KASAI ALLSTARSIn the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by Magic(Crammed Discs)
The third entry in Crammed Discs’ Congotronics series comes from this 25-strong collective based in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The series kicked off to great acclaim with an album by Konono No. 1, and the Kasai Allstars make use of the same sort of distorted, amplified likembes (a kind of thumb piano) that helped make that group a hipster favorite. But there’s a whole lot more happening on In the 7th Moon.
The Allstars draw their members from five different bands representing as many ethnicities, and include several dancers who double as singers—six are listed in the liner notes, and from what I’ve read, they’re hugely important to the group’s live performances. One thing they have in common is that they all came to Kinshasa from the south central province of Kasai, a diamond-rich area with some of the nation’s poorest infrastructure. According to the liner notes, Christian missionaries have so effectively cleansed the region of its native cultures that its traditional folklore now survives principally in more tolerant and cosmopolitan urban areas.
Though they draw on those native cultures, the Allstars aren’t exactly a traditional group. Their diverse ethnic makeup—not to mention the mix of other influences in their adopted city—contributes to their thrilling hybridized sound. The clean, liquid guitar style of soukous, for instance, evolved from likembe patterns but almost never coexists with them in the same ensemble; here they overlap in frothy, hypnotizing tunes that barely dip into soukous’s Cuban rhythms. In this context, guitar lines that might sound bubbly elsewhere come across as more splintery and minimalist.
The Kasai Allstars don’t go for the in-the-red amplification Konono No. 1 favors for its likembes, but the instruments nevertheless form the music’s core, their luminously resonant crosscutting pulses buoying all the other action. The percussion complement is more varied than Konono’s, including wooden xylophones that split the difference between marimba and balafon; a massive wooden trapezoidal drum called a lokombe, which resembles a miniature, out-of-proportion parlor door, like something from Alice in Wonderland; and a kind of hand drum, or tam-tam, that can create a rubbery, metallic twang, a bit like a supercharged jaw harp, via an additional vibrating membrane—another source of the rattling buzz the Congolese dig so much.
Until the Congotronics series, the fringe segment of the Congolese music scene to which the Kasai Allstars belong had barely been documented, at least on records Americans could hear—I’m only aware of an out-of-print early-80s anthology of Kinshasa likembe music on the French label Ocora. This makes it hard to put the group in context: Do other bands like this exist? Are the Allstars as idiosyncratic as they sound?
I can’t answer either of those questions, but I can say that the nine extended pieces on In the 7th Moon are far more elaborate than anything I’ve heard so far in this vein. They’re dense but loose, with a loping, bounding feel, and they accomplish radical shifts in tone and color almost by stealth—the musicians don’t change all at once but rather seem to play follow-the-leader. The busy but uncluttered arrangements—by singer and guitarist Mputu Ebondo “Mi Amor”—somehow keep the guitars and likembes from stepping on each other, despite their similar ranges, and you don’t need to speak any African languages to understand that the effusive lead singing and group-response vocals convey a clear narrative arc. The Kasai Allstars are allegedly planning an American tour with a stripped-down lineup of 14; if they come to Chicago I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
MATHIAS EICKThe Door(ECM)
For much of the past decade trumpeter Mathias Eick has been ubiquitous on Norway’s creative-music scene—as a member of Jaga Jazzist he helped develop its jazzy post-rock sound, and he’s worked as a sideman in many contexts, making some of his most acclaimed contributions to albums by ECM artists like guitarist Jacob Young and keyboardist Iro Haarla. ECM, Europe’s dominant jazz imprint, has developed a house aesthetic that privileges frosty calm over impulsive fire, and The Door, the 29-year-old Eick’s debut as a leader, is even more precise, introspective, and carefully controlled than the relatively conventional postbop of his ECM collaborations.
Throughout The Door the emphasis is on melody. Eick’s patient, richly detailed solos—he seems to find a new wrinkle with every chorus—are lyrical and memorable, not just abstract explorations of the insides of chords. He’s clearly indebted to better-established Norwegian players like Nils Petter Molvaer and Arve Henriksen for his breathy, malleable tone, and his exquisite phrasing sometimes makes the horn sound uncannily like a human voice—an approach that, despite its delicacy, requires as much strength and power as upper-register shrieking. Eick’s superb band, featuring pianist Jon Balke, electric bassist Audun Erlien, and drummer Audun Kleive, glides, undulates, and even rumbles beneath his extended lines, creating gentle, hazy harmonies that are sometimes haunting, sometimes soothing. The tunes are composed, but they don’t follow the conventional head-solo-head structure, which allows the improvisations to emerge from this background organically.
Still, the music’s restraint doesn’t necessarily mean it’s relaxed. The band often creates a nicely wrought tension: the tightly coiled “Stavanger” throbs with an implied funk backbeat, and “Cologne Blues,” which is thickened by fluid pedal steel from Stian Carstensen of Farmers Market, spends a fair chunk of its seven-plus minutes building to a gorgeous climax where Eick and Carstensen collide in an exhilarating simultaneous solo. Eick has demonstrated, in Jaga Jazzist and elsewhere, that he can throttle up to create excitement, but The Door proves that he doesn’t need to.
ERNEST V. STONEMANThe Unsung Father of Country Music: 1925-1934(Five-String Productions)
This lavish two-CD set, packaged with a 44-page book full of rare photos, is intended to secure a more illustrious position in the historical record for pioneering country singer Ernest V. Stoneman, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this spring—40 years after his death and almost 85 years after he made his first records. Stoneman helped Victor Records A and R man Ralph Peer organize the legendary Bristol sessions in 1927—two weeks or so of auditioning and recording in a Tennessee hat warehouse that’s often called the big bang of country music—but his contributions to the genre have long been eclipsed by those of contemporaries like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. All three acts cut sides at Bristol; ironically Stoneman was already a minor star at the time, while the others were relatively obscure if not totally unknown.
Stoneman’s career began in 1925, after he convinced himself that he could do better than Henry Whitter—his coworker at a Virginia textile mill who’d started making country records a year or so before. Stoneman was a savvy and adaptable artist: his voice and his talents at guitar, Autoharp, and harmonica were adequate but hardly transcendent, but he understood the burgeoning market for hillbilly music better and earlier than almost anyone else. By the late 20s he’d come on as Peer’s assistant, discovering talent and choosing songs for other musicians to record.
The 46 tracks collected here, all by Stoneman and his friends and family, speak to his astonishing range and curiosity. He recorded in many configurations—solo, instrumental duos, medium-size groups—and tackled all kinds of idioms, from white gospel to comedic skits to fiddle music to parlor tunes to disaster songs. (His 1925 recording of “The Titanic,” one of his first, was also his most successful.) He was a walking repository of rural folk and religious music, and perhaps also an object lesson in the merits of developing some sort of focus or specialty in the music business: though he could sound credible playing almost anything, he never developed real brilliance in any one style. If he had, this compilation probably wouldn’t need the word “unsung” in its title.
Historical significance aside, this music is great fun, and it’s particularly satisfying to pick out very early instances of tropes and melodies that have continued turning up in folk and country music for 80 years. When I heard Stoneman’s 1927 version of “The Wreck of the Old 97,” a few of the lyrics triggered my childhood memories of listening to the hokey Kingston Trio hit “M.T.A.” (mostly the bits about never returning). Inspired by a train crash in 1903 and first recorded by Stoneman’s coworker Whitter, “The Wreck of the Old 97” helped launch the disaster-song phenomenon and has gone through many permutations since, along the way giving Rhett Miller’s band its name. For those who don’t care to entertain themselves solely with the connections these songs trigger in their own brains, though, the booklet includes an excellent assessment of Stoneman’s life and career by old-timey-music scholar Henry “Hank” Sapoznik, who along with longtime colleague Christopher C. King also wrote punchy annotations for each track.v
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