Bathed in Sweat

Once again, this Blog is in danger of turning into one of those sniffy, crate-digging exercises in one-upmanship, as another obscure world beat thingamy takes over the car stereo, my footballer-style clumpy headphones and the faux record player that sits up in our top room. But with eMusic somehow keeping their heads above water and at the same time packing their catalogue with all sorts of saccharine goodies, and then plying me with credits, what’s a feller supposed to do?

It really is out of my control.

Alceu Valença

Alceu Valença trained as a lawyer in the late sixties in Brazil before (brilliantly) running away to record music in the Brazilian jungle state of Pernambuco, hundreds of miles to the north and east of Brasilia and even further away from Rio or Sao Paulo. While the world was watching Pele duping hapless Uruguayan goalies, Jairzinho scoring in every round of Mexico 70 and Carlos Alberto thumping in The Greatest Team Goal Ever, Valença was presumably twanging away on a selection of exotic stringed things and getting high with his mates. (Much as I enjoy compartmentalising things, life tells me that this oddest of niche musicians was actually, almost certainly in a bar, celebrating in traditional style with the rest of the country…)

By 1974, however, with Cruyff and Neeskens ending a sulky-looking, (blue-shirted!) national team’s reign, I prefer to think that Valença was by now properly getting it together in the country and getting on with releasing his first solo record, Molhado de Suor.

I don’t know enough about Brazilian indigenous music or culture to understand half of what’s going on here, but from everything you read about the record, it’s a right old melting pot of ideas and styles. To these western, middle-aged, 21st Century ears, however, it sounds like a frantic explosion of breathy rhythms and flighty strings and woodwinds, with each song packed full of imagination and playful energy.

Songs like “Punhal da Prata” and “Dia Branca” have a busy, locomotive get-up-and-go that are terrific fun. They suggest a feeling of eye-rubbing good fortune, that Valença was in something of a hurry to get his ideas out and onto vinyl before someone somewhere stopped him (not just wild-eyed paranoia, when you consider that a number of musical figures of the day were imprisoned or exiled by the military government of the day).

Other tracks (the title track, for example, which translates as “Soaked in Sweat”) are a little more leftfield – quirkiness hot-housed to almost grotesque levels, with a bewildering range of whirring rhythms and stringed beasties running around Valença’s frequently cracked vocals. Again, eye-wateringly good fun and more than a little catchy.

Unfortunately, if you search for Alceu Valença on YouTube, you get a loads of modern clips (he went on to have an enduring career which I’ve not explored) with the man looking more like Michael Bolton than an Amazonian freak bathed in salty paranoia and elicit substances. This is perhaps not a surprise…

Amazingly, however, just when you thought you’d imagined the whole unfortunate episode, there’s this:

 

Crikey!

Go and have a shower, I would…

“Listen to the drums, to the rhythm. It all seems very close to us!”

Over a couple of drinks last night, I got talking with a friend about the grim subject of lost music and lost generations – his son lives and works in Cambodia – and it got me thinking about the heartbreak of recordings which capture a single moment of exuberant, in-the-moment now-ness, and which have now become somehow all the more vivid for the gathering darkness that was to follow.

(Lest you think that West Country pubs are generally packed with earnest, gloomy individuals discussing their mortality over a pint of Mild, I should probably mention that conversation also touched upon pub crisp flavours; showing off at Sports Day (and hurting yourself); the cynical idiocy of Boris Johnson and Arsene Wenger’s new contract…)

But lo, I find myself this evening, back on this and feeling more than a little maudlin…

Amara Toure

Amara Toure was apparently a Guinean musician who moved to Senegal and then Cameroon in the sixties to make music.

And, well… that’s pretty much the entirety of what I know about him. Oh yeah, he may apparently have had something of a lisp, which he could only overcome when singing. But then that really is it…

This is not, for once, just me showing the habitual levels of Dianne Abbot-like research for which I imagine I’m known. On this occasion, not very much is actually known about the man, even by proper writers, who do their research and stuff. This includes his whereabouts or even whether the man is still alive. He has disappeared from view completely and leaves behind the scantiest collection of recordings. Fortunately, the peerless Analog Africa has gathered together in one place these ten songs (plus a scant biography), and even more fortuitously, it makes an absolute belter of a package. It’s put a smile on my face, all day, as I drive about my business. Absolutely loving it…

The first six songs were recorded with a group of gents known as Ensemble Black & White in Cameroon and released as three singles between 1973 and 1976. They feature Toure’s majestic, harsh vocals and some gorgeously abrasive honking from the Ensemble’s slightly ungainly brass section. Spidery guitars and Latin rhythms weave elegantly about in the darkness, but front and centre, the relationship between Toure’s voice and the clutch of saxes, rasping all over the recordings, like some sort of sprawling Dexter Gordon freight train, is damn near irresistible.

You can stream the album from Analog Africa, and I’d heartily recommend giving at least “N’nijo” a good listening to:

 

The songs that followed the first single blended his Senegalese rhythms with the Cuban sounds that were arriving in West Africa at the time, and caused something of a stir at the time for this very reason. Toure himself couldn’t see what the fuss was about, regarding African and Latin rhythms as having the same source. He sang these sides in Spanish and by all accounts started something of a blizzard of furious Cuban stylings in the clubs and bars of Dakar and Yaounde.

Later on he moved onto Libreville and teamed up with another group of like-minded souls, L’Orchestre Massako, and released an LP with them, which makes up the rest of the Analog Africa collection. These tracks are a little more up-tempo and not quite as darkly groovy, but still with lots of brass, and Toure’s distinctive vocals; and still very, very exciting.

And that was that.

By 1980, Toure had moved on again, only this time he seems to have stepped from the podium altogether. His whereabouts are still apparently unknown, the trail is very much cold. The only things he leaves are these ten exhilarating snatches of a bold time, and the memory of his voice.

A great, great voice, the voice of a king.