VARIOUS ARTISTS – Bawku West Collective Vol. 1
I’ll admit it, I was hoping that Vol. 1 would sound like Paul Simon’s Graceland, or at least like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the African band that backed him on several songs on that record. It doesn’t, but what it does sound like is something much simpler and more pure, the building blocks that Simon’s multi-platinum record was built on. It’s no surprise that the disc was assembled by Luke Bassuener, whose band This Bright Apocalypse already combines African instruments and rhythms with more traditional rock music in his power trio. He recorded the various musicians of this collective on two trips to Ghana in 2005 and 2008, and added additional instrumentation after returning home. Unlike TBA, or Paul Simon for that matter, the songs on Vol. 1 still sound like their source material. While his additions may have made it more accessible for Western palates, the songs still retain the stamp of the musicians who created them.
For example, M’ba Saka Naba’s two contributions, “Is There Nobody” and the intriguingly titled “Disappear or Fly,” are distinguished by the angular flute that hovers over the songs. The songs are minimalist, just a drummer, the flute, and the barest of melodies added later. In contrast, the St. Charles Lawanga Choir sounds like a parade coming down the street, their joyful cries audible from blocks away. Their two selections are the most conventionally tuneful, and final track “Yela Be Wusa” stands as the catchiest of the bunch. The Saka Boys’ “Young Boy Take Time” contains perhaps the most obvious of Bassuener’s additions, as a kalimba melody plinks over the very vocal testifying of the group. Since the kalimba, or thumb piano, is an established instrument in African music, it doesn’t sound the least bit out of place. It’s just another tune for the ear to grab on to. The Savanna Drummers Club live up to their name, but there is at least as much singing as there is drumming. A variety of percussion percolates behind the voices on “So’o Woo” and “Ghana.” The lyrics of the latter consist almost exclusively of the country’s name repeated over and over till it becomes just another instrument.
Perhaps the most interesting song is “Choppin’ Money,” a term that refers to political corruption. Here Bassuener joins the work of Aluta and Azubire into one track, merging musicians who would not otherwise have come together, making this a true collective. While the disc is an intriguing experiment in cultural meshing, it also has a charitable purpose. All the proceeds from the album go to support musicians in the Bawku West District of Ghana, a necessity if there is to be a Vol. 2.
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