Thursday, 29 January 2009

Never mind the mbalax

I dug out half a dozen cassette tapes I bought a few years ago and have been scanning the web trying to find ways of transferring them on to CD. There is software you can download for free and cables can be bought cheaply, but even in these times of credit crunch I keep thinking it would be simpler to take them in somewhere and get them copied.
The problem with this is that the tapes are blank cassettes onto which music has been recorded. A company which specialises in transferring material from tape to CD might object because it would put them in breach of copyright laws. However, the cassettes were bought at a street booth in a market in Africa where the practice of simply taping albums and selling them to customers is widespread.
I've been listening to African music since the late 1980s when I went to see Zimbabwean group the Bhundu Boys in the Mean Fiddler in London. I'd heard them on John Peel's show on BBC radio but not really taken that much notice of them.
Being tall and gangly I'm not a natural dancer - all arms and legs, creating a health hazard for those standing nearby – so I try to avoid it. However, that night at the Mean Fiddler I found myself writhing into all sort of contortions with the tripping, jangling, guitar-driven sound known as 'township jive'.
I bought a couple of albums on vinyl, and later CD, but they never really captured the energy of the live show. Never-the-less, I was more inclined to listen to African music when Peel played it rather than waiting impatiently for the Dead Kennedys or The Fall.
After a couple of years in London I moved to Madrid and my musical tastes broadened even further – not so much in terms of Flamenco, which I don't mind, but more in Galician folk music and, I have to admit, some very dodgy Spanish pop.
I also used to frequent a tiny little salsa bar called Club Ombu, which was still there in Calle Santa Ana, not far from the Prado, last time I looked. This opened up another musical genre for me and led to quite a few minor injuries among the mostly South American clientele who attended after they got to close to the flailing limbs of the geeky Paddy in the middle of the dance floor.
After moving back to Ireland I started buying into the musical genre now known as world music, which basically covers everything from North African 'Rai', Cuban 'Son', Siberian throat singing, Bollywood soundtracks and even African-Irish fusion.
I've a fairly extensive record collection (1,000 or so CDS) and I'd say maybe a quarter of those are by artists who are singing in a language that I don't understand.
West African music is my speciality, particularly from Senegal and Mali, but touching into the Arabic-influenced sounds of North Africa as well. Orchestra Baobab, Youssou N'Dour and Baaba Maal from Senegal and Malian artists Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabaté are fairly mainstream in terms of world music aficionados.
Tuareg nomads Tinariwen are romanticised as rebels who roamed the Sahara Desert with guns and guitars strapped to their backs, trying to establish a separatist state while listening to the music of Bob Dylan. Their albums combine harsh guttural vocals and tribal wails with punk-inspired guitar riffs and their live act has been described by Andy Kershaw (another BBC radio DJ who sadly seems to have fallen on hard times) as the closest thing he has ever seen to the Clash.
Three years ago myself and Sinead went to Gambia in west Africa and had vaguely planned to travel to Dakar, the capital of neighbouring Senegal, to take in some live music. However, we were told it would take days to get there by bus and the cost of hiring a driver and car for an 18-hour trip was prohibitive, although we did cross over into Senegal for a couple of days of getting bitten by mosquitoes in a mangrove swamp.
Back in Gambia I'd a list of Mbalax (Senegalese Lation-infused rock, with elements of soul and African rhythms) artists whose music I wanted to get hold off and so got our regular taxi driver, Yanx, to drive us into Banjul. Yanx - a dreadlocked reggae fan - had the most battered taxi in Gambia and a journey with him was always an adventure. On the first day we were stuck in a huge tailback of cars and he tried to cut past it on the hard shoulder until he saw the road was blocked by soldiers.
"Aw shit. It's the president," he moaned as he almost collided with a couple of Daimlers and their outriders who were speeding past on Gambia's only tarmac-ed stretch of road. Fortunately we weren't shot.
Yanx took us to a couple of stalls before he was happy with the price that I was going to be charged - I think the real rip-off guys were going to charge £1 per album while Yanx secured me the much more reasonable 25p, although he was muttering about how terrible it was that I should be ripped off in such a way simply because I was white.
The owner of the music booth went through my list, ticking off the albums he had, shaking his head at others and saying they were really old and that he didn't stock them any more. "Come back in an hour," he said ripping open boxes of blank tapes and slotting them into the machine before recording them off an original.
So me, Sinead and Yanx wandered off to sit in the shade for a while and have something to eat. No doubt the artists who made the albums resent the loss of royalties that such a practice means for them, but Yanx said it was better for them to get their albums heard by as many people as possible to ensure that they get a good crowd when they play live.
When we got back I was handed over my purchases with nothing but the artists’ names written on them - Es Lo, Super Rail Band, Etoile de Dakar and Le Super Cayor. There was no track listing and so I was never even really sure what the names of the tracks I was listening to were.
Since then our previous stereo packed in and we bought a funky new one last year with DAB radio, iPod port and CD player but no tape deck and until today I’d nothing to play my African cassettes on anymore. For now I’m sitting here listening to Es Lo through Sinead’s headphones on a walkman which I had to borrow from my Da but I reckon I’ll have to try to come to terms with the technology to transfer them to CD before the batteries run out.


Fionnchú said...

Time-Lag records catalogue description. Obscure US (Maine) distributor, but maybe more easily found over there:

"VARIOUS ARTISTS ~ WEST AFRICAN MUSIC IN BRITAIN 1927-1929 ~ 2lp (honest jon's, uk) $24.00

honest jon's has prepared a series drawing on some of the earliest recordings in the emi hayes archive -- recovered from more than 150,000 78s -- staggering music from iraq, turkey, caucasia, lebanon, iran (including sides made in old street, london, in 1909), egypt and the belgian congo. this series opener presents the music of the west african underground of 1920s britain, recorded at hayes and released on the zonophone label (which exported nearly all the records to west africa). you can hear caribbean influences here, the promise of highlife there, but living is hard mostly disavows fusion and assimilation. and by contrast with antecedents in the history of black music in britain -- minstrelsy and spirituals, for example, ragtime and jazz -- these recordings are unhitched from the protocols of a white listenership. these are startling, trenchant, elemental roots -- carrying troubled news home, along with signs of the new african nationalism -- and an enthralling glimpse of other lives, other times. artists include: oni johnson, isaac jackson, ben simmons, harry e. quashie, douglas papafio, prince zulamkah, the west african instrumental quintet, the ga quartet, domingo justus, james tucker, john mugat, kumasi trio, james thomas, nicholas de heer, george williams aingo and james brown. 2lp version, deluxe gatefold sleeve. with large insert including mark ainley's liner notes plus photos, etc."

Phil said...

What kind of leads are you using to convert? I have a stack of old tapes that I wouldn't mind moving into the 21st century...