03 February 2006

Africano...the mother of groove (CD Review)

Lagbaja: Africano....the mother of groove
(Motherlan' Music) : www.lagbaja.com

For an album coming from a relatively well-known Nigerian bandleader (remember WOMAD USA?) who is known for his grooves built on traditional Yoruba rhythms, Africano is full of surprises. It opens with a vocal piece called "Drum Affirmation" (chants, not drums), then launches into "Africalypso," in which Lagbaja speak-sings about the history and diaspora of African music. Good grooves, and great soaring vocals by Ego Ihenacho, but there's something awkward about the way she repeats each line word-for-word. Oh, about the words. "Though I have used Pidgin English copiously in the past," Lagbaja says, "none of the songs on this album is performed fully in Pidgin. From now my focus is on my mother tongue, Yoruba and my second language, English. Pidgin takes a back seat."

Next up is "Who Man?," a tribute to womanhood that sounds more like the old Lagbaja, though with a sparse backing groove of drums, piano, and particularly bells. Then it's Afrobeat & horn time, with "Mammoney Horns" and "Mammoney," a commentary on the god of money with tight backing riffs from Benin's marvelous Gangbe Brass Band.

Then the album changes distinctly, with the love song "Rock Me Gentle," the R&B ballad "Never Far Away" with Ihenacho taking lead vocals over a soaring string section (and leaving one wondering what makes this a Lagbaja song). Then Lagbaja himself sings with the strings on the Yoruba jazz piece "Aisan" before dipping into rock ("Dream Come True") and rap ("Scream"). It's back to the old Lagbaja Afro-groove on "Skentele Skontolo" before another string-backed ballad ("Emi Mimo") drops the pace once again. And the album concludes with seven drum-only tracks, collectively called "Africano 101 - Naked Grooves."

Admittedly, it's difficult to know much about the musical path of Lagbaja, whose only broad US release was 2001's We Before Me, which was a compilation from his previous albums. Still, it's curious, to say the least, that Lagbaja's linguistic change is accompanied by such a scattered musical offering. And what happened to all that great sax?

Individually, most songs on Africano are strong, but it feels like two albums reluctantly merged: one of Lagbaja's deeply rhythmic Yoruba-based dance tunes, and another of his realized dream for richer orchestration ("I had wanted to work with strings for years but never could afford it.") along with the less-successful forays into rock, R&B, and rap.

While dedicated Lagbaja fans will enjoy most of this album, others may find his earlier albums a more consistent introduction to the Lagbaja sound.
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