Friday, February 24, 2012

Tinariwen "The Radio Tisdas Sessions" (4*)

It was close to twenty years from Tinariwen's origins in a Libyan guerilla camp to their emergence as a musical force at the first Festival in the Desert in 2001, but the gestation period comes no surprise if you're aware of the background to a remarkable story.

Recorded at a Toureg (actually, they're Kel Tamashek, or speakers of Tamashek) radio station in Kidal, Mali, The Radio Tisdas Sessions might be the first official album in the western sense by Tinariwen (original band name Taghreft Tinariwen, or edification of the lands) but it came after a series of cassette recordings distributed among Berber nomads and pastoralists in southern Algeria, northern Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso and the Libyan desert who had serious issues with various national governments.

It has been a long struggle for the nomads of the Sahara, an endangered culture determined to survive despite traditional rivalries, ethnic cleansing, public executions, drought, exile, armed rebellion and guerilla warfare. From the time the band coalesced in those Libyan camps in 1982 until they moved to Mali’s capital, Bamako in 1999 Tinariwen were, to all intents and purposes, an underground movement calling for political and cultural self-determination.

Founder and main songwriter Ibrahim Ag Alhabibe watched Malian soldiers kill his father, before he ended up in a Libyan training camp after a drought in the desert. Gadaffi was recruiting the disenfranchised Tamashek into his army, and between classes on revolution, Islamism and guerilla warfare, Ibrahim heard Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Moroccan new wave rebels like Nass El Ghiwane and with his colleagues picked up electric guitars rather than traditional lutes, flutes, and drums to create music based on a form of compositional poetry called Assak and the traditional call-and-response pattern.

Then there’s guitarist Kheddou, reputedly wounded seventeen times leading raids with a Kalashnikov in his hands  and a guitar on his back, acquiring a reputation that came in handy when the PA system flown in for the first Festival in the desert was hijacked by armed outlaws. Kheddou happened to be travelling in the convoy and handled the negotiations that saw the equipment delivered safely to the festival site.

Given the guerilla activity and the political content of Tinariwen’s music it probably comes as no surprise to learn it was outlawed in Algeria and Mali though it was possible to buy cassettes under the counter in places like Gao, Bamako, and Timbuktu. Carrying a tape when you met the authorities was not, however, good for the bearer’s health.

Tinariwen had returned to Bamako after a cease fire in 1999, performing at Tamashek weddings, baptisms and youth parties until they met up with French troupe, Lo’Jo (whose hometown is a sister-city to Bamako) and Justin Adams, who went on to launch the Festival in the Desert to showcase Tamashek music and culture and stimulate interest in the southern Sahara.

The festival is a continuation of tribal gatherings where nomads meet, trade, race camels, engage in ritual sword fights and similar games, and celebrate traditional song, dance and poetry and is the world’s most remote musical festival, accessible only by camel or cross country four wheel drive from Timbuktu.

After the first Festival, held during the first eclipse (and first full moon) of the millennium near the ancient ruins of Tamaradant brought Tinariwen to international attention, Adams and Lo’Jo decided to record Tinariwen, something that could only be done at a radio station where electricity was only available between seven in the evening and midnight. The sessions took two weeks, and The Radio Tisdas Sessions is, of course, the result.

As far as the album goes, things are rather straightforward. There’s a verse from the singer, with the guitar following the vocal line, a chorus of campfire sounding voices, a guitar solo that twines around the basic melody and then it’s back to the mixture as before with not much apart from guitar, the occasional slice of bass, some elementary percussion and the call and response vocal.

Assuming you’re not familiar with Tinariwen, the album’s opener, Le Chant des Fauves, is a logical place to start. What you hear there is, in essence, what you’re going to get the rest of the way through. The rhythm lopes along, the vocal line comes across as relaxed and the chorus chimes in over the top. Atmospheric is the operative word here, and the langorous atmosphere and around the desert campfire vibe  is maintained through to the final track, recorded live at the first Festival in the Desert in 2001.

What’s on offer won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve been impressed to the point where thi iTunes library now contains all Tinariwen’s stand alone album releases. Recommended, but sample Le Chant des Fauves first.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Leonard Cohen "Old Ideas" (4.5*)

I suspect if you took the most cloth-eared occasional listener and presented him or her with Leonard Cohen's Dear Heather and Old Ideas in quick succession and asked if there was a discernable difference the response would be an unequivocal yes. They mightn't be able to explain the how and the why, being cloth-eared and occasional rather than deeply immersed and music freak, but the difference comes down to the fact that for the last couple of years Cohen has been, to all intents and purposes, a working musician.

Back when Dear Heather was released in 2004 Cohen was coming off the disconcerting discovery his manager had frittered away around ten million dollars that amounted to Leonard's personal superannuation. He'd sold off his publishing and royalties to Sony Music in 1996 and 2001, in a move that was supposed to fund his retirement. Three years later he was down to his last $150,000 and was, virtually, broke.

The obvious move was to cut a new album, and Dear Heather mightn't have been the greatest thing he's ever done, but there are many Leonard Cohen fans out there, and Hughesy's one of them, so there I was, cheerfully handing over my contribution to Leonard's new retirement fund.

Dear Heather definitely sounded like it had had been pushed together in relative haste, which is understandable given the circumstances, but didn't produce an overwhelming listening experience.

You might hesitate to use terms like lightweight to describe a Leonard Cohen album, but Dear Heather was lighter than 2001's Ten New Songs, and you'd have to suspect the change in mood was the result of a change in personal circumstances, even if that change was a shift in personal relationships and a lifting of depression induced by exposure to Zen Buddhism rather than a discovery of managerial betrayal.

You'd expect, after all, that you'd be able to get the money back, wouldn't you?

But it's not that simple. A 2006 law suit awarded Cohen $9 million, but he wasn't able to collect the money and he was sued in turn by former business associates. There were also, one gathers, certain issues with the Internal Revenue Service, and the obvious way out was to resume touring, which resulted in a two-and-a-half year world tour through 2008-2010, the Live in London DVD and album and last year's Songs from the Road.

Having caught the tour in Brisbane in November 2010, from the first notes of Going Home on the new album it's obvious that we're looking at the result of collaborations shaped on the road rather than in retreat at Mount Baldy. There’s a richness and warmth that reflects lengthy exposure to a touring band working in a live environment rather than the studio minimalism that characterised his previous couple of studio efforts.

That’s not to suggest a change of direction. The words are, as ever, finely wrought, not a syllable out of place, and delivered in that familiar world-weary murmur. Instrumentally, while we’re into acoustic rather than electronic territory (violin, slide guitar, trumpet, lightly brushed drums) and familiar slow-motion rhythms invoke the blues, hymns and waltzes, delivered low key with those gorgeous semi-whispered phantom female choirs above.

There are, however, unexpected collaborations. Patrick Leonard, better known as Madonna’s producer was involved in recording Cohen’s son Adam’s recent album, spotted the potential in one of Dad’s poems, and the result is the opening track, Going Home, sung by an unnamed narrator who uses Leonard as a mouthpiece in a wry piece of self-analysis.

From the earliest notes it’s something that would have slotted seamlessly into his recent live shows, with the choir joining in as the lyrics turn to the final journey we’re all eventually going to face. It’s a track that sets the tone for the remainder of an album that addresses the past and growing older.

Amen, seven and a half minutes of slow shuffle with clear echoes of I’m Your Man, filters the older song’s wry sensualism through a haze of alcoholic horror seeking reassurance from a lover who’s aware of where he’s been and presumably unsure whether his current cleanliness and sobriety can be maintained amid the self-doubt and the horror. Great understated trumpet solo as well.

In much the same way as the previous track echoes I’m Your Man, Show Me the Place (another Cohen-Patrick Leonard collaboration) revisits If It Be Your Will as the singer requests directions to the place where you want your slave to go, with harmonies from Jennifer Warnes’ soaring above the main vocal line.

Darkness was a regular inclusion in the live set, a slightly jauntier blues driven by guitar and organ that provides a little up-tempo light and shade after three tracks of brooding before the pleas for forgiveness return with Anyhow (I know you can’t forgive me/But forgive me anyhow), rhythm tapped on a fedora, moody minimalist piano, sighing vocal line from Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters, a statement of lust married to a request for redemption.

Crazy to Love You, co-written with current partner Anjani Thomas, works the same territory  with a whispered vocal over soft-focus acoustic guitar, while those gorgeous harmonies lead into Come Healing a penitential hymn (his words, not mine) while Banjo, Lullaby and the closing Different Sides continue the autumnal tone, musing on memories and pondering the same subjects Cohen has pondered since Songs of Leonard Cohen back in 1968 with a wry wit that wasn’t always obvious back then.

That’s forty-four years working the same seam of faith and doubt, love and desire, betrayal and redemption evoking ancient traditions and eternal themes that might be Old Ideas but aren’t going to become extinct any time soon.

Assuming he can get himself into the studio it won’t be the last examination of these matters. He already has enough songs for another album, and you can be sure that he won’t be changing his subject matter, will he?

No, the next record, assuming he’s not taken from us in the interim will be another exploration of mortality, spirituality and the human condition, delivered with a self-deprecating gravity over a bleakly minimal accompaniment that delivers light and shade with the female harmonies soaring and sighing through the mixture.

After all this time the listener knows what’s coming on a Leonard Cohen album. Your mileage, of course, is going to vary. While some of us will see a new album as a welcome addition to a body of work that fits like a comfortable overcoat there’ll be others who’ll regard it as sackcloth. Fair enough, with Cohen once you’ve sampled what’s on offer you know what you’re getting and while Old Ideas won’t convert the disbeliever it might just add a few converts from the uninitiated.

After all, from where I’m sitting it’s some of his very best work.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TP Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou Cotonou Club (4*)

The process of discovering West African music goes one step further with this studio album, the first in twenty years, by TP (that's tout puissant or all powerful) Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, who hail from Benin's largest city and seat of government. If your West African geography's not what it might be, the capital city's Porto Novo and you'll find Benin right on the western border of Nigeria.

Dating back to the mid-sixties and boasting an extensive discography (over fifty albums and a hundred singles) there's plenty to investigate assuming that this effort, recorded in Paris on vintage analogue equipment, is the sort of thing that floats your boat. It's a lively affair, combining traditional elements, Afrobeat, jazz and funk influences. There's more than a touch of Voodoo lurking there and will undoubtedly be having an adverse effect on Hughesy's credit card balance over the next few months, a process that has already started with the 32-minute $8.99 1st Album.

Bert Jansch "It Don’t Bother Me" (4*)

Recorded, according to the Bert Jansch biography (Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival) in a regular studio on standard equipment rather than Bill Leader's flat on a semi-pro tape recorder, Bert Jansch's second album was the result of two or three afternoon sessions and several bottles of wine.

Those couple of bottles may be responsible for the looser feel second time around. The opening Oh, My Babe sounds like the effort went into the instrumental accompaniment rather than the lyrics, while Ring-a-Ding Bird shows a bit more attention to the words though the intricate fingerpicked guitar work remains the main point of interest. The vocals drop out for Tinker's Blues, reappear for a brief excursion into topical politcs on Anti Apartheid, drop out again for The Wheel and re-emerge, handed to Roy Harper for A Man I'd Rather Be, an exploration of the relative merits of existence as various forms of sentient life. Harper's there on guitar in the background on My Lover, with John Renbourn taking the lead part and Jansch sitting in the middle with the vocal.

There's a gypsy wayfarer lack of concern on the album's title track that sits comfortably with a bloke who may not, at this stage, have actually owned a guitar. Harvest Your Thought of Love is pretty much what you'd expect, but the album's highlight comes in the complex interplay between Jansch and Renbourn on the latter's Lucky Thirteen. From there, As the Day Grows Longer Now, Alex Campbell's So Long (Been on the Road So Long), Want My Daddy Now and the traditional 900 Miles are reasonably straightforward, though the intricate fingerpicking remains impeccable throughout. It's over to banjo for that final track, but throughout the album there's plenty of evidence to support Neil Young's suggestion that Jansch did for the acoustic guitar what Hendrix did for its electric sibling.

In the pantheon of sixties English folk, Jansch is right up there with the best of them, hugely influential on, among others, Jimmy Page and Nick Drake. The virtuoso blend of folk, blues and Celtic elements mightn't come across as strongly as they did on his debut album, but It Don’t Bother Me's an interesting example of an emerging force about to give things a serious shake.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Doug Sahm and the Tex-Mex Trip "Groovers Paradise" (4*)

After his collaborations with Jerry Wexler and an all-star cast on Doug Sahm & Band and Texas Tornado failed to do the job Doug Sahm aligned himself with the Creedence Clearwater Revival rhythm section (Doug Clifford, drums, and Stu Cook, bass) and the result is a collection of songs espousing the glories of the Texas hippie lifestyle that skip across generic borders through pastoral blues, R&B, rock, country, norteño, with a dash of Cajun through multi-instrumentalist Link Davis Jr’s Cosmic Cajun Trips.

From the opening choogle of Groover's Paradise the theme’s obvious and while there are people out there with a Devil Heart there are always Houston Chicks to soothe the soul of a dude who’s done what he’s done For the Sake of Rock 'N' Roll!

Now, you might reckon there’s a tongue firmly wedged in cheek here, but a read through Texas Tornado (Jan Reid with Shawn Sahm, University of Texas Press, 2010) will reveal not only did Sir Doug live the rock’n’roll lifestyle to the hilt, he did it without doing an actual day’s work right up to his death aged 58 in November 1999. On that basis he had plenty of time to enjoy the Beautiful Texas Sunshine, while a long term residential address close to legendary waterhole the Soap Creek Saloon would provide ample opportunity to Just Groove Me and an abundance to check out whether Girls Today (Don't Like to Sleep Alone). We’re not talking politically correct here, folks.

There’s the cheerful brass driven La Cacahuata, a touch of wistfulness on Her Dream Man Never Came and while these things don’t always work out the way they should, and you can have nights when the keg is hard on your head, if you Catch Me in the Morning we should be able to sort out a few things the singer now regrets.

Throughout the album we’re looking at a guy who’s been there, done that, wrote the book and is waiting to star in the movie (he released his first record at the ripe old age of eleven back in 1952) and has an instinctive mastery of the genres he’s exploring. That doesn’t mean everything he turns his hand to works out the way it should, but when it does there aren’t too many who can deliver the same good time vibe with the same joyous groove.

On Groovers Paradise it’s present in abundance.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Little Village "Little Village" (4*)

I've frequently bemoaned the relative dearth of music fans who happen to have similar tastes to my own in these parts and here's a prime case in point. Had I been in the middle of the same sort of bunch of music fans I recall from my musical heyday there would've been someone in the crowd who'd have picked up a copy of Little Village.
Alternatively, had I been in a larger centre I may well have sighted this under-appreciated little gem in a cutout bin or second hand rack and weakened. After all, you'd expect that an album featuring the guitar of Ry Cooder, John Hiatt's vocals and songwriting, Nick Lowe on bass, vocals and the occasional writing credit and drummer Jim Keltner would be worth the price of a discounted admission.
Hiatt, Cooder, Lowe and Keltner had worked together on Hiatt's Bring the Family in 1987 and various permutations and combinations of the four had appeared on other projects credited to Cooder and Lowe, so it's not too difficult to see the origins of this 1992 album. 
Originally the idea was to call the outfit Hiatus, and while most of the vocal duties were passed to Hiatt the idea seems to have been to produce a genuine four-way collaboration, which is fair enough as a concept, but democracy doesn't always work in a band situation. 
Initial reactions when the album was released twenty years ago were very mixed, possibly due to the same degree of heightened expectation that tends to cruel highly anticipated supergroup collaborations.
If you'd heard and enjoyed Hiatt's earlier work (and particularly Bring the Family), loved the early Ry Cooder and noted Hiatt's presence on The Slide Area and Borderline, and spotted Lowe as a classy collaborator who could turn out a quirky song or three you'd probably have been licking the lips and anticipating a masterwork of staggering genius.
That's always going to be tough to deliver in an environment where you're making a band record featuring three strong performers who are used to calling the shots, so Lowe's summation of the album (of which Lowe has said, this rather limp record, which got limper and limper as certain members of the group messed around with it) might be understandable, because there are probably things on there he'd have done differently, and you'd suspect Cooder and Hiatt would have said something fairly similar.
Casting those issues aside might be difficult for the participants but having heard a sample of live Little Village via bootleg I was intrigued enough to chase down a download of the album. When you listen to it well removed from the high expectations of 1992 it's actually a rather good listen, provided you can remove yourself from expectations of stellar performance.
As an example of that, try Don't Think About Her When You're Trying To Drive, a track that would have been a highlight on a John Hiatt solo album, or Do You Want My Job, a bleak portrait of life in a place that may or may not be a fished out archipelago somewhere in the Pacific. 
For the rest of the album, Solar Sex Panel addresses male baldness and global warming issues with Hiatt espousing the virtues of his solar powered loving, The Action gives a sort of blow by blow description of a good time hangout, and Inside Job grooves along nicely around a Cooder solo. Six and a half minutes of Big Love might be a bit much to take if it wasn't for the fat rumbling licks Cooder slides in underneath the vocals, while Take Another Look switches the vocal spotlight to Lowe.
Then there's Do You Want My Job? On this description, the answer's a firm No, regardless of the tropical island vibe. 
Don't Go Away Mad has Hiatt front and centre in a track that grooves along pleasantly but doesn't have a lot going for it, though the guitar solo in the middle is kinda tasty, but with Fool Who Knows we've got Nick Lowe back on vocals in a trademark vocal performance in a song he obviously likes (he was doing it on tour with Ry Cooder in November 2009), interesting guitar action. 
There's a bit of motoring metaphor on She Runs Hot for Me, where everyone seems to be having a good time, that you might see continuing into Don't Think About Her When You're Trying to Drive. Yeah, sure it does, but it's another one in a lengthy series of heartfelt heartbreak Hiatt ballads where you're looking for the searing Cooder solo (on the surface you'd think it would be a natural fit) but the guitar work stays at the tasteful punctuation stage. 
Finally, there's a slick groove driving Don't Bug Me When I'm Working, complete with audio inserts from the Sonny Boy Williamson track that gave the band its name.
Now, when you line Little Village up against the best work from the three headliners it might come across as slightly lightweight, but that's in comparison with some very classy competition. Definitely worth a listen, particularly for Hiatt fans.
Oh, and those live bootlegs where Mr Cooder gets a bit more room to stretch out are worth chasing down as well...

Afrocubism (4.5*)

As stories of musicians' ill fortune go, it ranks not far from Leonard Cohen having to tour because his business manager stole his retirement savings. In 1996, Malian musicians Bassekou Kouyate and Djelimady Tounkara were invited by World Circuit Records' Nick Gold to Havana to record with a handful of Cuban singers and musicians. Depending who you talk to, lost passports, visa issues or better-paid gigs elsewhere ensured the Malian musicians never made it to Cuba.
Regardless of whether anything got recorded the studio had been booked and there was a bill that needed to be paid, and while the results after guitarist Eliades Ochoa matched an assortment of retirees with the session players assembled for the session were interesting, even an extreme optimist wouldn't have expected Buena Vista Social Club to sell more than eight million copies.
That success, along with the various spin-off projects that ensued, meant that it was a good fourteen years before Gold managed to get something like the line-up he's originally planned in one place to record. Full marks for persistence...
A blend of West African and Cuban elements might sound odd when you first come across it, but there's a general recognition that African music crossed the Atlantic on the slave ships and provided a basis for much of the music of the Americas, particularly the blues and jazz, though there are significant African influences in most variations on the Latin theme as well.
What's probably less well known is that the Latin, and particularly Cuban influences went back across the Atlantic, so you'll find significant Cuban influences in contemporary West African music. African liberation movements received substantial assistance from Cuba during the Cold War era, and nationalist leaders like Mali's Modibo Keïta promoted Cuban cultural influences as well. After all, as far as the Malians were concerned, the Cubans weren't French.
While the military-backed regime installed after the 1968 coup that overthrew Keïta encouraged authenticité through traditional African music, Cuban elements persisted in the background in outfits like Bamako's Rail Band, formed by the railway authorities to play near the main station for passengers waiting for their train.
Scheduling issues limited the recording sessions that produced Afrocubism to five days and ruled out lengthy rehearsals, so what's on offer here is drawn from seventeen tracks recorded live in the studio without additional overdubs or any similar frippery. 
In the intervening years a number of those who would have been in the original sessions have passed on, and here the personnel are Eliades Ochoa and members of his band Grupo Patria along with original Malian invitees Djelimady Tounkara (guitar) and Bassekou Kouyate (ngoni), and additional African stars in the shape of Toumani Diabate (kora), griot singer Kasse Mady Diabate and Lassana Diabate (balafon). 
For the uninitiated kora equates to a cross between a harp and a lute, the griot equates a combination of poet, musician and storyteller who maintains the oral tradition while the balafon equates to a xylophone.
While the material is split roughly fifty-fifty between Africa and Cuba, the predominant vibe is West African, with Cuban nuances added to the African material while the African elements weave their way into Cuban classics like Guantanamera. It's a case of one side playing their own music and the other side figuring out a way to fit in, so it's a genuine fusion of two not quite disparate elements, since there's a strong African influence in Cuban music which was then re-exported back to revolutionary Africa.
Toumani Diabaté claims the writing credit for the opening track, Mali Cuba, loosely based around the familiar Guantanamera with the kora tinkling away as the balafon lays out the melody and Latin brass adds a touch of the Caribbean. 
That's followed by Eliades Ochoa on vocals for Al Vaivén De Mi Carreta (The Swaying Of My Cart), the first track actually recorded for the album. Half way through griot Kasse-Mady Diabaté takes over the vocal, and the griot territory continues through Karamo (The Hunter) delivered with a Latin lilt. 
Guitarist Djelimady Tounkara leader of the Rail Band guides the ensemble through Djelimady Rumba, and he's back to the fore on La Culebra (The Snake) a Cuban afroson dating back to the thirties.
Jarabi (Passion) goes almost as far back, advocating romantic passion ahead of arranged marriage. It's apparently a popular item in the griot repertoire, but, again, the Cuban influence slots in comfortably with the African elements. Latin lilt strikes again.
Eliades Ochoa recorded the instrumental interlude Eliades Tumbao 27 in a break from group recording (I'm assuming the 27 has some significance there) before the percussion-heavy Dakan and the balafon-driven Nima Diyala (I Beg You My Sweetheart) where the message is to maintain personal relationships with dignity. It was, according to the digital booklet, a popular piece with West African dance bands in the seventies and features Lassana Diabate playing simultaneous balafons (with the second filling the role of the black keys on the piano).
A la luna yo me voy (I'm going to the Moon), a Haitian merengue written by Ochoa, expressing concerns about global warming is followed by Mariama, a studio jam involving Ochoa and Bassekou Kouyate with lyrics from a traditional song about destiny
Para Los Pinares Se Va Montoro (Montoro’s Going To Los Pinares) a Compay Segundo son from the 1950s has some fine guitar work from Eliades and Djelimady, Benséma (Chance) runs a Cuban guitar riff through a Malian reflection just how much of life is up to what I've been known to refer to as dumb luck and proceedings close with a languid ngoni, guitar and kora exposition of the Guantanamera theme that kicked off Mali Cuba. 
Afrocubism gives an almost seamless journey through a number of African and Cuban elements, and there's a chemistry there that could point the way for similar collaborations in the future.
If it does, I'll be buying...