One of the things I most look forward to every summer is Africa Day in Prospect Park, an annual musical tribute to all-things-Africa that goes down in Prospect Park. For years, I'd made the two-train trek from Jersey City; now that I live only four blocks from the park, my commute time has been cut to ten minutes. When this year's Celebrate Brooklyn! schedule was posted, I immediately scrolled to this particular festivity, to be held on Saturday, July 18. When I saw Nigerian juju guitarist King Sunny Adé listed as headliner, my excitement grew tenfold.
Adé has had a long, if not somewhat unfortunate career (in terms of global outreach; in Nigeria, he is apparently close to a deity). After Bob Marley's death, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell attempted to sculpt him into the "next Marley," a world music star for the masses. Problem was (from a marketing perspective at least) that Adé was truly "world" music: he didn't sing in English. While he has no "Three Little Birds" to sing along to, that "hitch" in Blackwell's unsurprisingly shortsighted marketing plan didn't stop "Synchro System" from becoming a smash. While he may be overshadowed by Fela Kuti as the Nigerian musical superstar, his juju is much more subdued than Kuti's ingenious horn-led Afrobeat, leading dancing fans into trance by talking drums and bass, and that unique Hawaiian slide sound on the guitar, rather than Kuti's unforgettable hooks and sax appeal.
That said, this is as good as time as any to look into the African pile piling on my desk, as there are many mentioning. Juldeh Camara is not from Nigeria, but Gambia, and plays another unique instrument, the one-string fiddle known as the ritti. He met British blues guitarist Justin Adams a few years back, himself already touring the circuit on the strength of his own records, plus working with Robert Plant and Touareg musicians, and the two hit it off. Following up on their 2007 debut Soul Science, Tell No Lies (Real World) is their softer side, reminding one more of Ali Farka Toure's meandering landscapes than the brute force of a Salif Keita blowout. For this reason it took me longer to find myself inside of Tell No Lies; my own expectations were letting me down, not their obvious musicality. Then I got trapped inside "Futa Jalo," featuring sweet background vocals by Mim Suleiman, unapologetically hooked. And the pair does blaze: "Sahara" is a six+ minute scorcher, with Salah Dawson Miller coming up big on percussion, just like last album.
While not a huge Bela Fleck fan, he is a musician I've long respected, if not adored. Still, when I first read about his Africa Sessions project, Throw Down Your Heart (Rounder) -- which was also a tour -- my curiosity was piqued. The record blew out my head on first listen, when my fiancée bought it on iTunes before I had a chance to get it from the label. To say "all star" is an understatement and undermines the integrity of this diverse roster of artists: D'Gary, Afel Bocum, Vusi Mahlasela, Oumou Sangare, Richard Bona, Baaba Maal, Toumani Diabate, Bassekou Kouyate, Djelmady Tounkara -- it would take the status and stature of this banjo player to even pull such a thing off, not to mention even thinking up such an ambitious undertaking.
Yet pull it off Fleck does, eloquently, gracefully, beautifully. Treat it more like a compilation and you'll understand: there is no linear voyage to be found. The distance between D'Gary and Sangare itself is a bit of a hop; the next step, to the childlike Anania Ngoglia, requires even more of a step of faith. I commend Fleck for these eighteen efforts, and while I can't say every one hits my mark, again the simple scope of what he's accomplished is honorable, and eighty-percent of the time spot on.
Washington, DC-based Cheick Hamala Diabate also has an affinity for the banjo, this first cousin to the renowned Toumani and guitarist Djelimady Tounkara's nephew. It's an interesting image Diabate conjures: the cover of Ake Doni Doni (Grigri Discs) features the man Photoshop-juggling a kora, an n'goni, an acoustic guitar, and a banjo, with a motorcycle and the Capitol building, as well as the giant penis of Osiris (otherwise known as the Washington Monument), in the background. The first flap has the traditionally garbed singer/string player holding an n'goni while talking on a cell phone. In the background, a train arrives, not to scale. Probably a lot of symbolism I'm not exactly sure of; needless to say, once I got over this kitschy presentation, a remarkable album awaited my ears. Corey Harris, one of my favorite bluesmen, joins on vocals and slide guitar, and the entire cast of eighteen musicians help support the well-trained Diabate on his upbeat, uplifting sojourn on the ironically titled album translation: "Take it Slow." There is little slow on this very danceable recording.
Speaking of danceable, that term is trademarked by San Francisco Afrobeaters, Aphrodesia. Their fifth album, Precious Commodity (Shackrobeat Music), keeps the vibe of their previous Lagos by Bus going strong. It opens with what seems to be a short tribute to Antibalas's "Beaten Metal" before blaring into what I thought would be the title track, given the hook, but which is actually "Special Girl." While using the Fela-inspired form as a foundation, what I've always enjoyed about this eleven-piece is their sonic seeking: "By the Iron" goes its own way, one of their best guitar-driven tracks to date. Lara Maykovich's vocals just keep getting better. Founder Ezra Gale has created a band that feeds from its own recyclable and regenerative energy (their last album was inspired by a random trip to Nigeria which landed them next to Femi Kuti at the legendary Shrine). Their melodies are heartbreakingly gorgeous, and their pocket is deep and soulful. Precious, indeed.
I was caught in Lura's spell long ago -- her Cape Verdean heritage and Lisbon upbringing, the meeting ground of saudade with fado: unmatchable. You can quite literally hear strains of Cesaria Evora, as well as Mariza, in these songs, not to detract from Lura's style. These influences are hard to miss, but to deny Lura her due would be foolish. Yearning -- this is her culture's legacy, one being represented and maximized by this thirty-four-year-old torchbearer. Eclipse (4Q Entertainment) is that album you hear in a store, in a café, in a friend's apartment, and inquire about. You write down the name, take it home, fall in love with the piano on "Um Dia," feel your chest palpitate during "Libramor," laugh and long for the accordion flourishes on "Na Nha Rubera." Four albums in and Lura just keeps evolving.
While I've had my musical relationship with all the artists thus far, Guinea-Bissau's Kimi Djabaté is new to me. Leave it to Cumbancha's Discovery series to bring Karam into my life. Djabaté's family arrived in Guinea-Bissau via Mali, longtime breeding ground of griots, and the youngster picked up balafon at three and later kora -- both instruments, as well as his lush, spacious vocals, grabbing you right away on "Kodé." He gets upbeat -- "Mussolu," for one, is a great dance track -- but like Lura and Juldeh Camara, Djabaté, at least for now, finds his groove in the downtempo, in the softer, more feminine aspects of his music. Moments remind one of Habib Koite, such as the hook and backing female vocals (and even poetic interlude, a griot tradition) on "Mogolu."
Again, the comparisons only serve to offer the reader a platform with which to build their collection from. There is not one album here I wouldn't highly recommend. The influx of African music into America over the past decade has been a welcome one, and as the trend continues -- as African artists travel overseas and share their tradition, and as we journey into the continent to explore and swap -- we will become more and more enriched by these beautiful traditions, with these unforgettable songs. While I've never been down with the romantic image of any "motherland" -- all land is sacred, if you treat it as such -- there is something to the idea that African music has an ancient soul. You don't need to travel back in time to hear it; you can find it now, within these artists and many more, if you only open your ears and listen.