I'm not sure that I understand my hometown of Cleveland better for having left it, but some aspects of the place certainly become more vivid in the mode of memory and longing: the persistent clouds and petulant lake, crammed duplexes and corner bars, the buckeyes and black oaks, the salt mountains on the river flats, the Appalachian swell of the heights, the sandy expanse of the headlands, the kielbasa, the ribs, the reels, the punk rock, the blues.
This past year, both Senegal's Baaba Maal and Ethiopia's Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw explored their relationships with the homes they've left. You don't have to speak Pulaar or Amharic to feel how visceral that connection is. World-beat vet Maal, age 48, broke from the cosmopolitan fusion of popular efforts like 1998's Nomad Soul and recorded acoustically in his home village with virtuoso soul mates. Conversely, 27-year-old Gigi teamed up with bassist-producer Bill Laswell, advancing her astonishing voice as lead instrument in a busy combo of jazz legends including Herbie Hancock, Hamid Drake, Wayne Shorter, Karsh Kale, and Pharoah Sanders. While Maal's Mi Yeewnii (Missing You) (Palm Pictures) heralds his renewed commitment to music-based local outreach, both his record and Gigi's Gigi (Palm Pictures) portray home as it can only be seen through the eyes of one who has looked back at it through the prism of travel.
For Gigi, it may be some time before she can live freely as a musician in Ethiopia. Now residing in New York, she left her rural village at age 18, when her father forbade her to pursue singing as a career. As she recounted during a recent NPR interview, her family's religious orthodoxy viewed women as objects of worship who were not encouraged to express their own devotion musically, especially not for profit. They had wanted her to be a doctor.
So she left. And her record reveals the sting: The title of her song "Guramayle"--which she calls "a love song to a child of diaspora"--refers to a put-down used to describe a person who has left home. As Gigi struggles to reclaim the word as a badge of honor, the flip of her voice conveys the nuance of her ambivalence. And what a voice it is. Think of the breaking background vocal at the frenzied end of "Gimme Shelter." Think Oumou Sangare. Think Sinead O'Connor. Think Dusty Springfield's reedy overblow double-timed over a mix of Ethio-Indian rhythms.
In the Ethiopian Azmari minstrel tradition of social critique, Gigi has not been afraid to call for unity amid conflict. Her 1998 pre-Laswell reggae hit "One Ethiopia" addressed tensions among rival ethnic groups, and on Gigi's album ender "Adwa," she implicitly rallies for peace, movingly recalling a united Ethiopia's fight to rid itself of European oppression in 1896. Her message is catching on, too: When Maal began his tour, Gigi was opening for him. But her popularity has grown so quickly that Palm Pictures just last week decided to cancel Gigi's Minneapolis performance and launch her own, separate tour.
While she still may not be able to live in Ethiopia as a musician, Gigi is bumping on the streets of Addis, too powerful to ignore.
Unlike Gigi, Maal has been a traveler by choice. His people--the Tukulor minority of West Africa's nomadic Fulani--have traditionally been rural and mobile, compared with Senegal's Wolof majority, who are centralized in Dakar. Not born into the griot musician caste, he studied his craft in the musical home of friend Mansour Seck and lit out for Paris, where he began his international career. After much globetrotting, Maal has become one of Afro-pop's marquee names--along with his more rockist countryman Youssou N'Dour and Malian bandleader Salif Keita. Maal now considers himself an "urban griot." He has made an art of calibrating his muezzin tenor to create slow-burn catharsis. But aside from two previous acoustic outings--1989's spare Djam Leelii with Seck, and 1991's Baayo--he has mostly explored the fusion of traditional music with modern jazz, blues, reggae and R&B.
This time, with Mi Yeewnii, his incendiary band Daande Lenol (Voice of the People) has been stripped to its guitar-driven elements. Recorded in Maal's backyard at nightly gatherings of friends, the album is woven through with the sounds of children and evening crickets. Radiohead producer John Leckie captures the riveting grooves and Maal's voice keening beneath the firmament. At live shows, this percussive string music fills rooms to the corners, with Maal's voice goading and soaring as rhythmic repeated lines from the band's three guitars, electric bass, kora (harp), and hoddu (lute) encircle one another in an intimate coil. His old friend Seck, blind now but ever vital, is an obvious source of inspiration and a key component of the band. Recently, they have been extending West African shows, staying an extra day to talk with villagers about their political rights and health issues like the dangers of female circumcision and HIV/AIDS. The final song on the new record, "Allah Addu Jam," sums up Maal's hopeful mission for Africa in an intense spiraling plea for God's peace.
But even as Maal focuses on making the global local, he and Gigi give voice to the longings of a metaphorical diaspora as well. They sing to those of us who are scattered and seeking affinity, looking for common references; those who have constructed new communities based on their passions, but who continue the complex project of understanding home.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.