Imagine being a young musician in Brazil in the late 1960s, a time when horizons in music were changing by the day. All around you possibilities were opening: At home, the leading lights were reinventing indigenous forms as tropicália, a radical movement that would become enormously influential. From far away came the impossibly pretty, world-changing harmonies of the Beach Boys and the ambitious songwriting of the Beatles.
Of those inspired by these developments (Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento), the most criminally overlooked is Lô Borges, a singer and guitarist from Belo Horizonte whose debut is one of the lost gems of world pop. Borges grew up around Milton Nascimento and Wagner Tiso among others, and was involved in Nascimento’s powerful song-cycle about childhood, 1972’s Clube da esquina. While writing and recording that album, Borges compiled a set of more idiosyncratic songs for his own project, pieces built on slurpy rock/funk rhythm patterns and languid, almost mystical vocal melodies, with lyrics about unrequited and rediscovered love.
These pieces don’t simply paste California sunshine onto generic bossa nova: Rather they’re slyly intricate études, coy in their use of rock rhythm but suffused with the elegant melodic slopes central to all Brazilian music. Borges borrowed both musical ideas and recording techniques from rock. There’s lots of vocal and instrumental layering, and several pieces feature guitarist Toninho Horta unleashing swervy and dramatic solos in the background, a counterpoint to the vocal refrains. Borges came up with a deft assimilation—music that’s elaborate but never fussy, built with reverence for detail (see the carefully webbed guitar arpeggios that define “Homem da rua”) and a surplus of soul. From a distance, these fifteen short works breeze by, generically pretty and not terribly demanding. Up close, they’re exquisite, elusive miniatures that reveal new dimensions each time you hear them.
RELEASED: 1973, EMI.
KEY TRACKS: “Nao foi nada,” “Calibre,” “Toda essa agua.”
The Rough Guide to Franco
Franco and TPOK Jazz
The fleet-fingered Congolese guitarist and singer known as Franco (1938–1989) released over 150 albums in his four-decade career, and was said to have written over a thousand songs. Despite the fact that Franco (real name: François Luambo Makiadi) was one of the biggest African stars in the world from the early 1970s until his death, very little of the music he made with his band OK Jazz (later called TPOK Jazz, for “Tout Puissant,” meaning “Almighty”) is consistently available in the U.S. That’s an outrage, because this extra-large three-hundred-pound-plus “Sorcerer” has much to offer the six-string obsessed. And his band, which in the 1980s swelled to over thirty musicians, is essential listening for those even casually interested in African dance music.
Franco played with a hard, metallic attack, and an almost physical force—at times it sounds like he’s shoving people out of the way, or pushing his musicians deeper into the groove. And yet his wiry and agile melody lines rarely dominate the spotlight. They’re more like sidecars, running along in tandem with and occasionally jabbing at the vocal themes sung in Lingala. Franco does solos—notably on “Mario,” a parable about a gigolo in Europe—but he’s also a master of arpeggio patterns, one of the rare guitarists who can mesmerize by playing the same thing over and over.
Given the limited offerings, the twelve-song Rough Guide to Franco is a great place to start exploring. A career survey, it starts with early recordings from the late 1950s and early ‘60s—which show Franco gamely re-Africanizing Cuban rumba, then the rage in much of West Africa. The band gets good at smoothing and animating that pulse, until, by the middle ‘70s, the groove becomes wholly African. The later works are even more interesting, as they show Franco leading his massive, well rehearsed band through marathon commentaries on social problems. (A characteristic tune, “Beware of AIDS,” warns listeners of the disease that would eventually kill him.)
Several of the extended pieces contain a pivot-point known in Congolese music as sabene. It’s the moment when the allegory is finished and the emphasis shifts to the dance floor, and Franco makes the most of it. He pushes his band ever higher, creating tension by repeating verses, and then he and the other guitarists erupt, rewarding the anticipation with shimmering, elegant guitar conversations. These last for glorious minutes on end. Churning and spinning toward rapture, the band makes its hyperbolic motto—“Enter OK, leave KO’d”—a reality.
RELEASED: 2001, Rough Guides/World Music Network.
KEY TRACKS: “Mario,” “Aya la’ Mode,” “Tailleur,” “Attention Na Sida.”
Africa Must Be Free by 1983
Most child prodigies are technical whiz-kids, masters at executing sophisticated musical ideas. But usually those ideas are composed by someone else—the prodigy’s art is an interpretive one. Which is why the late Jamaican singer and songwriter Hugh Mundell was so exceptional: When he was sixteen, he wrote this set of purposeful roots-reggae songs that express a cogent, forceful, activist worldview.
At an age when most kids spend their time scheming ways to party, Mundell was channeling thoughts about the world’s troubles into the elemental Africa Must Be Free by 1983, his first record. The hymnlike odes talk about brotherhood and racial exploitation, and express resignation about the reality of black-on-black violence. In the title track, the sparrow-voiced Mundell cautions his Jamaican brothers about the lessons of Ethiopia. Another song, “Day of Judgment,” includes a line about the role of the media as society’s watchdog: “The press must [be] free so we all can see your wrongdoing and your brutality.
For all these astute observations, and the calm minimalism of the backing tracks, Mundell still sounds like a kid. That’s one of the reasons Africa, which was produced by reggae don Augustus Pablo, has such resonance. Mundell is not a trained singer; what starts as an earnest, straightforward declaration sometimes tips into appealing wildness. His sincerity struck a chord in Jamaica, where the title track became a hit and the album—one of the most zealous collections released during the explosive mid-’70s period of reggae creativity that included landmarks by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh—was hailed as a classic.
Mundell made other records, none as compelling. He was shot and killed in (of all years) 1983 while sitting in a car with a protégé, Junior Reed. Pablo, a master of dub, created a light, tasteful dub treatment of Mundell’s masterwork that was released in the early ’80s, and has been appended to the CD release ever since.
RELEASED: 1978, Message. (Reissued 1989.)
KEY TRACKS: “Book of Life,” “Run Revolution a Come,” “Day of Judgment.”
The credits on Kalfou Danjere/Dangerous Crossroads begin: “Recorded in May 1992 in the midst of political mayhem at Audiotek Studios, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.” Mayhem, indeed. The year before, in a cultural crackdown by Haiti’s military government, the family band Boukman Eksperyans was harassed and banned from the country’s annual February carnival. The reason: Its enormously popular song “Kalfou Danjere,” a fable about how those who lie and cheat will be judged at the metaphysical crossroads, was interpreted by the government as a subversive commentary. Soldiers began turning up at the group’s (infrequent) live performances and, members said later, intimidating them.
Like many Haitian acts, Boukman Eksperyans (named for a voodoo priest who worked to unify slaves during a successful revolt against France in 1804) slips thinly disguised outrage about current events into its songs, often via double entendre and coded slang. But those messages come under the cover of pure sweetness, carried by music that, in the tradition of Bob Marley, aims to uplift as much as to agitate. The rhythms, many built on drum machines and complementary hand-drumming, exude a festive feeling, while the singers, both as soloists and members of the chorale, share an uncommon sense of mission: Whether they’re tossing around a voodoo chant or supplying somber hummed responses to a dancing lead, they bring the quality of prayer and reflection to every track on this remarkable disc. Rarely has music born in—and concerned with—conflict sounded so centered, hopeful, serene.
RELEASED: 1992, Island/Mango.
KEY TRACKS: “Tande m tande,” “Jou nou revolte.”
World of Gnawa
The Gnawa brotherhoods of Morocco chase ecstasy—and express devotion—through drums and chants. In nighttime rituals notable for both their games and their solemnity, these Islamic seekers trade repeated call-and-response phrases: A lead voice issues a strident, sometimes taunting idea, and the others around the circle answer back. Accompanying (and often dictating the pace of) this communication is a nimble, mesmerizing rhythm from the tabi, a double-sided drum played with olive-wood sticks, and large metal castanets called qareqeb. The three-stringed guinbri, which is either plucked or slapped, provides sketchy harmony.
Gnawa music gets its driving rhythm from West Africa (the polyrhythms traveled with slaves to Morocco) and its devotional orientation from Islam. This makes a powerful combination, especially when delivered by impassioned voices like those captured on the compilation World of Gnawa, which was recorded in Morocco and features many of the form’s ace practitioners. A pronounced mystical “spirit” drives every selection, from the opening call to ritual (“Aada 1,” a twelve-minute appeal to the prophet Muhammad intended to “purify” the intentions of the assembled musicians) to songs dedicated to wandering Sufi mystics and others hoping to be whisked into a trance state. The musicians invariably reach that state—just by locking into the propulsive, endlessly varied rhythms. Even pieces that last twenty minutes seem to fly by.
There have been a number of Western attempts at harnessing the Gnawa spirit—jazz pianist Randy Weston has recorded several albums with Moroccan musicians. These often focus on the more surface “entertainment” aspects of Gnawa ritual. The well-annotated World of Gnawa, which includes English translations of the lyrics, goes much deeper.
RELEASED: 2001, Rounder.
KEY TRACKS: “Aada 1,” “Neqsha,” “Hammadi.”
When Eddie Palmieri made La perfecta, his first solo record, in 1962, he’d spent years paying dues in New York’s finest mambo big bands, serving the needs of discerning dancers. The pianist and composer borrowed ideas from those bands, added dashes of jazz irreverence, and convinced an unflappable young singer (Ismael Quintana) and a bunch of precision-minded instrumentalists to join what he envisioned as a high-energy combo. The group quickly evolved into a perfectly proportioned rhythmic juggernaut; its aptly titled debut endures as one of the most exciting in the history of Latin music.
It’s also one of the most influential. Palmieri’s terse arrangements feature trombones as often as trumpets, frequently with a flute on top. That alignment, which makes the seven-piece horn section seem as robust as a big band, was borrowed by countless salsa stars of the late ’60s and ’70s, among them Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe.
As often as it’s been copied, there’s lots about La perfecta that remains untouchable. The ensemble executes everything with unsur-passed unity, and when one musician steps out for a solo—in addition to electrifying turns from Palmieri, this album contains swaggering hall-of-fame ad-libs by trombonist Barry Rogers—the others provide assured, steadying support. No tune here lasts more than three minutes, and as a result, the solos are usually abbreviated. That doesn’t mean they’re not potent: Cue up “Conmigo” or “Ritmo caliente” to hear Palmieri, the jazz daredevil, dispensing jolting, syncopated chords as though he’s trying to give dancers conniptions. On later records, Palmieri would elaborate at much greater length; the solos here offer thrills and spills in short, super-concentrated bursts.
RELEASED: 1962, Alegre. (Reissued 2007, Fania.)
KEY TRACKS: “Conmigo,” “Mi pollo,” “Tema la perfecta,” “Ritmo caliente.”