Roswell Rudd & Toumani Diabaté: MALIcool (2003)


An odd duck in the perfect watering hole.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In the last decade, Malian kora master Toumani Diabaté realized that the average music purchaser wasn’t particularly aware of either Mali or the kora, so to raise his profile he subsequently recorded several cross-genre albums with many global artists. Since the kora (the West African 21-string lute) sounds like a blend between a harp and a guitar, many of his collaborations have been with harpists or guitarists. But in 2003 he surprisingly became the first musician to incorporate a horn into kora music, which became the watershed release MALIcool.

His musical partner this time is Roswell Rudd, an American jazz trombonist with both Dixieland and avant-garde leanings, which means he’s been mostly unheard and under-appreciated. It also means that his rubbery mallard-like phrasing is elastic enough to fit many forms, and it adds a unique vocal timbre to the percussive Malian melodies.

In “Rosmani” Diabaté unleashes quick sprinklings of beautiful notes like water dropping from a leaf then exploding into hundreds of tiny micro-splashes, to which Rudd’s trombone plays the drunken drowsy traveler, splattering in the puddles. “Malicool” has Diabeté’s plucking and Rudd’s growly kazoo sharing time with an icy balafon solo, its frenetic xylophone tones helping the band resemble an African Oingo Boingo.

Some old standards are transformed into modern classics: their take on Thelonoius Monk’s “Jackie-Ing” is a sweetly atonal blues, their gentle call-and-responses resembling the conversation of jungle beasts. And they kick it really old school in “Malijam” where the seesaw of pinpointed beats set the stage for a Malian take on “Ode To Joy”.

Yes, Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”. And it works.

THE FALLOUT: MALIcool‘s progessive oddness also worked for Roswell Rudd, which resuctitated his career as a world-class auteur. But it didn’t sell particularly well, partially eclipsed by higher profile Diabaté albums, and became another critical darling that stalled.

MALIcool is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

You can also view a documentary of the album’s creation below. Yes, Uppity Music is all multimedia’d up.

Defying the blanding that frequently occurs with cross-cultural music-making, MALIcool in a brand new sound that sounds instantly familiar and familial.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: A lil’ holiday music.

Dorothy Ashby: The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby (1970)


Give the koto player some.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: During the 1960s bandleader and composer Dorothy Ashby surpassed the novelty of being the only female jazz harpist by showcasing her fluid dexterity and harmonic syncopation across nine jazz albums. But for her tenth album she jettisoned her harp for an even more surprising instrument, the koto. The thousand-year-old national instrument of Japan, the koto is six feet long, has 23 strings, and had never been so prominently exhibited in western music until her culture-hopping opus The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby.

Inspired by the 11th century Persian poetry collection The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyám, Ashby lights a thick incense vapor of Arabic plucks, romantic strings, and funk percussion, seamlessly fusing cross-cultural melodies of the 1970s with the 970s, bathed in psychedelic and spiritual overtones.

“Myself When Young” unfolds like a spy movie theme song, as its dramatic snake charmer opening slithers its way into a Shaft-like escapade of funky flutes and villainous violins. The lush Jamaican dance of “Wax and Wane”, swollen with with strings Ornette Coleman would love, plays out warm and crisp like an October dusk.

Her koto appears in many guises. It cameos in the sprightly Technicolor “Shadow Shapes”, one of the many romantic solos in this boldly romantic show tune. In “For Some we Loved” its gentle tones are lullaby calm against the spoken words, the stray tings and bongs sounding miraculously like an 808 beat performed by real people . After the ominous Druid-like intro of “The Moving Finger” it flutters over a tangy funk riff stuffed with firework bursts of watery kalimba:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: neither your Piety or Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor will all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

At long last, Ashby had created a unique masterwork that showed the world the depth of her talents.

THE FALLOUT: Depth, shmepth. It was a critical sensation within jazz circles, yet this koto-led concept album about 11-century Persian poetry did not find a large audience and fell out of print for decades, becoming Ashby’s last album as a bandleader. Interestingly enough, the very next year a band featuring her labelmate Maurice White also released an album with cross-cultural melodies, psychedelia and spiritual overtones plus firework bursts of watery kalimba, 1971s’ Earth, Wind & Fire. Judging by that groups’ success it seems Dorothy Ashby may have been on to something.

The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

So far ahead of time it still sounds current, The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby makes the exoticness of globalization feel as down-home as the koto next door.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Linda Perry gets grounded.

Abayudaya – Music from the Jewish People of Uganda (2003)


There’s more to musical Black Jews than Sammy Davis, Jr.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Uganda of the 1890s was the place to be if you liked drama. One of the many African countries colonized during England’s “The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire” world tour, Uganda was inhabited by warring factions of Muslims, Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Semei Kakungulu, king of Ugandan’s eastern region, joined up with the Anglican Brits since they promised him increased territorial powers upon their victory.

But after England vanquished their enemies they kicked Kakungulu to the curb like a Juicy Fruit wrapper. His response? “I never liked your punk religion anyway! I’m gonna become Jewish!” Despite the fact that no Western or Middle Eastern Jew had ever stepped foot into Uganda, Kankungulu promptly instructed his followers to observe the Sabbath, refrain from eating pork, and to circumcise all male infants.

The Abayudaya (which is Lugandan for “the Jewish people”) had a long history of vocal choirs and using songs to celebrate life events, and after meeting their first non-Ugandan Jew in 1926 they began to incorporate their Bantu language heritage into classic Jewish hymns. Traditional songs of birth and worship were now sung in Hebrew as well as Lugandan.

Numbering no more than 2500 at their largest, the Abayudaya were shunned by Ugandan schools and employers, had its holy places repeatedly shut down by government officials, and were completely ignored by Israel for decades after its existence.

THE FALLOUT: Nonetheless, the Abayudaya’s musical heritage kept the sect vibrant and active throughout the decades, and their modern compositions continued to attract younger people into the religion. They gained a substantially higher international profile in the 1990s after creating their first Web site (go Internet!), and in 2003 much of their holy music was recorded for the first time by the Smithsonian Museum’s record label Folkways, which has helped introduce the world to this tiny group of rebellious Ugandan Jews.

Abayudaya – Music From The Jewish People of Uganda is available worldwide from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

Abayudaya – Music From The Jewish People of Uganda is a look into sacred music as a holy mash-up of sorts, where the creamy peanut butter of Jewish faith in encapsulated into the milk chocolate of Ugandan culture.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: The music of Martin Luther (not the priest.)

Seu Jorge: Cru (2005)


Baby, he likes it raw.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 2004 Brazilian singer and guitarist Seu Jorge enigmatically appeared in the movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, softly strumming Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs. This unexpected profile boost raised expectations for his second studio album, the sparse and haunting Cru.

Cru means “raw” in Portuguese, and Jorge created an album of raw emotions and stark ornamentation. Centered around sharp acoustic strums, samba beats and his oaken voice Cru creates a stunning force through willful under-production.

Bem Querer (My Dear) is a sunny swim in a pool of liquid guitar, while the romantic Una Mujer floats upon a bed of near inaudible beats and electronica. Tive Razão {TV Reloaded} (Voltair Mix) mixes wordless breaths and church organ, sounding like a man pleading for his soul at a funeral march.

Lyrically Jorge is concerned with the urban extremism of Brazilian culture. He shakes a jungle-like fist in the anti-fake boob rant Mania de Peitão (Large Chested Mania), and he reps his childhood home from the musical-filled slums with Eu Sou Favela (I Am Favela).

Cru was a well-respected hit in Brazil…

THE FALLOUT: …but America slept on it, as it does with all non-English language albums. Unless it’s reggaeton. Cru got some critical love but seems destined to remain a cult favorite.

Cru is available worldwide from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

Growling and coiled like a panther, Cru commands by charm and grace.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: The godfather of techno is a brother. Check the hidden genius of Derrick May.

Stevie Wonder: Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (1979)


Twenty-five years later and his career still hasn’t bounced back.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: It’s 1979 and my mom is amped. We’ve just come home from the record store where we picked up Stevie Wonder’s first album in three years! Mom had practically worn the grooves off his last album, the double-length Songs in the Key of Life, and this one is a double record too! It’s gonna be great!

Then Mom puts the needle on the first song. She planned to sing along with Stevie but she is freaking out over the numerous instrumentals (starting with the synthetically orchestral “Earth’s Creation”) and songs in foreign languages (Japanese in the kids-and-koto-led “Ai No, Sono”, and Bambara in the savannah rhythms of “Kesse Ye Lolo De Ye”). She wanted to get down with some high-energy funk but instead she’s hearing mid-tempo ballads (the gorgeous “Black Orchid”) and slow hymns (like the funereal organs of “Ecclesiastes”).

Mom screws up her face at the record player as if it had defecated on the carpet. She furiously examines the record sleeve for some explanation of this madness, as if some random backup singer’s name would somehow justify this thing she had just purchased, at double record price no less.

“It’s a soundtrack to a plant documentary”, she snarls, as if that clarifies everything. “Why? Why would he do this?” Meaning, why would he do this to us, all the Black people who have supported him throughout his entire career, why would he blindside us with an un-funky, un-political, un-lyrical and un-cheap score to an un-movie?

The simple answer is, because the filmmakers asked him and he said “yes.” The real answer is devastatingly more complex.

America grew up with Stevie Wonder. We listened to him sing his little heart out as a young boy on Motown. We watched him take control of his career and turn synthesizers into seductive funk instruments. We heard him mature into the one of the best living songwriters, somehow selling millions of records and having dozens of hit songs while maintaining complete respect from other artists, musicians and critics.

But after a seventeen-year career of doing the same sort of music over and over, an original score offered him a chance to expand his talents into a completely new realm of composition. Based on the book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, the documentary The Secret Life of Plants posits the thought that plants can actually feel emotions and are more sentient than anyone had ever considered. At a time in history where no one thought that a blind Black man had any more to offer the world than basket-making, I see how Stevie might have jumped at this opportunity.

Alas, the modes and tones that make up a great score are usually not the ones that make up a toe-tapping pop album. There are some classic Wonder moments on the album, namely the live band throwdown of “A Seed’s A Star” and the liquid vocoder disco of “Race Babbling”, but it’s mainly a collection of intriguing and expansive background music.

Had it been promoted as the score it truly was, the stage would have been set for a proper audience response. But it was set up as the next release from the man whose last three albums won Album of the Year Grammys, back-to-back-to-back, and the world expected something…, well at least something with a lot more words in it.

THE FALLOUT: Dead on arrival. The critical and commercial backlash was so intense I bet he wished he was deaf too. The up-with-romance single “Send One Your Love” was a minor hit but that was it. Even the film got caught in the horror, barely screening at all, ever.

Motown begged him to record a back-to-basics album lickety-split and he returned the next year with the successful Hotter Than July. The reggae of “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” probably saved his career, and yet, it killed his artistry. From 1980 on, Stevie Wonder released far fewer albums and all but gave up taking musical chances. The last twenty-five years of Stevie Wonder has been an abrupt shift from new sounds and naked expressiveness into flabby, overwrought sugar treats, and it all ended with this album.

Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants is available at Amazon and you can listen to some tracks below:

Expensive and unique, progressive and forgotten, Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants deserves a rebirth. I mean really, it’s WAY better than In Square Circle, and some of you actually bought that one. Ah well.

NEXT WEEK: Los Angeles has a Problem with Negroes.