Music from South Sudan, northern Uganda and Malawi
General Paolino featuring Mama Celina
Malawi Mouse Boys
Musical field recordings done in places that have recently recovered from or are embroiled in civil war, or perhaps in places that are exceedingly poor, can and do often result in music made out of necessity, perhaps in spite of the atrocious conditions that manifests such sounds to begin with. Native Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka's recent documentary Beats of the Antonov, which recently aired on PBS, explores this very determination among the “Blue Nile” people of war torn South Sudan. In fact, four recent releases on musician, producer, and traveler Ian Brennan's IRL label connect naturally with Kuka's film's observances about the importance of raw art not only in General Paolino's South Sudan, but also in Acholi Machon's Northern Uganda, a section of the country only recently restored from civil conflict, child soldier recruitment and death, as well as the intensely rural, resource-deprived southern African country of Malawi, where a group of young men who spend their days selling roasted mice on sticks- a street food borne out of nutritional necessity- play music in their off hours. These recent releases also show off some fantastic music, without the often deadening “world music” production values that sucks the life out of sounds that would otherwise have had so much to offer.
Troubadour General Paolino's disc only became a mostly solo venture after he'd apparently drunkenly fired musicians from the stand in the bar he was performing in the night before this disc was cut. As a result, other than a few tracks with Mama Celina, the listener gets sweetly melodic songs written by Paolino touching on war, government mistrust, heartbreak, laziness, orphans, and abuse. Yet, because this stuff was recorded on the outskirts of town in an unfinished building and influenced by Paolino's day of drinking, there's a rawness. And even though at one point, the guitar goes out of tune and at another a song appears unfinished, this record captures a perfection a studio would only destroy. It's as spirited and infectious as anything recorded by George Sibanda or SE Rogie as well.
Acholi Machon, a collection of musicians from the Northern Ugandan Acholi tribe, led by Gaetano Otira Tep Yer Yer, play a group of protest songs and accompany themselves entirely on the mbira. While the liner notes claim their can be as many as 15 members, there only seem to be 2 present on this disc. Whatever the case, this collection of songs is as raw and driving as mbira music gets, eschewing the lullabye sweetness of more southern styles found in places such as Zimbabwe for a more jagged attack.
And finally we have the Malawi Mouse Boys, a gospel quartet recently featured on NPR, who have also traveled to Europe for shows. Over two discs, the contents vary from jagged raw electric stomp that might've found a home on an early Fat Possum release, to acoustic harmonies, frantically strummed riffs full of gorgeous harmonies, pop bottle percussion, hand-clapping underpinning call and response vocals, and even rhythms akin to reggae if the genre had zero production values. There are tunes seeming played on scraping devices with whistled parts and at least one other with rapid fire a capella sing-speak. By and large, the instruments they play are fashioned from scrap metal, the guitars typically including just enough strings to make chords.
Malawian string music does has a particular groove, not too far removed from the flat out joyous melodic lines found further south in Durban or Lesotho, and that style can be found here, but every song these guys play sounds different than the one before, both in terms of instrumentation and vocalese. Brennan searched countrywide before he found them, but his first recordings of their harmonies, where some 20 kids joined in as the sun set over the stretch of highway where they worked, assured him he'd found something special. And both of their discs are littered with gold. - Bruce Miller
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