Huffington Post, Album Review >>
They have a word for god in New Zealand: Fat Freddy's Drop. That may be three words, but if you are a local, the terms have become synonymous. With their debut recording, Based on a True Story, the band outsold any other in the country's history. Based... did get licensed in America via Quango, though it never got the proper publicity support it deserved. On top of that, the band had no desire to tour the States--backstage at a festival in Bourges, France, members told me that they had kids and families at home, so committing to an American tour was too laborious. The band was selling out 30,000 person venues in Australia. Why would they need the Roxy?
Something changed between albums, because the band recently blew up Los Angeles, returning for a proper US tour near spring. With the release of Dr. Boondigga & The Big BW, on their own label, The Drop, Fat Freddy's Drop's global ambitions have made themselves apparent. Since being turned onto this band with 2000's indie EP, Live at the Matterhorn (four songs, one hour long), FFD's ability to keep long songs interesting grew into their staple. Average lengths on recent albums pass seven minutes. The entire ordeal boggles the clean-cut four-minute standard of pop-oriented executives. It's a good thing this band doesn't make pop.
And yet, their music is so widely accessible: slow, dripping reggae-fused rhythms with a soul crooner on top. He goes by Joe Dukie, though his parents call him Dallas Tamaira, one of the seven New Zealanders that comprise FFD that descend from the Maoris, which helps account for their rootsy vibe in a thoroughly contemporary construct. A song like "Boondigga," featuring sweetly tinkered horns, could be something Otis Redding made forty years on. "The Raft" is FFD's most Rastafied cut here; "Big BW" is an R&B classic with its deliberately meandering opening. FFD swings electronic (they jokingly told me their next record was going to be "country techno"): the house tempo track, "Shiverman," and the German-influenced "Wild Wind" are both winners. Alice Russell joins for the nearly ten-minute "The Camel," and the band closes with one of the most beautiful songs I've heard this decade, the thoughtfully atmospheric "Breakthrough."
While Bassekou Kouyaté may not have reached the level of FFD in his home country of Mali, he is certainly a minor deity, at the very least. Segu Blue is, hands down, one of the best African albums I own. I was excited to receive his latest, I Speak Fula, for three reasons. One, it's Bassekou Kouyaté. Secondly, I found it very interesting that Sub Pop was releasing it. (Segu Blue was never released in the US; I'm guessing the recent success of Tinariwen at Coachella and being named Album of the Year by Uncut opened up many an American rocker to dreams of Africa.) Tres, the guest list: Kasse Mady Diabaté, Toumani Diabaté, Andra Kouyaté, Vieux Farka Touré, Harouna Samaké, Zoumana Tereta, and Dramane Ze Konaté. These are some of the heaviest local hitters.
Kouyaté's of the griot lineage; storytelling is genetically included in the deal. He's lived up to this role beautifully. He plays the n'goni, a small guitar-sized stringed lute that crosses into bass frequencies. His wife, Amy Sacko, sings on his two albums; her regal voice has awarded her the nomination of being "Tina Turner of Mali." I concur. Her performance on "Musow," with its electrifying n'goni/guitar solo, is my evidence. While I loved Segu Blue for its slower moments (of which I Speak Fula exhibits plenty), the real charm of his latest is in the upbeat tracks. Preparing for a US tour featuring stringed voyager Belá Fleck, Kouyaté himself seems to have caught the rock bug. To hear that kind of shredding on African folk instruments is to enter an entirely new phase of sonic evolution. We move ahead bravely, happily.
If we're talking smoking African music, we need mention Ghana Special: Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds, Ghanaian Blues 1968-1981, part of Soundway Records continual determination of bringing classics from the '60s and '70s to modern ears. These compilations are no random collections. This edition, for example, included a decade of research and listening, which shows in these thirty-three tracks spread over two albums. While it does not scorch like its forebear (Nigeria Special), the "blues" in the title speaks it all: the slowed down "Ohiani Sua Efir" by Asaase Ase is a gorgeous midtempo cruiser, with a hypnotic guitar and conga interplay. Yet there is plenty to dance to: The Sweet Talks' "Akampanye," with its James Brown-ish keyboards and funky horn lines is a great track to jump to. Ghana is the land of the modern strut music, hip-life, an inventive take on the indigenous guitar-driven hi-life with American-influenced rap. Listening to this exceptional collection offers us a chance to hear what led to such cross-cultural (in a sense; hip-hop did essentially evolve from the griots) collaborations in the first place.
Dancing is a great segue into the new album by Romanian Balkan group, Mahala Rai Banda. I've been onto this band since Shantel produced and released "Iest Sexy" on Electric Gypsyland, around the same time that the band dropped "Mahalageasca," one of the best Balkan dance songs I've ever heard. They're young and voracious on stage, representing the best of where the traditional wedding and funeral music is going. The title of their latest, Ghetto Blasters, is partly ironic. Denoting '80s style boomboxes that blasted hip-hop, Mahala sounds little like what you'd expect to come out of that name, and yet the idea of blasting music makes perfect sense, given how LOUD those horn lines are. They do share a common love with hip-hop's roots ("Balkan Reggae"), yet even that song is much more Eastern European than Bronxian. This band creates sing along hits ("Zabrakadabra") which, with its big band jazz horn section, leaves the listener thumbing along after its four-and-a-half minutes have expired. Mahala Rai Banda is one of the most exciting projects arising from the Balkan scene today, and Ghetto Blasters is certain to beckon their ever growing audience in droves. 12/05/09 >> go there