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Posts Tagged ‘Afrika Bambaataa’

 (Above: Damian Marley and Nas perform at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo. on June 26, 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When the rapper Nas and reggae artist Damian Marley, youngest son of Bob Marley, first teamed up five years ago, the result was solid, but not spectacular. “Road to Zion” was a typical mash-up with Nas dropping a verse into the pocket of a mostly completed composition. There was little interaction between the two.

All of that immediately flies out the window on “Distant Relatives,” the new full-length collaboration between Nas and Marley. Open cut “As We Enter” finds the pair tag-teaming stanzas. As Nas spits “My man can speak patois/and I can speak rap star,” Marley drops the line “from Queens to Kingston/gunshot we use and govern the kingdom.”

The “rhythm piranhas” – as Marley dubs the duo – started toying with the idea of producing an EP to benefit school in Africa back in 2008, but the project grew as it progressed. Predictably, the lyrics find both vocalists working in a political vein, which is not a radical departure for either.

Nas shines in this environment, weaving street parables into Marley’s global paradigm. Marley, on the other hand, brings a sense of optimism lacking on most hip hop albums. His influence permits Nas to deliver his most straightforward and affirming lines this since “I Can” on the track “Count Your Blessings.”

Although “Distant Relatives” celebrates Africa, the only musician from the continent to appear on the record in person is K’naan, who blesses two tracks. The reset of the album captures the energy and rhythm of the motherland through samples that include Ethiopian jazz, Angolan singing and the Malian couple Amadou and Miriam. And while the pulse is definitely (defiantly?) African, the concrete jungle of Marley’s Jamaica and Nas’ New York are never far.

The only time the third world spell is broken comes on the song “My Generation.” Lil Wayne’s appearance on the track is passable, but feels like a ponderous attempt at mainstream radio play. The most egregious offender, however, is Joss Stone, ruins a decent production with an over-the-top delivery that seems to parody an American Idol wannabe.

Despite the title, the worlds of rap and reggae aren’t really that distant. Afrika Bambaata and Run-DMC dipped into the reggae in rap’s first decade. KRS-One later incorporated reggae into his 1987 hit “The Bridge is Over,” which famously dissed Nas’ home borough. The decade would also find KRS-One collaborating with Sly and Robbie and Shabba Ranks.

Likewise, Marley is no stranger to hip hop. His raspy voice has always worked better in a spoken cadence than in his limited singing range. Both of his major-label albums bounce with an urban beat. “Welcome to Jamrock,” the Grammy-winning album that fostered his meeting with Nas, also featured a track with The Roots MC Black Thought. In addition, Marley’s brother Stephen Marley, who produced two of the cuts on “Distant Strangers” oversaw a remix album of his father’s songs that featured The Roots, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Guru and former Fugee Lauryn Hill, who is married to Rohan Marley, another of Bob Marley’s sons.

“Distant Relatives” flattens this musical landscape. It is an ambitious project with global aims, not only musically, but lyrically, dealing with humanity, morality and messy nuances of emotion like greed and humility that can easily come across as clichés or preaching. Few artists have the vision to imagine a project of such scope, let alone pull it off.

Marley and Nas teamed up because they wanted to respond to the disasters in Haiti, Somalia and Darfur. Their intentions should be appreciated. The results should be celebrated.

Keep reading:

Review: The Original Wailers

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Bela Fleck’s Africa Project

Review: Sly and Robbie

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

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(Above: The Kora Jazz Trio in concert.)

By Joel Francis

Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the second of three installments shedding light on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years. Note that these musicians are not necessarily the 15 greatest jazz artists to arrive since 1990. A brief listen to any of them, though, should more than persuade the most ardent purist that jazz is alive and well.

Ravi Coltrane

Not only has Ravi Coltrane followed in his famous father’s footsteps as a musician, but he’s established himself with his dad’s instrument. The child of John and Alice Coltrane (Ravi was two when his dad died), Ravi cut his teeth with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones before finally stepping out on his own. In little over 10 years, he’s build a strong catalog that would sound just as sweet under a different surname. Coltrane is currently on the road in a new septet celebrating 70 years of Blue Note Records. Albums to start with: Mad 6, In Flux.

Kora Jazz Trio

Comprised of pianist Abdoulaye Diabaté (who is not related to kora master Toumani Diabate), griot percussionist Moussa Sissokho and kora player Djeli Moussa Diawara, this trio deftly blends their African heritage with American jazz. Throughout their three albums, they have tackled songs by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and the Buena Vista Social Club and delivered over a dozen dazzling originals. Imagine McCoy Tyner getting lost in an African marketplace and you’re getting close. Albums to start with: Part II, Part III

Diana Krall

Pianist and singer Diana Krall grew up surrounded by her dad’s extensive collection of Fats Waller albums, but ended up with a style and sound closer to that of Ralph Sharon, Tony Bennett’s longtime arranger and accompanist. Although Krall’s music is certainly not aggressive or pushing any boundaries, dismissing her music as smooth jazz for dinner parties would be a mistake. Her performances of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jimmy McHugh have a freshness, energy and vitality lacking in other “supper club” performers. Krall’s most recent album, “The Girl in the Other Room,” leans heavily on original material written with her husband, Elvis Costello. Albums to start with: Love Scenes, The Girl in the Other Room

Medeski, Martin and Wood

Decades of touring have made the bass/keyboard/drums trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood one of today’s tightest ensembles. Their experimental, groove-based sound is broad enough to be equally at home at both Newport and Bonnaroo without changing a thing. Early pieces like “Hermeto’s Daydream” sound like Dave Brubeck run through “A Clockwork Orange,” while newer material features hip hop artists like DJ Logic, and guitarists Marc Ribot and John Scofield. Albums to start with: Notes from the Underground, Combustication.

Jason Moran

Pianist Jason Moran only has 10 years of recording under his belt, but he’s covered a lot of territory in that time. His albums contain interpretations of Prokofiev and Afrika Bambaataa interspersed with original compositions and spoken-word pieces. In addition to releasing seven albums under his own name, Moran has worked and recorded with Andrew Hill, Cassandra Wilson, Christian McBride, Don Byron, Ravi Coltrane and dozens more. Only 34 years old, Moran is just getting started. Albums to start with: Modernistic, Same Mother

Keep Reading: 15 Jazz Greats to Emerge in the Last 20 Years

Part One

Part Three

Five Legends Still Adding to Their Legacies

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Above: Smithsonian patrons deserve a space to discover and learn more about American musicians like Big Bill Broonzy.

By Joel Francis

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s two-year, $85 million facelift is a lot like the plastic surgery aging stars get – it attracts a lot of interest at first and does a good job of hiding the wrinkles, but ultimately accentuates all the other flaws.

A visit to the renovated Washington, D.C. museum in the week after it re-opened to the public revealed Kool Herc’s turntable and Afrika Bambaataa’s pendant as the most prominent exhibits of 20th Century American music. There was no acknowledgement to the richness of the museum’s own music archives and label, Smithsonian Folkways.

The National Museum of American History needs a showcase dedicated to the legacy of Smithsonian Folkways recordings. A place for visitors to learn about its artists – not only better-known names like Pete Seeger, Guthrie and Leadbelly, but the anonymous rural musicians label founder Moses Asch sought to document.

Asch founded Folkways Records and Service Co. in 1948 to “suppor(t) cultural diversity and increase understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound,” Much like his contemporary and fellow musicologist Alan Lomax, Asch captured songs from primitive villages to New York City’s avant-garde, ancient Greek literature to Russian poetry.

The permanent space should include an interactive map where visitors can hear and learn about indigenous music styles in a given area, and see how those forms migrate and influence each other. They should also house several kiosks where listeners can listen to recordings while learning about the performers. Rotating exhibits of instruments, lyrics and other memorabilia would also enhance the space.

When the Smithsonian acquired Asch’s library after his death in 1987, they adopted his mission of document “the people’s music” as their own. They also guaranteed that all the label’s 2,000 releases would forever remain in print. One wouldn’t know this promise has been kept by visiting the museum’s gift stores.

In the old configuration, the main retail store on the bottom floor was a clearinghouse for the Smithsonian Folkways catalog. Nearly every title and artist was at the shopper’s fingertips. All that remains today is a few compilations of blues, bluegrass, train and labor songs and the essential Woody Guthrie box set. Patrons deserve better than this. They deserve a place to flip over the rocks of American roots music and discover what lies underneath.

Addressing this need would not correct all the problems of the renovated museum. The public would have been better served had the curators waited until all their exhibit space was completed before re-opening.  More than a third of the building is still under construction and closed to the public. But the tapestry of American music the Smithsonian has preserved is too rich to be swept under the rug.

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