After a chance meeting at a German airport, Israeli pop vocalist and pianist Idan Raichel would never have guessed that he'd record an album with the son of his musical idols, the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré. While Vieux Farka Touré initially thought of the thin, dreadlocked fan as a "crazy hippie," they stayed in touch. Raichel is a household name in his homeland, due to his nonpartisan blending of Jewish and Muslim artists on record and stage. When he was asked to curate a series at the Tel Aviv Opera House, his first call went to the young African Muslim. The day after the concert, Raichel proposed that the men jam. Joined by Israeli bassist Yossi Fine, who had produced Touré's Fondo and was a mentor to Raichel, and calabash player Soulemayne Kane, the quartet spent three hours inside of a small room. The Tel Aviv Session (Cumbancha) is the unintended consequence of that afternoon. The album combines Touré's growing six-string mastery with Raichel's easeful, dynamic piano playing. I've heard unreleased demos that Raichel created that were powerfully emotive, a striking contrast to the glossy pop albums he's spent the last decade producing. It's refreshing to hear him this raw over Fine's bass and the quick pace of Kane's percussion.
Familiar territory is covered in an innovative fashion. "Kfar" begins with the same chords as "All the Same," a previous collaboration between Touré and Dave Matthews. An overdub by banjo-sounding tar (long-necked lute) player Yankele Segal adds a Persian, almost bluegrass, feel behind Raichel's restrained performance. Mark Eliyahu sprinkles the kamenche (spiked fiddle) into the stunning closer, "Alem," recalling another memorable improvisation: Iranian kamenche player Kayhan Kalhor's fantastic album, The Wind, recorded with two Turkish baglama players. And Ethiopian vocalist Cabra Casey's effervescent lyricism offers "Ane Nahatka" a beautiful lift. Yet the greatest credit is due to the four men who stepped inside of that studio to do what musicians do: execute their craft so diligently and passionately that spontaneous improving results in rich and symbolic gestures of art. For in a contested land there was no strife between Muslim and Jew, and their example is certain to inspire for some time to come.
Seeds (SomeOthaShip Connect) is the album that Erykah Badu has been waiting years to make. Only she didn't make it -- Georgia Anne Muldrow is the voice behind this masterpiece. Muldrow has been lying under the radar since 2006, churning out classic throwback soul track by track. The Badu citation is not in vain; Muldrow's voice helped her to paint iconic imagery on the singer's last two records. Joining forces with fellow Californian Madlib, Muldrow creates a blistering headnod to analog R&B and post-Motown inventiveness. Even the album cover, with Muldrow in regal Alice Coltrane pose, is indicative of her turning back: muted drumbeats with crisp hats, steady sonar bass, tight brass and poetic wizardry. Not that the woman isn't modern, as when she tells us to Google "Kali Yuga," her brilliant, funky reworking of "Hallelujah." Invoking the mythological dark age according to Indian numerology, the story goes that we've been living the Kali Yuga for most of human evolution. According to this ancient tenet, humans were born into dark times. Muldrow's prescription proves the most potent: shake it like you can lose it at any time.
Speaking of throwbacks, here's a pair that has been bumping on my Bose: Sparrowmania! (Strut) and Ndigal (Teranga Beat). The first, you might have guessed, refers to Mighty Sparrow, inarguably calypso's greatest champion. Born in Grenada with the even more incredible name of Slinger Francisco, Sparrow recorded over 300 albums and won so many calypso contests that it was easier to play dead than compete. Covering the years 1962-74, these 29 gems are true throwbacks -- his version of "Try A Little Tenderness" is a fiery example of Caribbean greats turning to American soul for inspiration. He didn't have Otis's voice, but Otis didn't have his funk either. Tracks like "Fool Fool Fool" and "Bongo" hold their own with any '60s R&B cuts, though I lean towards his storytelling journey on the seven-minute "The Slave." Sparrow is one of those seminal artists who have not gotten his proper due; perhaps a Broadway play on par with the exceptional "Fela!" will place the man's name on the many tongues he deserves.
Funky is an understatement when discussing Karantamba's previously unreleased album from 1984, Ndigal. During a time when too many African bands were turning to the cheap labor of drum machines, the Sene-Gambia-based Bai Janha chose to shred his six-string atop live percussion and drums. Recorded in Senegal, Ndigal is not much different than what was coming out of that country (or Nigeria for that matter) a decade prior; you can hear the emerging mbalax mourning in his voice over "Sama Yai." It is the guitar playing over those dance-inducing rhythms that really stand out. Over the last few years there has been a treasure of releases from yesteryear Africa, and this gorgeous ten-track record holds its weight amongst the ever more crowded field.