Over the past month, a handful of artists whose homes lay a significant distance from the states have released albums that speak to the varied experiences within the African Diaspora. The range of recent output is a tour of two continents—namely, Europe and Africa—with artists representing Nigeria, Benin, Senegal, the United Kingdom and Germany, and the musical styles range from traditional African styles to neo-soul to jazz.
The most famous of these artists has been Nigerian/British jazz-soul icon Sade, who just dropped her sixth studio album Soldier of Love (already reviewed on this site) to big commercial success. While Sade’s crossover popularity will earn her several top spots on the Billboard charts (the single “Soldier of Love” is an R&B top ten hit and the album will debut at the top of the Hot 100 album chart), most of the artists presented here have much smaller portions of the American audience. Yet they’re only a click away on the Internet; all have MySpace pages that give new listeners a taste of their sound.
Here are profiles of four artists who take us into different sonic territories.
Many know this Leeds, England-born singer/songwriter from her previous self-titled album that had the big hit “Put Your Records On.” Suffering through tragedy with the unexpected death of her husband Jason Rae, Mrs. Rae took time to grieve and returned with an album that is transcendent in its exploration of her marital relationship and the grand implications it has for our understanding of choices and time. Using the metaphor of a great, consuming sea, she goes deep without becoming despondent and has emerged with an album of great beauty, speaking to the pastoral soul traditions of the ‘70s with lush, orchestral arrangements and jazz improvisations. A must-have for soul aficionados.
Hailing from the West African country Benin, Loueke is a heralded jazz guitarist and singer who’s worked with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard. His second album for the Blue Note label, Mwaliko (Swahili for “invitation”) finds him paired up with a variety of renowned international artists, including Angelique Kidjo, Richard Bona and Esperanza Spalding, the prodigious bassist/singer who trades vocals and strums to Loueke’s clicks, chants and chords on the tender “Twins.” And on a track that shares the name of this website, Loueke sounds as if he’s giving the grooviest of layered incantations before he delves into skipping, swinging instrumentals.
A native of Dakar, Senegal, N’Dour is a beloved humanitarian whose music and work has won international acclaim over the decades. Maintaining the griot traditions of his land, he has been a grand shaper of the Senegalese musical form known as mbalax, and has experimented with African and Western musical fusions. N’Dour is the focus of the documentary I Bring What I Love (available on movies-on-demand), which profiles his struggles over the release of his 2004 album Egypt. Though it ultimately won a Grammy, the album was deemed blasphemous by N’Dour’s home country for offering religious figures from the Sumi Islamic faith for the secular world to enjoy. The soundtrack here is a retrospective of sorts, with new recordings made of some of N’Dour’s older repertoire and two original tracks, the soaring title theme and “Yonnent (The Messenger),” with Moustafa Mbaye.
Nneka, who hails from Nigeria, travelled to Germany at 19 to attend university. She soon landed into the music/DJ scene, and, two European albums later, has released an American album with an assortment of tracks that have appeared on her earlier collections. She brings an urban/hip-hop swag to songs that touch on identity, materialism and staying true to spirit. And much like fellow hybrid artist M.I.A., who hails from Sri Lanka, Nneka fuses a wide assortment of styles into cohesive, moving (though sometimes didactic) songs that have much character. “The Uncomfortable Truth” is a shuffling mid-tempo ditty that’s meant to get bodies bending into a funk bounce, while “Heartbeat” is a unique and ominous headbanger with elements of electronica, drum ‘n bass, reggae and rock.
Hailing from Bristol, England, this group were major pioneers of the trip-hop movement of the ‘90s and, many critically acclaimed albums later, have developed a huge, loyal fan base overseas. Indie and electronic music heads in the states are also well aware of the group’s trance-like rhythms and minor-key motifs, with sounds ranging from shimmering dance pop to sexy reggae dub raps. (A tight overview of their work can be found in the 2006 compilation Collected.) Massive Attack continues with their exploration of our inner underworlds on their latest album Heligoland, featuring artists like Hope Sandoval, Damon Albarn, and TV On the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, who shines on “Pray for Rain,” an eerie evolving portrait of a metaphorical dry landscape. The song literally takes us from dire thirst to shower’s salvation and back again.