The Congolese guitarist Henri Bowane is reputed to have invented the sebene in the 1940s, but this kind of instrumental bridge, on which one or two musicians develop arpeggios in circular progressions while another improvises around them, has forever been common to music for Congolese harps, lutes, thumb pianos and xylophones.
Aha. I had been calling it the descarga, but I am always happy to learn a new, more appropriate word for the part of the song that cues the insanity: in Franco’s Azda, the repetition of the theme keeps the tension going throughout Franco’s solo; in other, less virtuosic performances, the sebene is the part where you, the listener, feel as if you’re diving into a huge pile of feathery guitar notes, like a woman in a music video.
In other, less abstracted videos, the sebene is the part where the women dancers move to the front and begin their undulations. The circularity of the music and the circularity of the movements are echoed in the circle shape of the navel, both in motion and at rest, as well.
The quote above (and bizarrely still picture) is from the surprisingly helpful National Geographic page on soukous music.
Just an ordinary Bo Diddley song, with his happy, easy going voice, but that bass drum keeps striking as if it had been transplanted from a Camille Sauvage record or something. Completely weird and out of the ordinary.
Sister Suvi, the trio of Merril Garbus, Nico Dann and Patrick Gregoire, in concert wields the clarity, density, and menace of a falling chandelier. At Bowery Ballroom Thursday night, Merril disavowed the “power trio” label, but really, what else do you call a three piece that works so hard to create space within their songs? There’s harmonic space, with lots of drones, revealing the compositional skeleton like a delicate chain drawing attention to its decolletage; there’s rhythmic space, with off-meter handclaps and tarantella-like drumstick beats that pull the emphases away from the ones and threes (and twos and fours) like a stuttering set of power drapes opening to reveal a puppet stage; there’s always space in the arrangement for another ukulele-powered surge. La Garbus gets more out of her ukulele than any recent performer I’ve seen, largely by committing her performance and songcraft utterly into its twangling, tinny, overprocessed care. It does for a guitar (not to diminish Gregoire’s guitar wrangling) but smaller, thinner, more vulnerable. And her voices: Merril’s alto just hovers in the air, like a giant gong reverberating in the silence of the arrangements.
I don’t want to make Sister Suvi sound like Merril Garbus plus two, but it was the promise of Tune-Yards that got me out to the show, and I think her many gifts make her the most natural starting point for the Sister Suvi initiate like yourself, dear Reader. Thao Nguyen came on after, and wisely featured both Merril and opening act Samantha Crain as backup singers. The sound of Merril’s gorgeously calm and centered voice settling over Thao’s bony and pinched vocals and arrangements was the layer of snow that reveals the classic cityscape underneath.
(Every once in a while, Google Analytics’s list of keywords that bring you, Dear Reader, to my blog comes up with good ideas to write about. The scary thing is that converse of the truism that there is someone writing about pretty much anything on the Internet holds true: there is someone searching for pretty much everything on the Internet. Et voilà today’s post, inspired for you by the intrepid Googlenaut searching for “Writtendescription of how soukous women have their waist”. My blog was at no. 3 when I wrote this post; I should hope it rises somewhat.)
The Dany Engobo/Coeurs Brisés videos, where the mild and inoffensive zouk tunes clearly play a supporting role to the hypnotic tummy-shaking of the Coeurs Brisés (Broken Hearts) troupe of dancers, could be, if you took them lightly, campy as all get out, but I don’t see them that way. Instead, there’s something deeply serious about the attractiveness of lissome women moving hypnotically to the middle-aged male head of family. Strangely enough, watching such dance videos for an hour or so, or the length of a VHS tape, always proved relaxing, like a nice afternoon nap, rather than erotically stimulating.
A couple years later I met the guitarist Diblo Dibala after a summer concert at South Street Seaport. My buddy from work Rose was a friend of one of his two backup dancers, the older one. The younger one had managed to shatter boundaries by being a Brooklyn girl (bizarrely nicknamed Electra) who was touring the world as an African dancer. This only reinforced to me the complete inauthenticity of soukous music and soukous-dancing videos; these were products of late 20th-century cultural capitalism, not the honest and straightforward expression of prelapsarian village life that is the default approach to African cultural products. In other words, folks were watching these videos (and Diblo’s dancers) not because they had some kind of cultural relevance to the viewer, but because they liked the dancing, or the physiques of the dancers, or both. My interest was validated; I didn’t have to come from some Kinshasa faubourg in order to appreciate it.
Here are some examples:
This is one of those songs that seems like it was assembled so carefully. It’s in the electronica-pastiche mode, with a sultry female vocal in Portuguese and a samba band playing behind it. It also has an accordion, but the instrument is so tight on the beat that it sounds much more like a sample of an accordion than a real accordion. The real star of this song is the guitar line, which sounds harsh and acrid and complements the vaguely Elza Soares–sounding woman by reinforcing her air of menace.
Meanwhile, because it’s a dance-electronica kind of record, it kind of loses track after a chorus or two, in order to give the listener time to really understand what’s going on. The bass keeps bouncing atop the samba drums and below the woman, singing these long melodic lines, and the sawing sound of the accordion.
[Meanwhile, here at the air terminal, where I’m writing these reviews, I look over at the television, and there is a woman in a platinum-blonde wig driving evasively. It kind of goes along with the tune, in a weird way.]
Compay Segundo is one of the Buena Vista Social Club musicians. I believe he’s the guitarist. This morsel has him playing (if it’s not him, I do apologize) behind a set of female singers, kind of like a Cuban Pipettes, real relaxed and on the beat. It’s a good salsa, for sure.
But in the end the guitar playing doesn’t go completely bananas, or sound as if he just lit the axe on fire and is still playing it, the way that Franco did with similar rhythms. I have to say, I prefer the Lingala singing of Kékélé over the same rhythms and nearly the same instrumentation. Lingala is truly the international language of love.
This does have a nice little four-bar guitar solo, and then he chimes in singing on the last chorus. Nice ending!