Selected by Dominic Valvona, Matt Oliver and Gianluigi Marsibilio.





The decision making process: 

Being the exhaustive and eclectic set of features our (choice) albums of the year are, we know you probably don’t need to or want to dally about reading a long-winded prognosis of our judgement process. But here it is anyway.

Continuing to shy away from fatuous rating systems and ‘best of lists’, the Monolith Cocktail endeavors to offer a more visceral and personal spread of worthy ‘choice’ picks, with no album dominating or holding any particular numbered position – unlike most of our contemporaries lists, stuck with the ridiculous task, for example, of explaining why one album is more deserving of their fatuous numbered spot than another.

With no hierarchical order, we’ve lined our album choices up alphabetically; split into two features – A (Idris Ackamoor) to M (The Moonwalks), andN (Thomas Nation) to (Thom Yorke) Z.

All of our favourite new and reissued albums and EPs from 2018 are of course considered to be the most interesting, vibrant and dynamic of the year’s releases. But the best? Granted, to make this list you have to have made some sort of impact, but we’d never suggest these entries were categorically the best albums of 2018: even if that might be true. Instead our list is an indicator of our amorphous tastes, rounding up another year in the life of the Monolith Cocktail, and we hope, introducing you to titles and artists/bands that may have dropped below the radar or got lost in the noise of more commercial better promoted releases.

All selections have been made by me (Dominic Valvona), Matt Oliver and Gianluigi Marisibilio.

A.

Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids ‘An Angel Fell’ (Strut Records) 

 

Serving a worthy musical apprenticeship from and imbued by the masters Coltrane, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Cecil Taylor, the polymath musician, activist, director of The Pyramids ensemble and torchbearer of spiritual and Afrofuturist jazz, Idris Ackamoor once more makes holy communion with the cradle of civilisation on the lamentable An Angel Fell. Imploring a unified message, a connectivity, a reminder that we can all trace our ancestry back to the same place, Ackamoor follows up on ‘We All Be Africans’ with an epic sweeping album of Afro-jazz 2-Step ‘Warrior Dances’ and plaintive primal jazz catharsis.

Walking through the Valley of The Kings; sailing aboard Sun Ra’s Arkestra; conducting the empyrean; evoking Kuti’s Lagos Afrobeat jive; Ackamoor and his troupe traverse the mismia of a broken, corrupt world, delivering cries of anguish and auguers aplenty. Whether penning requiems to the gunned-down black victims of the US Justice system (‘Soliloquy For Michael Brown’), or in radiant prayer (‘Sunset’), they effortlessly and wondrously summon forth the leading lights of each musical genre they inhabit. Afrobeat, gospel, spiritual, funk, blues, future-past-present all come together in one of the year’s most important, enlightening and defining opuses.

(Dominic Valvona)

Ammar 808 ‘Maghreb United’  (Glitterbeat Records)


 

Throwing the traditional unwieldy Maghreb, before it was demarcated and split into colonial spheres of influence, back together again in the name of progress and unity, Sofyann Ben Youssef fuses the atavistic and contemporary. With past form as one half of the Bargou 08 partnership that gave a modern electric jolt to the isolated, capitulating Targ dialect ritual of the Bargou Valley on the northwestern Tunisia and Algeria border, Youssef under the moniker of Ammar 808 once again propels the region’s diverse etymology of languages, rhythms and ceremony into the present, or even future: hopefully a more optimistic one.

Jon Hassell’s ‘possible musics’ meets Major Lazer, the traversing adaptations from the Gnawa, Targ and Rai traditions and ritual are amorphously swirled or bounced around in a gauze of both identifiable and mystically unidentifiable landscapes. Mixing modern R&B, dub, electro effects with the dusky reedy sound of the evocative gasba and bagpipe like zorka, and a range of earthy venerable and yearning vocals from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria artists, Youssef distorts, amps up or intensifies a resonating aura of transformative geography and time.

Nothing short of visionary. Full review…

(DV)


Angels Die Hard ‘Sundowner’  (Jezus Factory Records)


 

Admittedly taking some time to grow on me, the Angels Die Hard combo’s Monsterism Island meets Les Baxter ethnographic phantasm of a remote Southeast Asian archipelago instrumental concept album, Sundowner, has finely unfurled its full magic: just in time to be included in the annual albums of the year features.

Imbued with a legacy of progressive, alt-rock, psych, exotica and post-punk influences plus Julian Cope’s Krautrock compendium, the Angels transduce and channel a cornucopia of styles once more as they soundscape the tropical island of Andaman. An environmental clarion call as much as a progressive rocking exotica, Sundowner is dedicated, at least partially, to the environmental tragedy of the plastic-strewn oceans.

Beachcombing a radioactive luminous landscape of musical opportunity, from bummer downers to mind-expanding space rock jams, these Angels expand their horizons (literally), on the band’s best album to date. Some ideas work better than others of course, but when they do get it right they produce some fantastic opuses of amorphous abandon. Full review…

(DV)


Any Other ‘Two, Geography’  (42 Records)


The story of Adele Nigro (Any Other) is made of beautiful songs originating from a desire to subvert a rather conservative musical culture, just like the Italian one.

2018 has given us many beautiful pieces, of the most varied atmospheres, but to find a compact and complete album in each of its parts, touch refuge in Two, Geography (42 Records).

The numerous collaborations that Any Other has collected, as a musician, in recent years, have been invaluable to develop, refine and embellish her poetics.

The sonorities of the album are very distinct, and at the same time loquaciously soaked by all the experiences brought on stage (or in the studio) during the year that is inexorably past.

With Two, Geography, however, there is more, Adele coming out with her head held high, they are not only beautiful pieces that stand out for their immediacy and vitality, but also the international character of the project.

Any Other’s work was immediately presented as something else, for depth and acuity, starting from that ‘Roger Roger, Commander’ or from the same singles who announced Two, Geography.

The simplicity in intertwining linear arpeggios, bright rhythmic lines and a voice, both delicate and particular, makes us immediately think of the disc in a different way, we immediately understand that such a sound must be appreciated with attention and in its various nuances.

Since the first bars of ‘Silently. Quietly. Going Away’ (the first work of Any Other) you could see her skill in shaping a song form as a real opportunity for musical and textual speculation.

The song ‘Capricorn No’ is a monument of modernity that comes on, not only for its immediate and deep style, but because it plays with the atmosphere that you can hardly expect from an Italian artist.

The work as a whole is a challenge, a part of  a musical resistance, a progressive push in the sea magnum of ideas that too often settle down, even in brilliant artists.

Any Other is the 2018, the beautiful and fundamental face to make us remember that, all in all, this year went well.

(Gianluigi Marsibilio)


B.

Anton Barbeau ‘Natural Causes’ (Beehive/Gare du Nord)


 

Ian Hunter via Robyn Hitchcock via Luke Haines via Julian Cope, wrapped inside an enigma, the Sacramento born, Berlin-based, Anton Barbeau changes his style of delivery repeatedly yet always maintains an idiosyncratic ingenuity in whatever he does. The results of an aborted project under the Applewax banner, made in the run up to the 2016 US elections, Natural Causes is the reflective, more open antithesis to what would have been a far darker and mournful proposition. Richly melodious and halcyon, this most brilliant new collection finds Barbeau both transforming some of the back catalogue (for the better) and penning new glorious sounding maverick pop songs: The quality of which are cerebral, memorable, melodic but also adventurous and inventive.

Barbeau and a congruous cast of guests lend a touching caress to a songbook of contemporary surreal lyrical musings and love songs. Unrushed, even breezy in places but hardly lacking intensity, there’s an air of nostalgia in homages to the radio stations and DJs that first sparked interest in the young Barbeau on the Hunter fronts Tom Petty band finale Down Around The Radio. And with a nod to one of the music cannons greatest ever records, The Beatles Sgt. Pepper kaleidoscope, a stab at a popsike hit (a missing link from one of Strange Days magazines 80s halcyon compilations) is made with a song that was originally written to be recorded at the venerated Fab Fours’ inner sanctum of Abbey Road, with the quirky Disambiguation.

Fans of Barbeau will be once again charmed by his unique songwriting abilities, and those still unfamiliar with the inimitable generation X artist of renown will find much to love about his psychedelic pop genius. Full review…

(DV) 


MC Paul Barman ‘Echo Chamber’  (Mello Music Group)

“Potent politics, funky lounge lizard off-the-tops and bizarre hypotheses, burrowing its way through the toughest of leather bound volumes to have you picking the bones out for weeks on end” RnV May 18

In many ways this is the consummate Paul Barman album, but it bears repeating straight off the bat, while trying super hard to not sound incredulous, that ‘Echo Chamber’ features production from ?uestlove, DOOM and Prince Paul (funky/sidekick status, from stoop to playground), with additional contributions from Mark Ronson (upping the ludicrousness with a tweak of The Ronettes’ ‘Sleigh Ride’), Masta Ace and Open Mike Eagle. That’s some serious string pulling from an explicitly cult concern only reinforcing his standards in lewdness and a smart Aleck riot act both downplaying and toadying a racing IQ (his relocation to Mello Music Group keeps him in his own lane as well). Ridiculous as ever with the dictionary and remaining a brilliant observer – see ‘Youngman Speaks on Race’, and ‘Commandments’ going one better by taking the Decalogue to Sesame Street and Biggie’s Bed-Stuy – Barman carries on making the longest of long shots with battle raps that’ll bamboozle and WTF one-liners that Jackanory or congress will sadly never benefit from. Bigger, better and geekier than ever.



Bixiga 70 ‘Quebra Cabeça’ (Glitterbeat Records)


 

Translating as the ‘puzzle’, Bixiga 70‘s latest album is a full 360-degree panoramic evocation (both joyful and lamentable) of their homeland’s African roots. Translating those roots, an ancestry that runs through many of the band members (some individuals descended from the Africa-Caribbean religion of ‘candomble’ for instance), Bixiga are also inspired on this journey by some of the highly talented artists they’ve shared various stages with over the years. Artists such as the Ghanaian highlife singer Pat Thomas, the Nigerian sublime traversing saxophonist legend Orlando Julius and Brazilian octogenarian star João Donato. Incorporating the lot they merge their brass-y signature carnival funk and shaking Afrobeat sass with cosmic voodoo, Afro-jazz and sloping funk.

The quality as always shines through on every track, with the visions and evocations of both Africa and Bixiga’s city home of Sao Paulo articulated by an energetic but also ruminating soundtrack of the tribal, funky, cosmic, tropical, gospel and ritual. The slave portal of Benin, further outlying deserts of the sub-Sahara and busy rhythmic bustles of Nigeria are channeled via the melting pot hubs of Brazil on the group’s most epic, ancestral and geographical straddling album. It only remains to see just how great it will sound live on stage. Full review…

(DV)



The Bordellos ‘Debt Sounds’ 

Brian Bordello ‘The Death Of Brian Bordello’  (Metal Postcard Records)


 

In a parallel universe the Jesus And Mary Chain never left East Kilbride; Julian Cope never formed the Teardrop Explodes; and Brian Wilson was in fact born in St. Helens in the late 1960s, and recorded all his opusus on a Tascam four-track, inspired by Mark E Smith. This alternative world is one the dysfunctional family circle The Bordellos inhabit. Probably the best lo fi rock’n’roll-meets-post-punk-meets-the-Spaceman 3 hapless band you’ve never heard of, the prolific group, headed by the patriarchal masthead Brian Bordello, have been luridly, sinisterly, laughably and pessimistically knocking-out their brand of disgruntled alternative yearnings for a decade or more with little attention from anyone other than us loyal fans – who probably need our heads examined in all honesty. You either get them or you don’t. And you could find some of their more confrontational dark humour (songs about the BBC killing John Peel, still loving the musical cannon of Gary Glitter, and on this album, Debt Sounds, some sinister predatory sexual allured shclock about Rolf Harris) too unsettling, even perverse.

Debts Sounds, in the manner of a Half Man Half Biscuit play-on-words, is The Bordellos low cost Pet Sounds. That may not be initially obvious. But stay with me on this one. Fashioned and realised by Brian from the band members and even affiliates, girlfriends and whatnots various outpourings and late night sessions into a most epic song book of unrequited love, sick love, obsessed love, compromised love, salacious love, and even some tender love – they excel themselves on the laid bare and touching ‘Spirograph’ and quasi-Beatles ‘My Life’ meets the hardened north romanticism of ‘I May Be Reborn’ (Take this for a line: “Every smoking chimney my Statue of Liberty”), Debt Sounds is full of great maverick performances and songwriting, made in a period of crisis, anxiety and manic depression. Ok…so more Don Van Vliet than Brian Wilson, but still a valid comparison.

Whereas will you hear odes, homages and eulogies to Jimmy Campbell and Faron’s Flamingos to a back track featuring vague indifferent shades of Thom Yorke, Cope, Velvet Underground, Red Crayola, Joy Division and the The Seeds? Nowhere that’s where. Brian Bordello’s Track-by-track breakdown…

Knocking out records on a whim, it seems inconceivable that the leader of the Bordellos has never actually released a solo effort until this year (and only a few weeks from the end of 2018). Paring down, enverated, Brian Bordello steps outside the family unit on his debut solo, The Death Of... Not expecting many flowers on that graveside elegy of a album title, Brian takes a sort of reflective pause and looks back on a litany of tropes that have come to encapsulate his resigned fatalism. With only a clipped, rough and unguarded acoustic guitar and his trusted Tascam for company, Brian pays tribute to rock’n’roll icons Eddie Cochran (again) and Mark E Smith (who Brain thinks should be canonised as a saint); wears his heart on his sleeve cooing songs about lingering memories of bunk-ups, unrequited wooing gone wrong and lost kitchen sink romances; and languishly but candidly weary sonnets on depression.

As lo fi as it can get, Brian’s most intimate, personal performances yet strip away all the caustic dissonance and fuzz to reveal his most brilliant songwriting. The Death Of is an often beautifully morose songbook that lays bare the talents of a true uncompromising outsider.

(DV)


Brace! Brace! ‘S/T’ (Howlin Banana)


 

Producing gorgeous hues of softened psychedelia, new wave, Britpop and slacker indie rock, this young but sophisticated band effortlessly melt the woozy and dreamy with more punchier dynamic urgency on their brilliant debut album.

Squirreled away in self-imposed seclusion, recording in the Jura Mountains, the isolation and concentration has proved more than fruitful. Offering a Sebastian Teller fronts Simian like twist on a cornucopia of North American and British influences, Brace! Brace! glorious debut features pastel shades of Blur, Gene, Dinosaur Jnr., Siouxsie And The Banshees (check the “I wrecked your childhood” refrain post-punk throb and phaser effect symmetry guitar of ‘Club Dorothée’ for proof) and the C86 generation. More contemporary wafts of Metronomy, Mew, Jacco Gardner, the Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Deerhunter (especially) permeate the band’s hazy filtered melodies and thoughtful prose too.

A near-perfect debut album, an introduction to one of the most exciting new fuzzy indie-pop bands of the moment. Full review…

(DV)



Apollo Brown & Joell Ortiz ‘Mona Lisa’ (Mello Music Group)



“Rugged but always smooth, reflective with a forked tongue…there’s a lot of comfort to be taken from the union of two opposing authority figures exercising supreme quality control” – RnV Nov 18

This duo’s mutual will to only work with the elite – Joell Ortiz as a member of Slaughterhouse, Apollo Brown extending his collaborative run after shared albums with Skyzoo, Ghostface Killah, Ras Kass, Planet Asia – is head start number one. Yes these are extremely experienced experts in their field who shouldn’t drop the ball, but 12 tracks, one emcee and one producer, two guests maximum, and everything absolutely finely tuned is still the best advantage to press home. A steadiness to both performances has BPMs instantly finding their sweet point so instrumental richness can build, settle, simmer and seduce, and vocals slip straight into the pocket housing an imperceptible line between recognition and vengeance. The introspection of ‘Mona Lisa’ pays respects with a feeling that it doesn’t pay to dwell, that while everything may be upbeat and secure – visuals of sauntering down a street and coloured in something like a high definition sepia – slippery slopes, with ‘Cocaine Fingertips’ the album’s most rotten apple and situations like the bittersweet resonance of ‘That Place’, are always around the corner. Another win for the seemingly indefatigable Mello Music Group as well.

(Matt Oliver)


C.

The Cold Spells  ‘S/T’  (Gare du Nord)


Esoterically gentle and wistful, The Cold Spells debut long player is a gauze-y organic and ambiguous (to a point) affair of undulating ‘moss covered’ circuitry, folk, quintessential English psych, paisley patterned hallucinogens and Kosmische.

Communing with the ether, connecting with the psychogeography of their chosen environment – from the soft Wiccan with forebode travail of Thomswood Hill to the alluded-to abandoned mental hospital waste ground near Hainault -, a host of spirits tune in and out of the continuous, though (as we’re told) not in a linear order, flowing suite of laudanum imbued Victoriana lyricism and Beatles-esque melody.

A surprise package, quietly unassuming, the trio’s encapsulation of an age of ghostly memories – the ancestors inhabit the band’s present to address the here and now concerns of a troubled, unstable world – is magical and gently lamentable; a perfect evocation of aicd folk and pastoral esotericism, as beautifully plaintive as it is ominous.  Full review…

(DV)



D.

Die Wilde Jagd ‘Uhrwald Orange’  (Bureau B)


 

Fashioning a mysterious ‘Clockwood Orange’ world of Gothic and ominous dreamscapes, inspired by and named, in part, after the studio it was produced in, and by both the 17th century menagerie paintings of the Flemish artist Frans Snyder and the collected devotional Medieval period songs of the Llibre Vermell De Montserrat artifact, Die Wilde Jagd’s Sebastian Lee Philipp takes us on an eerie, cosmic and slinking travail through a throbbing sophisticated earthy electronic soundtrack. His musical partner on the group’s adroit debut self-titled experiment, producer Ralf Beck, is excused from the follow-up but lends out his extensive racks of vintage analogue synthesizers to Philipp, who transforms and obscures their banks of sounds into ghostly permutations, shadowy creatures and lurking, dancing and honking sonorous cries from a murky wilderness.

Uhrwald Orange is a classy imagined score, balancing cool, gleaming and aloof German electronica with menacing, nocturnal earthiness, yet also reaching for the celestial. One minute imbued with hints of Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Eno, Cluster, and Faust, the next slinking on to the Tresor club or Basic Channel dancefloor. In short: a most impressive album. Full review…

(DV)


Dur-Dur Band ‘Dur Dur Of Somalia: Volume 1, Volume 2 And Previously Unreleased Tracks’(Analog Africa)


A highlight in a catalogue of outstanding reissues from the Analog Africa label, intrepid crate digger Samy Ben Redjeb reprises the first two volumes of Somali fusion funk music from the legendary 1980s outfit, the Dur-Dur Band. Embodying a period in the decade when Mogadishu could boast of its cosmopolitan reputation – notably the European chic Via Roma stretch in the Hamar-Weyne district, a colonnade for café culture, cinema and of course music – the hybrid Dur-Dur Band moped up the polygenesis fever of their native city with effortless aplomb during their short heyday.

Saved from ‘tape-hiss’ and ‘wobbles’, remastered to sound the best they’ve ever sounded, these curious but above all loose-limbed nuggets successfully merged a myriad of Somalia traditions with a liberal smattering of disco, reggae (via the northern part of the country’s ‘Daantho’ rhythm style; an uncanny surrogate for Jamaica’s number one export), soul and funk. Mirroring a similar fusion thousands of miles away in New York, the Dur-Dur languidly produced an electrified no wave-new wave melting pot.

Split up across a triple LP and double CD formats the Dur-Dur Band’s first two albums proper, Volumes 1 and 2, and a couple of unreleased tunes feature on this, the first in a promised series of re-issues. Released originally in 1986, the first of these and the band’s debut album, Volume 1, has a rawer unpolished but snazzy sound that saunters, skips and grooves along with aloof coolness to sweltering laidback funk; opening with the wah-wah chops and a fuzzy organ stunner, ‘Ohiyee’ , which lays down a sophisticated but explosive spiritual dance floor thriller. Volume 2 by contrast seems a little brighter and tropical; beginning as it does with the dub echoed, Trenchtown pirate radio broadcast ‘Introduction’.

Going further than most to bring the sounds of Africa to a wider audience, the Dur-Dur Band release proved to be one of the label’s most difficult, as Redjeb tackled the geopolitical fall-out of a country devastated by civil war to bring us a most unique sounding and essential collection. Full review…

(DV)

E.



Elefant ‘Konark Und Bonark’  (9000 Records)


 

Emerging from the Belgium underground scene, with members from a myriad of bands, each one more obscure than the next, the Elefant in this room is a twisted agit-post-punk, boiler come forensic team suited troop of noise peddlers. Lurking around basement venues for a while now, the sludge metal and gallows Krautrock merchants have released a slurry of EPs but never a fully realized album until now.

For an album that grapples with Marilyn Manson, Swans, Killing Joke, Muse, industrial contortions and Germanic experimentation, Konark Und Bonark is a very considered, purposeful statement. Though things get very heavy, implosive and gloomy and the auger like ghosts in the vocals can sound deranged, there is a semblance of melody, a tune and hint of breaking through the confusing, often pummeling, miasma of artificial intelligence armageddon.

A seething rage is tightly controlled throughout, the sporadic flits and Math Rock entangled rhythms threatening to engulf but never quite reaching an overload, or for that matter, becoming a mess. Elefant’s prowling and throbbing sound of creeping menace and visions of an artificial intelligent domineering dystopia is an epic one. Arguably the band have produced their most ambitious slog yet and marked themselves out as one of Belgium’s most important exports of 2018. Full review…

(DV)


Bernard Estardy ‘Space Oddities: 1970-82’ (Born Bad)

‘Fragmented D’une Empreinte Magnétique: Rares 1966-2006’ (Gonzai Records)  


 

Because sometimes you just can’t decide, I’ve chucked in two reappraisal celebrating compilations of the odd, curious, thrilling and kitsch flights of fantasy musical fragments/sketches/soundtracks/compositions from the late and most gifted venerated French composer Bernard Estardy. I can’t even claim that these are great collections, let alone the best albums of the year, but they’ve kept me smiling all year.

Nicknamed ‘The Baron’, the founder of the CBE recording studio (which he set up in 1966) collaborated with a host of famous French icons in his time (arranging, producing or sound engineering for Johnny Hallyday, Francoise Hardy, Nino Ferrer, Michel Sardou and Jean Guidoni amongst others), but found an unleashed creative freedom as the master of consoles on his own excursions and dream flights of curiosity. Enjoying a resurrection of a sort in 2018, in part down to his daughter Julie Estardy‘s biography ‘The Giant’, Bernard’s eclectic back catalogue, from the realised to cutting room floor, is being reissued or rediscovered by a new generation through a number of different labels, both in France and internationally.

Two such compilations swept me up in their bombast; the first an album that couldn’t be described any better than the title it comes with, Space Oddities, and the second, Fragmented D’une Empreinte Magnétiquea Gauloises hotbed of weepy venerated organ romanticism and salacious sleek soundtracks. The first takes library music to the stars and beyond on a sassy opulent voyage of esoteric cosmic discovery. Jazz meets deep space on a drum-heavy collection of mysterious thrillers, phantasms and exotic awe. Tracks such as the more romantic, flute-y glide in space blues ‘Slow Very Slow’ sound like they could have made it to the ears of Goldfrapp or Greg Foat. The second of the pairing frequents more Earthy realms, pitching gospel with Bacharach yearnings, sentimental laments (the torn love soliloquy ‘It’s A Lovely Day To Die’ sums it up perfectly) and the strangest of deep-chested sung French cowboy soundtracks (A very Parisian journey to buy your ciggies, ‘La Route Au Tabac’, is rerouted through a lonesome pine trail).  Both are as brilliant as they are audacious; a refreshing escapism and proof of a unique talent.

(DV) 


Evidence ‘Weather or Not’ (Rhymesayers)



“From the moment he draws first breath on ‘Weather or Not’, Evidence embarks on a masterclass” – RnV Feb 18

A meteorological masterpiece showing that it’s rarely sunny in LA, whenever it rains it pours, and that Evidence is always bringing the weather with him. Ever laconic but whose economy of words is always wisely directed and word association seems slight but cuts deep, Ev walks the streets with collar up and hands dug into pockets, seemingly always in search of a contentment whose elusiveness he’s fine with. This prolongs a character pairing the enigmatic with a spokesman calling it straight down the line (“things I never thought about, trying to be elusive in the process, get forgot about”), a wallowing wanderer with whiplash in the tale and forever in control of his destiny (feel the tempered triumph of the concluding ‘By My Side Too’). A spread of AM band forecasts, a splash of psychedelic epiphanies and head nodders that buck like a bronco from Premier, Nottz and Babu, plus some Step Brothers espionage from Alchemist, allow the Dilated Peoples man to find you: because ‘Weather or Not’, you can’t run, you can’t hide.

(MO)


F.

Flora Fishbach ‘À Ta Merci’  (Blue Wrasse)


 

The French music press we’re told have fallen hook, line and synth for the alluring contralto voice of Flora Fishbach, who’s 80s revisionist pop twist on chanson oozes with such sophistication that its difficult not to embrace. Fishbach picked up the album révélation award at the Le Prix des Indés for best independent debut LP, winning high praise and plaudits galore ever since. Looking to make a similar impact across the Channel, the ‘bohemian darling’ has just released a deluxe edition of her electro pop requiem À Ta Merci. That decision is more or less echoed in the album’s title, which translates as, “at your mercy”.

Featuring the original running order and a bonus septet of gorgeous live recordings, this aloofly chic, yet theatrical, and especially when performing, animated album recasts Françoise Hardy as a disco pop and electro swooned crooner. Effortlessly channeling the vaporous dreamy pining of Kazu Makino on the moon dust sprinkled fantasy title-track and ambient textured, synthesizer bass bubbling yearned lament ‘Un beau langage’, and a Gallic Alison Goldfrapp on the opening ice-y cool malady ‘Ma voie lactée’, Fishbach adds a French nuance and sensibility to the synthesized pop ascetic: a signature you could say that despite the revivalist backing of electronic drum pads, post-punk sass, Moroder arpeggiator, Rococo harpsichord and hi-energy is unmistakably contemporary and French.

With the momentum already building in France and with the recent runaway success of music press darling Christine And The Queens (who I personally find utterly dull) I’m sure the UK will embrace this sophisticated chanteuse. This is overwhelmingly a better, more fun record than Christine’s (or the name she’s now adopted, Chris). Fishbach has certainly impressed me enough – what’s not impressive about referencing the philosophical aloof quandary that is Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” (“I am another”) on a tropical slinking crystalline pop song, Un Autre Que Moi (“Another Me”) – to recommend her as one to watch in 2019. Full review…

(DV)


Fliptrix ‘Inexhale’ (High Focus)



“‘Inexhale’ masters the art of knocking you down with a feather: the pugilistic psychoanalysis is untouchable” – RnV Sept 18

It’s a little disingenuous to say Fliptrix became the High Focus main man this year, given he’s the driving force behind the label and already has a back catalogue of textbook pen and pad amplification. What with the label’s ever bubbling pool of talent seeing Ocean Wisdom blazing all and sundry, Jam Baxter expanding his cult appeal and two late night smokers from Coops, ‘Inexhale’ could’ve played the holding role and sat in the pack. But with breath control putting a copyright on the title and not a single word wasted, it’s an album that will leave you levitating. Be that from his street level strain of spirituality – letting the sharp end of something herbal work him over, or thoroughly aware of the rights and wrongs of his surroundings – or from the velocity of what’s spat (‘Inside the Ride’ doesn’t and won’t ever flop). Then flipping what the surroundings suggest, and never getting lost in the haze even with eyes at the reddest, Fliptrix finds the perfect medium between headphone moments and smacks to the head.

(MO)


Fofoulah ‘Daega Rek’  (Glitterbeat Records)  


 

Bustling onto the transglobal London and Bristol scenes in 2014 with their earthy and urban bombastic fusion of Wolof African culture and dub electronica rich debut LP, the Fofoulah ensemble laid down the template for the a unique adventurous sound. Though taking its time to materialize, four years on, the follow-up album hasn’t just moved on but supersonically zoomed into the experimental void; even an esoteric, spiritual one at times.

Daega Rek, ‘the truth’ when translated from the Wolof language of coastal West Africa, sees Fofoulah’s saxophonist, keyboardist and producer Tom Challenger transmogrify the original Gambian talking drum of the group’s shamanistic rapping lead Kaw Secka and the accompanying percussion and propulsive drumming rhythms of his band members. (All of which were laid down at the Real World studios). Secka would then reappear in post-production to record his half spoken/half-rapped protestations and observations; the results all re-shaped into a ricocheting lunar-tropical bounding dub cosmology.

Skipping and skittish in motion; pushing the envelope as they pay tribute to lost brothers (‘Kaddy’ pays 2-Step rhythmic eulogy to the late photographer Khadija Saye who died in the Grenfell Tower disaster), the visceral taste of home (‘Chebou Jaine’ dedicated to Secka’s cousin, who cooked the best national Gambian dish) and search for the truth, Fofoulah lunge into the electrified dub ether of sonic adventure. Full review…

(DV)


G.

Goatman ‘Rhythms’  (Rocket Recordings)


 

An amorphous exploration of world ‘rhythms’ as transduced by one the mysterious Scandinavian GOAT band members through a an arsenal of filters, modulators and oscillations, the debut Goatman suite blends its polygenesis inspirations perfectly.

Offering up magical and scintillating rhythms galore, from Kuti’s compound Afrobeat to a tremolo and laser bouncing variant of RAM’s Haiti vibe, you can expect to hear the venerable tones of gospel, jazz, reggae, psych and pure ethereal acoustic Kosmische on this sonic flight of fantasy. Earthy yet light enough to soar, this impressive experiment side-project channels its influences perfectly to conjure up new musical ideas. Echoes of GOAT are never far away of course, yet this imaginative take feels more natural, more organic, and above all, more soulful. A fantastic debut.

(DV)


H.

 

Jack Hayter ‘Abbey Wood’ (Gare du Nord)


 

Bringing light, or at least opening up a psycho-geographical narrative dedicated to the very edges of a largely ignored London postcode – so far out on the South Eastern outskirts as to be part of Kent –, an earnest Jack Hayter composes a yearning lament to Abbey Wood on what is his first solo album in fifteen years.

Hayter’s deftly played, with twangs of bucolic and Baroque folk, blues, synthesized atmospherics, Americana and reverent chamber music, multilayered songbook connects with the psychogeography of his chosen location. From songs about the Abbey Wood diaspora and its position as a gateway to the world to laying cooing elegiac wreaths to those unfortunate victims of the WWII Arandora Star passenger ship tragedy, Hayter produces a lived-in musical novel, rich with references, landmarks and peopled by those who left an indelible, if at times fleeting, mark upon this much forgotten or passed over postcode: their ghosts, no matter how small the part they played in its story, never inconsequential; remembered and written about with a certain gravitas by the erstwhile troubadour, who performs the most accomplished and brilliant of testaments.  Full review…

(DV)


Homeboy Sandman & Edan ‘Humble Pi’  (Stones Throw)



“A banquet of slaps that will become one of your five a day, and ultimately year” – RnV Oct 18

If seven or so tracks are good enough for Pusha T, Kanye etc, then they’re an ample fit for this elite underground swashbuckler of a showdown brought to us by the matchmaking Gods. Having flitted around the periphery for what seems forever, Edan returns with some of his best, ear-piercing archaeology to date as he shifts the B-boy-psych continuum once more; and Homeboy Sandman, both revelling in getting in the thick of it and firing off missives as he’s swept along for the ride, gets off the wall (“see me looking photogenic in the Book of Genesis, waving off medicines”), yet reels off some of the realest in recent times (it’s still, and shall remain, all about ‘Never Use the Internet Again’, which stylistically is actually a bit of a left-turn). The feeling pervades that the pair are proudly gladiatorial, indulging in friendly, unspoken competition as much as fighting the good fight as anointed hip-hop saviours. Let’s hope the sub 30-minute running time means the door is open for a second bout some time soon.

(MO)


J.

Juga-Naut & Sonnyjim ‘The Purple Door’ (Eat Good Records)



“Their usual, indomitable personas on the mic never skimp on Michelin-starred quality, and they still aren’t the ones to test if you think they’re pushing their luck” – RnV Aug 18

It’s an album largely based on elitist boasts, expensive trinkets and accessories and some pretty outlandish claims, but hey, these boys done good. Larger than life and living the playboy lifestyle making the ludicrous seem obtainable – you too can be a ‘Purple Door’ gold card holder – Juga-Naut and Sonnyjim transform the Midlands into St Tropez with a load of gala funk to make a red carpet entrance to, with just a hint of a twinkle in its eye like a felonious exile that has everyone’s backing. That said, you can’t live the life of a Rat Packer if you ain’t got the gab, and these two are no novices: the great suitability of their top table rhyme personas – Juga-Naut will have you believing every word he spits, Sonnyjim coming in dry and stonefaced yet smelling (and producing) like a million bucks – shares a love of all things gastronomic on the likes of ‘Duck Season’ that comes sweeping down a spiral staircase, while ‘Look Around’ takes a moment to act more tactfully, pledging family honour like a good fella. It might not be dining etiquette, but these two are pulling chairs from under the competition.

(MO)


Park Jiha ‘Communion’  (Glitterbeat Records)


 

Circumnavigating the globe to bring much-needed exposure to new sounds, Glitterbeat Records imprint tak:til gives a second wind to a suite of acuity serialism from Southeast Asia. Released originally in South Korea in 2016, the neo-classical musician/composer Park Jiha’s debut solo album Communion is given an international release by the label.

Inspiring what we’re told is a burgeoning Korean music scene (well, an alternative to the K-Pop craze), a chief progenitor of the movement Jiha alongside collaborative partner Jungmin Seo originally melded the country’s musical heritage with an eclectic range of contemporary sounds as the 숨[suːm] duo in 2007. Releasing the highly influential regional albums Rhythmic Space: A Pause For Breath (2010) and 2nd (2014), Park and Seo crossed the time zones to perform at both WOMAD and SXSW. Congruously putting the duo on hold to explore a more ‘personal’ and minimalistic ‘musical vocabulary’ as a solo artist, Jiha dexterously balances the air-y abstract breathes of the ‘piri’ double reed bamboo flute, the searing twang of the ‘saenghwang’ mouth organ and the softly paddled patter of the ‘yanggeum’ hammered dulcimer in what is a dialogue between a dulcet calm, the meditative and an entangled dissonance.

Transforming Korean traditions into a more experimental language that evokes the avant-garde, neo-classical and jazz yet something quite different, Park Jiha’s tranquil to entangled discourse evocations reach beyond their Southeast Asian borders both musically and metaphysically into something approaching the unique and amorphous.  Full review…

(DV)


John Johanna ‘I’ll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes’  (Faith And Industry)


 

More a mini-album, even 12″ to be contrary, the beautifully cooed, warbled and ached venerable I’ll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes is nothing less than an afflatus anointed paean to a higher purpose. Informed by the mystical cosmology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, John Johanna‘s spiritual blues-y and gospel rock’n’rock hymns are both diaphanous and mesmerizing, even hypnotic; recalling visages of Morricone, Fleetwood Mac, Terakaft, Dirtmusic and Wovenhand as it wanders a picturesque but troubled soundscape.

On the devotional pilgrimage, the troubadour of the most evocative, stirring country burr, switches between aching falsetto yearning to lovelorn cowboy on the Andes romanticised cooing, and from the ethereal to fraught, as he makes communion.

No two songs are quite the same, as the wooing rustic sits next to (what can only be described as) the holy desert rock fusion of Native Indian and Afro-beat title track, and Bossa shuffle meets Yonatan Gat raindance. It all congruously comes together in one most divine service. A minor masterpiece.

(DV)


M.

Marlowe (L’Orange & Solemn Brigham) ‘Marlowe’  (Mello Music Group)



“Both excel in never revealing what’s steaming around the next corner, even when you’ve grabbed your toothcomb for the umpteenth time” – RnV July 18

Another yearly round up, another L’Orange inclusion. North Carolina stands up as latest collaborator Solemn Brigham rhymes his ass off: weirdly, without necessarily feeding off what the producer is trawling, and helping create something of an odd couple match made in heaven. L’Orange sets the scene, usually a funky hoedown, a sample-heavy brouhaha anticipating a stand-off or a psychedelic neck-snap. As is his wont, there’s a narrative to be spun, or some simple time-travelling to be done where no two bops are the same. Brigham on the other hand, blurbed as “summoning the holy spirit of Big L” without getting sucked into the danger zone, just jumps in with a garrulous B-boy stance and goes for it. Without L’Orange surrounding him in a world of imagination, give Brigham a park bench and a ghettoblaster and the results would be the same. What he does guarantee is that you’ll be going back to what he has to say, and whatever the variables, the energy and entertainment (grounded surrealism?) never dips. L’Orange may have found himself an emcee to keep on retainer.   

(MO)


Hugh Masekela ’66-‘76’ (Wrasse Records)


 

A most poignant and timely reminder of one of the true greats, the mammoth 66-’76 collection shows a multifaceted Hugh Masekela: The exile. The trumpet maestro. The bandleader. The activist. The colonial revisionist. The angry young man. But also the conciliatory. These are just some of the many faces of the South African titan of jazz and African musical fusions that can be found inside the latest essential collection of the late great polymaths’ back durable catalogue.

Put together especially by Masekela and his good friend, producer and collaborator on a number of projects together, Stewart Levine, just before he passed away at the beginning of this year, the three disc spanning collection features key tracks from many of his most iconic and experimental albums (two of which are included in their entirety). But what makes this especially appealing to collectors and fans alike, is that many of these albums were never officially released in the UK and Europe before. Progressing in the chronological order they were recorded, we follow Masekela’s journey not just musically but politically across his most formative decade and his partnership with Levine and collaborations with such legendary ensembles as the Hedzoleh Soundz combo. From the combined jazz and Township fusions of The Emancipation Of Hugh Masekela all the way to criss-crossing the transatlantic slave routes on Colonial Man, this collection is a sheer joy. Full review…

(DV)



(MO)

Brona McVittie ‘We Are The Wildlife’

With the lightest, most deft of touches, Irish songstress and harpist Brona McVittie embarks on a voyage of ‘psycho-geographic’ inspired encapsulations of a mysterious, magical landscape and history on her debut album, We Are The Wildlife.

Tracing the sonic contours of London’s urban fringes and the rural landscapes of Mourne, McVittie pitches her fluttery diaphanous harp-led songbook somewhere between post-folk and the cinematic – helped along in part by the drifting trumpet evocations of film composer Hutch Demouilpied, who’s contributions sound at times like Miles Davis Dingo transported to an Irish peat bog.

Her ephemeral harp melodies and phrases often feel like a breath or just the merest hazy lingering presence of the instrument, which might in some ways be down to McVittie’s technique of playing them all on the guitar first before transcribing over. It certainly offers a different perspective and technique. And it certainly takes this heavenly traditional instrument into even more mystical, accentuate abstract realms, helped of course by an accompaniment of meadow flute (Keiron Phelan), sad bowed delicate strings (Richard Curran), searching fleeting slide-guitar and shuffling to full-on breakbeat drums (Myles Cochran). All of which amorphously pushes the often-ancient feelings and geography towards John Martyn and Bert Jansch one minute, towards the Incredible String Band or trip-hop the next.

Played with the lightest of touches, McVittie’s wildlife and Celtic inspired filmscape subtly crafts tradition into a cerebral suite of neo-classical and ambient folk. We Are The Wildlife is the most inviting and unique of debuts. Full review…



(DV)

Minyeshu ‘Daa Dee’ (ARC Music)


 

From the tentative first steps of childhood to the sagacious reflections of middle age, the sublime Ethiopian songstress Minyeshu Kifle Tedla soothingly, yearningly and diaphanously articulates the intergenerational longings and needs of belonging on her epic LP, Daa Dee.

Minyeshu left her native Ethiopia in 1996, but not before discovering and then learning from such acolytes as the doyen of the country’s famous Ethio-Jazz scene, Mulatu Astatke, and the choreographer Tadesse Worku and singers Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahun Gessesse and Bizunesh Bekele. First moving to Belgium and then later to the Netherlands, the burgeoning star of the Ethiopian People To People music and dance production has after decades of coming to terms with her departure finally found a home: a self-realization that home wasn’t a geographical location after all but wherever she felt most comfortable and belonged:“Home is me!”

Evoking that sense of belonging and the theme of roots, but also paying a tribute and lament to the sisterhood, Minyeshu conveys with a sauntering but sorrowful jazzy blues vibe not only the burden and grind of daily life for many of her compatriots back home in the tumultuous climate of a fragmented and often chaotic Ethiopia, but also the joy of song and togetherness.

Not only merging geography but musical styles too, the Daa Dee LP effortlessly weaves jazz (both Western and Ethiopian) R&B, pop, dub, the theatrical, and on the cantering to lolloping skippy ‘Anteneh (It Is You?)’, reggae. Piano, strings and brass mix with the Ethiopian wooden washint flute and masenqo bowed lute to create an exotic but familiar pan-global sound. Minyeshu produces a masterful heartwarming, sometimes giddy, swirling testament that is exciting, diverse and above all else, dynamic. Her voice is flawless, channeling various journeys and travails but always placing a special connection to and emphasis on those special roots. Full review…

(DV)


Moonwalks ‘In Light (The Scales In The Frame)’  (Stolen Body Records)


At least geographically close to the spirit of the Motor City, if generations apart, Detroit’s Moonwalks brood in the shadows of the counterculture doyens that made it such an infamous breeding ground for snarling attitude garage, psych and acid rock in the 60s and early 70s.

Transitioning, so we’re told, from ad hoc abandon warehouse performances as a diy glam psych rock troupe to experimental space rock stoners, spiraling in a vaporous gauzy vortex of 80s British Gothic and acid shoegaze influences, the Moonwalks make a certain dynamic progression on their second full length album, In Light.

Sometimes they sound like a black magic rites Byrds and at others like a doomed The Glass Family on a bum ride. Their curtain call, The Joy Of Geraniums, is the most odd song of all; taking the Moonwalks into a whistling led peyote-induced trip to the Mojave Desert.

Vocally malaise the voices waft between Siouxsie Sioux, Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy and Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell. Of course it fits the nebulous cosmic doom and dreamy psych style of the group perfectly; ambiguously drifting through magical rites and sulky pretensions aplenty. Full review…

(DV)


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COMPILATION REVIEW: DOMINIC VALVONA



Hugh Masekela   ‘’66-‘76’   Wrasse Records,  20th April 2018

Masekela as the exile. Masekela as the trumpet maestro. Masekela as the bandleader. Masekela as the activist. Masekela as the colonial revisionist. Masekela as the angry young man. These are just some of the many faces of the South African titan of jazz and African musical fusions Hugh Masekela that can be found inside the latest essential collection of the late great polymaths’ back durable catalogue, ’66-’76. Put together especially by Masekela and his good friend, producer and collaborator on a number of projects together, Stewart Levine, just before he passed away in January of 2018, this three disc spanning collection features key tracks from many of his most iconic and experimental albums (two of which are included in their entirety). What makes this especially appealing to collectors and fans alike, is that many of these albums were never officially released in the UK and Europe before. Progressing in the chronological order they were recorded, we follow Masekela’s journey not just musically but politically across his most formative decade and his collaborative partnership with Levine.

Originally crossing paths in New York in 1961, a year after Masekela first arrived in the States after narrowly avoiding arrest in his native South Africa for breaking the apartheid system draconian ‘pass laws’, Levine, a Bronx native, met the aspiring horn player as he searched for a decent break on the American east coast jazz scene. They both enrolled that same year into the Manhattan School of Music, sharing a room together. In the years to come this hotbed, an incubator for some of the greatest jazz musicians of the last five decades, would turn out countless additions to Masekela’s changing lineup of recording sessions and live backing groups. But during those initial years, Levine and Masekela would, after graduating, split and go their separate ways, pursuing different pathways: Masekela, emulating the jazz doyens that inspired him to move across the Atlantic, and Levine, choosing production.

Years later, in ’66, and sharing not only a bond of friendship but love of Africana and American music, the pair reunited to setup a production company, the intention being to make records that combined jazz, the dancing Township sounds of South Africa and the grooves and sounds of Rhythm and Blues. This partnership, fortunately funded by seed money from some generous benefactor, quickly moved its operation to the West Coast and L.A. in the fall of that same year. Christened Chisa Records, the inaugural album, The Emancipation Of Hugh Masekela (which starts off this whole collection) featured the hybrid signature sound that the company and Masekela himself would be celebrated for. And as the title makes clear, would not shy away from black consciousness issues and struggles: not only in his native homeland, but also in his exiled home of America.





Dressed up as a smiling Abraham Lincoln on the cover, this quite withheld and effortlessly played album features the ‘working group’ of Manhattan School luminaries of musicians that backed him at club spots in the infamous Watts and on Sunset Strip: Harry Bellefonte’s (who will crop up again in this story, and have much to do with Masekela through the civil rights movement) travelling bass player at the time, John Cartwright, joins congas legend Big Black, drummer Chuck Carter and pianist Charlie Smalls, whose unique and open style of playing brought gospel and a lilt of Brazil to the set up; especially on the opening sumptuous Felicade. Over seven tracks, this live recording soaks up sauntering big band Highlife (Why Are You Blowing My Mind?), calypso via Soweto, trumpet heralding lullaby (Do Me So La So So) and yearned Sun Ra breaks bread with the Last Poets hippie jazz (Child Of The Earth).

Moving on with a rotating cast of players, only Carter on drums remaining an anchor on the next trio of albums, another New Yorker, saxophonist Al Abreu, would come into the fold – a member up until his untimely tragic death in car accident just a couple years later in ’69 – joined by Cape Town pianist Cecil Barnard and L.A. local jazz bassist Henry Franklin on the dynamite live ‘67 Alive And Well At The Whiskey. As the title suggests, lighting up the Sunset Stripe institution, the Whiskey A Go Go, Masekela’s altered troupe –changed after appearing at that year’s Monterey Pop Festival – fused a lively but controlled suite of Savoy jazz meets Motown poetic lamentable peace and love; the two featured tracks here, Son Of Ice Bag and Coincidence posing the chance of a better future.

That same group, and similar theme, appears on the next album, the phenomenally successful The Promise Of A Future. Recorded in less than an hour, the defining lulled cowbell-ringing track on that album, and as it would turn out most popular selling record of his career (more than three million copies; hitting the number one spot on the American pop charts), Grazing In The Grass helped Masekela reach a bigger audience commercially but also ended up hindering him long term; the expectation to follow up its success sending the cold footed doyen of fusion towards the insular and more experimental, refusing outright to repeat the same formula. Sampled excessively by the Hip-Hop fraternity, and so once again made popular for a new generation, the recognizable candour and busyness of this track, featuring the soft yielding licks of Bruce Langhorne, would be avoided on the darker, more direct and politically motivated barbed soul Masekela LP that followed it.





Already unique, incorporating the soul of South African music with jazz, rhythm and blues and South American grooves, The Promise Of A Better Future featured some fine iterations including the tribal Pharoah Sanders spiritual longing of These Are Seeds To Sow, and Caribbean swayed Vuca.

Whilst Grazing In The Grass was enjoying its popularity in the summer of ’68, America’s civil rights movement was hit, literally, with a double tragedy. In April Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, mortally wounded on a motel balcony in Memphis, and just two months later, Bobby Kennedy joined the fate of his brother, and was shot dead at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Riots lit up across the country and to all intents and purposes it looked like a concentrated effort was being made to off the civil rights leaders and friends, and to top it all the Vietnam War. In this incubator of inflamed passions, Masekela produced an album suffused with the stench of teargas and mace. Certainly angry, yet his statement of protest and succinctly named Masekela album was far from a blistering howl of rage. Closer to his peers own cathartic jazz albums of the same era, a sense of trying to work out just what the hell was going on, it resembles a gospel lament, a bluesy funk and most cooing experiment in despair.

Covering the escalating Vietnam protests (Mace And Grenades), the gold greedy excavating harsh realities and sorrows of the a South Africa miner, and the black majority’s uneasy struggle with the Boer colonists (Gold, Boermusiek), and famous controversial figures from the Black Panther movement (Blues For Huey), Masekela was a commercial failure on its release; spooking an audience familiar with the hit record, which evidently despite its lightness and catchy feel has origins in the townships of Masekela’s native homeland. It led to an amicable but nevertheless a split with the distributors, but allowed the Masekela and Levine partnership the freedom to continue pursuing the agenda they envisioned. It’s a good place to end the first CD on, as the next chapter opens on a move towards spiritual rejuvenation in Africa.





CD number two begins with Masekela and Levine’s 1970 ‘autonomous’ distribution deal with Motown. As part of this deal they’d also record albums with the South African singer Letta Mbulu and the Texas troupe The Jazz Crusaders (also known as The Crusaders). This would prove handy; as both went on to appear on Masekela’s own records.

The inaugural Motown album, Reconstruction, features a varied songbook of Pharoah Sanders spiritual rolling jazz (Salele Mane), languid veldt swooned and sweetly laced balladry (Woza) and the most delicious sounding of earthy soul covers from the Motown cannon (You Keep Me Hangin’ On). Featuring a heavy rotation again of players and backing singers, the album showcases Masekela’s subtleties and eclecticism; merging as he does the music and soul of two continents into a most peaceable fusion.

Keeping the political language conspicuous, if anything Reconstruction concentrates on setting the vibe, the messages echoed in the diverse nature and continuous exploration of his roots.

The next album in this collection brought Masekela together with two of his fellow compatriots, Jonas Gwangwa of the Johannesburg formed Jazz Epistles and the composer and singer Caiphus Semenya. The title says it all: Hugh Masekela And The Union Of South Africa. And the music is, as you’d expect, heavy on these influences. Yet the album features those unshakable R&B licks and southern gospel organ dabs, ala Billy Preston. This is in part down to the inclusion of the Texan soul group The Crusaders, manning the rhythm section.

It’s a beautiful communion between melting funk and elliptic rhythms of South Africa; another successful crossover; rasping yearns accompanied by the snozzled affectionate and caressing trumpet of Masekela, unmistakably South African but enriched with southern funk and soul.





Returning to his jazz roots, and once again emulating two of the artists that first inspired him, Masekela’s next record would take a pause and lean heavily towards the romantic Savoy and early Blue Note jazz of Horace Silver and Art Blakey. The Home Is Where The Music Is LP is only represented by one track. But what a track it is! With Larry Willis, another Manhattan School of Music luminary, invited to add virtuoso piano; South African jazz great Dudu Phunkwana brought in on alto saxophone (Masekela especially moved operations for this record to London, home of this South African exile at the time) and future Bill Evans band member Eddie Gomez on bass, this consummate set-up created fertile ground for a diaphanous and deep suite of romantic and thoughtful jazz meditations.

Lifted from that album, Minawa showcases the cascading flow and gestured pianist skills of Willis (a member of Masekela’s first group in ’65; featured on the live album, The Americanization Of Ooga Booga), who carries the deft track for some time before Makaya Ntshoko’s tumbling and staggered drums appear and Masekela’s lilting accentuate trumpet fluctuates over the top. Gradually it builds with motion and increases in tempo and volume until striking home; the busyness calmly retreating and pace, intensity dissipated.

His next album would be very different however. Another change in direction (of a Sort), the jazz fading for a more African feel. Bound for a ‘spiritual journey back to Africa’ after spending thirteen years in America, Masekela travelled from Guinea to Liberia and Zaire searching for inspiration and the musicians that would back him on his next musical adventure. Preempted by fate, an invitation from Nigeria’s Afrobeat progenitor and lifetime ruler of the self-invented Kalakula Republic, Fela Kuti, brought Masekela to Lagos in the spring of ’73. Though enjoying his time at Kuti’s compound kingdom, he accomplished little creatively. A tip from Kuti about a must-see act, a perfect fit for Masekela’s brand of African fusions, the Ghanaian-based Hedzoleh Soundz, did however pay off.

Joining his Nigerian guide, who brought a cortège of his wives with him, Kuti took Masekela to Accra to see for himself this adulated young outfit. Catching a midnight killer set at The Napoleon Club, he was instantly hooked. And so began a congruous collaboration between the two that would last in varied formats across the next three albums.

Introducing marked that initial dynamism; Masekela channeling what would be a month-long partnership, the South African virtuoso playing with the Soundz every single night. Kuti arranged a recording session for them both at the E.M.I. studios back in Lagos in the summer of that same year. The results of which, featured in their entirety on the second CD of this collection, combine the lilting soul of South Africa with the busy tribal percussion of West Africa: The atavistic talking drums, floating flute and relaxed but tight percussion traversing Afro funk and roots music brilliantly.

Wowing those back in the States, the group would be brought over for a special tour, beginning with a performance in Washington D.C. in January of ’74, finishing with a sold-out fortnight at the famous Troubadour club in L.A.





The final section of this triple CD set opens with Masekela’s ’74 album I Am Not Afraid. Recorded immediately after the successful stateside tour with the Soundz, the cross-pollination was once more mixed up with the inclusion of Crusaders Joe Sample and Stix Hooper: Invited in to mix their infectious Texan R&B and jazz lilt with the Soundz soulful funky tribal percussions to make, what would become, a great pop record.

Included in its entirety (the second of only two such privileges), I Am Not Afraid is considered by Levine to be one of the highlights of his time producing Masekela’s most formative albums. And he’d be right. Encapsulating all the various strands thus far, the album is both a fearless but beautifully accessible work of art. The highly popular grassland hymn, come sweeping grand minor jazzy-soul opus, Stimela, is just one highlight from what is a bright African odyssey. Setting moods perfectly, following on from a theme and location that has been used time and again by all the titans of jazz, Masekela transports the listener to mysterious nights in Tunisia, the bustling kaleidoscopic ‘market place’, and tempts us through a the meandrous jungle. The swansong, Been Such A Long Time Gone, is almost a reprise of all the previous songs; a connecting final lyrical geographical journey in the sweltering heat through history, one that takes in the sight and sounds of North and West Africa; ending up drifting down the Nile towards the Fertile Crescent.





In the same year, 1974, Masekela and Levine set up the famous musical jamboree to celebrate Ali’s titanic grudge-match with Foreman in Zaire. Part of a campaign and African revolution in directing their own affairs, with now more or less every former colony of the European powers independent, the pair were, with good intentions, drawn into a feverish Zaire renaissance. The abhorrent truths of some of these regimes, notably Zaire’s own Mobutu, would years later put paid to the general optimism, but at the time in striking a coup with hosting one of the most anticipated clashes of the century the country’s capital of Kinshasa became the hottest ticket on the global stage. The same label behind this compilation also released the fruits of Masekela and Levine’s musical stage show, the Zaire ’74 soundtrack, a while back: a collection with the emphasis on the all too forgotten African acts who performed at the three day extravaganza, previously overshadowed by the stars of America, such as James Brown, and all but erased or featured sporadically in subsequent documentaries.

Returning to the states in the fall of ’74, temporarily settling in the capital, Masekela hit the ground running, assembling his new African band; first recruiting two Hedzoleh Soundz members, percussionist Asante and bassist Stanley Todd, his drummer brother Frankie and fellow Ghanaian, shekere player Odinga ‘Guy’ Warren. Recent arrivals from Nigeria, O.J. Ekemode, Yaw Opoku and Adelja Gboyega and another Ghanaian, conga maestro (famous for his turn on The Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil) Rocky Dzidzornu boosted the already dynamic and highly talented ranks. Taking this new troupe out onto the road in ’75, wowing audiences wherever they went, Masekela was soon lined-up for another recording session. Old pal and boss of the then new label Casablanca signed them up after witnessing one of these infamous performances; making them the label’s inaugural signing. The Boy’s Doin’ It is the result. Serious but funky, given a Casablanca label sheen, yet still rustically bustling and earthy, there is some very bright serenading going on: especially on the lilting homage to Mama. Masekela, as an aside, would open for the funk progenitor George Clinton on his ‘insane’ tour: the sounds of the motherland going down well with those fans of the Funkadelic and Parliament icon.

Dressed as the captain, mocking the European explorers that stamped their name and ideals on the ‘so-called’ new world, on the cover of the last album in this three-disc spanning collection, Masekela intelligently and ironically channels the Colonial Man of the title. Musically crisscrossing the slave routes from Africa to the Americas, he takes his intrepid troupe (now assembled under the OJAH moniker) on a tropical sauntered voyage.

Hardly a raging post-colonial diatribe or resented seething tide of angry protest, the album was still seen as high risk, though Casablanca gave it their blessing. Commercially it bombed. Yet it is a fantastic album. Certainly, and quite rightly, the themes of colonization, enslavement and stripping a country’s wealth had until recent times been missing the victims and poor unfortunates experiences. A vocal activist on both sides of the Atlantic (though he believed that unlike South Africa, the black population in America would always struggle for parity whilst the population was majority white European; he had more optimism for overcoming apartheid in his native homeland, returning there in the 80s), Masekela eases through the themes on this most sophisticated, longing album.

From the salty sea foam lullaby sauntering of making it ashore on the Brazilian coast (A Song For Brazil) to liltingly cutting a passage through the interior of Africa, following in Dr. Livingstone’s footprints, weaving in the ivory trade and Conrad’s Congo (Witch Doctor), this fusion of continents is a clever, poetic purview of colonization. It is the perfect end to a great collection.





Probably by now much of the material has become available in some format or another, yet for fans and casual interested parties alike it proves a wonderful, enlightening compilation; and in the wake of Hugh Masekela’s death earlier this year, a brilliant tribute to one of the greats. Not to do a disservice to his dear friend, label co-owner, producer and partner on many projects together, this is also a welcome reminder and celebration of Stewart Levine; the guiding force behind so many of Masekela’s richest albums. 66-76 will prove to be both an essential collection of a most creative period, and a great introduction to those who are not so aware of this great legacy.

 

Dominic Valvona

ALBUM FEATURE
Words: Dominic Valvona


 

Various   ‘Zaire 74: The African Artists’
Wrasse Records,  26th May 2017

Finally. The often overlooked, sidelined, and due in part to hustler/promoter Don King’s original court injection, the exciting homegrown African acts that performed as part of the legendary “rumble in the jungle” (Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman) jamboree can now be heard for the first time ever. Presented on two discs but also available as a triple vinyl set, the Wrasse label’s Zaire 74 compilation features complete performances from the leading lights of the local Zaire – renamed after much turmoil and war as the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the 90s – music scene and the world renowned South African émigré chanteuse Miriam Makeba.

Overshadowed by their American counterparts, especially number one soul brother James Brown, Zaire’s every bit as funky and dynamic artists were left on the cutting room floor for the most part in subsequent documentaries of the heavyweight championship in the country’s capital, Kinshasa. Notably the award-winning When We Were Kings, which is generous in its footage of Brown and his co-stars on stage including B.B. King, Bill Withers, The Pointer Sisters and The Fania Latin All Stars. In 2009 there was a chance of redemption in the form of the Soul Power documentary, which at least featured some of the Zairian talent and Makeba, yet was far from complete. Some of this exclusion is down to the checkered history of legal disputes. All of which are chronicled in the accompanying booklet that comes with this 34-track suite; brilliantly and informatively put together by the original dream team of Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine, the record label owners and producers who planned and recorded the whole affair and have now remastered it for this new compilation.

For an event meant to not only grandstand Ali’s titanic grudge-match with Foreman but also to celebrate Zaire and indeed the entire continent’s new found freedoms, now that for the most part Europe’s colonial powers had all but granted independence to their territories in Africa, it’s surprising to find that it has taken forty-odd years for this complete picture to emerge.





The bombast theater that followed Ali everywhere – encouraged and riled all the way by the late great showman – moved to Africa for a host of reasons. But indulged by Ali, Zaire’s leader of the time, President, formerly general, Mobutu hijacked the attention whenever he could to advance his own aims. Mobutu had himself brutally seized power from the democratically elected Patrice Lumumba – of which great hopes were predicted – in a military coup in 1965, so could do with some, even if it was a façade, positive media attention. Playing the part of antagonist and stubborn defender of African “authenticity” then, Mobutu called for a celebration of musical, cultural and traditional dress. History as it transpired, proved that he was in fact a plundering dictator who’d bled his people and country dry, but in ’74 the world’s media spotlight was angled on the former Belgian colony; giving it a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to promote a sense of self-belief and optimism.

For Masekela and Levine, the congruous musical partnership behind the US label Chisa Records and African music experts – the South African-born Masekela’s many travails across the continent included a “spiritual pilgrimage” that saw him meet such iconic figures as Fela Kuti and produce the highly influential Ghanaian seven-piece Hedzoleh Soundz -, this was an opportunity to further the course of the artists; hopefully attracting international acclaim and more lucrative record contracts for them. Acquiring the rights to stage a three-day extravaganza in September of ’74, the US-based partnership signed-up a weighty stellar line-up of acts from the Americas, but they also hired Zaire’s best-known bandleader and influential icon at the time, Franco (Francois Luambo to give him his full title), to consult as a “creative guide” on the African line-up. Franco himself appears naturally, leading the sunshine soul and off-kilter rhythmic T.P. O.K. Jazz band.

Stewart recorded proceedings in a mock-up studio, shipped over from the States, below the infamous 20th of May stadium in Kinshasa – named in tribute to the date of Mobutu’s bloody coup. And what he would capture was electric!





Between the flashes and blasts of screeching heralding horns, dynamite funk and R’n’B, much of the music was of a sweeter disposition; a counterpoint to the violence that would take part in the ring and to the extreme brutality meted out by the regime. The more blazing and up-tempo displays of Afro-funk and rock are delivered by the opening act. the slick Tabu Ley Rochereau And Afrisa; introduced with a soul revue instrumental shoe-shuffler of fanfare horns, jangly guitar and tight drum fills. A run-through of various moods and style changes follow from the man they called “the voice of lightness”, who it’s said, “stole the show” from his chief rival Franco. Skipping hi-hat action and rasping, swooning saxophone lullabies meet with The Meters deep funk basslines, and staccato rhythms, as Tabu and his ensemble work the crowd. The consummate showman receives many rounds of applause and thrives of the intense energy that pours from the 50,000 strong African audience, especially on what sounds like a local favourite, the grand finale, Annie; the crowd chanting back the words and sentiment.

That much-celebrated rival and Zaire 74 consultant, the mighty Franco, backed by local legends T.P. O.K. Jazz, takes up the lion’s share of the compilation’s second act with the complete eleven-track set list of dance band jumpers and off-kilter soul-jazz grooves.

Rising in status and influence, from the young streetwise “urchin” who built his own guitar and cultivated a signature repetitive attacking style, to revered singer and adopter of various musical genres from all over the world – Cuban rumba to Highlife – Franco’s enthusiasm and promotion of Mobutu’s “authenticity” campaign soured the star’s reputation for a while: Mobutu in kind, in exchange for Franco’s endorsement, smoothed the way for his growing business empire. To be fair, Franco became a vocal critic of the regime, penning a protest when Mobutu, making a political statement, hung a number of so-called “dissident” politicians.

Easing in and reminding us of the powerful line-up under his control that night in Zaire’s capital – a frontline of singers that included the talented Sam Mangwana, a seven-piece brass section and the gifted guitarist Simon ‘Simaro’ Lutumba – Franco’s band kick-off proceedings with a slinky soul-jazz, hot-stepping introduction and move congruously into a rhythmic change of direction on the proceeding cradled horns tropical Nzoto. Lolloping grooves, busy hi-hats and dazzled brass follow as a band at the peak of their abilities and showmanship take us on a Zairian journey through down tempo romantic balladry and sunshine pop.





The major star of Zaire 74: The African Artists, in an international sense anyway, South African soulstress totem of hope, Miriam Makeba brought a soothing hush of spiritual reflection to the stage. A universal message of optimism that chimed with the conscious celebration of a growing independence, Makeba’s sentiments are honorable enough, but can’t help but sound naïve in the context of Mobutu’s grandstanding and legacy.

The South African singer and leading advocate in the struggle against her homeland’s apartheid regime, was one of the continent’s most recognized talents having made a name for herself in the USA during the early 60s. Whether it was addressing the UN in ’63 and ‘64 or performing at JFK’s birthday party at Madison Square Gardens in ’62, Makeba became a major star and intentionally or not, became a Western figurehead for Africa. This soon changed after she married the divisive civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. A union too far it seemed for the US music industry as concerts were soon cancelled and she was given the cold-shoulder, leading in part to a move back to Africa, into the embrace of Guinea’s President Sékou Touré – an instigator of the “authenticity” campaign that Mobutu would later borrow. Unfortunately this new found home from home came with certain obligations, namely the requirement to perform when prompted to Touré’s guests and dignitaries. It was during this period that she appeared on the Zaire 74 bill.

In praise of Mobutu, certain dedications are made as Makeba delivers an almost venerated performance of swaddling, healing laments and prayer. Cooing, panting, trilling and soulfully fluctuating in an aria-style, Makeba yearns for unity and respect as she sings the South African anthem Amampondo, the sauntering swaying Umqhokozo, and breathy elevating ballad West Wind (written by her daughter Bongi; a song that would appear the following year on Makeba’s The Guinea Years album).

Sharing the stage with Makeba, the lesser known but in no way less important dynamic funk outfit Orchestre Stukas whip the audience up with an energetic set of local Zairian style rumba and western rock and funk. Lively to say the least, the Stukas were a sort of Zaire pop group, known by the French slang for the genre, as a “ye-ye” group. The wild gesticulations and dancing of front man Lita Bembo, learning a few tricks from James Brown, combined with the Hendrix-style teeth-playing guitar flamboyance of Samora Tediangaye brought them a reputation for showmanship in a scene filled with extroverts. Under these circumstances with this size of a local crowd and potential to reach the international masses, the Stukas took up the challenge and to all intents and purposes lit up the stage.





Playing on a different night, the Zairian rival to Makeba, Abeti Masikini was another initiate of the local rumba style, which she roughened up with the wailing rock guitar of her brother Abumba. Shifting between more traditional narration and sung exultations of peace, love and hope and a fluttering vocal display of chanting, panting and screaming, Abeti flows from Chanson to the tribal and gospel.

Escaping the worst of the violence that followed independence a decade or so before, Abeti was sent away to school in the safer environment of Léopoldville, where she could hone her vocal talents. Off the back of her success in winning a number of singing competitions Abeti eventually met music entrepreneur Gérard Akueson, who invited her to record in Togo. More or less coaching his star turn and taking her on a tour of Francophone West Africa, Akueson took a punt and organized a performance for her in Paris in 1973. Feted by, among others, the celebrated futuristic fashion designer Pierre Cardin, Abeti proved a popular attraction in Europe. Inevitably she was drawn into Mobutu’s sphere of influence on her return to Zaire; wheeled out to sing for dignitaries at the President’s insistence, which on one occasion led to her cancelling a US tour. Though still in the throes of optimism, Abeti dedicates a song of praise to Mobutu before launching into her varied set of styles.

 

Abeti’s Hendrix-extravagant inspired guitar virtuoso brother Abumba appears ahead of her in the line-up. A brief but dynamic two-song burst of shrieking wah-wah contortions and counterpoint bended-knee, more intimate, yearnings showcase the Afro-rock chop and skills of one of Zaire’s leading guitarists.

As a final curtain call and reminder of Mobutu’s “authenticity” mantra, the “massed ranks” of the atavistic Pembe Dance Troupe perform a tumbling, leaping Zairian ceremonial dance. Some will have seen footage of this on the Soul Power documentary of course; an animal-clothed ensemble of 300 people acrobatically springing across the stage in tribal communion. We get to hear it of course without the visuals, but the aural effect – the stage threatening to collapse under the weight and explosive excitement at any time – is still dramatic.

 

As fight fans will know, the titanic slugfest in Zaire was postponed for a month after George Foreman sustained an injury during training back in the US; moving the fight date to October. The three-day music festival though went ahead as planned. Unfortunately most of the exposure then and in the years that followed went to the “western stars”, with even the message of African unification and optimism lost in the excitement of the big fight – which let’s be fair was the main attraction, everything else a mere sideshow – and later by Mobutu’s own legacy.

Convoluted appearances, popping up briefly (if at all) in various documentaries, the African stars of Zaire have finally received the satisfying platform they craved. Thanks to Levine and Masekela’s patience, Zaire 74 collects those seldom-heard performances for the first time ever in this brilliant and most vibrant of releases; an album which acts both as a document and as an exciting musical experience.


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