Vieux Farka Touré and more...
Vieux here proves himself a worthy successor to his father, Malian guitar god Ali Farka Touré, by doing the unthinkable: surpassing him. Forget Dave Matthews and the other guests, even though Derek Trucks’ chicken-scratch guitar on “Aigna” is an early highlight. What matters here is Vieux’s expressive singing and even more expressive guitar playing on both electric and acoustic instruments. There are instrumental workouts and on-target vocals, songs both downtempo and fast, longer tunes with multiple sections, all of it recorded with impeccable balance and precision. Africa has produced its share of terrific guitar albums in recent years (see Lobi Traore, directly below), but The Secret transcends that description to simply be a record of outstanding music.
“Africa’s Jimi Hendrix” left us with a gift for his last album, a stunner of guitar-centric African rock featuring standout tracks like “Saya” and “Jama”, all building to the ten-minute jam/head-twister “Ya Time”, which was probably the best song I heard all year, period. It’s hard to look past a masterpiece like that, but Bwati Kono isn’t a one-song album; it’s a terrific collection of tunes with a particular song that towers above the others. Traore got his Hendrix nickname through judicious use of guitar effects, and there are plenty of stompers here, but don’t overlook his top-notch songwriting; witness tunes like “Banan Ni” and “Bi Dongo Fa Ko”, which place the technical wizardry in service to simple melody and heartfelt singing. It’s a shame that Traore, who died in 2010, won’t leave us with more music, but no one can deny that he went out on a high note.
The Nagore Shrine in Tamil Nadu, India attracts Muslim pilgrims from all over the subcontinent, and its proximity to Hindu and Christian shrines ensures a vibrant, ecumenical mix of devotees. This record captures the pulsing, hypnotic rhythms of devotion with minimal, but well-placed, studio effects; discreet layers of synth and reverb help smooth some of the rougher edges, lending a dreamy quality to the tracks. With five of its eight tracks clocking in at over six minutes, Nagore Sessions aims for the hypnotic effect brought on by repetitive chanting, and succeeds more often than not. Standout tracks include the mesmerizing “Ya Allah” and “Allahu Allah”, as well as the epic “Mahane Mohabbat” that closes the album. A record to help us remember that devotion to art is, indeed, a form of worship.
Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree
In 1951, the U.S. folklorist Alan Lomax brought his microphone to Scotland and aired it around the byres and streets, recording the people there, their singing, their fiddling, their ballads, and their reels, a great mass of roughblooded voices rising forward out of cobble, pub, and grass. Those recordings, somewhere around 250 in all, were released afterwards on a sprawl of themed albums (Scottish Drinking and Pipe Songs, Women at Work in the Western Isles) and this 60th anniversary compilation is a concentration of that sprawl. It hugs the mob. Here are young children in a playground, here is a roaming old Traveller singing in Cant, here is a poet adapting a song to celebrate a revolutionary socialist leader who has earned his respect. The children must be old now, and the Traveller probably dead. The poet died in 2002. But they lived: listen.
Staring into the Sun
Every album is a small sampling of a much larger universe of sound, the band’s universe, the genre’s universe: some other cosmos. It’s an ordinary idea, but one that I often manage to ignore until an album like this forces it into the foreground. I know that the person who made the recordings went to the musicians briefly, lingered, and then left, and it reminds me that I do the same thing at an even greater remove. Sun‘s tip-of-the-iceberg sampling comes from a U.S. filmmaker who travelled from one settlement to another around the Ethiopian countryside, recording different groups of people as she went. Part of the pleasure for me comes from the divergences between tracks, the whooping hypnotic Dirashe panpipes in one song, the growling Habesha singer in another, the variety of hiss, groan, trill, and the heave of physical activity in “Borana Singing Wells”. A core of sameness, but absolute variation.