African Blues, a valuable and exhilarating record, contains 15 songs ranging from Egypt’s Hamza El Din to Cape Verde’s unsurpassable Cesaria Evora. The Stayin’ Home With the Blues series, meanwhile, features vintage recordings with American blues artists such as Freddie King, Big Bill Bronzy, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Memphis Slim.
Although blues has its origins elsewhere, it’s the American records, made mostly in the 1940s and 1950s, that sound spare and dour. It’s impossible to say the same of African musician Ismael Lo’s “Talibe” with its sweetly sad vocals and lilting rhythms, or the mesmerizing progression of Oumou Sangare’s “Saa Magni”. But listen more closely and the connections become clearer: there’s something of Otis Redding about Kante Manfila and Balla Kall’s “Kankan Blues” from Guinea, and there’s a distinct doo-wop groove in the oldest track on the disc, Zambian Alick Nhata’s “Maggie”.
Turn to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Sad news from Korea” – a 1950s song which shows how well the old blues format adapts to accommodate new subjects – and we begin to hear the same kinds of empty spaces, quivering with expression, as in songs like “A Va Safy Va Lomo” from Mozambique’s Orchestra Marrabenta Star.
Blues has its sound roots in the music that the American slaves brought from Africa and its emotional roots in the experience of captivity. And African Blues is fascinating because it traces not only roots, but is made by musicians who have already been exposed to American Blues, especially in its soul and R’n’B incarnations.
But how authentic is that typical no-good-woman blues sentiment that the Stayin’ Home album has in abundance? Without knowing the languages it’s difficult to know whether misogyny prevails in African Blues. But it is intriguing to reflect on Cesaria Evora, the barefoot diva who slugs back whisky and smokes with the best of them, and who has by virtue of her Portuguese-language songs been enlisted into the ranks of fado – Portuguese blues – singers. Whatever the roots of blues, its routes through the world continue apace.» (New Internationalist)
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