Guest post by Adam Cadell, his words below on his new mix for our Excavation Series of tapes and ephemera:
Pan-African Violin Mix
While I have my own physical experiences of violin playing in the African context, the Excavation Series playlist I’ve put together that this rambling story forms the backdrop to, is largely derived from a more artificial journey through the various byways and highways of YouTube. Guided by a basic understanding of the true diversity of the violin’s place on the African continent, I’ve dug deep into African violining with a focus on Sub-Sahara, bearing in mind the well-known presence of the violin in North African music, thus only featuring that region most prominently at the end of the mix here, with perhaps the most impressive piece, a fifteen minute delay-soaked Libyan masterpiece.
Anyway, the mix starts with basically the coolest, most bad-arsed fiddle player you’ll ever see, and that’s Cape Verdean morna legend Antoninho Travadinha. His playing, style, and compositions just exude a strange tropical gothic melancholia, like you’re sitting, slumped in a chair, chilled rum in hand, staring out at the sea and just wishing you could walk out in it and be swallowed whole. It kicks you in the guts that hard, and the only way is up from there. And up the mix goes with some high-energy burgher highlife straight from Ghana and Amakye Dede. Dede is a pop star of epic proportions in Ghana and among the Ghanaian diaspora, and his distinctive sound is made all the more distinctive by the presence of the violin. To discuss this we need a new paragraph.
Back in 2012 I moved to Accra where I ended up working in the National Symphony Orchestra of Ghana and the Accra String Quartet as a violinist. I quickly befriended everyone, because you just quickly befriend everyone in Ghana, and especially lead violist George Ackersen (the greatest violist in Africa hands down) and former-German-now-as-Ghanaian-as-a-bowl-of-palmwine concertmaster Thomas “Kwame” Woernle. Thomas is very well-known in Ghana, not just as the orchestra’s leader, but also as the violinist in Amakye Dede’s band, the Apollo High Kings. He’s an incredible musician and truly singular character if ever there was one, from his swinging bow, to his impenetrable mix of thick German accent and Ghanaian patois and his penchant for driving really terrifyingly fast motorbikes through Accra’s desperately congested streets. Anyway, the uplifting, wild and yes somewhat cheesy Amakye Dede track in this mix features Thomas’ violin playing in its subtle lilt, sometimes a little too buried in the “orchestral hit” set electric keyboard so enamoured by the stuck-in-the-80s “burgher” highlife crowd. Indeed this brand of electro highlife is heavily linked to Germany as it emerged out of the Ghanaian diaspora that popped up, particularly in Hamburg during Jerry John Rawlings bullshit military dictatorship from 1979 ‘til the early 90s. I have many more tales to tell from the world of Ghanaian strings, but I’ll leave that for another time, or never.
Next up we do take a dose of North Africa, travelling up from the palm-laden shores of Accra, up through the dense forested Akan heartland that nurtures the deep musical roots of Highlife in Ghana up through the Savannah, through the Sahel and across the Sahara to Tunisia. I know absolutely nothing about Ridha Kalaï, but I like what I hear, read and see on the internet. He appears to have been somewhat of a king of Tunisian violin playing, and I can see why, his beautiful tone, and that aching Arabic microtonal, melismatic expression is just too much. Take the time to type his name into the YouTube search engine and check out a whole heap of old TV clips, mixes and so on. Obviously a serious character in Tunisian music, and we clearly all need to know more about him.
The next piece jumps all the way down to the south of this most inspiring of continents, to South Africa, and the famous Soweto neighbourhood where the brilliance of Zulu jive music started busting up dance floors in the 50s and 60s and beyond. The internet is absolutely soaked in 78 uploads of instrumental jive, and somehow, I don’t recall how, but it came to my attention that the violin has often been used as a lead instrument in this stuff. The most famous exponent is Noise Khanyile, and it may have been Awesome Tapes that hipped me to him, or maybe sheer accident, but he has absolutely nothing to do with the piece that appears here. Instead we have Henry Gabela & His Violin, shredding things down with the sawing, almost hectically violent sound tearing away before that quintessential jive band beat kicks in and all hell breaks loose. I ripped Gabela’s piece off an interesting YouTube channel called Wahyi Tapes, which is well worth wasting several hours on, especially with all the jive 78s, but also all the other rare shit on there. Violin jive really takes the violin to rhythmic and timbrel areas second to none, driving, harsh, ecstatic, amazing stuff.
In a perhaps superficially similar sonic vein – although considering the geographic area, the similarities may well be more deep than superficial – I’ve followed the jive greatness up with some junkyard fiddle from Botswana which I know very little about other than I dig the sound. And after that once more another piece I know very little about, other than that the musician playing it – Asim Gorashi – was living in Brisbane for a period of time, and working/studying at the same university as me. Asim came to Australia from Sudan, and he quickly came to notoriety as a cabbie who will give you a seriously musical trip with his virtuosic whistling. Turns out he’s a world champion whistler, but he also shreds on the violin, seemingly taking a preference for reverb and delay-soaked electric violin sounds as is popular with North African musicians as well. I don’t know where Asim is now, but I did try to drop him a line on Facebook when compiling this.
To connect from a Sudanese refugee in Brisbane who loves delay to me (I also love delay), I take the listener next to Senegal. Why me? Well, I’ve had the good fortune of spending a decent chunk of time in Senegal (thank you Australian tax payer), and it is a country that holds a special place in my heart and soul. Some of the best musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with are in Senegal, and the cities of Dakar and especially St Louis (Ndar) in the north where I’ve spent the most time there, are extraordinary. Adding to that is the incredible landscape and natural beauty found in more southerly climes, like the Sine Saloum Delta, a stunning region that’s very special. While I was last in Senegal, on a 4 month artist’s residency mostly in St Louis, I connected with many musicians including the extremely talented Sahad Saar and his band in Dakar (playing with them one night at the Insitut Francaise de Dakar, their high energy “Afro Sufi Jazz” music is something to experience), and most strongly with Khadim Tall, on whose latest record my violin proudly features. It doesn’t feature in the mix though, nor does Khadim or Sahad for that matter, just thought I’d tell the story. Khadim, myself and his band played and recorded a fair bit in St Louis during my stay, mostly late in the evenings at a seedy riverside bar called La Flamingo, where I also got to jam with various other legendary musicians. Khadim’s music hasn’t been captured as well on CD as it has in the live setting, where a truly spiritual experience is had, audience members calling out the names of Mouride saints, throwing money at the band, and Khadim’s voice reaching melismatic heights that stick with me still, not to mention the complex and dense mbalax rhythmic interplay of his band. Anyway, what features in the mix, is a recording by L’Orchestre National de Senegal which I didn’t even know existed when I was over there. I discovered them while YouTube-surfing for this compilation, and even discovered that they have a violinist William Badji in the picture. Why no one ever mentioned him to me during my stay I’ll never know. Perhaps he’s moved to France like so many, or perhaps my French is just so bad I did have several conversations about him but never realised it. All that aside, there are various random performances up on YT of these guys, and the mix features one of them, the dry, straight into the board, electric fiddle sound identical to the preferred sound of the violin on Khadim’s album which I have just harped on about for a large paragraph that should be about the aforementioned.
After Senegal, I take the listener back over to East Africa, and some live-captured Taarab from Zanzibar. I love Taarab music, and so should you. Just google it. I don’t know much about it, other than that it is a beautiful mix of rusty Arabic violin sounds, with powerful Swahili singing. After Zanzibar we hit the North Africa bracket, starting in Morocco with another artist I know next to nothing about, other than that he plays distorted as fuck electrified fiddle with his teeth like a tranced-up Berber Jimi Hendrix. It just sounds amazing to me, so wild and intense. Everyone should play like this. After Morocco we finish the mix with the most epic of all the pieces here, from Libya, and I’ve found no more info, nor any contact details for these guys. The sound is ripped from phone video in someone’s house, a party unfolding, the visually most amusing bit being this dude who just smokes and drinks tea amongst the band (moral support?), and about three guys seemingly charged solely with control of the delay, which is beyond the beyond on this one. The violin playing is soul-smashing, and the vocals of heartbreaking beauty. While I’m imposing my own Western lens on this I know, it sounds so psychedelic and deep it actually makes me think of Taj Mahal Travellers or something. Just full-on in the best possible way.
Well that wraps it up for this mix. I hope all who read and listen are enlightened. My aforementioned mates in the National Symphony Orchestra of Ghana, and in particular viola legend George Ackersen can be reached here. George is trying to set up a music school in his region in Accra where he can (and currently has begun to) offer lessons to kids who struggle to get by in his community. I’d recommend hitting him up if you want to help out.
The cassette was professionally duplicated in an edition of 50 copies. This tape is bundled with Excavation Series 13 & 14 on Bandcamp too, so head there for the full three-part package.
From all of us, we hope you enjoy the mix and can share it along, and we thank Adam for helping us with the series. His mix and the accompanying writing is top notch, and we’re psyched to get the chance to work together.