Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2015-10-23


Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Ba Power (Glitterbeat, 2015) The Sahara boom in hard-rocking bands more supersonic than the non-African competition is due primarily to the spread of desert guitar--Dan Auerbach, meet Bombino Moctar. But none has rocked harder or livelier than Bassekou Kouyate's family business, where the part of the guitar is played by one, two, many modified lutes called ngonis. Even harder and livelier than 2013's breakout Jama Ko, this lacks the righteous fervor that fueled that explicitly anti-Islamist defense of a Mali "where Islam and tolerance exist," as the new "Abe Sumaya" puts it. Its fervor is formal. Four tracks add trap drums to the hand-held percussion, Jon Hassell haunts another with trumpet and keyboards, and auxiliary white musicians pitch in without butting in. There are also full translated lyrics, which as happens with Afropop isn't always a plus. I'm glad Kouyate's lead singer and wife Amy Sacko gets one called "Musow Fanga (Power of Woman)." But especially given how powerfully she makes herself felt whenever she opens her mouth, I'm not so glad it equates that power with motherhood. A-

Mbongwana Star: From Kinshasa (World Circuit, 2015) The most original and syncretic new band yet to reach us from 21st-century Africa--unless I just mean album, as French-Irish drummer-bassist-producer Liam Farrell layers on a kitchen sink of distortions every bit as organic as the Congotronics that add novelty/authenticity to the focus track "Malukayi." There's none of soukous's hard-won elegance here--the flowing grooves, the masterful voices, the horns. Instead the choppy rhythms recall Staff Benda Bilili, whose Theo Nzonza and Coco Ngambala provide tenor and baritone, with Ngamabla the odds-on creator of two killer change-of-pace ballads whatever the conspicuously absent copyright notices say. This is African music as an object of Euro-American commerce with no false aura of postcolonial purity. I hope I get the chance to see it take human form. A-

Tal National: Kaani (Fat Cat, 2013) Seeking an adjective for this remarkable yet narrow international debut from the biggest band in Niger, I arrived at "terrific." Terrific in the honorific sense--real good album. But also terrific in the lost sense of deeply scary. Eight tracks lasting a mere 50 minutes (live, the story goes, they play five hours a night every night) and featuring a mere six musicians (live, apparently, substitutes switch off): two guitars, trap and tama drums, accommodating bass, and a singer whose day job is judge (but how long are his days?). And for 50 minutes the barrage never stops--"Sarkin Fada" mellows slightly, but in general two guitars are louder than one, the drummers bash and clash, the tempos speed on, and the judge declaims with the voice of authority. Because there's so little give in it, this isn't really groove music except in the sense that EDM is groove music--Syrian dabke, for instance, is sensuous and jolly by comparison. It's just rhythm music, on its own unrelenting terms. A-

Tal National: Zoy Zoy (Fat Cat, 2015) More happens here than on the debut: Tuareg moves and Malian ululations and Congotronic clatter and highlife memories, forgiving tempo shifts and a drum solo struggling to be free. The many-faceted title "tune" shows off moving parts you'll never keep up with as it stampedes past, and the grooves vary noticeably track to track--which isn't to suggest that the energy ever slackens. In short, a band capable of striking fear in the hearts of anti-immigrationists all over their cryogenic cradles of Western civilization. A-

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