Music

Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra: Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra

Photo: Bernard Benant

Original Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and Haiti's finest musicians come together to create tropical psychedelia with a space-age vibe.


Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra

Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra

Label: Glitterbeat
US Release Date: 2016-06-24
UK Release Date: 2016-06-24
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Only one absolute exists in music: there is no beat so good that Tony Allen can't make it better. Pushing 80 and in no way slowing down, the last few years have seen the original master drummer and Afrobeat founder release another of his own solo albums while popping up on albums with artists located everywhere from London to Rio. Now, he's crossed the Atlantic once again, playing with musicians from all over Haiti, including members of top local groups like Lakou Mizik and the Yizra'El Band.

By all accounts, the group's evolution has been singularly marked by chaos. Initially put together for a single public performance at a festival in Port-au-Prince after mere days of rehearsing, a smoke grenade kept them from going onstage. When they rescheduled for a later performance, their recording equipment failed. The music on Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra's eponymous album comes from mixes of rehearsal tracks (and a few re-recordings to patch them together), where the chaos has been honed and polished into perfect psychedelic jewels.

Heat and life radiate like steam from each track. More than the sum of its parts, the Orchestra puts together swirling electronics, Tony Allen's unstoppable beats, and hypnotic Haitian melodies to make magic from another world altogether.

Most songs are sung by groups, exuberant traditional elements of tracks that occasionally veer toward the futuristic. In terms of these vocals, one track stands head and shoulders above the rest: "Pa Bat Kòw", where the usual chorus serves as a backup to two alternating lead performers: Yizra'El members Zikiki and Mirla Samuel Pierre, who switch off between languid, soulful lines and fiery counterpoints. Beneath them flows steady drums and keys, giving the soloists a full sandbox in which to build off of each other.

Building seems to be the Orchestra's method of choice throughout the album; no matter what their starting point, they always end up with more energy five minutes later, whether on midtempo tracks like "Chay La Lou", which sounds like it belongs in a neon-lit nightclub too cool for a crowd, faster tracks like the electro-Caribbean funk of "Bade Zile", or even the slowest track, closer "Mon Ami Tezin", a zero-gravity bolero with swaying, mournful song and space-age organ.

Genre-bending becomes a thing of the past. Here, the Orchestra obliterates the lines between cultures and styles. Few melodies can be traced strictly to Haitian traditions or Afrobeat; Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra bears almost no resemblance to Lakou Mizik's debut album from earlier this year, and it adds an entire new color to Tony Allen's well-varied repertoire.

Mostly upbeat and all outside the box, everything about Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra is brand new. What was a geographically unfeasible grouping came together for a brief time, a perfect storm captured in spite of every kind of disruption. Electronic, Afrobeat, Caribbean traditional music, and even acoustic folk and cumbia sounds make appearances. As much as it leaves you wanting more, this album is the epitome of quality over quantity; how could anything else be more than filler?

It's no surprise that a group with Tony Allen delivers, and that's the only obvious thing about this album. Everything else is a revelation.

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There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

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8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

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7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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