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June 17, 2008

U2 Africa style – a gift of a response

by quaesitor

The thought didn’t thrill me. Especially after a friend tipped me off about a similar, earlier album of U2 covers by US Christian bands (called In The Name of Love – Artists United for Africa). One or two of them sort of work but to my mind, this attempt merely served to illustrate the fact that great contemporary music is far more than the simple dots on the staves. A great song these days is the result of a convergence of poetic and musical inspiration, gifts of improvisation and production, and the chemistry of a group of great performers. U2 have of course had all those in spades (biased, I realise). But all too often, unless Bono or The Edge write songs with others specifically in mind (eg The Wanderer for Johnny Cash, She’s a Mystery to Me for Roy Orbison), it simply doesn’t work when others try to pull it off. Either the arrangement sounds like a pale imitation of the original (eg a guitar lead attempts to sound like Edge and fails) or it tries to do something quite original and has the potential to fall flat on its face.

Now of course, that is a little churlish – Bono in particular have been unstinting in his efforts to bring justice and hope to Africa. And it is entirely consistent that he would allow a host of Christian bands to cover some of their greats in aid of Africa. But still, the album’s ethos aside, it simply doesn’t sound … right. Most US Christian bands (and I haven’t listened to many) seem to be heavily influenced by U2, and The Edge’s playing in particular – so no surprises that they aren’t that well placed to find a radically different approach.

However, in April 08, another album of U2 covers came out – and this is a whole new ball game. Far from being a pastiche, most of the artists here take big risks. For these covers are all performed by African artists and bands – and so the songs are relocated to Africa. They clearly love the music and ethos of U2, each brings their own authentic African voice. For the most part, they don’t even attempt to be U2, to be something that they are not. And that is why the result is intoxicating.

Africa Celebrates U2

Some familiar names and some who should be familiar. The album is perhaps a little uneven (but only a little) – isn’t every anthology or compilation? But it brilliantly combines my two great passions – U2 & Africa. It is full of sun-drenched rhythms and the sorts of sounds we used to hear blaring out of Kampala taxis.

There are some great moments – especially when they go for the more overtly political stuff. Here are a few standouts:

  • Angelique Kidjo from Benin kicks off the proceedings in a wonderful French/English mix version of Mysterious Ways. You need to listen to this LOUD to get the full power of her awesome voice.
  • Malian Vieux Farka Touré does a really extraordinary French version of Bullet The Blue Sky. It is a million miles from its more grungey original but still manages to convey the latent anger of a township’s helplessness, buffeted by the callous whims of the powerful, rather than the sympathies and anger of western observers.
  • In recent years, U2 have reapplied the sentiments of Sunday, Bloody Sunday to a host of more recent conflicts. So, unsurprisingly, what wasn’t written as a ‘rebel song’ carries its potent echo of protest even to Africa – and Guinean Ba Cissoko has come up with the most amazing cover – gone is Edge’s plaintive riff, in its place the even more haunting African kora harp.
  • Sometimes you can’t make it on your own is an acutely personal song, written by Bono about his dying father with whom he had a (much discussed) stormy relationship. It is hugely evocative and powerful. I didn’t think it really was the sort of song that was coverable. But I have to say that South African Vusi Mahlasela makes it his own – and it has really grown on me.
  • Hearing I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For in a foreign language by a Senegalese Muslim, Cheikh Lo brings a certain je ne sais quoi, especially because in my view it is one of the most explicitly Christian songs U2 have produced. But I loved it.
  • Pride starts in a very trad African acapella style – and having basses starting with Ba-bum bum bum doesn’t quite work for me. But then when they get going, the Soweto Gospel Choir gives it some awesome welly – and especially powerful is its subtle applications of a song about Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela, who in some ways is a contemporary South African version.

Less successful perhaps

  • With or Without You starts with a little radio-drama moment (not completely convinced) and then launches into a funky, American influenced dance number by Les Nubians. But maybe that’s because I’m not into dance music, surprisingly enough.
  • One was OKish, done in a funk version by Nigerian Keziah Jones – but it seemed a bit too upbeat to my mind, not enough pleading or angst. (And no, while I think Mary J Blige has the most amazing voice, i don’t really think her cover works either).

I could go on. It is a great album. And what’s great is that it is a gift from Africa to U2 in response to all that they’ve done for them. Proceeds from the profits go to Africa. Click on the album cover above to get to the iTunes page.

Track Listing:
1. Angelique Kidjo “Mysterious Ways”
2. Soweto Gospel Choir “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”
3. Keziah Jones “One”
4. Vieux Farka Touré “Bullet The Blue Sky”
5. Ba Cissoko “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
6. Waldemar Bastos “Love Is Blindness”
7. Tony Allen “Where The Streets Have No Name”
8. African Underground All-Stars Featuring Chosan, Optimus & Iyoka “Desire”
9. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars “Seconds”
10. Les Nubians “With Or Without You”
11. Cheikh Lo “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
12. Vusi Mahlasela “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”

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