Best new albums: From oud to dance

From Bassekou Kouyate’s ‘Miri’ to Mabuta’s ‘Welcome to this World Remixes’, Lloyd Gedye picks his top new releases from the first quarter of 2019.

Lloyd Gedye picks his top new releases from the first quarter of 2019:

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba (Mali) – Miri

Released in the last week of January, Miri is Bassekou Kouyate’s finest album yet.

The title means “dream” or “contemplation” in the Bamana language and it has been billed as a collection of songs about “love, friendship, family and true values in times of crisis”.

The title track takes the listener to the banks of the Niger River near Kouyate’s hometown of Garana, a place to which he still returns to find peace outside the Malian capital of Bamako. It is here that he finds time to contemplate.

Opener Kanougnon features a sublimely beautiful melody from Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Majid Bekkas on oud, with lyrics about a lover desperately searching for his loved one delivered in style by singer Amy Sacko.

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Another highlight is Wele Cuba, which features vocals from Yasel Gonzalez Rivera of Cuban band Madera Limpia. This stunning song was the result of a spontaneous, in-studio jam session, with Kouyate using his ngoni to imitate a Cuban six-string.

Cuban music is much loved in Mali and Kouyate often ends his shows with an encore of Guantanamera.

It’s been four years since he released the sonic assault that was 2015’s Ba Power, a much angrier album, naturally, after the death and destruction wrought by Islamist warlords in his home country in 2012.

The strength of Miri suggests it was well worth the wait as it is spellbinding from first note to last.

With its intricate ngoni string work punctuated by precision percussion, mind-bending melodies and the beautiful voice of Sacko, it’s difficult to imagine Kouyate and his family band ever topping this.

Nicola Cruz (Ecuador) – Siku

Released at the tail end of January, Siku by producer Nicola Cruz is named after a panpipe instrument found in Ecuador. Panpipes have a bad rap, mostly due to the 1980s muzak fashion, but there is little to fear here.

This is panpipe music like you’ve never heard before and the layered percussive grooves that drive these songs are among the finest you will hear.

The composition Señor de las Piedras is a perfect example. Panpipes echo and drone alongside vocoder vocals, while an addictive mechanical beat keeps time. It’s so psychedelic, it’s trance-inducing.

Brazilian singer Castello Branco features on the gorgeous samba rhythm Criançada, while members of Altiplano de Chile feature on the dance floor banger Siete, which features some interesting use of the sitar.

Obsidiana is one of the album’s highlights, featuring an intricate polyrhythmic groove and droning sitars. Esu Enia is another, a rhythm featuring Portuguese musician Marcio Pinto on the balafon that flits effortlessly between grime and sublime.

Pieced together in different cities while on tour, Siku sees Cruz offering up a musical cross-pollination that combines seamlessly to create a rich whole, one of the most rewarding albums you’re likely hear in 2019.

Maurice Louca (Egypt) – Elephantine

Released on the first day of February, Elephantine is Egyptian artist Maurice Louca’s second full-length solo album, following his 2014 debut Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot).

But Louca has hardly been inactive between albums. He recorded an album with Egyptian singer Maryam Saleh and Palestinian producer Tamer Abu Ghazaleh in 2017 and he was one of The Dwarfs of East Agouza trio alongside former Sun City Girls bassist Alan Bishop and Montreal improvisational guitarist Sam Shalabi.

The Dwarfs’ 2018 album, Rats Don’t Eat Synthesizers, provided an unexpected highlight last year, especially for those who like their music noisy and experimental.

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Elephantine, which is Louca’s best effort yet, sees him cutting loose with some epic free jazz-influenced arrangements.

Opener The Leper begins with a simple melody set to foreboding background drones and sparse percussion, before it explodes into a sublime, summery Afrobeat strut. This is until about the three-minute mark, when echoing horns and gongs begin to unsettle the calm, dragging the composition into a spiralling free jazz workout.

It’s mesmerising stuff, a wholly new sonic world that Louca is occupying.

One More for the Gutter begins with a Tuareg-sounding guitar riff, before the horns and pounding percussion swarm in over the top, creating a frenetic cacophony of noise that South African free-form jazz pioneers the Blue Notes would appreciate.

Elephantine is the sound of a musician bravely pushing his craft, an act that should be applauded and celebrated in these days of plastic pop and big budget music videos.

Cass McCombs (United States) – Tip of the Sphere

American songwriter Cass McCombs’ ninth album, Tip of the Sphere, released in the second week of February, comes two and a half years after 2016’s critically acclaimed Mangy Love, which came out in the pre-Trump inauguration days of American politics.

Speaking to Fader magazine, McCombs said he had found the rise in right-wing politics in his country, which he referred to as a “fascist takeover”, unsettling.

McCombs lives a nomadic lifestyle and usually records his albums in different studios as he moves around.

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Tip of the Sphere, however, was recorded quickly in one studio called Figure 8, which belongs to Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog bassist Shahzad Ismaily. Probably because of that McCombs has delivered an album that sounds very much like a whole project, not just a collection of fine songwriting.

In fact, he may have delivered his best album yet.

First single The Great Pixley Train Robbery, which details a California train robbery that happened more than a century ago, bears a resemblance to the work of Kurt Weil, delivering a desperate train robber’s plea for redemption over an infectious guitar riff.

The Suicide-esque American Canyon Sutra sees McCombs offering up a spoken word piece of American suburban alienation and degradation that could have come out of a Lou Reed playbook.

Album highlight Sleeping Volcanoes feels like the thematic centrepiece of the album, touching on the plight of refugees, no doubt in a reference to US President Donald Trump.

“Someday that might be you,” McCombs reminds the listener before crying out, “Help me Armageddon, help me Armageddon, to be calm.”

Mabuta (South Africa) – Welcome to this World Remixes

Mabuta’s debut album, Welcome to this World, was a standout homegrown album from last year. This year’s release is a collection of remixes of these songs.

But this is no remix album to keep the punters happy till the next one comes out. There is no cynical crafting of melodies and vocals over new dance floor-oriented beats to give songs a second life. These remixes take the band’s hybrid compositions further down the road of new possibilities, often to quite startling effect.

Mabuta mastermind Shane Cooper obliterates the album’s opener and title track under his alter ego, Card on Spokes, using the song loosely as the inspiration for a haunting ambient piece.

London’s D-Malice and Johannesburg’s Kid Fonque, under the moniker rkls, transform The Tunnel into a slow-burning groove that feels both of South Africa’s house scene and London’s bass scene at the same time.

Bamako Love Song, one of two compositions on Mabuta’s 2018 album to feature rising British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, is an imaginative melding of influences from the music of Mali and 1970s fusion jazz, in its original form. Courtesy of South African house producer Jazzuelle, it becomes a delicate, ambient piece that feels a million miles from the original.

Los Angeles producer Daedalus has his way with Fences, the other original to feature Hutchings. Daedalus drags the composition kicking and screaming through a mind warp of effects and studio wizardry, creating a truly strange beast that sounds like it is at war with itself.

Don’t be fooled, Welcome to this World Remixes is an album that holds its own against the raw material of Welcome to this World.

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