KEXP’s Year in Review: Jon Kertzer, the Best Ambiance – Best of 2006

Ali Farka Toure.jpg
Ali Farka Toure, courtesy of retorta net

My Best Ambiance program on Monday night, December 25th, was a special show that focused on my top recordings of 2006, and the final hour featured favorite songs from live in-studios over the past year. Here’s a few comments about the selections.

1) AFEL BOCOUM / Niger / (Contre Jour)
From Mali, Afel is from the same area as Ali Farka Toure, and his musical style is very similar- which is not surprising, considering he played guitar and sang with Ali for many years. In 2000, he came with Ali to WOMAD-USA, and he played his own show that I produced at EMP, and when Ali made is very last performance in the USA at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in July, 2003, Afel was with him as well. This album is not yet released in the USA, but has been well received in Europe, and Bocoum played a great show with his group in Seville, Spain, this past October at WOMEX. This recording shows him to be a seasoned performer and songwriter, and showcases a traditionally oriented acoustic group with n’goni, calabash, and fiddle.

2) ALI FARKA TOURE / Savane/(World Circuit-Nonesuch)
Toure tragically died in March, 2006, and this is sadly his final recording. Nick Gold, who runs World Circuit Records, and produced this CD, talked about the making of the record on a Best Ambiance interview earlier this year. Toure had a definite vision for this recording, to feature three n’gonis (a small Malian lute), and modernize the traditional sound of the north of Mali; they added other instruments as well, including the harmonica of British bluesman Little Georgie, and the results are a powerful Malian blues sound, that truly sounds like the roots of the American blues. This CD is nominated for the Grammy this year in the contemporary world category, and for good reason.

3) BA CISSOKO / Electric Griot Land / (Totolo)
This quartet from Guinea is a personal favorite of mine, since I saw them perform in European festivals several years ago, and was a big fan of their previous CD, Sabolan, which really revolutionized the sound of the 21 strong harp, the kora, with highly electrified and distorted sounds. Cissoko is both the name of the leader of the group, and the group itself, that features two kora virtuosos in the lead of the group, with bass and percussion. On this new CD, the group moves back into a more acoustic sound, but still expands upon the traditional kora sound, with guest singers, and new sounds. A particular favorite track is “Silani” that features the Somali rapper K/Naan, (see below).

4) IKHWANI SAFAA MUSICAL CLUB / Zanzabari 1 / (Buda)
This is the first release in a new series of recordings from Buda, similar to their amazing Ethiopiques series by Frances Falceto (now over 20 volumes). This series focuses on the music of East Africa, especially the taraab music of Zanzibar, Mombassa, and nearby coastal regions. The producer of this series is Werner Graebner, who was interviewed on the show when Culture Musical Club stopped by in September. This musical club also comes from Zanzibar, and has rich history of taraab music. The second volume (which I actually played on the show) focuses on the variety of taraab on nearby Mombasa, Kenya, including the beautiful voice of singer Zahura Zwaleh, that I played on the program.

5) K’NAAN / The Dusty Foot Philosopher / (Sony-BMG-Canada)
He is my biggest new discovery of 2006 (and this CD is also on Darek’s top 10 for Wo-Pop. I heard him at WOMAD-UK, and interviewed him – is an incredibly self-assured and gifted performer from Somalia, who managed to escape and make his way to Toronto, and has deservedly become a star in the Somali community. He draws upon his life experiences in his songs and raps, and creates a unique sound, part hip-hop, part African, and mostly K’Naan. He will be coming to Seattle in May, 2007 for the Seattle International Children’s Festival- don’t miss him! And I hope this recording gets a US release in 2007.

6) RACHID TAHA / Diwan 2 / (Barclay-Universal-France)
Just released at the end of 2006, this made it onto my top 10 list , but for good reason; Taha goes back to the earlier acoustic sound of his 1996 Diwan recording, to cover some classic North African songs, with beautiful strings, oud, and percussion; and even throws in some kora on a recording of “Agatha” by the great Cameroonian composer Francis Bebey. Not the electric sounds of recent Rachid Taha, but a really strong look back to earlier times.

7) SALIF KEITA / M’Bemba / (Decca)
What can you say about one of the world’s best voices? Keita became a star in the Afro=pop music world with his late 80’s fusion of Soro, but with Mouffou in 2003, and this new recording, he returns to Mali (literally recording this album there), and the rich Mande sounds and melodies- including kora by Toumani Diabate on the title track. Although released in late 2005 in France, this did not come out here until mid-2006,and also got a world music Grammy nomination for this year, so it makes my list.

A collection of groups from Yaounde in Cameroon, recorded by singer Sally Nyolo, the Cameroonian singer based in Paris, originally known for her work with Zap Mama, and later her own solo recordings. A really refreshing mix of music from an area not hear much in the West – I especially like the song by Orchestre ED’Essono that I played on the show, that shows a nice mix of Congolese guitar and makossa influences.

9) TOUMANI DIABATE’S SYMMETRIC ORCHESTRA / Boulevard de L’Independence / (World Circuit-Nonesuch)
If I had to pick one favorite for 2006, this is the one. Of course I knew that Toumani is an amazing kora player, that has well documented since in 1988 debut with Kaira, but this is his large band from Bamako- that for the past 10 years has been performing weekly in a club every weekend, but never heard much outside of Mali. When Nick Gold went down there in 2004 to record the final Ali Farke Toure recording Savane, and the “In The Heard of the Moon” duo of Toure and Daiabate, he also was able to capture this incredible band in the studio. This past July, I had the chance to hear them in Reading at WOMAD-UKm where they were undoubtedly the highlight of a very strong line-up this year. When I talked to Toumani, he described how has has assembled this group with a vision for a pan West African sound, with musicians from Senegal to Cote d’Ivoire in the group, but led by a quartet of incredible singers, including the great Kasse Mady. They draws from a wide range of African and Latin styles, but at the center is the virtuoso kora of Toumani- which is a joy to behold.

10) VARIOUS ARTISTS / Golden Afrique 3 / (Network Medien)
There were a tremendous amount of excellent historical re-issues of African music in 2006, and I had to put one on this list. This is a double CD, assembled by this German based label by veteran producer Gunter Gretz, with a well selected array of music from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. While many of the songs on volume 1 have been available throught he re-issues by Gallo and Earthworks, it is the volume 2 songs from Zimababwe and Zambia that are the real find here, including a song by Thomas Mapfumo’s Hallelujah Chicken Run band, that shows off the roots of his new chimurenga sound. All three of these double CD historical re-issues from Network are worth tracking down- earlier volumes featured the music of West Africa and the Congo.

Additional top recordings of 2006 featured on the Dec. 25 program:
11) RICHARD BONA / Tiki / (Decca)
Some beautiful music from this talented bassist, singer and writer from Cameroon- who can play bass like Jaco, but sings like an angel; see live session tracks below…

12) VARIOUS ARTISTS /African Guitar Summit II / (CBC Radio-Canada)
Second volume of excellent collection of songs by African guitarists living in Canada, including Vancouver’s Alpha Yaya Diallo, also Pa Joe, Mighty Pupo, Donne Roberts, Adam Solomon, and Madagascar Slim. Good songs, and great guitar work; wish you could find this CD in the US!

13)TONY ALLEN / Lagos No Shaking / (Honest Jon’s-Astrelworks)
Legendary afro-beat drummer continues to make good music, and this is his latest effort. Best known for his work with Fela as the linchpin of the Afrika 70 band, Allen has been on his own for many years now, and is in good form here; he will get even more attention in 2007 as drummer with rock-star Damon Albarn’s new group.

14) GIGI / Gold & Wax / (Palm Pictures)
She has a beautiful voice, and again is backed by strong group of musicians put together by her producer husband, Bill Laswell. This included keyboardist Bernie Worrell and guitarist Buckethead. For some musical purists, perhaps too much in the fusion direction, but sounds good to me.

15) KEKELE / Kinavana / (Stern’s Africa)
Another excellent recording by this all-star Congolese band, assembled by veteran African producer Ibrahima Sylla, and including singers Nyboma and Wuta-Mayi, and ace guitarist Syran M’Benza. They also feature guest vocalists M’Bilia Bel and Isabel Martinez, and the results are a beautiful mix of Congolese and Cuban rumba.

16) MAURICE EL MEDIONI AND ROBERTA RODRIGUEZ / Descarga Oriental-The New York Session / (Piranha-Germany)
Another African and Latin collaboration, but this one with North African twist: Medioni is a very fine piano player originally from Oran, Algeria, based in France for many years. His own sound is a mélange of influences from rai to blues to jazz, and here is teamed up with a ace group of Latin musicians.

17)VARIOUS ARTISTS / Africa Calling-Live 8 at Eden / (Real World)
When Bob Geldof put together his large Live 8 concerts around the world in the summer of 2005, there was a criticism that almost no African artists were featured in these shows- so at the last minute Peter Gabriel and WOMAD assembled an all-star show in Cornwall at the Eden project, that included an incredible line-up, including Youssou N’Dour, Thomas Mapfumo, Tinariwen, Mariza, Ayub Ogada, Angelique Kidjo and much more- this excellent CD captures musical highlights of that historical concert.

18) AFRICANDO / Ketukuba / (Stern’s Africa)
This group of singers from Senegal and other areas of West Africa, have now been around for 15 years, putting together their love of latin and salsa music, with Latin musicians from NYC and the Caribbean. Another strong release from them, including vocalist Sekouba Bambino from Guinea, that was featured on Best Ambiance.

19) CESARIA EVORA / rogomar / (CA-Lusafrica)
The “barefoot diva” of Cape Verde continues to make beautiful music, drawing upon the mornas and other musical genres of those islands. She is also opening the doors for other singers from Cape Verde, such as Lura and Maria de Barros, who both performed live on Best Ambiance in 2006 (see below).

20) THINK OF ONE / Trafico / (Crammed discs-Belgium)
This is not an African band, but a great world music band from Belgium, and one of the best groups I heard at WOMAD-UK in 2006; and were touring and recording with several Brazilian musicians, including singer Dona Cila. A very popular band in Europe right now, and you can hear why when you listen to this CD.

And a couple bands from South America:
21) ATERCIOPELADOS / Oye / (Nacional)
A very creative rock band from Bogota, Columbia, led by charismatic singer Andrea Echeverri; they bring in an interesting mix of latin and rock influences to their sound.

22) LOS AMIGOS INVISIBLES / SuperPop Venezuela / (Gozadera)
A favorite of mine since the performed live on the show in September, 2005- they are come from Caracas, but now live in New York City. This new CD draws upon old favorites of theirs from Venezuela, but gives that special Amigos take on the songs, Worth tracking this one down!

Some notes on the best KEXP live sessions of 2006, in the final hour of the show:
1. Culture Musical Club “Njoo” – recorded on September 25, 2006 (WMA, Real, MP3)
Thirteen member group of musicians and singers from Zanzibar, Tanzania, they play taraab music which combines the sounds of Egyptian popular orchestras with Swahili lyrics and culture’ the group’s concert at Town Hall the night before this in-studio was on of the year’s concert highlights- and so was this session for the Best Ambiance?

2. Gangbe Brass Band “Remember Fela” – May 14, 2006
Ten musicans from Benin, playing a powerful mix of jazz horns and West African percussion and vocals; they had just come from their very first performance in New Orleans, and were still riding high; this is their tribute to Fela Kuti, one of their main musical influences. They were in Seattle performing at the Children’s Festival.

3. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars “Livin’ Like A Refugee” – November 12, 2006 (WMA, Real)
This group was the big African music story of 2006. The film documentary telling their incredible story emerging out of the tragic civil war on Sierra Leone, in the refugge camps of Guinea, won them recognition at film festival including the one here in Seattle, and in March at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. I met them and interviewed their leader Ruben Camara, and later the film’s director in June during SIFF, the group came through Seattle in the summer and again in the fall for two very successful performances, and directly following this live session for Stevie Zoom, they went to Chicago to play on the Oprah show- one of the very first African groups on her show. This is a live acoustic version of the title song to their CD, now released by Anti Records.

4. Dobet Gnahore “Dulu” – October 14, 2006 (WMA, Real)
In Seattle for the first time with the Acoustic Africa tour (which was led by Habib Koite), Gnahore is one of the discoveries of the year; in her early 20’s, she has a beautiful voice, and shows great potential here in the studio, just performing with an acoustic guitarist. Expect more for Dobet in 2007, including a debut US recording.

5. Lura “Batuku” – January 30, 2006 (WMA, Real)
Voted one of the most promising upcoming African performers last year by BBC Radio Three poll, Lura is based in Lisbon, but her parents come from Cape Verde, and she draws upon its musical traditions in her music. She brings three performers from her band to KEXP early in 2006,along with her engaging performance style.

6. Maria de Barros “Rosinha” – June 5, 2006
Also from Cape Verde, but now living in LA, de Barros came to Seattle for shows at the Jazz Alley, and plays a song from her most recent recording, with her band- that includes musicians from cape Verde and the US.

7. Vusi Mahlasela “Ubuhle” – February 13, 2006 (WMA, Real)
Known as “The Voice” of South Africa, Vusi shows why in this in-studio session, with just his voice and guitar. He has been a popular performer in his native South Arican for will over a decade, but in 2006 has become known to American audiences, with several tours and high-profile performances- he also played at WOMAD-UK this year, and currently working on a follow-up CD to this ATO US debut.

8. Richard Bona “Dina Lam” – December 13, 2006
My most recent in-studio, Bona is extraordinary performer- and his interests cover and career extend across a wide range, from the jazz world touring with Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Mike Stern, and Joe Zawinul, to leading Harry Belafante’s band when he first arrived in the United States from Cameroon by way of Paris; and his four solo recordings, including the recent Grammy nominated Tiki CD. He plays in the studio with just his 5 string bass, and his incredible vocals.

9. Susanna Baca “La Guillermina” – May 20, 2006 (WMA, Real, MP3)
This session was recorded on Quilty3000’s Saturday show, but I borrowed it for a final Latin American set of live sessions from 2006 on KEXP. Baca brought in her band from Lima, Peru, and performs a song from her latest CD, Travesias, which had just been released earlier that month. She draws upon the traditions and sounds of Peruvian music, but adds her own take on the music.

10. Rodrigo y Gabriela “Roja Diablo” – August 14, 2006 (WMA, Real)
One of the special and unique sessions of the year. This young couple play acoustic guitars, but started in heavy metal bands in Mexico City, and developed their guitar sound in the streets of Dublin; now have become stars there with their special mix of rock, jazz, and latin guitar. This was recorded on their first Seattle visit last summer, but they have since returned to Seattle, and their following is growing rapidly for good reason!

11. Grupo Fantasma “Mentiros” – July 17, 2006
The top world music band in Austin Texas that I discovered there in 2005, and they stopped by KEXP when they player in Seattle of the first time this past summer. Led by a singer and timbales player from Nicaragua, and strong horn section- this band in definitely one to catch in concert next time they make it to Seattle. This original song is a intriguing mix of cumbia and salsa- with a potent result.

I didn’t get to play them on this best of show, but I also had three memorable interviews this past year as well, with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Amadou and Miriam from Mali; and producer Nick Gold from World Circuit. Thanks to them, and all of the performers who played on KEXP this past year, and made for a really memorable year. And thanks to the many venues that brought these musicians to Seattle, to make it possible for them to play on KEXP; The Triple Door, Jazz Alley, Town Hall, Seattle International Children’s Festival, Bumbershoot, The Crocodile, The Showbox, and Chop Suey- keep bringing in these great artists, and we are happy to bring them to the KEXP audience with the special live sessions.

-Jon Kertzer

This entry was posted in KEXP's Year in Review, The Best Ambiance. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted January 3, 2007 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Susana Baca rocks! and she is peruvian, like me… I love KEXP, I love Susana’s music!……… Great article!!!

  2. La Morena
    Posted February 13, 2007 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    Got the very best of ethnic here… I really appreciate, btw, our precious antiquity Cesaria’s doing great! She’s the only singer, who manages to perform the feeding-me-up Besame mucho so lyrically. Ever looked for records? Found accidentally at ‘,got misty-eyed evening;)

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