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Tuesday Reviewsday: Shirley Collins, Afro-Rock and West African tunes




Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou
Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou
Poly-Rythmo (via YouTube)

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If you love music, but don't have the time to keep up with what's new, you should listen to Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our critics join our hosts in the studio to talk about what you should be listening to, in one short segment. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez.

Artist: The Lafayette Afro Rock Band vs. ICE
Album: "Afro Funk Explosion"
Songs: "Darkest Light," "Malik"

We’re going to say with some confidence that you’ve heard the Lafayette Afro Rock Band. We’re going to say with nearly the same level of confidence that you’ve never heard of the Lafayette Afro Rock Band.

Biz Markie, Janet Jackson, De La Soul, LL Cool J, the Wu-Tang Clan — you’ve heard of them — are among those who sampled the Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s 1974 song "Hihache." Public Enemy and Jay-Z — you’ve heard of them, too —  used a bit of the group’s "Darkest Light," the former in the 1988 song "Show ‘Em Whatcha Got," the latter on the 2006 hit "Show Me What You Got." Yup, that forlorn saxophone wail? That’s theirs.

But as indelible as that short set of notes is, it’s not exactly representative of the LARB’s sound. As the name implies, and as track after track on a long-overdue, revelatory compilation just coming out now, this is some funky stuff, boisterous and burbly jazz-rock and dance-pop and eminently irresistible, though in fact it was largely resisted and left to obscurity.

The irony, perhaps, is that the band went to great lengths to avoid obscurity, leaving its Long Island birthplace and the American proliferation of funk bands to relocate in Paris. Having originated as the Bobby Boyd Congress (Boyd being the founding singer) and then named Ice, the group went to France under the guidance of jazz producer Pierre Jaubert in 1971. Boyd left soon thereafter, but the group continued and became part of the eclectic, international Paris circuit.  There they heard, and sometimes played with, Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, who was living in Paris, and embraced elements of his African fusion sound, changing the group name to reflect that (Lafayette coming from the name of bassist Lafayette Hudson) and even recording a fairly straight version of his iconic 1972 song "Soul Makossa" as the title track of the debut LARB album. The LARB recordings that came in the early and mid-‘70s which make up the bulk of this compilation’s first of two discs, features that approach prominently, but not exclusively, with some tracks leaning more toward party funk a la Kool & the Gang, others veering into the jazzier side of things comparable to what the Crusaders, Ramsey Lewis and Average White Band were doing at the time. "Malik," the title song of the followup (and final LARB) album, holds up really well both in context of its time and today.

Sales were minimal, and outside of the Paris region the band remained largely unknown, though it did draw the attention of American jazz pianist Mal Waldron, who hired them to back him on an album that never got released, though one track, "Red Matchbox," is heard here — Maldron playing some lively electric piano.  Things got scattered from there, LARB morphing back to Ice (represented on Disc 2) and several other alternative disco-era names, including Crispy and Co., under which there was some mild European club success. Then it was back to America and the inevitable disbanding before finding new life through samples. But there’s much more to it than those snippets, well worth discovering in full.

Artist: Shirley Collins
Album: "Lodestar"
Songs: "Awake Awake," "Death and the Lady"

The last new music from English folk legend Shirley Collins came around 1980. No big deal. The first song on her return album, "Lodestar," was written around 1580. "Awake Awake" was penned by one Thomas Deloney following the 1580 London Earthquake in which part of St,Paul’s Cathedral crumbled — a sign to him that God was displeased with the woeful, sinful ways of the people of England. Well, perhaps there’s some cosmic concern about England crumbling in the Brexit era, so it’s easy to imagine this octogenarian winking slyly as she sings this.

Whether that’s the case or not, this album’s look back through the centuries is not about spotlighting music that is archaic, but showing it as living and thriving. And that has been Collins’ life work, a life for which this album serves as summary and recap, and more. Before her retirement (or merely long hiatus) after losing her voice to the condition dysphonia, she had a remarkable career,  reshaping awareness and approach to English folk music and its various tendrils. In the late ‘50s, she traveled with Alan Lomax to research and collect songs of the American south and throughout the UK. In the early ‘60s in partnership with guitarist Davy Graham, she helped open a new golden era of English folk music. From there she expanded the range and concept of just what folk music is, diving into everything from burgeoning, electric folk-rock and reaching further back than most folkies, into medieval songs and sounds for some of the most moving, epiphanies-filled recordings of her era.

And all this with a voice as distinct as they come — at once rural and rough, sophisticated and true, understated and reserved and yet conveying the drama and passion inherent in the songs and the generations through which they have lived. Even through her retirement she remained hugely influential on and beloved by artists from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Current 93’s David Tibet (who was able to talk her out of retirement to sing in public in 2014) and singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, as well as a new generation of folk musicians, including Stewart Lee, Olivia Chaney and Alasdair Roberts, all of whom performed at an 80th birthday tribute concert to her last year.

All that is here on "Lodestar." The 11-minute suite started by "Awake Awake," with its hurdy-gurdy interlude and rustic chamber-music underpinnings, echoes the late-‘70s album "Anthems of Eden," which featured not just her sister Dolly, a frequent collaborator, on "portative organ," but some of the top "early" music artists of that time. "Cruel Lincoln" brings it home, sounding like it may have been recorded at her home — bird’s singing audibly in the track. Elsewhere she goes back to her Lomax years with the classic Appalachians murder ballad "Pretty Polly," which she first recorded in 1959 — and which has its own roots in English folk. Also from this side of the Atlantic — though also with some European roots — is the sorrowful Cajun French song "Sur Le Bord de L’eau," which she learned from a 1929 recording by Louisiana singer Bind Uncle Gaspard.

There is much sadness in the album, and much death — the traditional "Death and the Lady," for which she’s done a "Seventh Seal"-inspired video, explicitly so. And she closes with "The Silver Swan," a 17th century madrigal by Orlando Gibbons, in which the titular bird "thus sung her first and last and sung no more." But in her song notes accompanying the album, Collins thinks back to nights in the early ‘50s at home in Hastings around the piano, singing that song with her sister and their mother, the three collapsing in laughter at their vain attempts to get through the intricate parts. The version here is sparer, just her voice, a harmonium and a viola. But for the song’s twilight melancholy, you can almost hear that laughter still in her voice these decades later.

Artist: Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou
Album: "Madjafalao"
Songs: "Madjafalao," "Africa"

Looking for acts for the next Oldchella? Artists rooted in the ‘60s with legacies on par with Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and the Who? How about Le Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou?

Well, for a West African Oldchella for sure. Founded by leader Melome Clement in 1968  in, as the name suggest, the capital of Benin, Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo was one of the most dynamic and popular bands of the region, synthesizing many styles of the region, again as the name suggests, into a new and vibrant sound. Rhumbas from the Congo, highlife from Ghana, Afrobeat from Nigeria, the Afro-Cuban sounds that had made their ways back and forth across the Atlantic and American R&B as well were all folded into sensibilities forged by traditional Beninese music in ways rivaling, but distinct from, the groundbreaking excitement of Fela Kuti and a handful of others in that part of the continent. The group was dominant through the ‘70s, recording dozens of albums.

But with economic decline and a harsh dictatorship restricting cultural life in Benin in the ‘80s, the band was discontinued. Later, though, many of the original recordings were reissued to ravenous fans both new and old, and with renewed interest, Clement brought the band back in 2008, with long-time bassist Gustave Bentho and singer Vincent Ahehehinnou in the fold, for acclaimed tours around the world and in 2011 a new album, "Cotonou Club," that carried all the excitement and power of the original incarnations. Clement died in 2012, but the band continued on and returns with "Madjafalao." The title means "Watch Out," and you’d better. This is exciting music, the rhythms as poly as ever, percussion and brass as vibrant as the classic recordings, punchy guitar lines and vocals and, track after track, carry a mix of sadness for what has passed and joy for what is here.

The full name of the group, by the way, is Le Tout-Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou — tout-puissant meaning all-powerful, almighty, omnipotent. And that it is. Watch out!