Music is often a reflection of struggles for social change, and a source for joy and hope for the future. This can be heard in the songs noted in my first music review article in the February 2021 issue of the Public i. Here are some more great tunes to prove the point. As I wrote last time, almost all of the music described here was reviewed in the great magazine titled Songlines. Please note the YouTube links for each song.
Let’s start with Vusa Mkhaya, and his song “Ubuntu” from the CD Umanyanyatha: Songs from the Soul of Zimbabwe. Nelson Mandela described the concept of ubuntu this way. “In Africa there is a concept known as ‘ubuntu’—the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievement of others.” On “Ubuntu,” Mkhaya’s beautiful voice projects an intimate yet expectant atmosphere.
Habib Koité from Mali is one of my all-time favorite musicians. His gentle but often energetic stage presence is mesmerizing. He looks for the best qualities in human beings, as exemplified in the title track from his latest CD, Kharifa. “Kharifa” translates from his Kassonké language as “Hope.” The song is about the need to take care of one another. On this CD, he sings in three other Malian languages as well as French and (not so great) English. He addresses the need to unify his country by ending the conflict between the peoples of the north and south of Mali. His song, “Mandé,” sung in the Dogon language, advocates unity of all the ethnic groups. There are perhaps 20 million people in the Mandé ethnic groups throughout West Africa. Mali is 80 percent Mandé, mostly in the south; however, the north is mostly Tuareg.
Fatoumata Diawara is another great soulful Malian singer and feminist. In the title track of her latest CD, Fenfo, she excoriates the ethnic conflict in her country. “Fenfo” means “Something to Say.” She has opposed arranged marriages, genital mutilation, and religious fundamentalists. Also check out her great song “Bonya” (Respect). She sings in the Bamana language, also known as Bambara, which is part of the Mandé language group.
Ebo Taylor is one of the award-winning pioneers of Ghanaian highlife music. Now 85 years old, his latest CD, Yen Ara, is still remarkable. Most songs are in the Fante language, but a couple are in English, including “Poverty No Good.”
Rachid Taha was an Algerian musician and activist who moved to Paris at the age of 10 with his parents. He started out playing Algerian protest music known as raï, but quickly fused his sound with punk and other influences. His last CD was released soon after his death in 2019. Je Suis Africain or “I am an African,” emphasized that North Africa has been artificially seen as isolated from the rest of Africa. But there has always been movement and trade across the Sahara. The title track is a fusion of North African and other African sounds, where he praises African (including African American and Caribbean) radical leaders, intellectuals, and musicians.
The Indian Ocean
Reúnion is an island to the east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean with a population of less than one million. It is still a French colony, or officially an overseas department of France. Its population reflects its geographical position and colonial history, with people of African, Indian, European, Malagasy, and Chinese origin. We don’t usually get to hear music from the island, but we now have a CD from Christine Salem. She sings maloya, the African-influenced Creole music of the island, with an unusually rich and deep voice. Maloya was once banned by the French because of its ties to the history of slavery on the island. The Catholic Church was also opposed to it because it was used in trance-like ceremonies where folks seemed to interact with their ancestors. The title song, “Mersi,” is an a cappella appreciation of maloya. Her song “Tyinbo” is a plea against domestic violence. Her lyrics are in Creole, Malagasy, Comorian, Swahili, French, and English.
Diego Garcia is a small Indian Ocean island, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, and the largest of the 60 islands that make up the Chagos Archipelago. From 1968 to 1973, due to its strategic location, the UK and the US expelled all the 900-plus inhabitants to use the island as a military base. Many were deported to the small Indian Ocean island countries of Mauritius and Seychelles, but the people want their island back. Although Mauritius won its case for sovereignty over the Chagos Islands in 2019, the situation remains unchanged. On the tiny island of Rodrigue, part of Mauritius, Ras Natty Baby developed his musical style called Seggae, a combination of reggae and the local Sega rhythms. He called for the youth to reclaim their rights and championed the Chagos people. One wonders if the time he spent in prison on drug charges was actually because of his cultural and political influence. The title track from his CD, “Free Diego Garcia,” is well worth a listen.
Africa in America
Some readers may be aware of the fantastic Somi, who was born in Champaign and made the big time as a unique jazz singer. Her parents were immigrants from Rwanda and Uganda. She has played at Krannert several times, and will likely play there again. Her latest album, Holy Room: Live at Alte Oper with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, is a new presentation of songs from her previous albums. In “Alien,” she addresses life for African immigrants living in Harlem. Particularly notable and important is her song “Lady Revisited,” a feminist turnaround of Fela Kuti’s misogynist song “Lady.”
Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band, a diverse crew, has won numerous awards in the Washington, DC area. Known locally as “The Crazy Fools of Afrobeat,” their latest CD, Bone Reader, includes songs like “Questions of Our Day,” “D.C. Vote,” and “Edward Snowden” (including Snowden’s own voice).
Some of you may know Rhiannon Giddens as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Many of her songs reflect the reality of past slavery and its terrible consequences in today’s world. Her recent solo CD, Freedom Highway, has some great material. I particularly recommend her version of “Birmingham Sunday.”
First Peoples of Canada
Finally, I want to give a shout-out to Buffy Sainte-Marie and her album Medicine Songs. She is from the Piapot 75 reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada. She was blacklisted by United States radio stations in the 1970s and 1980s for promoting Indian rights, and even Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were actively suppressing her music. Besides some new material, she has re-recorded her classics “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” “Universal Soldier,” and “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone.” These songs made a big impact in the 1960s and 1970s, introducing a whole generation to the genocide and current plight of Native Americans and the First Peoples of Canada. “Universal Soldier” was her timeless contribution to the anti-war movement. Younger folks who missed these songs the first time around will be surprised by how powerful they are.
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