Various Artists

Africa: Anthology of the Music of Chad, Vol. 2: Le Mayo Kebbi Occidental

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Listeners who think they have heard everything unique under the sun, from an orchestra of mandolins to a solo played on a stalk of grass, should sit back and let a Toupouri orchestra into their life. This combination of men playing flutes made out of millet stalks and large, straight, or megaphone-type horns made out of a calabashes, all blown in complex polyphonic sequences, would be incredible in itself. But on top of that, the guys are shuffling around in circles wearing rattles around their ankles. This is perhaps a lame attempt to describe what happens on the first two tracks of this collection, part of three volumes the French Ocora label devoted to the music of this unique African nation. These are absolutely beautiful pieces of music by any standard, as are many of the tracks on this album. Available also as a triple-record box, the original release was accompanied by a lavishly illustrated booklet in which one can see pictures of the amazing instruments that are used in these performances. There are, for example, the massive toumbal, which are cylindrical drums played or practically pounded with a thud deep enough to suggest falling into a well. The drummers are gourouna, described as a society within a society, appearing at festivals and showing off their muscular strength by carting these big drums around. Not just carrying the drums, but playing fabulous rhythms on them and singing their famous songs that are "learned and perfected long into the night." It sure sounds like it. There are some 50 musicians involved in this performance, some of them making little squeaks and short melodic phrases on whistles made of horns called difna, which as seems typical to the music of Chad, come along as a kind of second layer or counterpoint to the drumming. The entire second side is of this album is devoted to similarly brilliant tracks from the world of the Toupori people. This is one of three of the non-Muslim tribes in Chad, the others being the Massa and Moundang, both represented with spacier-sounding tracks on the first side. The first piece is actually performed on the stroll, the opening example of "Massa Music" featuring two men on either end of a herd, returning to their village while making music with their voices and small one-holed whistles carved from animal horns. Then it is time to grind, as the second Massa track brings two women singing as they crush millet with stones. The recording quality is great here, and the sound of the millet being crushed is a texture more vivid than all the gimmicky hi-fi albums released in the '50s. The Massa song sung by Moudaksou, accompanied by a trio of four-stringed bow harps called dilla, has got to be the best example of African music sounding like the boogie blues of John Lee Hooker that listeners interested in such connections could ever hope to find. The sonic quality of the bow harps going in and out of phase with each other is also wonderful. The first side winds up with a strange-sounding Moundang funeral ritual. Other highlights on this record in general are the drumming throughout and the sound of the hou-hou horn during the funeral, and in specific, the guy who starts screaming at one point in a manner that would send Gibby Hayes of Butthole Surfers into a cold sweat. All told, one of the classic collections of African music and one for the desert-island disc carton.

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