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In The Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2
Label: Wrasse records
Length: 12 tracks / 50 mins
If the prospect of African artists excites you, then you may be in for a treat with this fine disc, each track of which was specially recorded for this project. Its cover notes ask, “How is it that a band from Ireland can touch a continent half a world away? ... Africa, like U2’s music, is filled with hope and promise... This collection is a love letter and a call to arms. These songs are about Africa.” They have certainly been well-matched with the singers.
The disc kicks off powerfully, with three of collection’s biggest names on the first four tracks, and each of them delivers. Between them they fulfil the concept’s promise. Angelique Kidjo’s vocals can be stunning (I can still remember the moment I discovered her powerful voice) and she brings a wonderfully expressive warmth to “Mysterious Ways”. Verses in French explode into English choruses as she adds to the feel of the original precisely the African element that you would expect from this project, courtesy of some almost-highlife guitar and rumbling male backing vocals.
“In the Name of Love” is just the song for the Soweto Gospel Choir to cover. Their rich à capella township harmonies - a vocal style that could only come from South Africa - catch something of the blackness of the original and adding a beauty of their own.
Vieux Farka Touré’s outstanding version of “Bullet the Blue Sky” is so much like his father’s brilliant collaboration with Ry Cooder, sharing the same crisp shaker-edged calabash percussion, and rippling bass and guitar style. Again, the song is in French with the title line in English. Much of the power of this piece is that it is always on the cusp of explosion, never quite releasing its pent up energy (there’s no “Slapping them down, ONE hundred ...”). Periodically a blues harmonica or stylised guitar break bursts in with vivid, saturated hue; but it’s the percussive undercurrent that makes this track such a joy. Larry Mullen would love it.
Most of the other names are less well known, and achieve various levels of success. Keziah Jones’ Afrofunk version of “One” works technically, but completely misses the angst that makes the original an emotional Exocet. The backing in Waldemar Bastos’ “Love is Blindness” catches the mood of the U2 song, but his high, warbly vocal approach owes too much to a classic Spanish/Portuguese style to work on a rock track. That said, after several listens it can grow on you.
Elsewhere, these new versions work well. Ba Cissoko’s kora playing gives “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” a distinctive top end. On the face of it, this song seems far too specifically Irish to work for anyone outside the country, but as the liner notes also say, this album is “played by artists who have survived wars, seen their homes erased from the earth, who have lost much, but still survived and thrived.” Vusi Mahlasela’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on your Own” plays the song pretty straight. While he can’t quite make that special line, “Can you hear me when I sing?” as spine-tingling as Bono (it’s very personal to the U2 frontman, and even he doesn’t reach it anywhere else in the U2 canon), he comes as close as could be expected.
Many of these artists have worked with respected Western musicians, such as Peter Gabriel, Carlos Santana, Branford Marsalis and Kanye West; while Tony Allen is currently drummer with The Good, The Bad and The Queen, and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry appears on the Sierra Leone‘s Refugee All Stars’ version of “Seconds”. Let that speak of the top quality musicianship of this release.
Each page of the booklet gives a picture and a brief biography of the relevant artist, with details of their country, including the major issue and major success story for that nation. A portion of this disc goes to The Global Fund, a major player in fighting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and each page lists additional charities that are succeeding on the continent. But the music is so good that you don’t even need a moral reason to buy the disc. I’d defy any U2 fan not only to find this fascinating, fresh, and hopeful, but powerfully inspired in several places.
U2 by African artists is a mouth watering prospect. Linked with Africa since "Where The Streets Have No Name" was written in Ethiopia in the mid-eighties right through until on the Vertigo Tour of 2005 when all the African flags cascaded from the roof of the stage it was probably about time that the songs were set in African contexts rather than just being about Africa. Putting the songs in that context had always the possibility of opening up new nuances, meanings and impact. Where the arrangements are most played with it might be a metter of taste whether it works or doesn't. For me, trying to lament up (or down!) "Bullet The Blue Sky" with wailing harmonica but without Edge's whirring guitar is a tricky trick that maybe doesn't fully convince my western ear but Soweto Gospel Choir's reinvention of "Pride (In the Name of Love)" into a Negro-Spiritual hymn works wonderfully. Angelique Kidjo's version of "Mysterious Ways" in different languages brings added seduction though perhaps loses the spiritual twist that U2 have given it particularly in live performance. It is though the most accessible song in the collection. Where Vusi Mahlasela's "Sometimes you Can't Make It On Your Own" and Keziah Jones' "One" fail to add any hues to the originals, the most intriguing versions are Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars' "Seconds" and African Underground All Stars' "Desire," the latter adding some contemporary rap to the original tune and using the chorus almost as a sample. It's new emphasis on African liberation makes it the most politically charged song here. All in all, a fascinating addition to the art of all things U2.
Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast,
Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He has written two
books Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 which he is currently updating
and The Rock Cries Out; Discovering Eternal Truth in Unlikely Music. He
dabbles in poetry and songwriting and he has a weekly radio show on BBC
Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or night @ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul).
He has his own web page--Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org
. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin