Blogs The Green Room Paul Harding

Paul Harding hosts "Foreign Currency" on KFAI Sunday mornings at 10. He has been passionately exploring, collecting, and sharing music from around the world for over 20 years.

Paul Harding on Mbongwana Star with ZULUZULUU

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Paul Harding from Foreign Currency on KFAI shares his perspective […]

Mbongwana_Star_2016-17_02_PP

Mbongwana Star. Photo: Courtesy the artists

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Paul Harding from Foreign Currency on KFAI shares his perspective on Mbongwana Star with ZULUZULUU. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Mbongwana Star brought the remarkable cacophony of Kinshasa to the Cedar Cultural Center Friday night.

Opening up was the local emerging ZULUZULUU, which struck me as an insightful pairing. Their layers of frequently gritty analog-sounding synths offered a spaced out, soulful counterpoint to the guitar-driven Congolese headliners. A sound equal parts pioneering and archetypal of the Minneapolis black sound, they foreshadowed the sonic thickness, complexity, and sense of locale that Mbongwana Star would also deliver. Both groups used multiple independent vocal parts to create depth and intricacy, reaching occasional feverish heights.

My sense of the elusive saga of Mbongwana Star took a new turn before they took the stage, when the Cedar’s Director of Operations told me their guitarist had spent the two previous nights in the hospital recovering from malaria. It was still unclear whether he’d be able to perform at this first show on their U.S. tour. Almost 6 years ago, visa problems prevented Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza and their band at the time, Staff Benda Bilili, from playing here. They founded that group homeless and paraplegic from childhood polio, launching into meteoric international recognition, and eventually disbanded.

Only when they took to the stage was it clear that their guitarist was able to perform, and also that Mitchell Sigurdson of Black Market Brass—called the night before and having rehearsed with them all day—would play with the band too. He added even more to their already surprisingly full sound given the simple instrumentation. Coco and Theo sang and danced excitedly in their wheelchairs alongside yet another singer, the two guitars, bass, and drums. Their energy swelled into a clamorous rhythmic force.

Mbongwana Star takes the Kinshasa sound further into the future. From Congolese rumba, through soukous, and the rumba funk sound of Staff Benda Bilili, they carry forward elements into a visionary arena. With the bubbling trance-y chaos of Konono No.1 and the groove of a Koffi Olomide tune (after a six minute prelude) with just as many individual voices fighting for your attention, they drove home their unique sound to an exuberant crowd.

Mbongwana Star and ZULUZULUU performed on Friday, March 3, 2017 at The Cedar.

Paul Harding Reviews Noura Mint Seymali

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Paul Harding, the host of Foreign Currency on KFAI, shares his perspective on Noura […]

Photo: courtesy the artist

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Paul Harding, the host of Foreign Currency on KFAI, shares his perspective on Noura Mint Seymali. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

One of Mauritania’s best known musical ambassadors, Noura Mint Seymali, performed Friday night at the Cedar Cultural Center, in a concert co-presented by the Walker.

She played her colorful ardine, a traditional harp of sorts with the base of a calabash, somewhat like a kora. It was distorted, giving it a fuzzy sound like an electric guitar, but with a very different tone and playing style. I was bummed that she only played the ardine for the first song or two, after which she set it aside and turned her focus to singing, but her voice and engagement with the audience were far from disappointing.

She was backed by electric bass, drum kit, and her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, on electric guitar. His guitar playing style is based on the tidinit, a traditional lute, so despite the very western instrumentation, their overall sound is clearly immersed in the roots of Mauritanian music. Every few songs he would switch guitars and tune to one of the five Moorish modes.

Both Noura and Jeiche come from griot families, and grew up steeped in the music of their culture. Her father was a prominent professor of music who documented and modernized the traditional music of Mauritania’s Moors.

The only English she spoke during the performance was an occasional call to, “Dance with me. Aiwa!” She sings in the Hassani variety of Arabic – which has a noticeably distinct sound, even to my fairly uneducated ears. The Arab influence on the Moorish sound was apparent most in her frequently melismatic vocals that she would contrast with percussive syllables.

Anyone in the Cedar Friday night could tell you that Noura has an unusually strong voice, but I found it intriguing that the guy watching the meters – the Cedar’s veteran sound technician Eric Hohn – commented that hers was one of the most powerful voices he’s ever mixed.

I was impressed how well the concert was attended – it wasn’t a packed house, but a good sized, diverse crowd that appeared to truly enjoy the evening. Whether you were among us or not, I recommend her album, Tzenni, from last year as a great way to delve into the Mauritanian soundscape.

Fatou: A Voice of Mali’s New Generation

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Paul Harding shares his perspective on Friday night’s concert by Fatoumata […]

Photo by Youri Lenquette

Photo by Youri Lenquette

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Paul Harding shares his perspective on Friday night’s concert by Fatoumata Diawara. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Bathed in warm lights on the Cedar Cultural Center‘s stage, strumming a red angular electric guitar suitable for an Eighties hair band, the gorgeous Fatoumata Diawara gently builds a groundwork for the evening’s performance. Backed by bass, drum kit, and lead guitar, she is undoubtedly the focus, singing in an occasionally raspy voice. She wears red and yellow head scarfs, dark lipstick, a wide beaded necklace, yellow shoulder-baring top, and a fuzzy short skirt. Her band wears matching red shirts and black vests.

A perfect invitation into African music for uninitiated Western ears, she offers more familiar elements of singer-songwriter pop than potentially challenging traditional sounds, but still her melodies and language are at least rooted in the traditions of Mali — particularly in the moments when her voice conveys a flash of the wassoulou singing of her mentor Oumou Sangaré, who played years ago at the Walker.

Her commentary, however, didn’t fail to offer challenges, giving context to her songs. Addressing issues such as arranged marriage, the topic of her hit “Bissa,” she explained that she had unconventionally chosen her husband based on love.

She spoke of the “serious problem” Mali has had in the last two years, where fundamentalist Muslims “want us to sing only god” and have banned all other music. Suggesting that traditional music and the rich heritage of Mali’s instruments are about joy in the moment of this life on earth versus the promise that religions offer, she declared living life through the heritage of Africa’s music “the first religion.”

Love for tradition and a desire for progress dance together at every moment of Diawara’s performance. She spoke of the ability of traditional instruments of Mali to speak a language, yet ironically, only briefly did one appear on the stage, seemingly for show more than to speak or sound.

Pan-Africanism held the focus while the band played a bubbling groove. Fatou playfully showed variations of dance common in different regions of Africa sharing this rhythm — from the shoulder movement in Ethiopia’s style to rapid pelvic Congolese moves — representing a uniting potential across Africa.

The forward-looking star pleaded for peace in her land and everywhere, expressing love for all humanity, united with red blood regardless of skin color.

Fully embracing the West, Fatou reveres her heritage, yet shows an affinity with modern chic. Exposing tattoos on her shoulder blades and a pierced lower lip, and mixing traditional dress accessories with fun fashion, she expresses herself visually as much as the through produced tone and composition of her songs.

Fitting well alongside other Malian artists like SMOD or Amadou and Mariam, Fatou is continuing the long interplay of African music with Western pop. As she suggested, this is music representing the new generation of Mali — an aesthetic of popular song mixed with a respect for tradition and a vision of peace.

If you missed the show, or want to hear it again, the entire performance is available for streaming on KFAI here, where it aired Saturday night.

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