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Mixed Media: Music

Elza Soares

‘Sex and blackness’ are her themes, says samba sujo maestra Elza Soares.

The Woman at the End of the World

by Elza Soares (Mais Um Discos, MAIS031 CD, LP + digital)

This is samba sujo – dirty samba. Not my term, but that of Elza Soares, the 70-something Brazilian legend who is The Woman at the End of the World (A Mulher do Fim do mundo). Now getting its worldwide outing after a limited earlier release in her home territory, this is Soares’s 34th studio album and it’s astounding. The opening number, ‘Coracão do Mar’ (Heart of the Sea) – the text comes from a poem by Oswald de Andrad – provides the first taste of Soares’ smoky, growly vocals. It’s an acapella number and it’s beautiful in all its worn-out warmth.

When an artist has recorded as much as Soares has, it’s difficult to produce novelty. Soares is unhindered here. The sanitized slinkiness of commercial samba is not for her. The Woman at the End of the World is, she says, about ‘sex and blackness’, which, given its song range, is pretty accurate. Musically, the album is in a wild place: wild-plucked guitars and skitter electronic beats move many of the 11 songs into experimental territory. It works brilliantly: ‘Benedita’, a song that details the death of a transgender crack addict, gathers a furious and indignant intensity as it goes on. This is defiant, street-fighting samba and Soares is its general.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul (1963-1969)

by Fela Ransome Kuti and his Koola Lobitos (Knitting Factory Records, KFR 1134 3CDs and digital)

A young Fela Kuti, at the beginning of political radicalization.

How could one sum up the lifeworks of Fela Ransome Kuti, the inventor of Afrobeat, a style that’s now gone global? Fela, the defiant firebrand who declared his own republic in the teeth of Nigeria’s military rulers? Fela, the figure whose funeral – he died from AIDS-related illness in 1997 – was attended by over a million people? It’s a nigh-on impossible task.

Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul offers a good place to start. The beauty of this triple CD set is in its framing. Rather than pulling in Fela’s various outfits, from the Africa 70 to the Egypt 90 ensembles, it concentrates on six key years in the musician’s development. They take Fela (then playing trumpet rather than his later trademark sax) and the Koola Lobitos, the band he formed in London as a student, to the very beginnings of political radicalization in the late 1960s and Afrobeat itself. The CDs reflect this journey, moving from highlife, the Afro-inflected jazz style first popular in Ghana, to a more Afrocentric music.

The sound quality can be scratchy at points (in many cases, no mastertapes existed and recordings had to be taken from old discs) and this makes the recordings seem older than they actually are. However, the importance of this 39-track trove can’t be over-stated. Compiled with a fan’s devotion by the Japanese academic Toshiya Endo, and packaged with thoroughly researched sleeve-notes by Michael E Veal, Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul captures an important part of the Fela story.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

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