Global Beat Fusion: Nubian Sounds, African Reggae and Durham Hip-Hop

Global Beat Fusion: Nubian Sounds, African Reggae and Durham Hip-Hop
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When "Curtain Call" drops it's a bittersweet sensation. The track, like all of Little Brother's songs, immediately captivates. For seven years, four albums and a few mixed tapes, you know what to expect, and you're never disappointed. You can't be--Phonte and Big Pooh are too honest and reliable to let anyone down. Existing in a constantly shifting hip-hop culture, watching the rap genre shift from noun to adjective, they've kept a steady, soulful, playful and musically sincere pulse on the scene. That's why the opening song, a headnod to the fact that LeftBack (Hall of Justus) will be their last together, evokes a particular sadness.

Rare is it that I find that two emcees and a DJ can hold my interest for an entire show. Such was the case when I first fell in love with this North Carolina-based trio's music. (Producer 9th Wonder, who has released an excellent rendition of Nas, God's Stepson, as well as a formidable album with Buckshot, left Little Brother in 2007.) Opening for De La Soul--one of the only other hip-hop groups that can hold down a stage without live instruments--they kept me engaged for their entire 45 minutes. I backtracked, finding The Minstrel Show, The Listening, Separate But Equal, The Chittlin Circuit--much creativity in a short time. This was a trio that could put forth serious beats, like on "The Becoming" and "Lovin' It," then swerve into complete parody, such as "Slow It Down," and pull it off.

They pull off plenty with LeftBack. Bilal croons sweetly on "Second Chances," as does Chaundon on "So Cold." The entire recording is a family affair, retracing their last almost-decade beyond the Durham scene. Big Pooh's memoirs and Phonte's poignant industry criticism have been their fuel since inception. This open-ended biography continues on an album that I will not call their finest--they've always been in top form--but instead an excellent continuation of what they started. I'm sure we'll find another mix tape soon, perhaps a return that might not be as circulated as Jay-Z's "retirement," but much appreciated by diehard fans.

Admittedly, I was not immediately infatuated with Evan Marc the first time I heard Sines & Singularities in 2005. Going under the name Bluetech, I could tell the cat could produce; it was just a bit too techy for my tastes. The Oregon-based producer has not stopped controlling the boards, though, releasing nineteen EPs and albums and remix efforts since 2003. Every time I heard something my appreciation grew, but it's only now with his latest, Love Songs to the Source (Interchill), that I've fallen hard.

What hooked me were two tracks featuring Katrina Blackstone, "Change" and "Lay Your Sorrows Down." A touch of reggae underlies the midtempo electronic ride on these sensuous, soulful numbers. Two more with Dr Israel merit equal mention, though they are actually remixes from 2005's Patterns of War. "Dread Inna Babylon" features Doc himself, while "Counting Out Stones" features singer Lady K. Both are treated with a harder edge than the original, keeping the spirit intact while updating a half-decade of club life into the poignant lyricism. Bluetech also remixes Norwegian folk singer Mari Boine gorgeously. Boine has long been about innovating her Sami heritage--I caught her live in Fes a few years ago and sat transfixed--and this addition only furthers her plight. Bluetech's electrorganic sound is masterfully crafted on these 14 tracks, and I will undoubtedly find this album on my top 10 in December.

Rocky Dawuni's sonic meanderings began listening to Bob Marley lyrics inside of an army camp run by Ghana's military government. Like Fela Kuti, he attended college to study one thing (psychology; Kuti was medicine), and left heading up a band. His influence has been widespread, working with Bono and Stevie Wonder while being featured in popular American television shows. One of the rare African reggae artists to break through to broad audiences, such a stature is no surprise given Dawuni's silky voice and approachable riddims. Upbeat, melodic, catchy, the man is endowed with lover's rock sensibilities and socially conscious criticisms. His latest, Hymns for the Rebel Soul (Aquarian), easily covers both categories in the best ways possible.

Listening to Dawuni is like hearing a fine Luciano record, its pop format colored by enough individuality and personality to make it his own. Moments of Gregory Isaacs emerge ("Extraordinary Woman"), while roots are aplenty on the sparse guitars of "Walls Tumbling Down" and the beautiful political message of "Jerusalem." Perhaps the best song includes the most far-reaching inspiration: Finnish melodies. It was on tour with a Scandinavian band that the gorgeous hook of "Take it Slow (Love Love Love)" appeared in his head. He recorded the simple acoustic song, featuring finger snaps and a great chorus and put it at the album's end. A great way to say "later"--not to mention Dawuni's finest track to date.

In 2001 I was sent Real Nubian by Egyptian clarinet/tar player Ali Hassan Kuban. One song, "Gammal," blew my head open. It was the same year Kuban died, unfortunately, but that album, and subsequent others I picked up, were my introduction to North African Nubian music, of which Kuban was king. Spending most of his life playing weddings and, by the '90s, major world festivals, that's the Kuban cut that opens Piranha Musik's new collection, Egypt Noir. It's a sort of tribute album to the greats of Egyptian folk sounds, featuring Kuban twice (later with the more "modern" and way too synthesized "Bettitogor Agil), as well an exceptional percussive track by Fathi Abou Greisha ("Hager") and an absolutely stunning ten-minute oud/darbuka/vocal effort by Salwa Abou Greisha. There's no surprise that Salwa sounds like Oum Kulthum; she had recently cut an album singing some of the queen's classics on Mahmoud Fadl's record, Umm Kalthum 7000 (forgive the multiple spellings of Kulthum, I've seen a dozen in my day). Nubian master drummer Fadl closes out the compilation with "United Nubians - Saidi Style," an upbeat dancefloor number that beatifically represents the world beyond "bellydance" music. This cruiser moves your entire body.

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