The Dean reviews albums from African music luminaries Konono No. 1, Noura Mint Seymali, Youssou N'Dour, and more.
Welcome to Expert Witness with Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics." He currently teaches at NYU and published multiple books throughout his life. For nearly four decades, he worked as the music editor for The Village Voice, where he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. Every Friday, Noisey will happily publish his long-running critical column. To learn more about him and his life, read his welcome post here.
Konono No. 1: Konono No. 1 Meets Batida (Crammed Discs) I always knew Batida's hard-ass beats were why I plucked his eponymous 2012 CD out of the welter of DJ albums—and knew they meant to be hard-ass, because that's how you translate the Angolan kuduro style he went electro with. But it took Crammed Discs schemer Vincent Kenis to alert me to the obvious: just as soukous's rippling polyrhythms once migrated south from Congo, there's a congruence between the modern Lusaka sound and the unforgiving attack of Kinshasa's 21st-century street bands—the much-missed Staff Benda Bilili and the self-renewing Konono No. 1. Now led by Agustin Makuntima Mawangu, whose late father originally rigged up their battery-powered likembes, Konono have always seemed a touch spare and samey at album length, and Batida is just the hard-ass to fill out their sonics without softening them. Here be guitars and handclaps, thick electronics and stuttering glitches, guest singers who can actually sing. Konono's steady improvement over four albums may have cost them primitivist cachet and novelty appeal. But don't be the kind of fool who thinks they're just repeating themselves. A MINUS
Noura Mint Seymali: Tzenni (Glitterbeat) Like her stepmother, Mauritanian iggawin queen Dimi Mint Abba, Seymali has one of those foghorn voices that wears you down after it's knocked you over. Complete lyrics probably wouldn't help that much, but not knowing every word hurts. So what kept this album in the play pile for me was less the singing than the band, which with Seymali playing a traditional females-only harp is anchored by another hereditary griot, her guitarist husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly. Justly, they regard their style as a modernizing, genre-bending "fusion." In fact, the musician who stands out mans a trap set. His name is Matthew Tinari, he's from Pennsylvania, and he manages them. Good for him. B PLUS
Senegal 70 (Analog Africa) When will it dry up? Multiple Youssou and Baobab and Star Band excavations. Great forgotten bands from Adamantios Kafetzis's upstart Teranga Beat and long-forgotten tracks from Ibrahim Sylla's hegemonic Syllart. All '70s, all Senegalese, and now here's a dozen more tracks. Beyond two fine finds from the orchestra it spells Bawobab, the artists are unknown to me beyond the same obscure Gestü de Dakar whose cassette-only "Djirime" blows out Mark Hudson's still-available teranga-beat primer, 1998's The Music in My Head. Newbies should start there. This stuff—Laye Thiam's actual Afrofunk, Le Tropical Jazz's uno-dos-tres salsa, well-named Groupement Mobil D'Intervention's well-named "Africa"—is for after you get hooked. Believe me—you won't stop at just one. B PLUS
Dieuf-Dieul de Thiés: Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2 (Teranga Beat) They've reformed for a three-decades-late tour I hope I catch, but there were better mbalax bands and this is volume two for a reason ("Am Sa Waye," "Nianky") **
Youssou N'Dour et le Super Etoile de Dakar: Fatteliku (RealWorld) Live in Athens 1987 by the grace of internationalist sponsor Peter Gabriel, who clunks him up musically as usual and oversees an encore where N'Dour sings backup. ("Immigrés," "Nelson Mandela") *
Rokia Traoré: Né So (Nonesuch) Watch out, lady—even sung more lissomely if not cannily than a well-respected Billie Holiday, humanitarian homilies requiring lyric-booklet translation will eventually put your respectful cadre to sleep. ("Né So," "Sé Dan") *