Album Review: Alhousseini Anivolla  & Girum Mezmur – Afropentatonism [Piranha Records; July 2020]

It was a breath of fresh air to receive this excellent album to review. Set against a background of recent unrest in Ethiopia triggered by the killing of controversial musician Haacaaluu Hundeessa in Addis Ababa on 29th June this year, the album Afropentatonism (out in early July on Piranha Records) by Anivolla & Mezmur brings a refreshing message of peace, urging people to set aside their differences and come together to stop the suffering caused by conflict. “We want people in Africa to be proud of their diverse culture and common traditions” say the pair.

The two key figures behind the group are from opposite sides of Africa: Ethio-jazz guitarist Girum Mezmur and Alhousseini Anivolla from Niger. Mezmur is a well-established producer who has worked with the likes of Angelique Kidjo and Mahmoud Ahmed, one of Ethiopia’s most famous singers. Anivolla is well known as part of the Tinariwen movement and a regular performer with his groups Etran Finatawa and Anewal.

The two met fifteen years ago at a festival in Europe where the idea for this collaboration took root. Gathering a wonderful selection of instrumentalists – Habtamu Yeshambel on masenqo (traditional Ethiopian fiddle), Anteneh Teklemariam on 6-stringed electric Krar (Ethiopian lyre), legendary Ethiopian mandolin player Ayele Mamo (aged 78) and percussionist Misale Legesse – they embarked on their wanders, and in March 2019 recorded this live album in Nairobi, Kenya.

Although Afropentatonism is a live recording with a myriad of spontaneous moments, the understated production means we don’t get much of a feel for the audience response and atmosphere of the venue. However, this slight lack of vibrancy is the only disappointment with an otherwise charming recording.

For those not familiar with music theory, a pentatonic scale provides the players with a limited palette of five notes. However, that in no way restricts the players here, rather provides a framework around which to build endless variations of tone and timbre with spontaneous improvisations. The group sets off on its pentatonic journey in typical ‘desert blues’ style with rambling intros and a laid back vibe. Add to that a range of grooves-to-make-you-move and the five note scale becomes immediately insignificant. The players’ abilities to riff on a simple theme are stunning. The directness of Anivolla’s poignant vocals plus the unusual mix of instrumentation make Afropentatonism a delight to listen to.

“Awash Ammalele” is the opener, named after a major river that flows across Ethiopia. The groove emerges with a solid beat, bringing the band’s sound into focus. A bassy krar melody is repeated throughout the track, by the end of which you will be humming along for sure! Next, “Chet Awazad”  (Women of Azawad) comes straight in with a funky groove reminiscent of 1960s New Orleans group The Meters. Awazad is a disputed region of Northern Mali, and the message of this song to people involved in conflict there is, “You think you have to serve the cause, but the ones who suffer are these women, the children, the old ones. When will you finally understand that?”

“Asalam” (Peace Be With You) again concerns the conflicts in Alhousseini’s region. It is a desert call-and-response, with a trance groove enticing you to swing from side to side. Little improvisations on the melody instruments weave amongst the krar’s echoey bass tones. “Algher” (Peace) is in a similar vein. The masenqo’s delightful intro marks this track out as one of the highlights. A slow-paced percussion groove sucks you straight in, supporting the Ethiopian fiddle’s husky flourishes, interweaving guitars and mandolin. The vocals emerge, with their unmistakably nomadic quality. “Toumast Enkere”, meaning ‘All People Of Our Earth Together’ features a rousing guitar solo. Towards the end we get drawn into the live performance when the spoken words remind us, “Don’t forget you belong together”, before the band sweeps the audience into a fast dance section.

The standout track for me is “Asmoussoudou” (Those Who Unify). After a lovely, wandering introduction the slower, lilting rhythm gradually comes into focus with the shaker and bass. Alongside the calabash, phrases on the masenqo are reminiscent of Malian njarka player Afel Bocoum (one of Ali Farka Touré’s musical associates) or Fulani riti player, Juldeh Camara. The “ahhh, hmmm” responses of the chorus give a spacious feel, rocking back and forth in mesmeric style. The instrumental section highlights each instrument in turn – mandolin, masenqo and guitar soar in and out amongst the stars like kites. “I encourage you! You raise your voice to bring people together no matter which colour and background. Your mission is not easy but you continue promoting culture and diversity in a world that is shaky. You never surrender your love for this world”.

Towards the end of the penultimate track “Isouwad” (He Is Watching Us), the audience gets audibly excited as the band shifts gear and ups the pace.  The final track is “Tamadrite Nakal”, addressed to the ‘Youth Of The Planet’, urging them to ‘hold together’. In a world in which individualism is constantly promoted, and at a time when we are all being encouraged to keep our distance, the timely theme of bringing people together in mind, if not in body, is a constant throughout this album.