Friday, December 5, 2008
Another thing was that I started a post on the Gnawa and realized I knew next to nothing about them that couldn't be found in liner notes or on the web. From my point of view, if you're gonna post something, go ahead and post something. So, I bought a book on the Gnawa, and, let me tell you, I ain't read it yet. And I'm gonna, but, hey, the Gnawa ain't goin' nowhere.
Africa, however, waits for no man. I re-upped BBC's Story of Africa special here:
Back soon, I hope. Happy Holidays.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Guess I’ve been sawing on about the blues in this blog for awhile, but it’s by design.“When I first heard John Lee Hooker – it was in 1967, when a student friend brought back records from Paris – I thought he was an artist from my country,” Malian singer/guitarist, Ali “Farka” Touré told Eliane Azoulay writing for Calao in 1992. “Then I learned he was American, and then I thought he had stolen our music. In fact what in the West they call ‘blues’ is pure Tamasheq (a branch of the Touareg nomads of the
The Touareg occupy a complicated space in African history. Allegedly descended from the Berbers of Northern Africa, they are traditionally guides along the Saharan trade routes that connect sub-Saharan
The Mande people of western Africa, south of the Sahara founded three great empires along the Niger River, in areas now occupied by the parts of Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Niger and Burkina Faso. The Ghana Empire, famous for its gold and the worship of a serpent god living in the
Like other music from the grasslands that stretch from the southern border of the
It’s an accident of history that in
Bambana and Touareg links here.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
I’m working on the next post, which is on the Gnawa in
It looks like in my absence links for The Story of Africa went dead, so I’m re-upping those as we speak. It also looks like Otha Turner benefited from a burst of holiday interest; big up to him.
So, expect some full on groovy Gnawa jams before January becomes February. Thanks for hanging tight!
Friday, December 28, 2007
You Tube is a fricking cabinet of wonders. In the last year, I’ve seen reruns of Nigerian sitcoms (thanks to the redoubtable Uchenna Chi at With Comb & Razor); Camarón, the Spanish feature-length biopic of Spanish flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla; more vintage footage of Puerto Rican and Cuban music than my eyes can stay focused for.
I’ve also seen this:
For folks who would rather skip ahead to the point of this post, the above video shows you a Fulani griot in traditional garb stalking an Italian stage with an acoustic guitar, while a handful of dudes in boubous kick up a loose and rollicking rhythm behind him. This was Afrissippi doing "Bafal" at last summer's Rootsway festival in Parma.
Afrissippi's goal, according to their guitarist Eric Deaton, is "preserving and promoting the West African-MS (Mississippi) continuum. Anything we do in the future will be built around that. I
wouldn't call it an 'experiment'. It's a natural fusion of musical traditions that remain powerfully
connected despite being isolated from each other for centuries." The band formed in Oxford, Miss., during the summer of 2003, when local club owner introduced Eric -- who had played bass and guitar for Hill Country blues stalwarts R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough among others -- and Guelel Kumba, a singer-songwriter from Senegal, who played folk music on an acoustic guitar. As the story goes, Guelel played Eric a song called "Nduumandii" and Eric realized it was the spitting-sonic-image of "Keep Your Hands Off That Girl" by Junior Kimbrough. The band coalesced around Guelel, Eric and 60s iconoclast/poet/MC5 manager John Sinclair, who reportedly read poems about the African diaspora at early live shows. Since then they've been refining their sound (which rarely seems to include Sinclair's poetry), mapping out the similarities between West African scales and rhythms and those Eric learned in Northern Mississippi. This made for neat tricks on their first record, Fulani Journey, where Afrissippi performs "Nduumandii/Hands Off That Girl" (Guelel singing the former while the band plays the latter) and "Ngol Jimol," a similarly seamless fusion of Guelel's Fulani melody and R.L. Burnisde's evergreen "Jumper On The Line." The band has been touring over the last year and recently finished recording its second album. Things seem to be looking up for them.
If you've read the other entries in this blog, then none of this news, really, and I don't think I've said in black-and-white why you should care about this band. Some of you may be hooked already, and cheers. I'm one of you. Someone taps me on the shoulder and says, "I have an album by folks who think American folk music and African folk music have some shit in common..." and I'm begging for the privilege of buying said album, sound-unheard, before he even shows me the cover (which will straight-up sport a Photoshop album cover of a dude with a polo shirt, a synthesizer and a smile every single time -- Photoshop, you owe me a Christmas basket and a letter of apology). Others of you are perhaps more skeptical, and cheers. I'm working on becoming one of you, though I suspect I'm still several thousand dollars worth of cheesed-out Photoshop albums away from you yet. The beauty of this blog is that I've been there, I've purchased the Tajikistanian-wedding-music-on-Casio 2-fer and, like Minesweeper, I can tell you where it's safe to walk. Afrissippi is the real deal, so walk this way.
The funny thing about the blues is that people think it's funny at all. Cuz it ain't, cuz. I suppose it hasn't dated well. The stereotype is that it is either a) music about the incidental pain of being poor and unhappy, played by smiling men with expensive guitars, or b) the domain of double-jointed white guitar wizards who discuss minutely the fingerpicking techniques of black guitar wizards that were dead before their parents were born. None of this winds up sounding very soulful, or even accessible -- and attempts to pull it in either direction usually wind up sounding like novelty songs (which is how we gets blues about car payments.) When folks first started playing this music, it must have been something like calypso was in Trinidad -- a way to get the word out about events or people. By the time it made its way to record, it was something else, something wittier, meaner, more lonely; and it changed everything about the way we do music in this country. It gave us the harmonic structure for our popular music (the I-IV-V chord changes), pentatonic scales for our melodies and improvisations, gave us a way to sing about what's on our minds in our own voices. It did these things and more besides, but the key is that it became the first major U.S. American music, and it was at least half African. With its descending legato vocal melodies, vamping polyrhythmic shuffle and pentatonic instrumental runs, you could argue that it's African all the way -- except it's not. Not all of it anyway. The closest you get is in the work of John Lee Hooker, Robert Pete Williams (some would argue), and the good people of the Mississippi Hill Country. So this is where Afrissippi steps in.
Afrissippi's argument is that the blues is implicitly an African music. Afrissippi is literally a West African griot singing his songs while a group of blues musicians play music from deepest Mississippi and there are no glitches. Afrissippi says that there was enough of Africa encoded into the DNA of the Hill Country blues style that it could work as an actual African music for African songs with West African lyrics and melodies. They're a tight band with a genuine understanding of what they're doing, and their fusion is so seamless it's hard to tell where the African music stops and the blues begin. Which, I suppose, is the point. But even this is just an academic exercise if the fusion is boring. It's not. The appeal of the band is not just that they show how two supposedly unlike things are related, it's that they affect this fusion in order to play great music. Some of their songs are delicate, wherein Guelel's guitar is essentially a kora backing up his nimble falsetto, but others are piledrivers with huge, droning riffs and stinging solos.
Below are some links to live shows posted on www.archive.org. They don't include set lists, so here are the songs know. If anyone else can fill in the gaps your help would be appreciated.
Live at Martin's, Jackson, MS - September 15, 2006
7. Ngoppe Kam Mi Yaha
Live at the Thirsty Hippo, Hattiesburg, MS - March 22, 2007
3. Ngoppe Kam Mi Yaha
3. Ngol Jimol
4. Ayo Leele
5. Face Full of Frown
6. Gonna Be Trouble Here
7. What Do You Know About Love
Saturday, December 15, 2007
In 2001, the beeb came out with a 24(!) part radio series on the history of Africa . Each episode is around 30 minutes long. You can stream it here, but if you're looking for something a little more portable...
|The Story of Africa, Part One: Origins|
|The Story of Africa, Part Two: Africa and the Nile Valley|
|The Story of Africa, Part Three: The Berbers |
|The Story of Africa, Part Four: Bantu Migration|
|The Story of Africa, Part Five: Traditional Religion|
|The Story of Africa, Part Six: The Coming of Christianity|
|The Story of Africa, Part Seven: The Spread of Islam|
|The Story of Africa, Part Eight: The Ancient Kingdom of Ghana|
|The Story of Africa, Part Nine: Empires of Mali and Songhai|
|The Story of Africa, Part Ten: The Swahili Coast|
|The Story of Africa, Part Eleven: Kongo and the Great Zimbabwe|
|The Story of Africa, Part Twelve: The Art of Ife and Benin|
|The Story of Africa, Part Thirteen: Hausa City States|
|The Story of Africa, Part Fourteen: The Roots of Slavery|
|The Story of Africa, Part Fifteen: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade|
|The Story of Africa, Part Sixteen: East Africa Slavery|
|The Story of Africa, Part Seventeen: Africa On The Eve of Colonialism|
|The Story of Africa, Part Eighteen: The Mfecane|
|The Story of Africa, Part Nineteen: Partition and Resistance|
|The Story of Africa, Part Twenty: Life Under Colonialism|
|The Story of Africa, Part Twenty-One: Challenges to Colonialism|
|The Story of Africa, Part Twenty-Two: Independence|
|The Story of Africa, Part Twenty-Three: Apartheid|
|The Story of Africa, Part Twenty-Four: The Nation State |
If anyone knows of a place to buy this, holla atcha boy. This is an Audacity rip off RealPlayer streams, and episode 6 is from gully site in the depths of the Internet -- sounds like it's coming off a boombox -- but I can't figure out any other way to hear this stuff without sitting at my computer for 12 hours straight.
Saturday, December 8, 2007
Afrissippi guitarist Eric Deaton recalls wandering into Otha Turner’s backyard sometime in the late 1990s and seeing the man of the house flanked by Africans. Eric admits surprise at seeing this nonagenarian fife player going full blast in the midst of an African drum circle suddenly transported to the depths of rural north central Mississippi; but then the Hill Country, where the late Otha made his home, is a good place for surprises.
Remote and insular, the Hills are one of the few highlands areas in the U.S. where the population is predominantly African-American. As with any highlands area in the southeast, the topography of the Hills helps define the culture of its residents. After abolition (and, one hopes, before it) African-Americans took advantage of its inaccessibility to start lives off the plantations of the Delta and the rest of the state. There, farmers cropped their own land and enjoyed their own culture, which retained many African elements that are still prevalent that community. The most renowned of these is surely the fife-and-drum music of the old plantation days, a prominent feature of Otha Turner’s annual picnics, but the area is also famous for a particularly African strain of blues. This musical affinity with the Motherland doesn’t make it completely inconceivable that a troop of African musicians would materialize in the backyard of a Hill Country farmer, but Eric Deaton was still sufficiently impressed enough to turn to Luther Dickenson of the North Mississippi All Stars, who was also in attendance, and ask just what in the sweet bejeezus was up at Otha’s.
Luther broke things down for his fellow guitarist, and Eric later came to understand that he was actually walking in on a recording session for what became From Senegal to Senatobia (see last post). Luther played on the album and Eric did not, though Eric would later make an even more mind-boggling Motherland Connection with Afrissippi. But before we can talk about that, we need to talk about Junior Kimbrough.
Suffused as it is with such a sinister mystique and populated with such shadowy characters, the story of the blues in the 20th century almost collapses under the weight of its own mythology. With so little information about bluesmen of yore to go on, when discussing them as people we either reconstruct their personalities from mundane documents (birth certificates, death certificates, worm-eaten photographs) or we conjure images of them from their wicked awesome lyrics about pain and mojo. If the choice is between finding the truth and finding the legend, the blues fan will always find the legend. The blues is dark and mysterious and may have been the only music that could support a character like Junior who came of age in the era of jet engines and television, but whose mystique is just as impenetrable as the hoary old guys who only exist on 78s.
You can see Junior in his prime, before a debilitating stroke in the early 90s, on Robert Mugge’s Deep Blues, his fingers executing dreamy pentatonic runs on the treble strings while his eyes wander around the room like he’s scanning the sky for satellites. He’s performing “All Night Long” (listed on the soundtrack as “Jr.’s Blues”), the title track of his debut album just two years later. Drummer Calvin Jackson is playing in a style adapted from the martial funkiness of the local fife-and-drum corps and Junior, as he plays the melody, thumb-picks a drone on the bass strings of his guitar.
Junior and his longtime friend R.L. Burnside were the heirs to a decades-old blues tradition whose earliest known practitioners – Mississippi Fred McDowell, Ranie Burnette, Eli Green – established a droning and percussive style of blues that built complex grooves around single chords and punctuated melodies with slashing bottleneck glissandos. Hill Country blues largely ignores the 12-bar blues form or I-IV-V chord progressions that has defined blues composition since W.C. Handy started arranging the music in the 1910s. This tradition, with its thumping, gnarly approach to what is in 2007 considered lite beer music for finger-poppin’ white dudes, never sounds more African than in the hands of Junior or R.L., whose driving, buzzing 1969 recording of “Jumper On The Line” from My Black Name A-Ringin’ could have come from the southern borders of the Sahara.
Even to those who knew him, Junior was a deeply enigmatic man. Like other Hill Country musicians of his generation, Junior seems to have cut his teeth on the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker; but toward the end of the ’50s (according to a feature in SPIN that I dimly remember) he decided to do things his own way. The first example of his style is a cover of Lowell Fulsom’s “Tramp,” recorded as a 45 for the Holiday Inn label in the mid 1960s. Over the years he developed a unique repertoire of haunting and libidinous songs, all based on pentatonic melodies and one-chord riffs played in the rolling, darkly sonorous style that was his trademark. By the time he recorded his first full (known) session for High Water in the early 1980s, he had perfected a sound that seemed to owe no allegiance to any extant American music; everything seemed to be coming from inside his own head. He once told Eric Deaton, who played in his band the Soul Blues Boys as a young man in the mid 1990s, that his songs came to him in his dreams.
Adding to Junior’s mystique is that his style does seem to have antecedents, but they’re all West African. Eric Deaton hears similarities between the Malian blues of Ali Farka Toure, the folk songs of the Fulani and the night ritual suites of the Gnawa of Marrakesh (themselves West Africans in exile). Afrissippi, the band Eric plays guitar for, began when club owner and musician Chad Henson introduced Eric and Guelel Kumba, a musician from Senegal’s griot caste, in Oxford, MS. Guelel played Eric a Fulani folk song called “Nduumandii” and Eric realized it was essentially Junior’s “Keep Your Hands Off That Girl” originally recorded in 1982 in Holly Springs, MS, a long way from Dakar.
Junior played his own music in his own club, which, by all accounts, was an oasis of good vibes in the Hill Country. A small wooden building on a concrete foundation just off Highway 4 in Marshall County, MS, Larry Brown, writing in the liner notes for Junior’s sophomore effort Sad Days, Lonely Nights, described Junior’s club as looking “more like a shrine than anything else.” Almost as famous as the man who made it, Junior’s club burnt down under mysterious circumstances in the early 2000s. If you find yourself on Highway 4, you can still see its foundation just off the shoulder of the road. You’ll see a tree there that somehow escaped the fire, and its branches will be covered in bottles. A picture of the tree is at the beginning of this post.
Get a Junior Kimbrough mix here and here.
Get a Hill Country mix here and here.
Have a good Saturday night.
Sunday, December 2, 2007
One day someone smarter than me should sit down and lay it out plain about African-American music in the 18th century: What was going on? The music that we folks in the western hemisphere call “traditional” generally seems to date from the 19th century (or later), so it’s hard to guess what the roots of our traditional music sounded like, but I’m here to posit that 18th century roots music was pretty hot.
Take a look at the musical history of the Caribbean and you find a striking number of similarities. The Africans there tended to get down in the same ways – or at least using the same tools – from island to island. Every island had some combination of drums (many of which were improvised; like the alluringly named “boom pipe” of the Anglophone Caribbean), maracas (called shak-shaks on many Anglophone islands and chakchaks on the Francophone ones), scrapers, triangles (called cling-a-chings, tingtings, etc.), melodic wind instruments like fifes, pennywhistles, and flutes and/or stringed instruments like the fiddle, banjo, guitar, ukulele or cuatro (which is primarily identified with Puerto Rico, but was present in both the Spanish and the British Antilles) among others. This is not the place for a reading of Caribbean musical history (though wikipedia totally is, if you’ve got a few hours to kill), but the similarities between the music on these islands that developed during a time when African adults weren’t even allowed to leave their own plantations, much less pop over to Montserrat from Martinique to see what was doing musically, are amazing and totally worth checking out. The impression that you walk away with was that the early music made by Africans in the New World was still very African indeed. Presumably, slavery shoe-horned the myriad musical traditions of West Africa together to make something new but still familiar enough that it could give birth to music in Trinidad and Tobago (calypso), Jamaica (mento), Antigua and Barbuda (benna), the Bahamas (goombay), the Virgin Islands (quelbe) and Barbados (Barbadian calypso) that were sonic kissin' cousins and used many of the same instruments.
In the U.S. the oldest hot music (or hottest old music) must surely be the fife-and-drum corps of the Mississippi Hill Country. Mississippi farmer Otha Turner, f-n-d’s most visible exponent in the 20th century, made his own fifes by selecting lengths of bamboo and boring them out with a red hot poker. He made the soundholes on his instruments by licking his fingers and arranging them on the flute in a position that felt right (!), then burning holes on the spit marks – a chicken-or-egg conundrum that demands tradition account for itself in this process. (I mean, how did he know where to put his fingers so that they felt right in the first place? Who was the first guy that decided where your fingers should go?) In a fife and drum corps, Otha and other blowers of the fife carry the melody of a song, while a bass drummer and at least one snare drummer kick up an accented martial rhythm behind him. Alan Lomax, who first recorded this tradition when he came across Hill Country multi-instrumentalist Sid Hemphill in the early 1940s, theorized the music dated from the 18th century. From the liner notes to Sounds of the South:
"Thomas Jefferson’s body-servant formed a fife and drum 'combo' with his best friend the day the Revolutionary War broke out, probably to play the patriotic tunes of the day….Today this combination dominates the dance music of Anguilla and Nevis in the West Indies."
(You also hear this tradition, or something like it, in the Tuk ensembles of Barbados. They use a tin whistle rather than a fife. Check out Google video for a 1/2 hour documentary on the Landship. Eye-opening.)
Ethnomusicologists (and dudes like them) couldn’t get enough of bossy, Budwesier drinking, filterless cigarette smoking Otha Turner, who hosted academics and documentary makers until his death at 95. He appeared on any number of compilations for labels like Rounder (Afro-American Folk Music from Tate and Panola Counties) and Evidence (Living Country Blues) before debuting a full-length under his own name in 1997 with Everybody Hollerin’ Goat (Birdman), a set of recordings made over several years at his annual picnics. You can find him in any number of documentaries as well. (Dig him in this 10 minute film on FolkStreams.net here).
Ethnomusicology and Otha Turner met head on in the late 1990s with From Senegal to Senatobia, credited to Otha Turner and the Afrossippi Allstars. In an attempt to give an Old World context to this most African of U.S. musics, Minnesotan college student and drummer Matt Rappaport brought a Senegalese kora player and several African percussionists (living in Chicago) to play with Otha and his drum corps.
African-American music is a fusion of African and European elements, and I think that fusion has evolved in a more-or-less organic way since The Day. For my money, cross-cultural experiments like this one generally end in tears. They leave me with the impression that the idea man behind the project wants to devolve the music; sort of “un-fuse” it so that you’re left with its constituent elements, making it easier to categorize. Not so with this album (or the even more ambitious Fulani Journey album by Afrissippi – more on it later). I suppose the best one can hope for in an album like this is that everything sounds natural together, that these musicians, whose common culture separated 400 years and 4,662 miles (thank you, this site) ago don’t screw things up; you know, no one loses the groove or, worse, bumps into the kora and loses an eye. What’s so great about this album is that adding all these African elements to the fife and drum combo seems to invigorate it. It seems like polyrhythmic djembe ensembles should have been in attendance at every Tate County, Miss., country picnic from Day 1.
Having been around since the Revolutionary War (if you’re smoking what Lomax is rolling) the fife and drum sound is pretty well-established. Whether you love it or not (and I love it – just sayin’) you know what you’re in for when you put a fife and drum side on the box: Big head-bobbing beats on the bass drum, breathy harmonics from the cane fife, snappy ass-twitching action from the snare drums. Maybe someone will clap. It’s a tried and true formula, refined over the entire lifespan of the United States, and not much in vogue among the young folks. This record shows what the possibilities for the music actually are. That doesn’t just mean that From Senegal proves that a cane fife sounds sweet over a djun djun, or even that the fife should have been played over a djun djun all along, which often seems to be the end goal of projects like this. It means that the cultures that produced the fife and the djun djun are still complimentary. Would an Antiguan cling-a-ching player have felt at home in a Dominican bélé ensemble in 1776? This record says yes.
They don’t give the kora player much, but the beats is large. Here or here.
From Senegal to Senatobia (2000)
Otha Turner & the Afrossippi Allstars
Recorded in 1999 at Otha Turner’s farm and Zebra Ranch Studios
Otha Turner – fife, vocals
Morikeba Kouyate – kora
Sharde Evans – fife
Luther Dickinson – bottleneck guitar
Musa Sutton, Manu Walton, Abe Young, R.L. Boyce, Bernice T. Evans, Rodney Evans, Andre Evans, K.K. Freeman, Matthew Rappaport – snare drums, bass drums, djembe, djun djun, sangban, kenkeni, bells, shakers, tambourines