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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1210

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Vieux Diop: Afrika Wassa
George Graham

(Triloka 8069 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/30/2000)

Contemporary music from African artists has been released in the US with regularity since the mid 1980s, with groups like Juluka appearing at the time on major record labels. In 1986, Paul Simon's Graceland album opened a lot of doors for African artists in the US. This was reinforced by Peter Gabriel's World Music influenced recordings and the record label he founded to bring such sounds to Western audiences. Since then, there has been a steady stream of worthwhile recordings in a remarkably wide range of styles, reflecting the tremendous diversity of the African continent, running from very Westernized music to more traditional-sounds, and sometimes weaving both together for example with samples of African folk combined with techno dance rhythms.

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Paris was a hotbed of the African pop hybrids, with many successful African artists relocating there working together and creating even more diverse blends through their associations. But lately, the US has also been the source of some interesting musical cross-pollenizations from such native African artists as Samite from Uganda, Tabu Ley Rochereau from Congo, and Richard Bona from Cameroon.

This week, we have a new delightful African fusion recording from a Senegalese born artist named Vieux Diop (pronounced "Via Joe"), who has been living in the US for the past eight years. The CD, his second US release, is called Afrika Wassa or "new Africa" and it's a skillful and tasteful hybrid of African influence, including some traditional instruments with the polish of Western pop.

The American influence comes easily to Diop. Though his mother was a great fan of traditional Senegalese folk music, often singing it to the young Vieux, his great heroes in growing up were American blues and R&B musicians, with John Lee Hooker being a special favorite, along with James Brown, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Diop's first instrument was a set of rock-type drums, and by the 1970s he was working with Youssou N'Dour, one of Senegal's most famous musicians, later known for his work with Peter Gabriel. Diop studied music formally in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, including learning about traditional West African instruments like the kora and djembe, as well as the West African storytelling traditions of the griot.

He brings these influences to bear on Afrika Wassa which was produced by Connecticut-based Brian Keane, a multi-instrumentalist whose own work has included World Music, New Age and film soundtracks. As on his last album, Vieux Diop tends toward the acoustic in instrumentation, blending the kora, a kind of harp guitar, along with other exotic instruments like the disinguni and the halam with a combination of African-style percussion and guitars and synthesizers. Diop is also an especially appealing vocalist. The diverse collection of musicians who appear include Celtic violinist Eileen Ivers, who played for the Riverdance production, and South African bassist Bakithi Kumalo, who was featured prominently on Paul Simon's Graceland album. Also playing a signficant role on the CD is a group of background singers who bring the kind of appealing African style, but do it with the refinement and perfection of pitch more typical of Western pop. And there's a bit of jazz-rock influence to be heard here and there, thanks in part to Keane.

Diop wrote or co-composed with Keane all the material on the CD, and it's sung partly in English with the rest in what sounds like French and Wolof, the main languages of Senegal. The CD booklet provides translations. Most of the songs have a sound that runs toward the upbeat and melodic, so Western ears will probably not have much difficulty with this CD. Even on the sadder songs, there is still a very appealing quality. And though the album is often quite danceable, it is not as strongly rhythmically driven as much African pop. This is a very strong album vocally, however, even including one acapella track.

The CD leads off with its title song Afrika Wassa, a captivating piece with its combination of African and Western influences. An interesting touch is the accordion. <<>>

With a more acoustic sound is the following track C On, which translates as "The Path." The piece combines African instruments with Ms. Eivers' fiddle. The lyrics translate as a reverent spiritual message of praise of God. <<>>

One of the CD's most attractive and danceable tracks is called Mouille, which translates as "sweat." Its lyrics are a lament for all the hard, sometimes seemingly pointless work of life, while the music is a joyful blend of South and West African styles with a hint of Latin American rumba in its rhythm. <<>>

The album includes two instrumentals. One is called Mom's Jam, which features Diop's kora prominently, while it seems almost to break into a reggae beat. It's another example of Afrika Wassa's beguiling cross-cultural melange. <<>>

The track closest to conventional Western pop in overall sound is Lepto Feyto which still manages to include some of the exotic instrumentation. <<>>

Diop's influence from American R&B is felt on Sing Lo-Lo, which is an unapologetic dance tune. <<>>

With the American blues a strong factor in Vieux Diop's early musical development, the song Pourquoi, or "Why," features an instrument called a halam to which Diop applies a distinctly bluesy touch. <<>>

Especially impressive is the all-acapella piece Manko or "unity." All the parts are sung by Diop by means of overdubbing. Its plaintive sound belies its lyrics which essentially celebrate the good things that can happen when people cooperate. <<>>

Producer Brian Keane's friend and musical colleague, the Turkish multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek appears on the track Ti Gui, or "Surely." The piece combines African with Near Eastern influences in an interesting attempt, but unfortunately compared the rest of the CD, this track plods along. <<>>

While never reaching the commercial pop charts, worthwhile music by African artists is not hard to find on the US music scene, and in general represents some of the most pleasing sounds on the burgeoning World Music scene. US based, Senegalese native Vieux Diop, on his new second album Afrika Wassa combines his African heritage with Western pop influence in music that leans more on the latter, but represents the best of both worlds -- the high musical performance standards of American pop with traditional instruments and the unpretentious openness that is characteristic of West African music. The results is likely to find an audience even among those who might not consider themselves very much into World Music. It's melodic, danceable and features especially fine vocal work that's hard not to be drawn into.

In terms of sound quality, the album is a mixed blessing. While most of the instrumentation and especially the vocals are well-recorded and in general nicely mixed, there are some occasional flaws like distortion here and there, and far too much audio compression in the mastering. Although the album does not sound excessively loud, the artifacts of compression process very evident, ruining the dynamics especially of some of the percussion. That takes away some of the enjoyment from this otherwise wonderful album.

While the commercial pop scene remains largely a vast wasteland, Africans like Vieux Diop and other World Music performers continue to breath new creative life into contemporary music though their cross-cultural fusions.

(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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