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Tuesday Reviewsday: Oumou Sangaré, Aldous Harding and more

Recording artist Aldous Harding.
Recording artist Aldous Harding.

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It's time for Tuesday Reviewsday, our weekly new music segment. This week music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez with a list of new songs.

Here are his picks:

Oumou Sangaré

Album: “Mogoya”

“Look at me,” sings Oumou Sangaré in her native Malian language Wassoulou. “I did not kill myself over pain.”

It’s not a survivor’s boast, or a cry for pity, or even a confessional. The song, “Yere Faga (Suicide),” is a deeply heartfelt plea to her fellow Malians, suffering greatly under oppression and strife, to persevere, if not for themselves then for their families and communities. “Your children love you, don’t kill yourself over any kind of pain,” she sings, addressing her many appeals to various people by name. “Why would you kill yourself and leave us in deep sorrow?”

She takes the role both of example and leader, recounting the gossip and lies that have followed her throughout a long, notable career as one of Mali’s music stars, accusations of drug use, of pornography, of other allegations of transgressions she says were false. “But Oumou did not take her own life.”

It’s a powerful statement from a respected icon (she has her own model of SUVs sold in Mali and serves as an ambassador for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization), an artist known for the power marking her music since a landmark 1990 debut album. “Mogoya” is only her sixth studio album in that span and her first in eight years, a time which has brought much change to her life and dramatic changes in her homeland. As the title, meaning “people today,” indicates, she takes in all that is happening now, with a stern, loving eye befitting her position as something of a maternal figure to many there. “Bena Bena (Ingratitude)” opens the album encouraging people to stay strong in the face of negativity and “Kamelemba (Womaniser)” takes cads to task. But it’s not all negative: several songs honor people of virtue and “Mali Niale (Beautiful Mali)” explores the nation’s attributes as she calls for those who have left to return and renew the land.  

But where the lyrics speak directly to Mali’s people, women in particular, there’s also a global reach in the music.  The album was made partly in Stockholm with producer Andreas Unge and partly in Paris with the French trio A.l.b.e.r.t., known for work with Air and Beck among others. Tony Allen, the Nigerian drummer who helped shape modern Afrobeat working with Fela Kuti, lends his combo of force and grace on “Yere Faga.” Throughout there is a very effective, distinctive, complementary mix of traditional and modern sounds. “Bena Bena” leans more to the former. “FaDJamou (Family Name)” goes more modern for one of the album’s most dynamic, frenetic songs, but with ancient modes and sounds woven in. And on the yearning title song which closes the album, she addresses what she sees as the insincerities of modern relationships, her powerful voice backed only by ancient,  plucked n’goni. Ultimately it’s that, the traditions of many generations, that give the album its depth and strength, in the music and profoundly in her messages.

Aldous Harding

Album: “Party”

Where Oumou Sangaré pleads with peers to preserve their own lives, young New Zealand singer-songwriter Aldous Harding, on the title song of her second gripping album, takes the role of a girl — willingly, if naively — putting herself in peril, both emotional and potentially physical. The tune is somber and sad, the music muted and spare, the words disturbing and distressing. “I was as happy as I’ll ever ever be,” she sings, describing a situation that, to us, is clearly a toxic obsession-depression-dependence cocktail . “I will never break from you.”

Sung with a a tone of youthful, innocent affection, it’s harrowing. There’s the folk tradition of the murder ballad. This, from a young woman’s point of view, feels like the lead-in to an inevitable murder and as such is even more troubled and troubling. On her 2016 debut, “Aldous Harding,” she showed herself expanding on folk traditions of the faded British Empire from her Kiwi outpost. Ballads of obsession and consequential murder are, of course, a big part of that tradition. This, from a young woman’s point of view, feels like the lead-in to an inevitable murder and as such is even more troubled and troubling.

Not that weakness or victimization are Harding’s mode. To the contrary, the dominant tone of “Party” is one of steely resolve, of pain turned to strength, even if often guardedly from inside a hardened shell. And for this, she has in producer John Parish a perfect partner for bringing that side of her art to the fore. Parish made his name in partnership with P.J. Harvey, who has never gone in for much of the reserve of her English heritage, transforming pain to power. This album, recorded on Parish’s turf of Bristol, England, also sees her on the roster of 4AD Records, the English label known for such masterful marshals of deep, dark emotions as Bahaus, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins.

Bringing that boldness to the more rural Kiwi orientation of Harding proves magical at various turns, at times brash and raw, at others more subdued and inward. Opening song “Blend” has her wispy, with a light-touch electronic track. On “Imagining My Man,” he voice is huskier, rounder, more somber, matched by her finger-picked acoustic guitar. For “I’m So Sorry” she gets even deeper, huskier in tone with the lone, sparely picked guitar joined by a wistful sax line here, a ghostly chorus there.

And then there’s “Horizon,” in which she fashions folk balladry into something personal and new, the way Adele fashions pop balladry into something personal and new. “Horizon” even sounds like it could almost be an Adele song — if Adele let her hurt, bitter tone tighten her throat so that her singing turned into a raw, pained wail. It’s another voice for Harding, literally and figuratively, but it never seems that she’s putting on masks, or merely doing characters.

All of this sounds like her. Which is a little scary, but also, to use a word associated with her namesake Mr. Huxley, brave.

Anat Cohen & Trio Brasileiro

Albums:“Rosa Dos Ventos”

We’ve had our share of despair here, so how about some hope? “Baião da Esperança” — “the dance of hope” — does the trick. It’s the kick-off song of a new album, “Rosa dos Ventos,” by Israeli-born clarinetist Anat Cohen. And yes, the music is Brazilian. Cohen, who moved to New York as a young adult nearly 20 years ago and established herself as one of the most talented and versatile clarinetists in jazz, developed a serious passion for Brazilian music.

“Rosa dos Ventos,” recorded in Brasilia, has her teamed with the Trio Brasileiro — Dudu Maia on the 10-string bandolim (a relative of the mandolin), Douglas Lora on 7-string guitar and Alexandre Lora on percussion — for some lively originals drawing on a variety of styles and showcasing multiple talents. “Baião da Esperança,” written by Douglas Lora, is suitably spirited, while the same composer’s title song is heavier, the four musicians reaching orchestral power at times. And on a few written by Cohen bring in some of the modes and moods rooted in European Jewish music. And “O Ocidente que se Oriente” has, as the title implies, an east-meets-west turn with Indian sounds and scales for something of a Brazilian raga.

This is actually one of two new albums of Brazilian music by Cohen. The other, “Outra Coisa” (fittingly, “Another Thing”), has Cohen duetting with 7-string guitarist Marcello Gonçalves in a session recorded in Rio de Janeiro spotlighting the work of cherished Brazilian composer Moacir Santos. Here, the two of them evoke the full colors of larger ensembles that have explored this material for a delightful, virtuosic collection and a wonderful complement to the Trio Brasileiro set.

A highlight of all this is another very lively tune from the Trio album, “Choro Pesado,” written by Maia and Douglas Lora. It’s a very happy sound, but if you know even a little Portuguese, you might know that, in keeping with most of the other music we’ve explored in this Reviewsday edition, what it portrays is anything but. The translation? “Heavy tears.”