Thursday, December 17, 2009

The 52nd Grammy Awards nominees: Contemporary world music

Nominees for "The Best Contemporary World Music Album--Vocal or Instrumental" are the subject of today's preview of the upcoming Grammy Awards, as distinct from the "traditional' cagegory in my previous blog.

The first album to be nominated is "Welcome to Mali", by Amadou and Mariam on the Nonesuch label. The couple met in the 1970's when they were both students in the Malian capital of Bamako at the Institute for Young Blind People, and have released well over a dozen albums since. This particular entry features a number of prominent guest artists, taking the album beyond purely Malian pop music. On one track, Amadou sings in French to the English lyrics of K’Naan, a Somali-born rapper now living in Toronto (he appeared earlier this year in the Kennedy Center's Arabesque Festival, and can be seen in a streaming video on their Website). Another cut features instrumental input from Malian kora master Toumani Diabaté (see the previous entry, in which his cousin and sometime disciple Mamadou Diabaté has also been nominated for his kora performance). Leading Nigerian guitarist and singer-songwriter Keziah Jones joins the duo on the albums title track. You can go to the Nonesuch Website to listen to excerpts from each of the 11 items

The protean master of the banjo, Béla Fleck is nominated yet again for a Grammy (he's already received seven) through his "Throw Down Your Heart: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, vol. 3 - Africa Sessions" on Rounder Records. The twelve tracks incorporate a wide range of African singing and isntrumental styles, and are apparently drawn from Fleck's preparation of a 2009 documentary film, "Throw Down Your Heart: Bela Fleck Brings the Banjo Back to Africa". Samples from this extraordinary CD, which was also nominated this year in the "Best Pop Instrumental Performance" category for the title track, can be heard here.

The African domination of this Grammy category continues with "Day by Day", by Femi Kuti, son of the late superstar Fela Kuti (1938-1997), who was a towering figure in the vanguard in the development of Afropop music, as well as a major Nigerian activist. Previously nominated for a Grammy in 2003, Femi Kuti presents 12 tracks with varied rhythms and instrumentation, and songs with lyrics carrying a range of messages, as in the title song: "Day by Day, by night by night, we work and pray for peace to reign . . . . " Tracks from the album, released by Mercer Street Records can be sampled here.

Next comes "Seya", by Oumou Sangaré, like Amadou and Mariam above, from Mali, and also on the Nonesuch label. An outspoken feminist and businesswoman, her original songs, while maintaining a strongly African character, embrace a range of styles and instrumentation, with frequent use of the traditional solo vocal call from Sangaré's powerful voice, and a chorus responding in unison. Further information on the album, as well as samples from each of the 11 tracks, is available on the Nonesuch Website. As noted there, Sangaré, like Amadou and Mariam above, collaborates with an international cast of guest artists, including a saxophonist, Alfred "Pee Wee Ellis", and a trombonist, Fred Wesley, who have both worked with James Brown, and Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who was Fela Kuti’s musical director.

The final nominee in this Grammy category is "Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry" by Omar Sosa, on Half Note Records. While Sosa himself hails from Cuba, the titles of several of the tracks show a clear connection to Africa: "Promised Land", "Across Africa (The Dream)" and "Across Africa (Arrival), and "Ancestors". Brief audio excerpts from all the album's pieces, as well as a listing of the album's personnel, can be found here.

I am particularly pleased with the nomination of this CD, given that I had encountered it in the course of writing a previous blog on a totally unrelated subject, the music of Andalusia. Describing a fascinating one-man Website that I had discovered in the course of pursuing that topic, I wrote of one particularly obsessive experience on the Website, ("music from the road less traveled . . . "):

"The soundstream of the "Listen" tab [on the Web page] leads into a haunting song emerging mysteriously from the aether of the Internet, "Guide me O thou great Jehovah" (lyrics on!), sung in what sounds like a Scottish brogue against a slow ostinato of just two alternating clustered piano chords, presently joined by a languid drum set background accenting the third beat of four, then moving into a luminous improvisation on the piano of melting jazz harmonies. . . .

"The song takes possession of me, and my old compulsion resurfaces: I MUST find out who the artist(s) is(are). WHERE I can find the recording? WHAT inspired the artist(s)?"

Well, tonight I find out what that recording is, to my great delight. You can learn more about it by acessing a fascinating trailer on YouTube, posted on behalf of Half Note records, describing the origins of this remarkable album, which included the collaboration of ethnomusicologist Tim Eriksen, whose haunting recitation of the hymn had first seized my ear, and who is himself a performer on the banjo, among other instruments.

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