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Tao Ravao and Thomas Laurent
Au bout du petit matin

Buda Musique (www.budamusique.com)
Review by Dylan McDonnell

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Like countless projects before it, Au bout du petit matin (“In the wee hours”) lines out the possibilities of joy and sorrow through a collage of instrumental and vocal means. However, Malgache string player and vocalist Tao Ravao and French harmonica player Thomas Laurent fulfill their vision by offering a window into primarily Francophone and Francophone-associated tunes. Though a few tracks would be well known to even casual listeners of jazz, rock, and Afro-Latin styles, the way Ravao and Laurent capture their energy with only two performers is much more novel.

It must be noted that the choice of instrumentation for this project, as well as the song material, is highly associated with either French postcolonial or stereotypically “French” sounds: Ravao plays both guitar and kabosy, a box-shaped wooden guitar common in musics of Madagascar, while Laurent sports a twelve-hole chromatic harmonica not dissimilar to the voice-like emotionality popularized by musicians like Toots Thielemans and Gregoire Maret. The duo dissolves and rebuilds its sound piece by piece as it creates allusions to disparate musical contexts. For example, “Tite Fleur Aimée” and “Hymne à la Paresse” embody the happy longing for love and ecstatic relief found in much Lousiana Cajun and Creole repertoire, and the propulsive strumming pairs appropriately with Ravao's urges in French to “let the good times roll” despite his overwhelming fatigue and “exhausted heart.”

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Somewhat darker but no less evocative are the back-to-back tracks “St. James Infirmary” and “Congo Square,” wherein Ravao delivers the original English lyrics to the former and Laurent takes to the blues in the holistic sense: his harmonica lines scratch the surface of pre-Depression New Orleans stomps, but favor the spun-out abandon of Afro-Cuban son and Sevillian flamenco over Ravao's clave. Other dance-worthy pieces include the Northeast Brazilian forro “Inxuga o rato,” a cover of “Creole Lady” by Tortuga songwriter Jon Lucien, and “Nofy” (Malgache for “Dreams”), songs that welcome movement despite linguistic disparities.

Listen "Congo Square" (excerpt)

Some of the most virtuosic sections of the album are also the more mysterious ones, especially regarding the significance of names: How much does Ravao's oud-like kabosy playing on the Andalusian elegy “Maria Monbiola” seek to honor the anarchist efforts of the titular figure? Does “Mamy T” actually exist, or is the duo evoking a broader sense of West African femininity by borrowing its ostinatos and percussive flourishes from balafon and kora techniques? Lastly, is the finale, “Cry of Love,” meant to directly channel the spiritual sides of Hendrix and Santana, or merely to recap the catharsis of the entire album? These considerations, for the most part, are best left unanswered.

Listen "Mamy T" (excerpt)

All told, Ravao and Laurent's ambitious effort to take sonic snapshots of Afro-Atlantic and -Indian port cultures ostensibly through their popular dance and melody styles risks losing continuity due to its wide range of languages and predominant modes. In spite of this, it is the masterful compromise between harmonica and kabosy rather than brash individualism in their playing that makes Au bout du petit matin a relatively cohesive statement of Afro-diasporic pride. - Dylan McDonnell

 

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