At the age of 43, Afel Bocoum, a singer, guitarist, songwriter and farmer, has made his debut album, Alkibar (“Messenger of the Great River”), and it’s a wonder.
This isn’t good-time music. It comes from Mali, a landlocked, drought-stricken country in West Africa. Played with acoustic instruments and gentle percussion, Alkibar has a modest sound, with no flashiness from the band members. All 10 musicians work together as a team, as in funk. Mr. Bocoum’s singing is temperate and sure of itself, without gimmicks or show business tricks.
It’s fitting that a singer with such a humble style would wait until he was 43 to make his first solo recording. For 30 years, since he was 13, Mr. Bocoum played and sang in the backing band for Ali Farka Toure, the first Malian singer to make a name for himself outside Africa.
Mali occupies an area where the music that grew into the blues probably originated. Traditional melodies from this place sound something like a cross between early blues and Mideastern strains.
Mr. Bocoum’s Alkibar has a stern, meditative quality. The blues it brings to mind is not the showy B.B. King variety, nor the gruff, gritty brand played by Howlin’ Wolf and Charley Patton before him; Mr. Bocoum’s songs share something with pensive songs like John Lee Hooker’s “The Flood,” a chronicle of the Mississippi River overflowing its banks in 1927, and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Bud Russell Blues,” a song about a sharecropper working under a merciless boss.
While we in a certain segment of Manhattan concern ourselves with such matters as career satisfaction, improving our sex lives and whether or not we are “happy,” Mr. Bocoum sings of the necessity of planting trees to keep the desert from advancing on the farmland. In another song, he calls for respect for elders. Clearly, we are in another world.
Mr. Bocoum lives in Niafunké, a desert town along the Niger River. The album was recorded there, on state-of-the-art portable equipment. The musicians play acoustic (Western) guitars, African percussion instruments like the calabash and djembe , a one-string njarka violin and a two-string njurkle guitar. Three backing vocalists, two women and one man, bring a feeling of community. The songs are in three languages, Sonrai, Tamashek and Fula.
There’s also a new album from Mr. Bocoum’s teacher (and fellow farmer), Ali Farka Toure- Radio Mali , a collection of 16 songs recorded between 1970 and 1978, long before his Grammy Award, back when his work was known only in Africa and France. This music is calm on the surface, but secretly charged.
Everything here is great, especially the two songs called “Gambari.” These have a swinging, rolling rhythm, and there’s an Eastern quality to their repetitive melodies. For the second “Gambari,” Mr. Toure uses his njarka violin. Whenever he gets this instrument out, he loses a bit of his usual restraint and gives in to the spirits that, he claims, first attacked him when he was 13 years old.
The song “Radio Mali” is also hypnotic and deep. The melody goes so far to the East that it feels almost Chinese. “Njarka,” a showcase for Mr. Toure’s wild njarka violin playing, is too short. Nick Gold, the producer who put this album together, has faded it out prematurely, perhaps thinking Western ears can’t take its intensity and repetitiveness-but once your ears have it, everything else sounds so bland in comparison. With a bow and one string, Mr. Toure can make a hell of a great racket. Mainly, though, he’s known for his guitar playing, songwriting and singing-and this album is made up of songs he describes as being from the time when he was “a fool for the guitar.”
Mr. Toure, who sings in seven languages, is now 60 years old.
Hank Williams … The Next Generations
Hank Williams III, the grandson of Hank Williams and son of Hank Wil-liams Jr., is off to a terrific start with his first album, Risin’ Outlaw . With a hard honky-tonk sound and his grandfather’s vocal mannerisms, Mr. Williams romanticizes a world that was gone before he was born.
Risin’Outlaw is comparabletothose neotraditional country debuts from the 80’s, albumslikeDwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cad- illacs, Etc., Etc. , Steve Earle’s Guitar Town ,MichelleShocked’s Short Sharp Shocked and, to a lesser degree, Randy Travis’ Storms ofLife .Likethose re-cords, Risin’ Outlaw is played mostly in 60’s Nashville style, with nods to rockabilly and rock-and-roll. With the album’s closing number, “Blue Devil,” Mr. Williams goes all the way back to the 1930’s, with an acoustic-guitar blues that has him communing with Jimmie Rodgers. His voice crackles and yodels and yelps.
In a Rolling Stone article earlier this year, Mr. Williams was blunt about the fact that he smokes pot. Next thing he knew, according to the Chicago Reader , he was “summoned to the offices of his Nashville record label, Curb” and was greeted there “by his parents (who are divorced), producer and A&R man Chuck Howard, and an ex-girlfriend, who teamed up to persuade him that he needed to enter drug rehab.” His bass player, Jason Brown, later said he believed the intervention was partly an effort “to do damage control for the article.” Curb Records, apparently, wants to make him palatabletofansof Garth Brooks.
On many tracks, Mr. Williamsmimicshis grandfather’s vocal mannerismsexactly-but this is more than mimicry, since the texture of his voiceissomuchlike his grandfather’s.
The first three tracks are the weakest. They find Mr. Williams in a musical territory somewhere between his own roadhouse sound and the glop of contemporary country radio.
“Why Don’t You Leave Me Alone” is probably the best thing here, the song that captures the sound Mr. Williams is after. It’s recorded live “somewhere on the road,” according to the brief liner notes, and it has the raw feeling of a roadhouse band in a small room on a hot night, miles away from the smooth sounds of contemporary country music.
Mr. Williams’ father, Hank Williams Jr., also has a new record this year, Stormy . It’s hard to argue with. With brand new, cocksure anthems like “I’d Love to Knock the Hell Out of You,” “Naked Women and Beer” and “Sometimes I Feel Like Joe Montana,” Stormy isn’t always pretty, but it’s damn sure effective.
At the age of 50, the bearded, barrel-chested Hank Williams Jr. is worldly and strong. If he were in an old western, he’d be the wealthy, powerful rancher who was secretly corrupt. His songs are well crafted and sensible, seemingly without a touch of unconscious inspiration-they’re like public pronouncements. In comparison, his 26-year-old son is a dreamer, a skinny punk artiste with a terminally broken heart. The son has a much lighter musical touch. His best songs (all of which, on Risin’ Outlaw , are written by others) are dreamy and private.
Back to the father: In the sarcastic “Where Would We Be Without Yankees,” Hank Williams Jr. thanks Northerners for giving the South “Spanky and Alfalfa,” The Honeymooners and record executives who drive him crazy. He’s at his most tender on “All Jokes Aside,” a love song written to his wife in which he confesses that his rowdy image masks what’s in his heart-a sentiment that’s undercut by his admission, on “They All Want to Go Wild (And I Want to Go Home),” that he doesn’t want to get caught fooling around because he can’t afford another divorce.
Elvis Costello, the Beacon Boy
Elvis Costello was the hardest-working man in show business at the Beacon Theater on Oct. 25. He played 35 songs in two and a half hours, including four new (unrecorded) ones and a cover of Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said.”
Mr. Costello’s thick, rough baritone was in great shape all night, from when he started, with the scorching, rhythmic “Alibi Factory” (a new one), to the end, when he stood at the lip of the stage, without microphone, and belted out “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4,” his most hopeful ballad.
Last year, Mr. Costello played Radio City Music Hall with Burt Bacharach and an orchestra in support of the Bacharach-Costello album Painted From Memory . This time, it was just Mr. Costello and his longtime pianist Steve Nieve, with Greg Cohen joining in on standup bass for crisp versions of “Almost Blue,” “Painted From Memory” and a new rocker, “45,” which told the story of Mr. Costello’s 45 years in roughly three minutes.
Mr. Costello brought his special brand of emotional intensity to “I Want You,” his grand, disturbing ballad of erotic attachment, and to “New Lace Sleeves,” a gorgeously detailed song about a newly adulterous couple.
The unrecorded songs were straight and true. Along with “Alibi Factory” and “45,” there was “When I Was Cruel,” a sad ballad with a big melody, and “Lesson in Cruelty,” a song with words by Mr. Cos-tello and music by Mr. Nieve-this one was part jazz torch song, part chanson .
The show sagged during flyaway numbers like “Pads, Paws and Claws,” “Shallow Grave” and the sickly sweet Burt Bacharach-Hal David number, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Also, “Alison,” “Watching the Detectives” and “God’s Comic” seemed a bit “sung out,” to borrow a phrase from Mr. Costello’s “God Give Me Strength” (which knocked out the house late in the show).
It was a sign of the singer’s vibrancy that over a dozen songs came from the last three years-and yet the show had the feeling of a big crowd-pleaser, with nary a hit (including “Accidents Will Happen,” “Veronica” and “Everyday I Write the Book”) left unsung.