Graded on a Curve: Smithsonian Folkways’ Calypso Travels, Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara, Gambian Griot Kora Duets

The latest entries in Smithsonian Folkways’ vinyl reissue series come from the global portion of the label’s vast catalog, and with rich and diverse results. There is Calypso Travels by Lord Invader and his group, Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara featuring numerous uncredited musicians recorded by Finola and Geoffrey Holiday, and Gambian Griot Kora Duets with Alhaji Bai Konte, Dembo Konte, and Ma Lamini Jobate on the titular instrument. The records helped sate a persistent curiosity in the USA regarding music from other countries and regions, be it in a multifaceted cultural dialogue, as is the case with Lord Invader, or seemingly untouched by outside influence a la the Tuareg and Gambian collections. Offered in classic tip-on jackets with the original liner notes, all three are out January 31.

Back in 2018, Smithsonian Folkways wisely began reissuing some of their prime catalog items on vinyl. Maintaining the design and quality of the packaging as originally released, this was a sweet opportunity for listeners from younger generations or even older folks who might’ve missed them the first time around, to score physical copies of some classic records without having to luck into finding them in a secondhand bin.

Issued in groups of three, the first installment featured Woody Guthrie’s Struggle, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ eponymous LP from 1959, and Joseph Spence’s Bahaman Folk Guitar. This was followed by Dock Boggs’ Dock Boggs: Legendary Singer & Banjo Player, Pete Seeger’s Goofing-Off Suite (originally released as a 10-inch), and the compilation American Banjo: Tunes and Songs in Scruggs Style.

The third batch was composed of Dave Van Ronk’s Ballads, Blues, and a Spiritual, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee Sing, and Lead Belly’s Easy Rider, while the fourth turned the spotlight onto women, with Elizabeth Cotten’s Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, Lucinda Williams’s Happy Woman Blues, and Mary Lou Williams’ eponymous LP from 1964.

No bones about it, in terms of sheer folk depth, the records above form an outstanding dozen representative of the worthiness in the Folkways discography overall. However, with the exception of the Spence, the selections remained inside the borders of the USA. These fresh entries expand the label’s breadth considerably as the two African volumes, recorded roughly 20 years apart, offer sonic experiences that are markedly different.

Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara is the more immediately powerful of the two. 60 years have elapsed since the album was first released, but much of the album is still wildly intense by contemporary standards; it suffices to say that, with its ecstatic vocal exhortations and the raw, occasionally abstract playing of the imzhad (violin), it will not be everyone’s cup of tea.

In the press release for the album, Smithsonian Folkways mentions contemporary Saharan musical outfits Mdou Moctar, Tinariwen and others, and the connection can certainly be heard, though Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara is distinguished by a lack of polish and, as the notes by recorders Finola and Geoffrey Holiday point out, an absence of Western influence.

Differing from trance-like desert blues and the more recent rock and rap-influenced Saharan material, the tribal reality of the music here, sharply enhanced by the use of the tendi (drum), is abundantly clear as the pieces are frequently tied to rituals. But as the notes clarify, these customs and tributes can exude a relatable ubiquity; for a few examples, there is a dance song, a pair of wedding songs and a trio of love songs, all intermingling with pieces more intrinsically tied to Tuareg culture, such as songs celebrating camels (essential to their way of life) and the Enaden (Tuareg artisan tradesmen).

The Holidays eschew finesse in their documentation, opting instead for a direct approach that only serves to magnify the intensity. One could call their method scholarly, which is a trait it shares with Gambian Griot Kora Duets, as captured by Marc Pevar, though neither album is academically dry. A significant difference is that the kora players recorded by Pevar are not only identified by name, they are credited on the front cover.

This fact relates to a biggest distinction between the two albums, specifically that where Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara is concerned with ritual, Gambian Griot Kora Duets is very much about heightened beauty through instrumental acumen, which makes sense, as the kora is a 21-stringed manding harp clearly designed to achieve celestial tones.

Unsurprisingly, four of the LP’s five tracks stretch out to eight minutes or more, which is all the better for just gliding along to the gorgeousness. But while Gambian Griot Kora Duets is certainly appropriate for relaxing, the contents avoid becoming oppressively mellow, with the presence of vocals bringing the proceedings a counterbalancing spark, especially in closer “Yeyengo,” where the verve is additionally increased by the intertwining of the koras’ cyclical patterns.

Lord Invader’s Calypso Travels is comparatively much nearer to the singing performer norms of the country where Folkways thrived, even as it’s an album rich in the style of its title. By the point of this recording, Lord Invader’s last before his death in 1962, he’d honed his skills to a fine point with a combination of warmth, energy and sophistication.

Of course, it helps that his band is executing at an equally high level. In part through rather lightweight mainstream variants, calypso has perhaps suffered a bit historically as being an innocuous and/ or quaint style, but the playing here is hot, with some especially potent horn blowing that should please folks with a liking for classic (pre-bop) jazz.

And as the Tuareg and Gambian albums document musical expression unaltered by outside cultures, Calypso Travels reveals Lord Invader as a worldly man, with songs pertaining to his visits to Belgium and Germany. Furthermore, he was not averse to social commentary as offered in tunes about Cuba’s then new leader (“Fidel Castro”) and racism in the southern USA (the excellent “Crisis in Arkansas”).

As distinct as Lord Invader’s LP is from its African counterparts, the three records cohere quite nicely as they shape up Smithsonian Folkways latest roundup of vinyl reissues. For connoisseurs of global music, they will doubtlessly spark delight.

Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara
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Gambian Griot Kora Duets
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Calypso Travels
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