A Look Back at

John Leeson
I’ve combined my picks for CDs and live shows into one list. The numbering is a bit arbitrary.

1. ARTIST OF THE YEAR: Mavis Staples
CD: We'll Never Turn Back; Live: Jul 1: Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival

She’s my 'artist of the year', because after a long and superb career, in 2007 she released what might be her best album ever, a searing evocation of the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s — a struggle which she and the Staple Singers were a big part of. At her July concert, she was greeted by an ecstatic and loving standing ovation before she began; her performance showed why. Mavis’ greatness is not just in her music, but in her soul, and her commitment to what she sings about, whether God, or freedom, or both (“My God is a freedom God…”). Both on the album and on stage, she reminded us that the problems she sings about are still here today.
> LMR report

2. Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective
CD: Wátina; Live: July 2, Harbourfront Centre

The Garifuna people of Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua are descended from shipwrecked African slaves and Carib Indians; their culture, language and music are threatened with extinction. Andy Palacio has emerged as one of the forceful defenders and promoters of Garifuna culture. If his debut album is an indication of what he is trying to save, one can only wish him success.

Wátina, might just be my favourite of the year, and is on almost all 'world music' Top 10 lists that I've seen. I can't imagine anyone not falling in love with the music halfway through the first song'. Unique and gorgeous music.

3. Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra
Live: July 5: Harbourfront Centre

Pretty difficult for us westerners to grasp the idea of somebody being a 71st generation kora player! It does, however, help explain why Toumani is generally acknowledged as the greatest player in the world of this quintessential West African instrument. I’d been waiting for years to see him; the only letdown of this concert was that it had to conform to Harbourfront’s standard 90 minute limit. He could have played twice as long and it wouldn't have been enough.

He began playing solo kora, demonstrated the multiple parts he can play by himself, and then brought in his big dance band, the Symmetric Orchestra, which plays music unlike any other of his that most of us have heard. (How about “Malian Salsa”)? Throughout the show, he kept us entertained and informed with his stories. It was a beautiful, powerful and moving night.
> LMR report

4. Mahmoud Ahmed
Live: Dec. 25, Lithuanian Hall

I couldn't have asked for a better Christmas present than getting to see once again Mahmoud Ahmed — the greatest star in Ethiopian music. The magnificent Ethiopiques series of albums (now up to 24 volumes) first introduced Ahmed to Western ears in the 1980’s via his classic recordings of the early to mid 70’s. He is still a powerful singer, and wonderful entertainer. This year, 30 years after those early recordings, he won the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award for Africa.

But all that is background to the excitement and energy of a Mahmoud concert. Just before midnight on Christmas night, in a hall completely filled with dedicated Ethiopian fans, Mahmoud came out, and rocked the place for the next three hours (with one intermission).

5. Vieux Farka Touré
CD: Vieux Farka Touré; Live: Feb. 10 Harbourfront Centre

I was skeptical at first of the news of an unknown musical son coming out of the woodwork a few months after his father — the great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré — died. Seeing him at a sold-out Brigantine room in February convinced me.

I was simply knocked out by his music and his presence. At times, it felt eerie to hear him kick off the licks to a few of his father's best known songs, but this was not 'Ali Farka, Jr.' we were hearing; he's his own musician, with his own style, and many of the songs were a much different music, from a different generation.

His CD features the last two songs Ali Farka Touré played on before his death. Two other songs feature kora great Toumani Diabaté, with whom Vieux Farka apprenticed. Vieux is a great, accomplished musician already at 25; I look forward to hearing how he grows and improves over the years. (I was impressed enough that I went to London, Ont. the next weekend to see him again!)

6. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80
Live: Jun 29, Harbourfront Centre

More scepticism: From what I had heard and seen, the youngest son of the late Fela Kuti, who was touring with Fela's old band, seemed to be just recreating the stage show of his father, who had already been dead 10 years. But that night at Harbourfront, Seun made a believer of me. He might have been channelling Fela, but he did it so magnificently, so thoroughly, that it just sucked the entire audience into the music. A great show, great performer.
> LMR report

7. Ba Cissoko
Live: May 11: Lula Lounge

Toronto was lucky this year to get two great and very different kora shows. In July, the acknowledged master of the kora, Toumani Diabaté performed, but in May, we saw a younger generation take on the ancient West African instrument, plug it in, and let it rock. A twin-kora attack, in keeping with the Hendrix-spirit of their newest CD, Electric Griot Land. Music rooted in ancient West African traditions, but their interpretation is from another time and place.
> LMR report

8. Stella Chiweshe
Live: Jul. 22 with the Earthquake Band, Berkeley Church

The mbira (sometimes called thumb piano) is at the heart of Zimbabwean music. Stella’s title, "Queen of Zimbabwean mbira" does not do her justice. She began performing during colonial times when the mbira was banned. Even after independence, it was not easy for a woman to play and perform mbira. But she brings more than musical talent to the stage; Stella brings a power and spirituality to the stage, whether playing solo, or with a band. In this case, after a brief solo performance, she brought on her aptly-named Earthquake band, who demonstrated just how energetic and powerful a band can be playing traditional African instruments (including dual marimbas, and numerous drums). A real treat. (Another treat: Stella has been living in Toronto the past few months, performing, giving mbira lessons and spiritual circles. Let’s hope she stays longer).

9. Grupo Vocal Desandann
Live: Nov. 27 at the Church of the Holy Trinity

This Cuban acapella group, whose members all trace their ancestry back to Haiti, has been a favourite of mine for years. Their vocals are jaw-dropping beautiful. The only thing disappointing about this concert was the much-too-small audience.

They will apparently be back in town in the spring. As they have just finished recording a new CD with Jane Bunnett, it may be safe to assume they will get much more attention at their next show in town. They certainly deserve it.
> LMR report

10. Various Artists: Tribute to Boubacar Dioubaté
Live: Jan. 26, NOW Lounge

This night honoured Senegalese griot and kora player Boubacar Diabaté, who lived in Montreal and passed away in October, 2006. Many of the musicians who knew and worked with him and a sold-out audience came out for this memorial night. The respect and love for Dioubaté that musicians and audience demonstrated was strong enough that even those of us who didn't know him knew we were attending a special night. We were treated to over four hours of music by poet Kwame Stephens, Kassoum Diamoutene, Donné Roberts, Muhtadi, Robert Simms, Jacques Yamdjie, Katenen Diobaté, Njacko Backo (photo) & the Toumkak Drummers, Tamsir Seck & Sani Abu.

11. Various Artists, "Night of the Living Dead II": Tribute to Handsome Ned
Live: Jun. 16: Horseshoe Tavern

In the 1970's and 80's, Handsome Ned got the Queen Street scene — artists, punks, and whoever else hung out there — to appreciate rockabilly and country music. His Saturday shows at the Cameron House were filled, and he broadcast a weekly show on CKLN.

Ned (born Robin Masyk) passed away in January, 1987. I remember him for his love of music, his great smile, and the cowboy hat that seemed to never leave his head. In June, over two dozen musicians who either played with, listened to, or hung out with Ned put on a lengthy and impressive tribute at the Horseshoe Tavern.

12. CD: Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba: Segu Blue
This deservedly won the BBC Radio 3 World Music Album of the Year award, and has drawn critical raves everywhere. Fans of acoustic West African music must not miss this superb album, built around four ngonis. We should all hope that someone brings this group to Toronto in 2008.

13. CD: Various: The Very Best of Ethiopiques
This series (now up to 24 volumes) is an astounding work, collecting the treasures of the great Ethiopian music of the 1970's and 80's. Besides Mahmoud Ahmed (above), it also features a huge range of lesser-known (to the West) Ethiopian singers and musicians including Alemayehu Eshele and Tlahoun Gessesse. Brilliant, brilliant stuff, and unlike most other music you've heard.

14. BOOK: Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus by Alex Halberstadt
One of the best music books I’ve ever read. This tells the story of the truly unlikely life of Doc Pomus. Once one of the biggest pop songwriters in the world (“This Magic Moment”, “Suspicion”, “Teenager in Love”), he began his musical career — a short, overweight Jewish kid from Brooklyn, crippled by polio — as a blues shouter in the black blues clubs of New York City. One of his biggest songs, “Save the Last Dance For Me” was written remembering his wedding night when, unable to dance at all, he watched his bride dancing with his brother.
After the great era of the songwriter ended, his story is no less interesting. Exceedingly well-written and insightful (the author had access to Doc’s personal journals and diaries). Highly recommended for anyone who appreciates a great life story.

I have a longer list, with more comments, photos, as well as audio and video links, CD recommendations etc., along with links to numerous other critics’ and organizations’ picks and awards at www.to-music.ca
We welcome your comments and feedback
John Leeson
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