From Four Different Corners Of Africa, Four Bold New Albums | Texas Public Radio

From Four Different Corners Of Africa, Four Bold New Albums

May 17, 2015
Originally published on May 17, 2015 7:56 pm

World-music DJ Betto Arcos is back — this time, with music he's found all over the African continent. The host of Global Village on KPFK in Los Angeles recently joined NPR's Arun Rath to discuss new albums from four different corners of Africa, including soulful songs from a prison in Malawi, dance music from Congo and a collaboration between a Malian singer and a Cuban pianist. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and check out the music below.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

World music DJ Betto Arcos is back, this time with music he's found all over Africa. Welcome, Betto.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: It's great to be here, Arun.

RATH: So this is an interesting selection of music you've got today.

ARCOS: Yeah, I wanted to kind of give a sense for what is happening in African music in the past couple of months. And they give you a sense, across the continent, of the different sounds that are happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MBONGWANA STAR SONG, "SHEGUE")

RATH: This first music, the Congolese music, is kind of transcontinental itself, right?

ARCOS: It is. It's this wonderful kind of collaboration between a producer from Paris and musicians that were formerly members of the band Staff Benda Bilili. They regrouped, found other musicians in Kinshasa and formed a new band called Mbongwana Star. Mbongwana means change, meaning the start of change. And the sound is out of this world. This is a tune called "Street Children."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHEGUE")

MBONGWANA STAR: (Singing in foreign language).

RATH: Is it a common thing for, you know - 'cause I guess this is Central Africa. You're in the middle of things. Is it common to combine a lot of different styles from across the continent in Congo?

ARCOS: It is. I mean, remember, in this particular region of Africa, it's Kinshasa. It's where the river brings all of these influences from different parts of the continent. So what you have in here is subtle influences of Latin music because they were influenced by Cuban music, believe it or not, back in the '60s. But you also have this very, very strong-roots music from the Congo, from that part of Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHEGUE")

STAR: (Singing in foreign language).

RATH: That is Mgwana (ph)?

ARCOS: Mbongwana Star.

RATH: Mbongwana Star. The next piece you've got for us has got an amazing story behind this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MESSAGE")

BEN MASEKESE: (Singing in foreign language).

ARCOS: Two years ago, American producer Ian Brennan went to Malawi with his wife, Italian photographer and filmmaker Marilena Delli. They traveled to a prison called Zomba Prison. And their idea was to go in there and see what music could be found in this place. Now, Ian Brennan works with violence prevention programs. So he went in there, in a sense, to tell the officials that he wanted to teach violence prevention in the prison. And in exchange, they would let him go in with his wife and record musicians performing music. It has got to be one of the most exciting projects I have heard. And this is only one tune out of 20 on this particular record. It's a song called "A Message," by a young singer in his early 20s named Ben Masekese, who sings sort of a message to his inmates - to other inmates, saying, hey, you better behave or else.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MESSAGE")

MASEKESE: (Singing in foreign language).

ARCOS: It's a prison that's meant for 350 people, but there's at least 2,000 people in the prison. So you can imagine the conditions that they live in. So when Ian goes in there to record them, of course they're excited to do something different with - you know, with their lives.

RATH: And there's a women's prison there as well, right?

ARCOS: Yeah. They're separated, very clearly separated. And they also were - asked the women to participate in the project. And they said, oh, no, no, we don't write any songs. And yet, when they started recording, all of this incredible creativity came out. It's just a beautiful project. And, I should say, part of the proceeds of this recording are going to go to help with a lot of these cases 'cause many of them shouldn't even be spending so many years in the prison.

RATH: That's the Zomba Prison Project. And that song was called "A Message," by Ben Masekese. What do you got next for us, Betto?

ARCOS: Their name is Tal National. They're from the country of Niger, or Niger. It's a country that's tucked in between Mali, Algeria, in that kind of region where the Sahel meets the Sahara.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAIRE")

TAL NATIONAL: (Singing in foreign language).

RATH: Definitely puts me in the mood of beautiful upbeat West African kind of music.

ARCOS: You can't really tell whether they're more in the sort of Sahara vein or region or they're closer to Western Africa or what - why? Well, the reason is because of their location. They are able to not only sing in several languages; but they also mix all of these musical influences, blending, you know, the sort of desert blues that people are familiar with, like Tinariwen or, you know, bands like that, with this kind of Malian groove, you know. Very...

RATH: Those bright guitars that kind of just punch out, yeah.

ARCOS: Exactly. That's exactly what I was going to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAIRE")

NATIONAL: (Singing in foreign language).

RATH: That definitely gives me happy feet. That's Tal National with the song, "Claire." We have time for just one more, Betto. What do you got for us?

ARCOS: Oh, man. I always like to save the best for last. This is a superb collaboration between two musicians from two completely different worlds, if you will. And yet, when you hear them together, you know they were meant to be together. Let's listen to Fatoumata Diawara, a singer from Mali, and Roberto Fonseca, who's from Cuba. He's a pianist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "YEMAYA")

FATOUMATA DIAWARA: Singing in foreign language.

ARCOS: Fatoumata recorded a song in Roberto Fonseca's last record. And it was clear that they wanted to do something together. It was just a matter of time, you know, when they were going to do it. Well, as it turns out, they coincided on a tour. And they recorded this live. And the best way to see something that really clicks is live. So they recorded this live in France. It's called "At Home." And this particular tune, it's a song called "Yemaya." It's one of the dozen orishas, or deities of the Yoruba pantheon. And it's Roberto's song with Fatoumata lyrics, a kind of tribute to the deity, to the goddess of water and fertility - beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "YEMAYA")

DIAWARA: (Singing in foreign language).

RATH: So tell us again the names of these - these musical partners?

ARCOS: Fatoumata Diawara, who is originally from the Ivory Coast. But she has Malian roots. And Roberto Fonseca, who's a Cuba pianist, famously toured with Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club - brilliant young pianist.

RATH: This is brilliant. I love this. I've heard, I think, more sort of African-inflected Cuban jazz, but less music that sort of meets - the Cuban and African kind of meet right in the middle like this. World music DJ Betto Arcos has a program called "Global Village" at KPFK here in Los Angeles. Betto, always a treat, and you've outdone yourself this time. This is just great. Thank you.

ARCOS: You for having me, Arun, always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.