It’s not exactly an age old question, but for the sake of argument, what do you get when you cross a jazz player, a guitarist who teaches African guitar in one of the most respected musical institutions in the United States, and a couple of crack musicians from Ghana? The answer is not exactly what you would expect either. It is a cover of the New Order classic “Bizarre Love Triangle” following more theHighlife style popularized in early to mid-20th century West Africa than anything Peter Hook or Bernard Sumner could have ever imagined their pop-dance hit would have spawned. But while it is a a novel idea, it sort of falls a bit flat. You might have to ask yourself: “How many more bands are going to cover this damned song? Somebody do ‘Ceremony!'” Thankfully, however, it is one of the only spotty moments on the album as track for track, Odo Sanbra is an exercise in musical prowess that doesn’t for a moment suffer from sincerity that you might expect from a group of players that call a Midwestern city, not Sierra-Leone, their home, including some guy named Andrew Bird who makes an appearance playing a violin.
While on paper this could elicit comparisons to either Vampire Weekend or Antibalas, please be assured that the Chicago-based group shares only an affinity with the music of a continent, and showcases an understanding of the migration of African sounds through this entire album just as well as either of the New York-based bands I mentioned. If you need an example, the lush, string-heavy opening to the track “Masanga” comes out sounding like it could almost be inspired by the same American Primitive “school” that would influence John Fahey, and other post-blues pickers – only to turn into turn itself into something that could resemble gypsy jazz or some of the music off the phenomenal Give Me Love – Songs From the Brokenhearted, Baghdad, 1925-1929.
Odo Sanbra works in the sense that it doesn’t try to think outside of the box, it tries to work within it, and make the box a better place – this is a lesson that many less-informed musicians trying to tackle any style of popular music from the African continent should pay close attention to.