The Haitian band RAM have been performing for nearly quarter of a century now, having a regular Thursday night slot at Port-au-Prince's Hotel Oloffson in addition to making occasional tours overseas. This is their sixth album and the first for a decade.
Led by Richard A Morse and his wife Lunise, RAM's music is an electric fusion of traditional vodou rhythms and rock. Lyrics are in Kreyol, Haiti's lingua franca, a distant cousin of French. The band's posture is political in the broadest sense, but the themes of the songs tend to be spiritual, addressing the vodou spirit world, although an understanding of the religion's ritual and practice is by no means necessary to enjoy the music. For those unfamiliar with Haitian music, which is most of us, suffice it to say that it has plenty of West African leanings although some of the melodies like "Jije'm Byen" can also sound quite Brazilian too. Mostly, the mood is bright and uplifting, the sort of thing that you might expect to hear in a crowded Caribbean dancehall late at night. Essentially a live music band, this recording does them great credit. There's some superb musicianship to the fore, especially the diamond-bright ringing guitar of Yonel Vendredi and the elastic bass playing of Wilson Emmanuel.
"Koulou" sounds like pure retro Francophone Africa, as if it were lifted straight off rare 70s Guinea vinyl. "Tout Pitit" is considerably slower and more vocal-orientated, while tracks like "Mon Konpwe Gede" are raw and earthy, hinging around polyrhythmic drumming and call-and-response vocals. In fact there's a gentle but welcome change of pace and mood between each of the tracks — the running order plays like a well-considered live set — and this is one of the factors that makes RAM 6: Manman M Se Ginen such an engaging listen.
Highly melodic, powerfully rhythmic, heart-warming and very positive — RAM are great ambassadors for this oft-troubled country. Now that Cuba is almost starting to get a bit old hat as an adventurous destination this really makes me want to buy a ticket to Haiti.
We say: Relaxed grooves that show their traditional Colombian roots.
For their new album, the first for some time, Sidestepper return to their Colombian roots. Unlike earlier albums that were largely recorded in Europe Supernatural Love was created in La Candelaria, a bohemian enclave of Bogota, and somehow the ambiance of this historic quarter makes its mark on the music.
The earlier releases were harder-edged and more beat-driven, harnessing drum and bass to salsa, cumbia and Afro-Colombian rhythms. This is something of a departure, and Supernatural Love with its minimal electronics is a gentler, warmer-sounding collection than earlier releases. Most of the compositions come courtesy of Richard Blair, the British DJ and producer behind Sidestepper. Many like "Come and See Us Play" unfold slowly using just traditional percussion, whistles and guitar to shape a groove for the vocals. Several tracks, like "On the Line," which centers on a lovely laconic guitar motif, and the title track "Supernatural Love," are even sung in English.
It all sounds quite spacey and unhurried, even a little psychedelic at times on tunes like "Song for the Sinner" and "Hear the Rain Come." Other tracks, like "Lover" utilize a relaxed call-and-response groove. Overall there's an organic traditional feel to Supernatural Love that might seem a bit raw and unpolished at times but that is no bad thing as it allows the warmth of the music to shine through.
Vieux Farka Touré & Julia Easterlin
We say: Superb Americana-Desert Blues fusion where you just can't see the join.
In case you did not know it, Malian musician Vieux Farka Touré is the son of Ali Farka Touré, the man who single-handedly brought the term "desert blues" into general parlance. Julia Easterlin is a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter whose oeuvre might best be described as experimental pop. This recording is an unusual but highly successful collaboration of two diverse traditions.
The opening notes of "Little Things" start with a familiar motif, a phrase from the traditional Malian song "Kaira," which has previously been performed by both generations of Farka Tourés, son Vieux and father Ali. Just as you get used to the Malian feel, Easterlin's vocal comes in — Bjork-like but clearly American — to take the song to another place immediately. The second track "A'Bashiye (It's Alright)" is much more what you might expect from anyone bearing the name Touré — a tough Saharan blues that once again, when full underway, gets the Easterlin vocal treatment on the chorus. Next it's a slow bluesy version of Dylan's "Masters of War" that has overdubbed female harmony voices and a sparse backing of brass, organ and rippling ngoni — a different but highly effective take on Dylan's classic. In "I'm Not Done" we are back in Bjork territory again, just voices and sparse backing to start with, then Touré's screaming guitar along with precise contrapuntal brass.
"In the Pines" will be familiar to Nirvana fans as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," although this version is very different — sparse and tense, with guitar and ngoni evoking a stark Sahelian atmosphere. "Took My Brother Down" is a chilling modern murder ballad about the police shooting of Michael Brown in Mississippi. With a superbly simple but effective arrangement, the desert blues feel adds atmosphere but doesn't get in the way of the storytelling. "Spark" is another moody piece with Easterlin taking the lead in front of Touré's expressive guitar. On "Bamba Na Wili" it is Touré who takes the vocal lead, sounding uncannily like his father. Here Easterlin adds a chorus that magically shifts the song's geography with a single harmonized note.
Looked at coldly, such an odd formula probably should not work. But it does. Touristes is a successful exercise in fusion that really does not sound like "fusion" at all. My one gripe is that most of the tracks could be a little longer, but I suppose it is always good business to keep the audience wanting more.
Son of Man
We say: Classic roots rebel reggae from Bristol, England.
There is a degree of nostalgia connected with roots reggae these days. It was, after all, a musical genre that was at its height back in 1970s and 1980s but which has pretty much faded from the limelight in the interim. Perhaps even more than in Jamaica itself, England's larger cities have long had a tradition of nurturing successful roots reggae bands — the likes of Steel Pulse from Birmingham, and Aswad and Misty in Roots from London. Black Roots from Bristol belong to the same classic vein and utilize much the same musical formula: strident horns, sweet harmony vocals, melodic guitar and deep, window-shaking bass.
Black Roots have been around since the 1980s and are still going strong. Always politically militant — they formerly gave voice to the widespread urban dissent of 1980s Thatcher's Britain — they now have fresh issues and targets in their sights. The band have mellowed a little with the passing of the years and now come across as a little less strident but they are still involved in protest — song titles like "War Zone" give a picture of what to expect.
Much of Son of Man is mid-tempo and occasionally a little preachy ("Prevention") but bouncier tracks like "One Girl Ebony" with its sparkly brass break things up to some extent, as does the unashamed love song "Wake Up" that implores "why don't you come on up and penetrate my soul?"
Because of its associations with a specific musical era this album sounds as if it might well have been recorded 35 years ago. There's no great harm in this. Roots reggae belongs to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" sort of school and although the dreads might be greyer, the skanking a little creakier, Son of Man still has plenty to say.