Thursday, July 26, 2018

Angelique Kidjo - Remain in Light

Angelique Kidjo – Remain in Light (Kravenworks)

“And you may find yourself in another part of the world … and you may say to yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’”

The Talking Heads’ 1980 album Remain in Light marked the time when they dove in deep to their West African influences, particularly that of Fela Kuti. It was far removed from the punk and new wave scenes from which they were spawned. There was only one minor hit single from it: “Once in a Lifetime,” an oddball pop song with spoken verses, its success propelled largely by the then-innovative video. It was that song that Angelique Kidjo heard in Paris, in 1983, after she escaped a censorious dictatorship in her home of Benin. She immediately recognized its West African influence, though people at the party she was attending told her that there was no way that could be true, because African music wasn’t as sophisticated as Talking Heads.

Despite his fans’ ignorance, Talking Heads’ David Byrne was very clear about what was influencing him at the time. He became a major advocate of Fela Kuti in every interview he did. There were questions raised then, as now, as to whether he had a right to borrow from a culture supposedly alien to his own. But Kidjo never saw it that way. As an African who herself has often been told that her music is not “African” enough, Kidjo reveled in the way that Byrne and his band blurred lines and borrowed from her culture without claiming it as their own but instead creating something new. “I’m walking a line / divide and dissolve,” sings Byrne in “Houses in Motion.”

All of which leads up to this reimagining of Remain in Light as a whole, in which Kidjo covers the entire album. She does so by placing percussion and vocals at the forefront, and her commanding vocal delivery is, at the very least, an intriguing contrast to Byrne’s, which sounds meek in comparison. That doesn’t mean Kidjo strips the material down, however: her Remain in Light sounds very much like it was made in 2018, neither a throwback to the time the original was created nor to a period of ’70s African funk to which many Western “purists” insist on clinging. And just to give the cultural appropriation police even more to chew on, she employs the horn section from Brooklyn Afrobeat revivalists Antibalas as well as Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, with Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen—who deserves as much credit as Fela does for pioneering the genre—doing what he does best.

Hearing a modern African woman sing Byrne’s lyrics is also revelatory. “Seen and Not Seen” is about someone who does not see faces like his in the culture around him, who fantasizes about changing the shape of his face in order to fit in. The haunting “Listening Wind” is about an African villager who plants a bomb to drive away the Americans who are colonizing his country. “Born Under Punches” makes perfect sense when talking about any country brutalized by both colonialism and corrupt governments. The line ““Changing my shape, I feel like an accident,” found in “Crosseyed and Painless,” could refer to any traveller or immigrant who must “code-switch” to fit into the dominant culture. Then, of course, there is “Once in a Lifetime,” in which life doesn’t always go as planned, in which the water underground connects us all. A common theme in much of Byrne’s early work is anxiety—this is the man who wrote “Life During Wartime,” after all (from Fear of Music)—and the world has never been more anxious than it is right now, no matter where you live.

What’s also striking about Kidjo’s work in 2018 is how much stock she places in Remain in Light as an album. She could easily have cherry-picked various Talking Heads songs from throughout their discography, but she chose these eight songs that are rooted in a particular period of transformation and discovery on the part of its composers, eight songs that form a cohesive whole. In a week when Drake has released yet another exhaustive and exhausting epic work that was consciously designed to spike his record-setting streaming numbers, Remain in Light is a reminder that concision and cohesion goes a long, long way. Decades, in fact, of illumination.

Stream: “Born Under Punches,” “The Great Curve,” “Listening Wind”

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Queer Songbook Orchestra – Anthems and Icons

Queer Songbook Orchestra – Anthems and Icons (independent)

This project is exactly what it sounds like: a small chamber orchestra, with guest singers, performing songs by queer composers—closeted at the time or otherwise—as well as songs that have been widely adapted by the LGBTQ community. Sometimes the choices are obvious, like k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving” or Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window” or Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” (sadly, the latter is not on this debut album, although the QSO does a spectacular arrangement of the ’80s hit live). Sometimes the choices are not so obvious: neither Anne Murray nor songwriter Gene MacLellan were gay, but there’s an interesting take on their classic “Snowbird” here—because, why? Because for years people thought Murray was a lesbian? Not that it much matters, as the arrangement here keeps the song’s pretty melody but the chordal structure underneath it is jarring and occasionally dissonant—which underscores the aspiration and longing and distance between the narrator and the title subject.

Music is just part of the mission for the QSO. They also collect stories and testimonials from queer voices across Canada about how music was a source of strength and often a lifeline when living in intolerant communities. (If you have one, they want to hear from you: The mere fact this orchestra exists and is doing this work is inherently political; they are working closely with the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives on their storytelling project. Every song here is accompanied by a compelling story either about the composer (Billy Strayhorn, Joe Meek) or a personal tale of a queer person’s connection to the song. One track, written by Gentleman Reg, “Last of His Kind,” is dedicated to the late Toronto DJ and activist Will Munro.

But the music is just as interesting—often for what it isn’t rather than what it is. When Alanna Stuart of Bonjay sings “Constant Craving”—and knocks it out of the park, by the way, which is no small feat—the arrangement behind her is relatively conventional and recognizable. On the other hand, the Etheridge song, in a lush arrangement by avant-garde composer Nicole Lizée, is reduced to the sole lyric: “Just to reach you.”

Considering the breadth of material this ensemble performs live, and with so many guest singers, it’s mildly disappointing that the debut enlists only four singers and a small sampling of the material they already have arrangements for. But there’s a lot of life in this project, and no shortage of interesting source material—and incredibly talented Canadian musicians from across the country willing to lend a hand. (June 15)

Stream: “Constant Craving,” “Snowbird,” “Lush Life”

UPDATE: Full Canadian tour is on for this fall, from Whitehorse to St. John's
Sep 30 - Yukon Arts Centre, Whitehorse, YK
Oct 3 - Artesian, Regina, SK
Oct 4 - The Lyric Theatre, Swift Current, SK
Oct 5 - The Broadway Theatre, Saskatoon, SK
Oct 6 - West End Cultural Centre, Winnipeg MB
Oct 9 - Venue TBD, Fredericton, NB
Oct 10 - The Mack, Charlottetown, PEI
Oct 11 - Venue TBD, Sackville, NB
Oct 12 - Highland Arts Theatre, Sydney, NS
Oct 13 - Venue TBD, Halifax NS

Oct 15 - St John’s Community Market, St John’s NFLD

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Sorority – Pledge

The Sorority – Pledge (independent)

Strength in numbers: where are all the rap groups? Part of what has made Migos and Brockhampton so successful is the novelty of having more than two rappers in one group. In Quebec, it’s not at all unusual to have rap crews: Alaclair Ensemble, Radio Radio, Dead Obies. This year also saw the rise of the Snotty Nose Rez Kids from Vancouver. But an English-Canadian rap crew made up of four women? That’s unheard of. That they’ve made one of the best rap records of the last 12 months makes it even sweeter.

The members of the Sorority— Haviah Mighty, Lex Leosis, Phoenix Pagliacci, Keysha Freshh—met at an International Women’s Day event (of course). They quickly clicked, and small wonder: they all have great flow, they’re all equals, and they’re as skilled as R&B singers as they are rappers. Even better, for a group with such old-school skills, the music underneath is thoroughly modern yet also wholly original—they’re not chasing trends to fit in.

Every month another artist comes out of Toronto that exemplifies the diversity of the city’s hip-hop and R&B scene, each one seemingly stronger than the last. Expect to hear a lot more about the Sorority in the next year and beyond. (June 1)

Stream: “SRTY,” “West End (Yea Eh),” “East End (Dun Kno)”