Wired for Sound: Contemporary Music from Mozambique

Wired for Sound: Mocambique
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Wired for Sound is a seventeen-track sampler of what's going on in the contemporary music world of Mozambique. For those who need to get maps out, Mozambique is on Africa's southeast coast–the island of Madagascar lies in the Indian Ocean to its east. Although Bantu peoples and languages are indigenous to Mozambique, it was a colony of Portugal until 1975 and Portuguese remains its official language. As you will hear, Western influences are embedded in some of the music. In its externals, Wired for Sound feels similar to a lot of Afropop––lots of bright guitar cascades, solid framing percussion, and lead voices supplemented by texturing harmonies.  As the title suggests, most of what you hear is plugged in. Mozambican lead vocals tend to be smoother and sunnier than what we associate with West African music. In fact, tracks such as Million Issac Junior's "Thikukola" or Academico and Pimento's "Marry Very Well" are faintly reminiscent of calypso songs. There is also a blues tradition; change the language and "Takunha Dilani" would be at home in a club in Chicago's Southside. Still another style, heard in "Atija" by Palopes and "Ihepo Mama" by Liquissone Juliasse Nhamataira, uses repeated words to induce a meditative quality. Another departure is that Mozambican music contains more horns than a lot of other African music, South Africa being the exception. Much of the brass melds into the mix, but one will certainly hear bright sax in the Sozhinho Ernesto K. Banda song "Ku Pupuluma," and the ethereal jazzy flair of Nhamataira on "Chuva" is evocative of midwinter projects from Paul Winter.

As on all samplers, some tracks stand out more than others and a few seem out of place. I personally enjoyed a traditional song from Josefina Zacharias, but could have done without the final two tracks altogether–a rap in an African language I don't speak by MDK and Flay C has no emotional impact on me, and Nelito and Armando's attempt at some Mozambican hip hop sounds like a sloppy mess. Rap and hip-hop are now universal (which means they may be on the wane as pop music) and they never have been genres I found interesting, but these two tracks violate the standard I use to gauge world music: if you're performing something that's vibrant and new, I'm intrigued; if you're recycling pop clichés, I'm unimpressed. Luckily there are 15 really solid tracks to make up for the two misfires.  Rob Weir


Americanah a Good Read, though Beware of the Hype

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf  ISBN: 978-0307462126, 496 pp.
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Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie certainly isn’t afraid to take on the big issues: race, immigration, gender, sex…. Hers is a book about liminality and identity formation. Its central characters are Ifemelu and Obinze, who grow up and fall in love during Nigeria’s military dictatorship. It’s a land where corruption is rampant, women sleep with married generals to get ahead, but tensions are so tight that one misplaced word can take you from the top of the hill to obscurity (or worse) in the wink of an eye. Anyone with intelligence, connections, and resources seeks to get out.

Ifemelu has all three and bolts to study in the United States. Obinze plans to follow, but 9/11 puts the kibosh to his plan to join Ifemelu in America. Instead he illegally enters England, struggles, and is eventually arrested and deported. Luckily for him, Nigeria’s government has changed and he is able to rise in the world as a real estate developer via some don’t-ask-questions contacts. He acquires wealth and fine things: flashy cars, a luxurious home, a glamorous wife, a child.

But this novel is really about Ife. On one hand, she undergoes the classic immigrant story in that she’s caught between two worlds. The book’s title says it all; she is an “Americanah,” neither Nigerian nor completely American. As such, her anguish comes from trying to figure out which side of her is winning at various stages of her young adulthood. In addition, life in America and her experiences with various lovers also expose her to new ideas and new dilemmas. America teaches her about feminism, though some of the black men she meets fail to practice it. And, of course, she begins to refract her experience through the lens of race. Through her experiences (and Obinze’s), we see race in three contexts: the United States, Britain, and Nigeria (where lighter-hued Africans are seen as more attractive than darker-skinned ones).

Many of Ife’s musings are expressed in a blog she keeps that goes viral: “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” She writes frankly about problems ranging from overt racism to the exoticism she suspects motivates a white lover. And, as becomes increasingly clear, she just doesn’t get American men—no matter what their color. There’s a wonderful scene in a Trenton braiding shop in which we witness Ife coming to grips with an existential crisis, the gist of which is whether it’s even possible to go “home.” (Maybe she’s already there.)

So far, so good. The book is certainly provocative. It also won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and has been nominated for many other prizes. I take issues with the acclaim.  I enjoyed Americanah  in the end, but I must caution that it’s a slow-to-develop book and one I nearly stopped reading on several occasions. There is an emerging standard in literature to honor as “important” any book that deals with significant social issues.  I reject that standard in favor of one that also includes skillful and compelling writing. Adichie passes that standard, but not with distinction. The cumbersome title of Ife’s blog is indicative of some of the book’s shortcomings. There are deeply moving passages, but also leaden prose. Many of the blog entries, for example, seem—and there’s no polite way to put this—trite. Maybe Adichie (age 37) captures the vacuous style of blogs written by 30-somethings, or maybe she’s cheapening the very ideas upon which she wishes us to muse. You decide, but I often found myself annoyed by the tone (not the content). I can say, without reservation, that Adichie telegraphs her plot from miles away. She spins the frisson between Ife and Obinze in such a way that it’s like watching someone paint herself into a corner: there is but one conceivable outcome.

For a book about identity, it suffers from a crisis of identity. Is it about the immigrant experience? Is it about racial and gender identity? About love unrequited and requited? It seems to be about all of these things, but for me the love story simply gets in the way. I liked this book, but the awards strike me as the triumph of good intentions over sterling prose. It’s worth a read, but ignore the buzz.--  Rob Weir


"Lost" on the River Indeed

Lost on the River
Harvest Records Deluxe Edition
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It sounded like a match made in heaven–a trove of unfinished Bob Dylan songs from the fecund writing period between his motorcycle accident in 1966 and his return to the stage in 1967. Dylan was so on fire during this time that he must've gone through Bic pens and tablets like flames raging through a barn of dry hay. So why not hand off the song fragments to producer T Bone Burnett and let others write music for them? Best of all, let others sing 'em! Dylan's poetic credentials are not in dispute–as a wordsmith he ranks with the man whose ID he appropriated when he busted out of Minnesota: Dylan Thomas. As a singer though, the adjective "unique" is about the nicest thing one can say of his voice. Most people sing better than Dylan; hell, even I sing better and that's no endorsement of my vocal prowess.

As the old cliché goes, be careful what you wish for, you might get it.  Lost on the River is surely one of the year's most disappointing albums-a muddy, meandering journey to nowhere in particular. We learn several things right away. First, not every word Dylan spun was lyrical gold. (Check out the words for "Duncan and Jimmy" and keep an airsickness bag handy.) Second, there is an enormous difference between singing Bob Dylan songs and getting Dylan. The artists who collectively call themselves The New Basement Tapes flesh out the Dylan fragments within a range that extends from semi-successful to utter flops. By far, the best efforts come from Lewis Mumford and Elvis Costello–Mumford, because he has the wisdom to keep arrangements simple so that one can actually hear Dylan's lyrics, and Costello because he's old enough to understand the Boho sensibilities that inspired Dylan. Mumford is especially sharp on "Kansas City" and "The Whistle is Blowing," which come closest to sounding like the way Dylan might have fashioned the tunes. Costello shines on "Married to My Hack," whose Beat-poet cadences he nails. Jim James (My Morning Jacket) also has a few nice turns, though he has a tendency to overdue the production values by half. Aside from his opening track, "Down on the Bottom," most of his other mixes blur the lyrics in and render them irrelevant as Dylan compositions.

On the disappointing side are selections from Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I'm a huge fan of Giddens, but a big voice like hers is a drawback on this project. Her take on "Hidee Hidee Ho # 16" comes off like a histrionic outtake from a Jazz Age stage show. And I've no idea what Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) is doing on this record. There's no nice way to say this—he's so bad that he makes "Card Shark" sound like it should be on a children's music CD. G-rated Dylan? Please!!! Even Mumford and Costello drop the ball on occasion. Mumford's "When I Get My Hands on You" is a brilliant interpretation--of Paul Simon, not Dylan; Costello's take on the title track has less shape than a mu-mu.

Maybe the next time someone finds a Dylan cache they ought to ask the man himself what he had in mind. The fact that several of the tracks on Lost on the River are reworked previous versions might indicate Dylan just forgot to take out the trash. 
Rob Weir