South African Legends
Putamayo World Music
This welcome compilation album reflects the percussive grooves and genre-defining influences of one of the most influential regions in the world music scene. The mood is established from the start, an opening electric organ jive from the Soul Brothers that captures a spirit of community that is maintained with both jubilation and challenge throughout the disc.
Tucked in the midst of two handfuls of varied gems is Vusi Mahlasela's tender love song, "Kuyobanjani Na?" Mahlasela, the youngest of the "legends," mixes poetry and politics in his anthems, but the ballad that translates as "How Will it Be Tomorrow?" is a more domestic glance to the future, honing in with gentle guitar riffs and a spare harmonica solo to paint a picture of youthful hope.
At another outpost of the spectrum, the Mahotella Queens use their version of "Mbube" to demonstrate how individual songs spawned entire genres. Better known as "The Lion," or "Wimoweh," the song features the emblematic vocal style that inspired groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and influenced international styles ranging from doo-wop to techno, from The Weavers to Brian Eno.
The late West Nkosi's contribution, "Mazuzu," is a bright instrumental that captures the playfully rebellious pennywhistle tradition of the '50s, recreated here with Nkosi's alto sax. Paired with trumpeter Hugh Masekela's "Chileshe," listeners are treated to a two-song documentary of an evolving style that touches on jazz, R&B, afropop, and, always, searing horn solos. Masekela traces a musical heritage that found him playing alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Belafonte, Dave Grusin and Cyndi Lauper in a career marked by 30 years as an exile from his homeland.
Among the album's treasures is a cut from reggae artist Lucky Dube. The charged "My Game" proclaims: "This is my game/I'm going to play it my way" over an intricate layer of percussion and rhythm, understated guitar and poignant horns. Dube's lyrics testify to the symbolic power of the voice, and as the first black performer to get airplay on segregated white radio stations a decade ago, his reggae sensibility is as assured and confident as any recent practitioner.
Though Johnny Clegg may be best known for his recent work with Savuka, his earlier apartheid era band Juluka offers "Gijim 'beke," a song indicative of their prominent blending of interracial styles embodied by the Zulu musical accents characterizing a band fronted by a white South African. The album makes use of subtle juxtaposition by leading into legendary jazz singer Miriam Makeba, who transcends language on the penultimate cut, "Unhome," capturing the texture and tone of displacement without need of translation. Those inclined to seek out more Makeba will want to hear her simultaneous release, Homeland, also from Putamayo.
The album closes with the familiar vocal work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Their iscathamiya style embodies one of the most recognizable and characteristic traditions enduring in contemporary South Africa, a throwback to the work songs of '20s era mines and factories. It's impossible to escape the recurring political implications of the songs and the legacy of this broad spectrum of musicians. The album's "taster" quality may frustrate, cracking a window on a world that can't nearly be glimpsed through this 50-minute viewfinder, but it is a mouth-watering appetizer to tempt the palate for a subsequent binge.
What Are Records?
I don't claim much experience with funk, and I have even less history with James Brown and George Clinton's former sax player, but I can pick out the grooves of a legend when I hear them. The first time I heard that groovin', I was revved to see Ani DiFranco at Red Rocks. Even without knowing who Maceo Parker was, if Ani picked him to open, I knew I could at least sit through it.
Boy, was I wrong. The minute Maceo hit the stage, all sitting was done. It was time to dance.
Much like that show, Maceo's new album, dial: MACEO, is a collage of experience, innovation, passion and surprises. Joining in on the hip first half of the album are: Ani DiFranco, the Artist, James Taylor and Maceo's cool-as-a-fruit-slushy son, Corey Parker. Vocal layers, rap and production help from these talented folk give the album a second audience (like me) who may not pick up a Maceo Parker album based on his history alone.
Comparatively, the second half of dial: MACEO is missing the edginess that reeled me in for the album's early songs, and the first listen caught me off guard as the style morphed faster and culminated in a shorter period of time than most full-length albums. Incorporated here is music for the audience who may have followed the sax master's work since his early days. Jazzy and pleasant to listen to, I know I could slide this in the CD player without my adult-contemporary mother objecting. Talk about killing two birds with one phone, um, stone!
Give dial: MACEO a listen whether you follow indie-folk, techno-jazz, groovy-rap or old-school funk. dial: MACEO is like a suicide slush -- sometimes you'll be in the mood for all the fruits; other times, you'll just want to mix a few of them. Regardless, there is a flavor combination for everyone on this tantalizingly tasty little disc.