ThePingOfPong

Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

RETRO REVIEWS: ASA’S BEAUTIFUL IMPERFECTION

LIKE ASA? YES? YOU’LL LIKE THIS

Cover- Beautiful Imperfection

A curious thing happened when I heard Be My Man, first single off Asa’s sophomore. It was on radio and the OAP hadn’t mentioned the artist. I was so impressed that I wrote down some lines so I could google the artist. Halfway in I realized it was Asa singing.

I don’t blame me for the error. Asa has polished her vocals so that the Nigerian quality is beneath the surface- not that it would deceive anyone but the most distracted. Still, it is markedly different.

Again she’s lost her shyness, perhaps the exotic sensuality of Europe has gotten to her: the girl whose mother admonished, “be careful if anyone comes to say I love you,” is intent on breaking her mother’s rule tonight, ecstatically singing, she wants to be her man’s “woman every day.” It never gets to the voluptuous heights of say, Betty Wright’s Tonight is the Night, indeed it is performed with a delicate refinement (apologies to Prof Osofisan), still the message is obvious: this Asa is not scared of love and its carnal incarnations. In fact, the album’s first single ends with a question: “Why can’t we be lovers?”

Forget her fine orthoepy on Be My Man, the songs Bimpe, Ore and Brother Ole remove the exotic cover revealing the Nigerian. Not only does she sing almost entirely in Yoruba in these songs, she also communicates common scenes in the average Nigerian neighbourhood.

In the first she tells her lover’s sister- the eponymous character, she only tolerates her disrespect because of the love she has for the brother; the second sees a woman warning her “friend” to stop coming to her house as she has heard she seduced her husband. In the latter, a mother confronts a man in the neighbourhood telling him to stop teaching her son to steal, scorning him and insisting it is not a laughing matter; she warns him on behalf of what appears to be the neighbourhood. (This song continues from Awe, the inclusion of names that are funny to hear in her kind of music: Iya Sidi, Iya Mulika etc.)

There are more differences on the album, most noticeably mood. The album is more diverse and upbeat; she trades the delicious melancholy of the debut for a wider range: there’s the mocking tone of Brother Ole, the sweet and nostalgia inducing Dreamer Girl, the penitent Preacher Man, the ponderous Questions- strongly reminiscent of Disney’s Colours of the Wind and Katie Melua’s Nine Million Bicycles– and the absolutely heartbreaking Baby Gone.

Gone also is the frequent piano and guitar riffs of the debut, the instrumentation is more varied in what is an attempt to include soft rock elements into some of the tracks especially in Ok, ok- there’s even an unnecessary intense guitar strumming in Bimpe. But perhaps, she hasn’t quite mastered percussive instruments as save for Be My Man they don’t feature much.

In spite of these dissimilarities and its diverse content, its success is not triumphal. There are no risks, no unusually high notes, no outrageous pitching, no surprising collaboration, no intricate lyrics and hence no unexpected joy. Unsurprisingly it works; there would be no new fans but the old ones would be pleased or at the very least be grateful.

It would cause the listener to muse, to laugh, to cry and perhaps to dance awkwardly like a Caucasian or slowly like a jazz enthusiast. But, except you have a partner as wild as say, Eva Greene’s character in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers or as wild as Bimbo Akintola’s in Out of Bounds, better listen alone.

Bottom line

The debut had thrived on the sheer novelty of novelty; this one succeeds because- to channel Designer Impostors- if you loved Asa, you would like Beautiful Imperfection. And that’s not a particularly bad thing.

 

Editor’s Note: A version of this review appears in the January 1st, 2011 edition of This Day.

THE DURBAN DIARY

DAY 1: SOCKETS AND SPEECHES

The Royal South African Airways airplane touched down and immediately the trouble of getting to the Murtala Mohammed International Airport at Ikeja on time—my headache some 6 hours before—disappeared. Supplanting such distinctly Lagosian worries as traffic en route airport was how to get to the hotel. The email said some guys would be wearing Durban International Film Festival t-shirts at a desk.

DIFF onscreen

I asked Terh, compatriot, companion and fellow participant at the festival’s Talent Campus. He hadn’t seen the t-shirts or the desk.

Two Nigerians stand at a South African airport… as the joke doesn’t go.

About an hour later, SIMs purchased, we located a DIFF desk but without t-shirts. And a staff of the Centre for Creative Arts picked us and a Dutch filmmaker to the hotel. With three citizens of two countries represented at the World Cup present, we spoke about football. I learn, strangely, that the people of the Netherlands didn’t give their team much of a chance, so were greatly thrilled with the progress of the Oranje. Weird, I always thought they had a good team.

 

At the hotel—the beautiful Tsogo Sun Elangeni Hotel—we were faced with a problem no one but the alert and experienced traveller will expect: we couldn’t charge our devices because the South African AC socket slot accepts only plugs with round pins.

We were directed to Pick and Pay, a store with everything; that is, everything but Nigeria-friendly adaptors.

To gain something from the walk to the store from the hotel, we settled for a meal, the familiar fried rice. Where the Nigerian equivalent of the store would have varied meats show-glass showcased, offering themselves as expensive accompaniment, here only chicken reigned, and a sauce with chopped sausages. Maybe the South Africa isn’t keen on meat, I thought. (I changed my mind when days later I discovered a restaurant called Meat Junction—literally at a junction and with raw meat in show-glass waiting for treatment: in SA, point-and-kill turned point-and-grill.)

It was winter but not quite as cold in Durban as the newcomer from more tropical countries may expect—not for nothing is the Durban slogan ‘The warmest place on earth’. The roads are wide, incredibly smooth, pothole-free, and, for a Nigerian, deadly. I’ll explain.

There’s a song Nigerian kids are taught with regional and perhaps generational variations:

“Look left, look right

Look left again,

Before you cross.”

By the time you’re an adult, the look left, right and then left has become ingrained so that to cross roads is merely to alter speed while abiding instinctively by that childhood protocol.

Now South African vehicles use the right hand drive. And to cross the road, a Nigerian needs to reconfigure: it is right, left and the right. Many times, having crossed one lane and stuck in the middle of the road, I was confused; is it right or left now? I didn’t get hit only because Durban drivers are not quite as impatient as Lagos drivers.

We found a usable adaptor in one of the big familiar ones—GAME, SHOPRITE—and returned to the Elangeni. The festival used Elangeni for screenings, registration and some guest reservations. Talent Campus folk lodged at the nearby Garden Court Marine Parade Hotel.

Cast of Hard to Get

Cast of Hard to Get and guest at premiere

 

 

Later that evening, the festival opened with Zee Ntuli’s Hard to Get. The festival ID, held to my chest by a blue ribbon on my neck, granted entry and subsequently a free ticket to each film.

I met a crowd waiting to get in. Inside, several seats are tacked with paper, ‘Reserved’ written on it. Reserved I guessed for cast and crew of the festival opener. I find a bare seat four rows away away from the screen.

Like Nigeria like South Africa: several speeches drone past, the most memorable being Peter Machen’s where he states that “cinema is both an expression of freedom as well as an enabler of it.”

 

(To be continued)

ALBUM REVIEW: BANKY, WIZKID & CO’S EMPIRE MATES STATE OF MIND

STATE OF THE INDUSTRY

It is fitting that the first voice you hear on Banky W’s EME compilation album, Empire Mates State of Mind, is Wizkid’s.

He is one-fifth of the group—not that you will know from listening to the album. On an album comprising nineteen songs and three skits, the man is on eleven tracks; three of these are solos. That tells a story: EME’s Empire Mates State of Mind could pass for Wizkid’s sophomore.

EME- Empire State of Mind

As with all of Wizkid’s output till date, the album is blissful, brainless, and undeniably melodious. It also comes with another signature of Wizkid: replete as it is with the man’s limited lyrical vocabulary, consisting almost entirely of banal nouns; feminine pronouns; and ready-made ubiquitous monosyllabic verbs: women are implored to shake, move, roll, grind and wind.

Considering the amount of physical activity these unnamed women are implored to undertake, it is to Empire Mates’ credit that the album features unarguably the most consistently impressive array of beats in an album of such length.  That is down to the selection of mostly rising producers—save for Cobhams on a single track.

These producers, especially Sarz and Spellz, whose better cuts feature a background chanting, are on more tracks than a few of the members of the group and arguably perform well in supplying these frivolous-singing, often freestyling warblers with catchy beats.

The prominent members of the group, Wizkid and Banky W, show subtle shifts in their concerns. On album standout, the irresistible Roll It, both artists urge a lady to do the eponymous act, but while Wizkid restricts it to the dance floor, Banky W assumes the cocky Lothario persona—”she says she has a boyfriend- cool story!”—and before long the scene has shifted to the back of his car. Banky regurgitates this persona throughout.

EME Crew

As they were. L-R, Shaydee, Wizkid, Niyola, Skales, Banky W

The other members of the group, Skales, Shaydee, Niyola and the idle DJ Exclusive—it is hard to tell if the mysterious XO Senavoe is really a member—get chances to shine but these are brief and mostly swept away by the bubblegum majesty of Wizkid’s hooks.

Skales does his best to hold on—show me another rapper who can rap and who can sing, he queries. But multitasking isn’t an advantage when the competition is Wizkid. Again, he mentions the other man on Wetin I Want, inevitably drawing attention to who he is not.

The other members don’t try wrestling with the magnificence of Wizkid’s easy charm: if Wizkid is heir to Wande Coal’s Yoruba pop throne, then Shaydee is his latter-day kin and clone. Niyola, is an original; her solo track Don’t Go There is the unconventional of the lot what with its euro pop sound and feathery caressing of both Yoruba and English syllables. It is a loss she is not on more songs. For now it is hard to tell what DJ Exclusive does for the group to warrant his name on the letterhead. Banky W, as everyone knows, is overseer.

The deluge of unserious lyrics calls for breaks and ‘balancing’. Breaks on Empire Mates come in form of a funny storyline in three episodes featuring comedian Basketmouth and the balancing is just the one song, Change—a title more ironic than they must have realized. Change shows the less confident Wizkid who is never comfortable singing seriously. The song is the musical equivalent of a corporate social responsibility campaign by an immoral corporation.

The prominent features here—dance-ready beats; infectious hooks and choruses; slack songwriting, “I dey sing any song- do re mi fa so la ti do”; light, often crude, explorations of the carnal—go beyond this album and are mainly symptoms of the times.

In fact, the Empire Mates’ state of mind is the music industry’s current state of mind. EME has only managed to use the prevailing paradigm to their benefit, so that whatever vituperations flung at the album should be directed at a culture that has made an album with no great musical, aesthetic or moral ambition a highlight of the year in music. And while we wait for better times, when perhaps conscious music will receive its due, it may be prudent or at least practical to spend the time dancing to this album. No one else has made a better album of the situation than EME.

You decide if that’s a good thing.

RAPID REVIEWS: MAY D’S CHAPTER ONE

The Song is the Thing.

May D's Chapter One

Sometimes the best pop music is frivolous fun, a song, an album of danceable melodies without much thought given to lyrics. The trick is not to try too hard: can the artist make the thoughtless effortless?

For Mr MayD, the answer is a resounding yes. Song after song on “Chapter One” is packed with sweet and senseless singing.

Save for a funny French line on “So Many Tinz,” the language of “Chapter One” is unpretentious; Pidgin, Yoruba and Yoruba-accented English find place. And the music is rooted in the rhythms of Nigerian music from the 1990s. A lot of time has passed for the appeal of his music to depend on nostalgia of a certain kind.

Yet Chapter One is not without novelty—the most noteworthy being an album arrangement that has a song flow into another without a stretched pause. He hasn’t come to preach or lecture, Mr. MayD just wants you to dance.

Chapter One doesn’t announce the arrival of a good songwriter or a great voice. But as The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones has noted: “Pop…as a primarily recorded form… doesn’t reward the most gifted players.

“The song is the thing.”

RAPID REVIEW: PHYNO’S NO GUTS NO GLORY

Originality is Overrated.

No Guts No Glory cover

Should an artist’s influences be so concealed as to be imperceptible?

Not according to Phyno, on whose debut No Guts No Glory, his heroes, mostly out of American hip-hop culture, are on display. The album even opens with a line from Eminem’s Without Me: “Real name, no gimmicks.”

Later, there’s Alobam, rhythm taken from Drake’s Worst Behaviour; and on standout track Good Die Young not only is the rap from Kanye West but the use of a Marvin Gaye sample harks back to the American’s work on Jay-z’s 2001 work, Blueprint.

Yet Guts is a triumph because of Phyno’s delivery. As expected, Igbo listeners get more mileage, but fortunately hip-hop is also about delivery as it is about lyrics; and Phyno’s delivery is remarkable. His more successful songs—including Man of the Year, Parcel— have verses riding beats so intimately one feels inseparable from the other.

Igbo rappers are not a novelty: Mr Raw (the artist formerly known as Nigga Raw) revived interest in the region for the mainstream; Ill Bliss was never really an Igbo rapper, neither was Ikechukwu. Phyno has updated Mr Raw’s flow, and if Ill Bliss and Ikechukwu sprinkled their verses with Igbo, Phyno floods his with the language.

On Icholia, MI offers:

“Ice got the north

Phyno got the east

Olamide, the west

So what’s left for you to eat baby?

I guess you gotta go down south baby

with that mouth baby

And I’m out baby.”

As characteristic of brilliantly perverse rappers, it is a double entendre—yet MI, very self-consciously, stops short of saying any of his collaborators (and rivals) transcends a region.

Well, Phyno makes a case on Man of the Year: he is, after all, the “East Coast nigga now…banging in the West.” And should his rich form on No Guts No Glory continues, he won’t have to say it himself: We’ll chant it, regions be damned.

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