October 15, 2010

Rokia Traoré Bowmboï
African folk music, singer-songwriter

Malian Rokia Traoré’s self-produced third album, the lovely Bowmboï, is a collection of African folk songs delivered via classical acoustic guitar, traditional African instrumentation and Traoré’s remarkable voice. Singing in her native Bamana language, she delivers a ten track set that is calm, relaxing and beautiful in its simplicity. The Rokia Traoré - Bowmboïmusic is fleshed out through some earthy percussion and fine string augmentation (courtesy on two tracks of The Kronos Quartet) which gives the album a bustling, spritely sound, which feels quite active and vibrant, but never steps over the line into any degree of tense urgency. The percussion in particular is highly impressive – dynamic, multi-layered and very nimbly performed, it is nonetheless carefully tempered such that it never overshadows any other element of the music. Most importantly, it doesn’t overshadow Traoré’s incredibly beguiling vocal, one of the most gorgeous and transfixing I’ve heard all decade. There’s something undeniably transportative about the music, such that I find myself swept up and totally immersed in Traoré’s world every time I press play. As far as highlights go, the album is bookended remarkably well. The opening four tracks provide a feast of brilliant material, with “M’Bifo”, “Sara” and “Köte Don” making for a lively trio and the exquisite “Mariama” featuring a lovely guest vocal from Malian legend Ousmane Sacko as a counterpart to Traoré, while the title-track closes the album with exceptional grace.




October 12, 2010

Konono N°1 Congotronics
African music, electronic

Konono N°1 are a Congolese percussion group, active since sometime during the 1970s, who until quite recently were totally unknown outside of their home country. After decades of obscurity, the group were catapulted to international success following the release of their second internationally distributed album Congotronics. They are noteworthy for a number of reasons outside of their impressive career lifespan – to bring their music to life, they create their own instruments and amplification gear Konono N°1 - Congotronicsentirely from trash and old automobile parts, including homemade thumb-pianos, a scrap-metal amplifier shaped like a giant horn and microphones made from blocks of wood and car batteries. The result is a rough-yet-bubbly explosion of lively thumb-piano, trashcan percussion – most noticeably a dense layer of very reedy sounding snares – and exciting call-and-response vocals, formed around looping melodies and longform compositions that make the album seem a lot like one enormous song. Despite initially sounding a bit thin (due mostly to the stripped back nature of the instrumentation and the lack of fully fleshed-out production), it quickly becomes apparent that this music is played surprisingly hard and heavy, making for some of the most unrelentingly energetic music I’ve ever heard. The album might take some getting used to for unaccustomed listeners – they may find it to be unfamiliar and scattershot, not to mention repetitive – but after a handful of listens don’t be surprised to find yourself really warming up to it. Those repeating themes aid familiarity to keep you afloat, while it’s all underpinned by a very rigid backbone of unwavering percussion. Once it gets under your skin – and assuming you have a pulse, it will – the addictive rhythms and communal vibes are going to compel you to move. Don’t put it on if you’re about to perform brain surgery because, honestly, it’s too damn hard trying to keep still while Congotronics is playing.