Kandia Kouyate - "Biriko", Stern's Music

Tartit - "Ichichila", Network

Abyssinia Infinite - "Zion Roots", Network

Africa has produced hundreds of outstanding vocalists. The only problem is western ears are not always open to them. I mean, how many radio stations do you know in your area that regularly feature any sort of world programming? [Well, I personally know of 4 in my area, but I guess I can consider myself blessed.] Consider this a condensed trip to two countries on the Mother continent: Mali and Ethiopia.

Kandia Kouyate is hailed as Mali's greatest living female singer. Everyone claims she was born to sing, and you know what, I think they're right. In her youth, she was called "la dangereuse" as many audience members fell into a trance when hearing her voice. During her concerts, they seemed to be nailed to the ground. These are high compliments for someone whose voice is considered a national treasure in Mali. [Remember that Mali is already blessed with other outstanding treasures: Oumou Sangare, Sali Sidibe and Mah Damba.] Coming from the Mandinka tradition, Kandia's voice is barren, joyful and ecstatic all in a span of a single song. She uses back-up vocalists effectively and most of the tracks on "Biriko" sound almost acapella, though that's not entirely true as a whole orchestra of instruments is used [everything from guitars, African flutes, kora, ngoni, accordion, balafon, trumpet, and a multitude of various percussive instruments kirin, dounoumba, etc]. The good news is the instrumentation never gets in the way of Kandia's soaring vocals. They sound as if she was a mile high in the clouds preaching some sort of a sermon down to us mere mortals. "Biriko" is a stand-out release from a singer whose glories should be sung around the world.

Tartit is a vocal quartet from Mali that accentuates the use of minimal instrumentation but highlight the use of the human voice. Nearly acapella, "Ichichila" is a CD that strives to preserve the treasure that is the music of Northern Mali. The instruments used here are the tinde [which are played only by women]. These are made from small wooden mortars that women use to grind grains and which are covered by goatskin. Their voices when sung in unison [and that's the only way they're sung] are heavenly bliss. The women have a much more powering stance compared to that of the men who appear to play second fiddle. While the women play the tinde, only the men are allowed to play the tehardent which is a three stringed lute and an ancestor of the banjo. The wonderful thing about this record is how nobody gets in each other's way. The women sing in unison, while the men take a background role and all is fair. Nobody is stepping on anyone's toes. Though individual songs have their peaks, for the most part, this record is somewhat subdued and quiet. I don't know whether this relaxing mode is caused by years of desert life, but it definitely has a stark beauty to it. It's safe to mark "Ichichila" as a mandatory purchase next time you're at a good record store.

Finally we get to what some would tend to call "raped" world music. Why do I use a strong term like that? Well, for starters when a western producer [in this case, Bill Laswell] enters the studio with someone from a world he may not be sensitive to, the term rape would to some be appropriate. While one party [the producer] is jumping at the chance to work with an individual, the other party [the vocalist] may not know all the pit falls of this relationship. I remember a story Bill Laswell once told me about how Johnny Lydon did not want to ever work with him after he produced PIL's "Album". Why? Johnny felt that Bill had over-produced it and brought in all of his "own" players, replacing the PIL sound with a Laswell sound. I'm happy to report; this time around Bill did not impose himself on anyone. In fact, Abyssinia Infinite's CD "Zion Roots" is a blast of purity coming straight from Ethiopia. What grabbed me from the outset was how little interference there is from Bill Laswell and the crew. In fact, other than adding Tony Cedras on accordion and acoustic guitar, Senegalese percussionist Aiyb Dieng and Laswell himself on acoustic guitars and keyboards, the rest of the cast is from Ethiopia, thus lending the record some authenticity. The star of the show is vocalist Ehigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw. With her toned-down but often-times authentically shattering vocals, the tone is set for music that is as contemplative as it is engaging. What complements her voice is the traditional instrumentation: kirar [also known as King David's harp], washint [bamboo flute] and some tabla along with the saxophone. Once of all of these elements are gathered together, we get a solid and an almost trance-like recording. This is one of these releases that are best left on auto-repeat. You're bound to find new details with each listen. The fact that "Zion Roots" is essential listening need not be repeated.

Tom Sekowski

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