Afropop fest

A survey of recent releases, from Zimbabwe to Connecticut

When last year's star-heavy Africa Fete tour swept the country, making an all-too-rare stop in Atlanta, many attendees found themselves in agreement with the New York Times assessment that the incredibly energetic Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits from Zimbabwe were the real eye (and ear) openers. Back home, Tuku is a bigger star than internationally renowned Thomas Mapfumo, and while Paivepo (Putumayo Artists) is only Tuku's second American CD, he has over 40 Zimbabwean releases to his credit.
Paivepo, which means "once upon a time" in the Shona language, is a fairytale come true for the singer; it's already earned the distinction of being the biggest selling album of all time in Zimbabwe. The rhythm of Tuku's music is totally contagious, from mbira (thumb piano) inspired chimurenga and South African mpaqanga, to the distinctive home-grown JIT pop style.
Opening with a reprise of his '70s hit "Pindurai Mambo," which asks why some good-for-nothing people have full, wholesome meals while other people sleep in the bush and starve, Tuku is impassioned, poetic and proud as he takes the listener on a highly melodic and tightly-produced musical journey. The difficult issues he addresses include abusive modern interpretations of ancient Shona customs involving inheritance and widows marrying their brothers-in-law.
Khadja Nin is no stranger to widowhood. Nin grew up in Burundi, where she dreamed of being singer Miriam Makeba, before moving to her country's huge neighbor Zaire, where she got married and gave up her musical aspirations. After resettling in Europe, the deaths of her parents and husband left her with no choice but to take on menial jobs in an unfamiliar society to feed her young son. Eventually she found her feet, rediscovered her love of singing — in Swahili, Kirundi and occasionally French — started writing with new partner Nicolas Fiszman, and in 1991 signed to BMG Records. Ya ... (Mondo Melodia/Ark21) is her fourth album.
"The first 20 years of my life were wonderful ... the following 20 years were tough ... so I hope that the next 20 years will be a rebirth, a new freedom," Nin says hopefully. "With this record I cast off my old skin for a new one. I treat the former era with a lot of respect and decency but I definitely get rid of my mourning dress."
Recorded in a mobile studio south of London, Ya ... often comes across as slick pop-oriented European world fusion, with its synth-driven, soaring backing vocals sometimes adding strength and sometimes diluting the message. Other times, the album is acoustic and reflective, musing on the effectiveness of international embargoes, the recent loss of a much-loved sister and Nin's admiration for Nelson Mandela. She adapted Sting's "Russians" melody (itself borrowed from tune-meister extraordinaire Sergei Prokofiev) for an uptempo song of frustration and disgust about the Second Gulf War.
Cameroon's Henri Dikongué also comes to us via France, but he mostly sings in his native Doula. Mot'a Bobe (Hypocrisy), on Tinder Records, is the long-awaited follow-up to 1998's sublime C'est la Vie. The new album displays the same gorgeous blend of African attitude and dance rhythms (high life, soukous) with Caribbean and other styles (soca, bossa nova, soul, jazz) as its predecessor, but some of the songs suffer from an excess of misplaced and distracting flute and saxophone.
The lyrics are sophisticated and, while not directly political, do address issues faced by African immigrants in Europe. Suave to a fault, Dikongué's impeccable classical guitar and voice are well complemented by a largely acoustic band, but this, his third album, clearly lacks the punch of his earlier releases. Maybe he's been listening to too much Joan Baez, George Benson, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt (whom he cites as big influences).
For a more satisfying Afropop experience, look no further than Afrika Wassa (TriLoka) by American-based Senegalese singer Vieux Diop (pronounced via jo). Produced in Connecticut by Brian Keane, who is more known for his New Age and Celtic endeavors, this album's frequently kora-propelled anthems of homeland and family are dressed in stunning pop colors, firmly grounded by ace South African bassist Bakithi Kumalo, assorted African percussion and Keane's own tasteful keyboards. "Pourquoi" is yet another song asking why there is so much suffering in the world, but with a twist: mandolin (Keane) and Irish fiddle (Eileen Ivers) add a surprising dimension. Overall, a great variety of moods are invoked, and yet a unified vision is achieved.
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