Saturday, July 26, 2008

Musical Bridges I: African

A recent concert I attended by the sublime Malian singer Salif Keita reminded me of a number of incidents where my love and knowledge of music from around the world has provided opportunities for connections with strangers. People love to talk about their countries and cultures, especially when they're far from home, and they really appreciate Americans who know something about their homeland, especially since so many of us are culturally myopic at best, arrogant at worst. I'd like to share some of those musical connections over the next couple of months, starting with African music.

* * *

Taxi rides often provide opportunities to talk with people from other countries, as so many taxi drivers are immigrants. While the largest nationality represented in the New York cabbie community is Pakistani, there are a number of West African drivers. The Pakistanis are usually talking to each other on the phone, but the Africans are often listening to music. One night I was in a cab and there was some fabulous music playing. It sounded like Malian music, so I asked the cabbie, "Is this Malian music?"

The cabbie seemed surprised. "You know Malian music?"

"Yes," I said, "I love Ali Farka Toure, Habib Koite, Oumou Sangare, and especially Salif Keita."

"Salif Keita! I knew him in Mali. I knew him before he was anything!"

* * *

I had an Algerian cabbie on my way home from the airport after a trip to London in March of 2000. I had gone for an African music festival at the Barbican. One show featured Malian artists Ali Farka Toure, Afel Bocum and Habib Koite. The concert the following day was called "The Roots of Rai," rai being Algeria's pop-dance music. It featured the virtuosic Moroccan-Israeli singer Emil Zrihan as well as several older Algerian musicians, including Lili Boniche, Maurice El Medioni, and Cheikha Rimitti, the "grandmother of rai," who began her career in 1936.

When my cabbie told me he was from Algeria I told him about the concert. "Cheikha Rimitti!" he said, startled. "She's still alive?"

* * *

My knowledge of Malian music once gave me the opportunity to be a Good Samaritan. It happened on a train from Montreal to New York. I was coming home from the jazz festival. At one point in the ride I overheard the conductor talking to a man who didn't understand much English. There was a mix-up about luggage and connections. There was also some confusion about the names on the tickets for the man and his wife. It was in that context that I overheard the man's name: Diabate (pronounced Ja-BA-te). I was familiar with the name as it's common among the griot class in Mali and Guinea, and a number of Malian musicians are named Diabate. It was clear that the man was confused and distressed because he couldn't understand what the conductor was explaining. I decided to help after the conductor left. My French is not very good, but it'll do in a pinch. I explained that he had to pick up his luggage and change trains in New York before continuing on to Philadelphia. He was very thankful. It was then that I asked him if he was from Mali.

"Oui," he replied, and asked me how I knew. I told him that I guessed by his name, and that I loved Malian music. I then went back to my seat several rows back and picked up the book I was reading at the time, to show him. It was In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali, by Banning Eyre, co-producer of the Afropop Worldwide radio program. On the cover was a photo of Banning's teacher, the great guitarist Djelimady Tounkara of Le Super Rail Band de Bamako, the band that jump-started the careers of both Salif Keita and the Guinean singer Mory Kante. I told M. Diabate that this was the guitarist of The Rail Band. He nodded and smiled. "Ah, Oui, Le Rail Band!"

* * *

When I was in Lisbon one of my missions was to find recordings of Lusophone (i.e., Portuguese-language) African music, as I'd loved much of the music I'd heard from Cabo Verde, Mozambique, and especially Angola. At a CD shop in Lisbon I was thrilled to find a CD of a 'seventies album by Ruy Mingas, one of Angola's greatest songwriters as well as a diplomat. But when I took a day trip to the nearby beach resort of Estoril I really struck gold. I found a little shack by the beach where a Portuguese guy was selling cassettes of music from all over Lusophone Africa. I had asked if he had any music by Filipe Mukenga or Carlos Burity, both Angolan artists. He didn't have anything by either of them, but he was amazed that I knew the names. This guy was extremely knowledgeable about the music, and he played me a bunch of samples. I bought about twelve tapes from him. He was really animated when he talked about African music. "I was born in Angola," he told me at one point. "I really miss it," he said, with more than a touch of nostalgia, or saudade, that particularly Portuguese blend of memory, longing and sadness. "I'm European," he said, "but I'm African too."

* * *
For a good general introduction to Malian music, I'd recommend the compilation CD Mali Lolo! Stars of Mali, on the Smithsonian Folkways label. For Portuguese African music the best compilation is Afropea 3: Telling Stories to the Sea, on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label; it's out of print, but fairly easy to find.

* * *

Youtube Jukebox

(I'd love to hear your thoughts on the music. Please drop a comment.)

Salif Keita - Mandjou. From the Africa Live: Roll Back Malaria concert.

Salif Keita - Folon. A beautiful solo acoustic performance, from Martin Scorsese's "The Blues" series.

Super Rail Band - Mansa
. An audience-shot video, but with very good sound.

Boubacar Traore with Ali Farka Toure - Diarabi. Two of Mali's greatest musicians, filmed on location. In the 'sixties, Traore was one of the pioneers of a Malian pop music that didn't rely on Latin American influences (which dominated African music at the time).

Habib Koite and Bamada - Wassiye. In addition to Koite on guitar and vocals, the band features master musician Keletigui Diabate on both violin and balafon (his main instrument, a kind of marimba).

Tinariwen. How about some Tuareg trance-blues-rap from the deserts of northern Mali?

Oumou Sangare - Wayeina
. Mali's most celebrated female vocalist, she performs music of the country's southwestern Wassalou region.

Cheikha Rimitti - Saida
. A 1994 performance by the grandmother of rai. She died in 2006.

Maurice El Medioni & Lili Boniche. This meeting of the two elder Jewish Algerian musicians might be from the concert I attended.

Emil Zrihan
. Zrihan, originally from Morocco and now a cantor in Israel, keeps Judeo-Andalusian musical traditions alive.

Ruy Mingas - Quem Ta Gemendo. This is audio from an LP or a single, along with still images.

Bonga - Mona Ki Ngi Xica. This great Angolan singer will give you goosebumps.

Waldemar Bastos - Muxima
. This Angolan artist gained worldwide exposure through David Byrne's Luaka Bop label.

Djavan - Humbiumbi
. The Brazilian singer performs a lovely song by the Angolan singer Filipe Mukenga.

Salif Keita & Cesaria Evora - Yamore. Well, to wrap it all up here's where Mali meets Portuguese Africa as the "barefoot diva" of Cabo Verde joins Keita on his song from the album "Moffou."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, what a luscious sampler - better than food! Thanks Pete!!!

9:06 AM  

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