1.26.2007

Gasper Lawal, Ajomasé & Abio'sunni

IMG_0273 by you. IMG_0270 by you.

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for something like the duration of a comet’s orbit, so today’s post is an effort to make up for lost time. Thus, a pair of records are featured, being the first two solo efforts by expatriate Nigerian drummer Gasper Lawal. Both embody every motive behind my (admittedly sporadic) commitment to this journal:

• Neither album has appeared on CD in the quarter-century since their release. “Kita-Kita,” from Ajomasé, turned up on the epoch-marking Nigeria 70 compilation assembled and released by Afro-Strut, a label whose demise I still lament. The combined running times of Ajomasé and Abio’sunni outdistanced the storage capabilities of the compact disc; it’s doubtful that either title was sufficiently popular to justify re-release in its own right. Fortunately, downloading now renders the timing problem moot.

• Both albums are filled to the brim with great playing and terrifically modern ideas (Lawal, with his 1980 debut Ajomasé, might have formulated the Nigerian response to Bowie’s & Eno’s Low), none of which have dated in the least. Curiously, neither record is mentioned on Gasper Lawal’s page in the All Music Guide.

What I know about Gasper Lawal is summarized in this pocket bio, as type-written by Black Music magazine’s Chris May on the reverse side of the Ajomasé lp sleeve:

Gasper-Lawal, African percussionist extraordinary (sic), is the son of Herbalist Asorono-Akejiwori Lawal. Born in Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria, Gasper came to England in the sixties and gigged with numerous African bands before deciding to involve himself with session work, as a means of expanding his musical horizons. He worked with Ginger Baker’s Airforce, Steve Stills, the Rolling Stones, Funkadelic, Joni Haastrup, Sonny Okosun, Barbra Streisand and many other names before joining Clancy in 1975. In 1977 Gasper returned to Nigeria for a while, returning to England to record ‘AJOMASE’ – which means “we all have to do it together”

Obviously, Gasper’s curriculum vita is — as AbFab's Patsy once memorably noted of high colonics – nothing to sniff at. In regard to his work with the Stones, I’ve often wondered if Gasper was among the African drummers at their Hyde Park memorial concert for Brian Jones. One thing I’m certain of is that, in addition to his formidable drumming skills and immaculate taste in accompanists and production technique, Mr. Lawal must possess a sense of humor. I'll offer the Barbra Streisand credit as proof, but will also cite a couple of items not mentioned above. He was part of Graham Bond’s Magick, a band assembled for the making of an album in tribute to occultist and pain enthusiast Aleister Crowley. (For the record, keyboardist Bond – an impulsive sort, best known for his leadership of the Graham Bond Organization — later tossed himself under a train. The thought lingers that he and producer Joe Meek might have made for an interesting twosome at teatime.) Also, Lawal was featured on Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead, the first solo lp from Bonzo Dog Band founder Vivian Stanshall; regrettably the latter’s credentials as a forward-looking Africanist have been obscured, for the most part, by his eccentricity. Which Viv worked overtime.

The cast assembled by Lawal for both albums is reason enough to investigate. Colin Bass, programmatically named, both creates and steals thunder from multiple layers of Gasper the friendly drummer; like the Velvet Underground’s John Cale before him, one feels compelled to review not just Colin’s bass playing but his very nervous system, so intuitive, inventive and altogether on-the-money are his performances here. Then there is the seven-stringed mi-solo guitar of Abdul ‘Tee-Jay’ Salongo, heard throughout Abio’sunni; the releases from his own group, Rokoto, are enjoyable but don’t approach the galvanizing impact of his playing as you’ll hear today.

And so it goes, every track a perfect mesh of English and Nigerian players, the balance between tension and release, synthesizers and tortoise-shell guitars, background and foreground, each so carefully calibrated. Great splashes of echo and reverb, out of Ennio Morricone by way of dub reggae, are integrated with Nigerian rhythms to good effect here. Lawal & co. were exploring this terrain some months in advance of Paul ‘Groucho’ Smykle’s engineering for King Sunny Adé’s Juju Music.

Gasper Lawal did release a third album in 1995: Kadar, on the Globestyle imprint, whose A&R director, 3 Mustaphas 3 guitarist Ben Mendelson, played violin on Abio’sunni’s “Kai Anibaba.” Kadar featured the same cast of musicians, yet left me entirely unmoved. Still haven’t figured that one out.

It’s worth noting that I bought both Ajomasé and Abio'sunni in what, for all intents and purposes, was a punk record store, 99 Records in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. Its proprietor, Ed Bahlman, followed his instincts to good effect. His store’s eponymous label released downtown art bands (Y Pants), post-punk (Bush Tetras), the minimalist funk of ESG, reggae (The Congos, as produced by Boris Gardiner of The Upsetters, Lee Perry’s house band), and amazing one-offs on the order of journalist Vivian Goldman’s Dirty Washing EP. It seemed then, and still seems appropriate all these many years later, to have acquired Gasper’s DIY albums at 99, a haven for adventuresome weirdos.

Next up, sooner than later, some unfinished business from 2006: a memento mori for one of my favorite Indian musicians, Ustad Bismillah Khan, who died last year. Please stay tuned.

AJOMASÉ (@ 320)
ABIO'SUNNI (@ 320)

P.S. This particular resurrection of NCIP was motivated in no small measure by the appearance of a like-minded journal, Magic of Juju. Well-chosen, impossibly rare records of diverse temperament presented with care, every one a joy to hear. Good shit, Maynard…indeed.

As was obvious to frustrated visitors over the past few months, most of NCIP's Rapidshare links had long ago gone the way of the dodo, owing to inactivity. I’ve re-upped the albums for the entries immediately visible on the right, as well as the King Sunny Adé lp’s (and that of his pedal steel player, Demola Adepoju), and random others. Please notify me, via the comments page, should you desire a particular album link restored, and I’ll respond in kind. Thank you for your patience. I want to buy you all a cup of coffee and some pie, give you all a ride home. For the nonce, however, this will have to suffice.

In acknowledgment of the year that stretches before us, I’ll offer a benediction for all NCIP readers and listeners. Here it is, straight from the mouth of the late James Brown, who shook the knuckles from my right hand back in '76 as he barked in my face:

SON! BE COOL! STAY IN SCHOOL!

(23 years of age at the time, I was reading for a Master’s degree; my parents were prodding me to enter the job market. Couldn’t wait to tell them the news…)

1.09.2007

Pamelo Mounk'a, No.1 Africain (a repost)

IMG_0277 by you.

I began buying Congolese records during 1980. The punk music that had drawn me to New York a few years earlier had succumbed to terminal ennervation, with Kingstonian 'cultural' reggae not far behind it. At the time, an African student dj named Lawrence Nii Nartey was broadcasting on WKCR, Columbia University's radio station in uptown Manhattan; his program, emerging from my bedside radio in Tribeca, had a galvanizing effect on this little honkie. He played all the greats: Franco & OK Jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Kabassele, Dr. Nico et al. The songs were so good, each one fully as sensuous - to invoke again a metaphor that has resurfaced more than once in my writing - as the flick of a sperm cell's tail. I didn't want them to stop. They didn't. The novelty of these extended dance tunes was such that if I found an album from Zaire containing four songs, it would be deemed good enough and I would buy it without question. Of course, nothing was or is that simple. This practice had me buying a lot of mediocre music in the course of pilgrimages to Brooklyn's African Record Centre. I did manage, however, to divine a simple, immutable truth while early in the thrall of listening to Pamelo Mounk'a: If a woman's name ended in "a," chances were Pamelo could spin a deathless tune in homage to her.

No.1 Africain, Pamelo's third solo album helmed by producer Eddy Gustave, is offered herewith as proof. "Tamara, Ndjeu Nkasi A Me" and "Nourama" comprise the B side of this disc, both tunes sporting the earmarks of great soukous music: the horn section jabbing and feigning like a prize fighter; multiple guitar interplay that obliterates the line between rhythm and lead roles, as with the Rolling Stones' best London singles from the mid-'60s; and that genuinely pregnant pause when, after a couple of verses sung to a languid 3+2 Afro-Cuban tattoo, the band shifts into high gear for the extended vamps known as the seben, which form the lion's share of a given song. I live for the seben, when drummer Domingo Salsero plays four-to-the-floor, driving the band towards the horizon without obstacles in sight, red-lining in fifth gear all the while. Master Mwana Congo gets off some rude asides on his guitar, the backing vocalist offers props off-mic to the gentlemen of the orchestra. From this, something like genuine trance music materializes.

What's more, Pamelo's root inspiration holds water when soaked overnight. Every woman I've ever met (well, there's a lone exception, whom I'll gladly ignore for the nonce) whose given name ended in the letter "a" has become a luminous, valued presence in my life. Pamelo Mounk'a offers a gallery of these alluring creatures throughout his discography: Selimandja, Nora, Camitina and the penultimate, his 'tresor Hindou,' Samantha, whom we'll meet in a later post. What a guy! What a life! What a cream-colored suit! More's the pity, then, that Pamelo and the late Robert Palmer never met, as both were boulevardiers setting an admirably louche example for the rest of us.

IMG_0278 by you.

One more of Monsieur Mounk'a's solo efforts will appear next, being the first chapter of his solo career prior to working avec Eddy. Beyond that, other soukous discs will be offered as iterations of my soundtrack for warm weather, Arette Gran Clase tequila, buttery women and hedonism in all desirous forms. Then, in a while, the twin peaks of Pamelo's canon, Pamelo Mounk'a and Samantha. Please stay tuned.

NO. 1 AFRICAIN (@ 160)