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Tuesday Reviewsday: Offa Rex, the Tanzania Albinism Collective and Meklit

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Singer Meklit Hadero
Singer Meklit Hadero

Every week we get a preview of new music for the week. This week music journalist Steve Hochman reviews his picks. new selections from the band 

Every week we get a preview of new music for the week. This week music journalist Steve Hochman reviews his picks. 

Offa Rex

Album: “Queen of Hearts”

A couple of years ago, singer songwriter Colin Meloy - best known for his band the Decemberists, sent a fan tweet to the young English folk artist Olivia Chaney, saying he’d love to hear her sing the old, doleful Scottish ballad “Willie O’Winsbury.”

That tweet was the start of a relationship that ultimately culminated in our first selection - the album, "Queen of Hearts" by the band Offa Rex. Here's a track of the same name.

Offa Rex — the name comes from an 8th century English King — teams Chaney with Meloy and members of the Decemberists. Now, the Decemberists may be from Portland, but they have always seemed to be an English folk-rock group, what with the lilting melodies, mournful fiddles and tales of seafaring adventure and treacherous romance that dotted its early albums in particular. So it’s only natural that Meloy and crew would eventually work with a real English folk singer, and in Chaney they have one of the brightest lights of the revived, resurgent British folk wave.

It’s a great listen of powerful songs and hypnotic performances. Well, anything sung by Chaney is a great listen. Meloy and crew, though, give her settings that take her into new territories as a singer, expand her range, even within a repertoire with which she was already familiar.

“Willie O’Winsbury” is the aesthetic hub of the album, the tone overall spanning jaunty folk-rock to wistful balladry to deep melancholy. While Chaney does most of the lead vocal work, “Blackleg Miner” and the very Fairport-y acoustic-electric “To Make You Stay” have Meloy in front with Chaney as the second voice. Here's one more selection from the project, the song, “The Old Church Yard.”

Tanzania Albinism Collective

Album: “White African Power”

A BBC news item came out of Tanzania recently telling of an albino woman, part of a community of albinos in the East African nation, whose hands were cut off by a neighbor under the surprisingly widespread belief that albino body parts have magic properties. The report focused on the more uplifting saga of how she had learned to weave on a machine, giving her a productive livelihood. But underlying the story is the horrific way in which albinos are treated there.

A project and album spotlights and gives voice — literally — to that community. Last year the husband and wife team of American producer Ian Brennan and Italian-Rwandan filmmaker Marilena Delli went to Northern Tanzania to visit this community on the isolated, remote inland island Ukerewe, where albinos have been relocated, ostensibly for their own protection. The couple’s goal was to tell the stories, or more accurately wanted to help these people tell their stories. 

The tales told here are as moving as those on that last album. The song titles, and their messages, are direct, to the point — the average song length is less than a minute and a half, a couple clocking in at less than half a minute. The whole album, 23 songs, is just 31 minutes. But a powerful 31 minutes. “Life is Hard,” “The World Has Gone Wrong,” “Stop the Murders,” “I Am a Human Being,” all are gripping, infused with sadness, horror, urgency that comes through clearly even though the singing is in Swahili.

It’s also simply a compelling musical experience. Keep in mind that none of these performers had ever played instruments or written songs before. Brennan, though, was able to bring out great amounts of musicality from them, helping craft settings, with a generally very spare touch, that enhance without ever obscuring the deep, personal, pained feelings at the core. And some of the results are quite surprising.

“The World Has Gone Wrong,” written and sung by a woman named Mary Leonard, has the feel of an electro-pop art song. “Stop the Murders” is just the voice of its writer, a man named Sospeter Kajanja, with solo upright bass in something of a jazz style. “Never Forget the

Killings,” by a man named Rizki Julius, uses Pachelbel’s Canon in D as its musical base. Other songs add more layers of instruments, both traditional and modern, acoustic and electric, and sometimes there are two or three voices — as in “Tanzania is Our Country, Too,” also by Julius — or larger choruses. And “Stigma, Everywhere” has writer Hamidu Didas like a minister with responses coming from a church congregation.


Album: “When the People Move, the Music Moves Too”

The album title seems almost backwards. Isn’t music supposed to make people move, not the other way around? But the movement referenced by Meklit Hadero, who goes by just her first name, is that of migration — both individuals and groups of people — bringing music with them. It’s both a way that the heart of cultures, the essence of home, come with them. But also the music is a spark for new sounds, new cultures, as people build new homes.

A lot of moving happened with the people and music on this album. Some recording was done in Meklit’s birthplace of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as well as her long-time and current home of San Francisco, but also New Orleans (the Preservation Hall Jazz Band Horns play on four songs) and, primarily, here in Los Angeles, home base for album producer Dan Wilson.

Meklit has had a wide-ranging career, with audacious and rewarding forays into pop, jazz (both American-rooted and the vibrant Ethiopian “EthioJazz” variations), soul and singer-songwriter styles, often much of that mixed together in various combinations. But here she has an album that, more than anything Meklit had done before, caught the fullness of vision and talents, and in it the fullness of her own life story. It’s not an autobiographical album per se, but there are certainly such elements on it.

On “I Want to Sing for Them All,” she sings of the music that moved with her, and moved her, through her life, which saw a childhood in Iowa and Brooklyn, an education (political science) at Yale and some time in Seattle before she settled in San Francisco. “I grew up listening to Michael and Aster,” she sings in “I Want to Sing For Them All” — Michael being Jackson, Aster being Aweke, one of the big stars of modern Ethiopian music.

The joyous “You Are My Luck” is buoyant Ethiopianized soul, featuring Los Angeles-based, Ethiopian-born pianist Kibrom Birhame and the Preservation Hall Horns, East African groove goosed with New Orleans street funk. And winding through are some lines of the traditional Ethiopian harp known as a krar played by Messele Asmamaw, one of the three musicians recorded in Addis.

There’s also a nice cover of the Roots’ “You Got Me,” finding a spot right at the heart of all the streams coming together on the album. 

Steve Hochman is a music journalist living in Los Angeles. Click on the blue arrow to hear the entire segment. 

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