Tiken Jah Fakoly

Dernier Apel

In between recording, post production and mastering, Dernier Appel was put through the hands of at least seven studios, and the result is an instantly infectious collection of nine original Tiken Jah Fakoly tracks.

The multitude of studios do not imply indecisiveness as Fakoly knows what he likes best and travelled to source the sound he was looking for: the great Alpha Blondy contributes notably to Diaspora.

You will be pleased with the result of Fakoly’s collaborations with the great and the good, for Dernier Apel will stand up to repeat listening in years to come.

There are, if you know anything about Fakoly, whose weathered appearance belies the fact that he is still in his mid-forties, two sides to him as a performing artist: composer and writer.

Though his lyrics in English are anaemic without the life blood of music, his songwriting in French (Le Prix du Paradis) retains an effortless rhythmic flow: you will love the title track and, for me a highlight, Le Prix du Paradis, a standard reggae beat which opens, quelle surprise, with the catchy chorus –

Tout le monde veut le paradis

Mais personne ne veut payer le prix

which, if you had been paying attention in school, translates as ‘everyone wants heaven, but nobody wants to pay the price.’ If you are unfamiliar with Fakoly, it is useful to know that he is an Ivorian song-bird of the oppressed and the marginalised. The thinking man’s activist, and perhaps Dernier Appel is his clarion call to Africa.

Unity is the key, To defend our integrity, Our dignity.’

The seamless stitch between the ten songs can be viewed as either a tribute to the production or the absence of a musical edge but, if you can disassociate Fakoly from the omnipresent scent of Manu Chao, the remarkable emerges from the unremarkable.

Some less than enthusiastic reviews of Dernier Appel have lamented an absence of adventurousness by Fakoly, but I’m not so inclined. Dernier Appel is of its time, and his resident band, Les Djelys, (Fakoly comes from a family of griots), deliver a cohesiveness to fret the political and the musical.

Dakoro, which has a great bass line, is as close as you will come to a deeper appreciation of the spirit of this collection. The shortest track, Dakoro consolidates the identity of the band with the somnolent calm of reggae, and yet, beneath the surface there is a communality of interests in Fakoly’s words.

He has paid with exile for the price of being outspoken, but it hasn’t been in vain, and Dernier Appel is an honourable chapter in his ongoing story.



Tony Allen


 Film of Life

“Rhythm is the most perceptible and the least material thing in the world,” wrote John Miller Chernoff in his book, African Rhythm and African Sensibility. It has been thirty years since this observation inspired Brian Eno and David Byrne to revise their approach to music, and if African rhythms began to alter the course of Western pop music, we have to be grateful to Tony Allen.

He embodies the vitality of those rhythms, placing them at the cutting edge of modern music and over his career has made himself a benchmark for musicians worldwide. Now his tenth album, Film of Life, due in November 2014, looks back on this amazing adventure exploring other terra firma.

Born in Lagos in 1940, Tony Oladipo Allen is an autodidact, a drummer who evolved his technique by listening to Art Blakey and Max Roach. In the mid-1960s, his meeting with Fela Kuti changed his destiny, which took on epic proportions with the invention of afrobeat, where the rhythmic patterns of Yoruba meet instrumental funk and Pan-African slogans.

The collaboration of these two musical giants would last fifteen years. Tony the human metronome then made the most of his new found freedom to add to his roots with everything from dub to pop. Since his first encounter with Blur front man  Damon Albarn, he has been a member of the groups The Good, The Bad and The Queen and Rocket Juice and the Moon.

At a time when afrobeat, like reggae, is becoming part of the globalised music scene, Film of Life travels back through an exemplary musical life. Along with the trio of French producers The Jazzbastards and a cast of world-class musicians, the master drummer confirms his powers of reinvention with an album that dovetails groove, jazz and psychedelic pop. For Allen, who has always thought of his drums as an orchestra and who likes to make them sing, Film of Life marks the pinnacle of his achievement.

The poignant ballad Go Back was written with Albarn, who features on vocals and keyboards. Set to a driving, hypnotic beat, the two musicians have created a homage to the African refugees washed up on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

This is a dazzling addition to add to the collective adventures of the brilliant English jack-of-all-trades and the cult Nigerian drummer, whose paths first crossed over ten years ago for the album Home Cooking, followed by albums with The Good, the Bad and the Queen, Rocket Juice and The Moon and Africa Express.

Allen and Albarn wrote and recorded Go Back in Allen’s Paris studio in a single day, sandwiched between Albarn’s hectic touring schedule: both musicians regard the track as the very essence of their musical and spiritual connection, established over a decade ago.

Since Albarn and Allen’s first collaborative effort, the single Every Season, was committed to tape, the duo have frequently sought each other out, from the nomadic Africa Express project to the ephemeral Afro-rock group Rocket Juice and The Moon, not to mention the rock supergroup The Good, the Bad and the Queen.







Hafez Modirzadeh


In Convergence Liberation

In Convergence Liberation represents the latest step in saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh’s thirty-year quest to create a seamless exchange between different musical cultures.

It follows his 2012 release Post Chromodal Out!, which featured a piano re-tuned to variations of Persian temperament, as played by Vijay Iyer.

The new work explores Modirzadeh’s “chromodality,” a cross-cultural musical concept which allows for the co-existence between different musical temperaments, which Modirzadeh originally derived from his own American jazz and Iranian dastgah heritages.

The seven chamber works on In Convergence Liberation utilize such disparate influences as Persian and Iberian scales, Andalusian poetry, the Iraqi maqam, and the classical string quartet tradition as performed by Argentine-Mexican vocalist Mili Bermejo (vocals), Iraqi-American Amir ElSaffar (Iraqi santur, vocals and trumpet), singing in Spanish and Arabic, respectively, Faraz Minooei (Persian santur), and Amir Abbas Etemadzadeh (Persian daff and tombak).

A collection of tone poems and song cycles, the works on In Convergence Liberation include La Angustia de los Amantes, a Spanish rendition of a poem by the 13th century Persian poet and philosopher Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī  which utilizes the notion that there is gravity to sound.

Employing utilizing gamelan structures, Tetraspheres involves players going inside a unison tone, creating a musical system of various partials of the harmonic series to liberate the music from culturally imposed constraints.

Karnā Passages features Modirzadeh on an ancient Persian double-reed instrument hybridized with a bassoon reed and sawed-off trombone bell. Las Orillas del Mar feature lyrics from an anonymous Andalusian poet of 14th century Spain. Number That Moves derives from abstracts motifs from the original notation of the Adagio section of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 26, where the absence of bar-lines shifts perspective towards collective interdependence.

In Suite Compost by cutting up and reconstituting themes and lines from several dozen existing string quartet compositions and empowering the musicians to transcend the linear, the music of Mozart through Bartok shape-shift into one another.

Finally, Sor Juana is from the poem Sátira Filosóficaby Mexican poet Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695). Mili Bermejo resurrects the voice of Sor Juana in its original Spanish, using a mode common to both Persian and Andalucian traditions, while Amir El Saffar provides vocal support in Iraqi maqam, reflecting eight centuries of Arab Spain resonating in Sor Juana’s colonial Mexico.



Jacek Hugo-Bader

Kolyma Diaries

Piotr Semyonovich Naumov was a 40-year-old bed ridden invalid and semi blind father of six living on a pension of £160 a month in a one room flat in Yakutia near the desolate and infamous Kolyma Highway in Russia, when his wife suddenly died.

He coped with his grief and general bad luck by running. That was twenty years ago. When Jacek Hugo-Bader, a travel journalist and writer who prefers to get about on foot and bike like Dervla Murphy and who was hitch hiking along the Kolyma Highway, caught up with him, Naumov had just completed a 58 kilometres per day run from Kaliningrad to Vladivostol, 12,000 kilometres away, which took him 206 days.

Naumov is just one of hundreds of eccentric characters Hugo-Bader encounters during his epic trek across the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, notorious because the Kolyma Highway was constructed by victims of Stalin’s purges from the 1930’s. One chapter, superbly written (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), concerns itself with the fate of Natalia Nikolayevna, adopted daughter of one of Stalin’s most ruthless stooges and henchmen, Nikolai Ivanovich, the Robespierre of the Russian revolution, who with blood curdling diligence, had thousands executed on the merest of paranoid pretexts, until the monster he unleashed devoured him.

Many of his victims, if they weren’t shot, tortured or strangled, sometimes by himself, even though he was five foot nothing, ended up in the Gulag system, north of the Sea of Okhotsk, digging for gold for the State, or excavating the Kolyma Highway, until they died and were covered by the lengthening road, as if under lava.

Hugo-Bader calculates that if all the victims of Stalin’s camps in furthermost Siberia were laid head to foot along the road, they wouldn’t all fit in: it is believed that two million prisoners were sent to Kolyma, whether they either died from slave labour, or went mad.

If there is such as place as purgatory on the planet, life along the Kolyma Highway might just be it. There are stories of man eating bears and bear eating dogs and so many salmon in a river you could walk across their backs to the far side, and then there are the locals: prospectors, hunters, dreamers, ex-KGB agents, hucksters, politicians and drunks.

Hugo-Bader recalls a marathon card game of blatnik between two friends which lasted, non stop, for eighteen hours, fueled by endless supplies of caviar and vodka. He spots, in the distance, billowing smoke: the only ecological method to dig fresh graves in the permafrost is to thaw the ground by burning old tyres.

Kolyma Diaries is unsparing with facts and unflinching with specifics: during the Stalin period, over 55 out of every 100 children born in the USSR died; 200,000 prisoners died from hunger or the cold; prisoners slaved away outside until the temperature reached minus 55 degrees centigrade.

Hugo-Bader, always curious if not always sympathetic about the Russians he encounters, translates vykluchilo mnye: it means ‘to wander off.’ Young Russian men here seem to do often, even when driving. Sometimes fatigue is blamed, sometimes vodka. It is consumed a lot in this book, particularly in winter, by everyone, even the cats and the dogs.

The author himself hits the nail on the head: Kolyma is place of beauty without spirit, inhospitable and yet a home for survivors.

Andrew McCormack

First Light

There is something of the night about First Light, the new solo release by English pianist Andrew McCormack since he quit Old Blighty for New York.

By that I mean there is an intimate, club-like tone to the quite outstanding nine tracks, all composed by McCormack, with the notable exception of Pannonica, which both closes the CD and points the way ahead.

It is said that McCormack has a quintessentially British emotive aesthetic and that his move to New York would result in a greater depth to his swing, interplay and mesmeric live sound.

If so, the transformation has been stunningly rapid.

McCormack eschews the temptation to showboat on what is his first solo venture, but the aura of polished maturity is a natural inheritance of a driving force in groups fronted by Kyle Eastwood and Jean Toussant.

He has had, for one in his thirties, a lifetime’s experience gigging with the best, and as such you can expect a relatively leisurely but confident swagger to his pianism. In other words, this is not frenetic jazz, with a serrated edge to the rhythm. On First Light, McCormack throughout is a cool customer, ice unmolested by a rise in temperature.

What I like about the final track, Pannonica, is McCormack’s inclination not to mimic the idiosyncrasies of Monk, and instead display the breadth of freshness he can summon to a legendary classic, without entirely neglecting the tonal and modal influence of Monk.

There is too the small matter of the inspiration behind the Monk composition: Pannonica de Koenigswarter, like McCormack, left her native England for New York in search of pastures new, and discovered jazz.

Her book, later in her long life, Three Wishes: an Intimate Look at Jazz Greats, is a must for anyone curious about the club scene in New York at a time when Pannonica was a patron to many musicians, including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and, of course, Thelonious Monk.

First Light is a melting pot of various confluences – the composer’s background, the urban vibe of New York, the wizardry of fellow musicians, bassist Zack Lober and drummer Colin Stranahan, but is never less than fresh.

McCormack can unfurl contrapuntal lines with clarity, but they are never forced, and Lober and Stranahan dovetail to his various pianistic colours.

The longest track, and my favourite, Gotham Soul, is almost eight minutes of this trio at its zenith, where the distinctive sound and urban soul of First Light, is realised in the effortless dynamics between drum, bass and piano.

Greatness in a CD must join up the musical miniatures of a band and although McCormack’s piano is to the forefront in etching out each note, all three have their part in creating a mood that is exclusive to First Light, which is unlikely to ever gather dust.











Jung – Myung Lee

The Investigation

The Investigation is a rare hybrid; a novel which owes its predominant rhythm to poetry, a novel teeming with epic visual tableaux yet confined to a prison and, finally, a novel which beautifully leavens the repeat cycles of torture with aesthetic flights of fancy.

Lee wastes no time setting the scene:  Sugiyama, a sadistic Japanese guard at Fukuoka Prison in the penultimate year of the Second World War, is murdered, and a book loving fellow guard, Watanabe, is given the unwelcome task of finding the guilty party in the cesspool.

It seems, after  routine enquiries at the small prison which houses mainly Korean dissidents and nationalists, that Watanabe has found the probable suspect, Choi Ci-su, a vociferous and violent leader of the Korean independence movement.

But, as still waters run deep, his intuition that there is more to the murder of Sugiyama than meets the eye is rewarded after an encounter with a stunningly gifted pianist.

She reveals that Sugiyama, known for beating insect-thin prisoners to a pulp for minor indiscretions, became a sensitive soul in the countdown to meeting his maker. Goddam it, the brute even loved poetry.

A quarter of the way through the novel, Lee abruptly waves his wand and we are drawn into a  menage-a-trois involving a bibliophile, a patriotic poet and a dead man who shares the surname of the doomed Japanese Minister of War.

There are several mesmeric asides: the planning of a peace concert in the Fukuoka hell hole, a one dimensional governor whose ambition and greed know no limits, a little girl on the other side of the wall whose kite becomes involved in aerial dog fights and – finally – there is poetry.

Lots of poetry, and much of it is quite extraordinary because the source is legendary Korean writer Yun Dong-ju, with translations of famous poems like The Sky, the Wind, the Stars and Poetry, which are easy on the Western eye.

I imagine that Yun Dong-ju was the Korean Neruda of his day: the verse is as vivid as a haiku, and introduced casually and cleverly by Lee as a trickle before it becomes a torrent.

We witness the unlikely transformation of Sugiyama, who moonlights as the prison censor, reading the poems for the first time: The Investigation strays into a tug of war between his road to Damocles conversion, and Dong-yu’s yearning for freedom. Poetry segues the antagonists, a la the postman and the poet in Il Postino.

The battleground is memory, where each steals a march. As Dong-yu explains, a poem bound by logic, becomes meaningless. The Investigation is a beguiling and endlessly rewarding novel, replete with charm, but I am mindful that a casual disclosure in a review might reveal too much.

Finishing it was a tantamount to bereavement.