the garage mindset, no?

This album, like everything Analog Africa (among many other archive labels) releases, is closely tied to the collector scene – you can’t very well not be if you want to do this properly. Redjeb, a Tunisian living in Germany, prefaces the various band profiles by recalling how he got into Cameroonian digging, actually finding the 45s comped here in Niger, Benin and Togo before entering the country in question. Most of them were released by a label called Sonafric, based in Paris but specialising in pressing contemporary African sounds. For a country that barely had a functioning music industry, a decent amount of sides were cut in 70s Cameroon – Manu Dibango accrued a global profile at the time while being the proverbial iceberg’s tip – but they’ve not been given retrospective attention like the output of other western African nations, Nigeria and Ghana especially. Analog Africa, to their credit, have bucked this trend before, issuing the brief mid-70s discography of Hamad Kalkaba and a compilation of disco-influenced makossa from the late 70s and early 80s.

Makossa and the older bikutsi, both rhythm-forward native styles, are germane to Cameroon Garage Funk without featuring on it per se. Los Camaroes are represented here by both sides of a 1973 single, and had already built a rep as a versatile nightclub house band by then; Messi Martin, their guitarist, has over time become synonymous with ‘modern bikutsi’. Here, ‘Ma Wde Wa’ is a mild outlier, more like soukous than the rockist abandon of many other acts featured here, but with its sprightly melodies dusted in amp fuzz and afforded some bizarrely ‘off’ drum fills, you can see what Redjeb heard, so to speak. B-side ‘Esele Mulema Moam’ showcases their harder side, though: vocal yawping a la James Brown, who we’ll return to, meets with a rolling-stock bassline and chicken-scratch guitar.

A surf-style guitar gives way to a wild perversion of Latin jazz, before being brought back again, on Charles Lembe Et Son Orchestra’s ‘Quiero Wapatcha’, a song actually dating from 1964 (Lembe died in 2019 aged 81, likely making him the most venerable musician featured here). Given that this compilation is otherwise laser-focused on the following decade, I’m choosing to believe that Redjeb included it for no other reason than it rips. It’s also available on another Afro-specialist compilation, by Honest Jon’s; I daresay licensing this stuff properly is an arseache, but also think it would have been preferable to give prospective buyers stuff they almost certainly didn’t already own. Being more charitable, there are some true obscurities featured here, not only to latterday collectors but, it seems, Cameroon scenesters of the era, with Redjeb’s biographical hunting turning up squat.

Damas Swing Orchestra’s ‘Odylife’ has also been comped before, on an Africa Airways set from a few years ago, but the Cameroon Garage Funk liner notes simply state “no information” with an implied shrug. While not giving the impression of being intentionally mysterious, they cultivate an eldritch atmos in their 140 seconds here. A sample of a large, cheering crowd is intermittently inserted into a tambourine-shaking jazz shuffle whose title is uttered in haunted tones. Then there’s this collection’s other “no info, soz” act Jean-Pierre Djeukam, whose ‘Africa Iyo’ opens with seven seconds of untethered, perhaps malfunctioning electr(on)ics before the actual tune starts. Good gravy, it’s quick! In fact, if you can find a higher tempo Afrofunk tune I’ll… be grateful for your valuable service, is what. A regrettably anonymous band chops riffs like the Meters and honks JBs horns, but with the foamy fervour of certain UK bands who were, at the time of this 7-inch’s release in 1978, just starting to make a meal out of punk and funk (Gang Of Four, most prominently). I link up these names in a spirit of celebration: of how cool it is that people, or groups of people, can have highly similar flashes of inspiration while being unaware of each other’s existence.

As with a lot of music that left a scant paper trail, there’s lots of fun to had trying to figure out who exactly inspired these performers, with the bonus of it being almost as satisfying not to know. Andre Destin Ndenga was a saxophonist with the ability to pick up any other instrument, and who incorporated a Cuban influence into his music from the 1950s onwards. That’s evident on ‘Yondja’, recorded in the late 70s with Les Golden Sounds – the official ensemble of the Cameroon presidency; the story goes that Ndenga was forcibly enlisted as bandleader – although by this time he was looking to Fela Kuti for inspiration. The rich array of percussion accounts for the first of those influences; the fat sax riffs the second. ‘Ngamba’, originally the B-side of ‘Yondja’, incorporates a head-turning synth break at 0:27, guitar melodies almost resembling Chinese folk, call-and-response vocals and sax playing as wildly jazzy as anything on this compilation.

Another rocker working for the man was Mballa Bony, who joined the army’s orchestra in 1975 and released the ‘Mezik Me Mema’ 45 the following year. Later he would cross over to Pop Makossa-ish electronic sounds, but for now his wistful, kindly-sounding vocal is backed by almost highlife guitar and a sax break for the ages. The booklet features Bony’s thoughts on the influence of James Brown in the Cameroon capital at the time; there’s no obvious attempt at a bite here, unlike Johnny Black’s ‘Mayi Bo Ya?’. Total Godfather of Soul worship for its first two minutes, it then fires off in myriad Afropsych directions, a demonstration of this music’s innate individuality even when the players are unabashedly trying to crib a style. Louis Wasson Et L’Orchestre Kandem Irenée’s ‘Song Of Love’, too, kicks off with deeply Brownian motion, Wasson himself drilling a killer riff into the frame, but a more chaotic arrangement thereafter than the old tyrant would have stood for. “I love you!” gasps the vocalist, stirringly.

‘Les Souffrances’, a song written by Johnny Black about the tougher side of life in 70s Cameroon and recorded by his friend Tsanga Dieudonne, is close as we come here to straight Afrobeat, if there is such a thing, though marking itself out by virtue of scorching proggy organ by Dieudonne himself (who also passed away in 2019). So high-tempo danceable it would have Prince Andrew sweating like Tony Blair, it apparently captured the national public imagination, as did ‘Monde Moderne’ by Pierre Didy Tchakounte Et Les Tulipes Noires. A paean to being a boy in a rock&roll band, late bedtimes and all, its French lyrics lend it the rock-gone-wrong marvellousness of that nation’s more offbeat vintage pop icons, like Jacques Dutronc.

A second Tchakounte cut, ‘Ma Fou Fou’, is bone-hard funk with a jazzworthy drum freakout: the only thing stopping this being a smash in waiting among those “ORIGINAL 45S ONLY” mod nights is the ruff fidelity. Meanwhile, if your idea of what funk sounds like was mostly gleaned from watching vintage pornography, the agile wah pedal wigging of Willie Song Et Les Showmen’s ‘Moni Ngan’ is for you. Why did Cameroon, indeed much of Africa, adopt and reshape funk so enthusiastically?

Redjeb, in an interview last year, suggested, “James Brown had a really strong message which really impacted Africa”; moreover, “when you talk to the musicians they tell me funk is very easy to them – Afrobeat is a bit more complicated because it’s a whole orchestra, you need brass, and not every band has that.”

I don’t think there’s anything more quintessentially Cameroon Garage Funk – that fulfils each word of its title most completely – than ‘Sie Tcheu’, by Joseph Kamga. A minute-long instrumental intro builds anticipation, and though there’s not actually a lot of vocal thereafter, the lead guitarist (presumably Kamga himself) dazzles with some hard blues riffs worthy of the most basement-dwelling teen pimplies, which again I naturally mean in a good way. The organ solo, when it hits, is pure wavy gravy Nuggets psych idealism.

The 1970s Cameroon bandscape had its own specifics, quirks and idiosyncrasies, just like that of any country from any era, and Analog Africa have ably captured this without going overboard. There’s no obvious reason, short of national affiliation, for someone to focus on its music – which of course crosspollinated with that of its neighbours, plus France later on with the 1980s makossa boom, this perhaps being a colonialist hangover – to the exclusion of others. It’s just full of slinky rhythm, stone funk and some really cool origin stories, the sort of stuff that justifies the continuing existence of the archive reissue market.

thequietus.com 

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For some 10 years now, releases from the seminal German Analog Africa label, under the leadership of its founder and crate-digger-in-chief, Samy Ben Redjeb, has brought to the world authentic and eye-opening records, largely previously unheard outside of their native boundaries.  Often misunderstood and overlooked, the rich and diverse heritage of this continent has been celebrated through a catalogue of “explosive foot-shufflers and hypnotic sauntering treasures”.

Redjeb’s modus operandi focuses upon tracking down and dusting-off rare finds and locating sources, frequently interviewing those responsible for the original recordings, be they the artists, engineers or record company owners, and then lovingly transforming the source material into the vinyl gold that is issued under the label’s name, (CD and digital versions notwithstanding).

After a brief excursion to South America with their last offering in July of this year, Manzanita Y Su Conjunto; Trujillo, Peru 1971-974, reviewed in Folk Radio UK here, Analog Africa make a continental return to Africa, specifically the west-central region,  with a Various Artists collection of underground music entitled Cameroon Garage Funk, the 32nd compilation from the Analog Africa Regular Series.

The lack of availability of 70s music from Cameroon remained a mystery to me until I received this CD for review when all was revealed. Whilst the nation’s capital, Yaoundé, was at the time a hive of musical activity, with every neighbourhood filled with music spots, the country lacked the infrastructure of proper recording facilities for these myriad artists, the vast majority of whom obviously could not afford to use the national broadcasting company and employ a sound engineer. Since there were no local labels or producers, the process of committing your song to tape could become a whole adventure in itself, with the artists themselves often fulfilling the roles of musicians, arranger, producer, financier, promotor, executive producer and even distributor.

Fortuitously and somewhat bizarrely, an alternative option presented itself in the form of an Adventist church in the Djoungolo district, which possessed good recording equipment. The Church engineer, Monsieur Awono, knowing the schedule of the priests, would accept cash in exchange for arranging illicit, clandestine recording sessions. Using their own equipment, many artists on this compilation secretly recorded their first few songs in these premises, albeit with only a single microphone.

Following the recording session, the master reel of tape would be handed to whoever had paid for the session, usually the artist themselves, and in the absence of an alternative, this would then invariably be taken to the forward-thinking French label Sonafric, the route and platform that many Cameroonian artists used to kickstart their career.

This information was gleaned by the intrepid Redjeb following a few trips, and many hours of interviews, in his quest to piece together what at first appeared to be a long-lost underground scene, a journey that took him not only to Cameroon but also to Benin and Togo, and to cities including Cotonou, Lomé and Sotouboua, where most of the songs on this release were acquired.  As with previous releases, the extensive liner notes are the result of meticulous research by Redjeb and Volkan Kaya and present not only as a work of the heart but also as an enhancement to the package as a whole.

All 16 tracks on the project are composed by veterans of the Cameroonian scene. While some are from famous names, others perhaps only recorded one or two tracks before disappearing into obscurity that even modern-day search engines will fail to locate.  What the collection does reflect, however, is different moments in the musical history of the period. Following Cameroon’s independence, for instance, the local bands began to introduce the traditional sounds of Makossa and Bikutsi into their music.

The first single released from the collection, Africa Iyo, recorded in 1978 by Jean-Pierre Djeukam, an artist so obscure that he remains unknown to the vast majority of musicians even in his home country, is a searing Afrobeat opener that sets the tone for what is to come. Released in 1974, Sie Tcheu is a Jerk tune sung in Bamiléké, a language spoken by one of the largest ethnic groups in Cameroon, by guitarist extraordinaire Joseph Kamga.  Two offerings from another musician hailing from a Bamiléké family appear on the album. One of the best-known artists on the collection, Ndenga André Destin, initially a saxophonist, was gifted with the ability to master virtually any instrument within a few days and quickly became an expert in South-American rhythms, in particular, Cuban Son and Merengue. Such was his reputation that he was taken, in 1962, by force and made director of the Presidential Orchestra, Les Golden Sounds. Yondja and Ngamba, both composed in 1976 and released as singles by Sonafric, were inspired by the Afrobeat sounds of Fela Kuti and feature fine brass lines, interwoven amongst the lyrics and strings.

The third musician here with a Bamiléké heritage is Pierre Didy Tchakounte, who, from the age of 15, had begun to create modern interpretations of traditional songs.  His recording career began in 1973 with a slab of funky soul that is Ma Fou Fou, followed a year later with his second single, the smoky, slinky Monde Moderne, which became a huge hit. Both songs appear here, the latter being released as the third single from the album.  Along with his band, Les Tulipes Noires, he later had numerous hits with ‘westernised’ music whilst never turning his back on his heritage.

Possibly the most recognisable name on the album is the near-mythical Los Camaroes (de Marou).  A powerhouse Soukhous band who could play anything from Congolese rhumba, merengue and highlife, through to soul and funk, they released some 20 odd singles on the Sonafric label between 1973 and 1977. Their music was played constantly on Cameroon’s national radio station, elevating them to superstar status within the country. The two songs presented here, the reggae-tinged Ma Wde Wa and James Brown-like funk of Esele Mulema Moam, feature the lead vocal and guitar of the charismatic leader Messi Martin, who was instrumental in modernising the music of Cameroon.

Regarded as one of Cameron’s greatest musical arrangers, Louis Wasson played with L´Orchestre Kandem Irenée, who became the backing band that supported an entire generation of Cameroon musicians over the two decades of the 1960s and 70s.  Their contribution here, Song Of Love, was the second single released from the album.  The fourth and final single to be released on the same day as the album will be Mayi Bo Ya?, the first composition by Johnny Black et Les Jokers. Sung in Ewondo, a Béti dialect, by the man born Nga Martin, a huge fan of Otis Redding and James Brown, the song was recorded in a single take in 1974 and fairly zips along with percussive cross-rhythms and chunky organ figures providing a fascinating counterpoint to the vocal lines.

Johnny also features, as the writer and composer of Les Souffrances, a song originally released in 1975 as the first recording for Tsanga Dieudonné.  Featuring Tsanga’s wonderful Farfisa playing, tasteful brass and humorous lyrics relating to mundane daily situations faced by ordinary Cameroonians, it became an instant hit there.

Notwithstanding the ‘funk’ umbrella under which all of the songs on the album sit, variety is the watchword for the other four tracks on the release.  Odylife from the Damas Swing Orchestra is a jazzy, piano-led piece, whilst  Quiero Wapatcha has a Mexican, almost mariachi, vibe. The quality of the music here, from Charles Lembe et Son Orchestra, reflecting the posthumous award of the Medal for Knight of the National Order of Valor he received for services to Cameroonian music.  Moni Ngan from Willie Songue et Les Showmen features splendid sax playing, whilst Woman Be Fire, the only 45 rpm released by Lucas Tala, is heavy on the percussion with absorbing keys. The vocals, however, on these latter two might be an acquired taste.

Rounding off the CD (there is a different running order on the vinyl release) is Mballa Bony with Mezik Me Mema, the gently, lilting brass, funky voice and guitar solo all melding together perfectly. The song and artist have a fascinating back-story involving military service, travel to Nigeria to record and using a military attachment in France to secure a record deal with Sonafric.

As a project, this Sonafric safari is a triumph in unearthing and presenting the music and musicians of Yaoundé’s underground music scene of some 50 years ago.  The legacy offered here illustrates the timelessness of the music and is highly recommended.

folkradio.co.uk 

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Germany's Analog Africa have been on something of a roll lately. Between the much-loved archival label's ongoing reissue campaign of their own scarcer back-catalogues titles and a string of reliably fantastic new titles, the Berlin-based outfit have managed to confidently assert themselves as one of the most vital reissue labels of the current moment.

Though eclectic in both their cultural backgrounds and stylistic approaches, the artists favoured by the label tend to—as its name would suggest—tail from Africa, though founder Samy Ben Redjeb also possesses an evident penchant for South America's sonic heritage, as his label's frequent sojourns to that particular continent demonstrate. For their latest release, though, they've headed back to Africa in service of anthologising the frenetic auditory salvos collated on Cameroon Garage Funk 1964 - 1979. A series of sixteen livewire explosions in sound, the songs here are immediate, vital and instantaneously engaging—all qualities which lend this set a magnetism that's difficult to resist.

Though by no means strangers to high-quality vinyl releases, Analog Africa have really outdone themselves this time. Long-term followers of their output will be well aware of the label's scrupulous attention to detail, a trait borne out in the meticulously-researched booklets which are included with the bulk of their releases, as well as the reliably striking visual aesthetic which adorns every release.

The cover itself is highly impressive:an arresting, broad-spined gatefold wrought from weighty textured card, the sleeve is one which presents the prospective buyer with a definite air of luxury before the records themselves have even hit the deck. The booklet is likewise a treat, visually impressive and of stout quality; the reading material is informative and astute, lending a welcome context to Cameroon Garage Funk's sixteen compositions that proves particularly enlightening for those previously unfamiliar with the artists highlighted here.

At over an hour in length, the compilation's capacious runtime is enough to necessitate its presentation over two separate LPs. With each side therefore clocking in at just a little over a quarter of an hour, there's certainly no risk of the inner groove distortion or other sonic maladies which can all-too-often plague records where too great an amount of music has been pressed onto any given side. Indeed, the audio quality is impressive throughout; remastering has been carried out on each of these sixteen compositions, lending them a crispness impressive for any recordings of their vintage.

The auditory quality of the pressings is likewise excellent; though neither of the two mid-weight black vinyl LPs sat perfectly flat upon the platter in the case of our example, both records offer very clean playback, bearing not a single notable imperfection at any point across the compilation's hour-plus runtime. Both records were also visually commendable, boasting handsome lustres free of the surface blemishes which can—rather frustratingly—appear on brand-new records manufactured at certain pressing plants.

Another captivating compilation from one of Europe's most important archival labels, Cameroon Garage Funk is a joy from start-to-finish, both in regards to its electrifying musical content and its top-notch vinyl release. Classy in its presentation, thorough in its background research and impressive in its sound quality, this is an easy release to recommend to any with an interest in infectious, funky grooves and high-energy auditory workouts.

gigwise.com 

 

Aug 6, 2021

Bombino - Nomad

 

The meeting of western rock stars and non-western musicians is so fraught with potential pitfalls, it's a wonder any decent records ever come of it at all. Cross-pollination is hampered by gaps in language, by preconceptions (on both sides), by label demands for a marketable product, by the suspicion that someone might be using someone, or that the wider audience being sought might be put off by music too far off their wavelengths. The opposite fear is true too: that the cognoscenti will be alienated by watered-down fusions.

Fortunately, these are not issues that besmirch Nomad, the third album by Omara "Bombino" Moctar – a member of the Tuareg Ifoghas clan, usually based in Agadez, Niger – overmuch. It was recorded respectfully, and predominantly live, by Dan Auerbach, leader of the hugely successful Black Keys, in his Nashville studio. He could have made an ugly hash of it, but, as with his previous work with Dr John, Auerbach has proved once again to be a very sympathetic arranger, adding crunch and a little local southern sweetness to Bombino's music.

One of the most easily exportable world sounds of recent times has been the desert blues of the Tuareg people of north and north-west Africa. This rolling, 1,000-yard-stare music is not hard on the western ear; its incandescent licks and fluid grooves would set most rock types to weeping. Nomad's opener, Amidinine, has everything – perpetual motion, a chanted chorus, rocked-up drums and flashes of bluesy brilliance. Azamane Tiliade powers up irresistibly, with whooping throughout, and little solos where you can virtually hear Bombino grinning.

Rock also loves a rebel. The blue-robed Tuareg have been frequently engaged in armed struggles over land rights; struggles complicated by the regional and religious politics of hotspots such as Mali and Libya. Trailblazers such as Tinariwen were the musical wing of the Tuareg rebellion. This record comes in the wake of recent hostilities in Mali, and partly serves as another reaffirmation of Tuareg culture in the face of mass deracination.

Moctar himself grew up in a series of refugee camps, crucibles where traditional Tuareg music somehow became alloyed with the penetrating guitar lines of Mark Knopfler. Although he was something of a child prodigy, Moctar is no greenhorn now, having served an apprenticeship under Tuareg guitar master Haja Bebe where he earned his nickname ("the kid"). Bombino has two previous albums under his belt and was the subject of a 2011 documentary that spread word of his prodigious, faintly Hendrix-like, playing. This western album pushes the Bombino story along persuasively.

Keyboards figure, where desert rock traditionally has none. They are really not that startling. The plangent wooze of lap steel isn't wrong either, adding a note of ghostly succour to the lovely closing track, Tamiditine. A vibes solo on Imuhar really sticks out, but to a western ear it sounds great. A Tuareg might feel differently.

You don't need a strong grasp of Tamasheq to notice Bombino has a song called Imidiwan (Friends), also the title of a track by Tinariwen. (Here, it is not too far off country music.) This reiteration underlines the commonality of heritage and purpose between the kid and his better-known elders; you wonder idly whether Group Bombino (what his band used to be called) has become Bombino to diversify a star from the other Tuareg collectives. Ultimately, though, you can get too cynical about these things. This is fine internationalist guitar music. Niamey Jam finds everyone in the studio – Group Bombino, plus Auerbach and four session musicians – chuntering along quite famously.

 theguardian.com

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Tuareg guitarist and songwriter Omara “Bombino” Moctar is undeniably a man of many talents, but he seems to have his work cut out with the Saharan desert blues genre having been so convincingly sewn up by the titanic presence of Tinariwen. Finding an international audience in the shadow of one of the most acclaimed acts on the world music scene is a Herculean task. It’s lucky then that musical King Midas and one half of The Black Keys, Dan Auerbach, is on hand to produce and provide studio space at his own Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville – a far cry from Bombino’s native Niger.

Last year Auerbach produced a blistering set for Dr John in the form of the brilliant Locked Down, and the sprinkling of fairy dust he applies is just as evident here. Although the music is still very much part of the African continent, the fuzzy blues licks could easily find a home on the resurgent American blues roster.

Bombino’s musical education has its genesis in turmoil, with the Tuareg tribe being forced to flee Niger on several occasions. During one exile a rebel left a guitar behind with Moctar’s family and Bombino (meaning “little child”) began to teach himself the basics, including spending hours watching videos of Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler. There followed roles in local bands and small-scale cassette releases before greater recognition began in 2009. Given the western influence on his development it’s no surprise that Auerbach’s production fits Bombino like a glove.

Opening track Amidinine set the tone with a dirty blues lick forming the sonic equivalent of finding a case of Jack Daniels at a desert oasis. While many would be distracted by Auerbach’s presence, it’s Bombino’s guitar that’s the real star of the show. His deft playing, off-kilter and juxtaposed riffs never let up over the course of the album’s 11 tracks. Other highlights include Azamane Tiliade, in which a wall of guitar overdubs produces an alighty slab of noise, and Niamey Jam’s near-psychedelic tendencies. Elsewhere, the pace varies with more subtle tracks including the atmospheric Imuhar and Imidiwan.

Overall, this is a highly enjoyable work packed with infectious licks and proves to be an easy album to get along with from the get-go. The album’s title suggests that Bombino won’t let the grass grow under his feet for long, and it would be interesting to see his next move after the forthcoming European tour. Auerbach has delivered another crisply produced effort; given the variety of work he has produced since El Camino, the next steps for The Black Keys will be equally intriguing. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy.

 musicomh.com


 

Aug 4, 2021

Cameroon Garage Funk (by analog africa)

  Yaoundé, in the 1970´s, was a buzzing place. Every neighbourhood of Cameroon´s capital, no matter how dodgy, was filled with music spots but surprisingly there were no infrastructure to immortalise those musical riches. The country suffered from a serious lack of proper recording facilities, and the process of committing your song to tape could become a whole adventure unto itself. Of course, you could always book the national broadcasting company together with a sound engineer, but this was hardly an option for underground artists with no cash. But luckily an alternative option emerged in form of an adventist church with some good recording equipment and many of the artists on this compilation recorded their first few songs, secretly, in these premises thanks to Monsieur Awono, the church engineer. He knew the schedule of the priests and, in exchange for some cash, he would arrange recording sessions. The artists still had to bring their own equipment, and since there was only one microphone, the amps and instruments had to be positioned perfectly. It was a risky business for everyone involved but since they knew they were making history, it was all worth it.


At the end of the recording, the master reel would be handed to whoever had paid for the session, usually the artist himself..and what happened next? With no distribution nor recording companies around this was a legitimate question. More often then not it was the french label Sonafric that would offer their manufacturing and distribution structure and many Cameroonian artist used that platform to kickstart their career. What is particularly surprising in the case of Sonafric was their willingness to take chances and judge music solely on their merit rather than their commercial viability. The sheer amount of seriously crazy music released also spoke volumes about the openness of the people behind the label.

But who exactly are these artists that recorded one or two songs before disappearing, never to be heard from again? Some of the names were so obscure that even the most seasoned veterans of the Cameroonian music scene had never heard of them. A few trips to the land of Makossa and many more hours of interviews were necessary to get enough insight to assemble the puzzle-pieces of Yaoundé’s buzzing 1970s music scene. We learned that despite the myriad difficulties involved in the simple process of making and releasing a record, the musicians of Yaoundé’s underground music scene left behind an extraordinary legacy of raw grooves and magnificent tunes.

The songs may have been recorded in a church, with a single microphone in the span of only an hour or two, but the fact that we still pay attention to these great creations some 50 years later, only illustrates the timelessness of their music.
 

releases September 3, 2021 
 

 

Aug 3, 2021

Songhoy Blues - Optimisme

 

 

It’s impossible to separate Songhoy Blues and politics. Formed in 2012 as a direct result of being forced from their homes, after rebel jihadists took control of northern Mali and outlawed all music, the band were refugees in their own land when they attempted to start new lives in the capital city of Bamako, down in the south. They took their name from the centuries-old ethnic group they belonged to, just as their music was conceived as a desert blues celebration of a displaced culture.

A guest slot on Maison Des Jeunes, from Damon Albarn’s Africa Express, led to their aptly titled 2015 debut, Music In Exile, which coincided with an appearance in They Will Have To Kill Us First, an award-winning documentary about Malian musicians’ struggle to be heard during the crisis. Amid fluctuating levels of civil war, Résistance followed two years later. The arrival of Optimisme comes in the wake of an insurgent summer, when a military coup seized power from President Keita.

As the title implies, Optimisme finds Songhoy Blues tackling adversity and national unrest with a generous dollop of positivity. The anger may be palpable, but they don’t go in for bitter polemic. Instead the quartet – frontman Aliou Touré, guitarist Garba Touré, bass player Oumar Touré (none of whom are related, incidentally) and new drummer Drissa Koné – choose to spread the message via impossibly infectious grooves and an exhilarating sense of forward motion.

This is partly down to producer Matt Sweeney, leader of math-rockers Chavez and sometime Bonnie “Prince” Billy collaborator. Reprising his role from last year’s “Meet Me In The City” EP, Sweeney urged the band to replicate the dynamic intensity of their live shows, recording the album over the course of a week in Brooklyn, at the back end of a US tour.

Stylistically, Optimisme is a bubbling conflux of West African polyrhythms and elastic guitar rock. A more concentrated vision than Résistance, which found space for R&B and fanfares of brass, at times it hits harder and heavier than anything they’ve attempted before. “Badala” (rough translation: ‘We Don’t Give A Shit’) certainly fulfils its intention, hurtling along like something from late-’70s Thin Lizzy. “Korfo” (‘Chains’) comes at it from a different angle, all blended vocals and an ear-bending melody, before transforming itself into an unstoppable rock beast. As the son of Ali Farka Touré’s old percussionist Oumar Touré, Garba Touré lives up to his musical pedigree with some vigour, either locking into a trebly vamp or, as on “Worry” or “Dournia” (‘Life’), a seriously shreddy solo.

Other songs feel more distinctly Malian in form. “Assadja” and “Fey Fey”, for instance, are each carried by liquid grooves that beg you to shake a hip, further animated by surging beats and Aliou Touré’s agile vocals. Most of these tunes are delivered in Songhai, though there’s the odd excursion into colonial French and, for the first time, English, in the shape of “Worry”. The song is aimed at the younger generation in Mali, in particular the need to keep self-possessed and hopeful amid so much civil turbulence. “There is a long way to go/There is a long journey,” sings Aliou Touré, more in encouragement than despair. “Keep fighting today.”

The more ingrained aspects of cultural tradition are addressed on several songs about women’s rights. “Gabi” (‘Strength’) calls for an end to arranged marriages, told from the viewpoint of a reluctant bride-to-be trying to reason with her parents: “Let me tell you that our generation is different from yours… Let me choose the one I want.” Similarly, the thunderous noise of “Badala” reflects its protagonist’s decision to break free from the patriarchy and shape her own future.

These themes feed into wider questions of national identity. The warrior meaning behind “Assadja” relates to a person’s willingness to contribute to society. “Fey Fey” (‘Division’) recognises the various factions looking to separate Mali, but urges ethnic communities to stick together, just as they have done for centuries: “Even at the cost of our blood or our soul/We are not going to give in to the division of Mali.” By the same token, “Barre” (‘Change’) finds Songhoy Blues concluding that the key to their country’s future lies with its youth. Corruption and injustice may have become the norm, but “change is essential for development”. Over loose funk licks and percussive harmonies, the band’s mission is unequivocal: “Youth! Let’s rise for this change!” As protest music goes, Songhoy Blues are intent on mobilising hearts and minds in their own inimitable way, through force of will and sheer exuberance.

uncut.co.uk 

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An exciting blend of Malian rhythms and rock‘n’roll, Optimisme is a reminder of music’s power to transcend both national and linguistic boundaries. It boasts searing guitar licks, powerhouse percussion and multiple languages, But Songhoy Blues are political to the marrow.

The record opens with a bang, thanks to the ferocious ‘Badala’, a healthy dose of hard rock that screams of a desire to break free from the constraints of oppression. The theme of striving for freedom is ingrained within the group, comprised of refugees from a country divided by war and ideology. It sets the stage for a record that embraces the high energy of live rock. The blues-inspired chord progressions are combined with infectious guitar solos, modernising the sounds of classic rock with a unique global influence. Every layer is tightly controlled, yet feels carefree in its enthralling exploration of a kind of modern punk.

Optimisme offers some moments of mild solace between its hardest-hitters, bringing together elements of psychedelic funk and desert blues. ‘Worry’, the only English track on the record, offers a message of hope – an important note, in a world that’s been consumed by existential anxiety. The vocals – showcasing a distinctly African style of singing, involving an astounding level of voice control – are entrancing no matter what language the lyrics are being sung in. The voice becomes yet another instrument within the band’s marvellously layered collection of eclectic sounds. Above all else, Optimisme feels urgent. Songhoy Blues’ unique desert blues herald a new future beyond the sonic constraints of the classics.

hotpress.com 

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If you come to the third Songhoy Blues record thinking this is going to be more of that instantly recognisable granola/Birkenstocks/family friendly ‘World Music’ you think you know from Paul Simon or the WOMAD festival, you might want to take a seat and strap in, because things are about to get really unstable really quickly: Optimisme is more Garageland than Graceland in its approach.

The aggressive drums that herald opening track Badala allude to Dave Grohl’s killer intro on Nirvana’s Stay Away, while the guitar riffs, steeped in the Western blues tradition of Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue, lash out with a malevolence reticent of teenage favourites like Rage Against The Machine and Papa Roach.

It’s not until the vocals come in, sung and screamed as they are in the group’s native Songhai, that you remember this quartet of young rock warriors hail from the scorched landscape of war stricken Mali, not the dank factories and garages of Detroit or Chicago. That exposure to conflict, impoverishment and discontent means the optimism the Timbuktu outfit infer in the title doesn’t appear to be present initially, especially in the song’s chorus, which roughly translates, as “We don’t give a shit”.

Their flammable classic debut five years ago was produced by Nick Zinner; he of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and to keep that indie rock light alive, they’ve recruited the dexterous hand of Chavez’s Matt Sweeney for this effort. It is the sound of turmoil and transitional surroundings. On tracks like Assadja, Sweeney has wrapped their signature urgent but elusively filigree guitar work around the foregrounded drums, letting them take root, rather than have them bouncing off one another.

Both the funk stomper Bon Bon and the highlife inspired Fey Fey feature jumpy guitar signatures that John Frusciante would be proud of, and the tracks Bare and Korfo foam and twist like dust storms carried across the breeze. Worry, the albums sole track sung in the English language, begins with the near saccharine positivity of early Beatles quickly giving way to a coda reminiscent of late ’70s John Lennon, a man at his most politically defiant, with the lyric morphing from “don’t worry, you’re going to be happy” to a pleading chorus of “Keep fighting today”.

It can be draining having to fight all the time and on Pour Toi and the album closer Kouma, the closest you’ll probably ever get to an acoustic number from Songhoy Blues, you start to see signs of them pursuing a little calm into their world, and all that frustration and exuberance that’s become their trademark, live and on record, is replaced with tiny sparks of hopefulness.

musicomh.com