World Music

Brian Eno & John Cale “Wrong Way Up” (All Saints Records, 1990)

tumblr_map24qj6nn1qdwm6bo1_500When one pushes synthetic sounds to the realm of unreal and back again, what else is left to do? Brian Eno’s work behind an engineering board had taken him far and far out by 1990… The exciting world music he had envisioned did not match the world music found in the New Age marketing-niche of the previous decade, and albums bearing his name seemed to carry his signature thumbprint, even when thoughts of strong structure more or less faded away with each LP.

On “Wrong Way Up” the studio still acts as the lead instrument, but song structures make a return. And who better to help Eno return to strange but impactful songwriting than musical-foil John Cale? All sorts of beats and chirps assembled throughout these tracks are meshed through Cale viola, not to mention any sort of instrument the duo could get their hands on. What they come up with most of the time are musical figments riding chopped and screwed grooves.

Lyrics are not esoteric but definitely familiar to fans of either Eno or Cale; impressionistic views presented in a pop context. The results can be surprisingly affecting like on “Cordoba” when repetitious mentions of buses and stations highlight an obvious separation, or on choice single “Spinning Away” with it’s constant citing of colors and shades.

Eno and Cale are to pop what they were to Rock… That is, artsy. And like Duchamp’s urinal, placed the wrong way up. -Wade

Re-examinin’ Jammin:
A Guide for the Reggae Reluctant

What is it about Reggae that inspires such polarized reactions? Scores of those who are otherwise musically well-versed and open-minded will register tangible expressions of apprehension when the irie sounds of Jamaica are mentioned. Reggae is a line in the sand for a lot of people, but I suspect that, as was the case for me, a lot of people have simply never had the right entry point – something beyond the ganja-huffing roommate who blasted Bob Marley’s “Legend” from dusk to dawn. Like the music of The Grateful Dead (read our guide), Reggae comes with a lot of baggage. Negative cultural associations abound, and the fact that at it’s root, it is a basically repetitive music sung in patois doesn’t exactly woo new listeners. Not to mention the sheer, daunting amount of recorded music out there.

In hopes of remedying this, we’ve put together a guide for the Reggae-wary. Contrary to simply being a list of “user-friendly” Reggae, these records all hopefully offer something slightly removed from the general expectations and stereotypes many of us have formed around Reggae music.

Gregory Isaacs Night Nurse (1982). Gregory is a good gateway for people who don’t technically have a problem with Bob Marley, but are soured by the over-saturation of his image/music in popular culture. Gregory “The Cool Ruler” was blessed with pipes every bit as strong and expressive as Marley’s, with a natural gift for melody, and a voice smooth and sweet enough to buff out the scratches on your Minibus. Mr. Isaacs was pre-occupied with the fairer sex as much as themes of roots and culture, so it’s not all ganja anthems and Hail Selassie (although there is some of that). Much of his material revolves around classic lover’s themes, the bedrock of all pop music, and a potential lifeline for those looking for a little tunefulness and romance with their Reggae.

Rhythm & Sound With The Artists (Compilation, 2003). Rhythm & Sound are Berliners who got their start in the ’90’s making minimal, dubby Techno under the quietly influential Basic Channel moniker. Their Rhythm & Sound project surgically removes the 4/4 spine from their productions, swapping it out for Reggae’s ubiquitous backbeat, and stripping the music down to it’s barest essentials, leaving only the slightest suggestion of Reggae’s pulsating undercurrent. With The Artists sees them voicing their tracks with Reggae legends like the Love Joys and Cornel Campbell, effectively forging a bridge from Reggae’s past to it’s potential future. The results are a spectral, midnight burial dub that sounds unlike anything else in the body of Reggae or Electronic music.

Keith Hudson Flesh Of My Skin: Blood Of My Blood (1975). One of the more interesting and idiosyncratic figures in the genre’s history, Hudson was a former dentist who became something of a Reggae renaissance man – producing, playing, and singing in numerous iterations. In 1974 he released Flesh Of My Skin, Blood Of My Blood – one of the first deliberately conceived “albums” (i.e., not a collection of singles, etc) in Reggae history, and a concept album to boot. Known as the “Dark Prince Of Reggae,” Hudson had a raspy, off-pitch delivery, which works perfectly with the spooky, fog-cloaked production of this otherworldly work that occasionally recalls what Dr. John’s “Gris-Gris” would have sounded like if he’d been Jamaican, not just Creole. A landmark album that still sounds way ahead of it’s time today.

Augustus Pablo East Of The River Nile (1977). In my experience, the music of Augustus Pablo has proven to be a soothing balm to the ear of many a Reggae-dissonant. Something about the sound of the melodica, Pablo’s trademark instrument, succeeds in enchanting the wary listener into blissful submission. The alien sound of the melodica (an instrument not often heard in Reggae, or music period) floats over the mix like vapor, carrying the intrigue of the unfamiliar while triggering a faint nostalgia for Morricone-soundtracked Westerns. Pablo is best-known for his late-seventies melodica records, but was also a multi-talented musician and producer, playing on barrels of classic sessions and continuing to produce innovative work through the ’90’s. Pressure Sounds recently released a selection of his digital-era recordings, which comes highly recommended to anyone looking to delve deeper into his maverick vision.

Dadawah Peace And Love (1974). Dadawah’s “Peace And Love” is the crowning achievement of one Ras Michael, an artist who has released numerous recordings under the latter handle. Michael concentrates on the nyabinghi strain of Reggae – traditional Rastafarian spiritual music, roughly equivalent to Mississippi hill country Blues in it’s rawness and purity of vision. The unique sound of the Dadawah record arises from a stripped-down rhythmic core of hand-drum and bass, eschewing the standard drum kit and rhythm-guitar backbeat of Reggae. When guitar does creep into the mix, it’s in the form of improvised, bluesy interjections, never settling on a fixed melody or pattern. The album consists of four slow-building, hazed-out songs, often running into the 10-12 minute mark – all of it soaking in a vat of reverb. A deeply expansive and singular record that will melt the mind of anyone into Psychedelia, Krautrock, Primitive Blues, or even Spiritual Jazz.

Further listening: UK producer/musician/mover and shaker, Adrian Sherwood has been instrumental in breaking down the musical, social, and cultural barriers that have traditionally made Reggae such an insular concern. He founded the On-U Sound label in the ’80’s, initiating a flurry of releases by acts that pushed the core sounds and concerns of Reggae into new tributaries and uncharted territory. Singers & Players was a collective (featuring revered names in Reggae like Prince Far-I and Bim Sherman) who successfully cut the traditional Reggae template with eclectic flourishes and innovative production techniques influenced by Electronica and Industrial music. Dub Syndicate, meanwhile, serves as Sherwood’s love-letter to the Dubbing tradition. While remaining essentially modern and explorative, it’s also the most openly reverent concern of the On-U stable. In terms of pure aural experience, African Head Charge is easily the most experimental and out-there of the lot – and the furthest from traditional Reggae. The project of percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, AFC is a serious next-level stew that incorporates elements of everything from nyabinghi, psychedelia, and the sampladelic nature of musique-concrete to create one of the most compelling listening experiences a curious ear could hope for. These groups are just a cursory dip into the deep well of talent nurtured by On-U Sound over the years, exploding Reggae’s one-dimensional stereotypes into a thousand new possibilities.

Like every genre, Reggae is a near-bottomless pit once you’ve taken the leap, full of enough curiosities and permutations to keep one busy for a couple of lifetimes. The aforementioned are only a fraction of potential entry points. If you’re willing to cast aside your assumptions and approach it with an open mind, you may find something you didn’t know you were looking for, and be pleasantly surprised by what you find. —Jon Treneff

Wayne Shorter “Native Dancer” (1975)

Native Dancer is a wonder of a record. Wayne Shorter is the greatest (especially soprano) sax player in the history of Jazz, and here, he plays at his best. The music is not really Jazz. Instead, Brazilian star Milton Nascimento sings and adds his unique wizardry to the lush, tropical mood of the set. There’s not a trace of Bossa Nova in this music but Nascimento’s idiosyncratic handwriting instead. The compositions sound natural, though, and not as forcefully “intelligent” as the music Shorter would record after this. The musicians (what a lineup!) cook up a unique sound; no one tries to show off, it’s all mood and sensuality. It’s useless to pick out tunes – the flow is perfect, and so is this LP.

Native Dancer has been slandered and overlooked even by Wayne Shorter fans, perhaps because it doesn’t cater for the preconceived concepts of the average Jazz connoisseur, but make no mistake, Native Dancer is a timeless classic, irrespective of the tags attached to it (Jazz/MPB). To me, it’ll always be one of the 70s’ definite highlights. —Yofriend

Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’77 “Primal Roots” (1972)

As the title suggests, this isn’t another excursion into Brazilian pop. Here, there’s no pandering to Tropicália, disco or whatever was en vogue in 1972 -yes despite being played by the Brasil ’77, the album was actually recorded in 1972 under the alternate title “Raízes.” This is an album of traditional Brazilian music. The compositions feature traditional percussion instruments such as the gogó, cuica, pandeiro and atabaques. Much of the compositions emphasize the African origins of Brazilian music. While “Primal Roots” doesn’t sell out to commercial pressures, it is far from a field recording of traditional music. While some songs feature minimalist chanting and drumming, others feature those silky smooth female vocalists, flutes and some psychedelic keyboard work. Sergio Mendes may never be remembered in the same light as Astrud Gilberto, Airto Moreira and Gilberto Gil but “Primal Roots” will always be remembered as his ‘important album.’ —The Delite Rancher

Gilberto Gil & Jorge Ben “Ogum Xangô” (1975)

This has got to be one of the most engaging and enjoyable displays of totally unrestrained musicianship I’ve ever heard. Jorge and Gil’s chemistry is seamless, yet their vocal and instrumental skills remain distinct and identifiable. The album is a terrific, relaxed affair, and the songs have a continuously rolling, improvvy feel about them, driven by bouncy, rhythmic guitar lines that eventually loop into hypnotic grooves and some extremely dynamic dual vocals, all of which remains surprisingly tight throughout. Jorge might take the lead on one song, Gil playfully trailing his vocals and throwing in some little guitar-tricks for embellishment, only to have the baton passed across, the two switching roles in a manner that’s quite selfless and democratic. The decision to record Gil primarily in one channel and Jorge in the other (perhaps just on the remaster?) was a stroke of genius, as it provides a slight buffer between the two which allows each of their contributions to be heard without any obfuscation, not to mention that it makes listening to Ogum Xangô on headphones feel a lot like you’re sitting in the middle of one of the most productive jam sessions of all time. The talent on display here is simply incredible. —Tommo

Os Mutantes “A Divina Comedia Ou Ando Desligado” (1970)

Mutantes reached their apex with the release of “A Divina Comedia Ou Ando Desligado” which translates to A Divine Comedy or I walk Disconnected. This is a flawless record. Rita Lee is at the top of her game when she sings “Meu refrigeradora noa funciona” (my refrigerator doesn’t function). The track which precedes it, “Desculpe, baby” (I’m sorry baby) is one of the most sexy and beautiful songs ever sung. It reminds me of Wong Kar-Wai’s movies (he made Chungking Express and Happy Together). These are incredible pop tunes, but they (as some of the other reviews show) aren’t for everyone. Os Mutantes emerged from the Tropicalia movement of 60’s Brazil. If you enjoy this cd you may want to check out other tropicalist’s: Gilberto Gil, Caetono Veloso, Gal Costa, Tom Ze, Maria Bethania. Jorge Ben is not considered tropicalia, but he is very incredible and sang a song on the first Os Mutantes album. Mutantes have more of a western flavor than some of the contemporaries. If you like them more for the apparent influence of the beatles and the rolling stones, you may want to check out the Peruvian band, We All Together.

This album is essential stock for a healthy record collection, its like eating broccoli! —fossilfrolic

Beyond Tropicália: MPB in the 1970’s

In order to contextualize some of the best Brazilian music of the 1970s, one must first understand tropicália (AKA tropicalismo). In order to do that, one must first look back to Brazil in the ‘60s, a nation at that time rife with contradictions. Despite intermittent political instability which culminated with a military coup in 1964, postwar Brazil simultaneously experienced unprecedented economic growth. A large portion of its population lived far below the poverty line, but its middle class grew exponentially, with many of its members now enjoying a standard of living that previous generations could only dream of. Not surprisingly, these changes began to manifest themselves in the music of Brazil. Bossa nova, in particular, enjoyed not only massive popularity in its homeland but in many countries in the northern hemisphere as well, making it Brazil’s most successful musical export since Carmen Miranda. At the same time, other new styles emerged on a seemingly daily basis. Aided by a growing radio and television industry and the proliferation of the LP format, a new Brazilian musical identity began to emerge, adopting the moniker of MPB (Música Popular Brasileira). Ironically, it was also around this time that a host of distinctly non-Brazilian styles, most notably American R&B and British Invasion, began enjoying popularity there as well. From there things would only get more complicated.

By 1966, a small but growing movement was afoot in the northeastern city of Salvador. Deconstructionist and remarkably post-modern in its approach, it sought to shatter all preconceived notions about Brazilian art and culture and reassemble these pieces into something entirely new. These “tropicalistas”, as they called themselves, at first largely consisted of artists, poets, and filmmakers. But when two up and coming musicians, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, entered the fold, Tropicália’s true legacy would become realized. Soon joined by a handful of other massive musical talents, among them Gal Costa, Tom Zé, and a trio of teenage Beatles fanatics calling themselves Os Mutantes, this unlikely collective would spearhead the Tropicália movement. Incorporating disparate musical styles ranging from traditional samba to psychedelic Hendrix-style guitar freakouts into their songs, nothing was sacred to the tropicalistas. This anarchic sonic collage can be heard in all its glory on the 1968 sampler LP, Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis, which fired the opening salvo of a musical revolution that would prove to be very short-lived.

Tropicália’s tenuous existence was no surprise; in many ways, its founders were fighting a losing battle from the start. The left-wing intelligentsia thought them traitors for “corrupting” traditional Brazilian music with imperialist influences. The then in power military regime, of whom the Tropicalistas’ music openly and harshly criticized, hated them even more—so much so that they jailed and eventually deported Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil in 1969. With its two leading lights (temporarily) extinguished, Tropicália was basically over. But as far as what lay ahead for MPB, the real revolution had only begun.

For newcomers to Brazilian music, especially those steeped in a rock background, Tropicália often garners the most attention. This is not surprising, as it’s received a lot of press over the past decade and it has had some high-profile fans, Kurt Cobain and Beck among them. Much of what came after it in the following years might have lacked the aggression and visceral urgency that characterized Tropicália’s greatest moments, but the music of the post-Tropicália period was just as compelling, and perhaps even more diverse. Indeed, for many connoisseurs of Brazilian music, the early 1970’s represents an apex of innovation and excellence, a true Brazilian musical renaissance. Unfortunately, some of the best examples from this period can be tough to find outside of Brazil, but those willing to search will find the effort to be well worth it. Here are some titles to start with.

Os Mutantes Jardim Electrico (1970) Like their other later albums, this 1970 effort does not get as much attention as the “Tropicália trifecta” of their first three releases. This is not entirely fair. True, much of the endearing wackiness and Dadaist mayhem inherent in their earlier work are gone. But it’s all replaced with new-found confidence, more disciplined song structures, and tighter playing. Recorded mostly in Paris, Jardim Electrico shows the “Brazilian Beatles” vying for an international audience. One song, “El Justiciero”, is in Spanish. Two others, “Baby” and “Technicolor” are in English; the former makes a fine addition to the two versions recorded in Portuguese during Tropicália’s heyday while the latter, an entirely new creation, sums up the band’s raison d’être more effectively than anything they recorded before or after.

Lô Borges Lô Borges (1972) Guitarist Lô Borges was a charter member of Clube de Esquina , a musical collective somewhat overshadowed by the troipicalistas but every bit as inventive as their counterparts. His solo debut, however, deserves to stand on its own. Here Borges’ exquisite songwriting is enhanced by an intoxicating mix of jazz, funk, psychedelia, and traditional Brazilian forms. This record is one of those “unknown” masterpieces that is spoken about in hushed tones among hipsters and music nerds and which, over time, gains “classic” status and a huge following. Does it live up to its hype? Absolutely.

Gilberto Gi Expresso 2222 (1972) Caetano Veloso recorded one of his definitive masterpieces (read our review) during his and Gilberto Gil’s exile in London. While Gil also recorded some great work during this period, he wouldn’t fully regain his stride until being allowed re-entrance into Brazil in 1972. Expresso 2222 shows an invigorated yet wiser-for-wear Gil serving up his best work since his 1968 Tropicália masterpiece, Gilberto Gil. His music is as playful as ever, as evidenced by the celebratory “Back in Bahia”, but also more mature and introspective. From here, Gil’s work became less consistent, seldom reaching these artistic heights.

Secos e Mulhados Secos e Mulhados (1973) Secos e Mulhaldos examplified MPB’s increasing penchant for straight-ahead rock. But while their glammy debut exhibits some ‘70s arena rock traits, in the end it’s one of those records that’s impossible to categorize. Echoes of Marc Bolan and David Bowie can certainly be heard, but this is often underscored by a distinctly Brazilian folk vibe. What truly defines its uniqueness, however, are Ney Matagrosso’s androgynous vocals. (Newcomers to this record are often stunned when they learn that the lead singer of this band is actually a male.) Hugely popular in Brazil during their brief mid-70s run, the band’s Latin American kabuki stage getup was supposedly a direct inspiration for the outrageous outfits appropriated by KISS.

Tom Zé Estudando o Samba (1975) Of all the tropicalistas, Tom Zé retained the movement’s experimentalist M.O. more than any of his peers, sometimes not in his best interests commercially. But this 1975 album strikes a perfect balance between joyous samba and dissonant musique concrete. “Toc” overlays a cacophony of found sounds consisting of typewriters, radio static, and crying babies on top of one note continuously plucked on a guitar. It’s a testament to Zé’s talent that such aural collages can sit comfortably alongside a song like “Tô”, which wouldn’t be out of place on a Stan Getz record. Somehow, Zé keeps one foot in the avant-garde and the other in a carnival procession, and this is what makes his music so fantastic.

Further listening: Towards the end of his tenure in the Talking Heads, David Byrne became obsessed with the modern sounds of Brazil (these influences can be heard all over the Head’s final album, Naked, and his 1988 solo effort, Rei Mono). He founded a record label, Luaka Bop, which issued a various Brazilian artists sampler, Beleza Tropical, as its first release in 1989. Although it covered some more contemporary material, its emphasis was on material released in the ‘70s. Byrne stated that he hoped the record would do for Brazilian music what The Harder They Come soundtrack did for Jamaican music. While this was probably an unrealistic goal, Beleza Tropical did have an impact, and it’s doubtful that few outside of Brazil would know who Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil are had it not been released. Though missing some key artists and tracks, it provides a decent introduction for newbies. But it was the London-based Soul Jazz Records who really nailed it with their 2007 release, Brazil 70. Stuffed with tracks from all corners of the Brazilian renaissance of the 70s, it is probably the best compilation of its kind to be released so far. Here’s hoping for a second volume! —Richard P

Everything Scatter: A Guide to Afrobeat 
and the Music of Modern Nigeria

Nigeria has one of the richest musical histories of any country on the African continent. Considering the competition, that is really saying something. A country wracked with centuries’ worth of war, poverty, and countless other social ills, music has remained a constant unifying force, and it is the lifeblood of its peoples. For Nigerians, music is not a huge part of life—it is life. In fact, it is said that every Nigerian boy is given a drum before he learns to walk.

The evolution of Nigerian music can be traced back thousands of years, but it was its more modern forms that made the country a major player on the world music stage in the second half of the 20th century. It didn’t hurt that by this point the country already had a rich base shaped by a cross-cultural pollination dating back to the early days of colonization. Much of this occurred in the Nigerian capitol and busy port city of Lagos, where the heavily-rhythmic yoruba form dominated. Beginning in the 1900s, a plethora of musical influences, among them ragtime, calypso, meringue, blues, and even some Celtic forms, would join the mix, over time giving birth to a sound that was truly pan-global in every sense of the term.

But perhaps the most significant event in the evolution of modern Nigerian music was the arrival of highlife from neighboring Ghana in the early ’50s. A form with a resemblance to Trinidadian calypso and the American big band sound of the ’30s and ’40s, highlife would evolve and truly come into its own in Nigeria. Heavy on the brass, Nigerian highlife bands slowly began to emphasize the electric guitar, an instrument with widespread availability all over the world by the early ’60s. Vibrant, rhythmic, and extremely danceable, highlife became a major touchstone of Nigeria’s modern cultural identity, which in itself had taken on a whole new meaning following the gaining of the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1960.

Highlife continued to evolve throughout that decade, occasionally even leaving the confines of its national borders to enjoy some niche popularity in some western countries. One of its prime exporters was a young multi-instrumentalist by the name of Fela Anikulapo Ransome Kuti. In the early ’60s, Fela’s gifted musicianship landed him a spot at the prestigious Trinity College of Music in London, a city that at that time was experiencing the rumblings of a musical revolution of its own. Fela returned to Nigeria in the mid-60s and formed the band Koola Lobitos. His growing demand as an international performer would eventually bring him to Los Angeles in 1969. There he would become heavily steeped in the Black Power movement and also become exposed to the work of the soul music giants of the era, most significantly James Brown. When Fela returned to Nigeria at the end of the decade, he did so with his own musical and political agendas. Nigerian music would never be the same.

As monumental as Fela’s impact was, its downside was that it overshadowed the work of his Nigerian musical peers. While some were certainly influenced by Fela, many were innovators in their own rights. Fela might have coined the term “afrobeat” for his own music, but the term has since become synonymous with the immensely rich and diverse sounds that emanated from Nigeria in the 1970s and beyond. It has influenced artists from the Talking Heads to Vampire Weekend, and it can be heard today in the samples and beats of hip-hop and electronica and on the floors of dance clubs the world over. But as pervasive and ubiquitous as it has become, Afrobeat stands alone. It is the sound of modern Africa, but one where also can be heard the heartbeat of a culture whose history can be traced back to the birth of human civilization. Like a visit to Nigeria itself, fully exploring its music is a challenging, but rewarding, endeavor. Here are some places to begin the expedition.

Orlando Julius & His Modern Aces Super Afro Soul (2000) While Fela would become Nigeria’s most recognizable musical icon, Orlando Julius was the country’s first true pop superstar. A major purveyor of hIghlife in the mid-60s, Julius diverted from the rest of the pack by incorporating Stax and Motown influences into his sound, creating an infectious hybrid of highlife and soul. Though revered by many musicians outside of his homeland, Julius never found the massive international audience that he deserved. Fortunately, British label Strut Records sought to remedy this by reissuing this album, which highlights this fertile period of his career.

Fela Ransome Kuti & Ginger Baker Live! (1971) Cream drummer Ginger Baker was rock royalty’s earliest adopter of Nigerian music. Building a state of the art recording studio in Lagos in the early 70s, he is widely credited for introducing the music of Nigeria to western audiences. Baker and Fela met in London in the late 60s, resulting in a lifelong personal and musical friendship that would benefit both of them. This recording, made in a London club in 1970, showcases the two icons joining forces to deliver a killer set. Baker’s drumming not surprisingly sometimes gives it a more rock-like feel, making this a unique entry in Fela’s catalog.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Africa 70 Gentleman (1973) When confronted with the bewildering size of Fela’s catalog, many people often ask the same question: “Where should I start?”. Really, pretty much any of his studio albums released between 1971 and 1978 will make anyone a fan for life. But this album is where the template for Fela and Africa 70’s incendiary brand of afrobeat was truly established. Its title track, with Fela’s blistering sax (an instrument that he allegedly learned and mastered in just a few days following the departure of Africa 70 tenor saxophonist, Igo Chico), is worth the price of admission alone.

Peter King Shango (1974) A classically trained composer and saxophonist, Peter King is yet another criminally overlooked master of afrobeat. In the 70s, he recorded a handful of records containing a winning mix of jazz, funk, soul, blues, salsa, and, of course, rhythms from his own homeland of Nigeria. This can be heard in all its hip-shaking glory on this record, which unfortunately to date remains his only one to be reissued.

The Daktaris Soul Explosion (1998) You would never know it, but this album was actually recorded in the late-90s by a bunch of guys from Brooklyn, many who would go on to form Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra soon after its release. So convincing was its vintage sound and packaging, however, that many collectors were sure that they had stumbled upon a long lost afrobeat classic. (One of the evil geniuses behind this ruse was Gabriel Roth, eventual founder and boss of Daptone Records.) Despite the gimmickry, it’s the music that has to deliver in the end, and it does so in spades. Dedicated to Fela, the album kick-started the afrobeat revival. thereby keeping his torch ablaze while proudly carrying it into the 21st century.

Further listening: With growing interest among DJs, crate-diggers, and world music aficionados, the aughts saw an explosion of Nigerian music compilations. Strut records has done for afrobeat what Trojan Records did for reggae. Its 2000 release, Nigeria 70, provides an outstanding primer to afrobeat and its related forms. (Original pressings contained a standalone disc containing an excellent aural documentary of Nigeria’s musical history, which was unfortunately omitted from the recent reissue.) If you’re looking for highlife, seek out the Vampi Soul label’s Highlife Time, a collection with some of the best examples of the genre. Finally, the Soundway label’s in-progress “Special” series probably digs the deepest into Nigerian music of the ’60s and ’70s of any releases thus far; Nigeria Rock Special, which highlights the more psychedelia-influenced sounds of the period, is a great place to start. The music of modern Nigeria still remains a relatively untapped resource. What’s available now is only the beginning! —Richard P

Ska and Reggae’s Missing Link: 
A Guide to Rocksteady

Aside from reggae, ska was arguably Jamaica’s most important musical form, at least in terms of long-term cultural impact. Becoming ubiquitous all over the island at an astonishing speed in the early ’60s, ska grabbed hold of Jamaica’s musical consciousness like nothing had before. What’s more, despite its strange rhythms and heavily-Jamaican-accented vocals (when it wasn’t entirely instrumental), it crossed cultural boundaries almost effortlessly, making it catch on like mad in Britain and—to a lesser degree—the states.

Many Jamaican artists who eventually became international household names, among them Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, cut their teeth as performers during ska’s reign. In 1964, Millie Small scored an international smash hit with her skanked-up cover of “My Boy Lollipop”, and soon ska was everywhere. But by 1966, it was mysteriously vanishing in one place: Jamaica. A visit to a typical Kingston dance hall around that time would reveal that things were changing. Ska was becoming more melodic, more centered on the vocalist(s), and slower. Nobody knows for sure why this happened, but there are some theories. One suggests that during the summer of ’66, a brutal heatwave gripped Jamaica, forcing the musicians to slow things down on the dance floor so revelers wouldn’t collapse from heat exhaustion. Another postulates that the increasingly widespread availability of American soul records might have been a factor. (This would certainly make sense, as Stax and Motown influences can be heard all over the place on many Jamaican sides that were cut around this time.)

Whatever the cause, ska was metamorphosing into something completely different, so much so that it needed a new name; rocksteady seems to be the one that stuck. Rocksteady’s heyday was even more short-lived than its predecessor—-really only about two years-—and by the end of 1968, things were changing again. Recording technologies on the island were improving. Rastafarianism’s influence continued to spread, prompting a more socially conscious and politically-charged aesthetic. By the end of the decade, rocksteady was no longer, and reggae prevailed. But for many connoisseurs of modern Jamaican music, rocksteady represents its high point. It’s a form that’s rich and complex, yet raw, pure, and deeply soulful. It’s a truly unique product of its place and time, but one that transcends geography and culture, and which remains timeless. Here are five shining examples.

1. Prince Buster: Fabulous Greatest Hits (1980) – Though acquiring a popularity in the UK that at its peak rivaled the Beatles’s, Prince Buster never really established a large following in the US. Tracking down his one uneven RCA release from 1967 is a worthwhile endeavor, but this 1980 British comp is where all newcomers should start. All songs here were recorded in the mid to late ’60s, and many of them would serve as the blueprint for the 2 Tone movement that swept the UK a decade or so later.

2. Desmond Dekker and the Aces Israelites (1969) “The Jamaican Smokey Robinson’s” single “Israelites” represents the only time when rocksteady cracked the US top 100. When it did, MCA rushed to cobble together this collection of songs, some of which by then were almost two years old. It’s still a fantastic showcase for some of Dekker’s best work. He’s at the top of his game here, and so is his backing band.

3. The Ethiopians Engine ’54: Let’s Ska and Rocksteady (1968) Rocksteady was the ideal vehicle for the vocal group, and as Jamaican vocal groups went, they didn’t get much better than the Ethiopians. Don’t let the “ska” in the title fool you; most of this is quintessential rocksteady, some of the best ever recorded.

4. The Upsetters The Upsetter (1969) It’s difficult to figure out to whom this album should really be credited. One should know, however, that a young Lee “Scratch” Perry produced it, and whenever this eccentric mastermind is involved, things become, well… complicated. Featuring the work of a cadre of different musicians and vocalists, it’s a surprisingly cohesive late rocksteady record, one where the organ figures more prominently than the work of others at the time. It also hints at the dub revolution, of which Perry would be a prime architect a few years later.

5. Various Artists Tighten Up: Volume 1 (1969) Music from Jamaica continued to capture the hearts and minds of young UK listeners in the late ’60s, but the record industry was slow to profit from its popularity. This Trojan Records “cash-in” comp. spawned a series that would become an institution and number well into the double digits before ending its run. Its first volume defined the musical tastes of the Skinhead movement (before it was co-opted by nationalist and racist thugs). Heavy on soul covers, a few of its tracks denote a distinct progression towards reggae, but most represent some last great moments from Rocksteady’s waning days.

Further listening: Once the digging begins, one will be amazed by how so much great music came from such a small island in such a short period of time. The UK-based Trojan Records label remains the prime importer of rocksteady for a huge portion of the non-Jamaican world. The amount of compilations it has released over the years is overwhelming, but a good place to start is its budget-priced “threefer” box set series that it began churning out at the beginning of the 2000s. The Rocksteady Rarities and Skinhead comps are particular standouts, though there are plenty more (and some are available on vinyl). Also worth mentioning are Soul Jazz Records’ numerous comps that cover this period. Though they touch on other eras, 100% Dynamite and its many sequels and offshoots give a good overview of one of rocksteady’s most important producers, Sir Coxone Dodd. –Richard P

Are we forgetting your favorite rocksteady LP? We’d love to hear your comments:

Caetano Veloso “Caetano Veloso” (1971)

Ironically enough, Caetano Veloso’s almost entirely English language album is one of the most misunderstood of his classic 60s/70s period amongst English-speaking audiences (first place goes to Araca Azul, but that one at least gives you fair warning of its polarizability by the Caetano-in-bikini cover). Recorded while in exile in London, the album marks a dramatic musical departure from his first 2 solo outings that he would continue to explore up through 1977 or thereabouts. I must confess I don’t know too many details of Caetano’s (or Gilberto Gil’s) exile in London. It seems like a bit of a missed opportunity on the part of the British, though there was probably no reason why anyone there should’ve known who he was. Apparently some Traffic members were big fans, and even helped out on Gil’s sessions but if I were George Harrison or Twink or Jimmy Page or Bill Wyman or Jack Bruce or Marc Bolan or Mike Heron and someone told me that the leading light of Brazil’s new underground rock movement was in my midst, I would totally be over there asking if he wanted to go bowling or split an appetizer or something. Or if I was Jimmy Page, I would ask if I could steal his guitar line from “Irene”.

One aspect of Veloso’s exile period is quite : he did NOT like it. The cover is amazing. Caetano looks like he’s 50, he’s cold, and you just told him a mildly offensive joke. One would assume this album is as bleak as Pink Moon but the first couple of songs might surprise you. “A Little More Blue” opens with a laidback, meandering acoustic figure that sounds a bit mellow but certainly not conducive to soul-bearing. The lyrics are about events that have made him sad, even though at the present moment “I feel a little more blue than then”. Along the way he peppers in references to his own exile and some truly vivid lyrics (“her dead mouth with red lipstick smiled”). An odd, dichotomous opener. “London, London” is for me the standout. And, oddly enough, it’s the jauntiest track, replete with playful flute like Donovan’s 67-era acoustic sides. It’s one of the most exquisitely beautiful songs I’ve ever heard concerning alienation, loneliness, and, above all, homesickness. In this respect, it can be seen as the post-traumatic counterpart to the desperate “Lost in the Paradise” from his previous album. And while I hold that song to be one of the best songs ever written, period, “London, London” offers the beautifully resigned flipside of that coin. And all this from a song whose refrain is “My eyes go looking for flying saucers in the skies”. Things start to get a bit darker with the more-produced “Maria Bethania”, a plea to his sister. “If You Hold a Stone” is an expanded, highly repetitve reworking of “Marinheiro So” from the previous album. I’m not going to pretend to know what he’s talking about here (even though it’s in English and he repeats it like 30 times) but I could listen to it all day long. The last song “Asa Branca” is the only Portuguese-language track on the album and as such it’s an emotionally powerful return to relatively familiar territory for Caetano. The song, written by Luiz Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira, is about a native farmer (presumably) of Northeastern Brazil having to leave the land and his wife during one of the droughts that often occur in that part of the country because he is unable to make a living. At the end he promises to return. Amazingly, if you really try to live inside this album, you don’t really need to know Portugese to understand what this song is saying. A haunting, ethereal way to end perhaps the most personal album in Veloso’s storied career.

This album is notable for several reason. Firstly, it marks a dramatic change in musical direction for Veloso. I’ve never heard an album with a greater sense of space. There is a lot of silence on this album and it itself is utilized almost as an additional instrument, a “symphony of silence” (mental copyright) if you will. His first solo album was lush and sprightly and full of subtle sonic experimentation. His second album made the sonic experimentation much more explicit and combined this with a panoramic feeling that made that album at times feel tense and murky (not a bad thing in this case). This album does a dramatic about-face with its spare, acoustic lines, occasional bass-and-drum backing, and lyric-centric approach. This formula would reach full fruition on Transa and continue up until 1977’s African-influenced Bicho. The second notable aspect of this album is how well Veloso’s poetry translates into English. That’s no mean feat. Gil’s more awkward English makes his equivalent album difficult to decipher emotionally but Caetano’s only slightly accented English is perfectly suited to his prose that, though economical, are undeniably evocative and effective at relating emotional depth. Certainly not a place to start for Caetano Veloso, but you should try to find yourself here if you are willing to acquire more than 3 of his albums. –Mike