Like a journey through the various 'Neighborhood's' of black music - the
second album from Mississippi singer and multi-instrumentalist Olu Dara is a
mixture of Afrobeat, world-weary blues, Bahamian folksongs, New Orleans
fonk, calypso, rap, reggae, Afro-Cuban son, and even bluegrass. It's an
effortless eclecticism that seems totally unforced, Dara himself comes
across as one part Delta bluesman, another part Creole Juju, and one part a
post-Armstrong jazz horn player.
On his belated debut, 1998's "In the World - from Natchez to New York" (also
on Atlantic), Dara chose to forsake his NYC jazz loft-scene for a blues and
roots focus for a debut album that was shot through with an urbanity and
hipness that that left few obvious reference points. In this album, the
focus shifts more to groove-driven West African sounds, while also digging
deeper into gritty R&B and funk. However, in shifting to these more
insistent, upbeat rhythms, there is less of the reflective beauty of past
tracks such as "Young Mama" and "Harlem Country Girl".
From the opening song, "Massamba", a loose-limbed and joyous tribute to
Dara's Congolese percussionist, a fresh and spontaneous vibe is produced.
The Mayfieldesque title track, with its urbane rimshots and catchy guitar
hooks, contrasts against "Strange Things Happen Everyday" and "Tree Blues",
which just combine his voice, his guitar, and some percussion, and are as
close to straightforward blues as Dara chooses to go. His status among
fellow musicians is evident by his high-powered guests: Dr John lends his
swampy Hammond B-3 organ to the Afro-Latin "I See the Light," the comical
"Red Ant (Nature)," and the midtempo "Herbman"; while Jazz chanteuse (and
fellow Mississippian), Cassandra Wilson adds her deep contralto to "Used to
Be". However, it's Dara's down-home vocals and blues-twanged guitar licks
that colour the entire session.
It seems that in every chosen disparate style, it's as if Dara acknowledges
the shared proximities of "primitive" blues and the "progressive" jazz of
his later years. Notes are bent, time signatures shift: moments of
abstraction are punctuated with contrasting moments of explosive precision.
This makes it an unpolished album in some respects, with spontaneity often
chosen over clarity. I find it not as immediate an album as his debut,
occasionally his lyrics get a little *too* elliptical - and his voice, which
relies more on nuance than range, is not as well-suited to some of the more
In all, perhaps it's almost an irrelevance to mention that Dara's trumpet
has graced albums by the likes of Julian Hemphill, David Murray, James
"Blood" Ulmer, and Art Blakely. Perhaps an irrelevance too that Dara
frequently collaborates with numerous poets and playwrights - Aishan Rahman,
Rita Dove, August Wilson and Ntozake Shrange among them. But what is
important is that Dara is a master storyteller, and that the stories told
are remarkably unselfconscious, wise and affectionate.
These days it often seems that musical eclecticism has become debased by so
much pointless and misguided fusion - interbreeding that seems to arise from
economic pressure rather than artistic choice. Here Olu Dara has produced
another album of deep, unforced, diasporic soul.
This review is copyright © 2001 by James Daniell, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.