Friday, September 11, 2009

Ripples Around the World - A Night in Africa - Amadou & Mariam and Aphrodesia

My love affair with African music began one summer night, after a beach party in San Diego where some (once) legal substances were ingested with a group of friends amongst the crashing waves of the Pacific. Back at a friend’s house, he introduced me to my first African sampling, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System, and I was instantly transported to a nether realm of rhythm and texture, a place I’d never been before. Mesmerized by the undulating guitars interplaying with the talking drums, I was hooked. One thing led to another and soon King Sunny was joined by Fela, Toure Kunda, and Mory Kante in my musical my world.

Now I won’t pretend to be an expert on all the African genres, instruments, and styles, (I don’t even know the proper words used to describe these styles) but I do know my juju from my Zouk, my Afropop from my Soweto jive. And I also know what I like. I’ve seen tons of great concerts in my life, but let me tell you, nothing compares to being on the floor when King Sunny or Toure Kunda are conjuring their magic onstage. Swirling bodies, lost in the rhythms, fuse and meld into one swaying mass of joy-filled, dancing humanity. It’s the closest feeling to complete freedom that music has ever provided me.

As the years pass, new generations of musicians come along, adding their own touches to the sounds laid down by the masters, fusing in modern touches, hints of western soul, rock, or rap to the traditional sounds, creating a new music for their times. Music that is full of vitality, amazing passion and energy. If you’ve never expanded your tastes to include African music, now is the time to jump onboard, there’s far too much going on for you to miss out. Today we’re going to look at two new releases that collectively blew my musical mind.

Amadou & Mariam – The Magic Couple

Oh my God! Seriously, that’s all I can say. After spinning this disc umpteen times, it never fails to amaze me. Each spin reveals new textures, hidden sounds, and profound emotions. Without hesitation, this disc deserves a place within the hallowed halls of some of the great African releases to ever crossover to American shores. Amadou & Mariam are a couple from Mali who met and fell in love when a guitar-playing music teacher heard for the first time the voice of one of his students at the Institute for the Young Blind in Bamako. That was thirty years ago and a lifetime of love and music followed. Perhaps, its because they are both blind that their music has such remarkable depth and warmth, full of beauty, hypnotic in rhythmic layers, and surprising in it’s incorporation of unusual instruments into its river of polychromatic beauty. The Magic Couple presents this beautifully, collecting songs from three International releases recorded late in the 1990's.

“Je Pense A Toi,” sets the pace in stunning fashion. Following the polyrhythmic, hand percussion intro, cello layers into the mix. Gentle and restrained, it is perhaps the most stark and haunting accompaniment I’ve heard. By the time Amadou’s textured voice joins in, I’m already lost, floating away on the rhythmic clouds, lost in a swirling miasma of sound and memory. Amadou’s voice is an amazing instrument, restrained and wavering, he adds to the somber tone, effortlessly moving through the melody. Joined with harmonies by Mariam and sung in French, I have no idea what he’s singing, but it doesn’t matter, the tone is clear. A song of love and longing (I think the title translates to “I Think of You,”—correct me if I’m wrong) the emotion in the song resonates stronger than a thousand boy bands singing corporate songs of melodramatic heartbreak and manufactured breakups. This emotion is real, resonating down to my marrow. Just listen to the cello as it layers the textures across the song, bringing the most mournful solos you can imagine, dancing between the gentle percussion and Amadou's snaking guitar. You don’t have to be a fan of world music to appreciate this beauty. It should appeal to all fans of mood-filled, ambient rock like the Cocteau Twins. It really is that beautiful.

Not to be outdone, “ Mariam takes the lead for “Sarama (La Charmante)” and instantly the tone changes, guitars pick out a jubilant melody, drums and bass turning positively jaunty while a western-style piano runs the keys like some honky tonk player from a roadhouse blues band. What a beautiful contrast in styles that is, such an unusual take on traditional Malian sounds. It only takes an instant for the band to lock onto the groove, finding their pace, moving the song through infinite loops, each seeming to become more joyful than the prior. I certainly didn’t expect the dynamite desert blues harmonica that starts off “Combattants,” but, damn, am I glad it’s there, adding another western texture to what turns out to be a total burning African jam. Amadou & Mariam are adept at this, bringing in subtle textures of unexpected instruments to infuse their afro jive with a new and exciting life. Check out the wahed out guitar solo during “Combattants.” Dynamite! This song is a barn burner, featuring one of the most infectious, melodic choruses I’ve heard in a long time.

Each track is strong and equally mesmerizing. Alternating through moods of light and dark, elevating to heavenly, dance-floor filling highs, to hypnotic, trance-inducing moments of the sublime, this is an album that demands repeated listening. Just check out the wooden flute intro to “Mouna” or the gorgeous vocal harmonies on “C’est Comme Ca.” And what about that bass solo! “Djagneba,” is another standout track, featuring some beautiful horn work and Mariam’s most impassioned vocals.

African music or Western, it doesn’t matter. Beautiful songwriting is beautiful songwriting, and this album stuck in my memory for weeks after listening like bubblegum stuck to my cortex. A strong contender for one of my albums of the year.

Aphrodesia – Precious Commodity

What Amadou & Mariam are to mood and texture, Aphrodesia are to pure jubilation on the dancefloor. Featuring a horn section that’d make the Tower of Power players green with envy, Aphrodesia fuse every moment of their disc with big chucky riffs, driving bass runs and a complete polyrhythmic afrobeat freakout. Singing mostly in English, this politically charged 11 piece hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area, Aphrodesia may be able to overcome some of the initial prejudice against world music, but in any language, the message is clear. Toss off your inhibitions, throw your worries and cares to the sidewalk, loosen your tie, and dance. Dance, mother, dance. And that's what Aphrodesia does. Tossing aside the strict tenents of Afrobeat as layed down my Fela Kuti, Aphrodesia infuse their bopping hybrid with modern energy, flair, and vigor for life.

“Special Girl,” positively percolates. Percussion whipping my brain into a frenzy, guitars scatting and strumming, bass bopping up and down in huge swooping loops. Damn. Toss in some dynamite female vocals in perfect harmony and those crazy horns and my ass just can’t sit still. And if somehow the clay in your butt prevents you from finding your groove right away, “Think/Suffer,” will chisel all that away. Deep layers of jazz/funk combine with the rhythmic frenzy of drums and percussion. The lyrics are clear here. “Think for yourself/suffer for yourself.” In other words, turn off that overactive brain, that worry machine inside your head, and dance. A slow burn here, that doesn’t stop a wailing guitar from tearing through the mix, fading under a wall of horns. And how innovative and imaginative is that! Guitar solos are the verbotten creature of afrobeat, a victim of the complex interlocking guitar parts that doesn't present enough room for any one guitar to break out and squeal. Yet there it is. Beautiful.

Bebopping jazz textures blow through “Say What,” which turns into a drum, bass and horn display for the ages. No doubt about it, in a club, the dancefloor would be littered with swaying bodies, lost in the rhythmic bliss and vocal interplay. “By the Iron,” brings on some serious afro funk, rocking out with a bottom heavy bass line that’d make Parliament proud. “Ayala,” is another standout, abandoning the English, the song soars on the strength of the female vocals and the most mind-numbing bass and drum mix on the album. Interlocking guitars drive the song home. This is afro-funk for the ages, instantly catchy and addictive.

Mixing in some disparate elements, like hints of Caribbean music, Shona mbira and others, Aphrodesia is all about the groove, the inherent heart of the music, and let me tell you, when they find it they lock in harder than a pitbulls jaws clamping down on some raw meat. Don’t be afraid to let them bite into you.



Woody said...

Nice one, Racer. You ever heard The Budos Band from Brooklyn?

raysrealm said...

Hey man, I read your review of this and, happening by a CD emporium this morning, I decided to give it a shot when I saw they had it. Playing right now, a couple tracks in and I must say, I am enjoying the shit out of this!

The RIpple Effect said...

Awesome, Ray. I suppose you're referring to the Amadou & Mariam CD? With your appreciation of different sounds and textures through your love of Celtic music, I'm not surprised you love this one.
It's really beautiful stuff.

Thanks for writing in!

The RIpple Effect said...

Thanks, Woody. Nope never heard of The Budos Band. Lay em on me!

Woody said...

Check 'em out here -

Instrumental afrobeat band with members from Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings.

raysrealm said...

Yeah, I picked up the AMADOU & MARIAM. Now having listened to it all the way thru, I'm very excited with this one. And you're right, the tie in with the textures & vivid dynamics in Celtic music is connected to this very strongly. I love feeling the vibe of a place come through in it's music, it's nearly 3 dimensional. Funny enough, I played this back to back with SHIFT (crushing local modern metal) and said to myself, "Self, there's some damn good music out there!"

Garrett said...

Great reviews Racer! First I am glad I turned you on to some wonderful music, but second, I am excited to only keep bringing you more. Enjoyed reading your thoughts and find the full translation to "Je pense a toi" at

Spaceboy said...

Just checked out that Aphrodesia disc, it's as good as you say. Found it here-
Once again great reviews!

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