Gigi, sans illumination
Gigi, sans illumination

African Electrification

Despite a star-packed backing band boasting Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Pharaoh Sanders, Gigi owed its success on the European world music charts to Ethiopian singer Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw. Even the supple reeds of those jazz legends couldn't top the twists and turns of an acrobatic voice bending notes, hopping octaves, straddling continents, and blurring genres.

But the vocals on the original Gigi were not limited to Gigi as soloist. She was buttressed by a mile-deep chorus of Gigi sound-alikes (Imani Uzuri, Tigist Shibibaw, Hebest Tirunehe) while overdubbed Gigis flitted in the background adding layers of ornamentation. Studio effects enhanced the silkiness of her delivery, swaddling and bathing her in honeyed signal processing that built dreamy, slightly spacey textures. The vocal swirls on the airiest sections of "Gud Fella" (Amharic for "Trouble is Brewing") even suggest what an ambient version of the track might sound like.

Gigi's gorgeous voice is an infrequent visitor to Gigi, Illuminated Audio (Palm Pictures), producer and bassist Bill Laswell's reimagining of this 2001 release. If you have never heard the source material, Illuminated Audio is a triumph of skin-tight rhythms, smooth horn and keyboard solos, plus an undercurrent of tense percussion. But the groove-based, instrumental song montage has so little to do with the artist that her name probably shouldn't be on the release. "Abay" ("The River Nile") begins promisingly enough as snippets of Gigi's voice create a melodic fragment that's evocative enough to describe an entire mosaic. But she's absent the first four minutes of "Tew Ante Sew" ("Please Stop What You're Doing to Me"). Sneeze six times during "Mengedegna" ("Always on the Road") and you'll miss a few syllables of Gigi spliced in as dub effects. Two short vocal phrases repeated infrequently during "Kahn" ("Priest") lay the groundwork for a brief climactic flurry of voices, then she's lost again in the vacuum of space. Weighed against the instrumentation, she's hardly on the disc at all.

And that ain't all that's missing. While the 2001 version of Gigi showcases Ethiopian music in its most modern setting yet, it still reveals deep roots in the brief pop flowering of the late 1970s, before the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam shut down the nightclubs of Addis Ababa and hamstrung its recording industry. Wayne Shorter and Henry Threadgill lay down soulful horn melodies that angle sharply through the medina; Karsh Kale's drum and tabla stuff launches a belly-dance and raga creole; the guitarists throw down Fela Kuti-style Afrobeat riffs; and Gigi ties the package together with Middle Eastern-flavored Amharic-language vocals whose phrasings flirt with the glory years of American top 40 radio. But the East African R&B of Gigi is AWOL from Illuminated Audio. And without Gigi's lead vocals, the luscious microtonal melodies have vanished, too. What's left is a multinational conglomerate that feels as African as flatbread. Tasty, sure, but generic. Where did Ethiopia go?

British producer Marc Minelli's collaboration with Mamani Keita evokes claustrophobia compared with Laswell's disc which, omissions aside, is all about extended bliss. On Electro-Bamako (Palm Pictures) Minelli takes African electrification another step into the future by walling each composition inside a busy techno environment. But instead of leaning on obvious computer rhythms, industrial noise, and rave music's avoidance of a song format, he opts for more traditional elements. "These songs are structured the way the Beatles' songs were," he says in a press release. "Intro, first verse, chorus, second verse, bridge, et cetera." Piano, bass, and guitar orbit a loosely packed core that references the nightclub jazz of the 1960s. And because he assembles his arrangements around Keita's vocals, the Malian sensibility remains at front and center.

"N'ka Willy" opens the disc to Daniel Paboeuf's cool overdubbed sax as an organ burbles a reggae beat. A walking bass line and vamping piano chords suggest a laid-back, jazzy ambience that's at odds with edgy cut-and-paste dub production, a looped recitation from TV or radio, snare drum bursts, and microbursts of sampled hash. Not only do Keita's vocals inhabit this tilted planetscape with ease, the swing phrasing of the pop music invented by Mali's Manding people (tied to roots from which blues and jazz arguably arose) also adds to the delightful sense of dislocation. The voice and delivery are clearly African, but the unfamiliar Malian note intervals may suggest to Western ears a detour through Pacific Rim genres. It's easy listening, but difficult at the same time.

While there is virtue in keeping Keita's voice pristine and untouched by electronic effects, she floats above the song construction like a ghost at the scene of a fatal accident. Minelli hadn't even met Keita when he began lifting her vocal tracks from tapes and squeezing them into clever if occasionally cluttered arrangements. The grafted-on approach takes a toll. Keita never connects with the spliced musicians in a way that would deepen the songs. And a voice as coiled as hers is powerful enough to swat down the UFO that menaces her in "Macary," scatter the goblin chorus on "Mirri Ye," and, by God, break loose from the confinement of artifice. Too bad Minelli never gave her the opportunity of recording live with his Paris-based musicians.

These discs make an impressive stab at modernizing African music, using Western musical elements and production techniques. But neither can be considered a raging success. While Malian and Ethiopian pop both originally looked to American soul and funk for their inspiration, they were still primarily defined by local traditions. Laswell and Minelli move the music too far from its center, ultimately depriving it of its heart.


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