I usually don’t try to include too many songs in languages I’m not at least somewhat familiar with. Because, obviously, I don’t know what they’re about to talk about them. The lack of context and understanding isn’t conducive to critical discussion, but it should not be a barrier to enjoyment. That’s why I’m putting up more Rail Band songs. Because I’ve really been enjoying this record, and more people need to get on board. Even people with a wide range of tastes within their own culture may feel alienated by music in a strange language from a culture they know nothing about, but music by artists like Salif Keita should be beyond language barriers. If anything, this music makes plain how much in common is shared by cultures all over the world. Keita grew up listening to postwar Latin Jazz, which was wildly popular in parts of Africa, while learning to play traditional music of Mali. The combination of Malian music and jazz is just the same music coming full circle after slowly evolving as it moved around the globe over the course of centuries.
I have no idea how I happened to stumble upon this particular album by Rail Band ( aka Super Rail Band of the Buffet Hotel de la Gare, Bamako if you’re nasty) but I certainly know who Salif Keita is, and his years with Rail Band are just part of his legacy bringing Malian musicianship to the rest of the world. The group has been active, in a variety of lineups, since 1970, and are known for blending Malian griot and other traditional musical styles with jazz and Latin influences. What we think of as “world music” really is, literally, world music; as more and more people resettle and form diasporic communities so their cultures influence and take from the host cultures. A musical collective like the Rail Band brings together the cultures of dozens of people over the years, with different interests and backgrounds, forming a new tradition.
I just realized that I haven’t listened to Angelique Kidjo in a very long time. Like, almost a year. And I wonder why. She has been one of my favorites ever since I first grabbed one of her promo discs at my local record store, back in analog times. I grabbed it because I like her look on the cover. After I listened to it, I went on a mission to purchase as many of her albums as I could find. I actually had all of her albums on CD at one point, back when that was a pretty impressive achievement. So that’s pretty much part of the soundtrack of my early 20’s right there. I can’t say how much her tunes and positive vibes have made me happy. I need to relisten to every one of those records.
Sarah Vaughan strikes a mood. Vaughan had a voice like silk and satin, and she made everything she touched sound refined. So, she could almost be singing about herself, for she was an icon of sophistication in her time. The refinement must always be tinged with melancholy, implying that it has been gained at great cost, for otherwise it wouldn’t be anything more than a pose.
I’m settling down to listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing the Gershwin songbook for the next three hours. Fitzgerald did those whole songbook projects, recording an entire library of great American standards. She did the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin and others. That’s years of work and days of music. Apparently Ella had a heckuva of a work ethic. It’s hard to imagine being that much of a completist that you have to put your touch on what amounts to someone’s entire life’s work, and then doing it again, and again. As a result, of course, Ella Fitzgerald is the definitive interpreter of practically any hit song from the first 50 years of the 20th century. Name any famous standard, and it’s Ella’s.
Kimbra is underrated. She deserves to be well-known as an innovative vocalist. She uses technology and her own vocal range to create a sensual wall-of-sound effect. She’s an example of the way the full range of digital technology can be used to make a very rich sound filled with layers and centered with heartfelt songwriting. Kimbra may be techie but she’s also, deep down in her bones, an earnest girl who like to write about love a lot. She could easily give many of her songs an acoustic makeover and play them in coffeeshops. That just shows that it’s a damn shame that so many writers of intimate songs are content to just stick with the piano-and-guitar format.
When we’re looking back with the warm glow of nostalgia at the decade that was, we’ll remember Alt-J as one of the highlights of 2012. We’re almost into 2020, and the decade reviews are about to ramp up soon. It’s too early to feel truly hazy about it; we’ll really dive into nostalgia pains around 2030, if we’re still alive that long. For now, I have to say that I’ve heard some really great music being made in the last few years. I wish there’d been more weirdness, of course, but some real gems floated to the top. Alt-J was definitely among the odder acts to become popular. They gave some psychedelic flavor to a period heavy on twinkly pop. I’m sure that An Awesome Wave is going to be one of those records that survives for years to come, and not just as an artifact of fond memories.