/ 13 October 2023

Records that got me in a spin

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Record time: Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness bring the excitement of their performances to their records, including the latest, ‘Millions of Us’.

‘Hello. My name is Charles and I’m a vinyl addict.”

Millions of voices from around the world: “Hello Charles.”

It is literally millions because the vinyl resurgence shows no sign of abating. 

Official statistics in the UK show that record sales increased by 13.2% in the first nine months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to The Guardian. Vinyl sales in the US rose by 21.7% for the first half of this year. The data company Luminate’s music midyear report showed that last year marked the 17th consecutive year that sales of vinyl records had risen. 

Unfortunately, record sales are not recorded here in South Africa.

I have been buying records for more than five decades — I still do so obsessively, second-hand and new vinyl, long-players, maxis and singles. So, as music missionary this occasional column is to share some short reviews of the new records I have bought recently.

Why the obsession with vinyl? New Statesman executive editor Tom Gatti is spot-on in the book he edited Long Players: Writers on the Albums That Shaped Them (Bloomsbury): “The tactile ritual involved in playing vinyl and tape; the warm, imperfect sound; the inability to shuffle — all these play a role in the revival of physical formats. 

“There is an element of exhibitionism, too, in a music collection: it’s a display of personality, of cultural capital, a way of making friends and lovers (‘Come up and I’ll show you my most-played Spotify tracks’ doesn’t quite cut it). 

“It’s an integral part of our identities, sometimes stubbornly so.”

Japanese author Haruki Murakami writes in the introduction to his and conductor Seiji Ozawa’s book Absolutely on Music (Vintage): “Despite being an amateur (or perhaps because of it), whenever I listen to music, I do so without preconceptions, simply opening my ears to the more wonderful passages and physically taking them in. 

“When those wonderful passages are there, I feel joy, and when some parts are not so wonderful, I listen with a touch of regret.”

Despite being far more of an amateur than the great Murakami, that is the approach I take with the records I review.

I buy records mainly for two reasons which often overlap. One is to listen to it for pure enjoyment — to indulge on my own or with friends and family over lunch in the garden. Here I look for records that will bring joy, challenge me intellectually, soften the blows of the ongoing tribulations and even guide me through this crazy world of ours.

Second, I buy records to DJ with. I’m an amateur selector who takes his first-Saturday-afternoon-of-the-month sessions at a Brixton café far more seriously than he should.

Murakami also wrote: “Basically, I believe that music exists to make people happy.” Here are some records that made me smile.

Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness — ‘Millions of Us’

Some bands sound better on stage than on record, and others vice versa. Soweto’s Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC) are one of the most thrilling bands I have ever seen play live — long, political, psychedelic jams, but tight at the same time. 

They manage to bring that excitement to their records, with the latest — Millions of Us, recorded in Soweto and released by On the Corner Records — proof of that.

This is how BCUC describe themselves on Bandcamp and I think it’s the secret of their success: “We draw inspiration from Indigenous music that is not exposed in the mainstream. 

“We sing ritual songs, shebeen songs and church songs infused with raps and a rock and roll attitude. We always aim for a timeless, honest and traditional/ ritualistic sound. The music should always resonate with the spirituality, the history and the future of the people.”

The Southern University Jazz Ensemble — ‘Goes to Africa with Love’

Pretoria’s townships are famous for how seriously its people take jazz. I was privileged to play a set to a discerning audience at a friend’s home in Atteridgeville a few Saturdays ago. 

The track that got the most attention was the 16-minute-long, life-affirming Samba Dee from an obscure 1973 album, with many folks coming up to the DJ booth to check the details or shazamming it.

The Southern University Jazz Ensemble’s Goes to Africa with Love was originally given away as souvenirs at Southern University. 

It was one of two spiritual jazz albums created by New Orleans legend Alvin Batiste with the college band he instructed and led in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 

Initially, they were novelties, not preserved by anyone not involved in their  creation. 

But they became one of the most sought-after jazz records. A copy of Goes to Africa with Love was sold on eBay for $2 850 in 2016.

Fortunately, the record was lovingly reissued as a double LP by Now-Again Records in June, with an extensive booklet detailing Batiste’s fascinating life and his time spent honing and recording this remarkable band of young students.

Rob Mazurek/Exploding Star Orchestra — ‘Lightning Dreamers’

Many people did not like the  “Electric Miles” — the period starting in 1969 and ending in 1974, when Miles Davis recorded seven albums during one of the most daring eras of  his career: In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, A Tribute To Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, On The Corner, Big Fun and Get Up With It.

It was the third or fourth time he had basically torn up the rules of jazz and remade them in his own image. These influential albums went on to impact every genre of music to follow in their wake.

One of them — to my ears at least — is this exceptional new album by composer, trumpeter, interdisciplinary “abstractivist” and modern music mogul Rob Mazurek. Lightning Dreamers is fresh work he wrote for his long-running Exploding Star Orchestra. 

The album features guitarist Jeff Parker, vocalist Damon Locks, drummer Gerald Cleaver and pianists Angelica Sanchez and Craig Taborn, among others. 

The Miles comparison is not to diminish the truly original sounds on Lightning Dreamers. 

This fine fusion of outer-space jazz and atmospheric electronica is innovative, challenging and beguiling, with players who are at the top of their game, that rewards repeated listening, and is heading for my best of 2023 list.

Ahmed Ben Ali — ‘Subhana’

Not many people outside Libya knew that reggae has dominated the charts there since its arrival in the 1970s. Fortunately, the great Habibi Funk record label, which specialises in eclectic Arab sounds, has released, Subhana, a selection of Libyan singer and producer Ahmed Ben Ali’s songs from the mid-2000s.

It’s a refreshing mix of Jamaican sonics with Libyan styles.

Contextualising his own style on Bandcamp, Ben Ali points out that “the Libyan folkloric rhythm is very similar to the reggae rhythm. So, if Libyan people listen to reggae, it’s easy for them to relate because it sounds familiar. 

“We added our oriental notes to it and if you mix both it becomes something great.” 

With a bit of laughter, he adds that “… to me it’s still original reggae, it’s the Libyan style, not some bullshit”.

Jimetta Rose/ The Voices Of Creation — ‘How Good It Is’

I’m always digging to get something unusual and funky for my “famous” DJ sets. The Voices of Creation, a community-based choir led by vocalist, songwriter, arranger, producer and mainstay of the Los Angeles scene, Jimetta Rose, gave me that. 

They are a multigenerational group of mainly non-professional singers, backed by some of LA’s finest musicians.

Choir members were chosen in a less-than-conventional fashion: “I recruited people based on their interest in healing themselves and others, not necessarily on their musical experience or being seasoned performers,” Rose says.

And did it work! How Good It Is is their amazing blend of gospel with layers of jazz, soul and funk. You don’t have to be a believer to be blown away by their joyful, spiritually charged bangers. I was.

Dele Sosimi/ The Estuary 21 — ‘The Confluence’

Born in London, but soon to return to his parents’ native Nigeria at the age of four, Dele Sosimi was schooled and brought up in Afrobeat founder, Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s commune. 

Sosimi refers to this as his university of life. The keyboard player was a member of Fela’s band, Egypt 80, between 1979 and 1986.

After Fela died in 1997, Sosimi focused on developing his solo career.

He has managed to give Afrobeat his own original, deeper, moodier sound, as the recently released EP, The Confluence, shows. 

Inokasira Rangers — ‘Like a Virgin’

The quirky Japanese reggae/ska/rocksteady band Inokasira Rangers was formed in 2013 in Tokyo’s beautiful Inokashira Park, which is where they get their name from. 

They specialise in doing covers of popular songs, from New Order’s Blue Monday to Prince’s Kiss, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and recently Madonna’s Like a Virgin

Unlikely as it might sound, it works so damn well. This is probably because they are a seriously good band, but they don’t take themselves too seriously.

I don’t do a DJ session without playing one of their offbeat tracks. 

And because they won’t find it on Shazam, I always have a smiling punter wanting to know: “What on earth is that?!”