Saturday, August 28, 2010

How you can help an unfairly jailed Cameroonian legend: Lapiro De Mbanga

I have just finished writing a letter of support to jailed Cameroonian music star Lapiro de Mbanga, and sending him some music. For those who have not been following this story, Lapiro has been a dynamic, engaged voice in Cameroon music for decades. But in recent years he has fallen afoul of the government, and he has spent the past year in prison. The problem stems from the release of his song ‘Constitution constipée’ (‘Constipated constitution’), which expressed his opinion against the government's plan to expand its powers in a new constitution. From that moment on, it seems, Lapiro was in the government's sights, and after a patently unfair trial last summer, he was sentenced to three years behind bars. 

You can read the background on these events on the website of the human rights organization Freemuse and I would also encourage you  read what International PEN had to say about the situation.

For an update on Lapiro's case and a history of the case, check out here. Just search on Lapiro and you'll find many links to stories detailing his travails over the past two years. It won't take you long to understand that this is a brave artist being very badly treated.  We all celebrate the courage of the late Fela Kuti, and the exiled Thomas Mapfumo, artists who risked much to speak out against unjust regimes. Well, here's an African music hero suffering imprisonment in a cell with 50 other men, as we speak. He is in failing health, and in need of our support--not money, but words of support.  And music!Freemuse wrote yesterday:

"Lapiro's wife, Louisette can only visit him once or twice a week as she lives far away.  Lapiro was nominated for the Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist Prize, by Freemuse in 2009 – and he won – USD 25.000 which has been distributed to his family in portions to cover the costs of living of his wife and six children, the kid’s school fees, his wife’s travels back and forth to prison and medication for Lapiro.

If you have the time, please consider sending him a letter in English or French, and /or a CD of your music, or any music. He can listen to music in his cell but most important for him is to receive moral support from fellow musicians abroad. Please mention that you got his address via Freemuse as he then will understand why you write to him.
All letter should be addressed to his wife:
Louisette Noukev
P.O. Box 167
Cameroon "
Afropop Worldwide encourages you to share this link, and help get out the word about a cause close to our hearts and our values. We thank you for adding your voice, and music, to this worthy campaign.

- Banning Eyre

Thursday, August 26, 2010

New Album from Toubab Krewe + NYC Release Party

On September 10th, the five-piece instrumental fusion Toubab Krewe from Asheville, North Carolina will be playing at the Brooklyn Bowl in celebration of their soon-to-be released sophomore studio album, TK2. Afropop Worldwide's very own Banning Eyre praised the debut LP from the five-piece, saying that the band "has set a new standard for fusions of rock 'n' roll and West African music."

Lucky for us, the boys discreetly sent over a promo copy of the new release today. From the sounds of it so far, Toubab Krewe have not conformed to conventionality but continued to explore and fuse various styles into a cohesive awesomeness.

TK2 will be released on September 7th via Nat Geo Music.

Brazilian Day NYC 2010!

The hugely popular Brazilian Day will be celebrating its 26th year on September 5th in Little Brazil (46th and 6th near Times Square). Since starting in 1984, the festival has grown tremendously, attracting over 1.5 million people in 2009! 

This year's celebration sees the return of the Afro-Brazilian star Carlinhos Brown and will also include performances by Zeze Di Camargo & Luciano on the main stage at 43rd and 6th avenue. In addition to great music, the festival will also include food and a variety of Brazilian arts and crafts. The festival is free and officially starts at 11 am.

For more information, check out the Brazilian Day website here.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The 5th Annual Le Grand Dakar Block Party

For four years, the Senegalese restaurant Le Grand Dakar has been putting on an annual, free summer block party in celebration of the diverse array of music and culture from Africa. This year the event includes two hip-hop acts that have been on constant rotation in the Afropop Worldwide offices lately, Brooklyn-based Ghanaian rapper Blitz the Ambassador and the Bajah and The Dry-Eye Crew from Sierra Leone. Earlier this summer, we caught these two acts share a stage with hip-hop staples The Roots and Talib Kweli for OkayAfrica’s World Cup Celebration in Prospect Heights and we haven’t stop listening to them since.

Check out the video of these two performers below and ask yourself, "How can I not go to this event??"

In addition to these two great acts, the fifth annual block party will include the Senagalese Sabar-stylings of Mar Gueye, and the first-ever New York appearance of the Belgium-based soulful Congolese rapper, Baloji. DJ Mihoki, DJ Laye and The City Billies are also set to perform.

Everything kicks off on Sunday, September 12th at 285 Grand Avenue in Brooklyn. Be sure not to miss this excellent event celebrating the music and culture of Africa! 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ghana Mourns Loss of Mac Tontah of Osibisa

Afropop was sad to learn of the passing of Mac Tontoh, founding member of Ghanaian Afro-Rock band, Osibisa. He died in Accra last Monday at the age of 69.

Osibisa's Iconic Flying Elephant Album Art
Osibisa formed in London in 1969. One of the first African bands to become popular with a wider audience, they played around the world throughout the 1970's. During the 80's, they returned to Ghana to set up a recording studio and theater in support of younger African musicians, before reforming in 1996. According to the band, the name Osibisa, derived from the Fante word for Highlife, means "criss cross rhythms that explode with happiness." Tontah composed and played the trumpet.

The BBC had this to say about Tontah.
Here's Osibisa with their 1976 hit single, "Sunshine Day."

More Album Art

Monday, August 16, 2010

Khaira Arby brings the soul of Timbuktu to American stages

Text and photos by Banning Eyre

Afropop fans, prepare yourselves to hear a great deal about the Nightingale of the North, the reigning diva of Timbuktu, Mali, the inimitable Khaira Arby.  We have been admiring Khaira’s local cassette recordings for a good fifteen years.  Her voice is as strong, sure and distinctive as any the northern deserts of Mali have produced, and we’ve long wondered why no producer had made a representative CD and launched Khaira’s international career.  We first met Khaira in 2000 when traveling in Mali with Bonnie Raitt, Habib Koite, and a band of Afropop listeners.  We chanced upon her concert in the public square in Timbuktu, and became instant devotees.  At the 2003 Festival in the Desert in Essakane, we filmed and recorded Khaira with her band for the radio program and for the film, The Tent Sessions.  Again the question arose: Why is noone working to bring this phenomenal talent to the world?

Well, the long wait is over.  Kudos to Khaira’s US representative Chris Nolan, who arranged Khaira’s first US tour.  (Click here for dates.)  Her first international release, Timbuktu Tarab, hits the streets this week.  And the tour is underway.  Khaira played her New York debut at The Shrine in Harlem on Friday, August 13.  We caught her the next night at Zebulon in Brooklyn, and even for true believers like Sean Barlow and myself, the show was a revelation.

Khaira is traveling with a young band that includes family members.  The grand lady of the Timbuktu music scene sure knows how to pick talent.  This band absolutely rocks.  They are as tight and fluid as any of the African groups to play the big stages of New York City this summer—and given how awesome that lineup has been, this is no faint praise!  The band is two guitars, bass, traditional lute, calabash, trap drums, and two backing singers.  They play Sonrai songs reminiscent of the late Ali Farka Toure, Khaira’s dear friend and “cousin,” as well as Tuareg, Fulani, and other folkloric genres.  The songs talk about great Malians, about the empowerment of women, and the need to wipe out female genital mutilation (excision).  Grooves can be dark and sinuous, or light and buoyant, but they are always rendered with flawless confidence.  These players, even the youngest, play like seasoned pros, and they deploy masterful dynamics, never overpowering one another, or—heaven forbid—their illustrious leading lady.

The band’s exceptionally young and talented lead guitarist has serious chops--he's clearly listened to the rock-schooled Vieux Farka Toure--and a delightful stage manner.  Khaira called him forth for long, florid, and totally rocking solos, and then silenced him with a wave of her hand to begin singing again.  Their interaction was charming, like a proud, firm mother and her precocious, respectful son.

As the set went on, people began to dance.  The club was packed, so by the end of her 90-mintue opening set, people were dancing right up against the band.  Khaira sang in front of the stage, rather than on it, dancing with patrons and receiving their praise, kisses, and of course, money without missing a beat.  The second set was even more unglued, with patrons joining the band onstage, everyone crushed together in an ecstatic, collective party, and Khaira filling the room with her steely, piercing voice.  I can’t say I have seen a more exciting performance all year.  If you are in New York and missed these shows, you have one more chance.  Khaira plays Joe’s Pub on September 29.  If you are elsewhere, check the itinerary and do what you have to do.  This is going to be one of the headlining African acts of coming years once word gets out how great it is.  Get your chance now to experience Khaira in an intimate setting.

On the afternoon of the Zebulon show, Afropop visited Khaira and her band at the house where they are staying in Harlem in between shows.  We filmed an interview and a private performance in the garden.  Stay tuned to for these and other gems from an African legend, at last getting her due.

The author dances in celebration with Khaira (photo mashup by Wills Glasspiegel)


Afropop producer Wills Glasspiegel dances with Khaira

Khaira Arby, Banning Eyre, Sean Barlow

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Kenge Kenge bring Kenyan Luo roots to Lincoln Center

Text and photos by Banning Eyre

In their New York debut, Kenyan roots band Kenge Kenge delivered spectacle and spiritual uplift at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park on Friday, August 13.  Kenge Kenge present a stage-ready montage of Luo culture.  The Luo make up Kenya’s third largest ethnic group.  Fishers, farmers and herders by tradition, the Luo have an extremely rich musical culture that contains vital sources for Kenya’s best-known guitar pop style, benga.  The melodies and rhythms of the nyatiti lyre, and especially the orutu horse-hair fiddle, will sound instantly familiar to benga fans.  This is brisk, giddy music with bubbling percussive underpinnings, and in Kenge Kenge’s rendition, lush male vocal harmonies that suggest connections to folksy English choral singing, West African highlife, and other Anglo-African group singing traditions.

Founded in 1990, Kenge Kenge (literally “fusion of small, exhilarating instruments”) occupy unusual middle ground between tradition and modernity.  The group includes electric bass and has the feel of a pop band on stage, but there are no guitars or keyboards.  That bass aside, all the instruments are indigenous, and the band wears local fabrics, furs and in the case of the nyatiti player, full bush regalia, all giving the feel of village celebration, rather than nightclub revelry.

The Damrosch Park show began with a focus on the two orutu fiddles and four percussionists.  Midway through the set, the nyatiti was announced, and musicians processed onstage playing the ancient lyre as well as an animal horn aerophone with a pure, pleasing tonality.  The group’s one female member, an ample and vibrant dancer, burst onto the stage at various points in the set, leaping, jiggling and grinning.  There were plenty of solar smiles in this set, and no hint of darkness or controversy.  The band even steered clear of their famous Obama song.  When they recorded it during the 2008 campaign, it was more or less a matter of national, and to a degree ethnic, pride—Obama’s paternal ancestors were Luos.  Performing this song in America at a time when Obama is a beleaguered president must have seemed another matter entirely, and while this particular audience would have had no problem with the Obama song, the choice was probably a wise one overall.  These days, wading into US political debates is no winning game for a band out to build audience.


For all the visual dazzle of their stage show, Kenge Kenge’s strongest suit might be their vocal sound, a fine example of East African choral tradition—in tune, rhythmically sharp, full-bodied and warmly melodious.  That sound’s obvious Western influences speak to Kenya’s Christianized, Anglo colonial history; indeed, this same group has another performance mode in which they put aside the skins and strings and perform gospel music.  If there are tensions between Christianity and African religion among the Luo, they apparently don’t phase Kenge Kenge.

There’s a high quotient of theatricality in Kenge Kenge’s show.  These artists are pros at presenting traditional culture to outsiders, and some fans of “authentic” African culture struggle with this.  Another obstacle Kenge Kenge faces goes to history.  West African roots groups have a huge advantage with the US audience, because their ancestors were peers of the earliest African Americans, and so contributed crucial musical DNA to American musical evolution.  As best we know, no significant numbers, if any, Luo ever came to US in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, so their rhythms and melodies are a few degrees of separation more remote from our own.  However exciting, danceable, and beautiful the music might be, it can never have quite the same mysterious familiarity in our ears as, say, music from Mali.


All the more reason why it was such a rare treat to see and hear Kenge Kenge perform live.  East African music is rarely heard on our stages, but given the chance, it sure can connect.  Much of this Lincoln Center was in Damrosch to hear The Kronos Quartet, who followed Kenge Kenge with a heady set of worldly classical music, culminating in a performance with an Indonesian gamelan orchestra.  But as Kenge took their bows, it was clear they had won new fans.  The audience reaction was loud, long and generous.  We hope they return soon. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Carlos Varela, Aurelio Martinez, Susana Baca Slay at Lincoln Center!

Text and photos by Banning Eyre

New York’s Lincoln Center has been offering some super-hip programming this summer. Last night’s triple bill of music from Cuba (Carlos Varela), Honduras/Belize/Guatemala (Aurelio Martinez and Garifuna Soul) and Peru (Susana Baca) offered a superb example at Damrosch Park. There was variety, spirit, musical excellence and a winning blend of familiar and not-so-familiar talent.

Carlos Varela opened with a set of Nueva Trova song-craft from Cuba. Beginning in the ‘80s, Varela has been around long enough to see this genre evolve from staunch defense of the Revolution, to careful but clear criticism of the status quo it has engendered. With his electric guitar, retro sideburns and goatee, black beret, and most of all, his reedy, soulful voice, Varela led his six-piece ensemble with confidence and verve. This is a genre that depends heavily on words and meaning, so non-Spanish speakers miss a lot. The music itself was a genial strain of pop rock with soaring vocal refrains and dashes of Afro-Cuban rhythm. Varela certainly had his diehard fans in the wonderfully diverse audience that pretty much filled the available seating in this premier summer venue. When his 50-minute set came to an end, many cried out for more. It’s not often that New York’s Cuban community gets such a vivid and visceral shot of cultural life back on “the blessed isle.”

Next came Aurelio Martinez of Honduras. Martinez was a champion singer of Central America’s Garifuna music culture even before the genre’s biggest name, Andy Palacio, rose to regional and eventually international stardom a few years back. The Garifuna descend from escaped African slaves and Caribbean natives, and they preserve a unique language and culture, one that is marginalized and even endangered. Martinez served as a Member of Parliament in Honduras during the peak of Palacio’s career, but when Palacio died suddenly following a stroke in January, 2008, Martinez was almost automatically anointed as Garifuna music’s new standard bearer.

Since that time, Martinez has been a beneficiary of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, and he spent much of 2009 in Senegal working with Youssou N’Dour. All this history and experience showed in Martinez’s stirring and masterful performance at Damrosch Park last night. With former members of Palacio’s band on the stage, three Garifuna drummers, and three guitarists (including Martinez himself and producer Ivan Duran), the Garifuna Soul outfit cooked from the first note to the last. Dressed in white and sporting a crown of thin dreadlocks, Martinez was unstoppable—singing, picking, dancing, flailing, smiling radiantly and energizing his musicians and the crowd with his every move. He paid tribute to Palacio and Garifuna legend Paul Nabor, and for a sizeable contingent of New York’s Garifuna community in the audience, the response was palpable and infectious.

Mostly, Martinez featured his own new songs. He recently completed an album three years in the making, and it will soon be released in the US on Sub Pop’s Next Ambiance imprint. Ivan Duran, the album’s producer, told me last night it’s the “best Garifuna CD yet,” and since he also produced the genre’s most successful recording so far, Palacio’s Watina (Cumbancha), the claim has to be taken seriously. We’ll wait and see about the recording, but based on the Lincoln Center show, the songs sound powerful—tuneful and spirited, blending rich percussion, spicy guitar interplay and achingly beautiful vocal arranging. Garifuna music is simple and direct in its melodies, sizzling and subtle in its rhythms, and with a charismatic front man like Martinez at the helm, it’s impossible to resist. By the end of his set, most of the crowd was out of their seats and dancing.

Susana Baca’s Afro-Peruvian ensemble came next, fronting a pared-down lineup with just nylon-stringed guitar (sometimes charanga), bass, and drums—no cajon or donkey jaws this time, and no special guests. The sound was subtle and focused, and her voice sounded as refined and glorious as ever. Baca has a way of inhabiting her vocal performances with her body, and especially her face. She may close her eyes and purse her lips and let the music possess her. When she sings, she gives all, channeling the refined spiritual power of this remarkable genre. Afro-Peruvian music has a strong element of creative imagining in it. Songs remembered from the foggy and obscured African experience in Peru play a role, but the elegant, slow, polyrhythmic lando and other Afro-Peruvian forms are truly Peruvian creations. And they are exquisite. Baca’s performance included elements of jazz, Andean folklore, and other tropical music genres, yet it never shed the distinct mark of this uniquely beguiling contemporary genre.

Baca’s set built through stages, balancing periods of introspection and uplift. The lighting was sometimes dramatic, enhancing the dream scape she and her musicians created on the stage. Near the end of the set, Baca called out for Aurelio Martinez. No surprise that the champion of Afro-Peruvian culture would have a soft spot for the Garifuna. Martinez appeared onstage for a warm embrace, and his percussionists soon followed for an ecstatic finale jam. The two groups blended beautifully, and Baca seemed delighted with the spontaneous consort, which culminated in a tasty percussion blowout. It was a moving conclusion to a remarkable night of music, the sort of night that has made Lincoln Center a trailblazing venue for the sort of music Afropop lives and breathes. Keep it coming!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hip Deep Series Reflects on Haiti's Past as Wyclef Jean Announces Presidential Candidacy

"Haiti became the first black-ruled republic in the Americas in 1804, and music has mirrored, and at times shaped, the twists and turns of Haiti's politics and culture ever since." Our Hip Deep series sheds light on Haiti's political history in relation to its music and its times. Never has the topic been so appropriate, as hip-hop star Wyclef Jean announced that he will run for office in Haiti's November 28 election. 

Although the Haitian constitution requires a president to have lived in the country for five consecutive years before running, Wyclef remains determined in his campaign to bring about change in a country that is desperate for a transformative leader. His eligibility will certainly continue to be challenged by his opponents in the coming campaign. However, with an estimated 500,000 Hatian-born Americans in the U.S., Wyclef has the opportunity to bridge the gap between Haiti and its ever-expanding diaspora. There are reasons to take him seriously, and not just because he has the funds to do some repairing, but because he's running for president in a country where half the population is under the age of 25. Through his music, Wyclef has the lure to motivate young voters despite alleged claims of embezzlement earlier this year.

We here at Afropop are not ones to predict what will happen in this fascinating moment in history, but we can call upon our show, "Music and the Story of Haiti," to enlighten us on the past, and perhaps draw us closer to understanding the significance and consequence of what's to come.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

FREE Afrobeat Party!


Have you been dreaming about partying with other FELA! enthusiasts? Well, you're in luck because you can find them tomorrow (Wednesday, August 11) at the Knitting Factory Brooklyn. Better yet, you can see Manchildblack/Hype Life Music and DJs Dhundee, OP, and AQBT for free (!) at the front room. Or, you can pay $10 and go to the back room to see Baba Ola Jagun and Ancestral Rhythms, special guest Kevin Mambo, Fred Thomas from James Brown's band, among others. Doors at 8, concert at 9. 361 Metropolitan Ave. Williamsburg.

Friday, August 6, 2010

My best musical memory from an Afropop summer

Working at Afropop as an intern, you hear a lot of good music. It's not really fair, actually--New York City in the summertime is downright teeming with excellent music from around the globe. Not to mention that when in the office, you are (willingly [me] or unwillingly [Jay the plumber]) subject to a never-ending deluge of mbira plunking, Afrobeat polyrhythms, and Señor Coconut...noises.  So naturally, as someone who loves music and has a job working for a music-centered organization, I experienced an unfair amount of world-class music over the summer.

But, to get to the point, the single most indelible musical snapshot from the entire summer would have to have been during Bassekou Kouyate's performace at Central Park SummerStage.  The defining moment, for me, was near the beginning of his set when all of the ngonis first clicked together. Aural ecstasy.

There's something about those simple wooden instruments...the sounds that emerge are purely transcendent and unlike anything else you have ever heard. And the joy he and his band emanated while playing was inspiring and added to the unique feeling of the performance. An unparalleled visual and musical experience.

An honorable mention should be given to Konono No. 1--equally astounding sound-to-instrument correspondence, and equally flooring ingenuity. So much deep, rich musicality from such humble instruments, for both Bassekou and Konono.

This summer was an experience unlike any other. I want to thank everyone involved at Afropop, and I look forward to more musical adventures (now from afar) with Afropop.

Photos and text by Owen.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Osekre and Blitz the Ambassador to Perform At Ghana Parade

One of the great things about working at Afropop is getting to know the people who follow our work. Last month at the African Festival in Prospect Park, we had the pleasure of meeting Osekre, a talented poet and musician. His music not only speaks of his love for his native Africa, but of "positive vibes, positive message"--and you certainly can't help but feel those vibes. See Osekre along with Blitz the Ambassador on August 21 at the National Ghana Parade in the Bronx at Crotona Park. If our praise for Blitz hasn't been enough, Osekre says to "expect fire from Blitz."

So there you go. If you think you can't make it to the parade, you probably can. Lasting from 9am-6pm, you won't want to miss this. Here's a clip of Osecre doing his thing and talking about the Ghana Parade.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hip Hop Soul Jam

Great music from fresh new artists, presented for a great cause--what could be better?

A few weeks back (July 21, in fact), Hip Hop Saves Lives and Cocody Productions (which you might remember from previous features on great African-focused events such as Le Cirque Afrique) came together at City Winery in Manhattan for the first Hip Hop Soul Jam. Brown Rice Family, Zing Experience and Poofy and the Busboys played, with DJake of Cocody spinning. The cover went towards relief in Haiti, still suffering so long after the disaster there. The best news (especially for me--I wasn't able to make it) is that Hip Hop Saves Lives (a charity which uses Hip Hop as a tool for global change) and Cocody is planning at least 4 events a year in the same vein.

We're certainly looking forward to it, and will keep folks posted. Thanks to Santi for snapping the pics!