This week, Rhythm Planet travels to Africa as we feature brand new releases from a broad mix of countries and their musical styles: Mali, Benin, Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, and Mauratania.
We begin our musical adventure in Mali with the song,“Waati” from the fabulous roots band, Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba, off their new album, Ba Power. The predecessor to the banjo, the ngoni is traditionally a four-stringed, lute-like instrument commonly played throughout West Africa. Kouyaté, who adds extra strings to his ngoni on occasion, has taken this instrument to new heights. Boasting—not just one or two but—three ngonis, this family group consistently delivers some of the best Malian music today.
Angélique Kidjo, Benin-born but New York-based, is an African music ambassador if there ever was one. An eloquent, passionate presence onstage, she performs “Malaika,” the Swahili classic made famous years ago by the late South African singer and civil rights activist, Miriam Makeba. This lush recording was done together with the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra.
Senegalese griot kora player, Seckou Keita, comes next. Still an import until the album’s official U.S. release in June, “The Path From Gabou” is a gorgeous display of his signature experimental tunings. Based on the legend of the 22-string kora, the centuries-old, West African harp-lute is said to have lost one string when it was plucked in remembrance of griot Jali Mady Wuleng. With his new album, 22 Strings, Keita has taken it upon himself to restore this long-lost twenty-second string to its rightful place as a definitively personal statement of his own identity and love for his homeland.
Fatoumata Diawara fans, you’re in for a special treat: The Malian singer teamed up with Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca of the Buena Vista Social Club last summer in Marciac, France. “Connection” is just one track off their live album, At Home, that is testament to the shared musical DNA of Mali and Cuba.
We then have a four-CD set of E.T. Mensah (b. 1919–1996), who was once regarded as ‘The King of Highlife Music.’ Spanning his musical career through the 1940–1950s, Mensah used to be the jazz spokesman of Ghana, performing a range of styles that were always upbeat and fun. This elaborate King of Highlife Anthology comes with a 60-page booklet on the tour-de-force. I’ll play a 1957 cut celebrating Ghana’s independence from Great Britain and the then newly elected president, Kwame Nkrumah.
Gino Sitson follows with “Suite for John.” You’ll see right away why he’s considered to be the Cameroonian Bobby McFerrin. Then a fiery track from Bamako’s BKO Quintet, delivering their version of what they call ‘Trad Actual Malian Sound’—in other words, traditional Malian music with a modern twist.