Saturday, October 28, 2006

In Praise of Louis Mhlanga

I've always been a big fan of the Zimbabwean (well, now South African) guitarist and vocalist Louis Mhlanga (pronounced "Um-shlahn-ga"), and a recent trip to South Africa and a chance to hear him at the Grahamstown Arts Festival only solidified and verified this. His playing draws in part from Zimbabwean mbira playing, part Malian kora, part South African mbaqanga get the picture. If it's a style, he's found a way to incorporate it into his work.

For those of you who have not yet heard him, I really, REALLY strongly advise you fix this. He's got a Best Of called World Traveller (which I reviewed!), and it's a pretty decent place to start. The best of compilation focus on his more danceable side, and his smoother side, which might put off some people, but it does demonstrate his very unique guitar gifts.

However, I feel very strongly that Louis is at his best in pared-down settings. And fortunately, there are three albums that present him in such a way! The first two are duets he did with a Dutch acoustic bassist named Eric van der Weston - Song for Nomsa and Keeping the Dream. Both are delicately beautiful albums, featuring Louis on vocals and acoustic guitar - if you had to pick one, I'd say Song for Nomsa, if for no other reason than for the heartbreakingly beautiful ballad "Ndiwe." But really, if you like beautiful South African guitar work, both are hard to pass up. Warning - if you've heard World Traveller, these two albums are very, very different.

The final album worth checking out is his duet album with Vusi Mahlasela - bet you didn't know such a thing existed? Well, here it is - Live at the Bassline. American fans of Vusi Mahlasela are in the dark about this gem of an album, as it (sadly) is only available in South Africa, and is not included in the compilation album "The Voice." However, for those willing to pay shipping costs (which aren't that much), it contains striking new renditions of some of his famous songs - "Silang Mabele" gets rescued from the synthy-schlock that is the original version - in this vocals/acoustic guitars version. Vusi's voice is a bit rougher on this live album than one might be used to, but still highly, highly expressive. And Louis' guitar work is stunning - phasing in and out of the beat, providing solos ranging from the gentle and thoughtful work on "Silang Mabele" to the more technically impressive (inspiring, maybe?) work on "Woza." Louis' voice is not nearly as powerful or emotive as Vusi's, for sure, but he certainly holds his own.

So if you haven't heard him - check this guy out. He may be the best guitarist operating in South Africa right now (sorry, Errol Dyers).

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Shameless Plug for Sathima Bea Benjamin

EDIT to the below post: On October 21, the Hotel Chelsea Blog "Living with Legends" ran a review of the concert:

So I've been working with the South African singer (originally from Cape Town, in fact) Sathima Bea Benjamin.

Some may know her from her recording in 1963 with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn called A Morning in Paris (criminally out of print). Some may know her as Abdullah Ibrahim's wife.

I know her as the greatest living jazz singer...and a colorful person to chat and work with!

This year, we put out her 2002 album Musical Echoes in the states - it had only been available in South Africa prior to that. And now, on October 17th, we're having an extra special release.

On October 17th, Sathima turns 70 years old. To celebrate, she is releasing SongSpirit, which compiles some of her best tracks from 1963 to 2002, and includes a never-before-released duet with Abdullah Ibrahim, of "It Never Entered My Mind."

Also, she'll be performing that night at Sweet Rhythm Jazz Club here in New York - should be a very special evening.

Like I said, shameless plug for this album, but it's a really beautiful recording and tribute to a singer who, in my mind, has never gotten the recognition she deserves.

For those of you unfamiliar with her singing, she gets compared to Billie Holiday. I suppose this is somewhat valid, especially in the flexible approach to pitch and rhythm they share. However, Sathima brings in her Cape Town influences in a fairly unique way - in choice of scales, and in the use of the ghoema rhythm - which is samba-like.

And, to boot, Duke Ellington, Abdullah Ibrahim, Kenny Barron, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Buster Williams, Larry Willis, Ben Riley, Stephen Scott and a LOT more musicians all are featured on this album.

So pick up the album, and come to the show. And say hi!

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Sisyphean Ordeal of Building an Abdullah Ibrahim Collection

For anyone who has attempted to amass a collection of Abdullah Ibrahim's music, you know just how maddening it can be - navigating the sheer number of out-of-print vinyls that are partially re-issued on several CDs, which are then partially re-issued onto other CDs....then the problems of dealing with South African releases versus US releases (Mannenberg vs. Cape Town Fringe), or the multiple yet different European releases of an album (Anatomy of a South African Village springs to mind). Truly a nightmare...

There is a saving grace for anyone who is really serious about finding Ibrahim's music - a man in Copenhagen, Lars Rasmussen, assembled a book detailing Abdullah Ibrahim's discography. To call this book detailed is like describing the Atlantic Ocean as "pretty deep." This book contains never-released albums; it contains the reference to Ibrahim's earliest work with the Tuxedo Slickers orchestra in 1954; most importantly, it details which tracks from vinyls were re-issued onto CDs.

The book is a bit pricey for Americans importing it, but if you are serious about building up a collection, you really need this book. You can find it here:

Of course, then that raises the subsequent issue of how the hell you FIND some of these Abdullah Ibrahim albums...well, best of luck there. If I can make a suggestion of one in particular to keep an eye out for, it would be "Live at Sweet Basil Volume 1" - a set of Abdullah Ibrahim with Carlos Ward. Also worth checking out is "Third World Underground" - Abdullah with Don Cherry and Carlos Ward. Out of print, but you can find it at

Happy hunting!