Album Review: Waaju – Waaju [Olindo Records; May 2018]

Waaju’s self-titled first LP came out in May to a small crowd in Swan’s Wharf, during the Giant Steps summer residency. The evening was atmospheric, enticing and exceptionally hot. The old warehouse was filled with the diverse sounds of Waaju, an Afro-Latin quintet based in London. You will recognise the members from all sorts of other projects, Bahla to name just one. Between the four of them, they have played for Jordan Rakei, Ashley Henry and many more members of the London music scene.

Waaju is five tracks long and encompasses a large selection of what the band have been working on. It is varied, crossing different musical boundaries, and maintains a strong connection to jazz throughout. Despite crossing many different styles, the main influence is clearly Malian, and Ben Brown, drummer and visionary of the group, states his influences as Ali Farka Touré and Oumou Sangaré.

You can clearly hear the Farka Toure influences throughout the album, but it is with an unmistakable jazz sound. The song ‘Ali’s Mali’, named after Farka Toure, has the fundamental West African sound, but is led by Sam Rapley playing his tenor saxophone in a classical jazz style. The result is a lovely fusion between two great musical traditions. The album is clearly well-considered, and the technical ability of each musician is plain to see in all five songs as they move between different regions and genres.

However, there is something about this album that doesn’t quite come together. All the cuts are good, but there is an authenticity missing from the music. It never quite grabs you and never quite transports you to the home of the sounds, perhaps due to the vast mix of influences coming together, or simply because they can’t quite capture the historical and cultural importance of the music.

With their aim to bring together music from around the world, it can feel slightly like a mixed message, at times perfecting that balance, but at other points completely missing. Couple this with the complex cultural dynamics of appropriation, although good, the album is not quite great.