Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Apr 1st 2008 1:30PM by Steve Hochman
OK, he's thankful to Bono, too. But for Amos – a longtime musician, music executive, producer and social activist – the direct inspiration came in the company of a man named Musa. It happened in 2002 when Amos, then running Quincy Jones' foundation, was on a trip to South Africa helping provide housing via former President Jimmy Carter's Habitat for Humanity Work Project.
"I was building houses with this guy Musa, building a home for him," Amos says. "I had my Walkman and was listening to U2 stuff. And it was sort of in my subconscious – not like I left saying, 'One day I'll make a record of African bands doing U2 songs,' but the experience was all jumbled in my brain. And one day I was laying in bed and said, 'Holy ... ! I should do that!' "
Now, philosophically this made perfect sense. Bono's efforts in regard to African debt relief, disease control and other matters are legend. But could it work musically? After all, U2's songs don't at least on the surface have African feels to them. While a few have betrayed African-American roots, overall the band has more of a European quality.
"I had no doubt," says Amos, though he admits he had to convince Paul Heck, his co-executive producer of the album and a veteran of the 'Red Hot' AIDS benefit album series. He also had to convince a few of the musicians he had in mind for the project as well. "But there were a couple of songs I heard in my head from the beginning. 'Seconds' I totally heard turned into a township groove for the Sierra Leone Refugees. I heard Waldemar Bastos doing 'Love is Blindness' in my head. And Angelique doing 'Mysterious Ways,' which ultimately outshined what I thought she could do."
Making a musical connection for Amos was just a matter of finding an aesthetic link, and he didn't have to look far. "I thought about the Edge's guitar parts, the syncopation that goes on, and clued into that," he says. "That gave a bit of a roadmap. So on the surface you may say these broad, anthemic things and rhythms aren't really related to soul music. But deper in the music there are clues. Even though they are very Anglo-Saxon, there are elements you can turn around."
Ultimately he had a wide-ranging roster, stylistically and geographically, with Benin's Kidjo, the Sierra Leone group, Mali-based Toure and Angolan troubadour Bastos joined by Guinean kora player Ba Cissoko and his group, socially conscious South African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, Nigerian Afrobeat drum force Tony Allen, Senegal star Cheikh Lo, Nigerian singer Keziah Jones, Cameroon duo Les Nubians , an "African Underground" collaboration of artists from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria, and South Africa's Soweto Gospel Choir.
The first track that came back was Cissoko's version of 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday,' which figured to be a tough one, given the martial beat that's the song's foundation – a big leap to any loose African rhythm. But when Amos heard it, "I knew, 'Man, we're there! It's going to be fine.' It was a matter of matching the right person to the right song, a diplomatic process."
There were some differences of opinion. Amos really wanted the Soweto Gospel Choir to do 'Angel in Harlem,' an obvious choice given the gospel quality of the original, which even features an American black church choir. But the Soweto choir leaders wanted to do 'Pride (In the Name of Love).'
"I was really resisting," he says. "I was really precious about that being a moment that was in many ways obvious that others might not be and therefore something we really needed to anchor the album. I thought 'Pride' wouldn't serve that purpose, it's about Martin Luther King and they're from Africa, But I acquiesced and they recorded it and then I realized, 'Of course, it can be about Mandela, too!' "
Amos also was surprisingly resistant to an offer of contribution from a major rock star, Aerosmith's Joe Perry, a big fan of the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars who had the African group opening some shows for his famous band. "They had done a demo version of 'Seconds' on their tour bus, an acoustic campfire version that I loved and really wanted. But they were doing dates with Aerosmith here and Perry offered to record them in his studio and offered to play on it as well and when I got that back it jarred me. It seemed too much. But it's getting played on the radio now and I had to get over that – it's really grown on me now."
His favorite, though, is Vieux Farka Toure's Malian blues take on the already dark, bluesy 'Bullet the Blue Sky.' Toure readily finds the groove that on the original is fueled by slide guitar and here takes a more percussive turn. "And the vocal was a surprise to me," Amos says. "When he goes into English on the chorus – 'Whoa!' "
The album's concept goes beyond mere tribute. Each artist has a page in the booklet with information about not just it but its country of origin, facts and figures, a small map, and some basic assessment of the politics and other issues facing the populace. For Amos, an African-American whose first trip to Africa was that 2002 visit, that is a key element.
"My daughter's seven and this is a great way to introduce her to Africa. It's been a really cool device and she's really into Africa now. She'll listen to a track and say, 'Oh! That's the one from Guinea!' That one and Waldemar's tracks are the ones she really loves."
Most impressive to him is how the artists found ways to put their sensibilities into the songs. "Whether you're familiar with U2 or not, these are wholly their own pieces. I see them less as covers than total reinventions. I hope this will inspire listeners not just to get into Africa more but into these artists. That's the hope, to serve as a calling card for the artists. It would be nice for people in the general public to be able to recognize individual artists."
How about Bono and the boys? Given that many of the lyrics have been translated into African languages, permission was needed to do this album. Amos got the various acts to do short videos thanking U2 for their commitment to African issues by way of a pitch, but since the group only makes decisions by unanimous consent – and only when they can be in the same room to evaluate proposals – there was some time between request and consideration.
"But they were really great and very responsive and really dug it and blessed it," Amos says. "It's a love letter to the band. We want to walk that line, be respectful, show what role Africa plays in their overall history, wanted U2 fans to not see it as exploitative."
And Musa? Amos is sending a copy to his friend, with much thanks.