Monday, December 5, 2011

From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta reviewed by Mark Thompson

From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta
Pascal Bokar Thiam Ed.D.
155 pages
Cognella, division of University Readers, Inc.

The front cover of this book states the author's intent - “How West African Standards of Aesthetics Shaped the Music of the Delta Blues”. It is a noble intent, to cover the history of major African nations, cross-continental trade that facilitated the sharing of many things including music plus 350 years of slave trading that forcibly brought millions of Africans to North America. Bokar Thiam makes the effort but comes up well-short of the mark.

Here are some of the issues with the book:
                    While the book has 155 pages, there is actually less than 50 pages of text including the introduction. The rest of the book is filled with pictures, maps and dead space. Given that the author is attempting to cover a span of history  that covers many centuries, the amount of  space dedicated to the book's topic is woefully inadequate.
                    A number of the maps in the book are slightly out of  focus, making it difficult to read some of them. With all of the printing technology available today, there really is no reason not to have sharp images throughout the book, like the map found on Pg. 25  of the empire of Ghana during the medieval period.
                    Several pictures are used multiple times.  The cover has a small photo of Taj Mahal  playing the banjo.  The same image is on Pg. 16 with a caption identifying  it as Taj Mahal. When the photo appears  again on Pg. 152, it is identified only as an African American playing the banjo. Images of the painting “Old Plantation” depicting slaves making music and dancing are found in close-up on Pg. 76 and in a wider view on Pg. 136. Other photos that appear twice include Basekou Koutate playing the ngoni (Pgs. 15 & 132),  Papa Diabate performing on the kora (Pgs. 15& 102), Mandinka dancing (Pgs. 18 & 69) and a Diola  musician playing the akounting, a stringed instrument (Pgs. 110 & 152).
                     Bokar Thiam writes with a scholarly  tone that can  make it a difficult read for the average person.   There are sentences, like the one to start Pg. 80, that fill an entire paragraph of 7 ½ printed lines. His description of the “swing” rhythm in West African music seems to be written for music majors (Pg. 79).
                    The author repeats certain facts and/or concepts repeatedly throughout the book, sometimes on the same page. Example – Author references the the unclear origins of Blues music in the second paragraph on Pg. 130, then restates the same info in the first line of the next paragraph.

On the plus side,  the numerous photos of instruments, artifacts,  sculptures and cravings help illustrate the authors points regarding different African cultures. His description of the oral tradition of transferring knowledge is interesting, particularly when the author discusses the secrecy involved in protecting the accumulated wisdom. Bokar Thiam states that we still do not fully understand  the theorems the Egyptians used to build the pyramids. He adds “.., one can rest assured that the Greeks and the Romans would have built pyramids twice the size as those found in Egypt” had they  gained access to the mathematics and physics knowledge required.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Included with the book was a recording entitled Savanna Jazz Club, featuring the author on guitar and vocals in a straight-ahead jazz format. The supporting cast includes well-known drummer Donald “Duck” Bailey on several cuts and a rhythm section comprised of four Senegalese percussionists on a set list heavy with standard tunes like “Donna Lee” and “I'll
Remember April”. Bokar has a fleet-fingered style that meshes well with the percussion. Other solo honors go to Dr. Karlton Hester for consistently entertaining saxophone work. The final track, “Road Blues”, is a swinging example that marks the end result of the musical assimilation process that the leader tried to cover in his book.
The author is offering a signed copy his book on his website for $50. Even if his cd is included, the price is too steep for a product that reads more like a expanded outline for a book rather than a thorough, finished product.

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

Friday, December 2, 2011

No Lie reviewed by Mark Thompson

No Lie
Sanctified Grumblers
17 tracks/54:17

Crossroads members should certainly be well-acquainted with Eric Noden from his frequent trips to Rockford over the years to participate in our Blues in the Schools program as a solo artist or with his musical counterpart, Joe Filisko. This project finds Noden in his familiar roles as lead singer and songwriter for half of the tunes. He also plays guitar and banjo guitar. He shares the spotlight with the multi-instrumentalist Rick Sherry, who plays washboard, harmonica, guitar, banjo guitar, clarinet and kick drum in addition to handling some of the lead vocals and composing five of the songs. The band is filled out with Beau Sample on bass and jug plus Mike Hogg on sousaphone. Additional support comes from Jim Becker on fiddle, saw and mandolin – Tom V. Ray on banjo & ukulele – and Mike Reed on drums.

As you can tell from the list of instruments, the Grumblers play music in the old-time string band style, with Hogg's sousaphone giving a nod to the New Orleans brass band tradition. Up-tempo tracks "Stump Grinder" and "Ramblin, Ramblin, Ramblin" give the group a chance to show that, given a chance, they'd have no problem filling the dance floor. Noden's delicate guitar lines play off the booming sousaphone on "9 Bar" while Sherry and Noden do a vocal duet. The insistent beat and Noden's expressive singing make "Broke & Dead" a standout track. Sherry's mournful harp and Becker's fiddle playing dance around the vocal line to great effect.

The Mississippi Sheiks are one of the Grumblers main influences. They cover a Sheiks tune, "Jailbird Lovesong" with fiddle and banjo featured behind Sherry's lead vocal. "Stain on the World" takes a humorous look at the people who claim to see miraculous images in things like toast or bedsheets. Sherry, the founder of Devil in the Woodpile, is a magnificent washboard player, spinning out dazzling rhythms on cuts like the the instrumental "Push Reel" and on the band's theme song, "EZ Ridin' Grumblers", with Noden once again taking vocal honors. "I Hate You Gin" is well-played the band but it exposes Sherry's vocal limitations. The New Orleans connection is highlighted on "SG Blues" with Sherry's clarinet adding charm to the cut.

Along with groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the South Memphis String Band, the Sanctified Grumblers are doing their part to fuel the renaissance of pre-war blues and jug band music. These guys really have a knack for the older styles – and they don't forget to have fun along the way. If you're yearning for a break from the standard electric blues format, No Lie is a fine introduction to a band that will bring a smile to your face and set your feet to tapping.

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Gospel Blue reviewed by Mark Thompson

Gospel Blue
Brick Fields
10 tracks/48:15

Based out of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Brick Fields is a six member band lead by the husband and wife team of Rachel a & Larry Brick. The group is unique in several ways. First, the nine tunes written by the couple have lyrical content heavily influenced by their Christian faith. Next, Rachel Brick plays flute -an instrument rarely associated with blues - on several tracks. The final defining characteristic of this ensemble is Rachel's magnificent alto voice that is capable of turning anything she sings into a memorable experience.

“On the Vine” opens the disc with Rachel joyfully espousing the value of holding on to the promise from Jesus that love will grow through the hardest times if we keep our faith. Larry, Rachel and Rain Equine combine their voices on a beautiful acappella segment to open “In the Light of Love”. Rachel's flute serves as a counterpoint to her dynamic vocal and Casey Terry accentuates the arrangement with one of his engaging sax solos. Larry's sensitive acoustic guitar accompaniment on “Hopelessly Addicted” serves as a springboard for more of Rachel's earthy vocalization on love in it's many forms.

The rhythm section of Johnny Ray on bass and Caleb Bomar on drums create a funky backbeat on “Talk About the Weather” while Terry delivers another solid tenor sax solo. Rachel can barely control her passion as she sings about the impending final reckoning on “These Are the Days”. The band slows the pace on the ballad, “How Long”, which is not the classic blues tune but an original that finds Rachel interspersing tender moments with emphatic statements that blur the lines between the secular and spiritual realms. Another highlight is “Cryin'” as Rachel pours her heart out over the misery of life with Randy Fairbanks on organ adding depth while Larry plays a short but dramatic guitar solo.

“Go On with the Soul” finds Rachel as she utilizing every facet of her powerful voice as it dips and soars through the gentle gospel ballad. Larry's tasty guitar work and Terry's sax stand out on the up-tempo workout “Lord I'm Coming Home”. The lone cover is the gospel standard “Amazing Grace”. The band uses a bluesier arrangement which surprising falls short of energy and conviction found on the rest of the disc, although Fairbanks on organ adds some sense of church.

Those of you who might be put off by the references to God, Jesus and religious beliefs should know that the lyrics on Gospel Blue are not always overt statements of faith. The songwriting often blurs the separation of the heaven and earth, so that the material can be enjoyed no matter what your beliefs. And once you hear Rachel Brick lift up her voice, it really doesn't matter what she is singing about. Her voice will comfort and soothe you while the band gives her expert support. If you enjoy outstanding singing, you need to check out this recording.

Reviewed by Mark Thompson