Album Review #26: Miriam Makeba by Miriam Makeba (1960)

miriam-makeba

The world of African music has been tragically overlooked by the western world. There’s an entire continent rich with musical styles and sounds that many are only vaguely aware of, and that’s just a shame. For those unfamiliar, however, I would highly reccomend this seminal debut from South African singer Miriam Makeba as a starting point. This record was what opened many previously closed eyes to the world of African music, and what a great record it is. Here, she acts as almost an instructor to the western world, providing a sort of gateway to the music of her continent that much of her audience was barely even aware of beforehand. If you wish to expand your musical horizons, this is an excellent album to start with.

Firstly, the album’s background. At the time of the recording, she was in exile. Her South African citizenship and right-of-entry had been revoked in response to her protesting against apartheid, and her longing to return home is palpable on this recording. The songs may sound almost ridiculously happy, but the traditional instrumentation, melodies and African folk tunes and lyrics permeate with an ironic frustration and anger with the current state of her homeland. On this album, I feel like a point is made to showcase her culture, and not the colonialism-leftover segregated culture that ruled at the time. A perfect example of this is “Qongqothwane (a.k.a. ‘The Click Song’),” a traditional wedding song of her tribe, the Xhosa. She seems legitimately joyous singing it, a feeling made even more bitter by her exile. She wouldn’t be able to return home until the end of apartheid in 1990.

miriam-makeba-thegatvolbloggerdotwordpressdotcom

Miriam Makeba. Image source: thegatvolblogger.wordpress.com

Context aside, the album is thoroughly enjoyable in its own right. Almost every song is just an absolute joy to hear, with special mention going to “Mbube,” “The Naughty Little Flea,” and “One More Dance.” The cheer is so strong here, if you don’t at least crack a smile, then you are offically dead inside. The instrumentation is simply perfect, with the acoustic guitar, tribal drums, and especially the Belafonte Folk Singers, who provide an album-making chorus underneath most tracks that simply has to be heard.  Charles Colman, who sings (or at least tries to) a duet with Makeba in “One More Dance” is really just the most potent instant-happiness machine I think I’ve ever heard: throughout the entire track as he attempts to deliver his lines, he is consumed by uncontrollable laughter that’s so contagious that you will at least chuckle with him, despite not even knowing what’s so funny. Overall, if you forget about the context the record was made under, this album is one of the strongest feel-good serums you’ll ever find.

Miriam Makeba’s self-titled debut is a landmark in introducing world music to, well, the world. Her ceaseless endeavours to give the music of Africa the exposure it so well deserves were admirable,  not to mention her devotion to civil rights. I give this record my highest recommendation. If you’re even slightly interested, do yourself a favor and listen to it. If you aren’t interested, still listen to it. This album is a joy, plain and simple, and whether you are a complete outsider or avid listener, you can enjoy it just the same.

Favorite Tracks: “Mbube,” “Qongqothwane (a.k.a. ‘The Click Song’),” “Olilili,” “One More Dance,” “The Retreat Song,” “The Naughty Little Flea”

Next Up: A Date With the Everly Brothers by The Everly Brothers (1960)

Album Review #15: Dance Mania by Tito Puente and His Orchestra (1958)

dance-mania-tito-puente-and-his-orchestra

I enjoyed this album greatly. As the third album of Latin music in the last five albums I’ve reviewed, you’d think the genre would start getting tired by now. But, as I’ve learned, Latin music is a vast umbrella for countless incredible genres of music, of which there are simply too many to list. It’s a massive, fascinating world of music, and albums like Dance Mania by Tito Puente and His Orchestra are the cream of that world’s crop.

A trend I’ve noticed: in both Palo Congo and Kenya, my favorite part was the percussion. That holds true with this one. The drums are just so excited and interesting that they carry the music on their rhythm alone. This is music you need to move your feet to. Every song is pulsating with liveliness, and does every damned thing in its power to put a smile on your face. The record’s opener, “El Cayuco,” and the instrumental “3-D Mambo” are the album’s best two tracks, in my opinion. Every element of the jazz orchestra collaborates perfectly, creating an almost ridiculously cheerful musical blend that never loses its appeal even after multiple repeat listens.

Dance Mania by Tito Puente and His Orchestra is a truly enjoyable album. Usually I find that albums lose their luster after about 4-5 listens, but this one just never loses its sheen. It’s an excellent listen, filled with catchy rhythms and cheery melodies that almost anyone would find irresistible. Listen to this one: you might just like it.

Favorite Tracks: “El Cayuco,” “3-D Mambo,” “Cuando te Vea (Guáguanco)”

Next Up: Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday (1958)

Album Review #13: Kenya by Machito (1957)

kenya-machito

Kenya by Machito is one of my favorite records of the list so far. Explosive and exciting all of the way through, it really is one of those albums that I struggle to find anything I dislike about it. It remains fully enjoyable and engaging even after multiple repeat listens, and of the thirteen albums I’ve reviewed so far, this one is definitely my favorite.

There honestly isn’t a single track on this album that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, but even then a few were definite highlights. “Wild Jungle” is probably my favorite out of its twelve tracks. It kicks the album off in a hyper-energetic frenzy that’s almost impossible to sit still to. My second favorite track has to be “Conversation,” with a ridiculously catchy and dance-able melody that’s so good it manages to carry the whole song. The entire album retains the excellence of these two tracks, though, so picking highlights is almost pointless.

So, if you’ve never heard this album before, you absolutely should. While In the Wee Small Hours still tops my rankings, this one’s a definite #2. This one gets my biggest recommendation.

Favorite Tracks: “Wild Jungle,” “Conversation”

Least Favorite Track: Uhh… I got nothing.

Next Up: Here’s Little Richard by Little Richard (1957)

Album Review #11: Palo Congo by Sabu (1957)

palo-congo-sabu

One of the things that I love about list projects like this one is that they really expand your horizons and make you listen to music that you normally wouldn’t. Palo Congo by Sabu is one such album. I’ll admit, I was pretty much completely unfamiliar with the genre of Latin music, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into this album. It sure was a pleasant surprise, though. This album is energetic, catchy, and exciting, with borderline perfect percussion throughout. With five different musicians credited for the album’s conga drums, it’s definitely safe to say that the drums are the centerpiece of the entire record. They’re so good at it that they managed to make an entirely instrumental song featuring nothing but drums an engaging and exhilarating experience. The guitars are great too, and while they only show up on half of the album’s tracks, they still manage to make the most out of the play time they have with their memorable, if repetitive melodies.

The album starts off strong with “El Cumbanchero,” with catchy vocals and guitar, before dropping the guitar for a ridiculously exuberant call-and-response chant in “Billumba-Palo Congo.” In my opinion, one of this album’s strongest points is its ability to carry a song on as little as vocals, conga drums and bongos. The performers are just so talented that they simply require no more. “Simba” is a definite highlight, with a great vocal performance and the usual incredible drum section. “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso” is a mesmerizing improvised jam with guitar and drums that doesn’t overstay its welcome for one second, while “Aggo Elegua” is another chanting song that, while not as good as “Billumba-Palo Congo,” is still a very enjoyable listen. I think the sole track that left me underwhelmed was “Tribilin Cantore,” the album’s closing song. It just doesn’t maintain the energy that the rest of the album has in surplus, and simply feels somewhat lethargic.

Sabu’s Palo Congo is, simply put, a must-listen. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in the genre, give it a chance; I was a complete outsider to Latin music myself, and I absolutely loved it. So give it a listen! You might just enjoy it.

Favorite Tracks: “Billumba-Palo Congo,” “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso,” “Simba”

Least Favorite Track: “Tribilin Cantore”

Next Up: Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis (1957)