/ 12 January 2024

Starting the year on the right note

Lee Scratch Perry 2018
Standby: An album of unreleased music by the late Jamaican reggae musician Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is due out soon. (Paul Bergen/Redferns)

New year’s resolutions? They are there to be broken. And no, it isn’t me being a rough old rebel — according to a YouGov poll, most people abandon theirs within the first two months of the year. 

Or, if you are like me, you don’t even bother because you’re going to break them anyway. And, despite that New Year’s Day hangover, you will forget and over-indulge again.

I did see in a recent National Public Radio (NPR) Music newsletter a few great arguments for at least some new year’s intentions. At the end of each year, the co-hosts of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour programme make resolutions.

They have four this year — I will go for two of them and add a third of my own. The two I will skip are “Build playlists for every mood” (I’m not on Spotify and don’t intend to join it — I have too many distractions already and I think they exploit musicians), and “Plan ahead for the holidays”. 

The latter I do already — an annual mixtape/podcast of Christmas songs that don’t suck which is on the Mail & Guardian’s website.

The two resolutions that I will take on board this year are “Embrace the new” and “Spend actual money on the music I love”. 

Stephen Thompson, who wrote the NPR newsletter, does a Top 10 at the end of every year. His intention for this list is to contain “no fewer than four artists whose music I’d never heard before — in other words, to seek out artists I didn’t already love”.

“There’s nothing wrong with falling back on favourite artists, big names and old reliables, but the thrill of discovery (and of sharing those discoveries with others) can keep your relationship with music eternally vital,” he says.

As someone who obsessively listens out for new and old music I haven’t heard before, I like that idea a lot but I won’t be forcing it if my old faves do release better records.

Regarding the second resolution, Thompson admits he doesn’t spend enough money on his favourite musicians and will be “buying vinyl copies of their records, buying T-shirts and other merch at shows, keeping an eye out for Bandcamp events and exclusives that put cash in their pockets and so on. This feels like a good year to put more of my money where my mouth is.”

No proper music fan can argue with that sentiment. I will also have a word with the editor about that salary increase.

My third music-related resolution is to do a proper year-end list and not just to scramble at the last minute to listen to as many records as possible as the hourglass empties. 

This will hopefully force me to listen properly and deeply to the records that I buy throughout the year and, of course, to keep paying attention to what is being released.

I wish I had got my act together to draw up such a list last year, as there were superb records by artists like Thandi Ntuli, Jaimie Branch, Yo La Tengo, Animal Collective, Titanic, Diepkloof United Voice, Lil Yachty, Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids, Witch, Jimetta Rose, BCUC, Kadef, Ray Mazurek & the Exploding Star Orchestra, Gina Birch, Raw Poetic and so on.

But it is a new year and too late for regrets. And, as is normally the case, early this month, many publications have useful lists of the new releases we can expect. 

However, for the more unusual albums, or ones from the Global South, you have to search deeper. 

Also, since 2003, the BBC has done an annual “Sound Of …” list which predicts the next “big thing” in popular music. By the way, that first year 50 Cent was the winner. He has since been joined by the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, Frank Ocean, Franz Ferdinand, Stormzy and Wet Leg.

Announced last week, this year’s winners are the indie-rock quintet The Last Dinner Party, selected by a panel of more than 140 industry experts and artists, including Olivia Rodrigo, Declan McKenna, Chase & Status and Mahalia.

Olivia Dean was second, followed by Korean DJ Peggy Gou (who puzzlingly has already released seven EPs), South African Tyla and pop-soul singer Elmiene in fifth place.

The Last Dinner Party, according to Billboard magazine, “captured the buzz on both sides of the Atlantic last year, thanks in part to Nothing Matters, their breakthrough debut single”.

“Along the way, the band performed at Glastonbury Festival 2023, opened for the Rolling Stones in London’s Hyde Park, embarked on their first North American tour, and headlined a show at London’s Roundhouse.”

So, I rushed to YouTube to listen to Nothing Matters. To me it sounded just like Abba’s The Day Before You Came. Nothing wrong with that, because the Swedes were great, but I was expecting much more for the winners of such a hyped prize.

Fortunately, there are lots of South Africa’s finest musicians with new music in the pipeline early this year including Tutu Puoane, Skyjack, Shane Cooper, Thandiswa Mazwai, Mlungisi Gegana and Ziza Muftic. 

We intend to give them — and upcoming artists such as Tiya (see opposite page) — proper coverage here at the M&G.

Of albums from other parts of the world, I already have an eye on the following four, which will be released in the next two months. 

I have listened to tracks off them and I am giddy with excitement.

Womad Festival 2022
Malian Les Amazones d’Afrique will put out a new album next month. (David Corio/Redferns)

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou — Souvenirs

Ethiopian nun, composer and pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou died in March last year, nine months before what would have been her 100th birthday. 

In the 21st century, Emahoy became known worldwide for her beguiling rhythmic piano music. 

Her label Mississippi Records explained that it was commonly misinterpreted as “jazzy” or “honky tonk” but that “Emahoy’s music actually comes from a deep engagement with the Western classical tradition, mixed with her background in Ethiopian traditional and Orthodox music.”

The label is about to release her first vocal album which was made during the political upheavals following the 1974 revolution and the “Red Terror” in Ethiopia. 

The songs on the deeply moving Souvenirs were recorded between 1977 and 1985. They are delicately sung directly into a boombox and accompanied by Emahoy’s unmistakable piano. 

One can hear the sound of birds outside the window of her Addis Ababa home, giving us a sense of place and presence.

It is an achingly beautiful album and her lyrics, in Amharic, are clouded with the prospect of looming exile. On the track, Is It Sunny or Cloudy in the Land You Live?, she asks: “When I looked out/ past the clouds/ I couldn’t see my country’s sky/ Have I really gone so far?”

The song Tenkou! Why Feel Sorry? from her self-titled album is revisited here with vocals. Originally composed for her niece Tenkou, the lyrics go: “Don’t cry/ Childhood won’t come back/ Let it go with love.”

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry — King Perry

Lee “Scratch” Perry is another revered artist who is no longer around but who will grace us with previously unreleased music. 

Although he died in August 2021, the reggae-dub producer, singer and songwriter was so prolific that we’re still catching up with his output.

Conceived, written and recorded during the Covid pandemic, King Perry was produced by Daniel Boyle  and released on Tricky’s False Idols label. It takes the genius’ dub to many genres with contributions from artists such as Greentea Peng, Shaun Ryder and Tricky himself. 

It’s often risky to do the posthumous thing, especially with an artist such as Scratch whose output towards the end of his 85-year-long life was uneven, but based on just the track with Greentea Peng, 100lbs of Sunshine, the album is set to be sheer joy.

Les Amazones d’Afrique — Musow Danse

Musow Danse is something for the Afro-optimist in all of us — the third album by the supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique. They are an all-female collective which was formed in Bamako, Mali, in 2014 by three renowned Malian music stars and activists, Mamani Keïta, Oumou Sangaré and Mariam Doumbia. 

Their cause is gender equality and eradicating ancestral violence. 

Their weapon is a creative blend of funk, hip-hop and contemporary African pop. 

Musow Danse is out on 16 February. To whet your appetite, watch Kuma Fo on YouTube.

Jahari Massamba Unit — YHWH is Love

They got me quick-quick with Stomping Gamay, the first single off YHWH Is Love. Tight drumming, a funky bassline and then a fluttering, jazzy flute. 

I agree with Tom Breihan who wrote on the website Stereogum: “When André 3000 first announced his flute album New Blue Sun, I imagined that it might sound more like this.”

Jahari Massamba Unit is made up of brilliant hip-hop producer Madlib and acclaimed jazz drummer Karriem Riggins and this is their second album. It is out on 1 March.