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archives 2004 » jun. 23rd  

A Drum Is a Woman

In honor of Black Music Month, PW celebrates the new African divas of world music.

by Eugene Holley Jr.

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder was right when he wrote, "Out of Africa, always something new." For Black Music Month we return to the Motherland, where women are extending and elaborating on a world music script traditionally written by men.


Suzzana Owiyo
Mama Africa

Though she's compared to Tracy Chapman and Benin's Angelique Kidjo, the Kenyan vocalist/composer/guitarist Suzzana Owiyo is closer to South Africa's Miriam Makeba in tone, topic and temperament. On her first CD, produced by her countryman Tedd Josiah, Owiyo creates a bouncy blend of her native Luo rhythms, instruments like the twangy, one-stringed orutu, modern sounds and synthesized arrangements, drawing from the best of both worlds. Her lyrical alto voice swings and sings sweetly on 12 tracks that range from the themes of love, family and the environment on "Wachna," "Ngoma" and "Masela" to the remix of her hit "Kisumu 100 (Benga Mix)," which talks about investing in Lake Victoria! She hasn't really earned the "Mama Africa" title that Makeba rightly owns, but Owiyo stands to advance the musical and moral mandate befitting that moniker well into this century.


Di Korpu Ku Alma

The Cape Verde-born Lisbon-based singer Lura has to deal with comparisons to her musical elder Cesaria Evora, the "Barefoot Diva" who put Cape Verdean music on the world music map. Born in 1975, Lura burst onto the scene in 1996 and performed with Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso. On her third CD, which roughly translates to "body and soul" in English, she adds R&B and jazz to her country's morna and coladeira genres without sacrificing their soft syncopations. Vocally, Lura's cool island Creole/Portuguese is a marked contrast to Evora's throaty, world-weary vocals. Lura's delivery works well with lush orchestrations, percussive percolations and synthesized numbers like the festive Afro anthems on "Batuku," the impassioned "Nha Vida" ("My Life") and the poetic "So Um Cartinha." With her artistic boldness, which is surpassed only by her beauty, Cape Verde has another musical ambassador to be proud of.



About 500 miles west of Cape Verde the female rap trio ALIF (Attaque Libératoire de l'Infanterie Féministe) has pulled off an artistic coup d'etat in Dakar, Senegal. Their ingenious and incendiary melange of African-American rap, Senegalese sabar drums, griot traditions and Wolof language with a French twist could be characterized as Public Enemy meets Les Nubians. This terrific triad--Myriame, Oumy and Mina--have come a long way from their humble beginnings with their 1997 debut cassette tape. The title of their new CD refers to their camera-like sonic snapshots of Senegalese life. Augmented by Pee Froiss' DJ Gee-Bass and rapper Maxi Crazy, the girls wax philosophic about male domination and corruption on the slick Mobb Deep-style beats of "Addu Kalpin," "Rethiou" and the title track. And just to show how old-school they can get, they throw in the guitar-like kora with New York-style doo-wop on "Joolaa," creating a truly African-American sound.

Book Note

Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919
By Tim Brooks

June is Black Music Month, and the release of this magnificent 664-page study by television executive and historian Tim Brooks couldn't have come at a better time. In an age when recorded music history barely extends back beyond the '70s, this book chronicles in deep detail the well-known and not-so-well-known African-American musicians, singers, popular figures and businessmen who, Brooks says, have "recorded over 800 commercial recordings prior to 1920." Though it goes without saying that many of these artists and entrepreneurs were ripped off back in the day, Brooks contends that "It's arguably more productive--and helpful to our own time--to expand the ways in which those injustices were gradually eliminated." Digging through old record-company master tapes, catalogs, census records, financial statements and oral histories, the author presents a vivid and varied potpourri of black, brown and beige characters. George W. Johnson was a Virginia-born singer and the first recorded African-American. His 1890 hit "The Laughing Song" made him famous before he was charged with, and acquitted of, killing a white woman. The Howard University-educated Massachusetts-based businessman George Wellington Broome created Broome Special Phonographs, the first African-American record company in 1919. Booker T. Washington's infamous Atlanta Exposition speech in 1895, in which he urged African-Americans to "cast down your bucket" and concentrate on the economic--instead of the political--was caught on wax. Even the controversial prizefighter Jack Johnson, known for his sensational marriages to white women, recorded a few spoken-word recordings as his own sportscaster, offering play-by-play descriptions of his fights. The book also includes a CD of selected reissues, and an appendix by record producer Dick Spottswood that features musicians from the Caribbean and South America. Brooks' exhaustive scholarship reveals an era ringing with musical and cultural diversity, as evidenced by the many recordings of spirituals, classical music, blues, ragtime and vaudeville--and an emerging art form called jazz. (E.H.)

from the vaults

Katherine Dunham
Katherine Dunham Presents Drum Rhythms of Haiti-Cuba-Brazil: The Singing Gods

The nonagenarian Katherine Dunham was Afrocentric before there were Afros. As a dancer, she performed African-derived rhythms of the Americas with her pioneering dance troupes, which included Eartha Kitt and Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek's Lt. Uhura). She studied far-flung rhythms and dances as a University of Chicago-trained anthropologist and wrote about them in several books, including Island Possessed and Journey to Accompong. And she choreographed a number of movies, including Lena Horne's Cabin in the Sky. Her unique blend of academics and art is aurally evident on this rare percussion recording featuring Cuban Santería drum rituals, Brazilian sambas and Haitian Voodoo chants and spells. The impassioned performances from congueros Francisco Aguabella and Julito Collazo and trumpeter Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros--who later made their fame with Carlos Santana, Tito Puente and Cachao--gives this dancing and delightful document from 1956 a propulsive passport that's good from Porto Alegre to Port-au-Prince, and from Harlem to Havana. (E.H.)


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