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Tuesday Reviewsday: Les Amazones d’Afrique, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and more




Image of the Malian supergroup, Amazones d' Afrique
Image of the Malian supergroup, Amazones d' Afrique
Tiago Augusto

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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, and this week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins the show to give his picks and reviews. 

STEVE'S PICKS

Artist: Les Amazones d’Afrique

Album: “République Amazone”

It wasn’t just November’s election that started it. Well before that, there seemed to be a sense  bubbling up via more and more musicians of a desire to, well, say something. That’s manifest in three dramatically different ways in three new albums, one from the West African women’s music all-star project dubbed Les Amazones d’Afrique, one from bold young jazz trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and one from Texas folk-soul-gospel veteran Ruthie Foster, each taking distinctly different forms of musical expression, but each tapping into a need to connect with meaningful themes.

Long before women put on pink knit hats and marched through our cities, a group of strong-voiced women came together to present a forceful message:

"Men, listen to us

This song we’ll sing goes to you

Our troubles and sorrows are our weapons

And we women want to share them with you ..."

The women who wrote and sang that song, “I Play the Kora,” are a multi-generational, multi-cultural West African supergroup fully deserving of the name they’ve chosen, Les Amazones d’Afrique, honoring the women warriors who protected cultures in that region for hundreds of years.

The words quoted above were sung, in the Banbara language, by Malian artist Rokia Koné, followed in subsequent verses with equally pointed, pain-into-action lines from young Nigerian rebel-rapper Nneka, Mouneissa Tandina, Kandia Kouyate, Mamani Keita, Mariam Doumbia and Mariam Koné (all from Mali) and Pamela Badjogo (of Gabon).

Les Amazones first came about a couple of years ago, sparked by French music agent Valerie Malot hoping to shine a light on the violence, oppression and inequities facing African women. All of these women, established and/or rising stars in modern African music, have dealt with various aspects of that in their own lives, and proceeds from “I Play the Kora” go to the Panzi Foundation, based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and dedicated to helping women, particularly those who have been victims of sexualized violence. The song itself artistically addresses the endemic place of women as second-class citizens — women have historically been prohibited from playing the kora, the harp-like instrument that is at the foundation of the song and story traditions that are core to the peoples of West Africa. Just saying, “I play the kora,” for a woman, is a dramatic statement of pride and defiance.

It was the project’s first single and now is just one of the highlights of a full album, “République Amazone,” which even apart from the sharp messages is a dynamic offering. Co-produced by the women with Irish musician Liam Farrell (a.k.a. Doctor L, who previously produced the sparkling Kinshasa outfit Mbogwana Star), the album is dense with intertwined traditional and modern sounds, the serious topics always propelled by spirited music. It’s not looking for pity, but always pushing for progress. So strong is it that the presence of Benin-born global star Angelique Kidjo in the lead singer and lyricist role on rousing opening song “Dombolo” is just a nice bonus, a way to bring a bit more attention. And each song, each performance stands tall on its own, from Keita’s sinewy “Doona” to Nneka’s funk-soul “La Dame et Ses Valises” (“The Lady and Her Luggage”) to the roiling “Full Moon” (featuring Koné and Keita). But at all turns this is really about the collective strength of a community that is compelled to speak up — and even if we don’t understand the language in which they are speaking, it comes through clearly.

Artist: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

Album: “Ruler Rebel”

It can be hard enough to get the full message of topical songs when the words are in a language you don’t understand. Harder still, of course, when there are no words. If you heard the brash and bold new music from trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah without knowing anything about it, would you get right off that it tackles, in the words of the press material, “a litany of issues that continue to plague our collective experiences,” including “Slavery in America via the Prison Industrial Complex, Food Insecurity, Xenophobia, Immigration, Climate Change, Sexual Orientation, Gender Equality, Fascism and the return of the Demagogue?”

Here he is performing for NPR's "Tiny Desk Concert.

Did we say brash and bold? Well, it takes that to put oneself alongside some others who have brought truly original vision to jazz as a vehicle for such ideas, a roster that includes such giants as John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp and Miles Davis. Audaciousness and arrogance too, both terms that have been applied to Adjuah, that he seems to court. But he backs it up with accomplishment. This new album builds on themes he’d explored in 2012’s “Christian aTunde Adjuah” (which introduced the adoption of his African-rooted name) and 2014’s “Stretch Music.” But it’s also the first of “The Centennial Trilogy,” marking the 100 year anniversary of the very first jazz recording, with the next two set for release later this year, at once drawing on all the developments of those years and projecting new routes for the future. Well, an NPR critic did proclaim him as ushering in “a new era of jazz” with his fusion of new and old approaches he has termed “Stretch Music.” (He recently hosted what he billed as the first annual Stretch Music Festival at New York’s Harlem Stage, spotlighting young jazz innovators.)

 So what do we hear on “Ruler Rebel”? We hear the past and, if not the future, then a vivid, dynamic present, Miles Davis via finely applied hip-hop sensibilities, atmospheric trumpet and glitchy rhythms. On the title song and the closing piece “The Reckoning” he paints that picture of the issues — historic and right-now — spelled out in the promo material, an expressive, abstractive swirl of righteous anger with intense, determined, pointed calm. But other emotions come into play too, explicitly in “New Orleans Love Song” — two versions, a relatively straightforward rendition tied to and inspired by mentors and masters of the past, a remix with a very modern pulse. Each stands on its own, statements by an artist trying to capture the moment, but in for the long haul. Brash and bold. Here he is again, performing  “The Reckoning” from a November concert:

Artist: Ruthie Foster

Album: “Joy Comes Back”

And finally, Ruthie Foster is hardly the first person to take on Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” The thudding Viet Nam era anti-military-industrial-complex screed is something of a standard in some circles. But it’s a good bet she’s the first Texas-rooted folk-soul-gospel singer to give it a go. And what a go she gives it. Foster, a veteran performer with a knack for finding ways to add heart to message songs, and messages to heart songs, hits a surprising sweet spot with this, balancing out the bitter tone inherent to Ozzy’s attack with a deeply human touch.

 

That formula marks the album as a whole, not about the contrasts of emotions but the complements, via the works of various ace songwriters. Chris Stapleton’s “What Are You Listening To?” opens as an affectionate invitation to and invocation of the power of music, and the personal nature of it, followed by Grace Pettis’ tribute to the “Working Woman.” “War Pigs” is followed by, enhanced by, Stevie Wonder’s “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” in turn followed by Mississippi John Hurt’s venerable “Richland Woman Blues.”

And “War Pigs” not withstanding, this is an album of hope, of, as Foster’s own “Open Sky” presents, possibilities. Of course, it’s right there in the album title, and the gospel-y title song, written by Sean Staples and here featuring the slinky slide guitar mastery of guest Derek Trucks (as well as Foster and album producer Daniel Barrett on “clogs and stiletto heels”). Here is the ultimate message Foster wants us to hold: Joy comes back. No matter the troubles, no matter the darkness, joy comes back.

(click on the blue arrow to hear the entire segment)