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Wunmi - A.L.A.

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Artist: Wunmi

Album: A.L.A.

Label: Documented

Review date: Jul. 13, 2007

With two of Fela's kids -- Femi the Popular and Seun the Rightful Heir -- in full circulation, it remains to be seen how many AfroBeat acts the world scene can or will support. Groups like Nomo and Antibalas represent for the US, and now Wunmi, born in Nigeria and raised in London, carries the flag for the EU.

With a resume that includes a stint as a dancer for the groundbreaking British collective Soul II Soul, as well as appearances on recordings by Osunlade and Fela-collaborator Roy Ayers, Wunmi's album A.L.A. (Africans Living Abroad) would indeed appear to be the culmination of years (Soul II Soul's album Keep On Movin' is nearly 20!) of work towards the title of AfroBeat Ambassador.

There's a good handful of songs on A.L.A. soiled by half-assed nods to dance music trends like progressive house and broken beats, but the constant variables, such as a band that features a talking drummer and a real guitarist as opposed to samples and glossy synth washes, keep most of the record firmly planted in post-Fela territory. The occasional dub effect pops up from time to time to remind the listener of Wunmi's London base. Finally, it's the arrangement of tracks as a body of work that makes sense of it all.

"Intro: Just Listen" offers a faux-voyeur experience to the listener as Wunmi fakes a conversation (has Bob Newhart taught us nothing?) on a snap-crackling cellphone, apparently telling a friend or family member, perhaps back in Nigeria, how her career is taking off. She ad-libs with a tart British accent like Downtown Julie Brown over a jazzy shuffle that's infinitely more interesting than her conversation. Moments later, on the electro-revisionist "Greedy Body" (in which a drum machine does a decent Tony Allen impression) she's singing in Pidgin English, exaggerating the accent to the point that "suffer" becomes "SO-FA." It's confounding: Through the various skits and bits that have her speaking for this effect or the other, she sounds British, but reverts to the international phonetic alphabet when she sings. Growing up, I was always fascinated by the fact that groups like ABBA spoke with strong Swedish vowels and consonants but sang in English with no more of an accent than the Everly Brothers. Wunmi does it the opposite way; it's through her music that she flaunts and trumpets her ancestry and culture, her kinship with other torchbearers of the Diaspora.

A few hard-funk workouts speak to Wunmi's apprenticeship with Masters At Work, the clever DJ's behind the superb Nuyorican Soul ,which similarly captured the roots (of Afro-Latin music) and kept the most essential rhythmic and cultural elements its point of origin while fusing it with the fluid dancefloor electro-savvy that would guarantee an audience beyond connoisseurs. This approach works in Wunmi's favor on tracks like "Crossover" and "Good Foot Charlie," but perhaps not so much on the albums curious choice of a cover, the Police's "Message In A Bottle."

Beyond the genres and sub-genres to which some of them may cling, the songs on A.L.A. also divide neatly between a kind of post-modernist sacred and profane: Some are topical and most easily associated with Fela's political marches, while the rest politely reside under an umbrella of slick, euro catwalkery. This concept of categorization is probably more western than anything else, and that's where it fails as a construct: Wunmi's not western, she's global, and if there's an element of identity crisis looming about her music, it's a critical projection. The album's language is more Esperanto than Pidgin.

By Andy Freivogel

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