Woman’s Work


In 1998, The New York Times ran a series of articles about women in Muslim countries, including Islamic Africa, showing how devout Muslim women were struggling for social parity in traditionally restrictive cultures. Coincidentally, 1998 was also the year Nonesuch signed a licensing deal with London’s World Circuit Records to release the work of Mali’s feminist singer-songwriter Oumou Sangare.

Just out of her teens, Sangare launched a solo career in 1989 dedicated to defending the rights of African women. By 1996 she had made three critically acclaimed albums whose central themes concerned social reform. Appropriating an informal folk music of the Wassoulou region— one of the few Malian genres traditionally relegated to female singers— Sangare hammers out highly personalized protest material. Unfortunately, American concertgoers miss much of her topicality because onstage, unlike Miriam Makeba or Zap Mama, Sangare does not contextualize her songs in English.

Last Saturday, at Town Hall with a seven-piece band, Sangare was halfway through her second set before she asked a bilingual countrywoman to translate her mission statement for American fans. The singer placed more emphasis on choreography than on breaking the language barrier, and this was a mistake. A typically provocative lyric like “father of my children, you bruise my hips by holding me so tightly in your arms” (“Baba”) deserved proper setup and explication. The fact that Sangare’s Nonesuch albums provide English lyrics is of no help in a live setting.

And yet, whether she’s warbling through a decade-old hit like “Djama Kaissoumou” or the more recent “Sa Bu,” the singer’s velvety contralto tumbles up and down pentatonic scales in a relentless cascade of liquid tones that reminds me of nothing so much as the sound of water wearing away rock— a rock symbolizing every system that keeps the women of Africa in pain, purdah, or poverty. — Carol Cooper

God After Midnight

The two West African heroes didn’t cancel each other out by hitting New York on the same Saturday night. Few seats went unfilled at Oumou Sangare’s Town Hall concert. And while the same wasn’t true in the balconies of the Hammerstein, where Youssou N’Dour’s Great African Ball was launched after Sangare finished, no one would claim he got the worst of it.

When Super Etoile came on at midnight, warmup vocalist Ouzin N’Diaye’s penetrating high notes had me wondering whether the god of African music had gotten old and ugly. But just a few minutes later the taller, rosier N’Dour was projecting with such mellow body I was abashed I’d been taken in. The floor crackled, and for over three hours the star and his 12 musicians demonstrated why his Dakar shows are religious experiences. The music went on nonstop except when the band comfortably decided what to do next, although only percussionist-animateur Babacar Faye never seemed to wander off at all. As for N’Dour, he left momentarily to exchange the white robe that contrasted so spectacularly with the others’ dark suits for an even more gorgeous rust-colored suit, and he didn’t spend every minute singing. But at 3:30, 45 minutes after he’d led what appeared to be a show-topping sing-along on the Senegal-only hit “Birima,” the 39-year-old was still performing feats of volume, clarity, and emotional outreach American marathoners like the Grateful Dead never dreamed of.

The audience, which looked to be three-quarters Senegalese, danced only sporadically. White onlookers grooved to the rhythm that always sustained the synth underpinnings, guitar sallies, and tama clusters. In contrast, the mostly male Senegalese combatants tended to explode in bursts of limb and corkscrewing pelvis. Midway through, on the international hit “7 Seconds,” Stevie Wonder followed the sound of his own harmonica onto the stage, where vocal improvs were traded until Wonder had had enough. It was an aptly wonderful moment— one among more than anyone could be bothered to count. — Robert Christgau

We Hurt a Lot

A passage of unforgettable transcendence occurs about an hour into Robert Ashley’s new “television opera,” Dust, which had its domestic premiere at the Kitchen last week. A man who has lost his legs in a war converses with God while under the influence of morphine. The languorous synthesizer lines performed by “Blue” Gene Tyranny, and visual director Yukihuro Yoshihara’s tie-dyed televisuals are sublime, while the topic (why violence and suffering?) is fragmented, accelerated, and chaotic. God simply speaks too fast to be comprehended.

Then something amazing happens: the “half-man” remembers four dreamy pop songs from his past. Country-and-western plain speech about love combines with down-home electronica to produce a peculiarly American strain of Buddhistic grace, clarity, and acceptance. “I want to fall in love just one more time,” declares one song. “Don’t get your hopes up,” answers another. “We hurt a lot,” goes one refrain, and ample anecdotal evidence is provided.

Ashley to ashes, Dust to dust. Mortality and life’s “irreversibilities” are Ashley’s themes in a libretto inspired by the free associations of homeless street people. Modeled on the motet form of layered voices (a sort of Middle Ages doo-wop), Dust‘s set consisted of five vocalists— Ashley, Sam Ashley, Joan La Barbara, Thomas Buckner, and Jacqueline Humbert— arranged behind panes of glass that shifted constantly between clarity and opacity. Television monitors above each of them commented on their words, while a wall-sized screen hovered above this mystical multimedia Stonehenge like a supertitled Rothko panel.

No one sings in Dust, at least not in the old-fashioned sense, although the performances demanded virtuoso moments of pitch and timing. Ashley himself embodies an urbane intimacy reminiscent of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon improvisations. In their harmonies, speech patterns, constant digressions, and, yes, utter sense of fun, Ashley’s operas give the cumulative impression of a single extended work. The epitome of pop-art perfection, it’s both ritual and diversion— television of the future. — Richard Gehr

Earth Mother

Since the ’50s, nearly all jazz singers have stuck to two kinds of material: overdone old songs and neglected old songs. With the exception of Abbey Lincoln. Apart from being the last surviving member of the sorority of great jazz ladies that extends from Billie Holiday to Betty Carter, Lincoln is easily jazz’s most gifted songwriter since Jon Hendricks. She provides us with a thrill taken for granted in other genres but rare among jazz vocalists: we eagerly anticipate her new releases not least to hear her new compositions.

And she never lets us down. “Wholly Earth,” which was both the focal point of her recent weeklong engagement at the Blue Note and the title of her seventh Verve album, attempts a God-like view of the planet, after the fashion of Wayne Shorter’s The All-Seeing Eye. Her songs typically focus on philosophy, and display a tightly crafted marriage of words and music. At the same time, her interpretive skills are so strong (she’s that rare jazz auteur who, like Thelonious Monk, has a signature rhythm, a kind of humpty-dumpty medium-fast beat) that she can accommodate the works of others within her stylistic universe, as she does with the homespun revelations of “If I Only Had a Brain” (complete with verse) and the psychedelic imagery of “Midnight Sun” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

It’s too often reported that artists like Lincoln aren’t as good on record as they are in person. Lincoln’s recordings, however, afford her the opportunity to collaborate with such worthy constituents as Nicholas Payton and Bobby Hutcherson, a virtual coleader here. The vibes master primarily backs Lincoln on marimba, giving the group the exotic texture Lincoln needs for her blend of jazz and world music. Surprisingly welcome is a second voice belonging to one Maggie Brown, who helps Lincoln emphasize the title phrase of Wholly Earth‘s opener, “And It’s Supposed To Be Love.” With its catchy hook and erotic imagery, “Supposed To Be Love”could easily be marketed by Verve as Lincoln’s breakthrough pop single. — Will Friedwald

Scat Power

When Lea DeLaria scats, she uses enough body English to wind Big Ben. Her right knee pumps up; her fingers fidget as if she were playing a tenor sax and pierce the air as if she were sewing. The scatting itself is expert. On “How High the Moon,” she dips and soars, squeals and grunts in a trumpeting tribute to— but not imitation of— Ella Fitzgerald. Moving around the tiny Joe’s Pub stage in a double-breasted black suit, she looks like Buddy Hackett doing a command performance at the Sands.

Like Bette Midler before her, DeLaria proves that the art of stand-up comedy and the art of belting are not mutually exclusive. She started as a lesbian comic so far out on a limb she was flying. She proved she could connect in Broadway musicals (On the Town— “I Can Cook, Too” and wear a dress) and Off-Broadway gag plays (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told). But now she demonstrates she can channel these masteries into jazz singing.

Fronting a sassy, solid trio (Whitney Ashe on piano, Mary Ann McSweeney on bass, Barbara Merjan on drums), DeLaria sails easily through the Rodgers and Hart “Dancing on the Ceiling” but not before explaining she has a crush on Chelsea Clinton. She tackles “Empty Bed Blues,” but not before she lofts more remarks on her own one-night stands. She intones “You’re Changed,” but not without exposing a broken heart. Flaws? Very occasionally pitch eludes her. But this is big-time big-time — David Finkle