various artists,
Reves d'Oasis: Desert Blues 2
(Network Medien, 2003)

The double CD Reves d'Oasis: Desert Blues 2 is an impressive production both in the geographical spread and the variety of musical styles it covers. How to write a sensible review of a whopping 26 tracks equaling nearly 150 minutes of music from countries as diverse as Morocco, Guinea and Ethiopia?

As the title indicates, the common denominator of this treasure collection is that the music finds its origins in the African lands in and around the largest desert of the world, the Sahara -- an Arabic word that means just that, "desert." The caravaneers who crossed this sandy expanse thought of it in terms of an ocean, referring to it as Bahr bila Ma' or "sea without water." The size of the United States, these wastelands were not devoid of life, or culture for that matter. For over 7,000 years it has been home to a multitude of peoples, both pastoral nomads and sedentary farmers who over time settled in the river valleys and remote oases.

With this second CD compilation the Network Medien label has provided the listener with an enormous diversity of samples from northern Africa's rich musical heritage. We start with a piece from the extreme northwestern corner of the great dark continent, Morocco.

Majid Bekkas sings praise of Allah and his prophet, Muhammad al-Mustapha -- the Chosen One. This musical performance has its roots in the devotional sessions of the mystical brotherhoods of Islam, which have always been particularly influential in the Moroccan Atlas mountains. Also drawing his inspiration from Arab-Islamic spiritualism is Abaji's "Gibran," a reference to Gibran Khalil Gibran, the American-Lebanese symbolist artist who became so fashionable in the early 20th century. Soliman Gamil's "Sufi Dialogue" is again a return to the Middle East's classical Sufism. An Egyptian musicologist with a profound interest in his country's ancient heritage, his instrumental composition is a duet between the Arab lute (oud and the kanoun, a zither-like instrument thought to originate in Pharaonic times.

Examples of the musical legacy of Northwestern Africa's nomads is given by West-Saharan musicians like Aziza Ibrahim and Tarba Bibo with "Dios Mio," but in particular by a short but very impressive vocal performance of Teita Leibid, accompanied by Luis Delgado. Her lament "La Sepultura (the Grave)" gives expression to the suffering of her virtually forgotten people at the hands of the expansionist Moroccan army. In the same category falls the wailing "Aitma" by the Tuareg formation Tartit. A proud ethnic group, where instead of the women the men go veiled, political repression in their heartland Mali has led to the Tuareg's dispersal throughout the Sahel. I am particularly charmed by the guitar performance of Tuareg musicians. (By the way, they prefer to be called Kel Tamashek; see also my review of Radio Tisdas Sessions by Tinariwen.)

A compilation of North-African music would not be complete without a few tracks of contemporary Algerian music. That's why the second CD starts with "Trab," a song by Cheb Mami, one of the country's most popular interpreters of Rai, a genre that finds a particular resonance with Algeria's migrant communities in France. Not surprising therefore that this re-arrangement of a sheikha (female village elder) chant has emigration for a theme. From Oran, that cultural melting pot on the Mediterranean, comes the musical avant-gardist Kadda Cherif Hadria. "Djezair," a gypsy-like potpourri of jazz, flamenco, Algerian folk music and reggae, is nevertheless a testimony of his nostalgia for Algeria.

From further east we receive an impression of contemporary Sudanese music by Rasha, scion of a famous musical family from Omdurman, who has successfully married her home country's musical tradition with a reggae-like beat. The result is a sound that would not be out of place in a jazz nightclub, but the lyrics are firmly based on traditional Arabic love poetry. One of the greatest surprises is the sample of Ethiopian music of the exotic Netsanet Mellesse. Her performance together with the Wallias Band of "Minew Jal" -- a bold love song -- is nothing short of a musical discovery.

Sub-Saharan Africa has also not been forgotten on Desert Blues 2. Especially Mali is very well represented. Most of this country's musical giants have found a spot on this double album. The Traore clan of the Bambara tribe has made multiple contributions. There are two ballads by Boubacar Traore, also know as "Kar Kar." Not performing for 20 years (1968-1988) and mistakenly declared dead (!) in 1981, he came back with a vengeance. The young female vocalist Rokia Traore renders a very delicate "Laidu," while the "Bambara Bluesman" Lobi Traore's lengthy "Anunka Ben" confirms his reputation as Africa's answer to John Lee Hooker. Further we find Djemady Tounkara and Habib Koite, both ethnic Mandinka. Their music is a celebration of the jali tradition, a caste of hereditary musicians who act as the guardians of the tribe's folklore.

With four tracks Guinea is next in line. We can listen to Djeli Moussa Diawara (half-brother of the legendary Mory Kante) on the kora, a lute-like string instrument, playing a fantastic duet with American guitarist Bob Brozman. This is followed by a Louis Armstrong impersonation by grand old man Momo Wandel Soumah, who also signs on for "Toko," another vocal/saxophone performance on the second CD. And finally we have Grand Papa Diabate, who used to play with Momo Wandel in the Syli Orchestra.

Apart from its founding father, poet-president Leopold Senghor, and celebrated filmmaker Sembene Ousmane, Senegal has given us also a bunch of fine musicians. El Hadj N'Diaye, Mansour Seck and Youssou N'Dour are all included in this heirloom of African music. On "Sama Guitare" and "Yango," the former two combine song with guitar play. Youssou N'Dour needs no introduction, as he has already made it to the West's music charts and even become a MTV icon. "Lees Waxul," however, was a humbling experience in the sense that it allowed the superstar to perform with his own idol: the Grande Dame of Senegalese music -- and member of Senghor's presidential entourage -- Yande Codou Sene. The duet performed by this duo-for-the-occasion is a vocal tour de force, and a suitable finale for this double album.

As a summary appreciation I can only add that Desert Blues is a testimony to the musical magnificence of a much-plagued continent.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 24 May 2003

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