New music from Western African artists Awa Poulo and Tinariwen
On our weekly new music segment Steve Hochman explores music from West Africa.
If you love music, but don't have the time to keep up with what's new, you should listen to Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our critics join our hosts in the studio to talk about what you should be listening to, in one short segment. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez.
Artist: Noah Preminger
Album: Meditations on Freedom
Songs: A Change is Gonna Come and Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)
Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger is not being particularly subtle by centering his new album with jazz interpretations of such pointed material as Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s protest “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come” — and releasing it all on Inauguration Day.
But then, the New York-based musician has done a lot of thinking about this in the last couple of years, leading him to some pretty dark places. In late 2015 he released an album that consisted just of two live half-hour extrapolations and explorations of the themes and contours of two classic meditations on despair and hopelessness associated with Delta bluesman Bukka White: “Parchman Farm Blues” and “Fixin’ to Die Blues,” in versions inspired by Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Then last year he continued the theme with “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” an album of more compact but equally troubled takes on more Delta blues, led by the harrowing and haunting Blind Willie Johnson moan that provided the title.
But now with what would seem the third in a series, he’s changed the tone a bit, as the title, “Meditations on Freedom,” indicates. The themes here are inspiration and action, starting with three familiar songs — the Dylan and Cooke sandwiched around “Just the Way It Is,” Bruce Hornsby’s look at the consequences of the economic and cultural stagnations of the ‘80s. With these, of course, Preminger has the advantage of the melodies and lyrics being in many of our heads, if not on the instrumental record for the latter. So the message is clear and he has a solid platform of familiarity from which he and his band — trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Ian Froman — can head out on musically impressionistic excursions, often echoing the Preminger and Palmer often evoking the great pairings of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. In each of these it proves greatly rewarding, the band flowing through moods ranging from somber introspection to exuberant volatility.
That’s more of a challenge on the five Preminger originals, which only give us tangible topicality in the titles. But he makes things pretty clear in that regard: “We Have a Dream,” “Mother Earth,” “Women’s March,” “The 99 Percent” and the closing “Broken Treaties” all justify the concept in their meditations.
The surprise treat comes with the album’s penultimate piece, a real meditation: George Harrison’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).” The original is Harrison’s Buddhist prayer for patience and understanding in the certainty that something better is coming. Preminger and crew take up the theme and turn it into a sort of post-bop jazz samba with a bit of an out-there interlude. For this waiting for a change to come, it would make a nice little dance to get you through.
Artist: Awa Poulo
Album: Poulo Warali
Songs: Poulo Hoto Ngari and Poulo Warali
Pop stars often express gratitude for the affection and appreciation with which fans shower them — but also concerns about the way stardom can impact daily life.
Awa Poulo, on her new album, has a song about it. In “Poulo Hoto Ngari,” she thanks all those who gave her cows on her last tour, but worries about where she can keep all the cows and their calves.
Okay, so maybe not exactly the same kind of issues Beyonce might have with stardom. But then, we don’t turn to Awesome Tapes From Africa to hear Beyonce.
Awesome Tapes From Africa is a great web site on which you can listen to music from some, well, awesome tapes from Africa — regional music of varied vintages generally only available on cassettes that had been sold in their locales of origins, acquired over time by dedicated music fanatic Brian Shimkovitz and assorted like-minded friends, posted with whatever info is to be had on the music and artists that you can listen to for free.
But occasionally, Shimkovitz comes across a project, archival or new, that he thinks deserves more. To that end, a few years ago he started the Awesome Tapes From Africa label to make these available for sale, and those have been real treasures. “Poulo Warali,” recorded in Bamako by American producer Paul Chandler, is one of those, spotlighting in Awa Poulo an artist who is not known outside of her region of southwestern Mali.
Her music is rooted in and reflects the pastoral life of her people, the Peulh, also known as the Fula. The small band accompanying her centers on folk instruments and approaches, the traditional flute by Souley Guindo and the brittle, plucked n’goni by Kande Sissoko most prominently..
The song “Djulau” honors traders traveling from village to village, often at great peril. “Noumou Foli” is dedicated to Mali’s blacksmiths. And the album closes with “Sidy Mobibo,” praising the Muslim leader whose tomb draws steady streams of pilgrims.
There are some modern touches and references, but they are subtle — though that this is a woman singing in these settings is itself something of a break with tradition. And there is an undercurrent to the whole project in recognition that many traditions in the region are under threat with civil war and extremist influences. In that light, two songs stand out as statements of strength and fortitude: “Djara Wilam” is described in the notes as a “traditional dance for the Peulh … Regardless of where they are or what they do. Come together and work together.” And the album’s title song, written by Poulo and featuring the most modern sound on the album with some electric guitar and bass, follows that theme. The notes explain, “When the Peulh are’t present, things won’t be complete. Nothing will go well.”
Awa Poulo is doing her best to keep her people together and moving forward. Which is awesome.
Songs: Ténéré Tàqqàl and Imidiwàn n-àkall-in
“Ténéré Tàqqàl,” a song on Tinariwen’s new album, describes a bleak scene in the West African desert. Ténéré means “empty land” in the band’s native Tamashek language (the plural is, in fact, the band’s name Tinariwen), and group leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib sings of that land with great sorrow. There elephants fight and trample what little grass there is. Gazelles and birds have fled, as have the nomadic people who have roamed that land for centuries, divided into conflicting factions.
In a video for the song, featuring animation by Axel Digoix, who worked on “Despicable Me 2” and the recent “The Little Prince,” a camel laden with guitars and amps struggles through this desolate landscape, persevering through sand and locust storms, finally reaching an ancient outpost. It’s a good metaphor for the band’s life. As does Awa Poulo, Tinariwen honors its West African people and life on its new album. But Tinariwen does this from a distance — and not just because where Poulo is unknown outside of her home region, Tinariwen has over the last decades become one of the biggest acts on the global music scene. The band, which famously grew from the militant rebel movement of the often oppressed, nomadic Touareg people, is largely exiled from its home, which has been torn by various conflicts.
“Elwan,” which means “The Elephants,” was recorded over the last couple in deserts, but not at home, first in Joshua Tree (with guest including Mark Lanegan, Kurt Vile and Alain Johannes) and later in tents set up in a Moroccan oasis near the Algerian border (joined by young locals and the Gangas de Tagounite, a Berber gnawa trance troupe).
The former brings some nice touches — Vile and Matt Sweeney adding their electric guitars to the swirling eddies of opener “Tiwàyyen,” Johannes (of 11 and Queens of the Stone Age) weaving in lines on his acoustic cigar-box guitar on the love-sick plea “Talyat,” Lanegan adding vocals and some dreamy English lyrics to “Nànnuflày” (“Fulfilled”). But the Morocco collaborations are the real lifeblood of this set, Tinariwen close to home, but still kept away. There’s a wistful, desolate tone to many of these songs, anger mixed with resignation. On “Imidiwàn n-àkall-in” (“Friends From My Own Land”), Ag Alhabib sings of walking “through strange countries, where I go astray,” while his people have “abandoned their ancestral ways.” Tinariwen reached fame by incorporating western rock and blues into the Saharan sounds, reaching out to the larger world. But at the core of the group’s music, more now than ever, is a longing for home, for what has been lost.