Earlier this month Egyptian songstress Maryam Saleh’s Nouh Al Hamam landed a new Tunisian-based recording effort on our radar: Sawtuha(Arabic for “her voice”), a compilation of female artists from Libya, Tunisia and Egypt who are exercising their rights to freedom of expression. The full album features Sudanese-American hip-hop scholar Oddisee, the production hand ofOlof Dreijer (one half of the Knife), and remixes from French producer Blackjoy and Austrian beatsmith Brenk.
Sawtuha, released by German label Jakarta Records,takes the listener on a journey through French pop, Arabic infused hip-hop and accordion-heavy production.
On the Oddisee-produced languid ballad Figurine, Nawel Ben Kraiem‘s vocals nod towards classical French influences (she sounds like a cross between Edith Piaf and Barbara), and yet they’re layered with enrapturing Tunisian melodies. Olof Dreijer’s distorted beats and pitched-down vocals provide a backdrop to Medusa‘s flow on the head-nodding Naheb N3ch Hayati.
A protest against “corruption, despotism, patronisation and narrow-mindedness”, Sawtuha is purposeful fresh air. As Jakarta Records explains: “Sawtuha, the album that is the product of [a] two-week session, is a vital encouraging testament of rebellion against the repression of democratic rights, gender inequality, and lack of inclusion”.
Stream the full compilation below.
Remi for okayafrica, ablog dedicated to bringing you the latest from Africa‘s New Wave.
It may be just about the hottest new pop-up club in the world, but you have to look hard for the glamour. There is no red carpet and the bar has run out of beer. The decor leaves a lot to be desired: a brightly painted wall, some plastic chairs and dozens of palm trees.
Welcome to Bamako, the capital of Mali, not the most obvious choice for a star-studded club launch. Mali endured a wretched year in 2012, the northern half seized by a motley alliance of Islamists and Tuareg rebels, the president ousted in a coup and the country almost breaking in half before a French-backed government offensive turned the situation around. Northern Mali still dangles precariously between war and peace and Islamist rebels still make life uncomfortable for towns that until recently they occupied.
But inside the Maison des Jeunes – a community space cum youth hostel near the banks of the River Niger – artists including Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Idris Elba, and some of Europe and America’s brightest young producers – bop their heads in unison to the live performances taking place in a kind of defiance.
“I keep coming back to Mali, through everything that’s happened,” said Albarn. “At times it has felt odd in Bamako, with the problems in the north, but I’m just trying to personally establish dialogue with the people in this country and the music.”
“The reason we are in Mali now is because of what’s happened here in the last year,” said Ian Birrell, co-founder with Albarn of the Africa Express project.
“Malian artists are so brilliant. We wanted to come back as a form of solidarity and do the tiny bit we can do to promote the music that we love and revere.”
Albarn’s involvement with Malian music dates back to 2000, when a trip to the west African country with Oxfam led to an infatuation with its sounds that would see him record an album with Malian musicians Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate. In 2006 Albarn launched Africa Express – a joyfully chaotic series of collaborations between western and African artists, which last year led to 70 musicians taking over a chartered train.
On the second floor of a building adjacent to the courtyard, in an airy studio that has seen better days – with mint-green plaster walls and tatty floor tiling – ambient music maestro Brian Eno sits immersed, working on his laptop.
Behind him Holy Other – the enigmatic, highly-rated R&B artist whose full identity remains a secret and who is only ever seen in public wearing a black shroud – is similarly occupied, and Wire star, DJ and producer Idris Elba breezes in and out. “I’m just listening. I don’t know what to do other than sit there with my mouth wide open,” said Eno of the music being recorded by Malian artists. “I don’t feel inclined to sample and play over the top – for me it’s too complete.”
There is a deliberate spontaneity in the way Albarn likes to work with African artists; the word “chaos” is frequently used by everyone involved in Africa Express, usually spoken with a sense of pride at being involved in such an intense, cross-cultural musical frenzy.
The launch of live performances at the Maison des Jeunes coincides with the first attempt to produce an Africa Express album, as producers including Eno, Ghostpoet, Pauli the PSM from Gorillaz and Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs work out which Malian artists to collaborate with, and set about recording and producing them in new ways.
“I have never done anything like this before,” said Kankou Konyate ( 21), lead singer of Gambari, whose vocals soar out over local n’goni lute rhythms. “Since the war things have been difficult, and complicated. But this is very good.”
Albarn, who has been critical of western celebrities patronising Africa in the past, says Africa Express is all about creating a level playing field and building connections, artist to artist.
But the group are also under no illusions about the state of Mali. Eno, on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa since he visited Ghana in 1980, says he is shocked by how little progress has been made.
“I was quite surprised coming here how broken the place is,” said Eno. “How the streets are terrible. The open sewers stink. It’s very disheartening in a way. But what is really strong here is social infrastructure – it’s so powerful and rich.”
The face of music in Africa is changing. Musicians are seeking alternative routes to the shoddy label of ‘world music’, and finding unprecedented levels of success in the process. There is a growing amount of independent artists who, through their ability to combine global influences with localised flavours, have figured out how to capture a wide-ranging legion of followers.
For this month’s post, I’ve mined some treasure to present the second edition of African musicians to look out for. We chart territory ranging from pop music in South Africa to post-Fela beats in Nigeria. I also got in touch with Brooklyn-based Ghanaian rapper Blitz the Ambassador whose free-to-download offering entitled The Warm Up was released on Tuesday.
Beatenberg – Chelsea Blakemore
Beatenberg comprises three South African lads whose latest single Chelsea Blakemore harvests from their backgrounds in jazz and electronic music to add to their growing catalogue of hauntingly evocative songs. These, in drummer Robin Brink’s words, are aimed at “everyone ready for a fresh South African pop sound.” The lyrics are playfully gutsy – or painfully ironic depending on how receives them. This particular song is named after vocalist/guirarist Matthew Field’s ex-girlfriend. “We’re all tight friends” asserts Brink. Ross Dorkins’ touch of bass adds to the song’s smoothness, making it a potential favourite at the country’s festivals during the upcoming summer. Their full length album will be released by Universal Records in 2014.
Zone Fam – Translate
Zone Fam is a Zambia-based rap group who has done well in penetrating the consciousness of audiences across the continent since their break-away hit Shaka Zulu on em hit airwaves two years ago. With a new single circulating and a new album in the works, it’s exciting times for the quartet comprising Dope G, Jay Rox, Yung Verbal and Thugga. They’ve been nominated for the African Entertainment Awards – a ceremony aimed at honouring “the rich culture of african [sic] art and entertainment” – under the best group category. Their sophomore album is due for release later on in the year. They follow up their party-centric Lobolawith this subdued homage to body language.
Burna Boy – Run My Race
The solid, gliding patterns of Afrobeats have ensured that Fela Kuti‘s legacy continues to exist in modern pop music. While bands elsewhere are taking the Afrobeat staple refined by Kuti, artists on the continent have resorted to panel-beating the danceable aspects of the genre into a new wave of sound referred to as Afrobeats, a sub-genre described by Olufemi Terry as “African pop about women, parties and success” in an article published by South Africa’s Rolling Stone magazine. Commenting on the Kuti/Afrobeats relationship, Terry pondered whether the legend would turn in his grave were he to hear the sound he was linked to this sound.
Burna Boy, the Nigerian-born artist who sang “They say I sound like a combination of Sizzla and Fela Kuti” on My Journey, has decided to embrace comparisons to the latter. He went to the Afrobeat legend’s shrine, the Kalakuta Republic, for the video of one of his latest works. Entitled Run My Race, the song is best experienced in sweaty clubs along West Africa, and increasingly across the continent.
Blitz the Ambassador
“From Tahrir Square to Madison Square the streets are crammed, Revolution will not be televised or Instagrammed,” raps American-based Ghanaian rapper Blitz the Ambassador. He set aside time to chat about how his song Bisa(What [are] you asking?) got made. The result is a fierce socio-political manifesto featuring UK-based rapper TY and Nigerian vocalist Nneka.
“There were only two collaborations that were done in person. One was Nneka. That literally happened accidentally I recorded with her [over the] Internet for the actual album, ” Blitz the Ambassador explained.
“We facilitated that through the internet, it’s a brilliant song! I got to Paris; she just happened to be in town as well and wanted to link up. So I told her I was working and she came through to hang and say hello. She heard Bisa; I’d just started crafting it, and she was like ‘This is amazing, I’d love to jump on.’ I said: ‘Take a shot.’ That’s how the song ended up being made.”
From a small, spartan room in the courtyard of the Ethiopian church off a narrow street in Jerusalem, a 90-year-old musical genius is emerging into the spotlight.
For almost three decades, Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guebrù has been closeted at the church, devoting herself to her life’s twin themes – faith and music. The Ethiopian nun, whose piano compositions have enthralled those who have stumbled across a handful of recordings in existence, has lived a simple life, rarely venturing beyond the monastery’s gates.
But this month the nonagenarian’s scribbled musical scores have been published as a book, ensuring the long-term survival of her music. And on Tuesday, the composer will hear her work played in concert for the first time, at three performances in Jerusalem. Guebrù may even play a little.
Her music has been acclaimed by critics and devotees. Maya Dunietz, a young Israeli musician who worked with Guebrù on the publication of her scores, says in her introduction to the book that the composer has “developed her own musical language”.
“It is classical music, with a very special sense of time, space, scenery,” Dunietz told the Guardian. “It’s not grand; it’s intimate, natural, honest and very feminine. She has a magical touch on the piano. It’s delicate but deep. And all her compositions tell stories of time and place.”
Guebrù’s inspiration comes not only from her faith, but from her life: an extraordinary journey from an aristocratic family in Addis Ababa, with strong links to Emperor Haile Selassie, to a monastery in the historic centre of Jerusalem .
She was born Yewubdar Guebrù on December 12 1923 and lived in the Ethiopian capital until, aged six, she and her sister were sent to boarding school in Switzerland. In one of two seminal moments of her life, there she heard her first piano concert, and began to play and study music.
After her return to Addis Ababa, and a period of exile for her family followed by yet another return, Guebrù was awarded a scholarship to study music in London. But she was unexpectedly denied permission to leave by the Ethiopian authorities.
In the bleak days following this calamity, Guebrù refused food until, close to death, she requested holy communion. Embracing God was the second seminal moment of her life. She abandoned music to devote herself to prayer, and after several years joined a monastery in northern Ethiopia. She spent 10 years there, barefoot and living in a mud and stone hut.
It was here she changed her name to Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam. It was only after rejoining her mother in Addis Ababa that Guebrù resumed playing and composing and even recorded a few albums.
Guebrù and her mother later spent six years in Jerusalem, and she returned to the Holy Land to take up permanent residence after her mother’s death in 1984. She has remained at the imposing circular Ethiopian church ever since.
Dunietz came across her music eight years ago when her husband, the conductor Ilan Volkov, brought home a CD he had bought in London. “We listened and were amazed by the strange combination of classical, Ethiopian and blues,” said Dunietz. “And then we read the sleeve notes and discovered she lives right here in Jerusalem.”
The couple found Guebrù sitting at the piano in her room at the church, and began a series of visits. “In the beginning there was a lot of silence. We felt there was a lot of longing and sorrow and loneliness, but slowly a connection started,” said Dunietz.
Guebrù was still playing and composing in her room, but she had not performed in public for several years, and her music was “not much appreciated” within the monastery. Dunietz immediately understood the importance of publishing the nun’s scores to create and preserve a musical legacy, but the project did not get off the ground until two years ago.
“She handed over four plastic bags — old wrinkled Air Ethiopia bags — containing hundreds of pages, all muddled up, a big mess, written in pencil, some of them 60 or 70 years old. It was all the pages of her music that she had found in her room. ‘Make a book’, she said.” It was, added Dunietz, “like an archaeological dig” to piece together the scores.
Daunted by the task, Dunietz sought the help of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, which organises an annual summer festival of art, music and food in the city. As well as the book, the three concerts have a huge significance for Guebrù.
“This is the first time she will hear her own music performed in concert by professional artists,” said Duenitz, who will play the piano. “It is what every composer wants.” Guebrù, she says, is feeling overwhelmed by the attention and has largely withdrawn into the solitude of her monastery room, declining requests for interviews and meetings.
In the book accompanying Guebrù’s music, Meytal Ofer, a regular visitor over recent months, describes her: “I enter a darkened room and catch my first glimpse of her, an elderly woman, not a wrinkle on her face, lying in bed. It is a modest room with a small window. In the room is a bed, a piano, piles of musical scores and a picture of Haile Selassie and the Empress Menen hung above the papers.”
Guebrù is wrapped in a blanket against the winter cold, writes Ofer. “Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam is in her own world; she speaks slowly with an inner peace, her soothing voice caresses the listener and her infectious smile sneaks into the conversation every now and then … The disparity between the room’s sparseness and Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam’s spiritual richness reaches deep down into my soul.”
West Africa is no stranger to dope instrumentation. Legends like Fela Kuti and Toumani Diabate influenced the world by creating unique rhythms and melodies using the instruments of their home countries. Body-moving clicks, hits and rattling frequencies represent themselves throughout their arrangements, but what are these sounds and how are they made? Down below we dive into the instruments of West Africa, touching on sounds from Cameroon to Mali and everywhere in between. Check out the videos to hear the instruments and see how they’re played.
The Kora is a 21-stringed instrument constructed from a large Calabash Gourd and covered with cow skin to act as a resonator. Though little Western classification can be placed to it, some associate it with the harpsichord family, calling it a “double-bridge-harp-lute.” Its beautiful range can be heard across West Africa in various countries such as Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso amongst others.
The Shekere is a dried vine gourd covered in woven beads to produce a rattling sound when shaken. Although many variations and names of the instrument are made across West Africa, the Shekere is predominately associated with Nigeria.
The Balafon is a wooden-keyed percussion instrument similar to a xylophone or vibraphone. It can be either be played in a fixed key (attatched to a wooden frame with Calabashes hung beneath) or free key (having wooden keys on any surface). Its rich sound is derived from the strike of a padded mallet to its carefully shaped individual keys. The inception of this instrument is linked to many West African countries such as Mali, Senegal, Cameroon, and Gambia just to name a few.
Akuba is the name given to three small Yoruba congas which are played together in a complementary style. Played with sticks and hand alike, the Akuba drums often assume the lead role in the afrobeat sound, giving the musician the freedom to improvise and even direct dancers on stage. Also used in connection with the Nigerian Yoruba language, the drums help in complimenting the various tones of the spoken idiom.
The Soku is a single stringed fiddle native to Mali.
A. Malik McPherson for Okayafrica.com. With more than half the population in many African nations under 25, the bright continent is currently undergoing an explosion of vibrant new music, fashion, art and political expression. Okayafrica is dedicated to bringing you the latest from Africa’s New Wave.