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Short takes on recent reissues

Overlooked Malian master Sorry Bamba, a box set devoted to songwriter Mickey Newbury, and Ottoman-American treasures from the jazz age

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Sorry Bamba
Volume One 1970-1979
(Thrill Jockey)

In late 2010 veteran Malian singer and bandleader Sorry Bamba put out his first album of new material in 15 years, Dogon Blues, but it didn't make much of splash—released through the French division of Universal, it didn't even come out in the States. Bamba, born in 1938, ranks among Mali's greatest musicians, but he's never been prolific, and few of his recordings are available outside Africa. Of the five LPs he released during his heyday in the 70s, only two have been reissued, and not till relatively recently—one in 2008 and one this spring.

Those five albums are the source of the music on Volume One 1970-1979, a new anthology produced for Thrill Jockey by Alex Minoff and Ian Eagleson (both of the band Extra Golden) and originally intended for their own tiny imprint, Kanyo. If this compilation gets the hearing it deserves, it should persuade Western audiences to grant Bamba a spot in the African-music firmament.

Bamba formed his first band, Group Goumbe, in 1957, and came into his own in the years after Mali achieved independence in 1960. By the end of the 60s he was leading one of several state-sponsored regional groups, L'Orchestre Regional de Mopti (named after his city of birth), which participated in six National Biennials and took home the grand prize three times.

Volume One includes music Bamba made with that regional orchestra (later known as L'Orchestre Kanaga de Mopti) and as a solo artist, though regardless of billing he used a lot of the same players. Bamba is a superb singer with a rich, keening voice, and his appealingly loose arrangements balance sharp brass, bubbling percussion, and effervescent electric guitar that's alternately liquid and biting. In the postcolonial period, many Malian artists sought to establish a new national music that updated Malian traditions by hybridizing them with Western sounds, particularly from Cuba, and Bamba was no exception. What distinguished him was which Malian tradition he chose to update: as far as I know he's the first important musician to adapt traditional rhythms and stories from the Dogon ethnic group, most of whose members live close to where Bamba grew up.

Minoff discovered Bamba in the mid-90s and compiled Volume One with his direct input. (The singer now lives in Paris.) Half of the songs haven't been re­issued before, and the lovingly restored recordings sound cleaner than the Bamba reissues I've already heard. Minoff feels such a personal connection to the material that he almost hesitated to release it: "This stuff changed my entire outlook on playing music," he told me, "and there is a part of me that wants it all to remain my little secret." Fortunately, the part of him that would rather share won out.

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Mickey Newbury
An American Trilogy
(Drag City)

On his terrific new album, Apocalypse, Bill Callahan name-checks four of the country's greatest singers and songwriters—Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Johnny Cash, and Mickey Newbury. The Texas-born Newbury, who died in 2002, has always had a sterling reputation among musicians and critics, but popular acclaim eluded him despite more than a decade of major-label releases and great success providing material to other singers—he has writing or cowriting credits on songs like "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," which Kenny Rogers's band the First Edition made a hit, and "She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye," which Jerry Lee Lewis cut during his country phase.

In May Drag City released a gorgeous box set collecting three of Newbury's best-loved albums, Looks Like Rain (1969), 'Frisco Mabel Joy (1971), and Heaven Help the Child (1973), and including a fourth disc of singles and previously unissued demos cut around the same time. Assuming you don't already know Newbury as a writer and singer of rare focus and eloquence, this set should convince you that he belongs on Callahan's list.

Most of Newbury's songs during this period are dark, austere, and poetic, and he wrote often about love—elusive, broken, vanished. His solitary narrators reflect on their failings, and absence sharpens their longings. In "Frisco Depot," a song from 'Frisco Mabel Joy, Newbury sings, "When you're cold there's nothing as welcome as sunshine / When you're dry there's nothing as welcome as rain." That kind of yearning for what you don't have (and that kind of failure to realize what you do) is pervasive in his writing.

Newbury emerged from the same Texas troubadour tradition that produced his buddy Townes Van Zandt, and he got his start in Nashville, but you can't call him country or rock. Delivered in a searing voice that's clear and unadorned, his extraordinarily delicate songs subtly reflect a range of American traditions—folk, doo-wop, country, blues. His biggest hit, which reached number 26 on the pop charts, gives the Drag City set its name: "An American Trilogy," from 'Frisco Mabel Joy, is an artful medley of "Dixie," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and a Bahamian lullaby called "All My Trials," and it defied the late-60s protests over the supposed racism of "Dixie" to reclaim the song from the taint of slavery and deliver a powerful dose of grief and nostalgia. Dozens of singers have since covered it, including Elvis Presley.

All four discs in the CD-only box set are available individually as CDs or LPs, but the box is worth the investment: it comes with a stunning 98-page booklet and a coded map linking key events in Newbury's career to the cities where they happened.

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Various artists
To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929
(Tompkins Square)

This powerful three-CD set, compiled by self-taught Baltimore ethnomusicologist Ian Nagoski, illustrates beautifully just how important the waves of immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the early 20th century were to the nation's evolving culture. The music on first two discs here was almost exclusively recorded by Turks, Greeks, Assyrians, and Armenians who'd recently settled in Manhattan; the third disc is devoted mostly to music recorded in eastern Europe and Egypt and released by U.S. labels for the immigrant market stateside.

Nagoski has researched each track on To What Strange Place meticulously, and in the accompanying booklet he discusses not only the histories of the performers but also the origins of most of the songs. To pick just one example: Tetos Demetriades, born in Istanbul, is represented by a 1927 recording of Nick Roubanis's tune "Little Egyptian Girl," about a Christian man lusting after a Muslim woman. A few years later Mikos Patrinos cut the song in Greece under the title "Miserlou," and it was on its way to becoming a pop standard—and a surf standard, thanks to Dick Dale's pumped-up 1962 instrumental version.

Nagoski spent five years collecting the 78s he compiled for this anthology, and in an e-mail he told me that in the process he listened to nearly a thousand sides cut in the U.S. between 1916 and 1929. His liner notes do a remarkable job of putting this flood of music into some kind of historical perspective, and disc three includes 22 minutes of him discussing the context of its creation. The songs themselves resonate without any explanation, but with Nagoski's help it's easy to feel the huge stretch of years that's passed since they were recorded—which makes their emotional immediacy even more touching. 

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