Lloyd Gedye picks his five best albums for the second half of the year.
Dexter Story – Bahir (US/East Africa)
Named after saxophonist Dexter Gordon, Dexter Story is a two-decade veteran of the Los Angeles music scene in the United States, having worked with Madlib, Kamasi Washington and the SA-RA Creative Partners among others.
His third album, Bahir, released in March, sees him continuing his love affair with music from East Africa, which began with his 2015 album, Wondem. Somalian funk, Ethiopian grooves, Sudanese folk and Tuareg rhythms rub up against US fusion, spiritual jazz and soul and funk music, creating a thrilling and utterly unique opus.
Electric Gurage combines the tones of 1970s fusion with a melody and rhythm inspired by a dance of Ethiopia’s Guragigna people. Light and airy while being both warm and funky, it is the kind of jam that will have even the most recalcitrant grump tapping his foot as its three minutes draw to a close.
Story told AfroPunk in January that he has had his ears pointed at the African continent for decades, ever since he heard Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata in grade 6, and he “never tires” of listening to “the ancestors and elders”, a group of musicians among which he includes Fela Kuti, Salif Keita, Mahmoud Ahmed, King Sunny Ade, Tilahun Gessesse, Youssou N’Dour and South Africa’s Hugh Masekela.
“African music is home,” Story told the AfroPunk audience. “It is just who I am.”
But Bahir is no straight-laced homage. Story channels Los Angeles and Africa’s influences into something new and mesmerising.
Lafawndah – Ancestor Boy (Egypt/Iran)
Cultural identity is a complex negotiation in a globalised world, and it’s the theme at the centre of Lafawndah’s debut album, Ancestor Boy.
Born to Egyptian and Iranian parents, she spent her childhood in Tehran and Paris, but has lived in New York, Mexico City and London, and is often described as a “nomadic” artist. It is no wonder her music has a rootless quality.
One minute Ancestor Boy sounds dark and tonally harsh, like an industrial techno record, the next, it’s ambient and dubby with hints of slick 1980s soul and tinges of Syrian synth pop. But none of these influences dominate Ancestor Boy’s sound. They are mere reference points embedded in a strange new future pop, which feels truly post-genre.
Lafawndah describes her musical journey as an attempt to draw her own map, create her own lineage, which obviously has its own pitfalls – something she explores on her song Tourist. “How you live. Look, peak, look,” she sings over a minimalist dancehall riddim. “I like how you dress. And how you braid your hair. You got that little flair.”
Lafawndah admits to being sensitive about the subject of cultural tourism. “I ask myself constantly, what is mine? What can I honour, what can I take? What can I not take? What is something that I just found cool or just inspired me? Where is your line? That’s always in mind.”
In a world where so many take without consideration, Lafawndah’s voice feels vital.
Beth Gibbons & Krzysztof Penderecki – Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) (UK/Poland)
Singer Beth Gibbons is what you may call a reluctant star. Portishead’s last album was released in 2008 and the one before that in 1997.
But in 2014, she collaborated with conductor Krzysztof Penderecki and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra to perform Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, better known as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
The symphony is divided into three movements, which draw their inspiration from three separate texts. The first is a 15th-century religious lament; the second, a Silesian folk song about a mother looking for her son, killed by the Nazis; and the third, a message scrawled by a young Polish woman on the walls of a World War II prison cell.
Górecki’s symphony first premiered in 1978, but only rose to popular attention when it was rereleased in 1992, going on to sell more than a million copies. Gibbons had to undertake intensive training and preparation for the performance, grappling with the emotional weight of the texts and learning to sing the lyrics phonetically as she didn’t speak Polish. The result is quite remarkable.
Gibbons and the orchestra deliver one of the most truly awe-inspiring and emotionally gut-wrenching performances you are ever likely to hear. Its focus on the separation of parents and children rings uncomfortably familiar with the US-Mexico migrant border dispute raging on.
We can just be thankful that someone was there to push record on that night in 2014, because it seems that Gibbons never disappoints, even if she only delivers once a decade.
Angélique Kidjo – Celia (Benin/Cuba)
Released in mid-April, Celia is Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo’s second album of song covers in less than a year. The first was the impressive Remain in Light, a reworking of Talking Heads’ classic 1980 album, while Kidjo’s new album is a tribute to Cuban singer Celia Cruz, known as the “queen of salsa”.
Often the retreat to covers is a signal that a musician’s songwriting chops have diminished, but Kidjo’s diversions into the songs of others are revelatory. She has shown us new elements of both her own artistry and the source material with which she works, restating the Afrobeat influence that fuelled Talking Heads’ famous album and now re-emphasising the influence music from the African continent had on Cruz.
On Sahara, originally written by Tito Puente, Kidjo brings together piano, cello, organ and marimba in a magical four and a half minutes to explore the common ground between the melodies of the Saharan desert and Afro-Cuban rhumba.
The guaguancó rhythm-driven Quimbara is given an Afrobeat makeover with drumming legend Tony Allen in the driving seat, while on opener Cucala, a propulsive rhythm and Nigerian high-life guitar and South African jive horns tear loose.
Kidjo’s cover of Bemba Colora, a proto salsa tune sung by Cruz on 1966 album Son Con Guaguanco, is another album highlight. Kidjo’s version features British jazz band Sons of Kemet, with Shabaka Hutchings delivering a smoking hot performance on the sax.
Celia is a must-hear that proves Kidjo’s done it again.
Kelsey Lu – Blood (US)
Kelsey Lu is the kind of artist who stops you dead in your tracks. The first time she seeps into your ears, you are transported.
With a 2016 debut album of chamber folk music called Church and collaborations with Blood Orange and Lady Gaga under her belt, Lu is not an unknown entity by any measure. But her new album, Blood, is going to ensure she is on the tip of every tongue. She has delivered a masterpiece, an album that will cement her place among the most important artists making music today.
Lu is a wonderfully expressive cellist and has a voice that could move mountains, but the real power on Blood comes from the netherworld region her songs occupy.
They are strange, wondrous creations, that – like all the very best songs – take time to worm under your skin. One minute she sounds like an ancestor of Laurel Canyon’s 1960s folk scene, the next like Aphex Twin remixing some long lost country soul heartbreaker, salvaged from a dusty crate of LPs. One song gives the impression that she is a fellow traveller alongside new soul queen Sudan Archives, the next a companion to country folk balladeer Alela Diane.
With disco-pop beats, twanging country lap-steel, echoing guitar, ecstatic bells, whispering chimes, aching strings and mournful soul, Blood is the album you never knew you needed, till you couldn’t imagine life without it.