Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Baden Powell & Vinicius de Moraes: Le Monde Musical de Baden Powell / Os Afro-Sambas de Baden e Vinicius (1964/1966)

Two beautiful, rich records, reaped at the remarkable height of Baden Powell's creative harvest in the 1960s. I'm featuring them both, in part because it's my birthday and I want to offer something extra in light of this, but more importantly because I always think of them in tandem: Le Monde Musical de Baden Powell and Os Afro-Sambas represent, in a sense, the Apollonian and Dionysian sides of Powell's musical imagination, respectively. If Le Monde is a collection of highly stylized baroque explorations--over which the ghosts of Segovia and especially Bach hover--then Os Afro-Sambas sounds like a set of gleeful (and ingeniously constructed) chants belted out at some satanic sabbath. Together they comprise a profoundly compelling picture of the man who, when the smoke clears, may well emerge as the most talented--and technically proficient--guitarist to have thus far come out of Brazil. Which is saying a great deal, given that this is the land that produced the likes of Gilberto.

Of the two albums, Os Afro-Sambas is the more universally lauded; practically everyone seems to be in agreement about its magic, as well as its cultural importance. But for whatever reason, Le Monde is the one that initially grabbed me. The French title derives from the fact that Powell, originally from Rio, had emigrated to Paris in 1963 (aged 27), beckoned there by friend Vinicius de Moraes, the well known poet, diplomat and lyricist. In hindsight, this seems an odd choice: Rio was, in the late 50s and early 60s, an epicenter of musical activity, the city where bossa nova, the style invented by Jobim and perfected by Gilberto, was just then reaching its fullest expression. Perhaps Powell had grown bored of this music--its commercialization, and the fetishization of Brazilian culture abroad (esp. in America) that this had partly caused--and hence wanted out. Or maybe he was following in the footsteps of certain of his musical heroes, like Django Reinhardt, who had done the same in decades past. Whatever the motivation, he arrived in Paris and quietly but quickly began to make his presence felt: on television specials, in performances at private homes, Powell introduced his signature sound, an artful admixture of Brazilian and European styles, the latter stemming from his training as a classical guitarist. The finest tracks on Le Monde, which he cut in spring of 1964, beautifully enact this dual heritage. "Samba em Preludio," for example, begins classically, with a series of relentlessly repeated arpeggios, over which a tensely mysterious string part is delicately sustained; in the second half, though, it shifts gears to samba mode, with Powell plucking away methodically while a woman's disembodied voice pours out a lovely, fresh-peeled melody. Ghostly, gorgeous stuff.

It's funny, though: go to the All Music Guide to read up on Le Monde and you'll find that their review of it, written by Scott Yanow, is decidedly lukewarm. Giving it three stars, Yanow complains that "the music comes off as overly sweet, safe and sleepy," notes the presence of "unimaginative arrangements" [!], and finally passes it off as "pleasant background music" that's "nice but predictable." Sometimes one wonders if these charlatans actually listen to the albums they're reviewing from start to finish. (To AMG's credit, they had another guy re-review it some time afterward, and he wrote of it much more positively.) At any rate, even if there is some controversy about the record, there is little to none about its successor, Os Afro-Sambas, which is continually ranked among the dozen or so greatest Brazilian albums. Listening to it now for the fiftieth time, it strikes me, like so many other records thus far featured on this blog, as a marvelous feat of syncretism. Powell (like, say, Jorge Ben) had a special genius for integrating any number of vastly distinct musics into a unified style that was rich and strange, and that somehow cohered, somehow worked. We now know that prior to making Os Afro-Sambas he'd been studying various African musical traditions alongside Gregorian chant; and the record, accordingly, marries African (specifically, Yoruban) and Bahian beats and instrumentation--and call-and-response patterns--with medieval choral modes, the latter heard especially in the weird female vocal parts (sung by the Quartet em Cy, a group of four sisters from Bahia). Supplying the lead vocals is Moraes, who had contributed ideas to Le Monde but not sung on it, and here provides what are considered some of the most poetic, mellifluous lyrics in Brazilian music, delivered in a mellow, slightly husky voice that often evokes nostalgia and world-weariness ("Vem comigo a Salvador. . ."). Moraes was something of a musical soulmate for Powell; the two of them would often retire to Powell's house for days at a time, drinking whisky and composing songs. Though this write-up has focused primarily on Powell, it's well worth noting that Moraes was an equally fascinating figure in his own right: the self-professed "blackest white man in Brazil," he began his career as a poet, then left his country to pursue a degree in English Literature at Oxford; having earned this, he went on to work for the Brazilian consulate in Paris, and, finally returning home, wrote the words for more classic Brazilian songs (e.g. "Desafinado") than one can count. Hell, he even co-wrote a musical, Black Orpheus, that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1959.

I'm tempted to say more about individual tracks off Os Afro-Sambas, but this review has already become rather monstrous, so I'll leave you instead to lose yourself in the album's eerie bacchanalian delights. I'll only add these disclaimers: that the sound quality is regrettably mediocre, with occasional fluctuations in volume; and that you might initially find the Quartet em Cy a little shrill and off-putting, especially on the more up-tempo tracks--but give yourself time and you'll come to appreciate them. Note, finally, that the version of this record that I'm featuring here is the original masterpiece from 1966, not the so-so remake that Powell did in 1990. Enjoy!

Le Monde Musical de Baden Powell

1. Deve Ser Amor (3:54)
2. Choro Para Metronomo (3:00)
3. Adagio (3:07)
4. Berimbau (3:03)
5. Samba em Preludio (3:30)
6. Chanson d'Hiver (2:27)
7. Samba Triste (3:33)
8. Berceuse a Jussara (2:37)
9. Prelude (2:54)
10. Euridice (3:05)
11. Bachiana (4:10)
12. Garota de Ipanema (2:59)

Os Afro-Sambas

1. Canto de Ossanha (3:23)
2. Canto de Xangô (6:28)
3. Bocoché (2:34)
4. Canto de Iemanjá (4:47)
5. Tempo de amor (4:28)
6. Canto do Caboclo Pedra-Preta (3:39)
7. Tristeza e solidão - (4:35)
8. Lamento de Exu (2:16)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Mahmoud Ahmed: Erè Mèla Mèla (1975)

If your ears are accustomed to the likes of The Decemberists, this recording may--and likely will--fuck with you. Listening to its ten tracks for the first time might, in that case, be comparable to doing neat shots of Bacardi 151 after years of sipping Franzia. Dizziness, confusion, even panic will ensue; you'll recoil, as if from an electric shock; and, finally, you'll grow used to it, love it, perhaps become hooked on it. Indeed, you'll marvel that you ever made do with boxed zinfandel, now that you've gained access to daddy's liquor cabinet.

There is something innately shocking about Erè Mèla Mèla (1975), a mind-expanding strangeness that alone makes it worthwhile listening for anyone weaned on Anglo-American pop. The first few bars of the excellent "Abay Mado - Embwa Belew," for example, sound familiar e
nough: a saxophone soli played atop a raucous foundation of percussion, resembling any number of soul-jazz records from the 1970s. But then Ahmed opens his mouth and begins to sing. As for what comes out, I have no idea how to classify it because I've never heard anything quite like it. It's a quivering, impassioned vocal that swirls up and down the scale with seeming ease, wonderfully melodic, as you'll see once you get the hang of it, and clearly Arab-inflected. The record's "trick," to the extent that it has one, lies in the way it brilliantly grafts these ecstatic Middle Eastern-sounding vocals atop a scaffolding of jazz rhythms. The thrilling result is a kind of trance music that demands your full attention but will, in return, elevate you into the sort of sublimely hypnotized state that one senses Ahmed was in when he produced it. Simply stated, songs like "Atawurulegn," "Era Mele Mele - Meche Neu," and the terrifying first two pieces (really one extended song) represent some of the most moving, danceable, and frequently ferocious music I've lately heard. They have the heft of ancient chants.

Ethiopia, it seems, witnessed a surge of musical creativity during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when a range of fiercely original voices entered the studio under contracts with national record companies (of which Philips-Ethiopia appears to have been the best known) that granted them a great deal of artistic freedom. Of these voices, Mulatu Astatke, who played with Duke Ellington, made the biggest splash, and was perhaps the most prolific. But Mahmoud Ahmed remains the most affecting of the ones I've thus far heard, and Erè Mèla Mèla (1975) seems to be the best introduction to his challenging output.

Part I
Part II

Erè Mèla Mèla

1. Sigedegnash Negn/Samiraye (5:33)
2. Indenesh Gedaow (3:45)
3. Bemin Sebeb Litlash (4:32)
4. Abay Mado/Imbwa Belew (6:57)
5. Atawurulign Lela (3:57)
6. Ohoho Gedama (4:44)
7. Ere Mela Mela/Meche Neu (8:01)
8. Fetsum Dink Lij Desh (4:31)
9. Belomy Benna (3:55)
10. Asheweyna (4:32)