May 14: Youssou N’Dour, Khaled, Femi Kuti, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Ali Farka Touré, plus we reach halfway

This week, in the tradition of my all-Australian week and all-Canadian week, I’ll be delving into some of the albums from Africa. Of course, we’ve already met a few African musicians on the list, such as Fela Kuti, Abdullah Ibrahim,  and Baaba Maal. Given the size of the continent and the diversity of the countries, you’d anticipate the music is equally varied. Let’s find out.

Youssou N’Dour, ‘Immigres’

N’Dour is a Senegalese singer best known in the West for his 1994 Neneh Cherry duet ‘Seven Seconds’, and seems to have done loads of things: among his eclectic interests, he owns three media outlets in Senegal and was the country’s Minister of Tourism for a few years at the start of the decade. This album comprises four long jams over its 34-minute running length, combining clattering percussion with the sort of high-necked guitar playing familiar to listeners of Giles Peterson and/or Andy Kershaw. It sounds joyous but I found it oddly difficult to parse melodies or hooks.

Femi Kuti, ‘Femi Kuti’

Kuti is a Nigerian singer and saxophonist whose father Fela Kuti has a couple of albums on the list (both really good). While Fela’s typical approach was to put two 15-20 minute songs on each album, Femi restrains himself to keeping below the 10-minute mark (just), while sprawling over 73 minutes. While the rhythms seem more direct than Fela’s, Femi maintains the groove and political awareness of his father and, on ‘Nawa’, mirrors the Herbie Hancock funk/jazz influences. This album is great, but I would also say it’s too long: 73 minutes is too long to listen to any album in one go really.

Khaled, ‘Kenza’

Khaled is an Algerian folk singer whose sound owes more to Arabian influences than Afrobeat, so here we see him duetting with a Bollywood singer called Amar (singing in Hindi, but from Walsall of all places) and Israeli Eurovision contestant Noa. Khaled’s interested in adopting influences from across the world, though, so ‘Aâlach Tloumouni’ combines Indian strings with a reggae-ish beat, ‘E’Dir E’Seeba’ has a stab at fusing Arabic folk and funky house, and Noa’s apperance is on a terrible cover of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. There’s some really good stuff on here and, although it’s probably too long and it ends flatly, the peaks are really high.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, ‘Shaka Zulu’

LBM are possibly this week’s most famous act, best known for their appearance on ‘Graceland’ and, in the UK, for their songs being used on adverts. If you know the name of the group, then this sounds exactly how you’d expect it to sound: it’s entirely a cappella, with the foot-stomping and claps on ‘Wawusho Kubani?’ the only accompaniment. It’s a pleasant enough sound, the vocals are gorgeous and some of the songs are in English rather than Zulu, increasing the accessibility, but I’m not sure I’d listen to this again.

Miriam Makeba, ‘Miriam Makeba’

The debut album from the South African Xhosa singer has a sound indebted to mentor and collaborator Harry Belafonte, but also covers jazzy pop songs, early pop songs and African-influenced chants. There’s a melancholy take on ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and an almost unlistenable version of ‘One More Dance’ where duetter Charles Colman ruins it by giggling all the way through it as if he was too high to be in the studio (although it’s the penultimate track, so you could always press ‘skip’ or ‘stop’). Makeba herself can do anything across a gamut of emotions. Released in 1960, this is an okay album.

Hugh Masekela, ‘Home is Where the Music Is’

Masekela, a South African jazz trumpeter, was briefly Makeba’s husband and one of her compositions, ‘Uhome’, features here.  The lion’s share of the writing goes to Caphius Semenya, who also produces: his tracks are mostly focused Afrobeat-ish jazz songs such as ‘Part of a Whole’ and ‘Maesha’. The star of the show, though, is drummer Makaya Ntshoko: his impatient fills drive ‘Minawa’, while he’s front and centre for ‘Blues For Huey’, with the horns and piano acting as back-up to him. The only song that doesn’t work is ‘Maseru’, a cluttered combination of ‘Brilliant Corners’ rhythm section jumble and ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ saxophone. All in all, though, this record is great.

Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder, ‘Talking Timbuktu’

Timbuktu is a city in Mali which is both really difficult to get to and very rich in antiquity, which gave it a semi-mythical status as a remote, mysterious place; it most recently made the news when it was invaded by ISIS. Touré is a Malian guitarist, hence the name of the album, while Ry Cooder was on something of a global tour in the 90s (he was also responsible for Buena Vista Social Club). The album is sparsely produced, mostly featuring just the two guitarists, which reminded me of the Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck album. However, this album is more blues-driven, featuring a nine-minute jam called ‘Amandrai’ and a couple of tracks which fuse blues with African traditional instruments. Highlights are the pretty ‘Soukora’ and the hypnotic ‘Lasidan’. The album’s decent without being particularly engaging enough to warrant repeat listens.

Next week: Back to the recent-ish future as we look at the albums on the list that came out this century. It’s the space-age 2000 And Beyond!

Status update: 506 listened to (50%), 495 remaining.

Bonus feature: As we’re now more than halfway through (!), let’s have a look at some of the best and worst so far. Very tough to narrow this down to just five!

Five of my favourites:

Television, ‘Marquee Moon’

Nick Drake, ‘Bryter Layter’

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, ‘Architecture and Morality’

Neil Young, ‘After The Gold Rush’

Charles Mingus, ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’

Five of my least favourites:

Mariah Carey, ‘Butterfly’

Simply Red, ‘Picture Book’

Finley Quaye, ‘Maverick A Strike’

Dwight Yoakam, ‘Buenas Nochas From A Lonely Room’

Bon Jovi, ‘Slippery When Wet’