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I love African music, but I don’t share much of it here, because I find it difficult to write about it without understanding the words. So, I have often wished that someone would recreate that particular joys of the music while singing in English. Miriam Lieberman’s new album is This is the Story, and it is pretty close to what I wished for. There are three traditional songs here among the album’s ten, and they are sung in the original Bambara, but the rest are in English. The music is not purely African, the addition of a cello on several songs being proof of this. But Lieberman works with musicians from Mali who recorded their parts in Bamako. The finished tracks, with additional musicians, were done in Sydney Australia. Miriam Lieberman herself studied the kora with the great Toumani Diabate in Mali.
This is the Story is dedicated to Lieberman’s sister Lucy Anne, who died in 2009 at age 16. The song Today is All is clearly about her, and it is written for just cello, acoustic guitar, and voice. So it would be easy to say that there is nothing of Africa in this song. But, if you don’t know African music, listen to the rest of the album. You will hear an stringed instrument that sounds like it is neither a guitar nor a harp, but something in between. That is the sound of the kora, the African harp. Listen again, and get used to the sound; pay attention to the kinds of lines that are played on the kora. Now go back to Today is All, and you will realize that the guitar part is played by someone who has learned to play the kora. The notes come out in ripples that ornament the song, but also propel the rhythm. The music on This is the Story is based on the music of Mali. This music manages to be excitingly rhythmic and delicate at the same time. The drums and percussion never lay down hard beats; rather, they speak in a punctuated chatter. When electric bass is used, it alternates between binding the various parts together by providing the pulse of the song, and playing a rippling burst of notes. When stand up bass is used, there are often beautifully lyric solos. Lieberman has lived in Mexico and Brazil, as well as spending time more recently living and studying music in various African countries, and she calls Australia her home. So Rhythm and Sound has a Latin feel to it, while Mali Sadjo has a reggae beat. Lieberman’s life can be broken into segments, when she lived and heard the music of here or there. But This is the Story sounds more like the product of a woman’s accumulated experience, and the album has a wonderfully consistent quality.
The album opens with a celebration of life. The song Bamako is about a New Years Eve celebration, and it is a burst of joy. But the next song, As-Salaam, could be regarded lyrically as the album’s overture. Songs of love alternate with songs of social concerns, and As-Salaam is both. Lieberman conveys the deep love of two people in few words, only as many as are needed. The chorus, in Arabic and Hebrew, makes it clear that these lovers are a Jew and an Arab. By presenting these lovers at a point where they know that their relationship is forbidden, but withholding a possible tragic ending, Lieberman makes this song a beautiful prayer for peace. I was going to present To Rise Again as my second song with this post, but Lieberman is donating half of the proceeds from this song to the Jeneba Project, which, in part, provides assistance to people who were forced to become child-soldiers in Sierra Leone’s civil war. The song concerns these child soldiers, and it eloquently and sensitively pleads their case. Rhythm and Sound is a fine song as well. Here Lieberman gives us a portrait of a woman who eases the hardship of her days by going out dancing at night. Lieberman’s third-world women are poor, but they have a nobility about them that makes us root for them, and that is certainly the case here. But I fear that I am making This is the Story sound like heavy going, and it isn’t at all. Many’s the Day is a song of romantic yearning with no social agenda. And My Time is a brush off song from a woman who has found a better man.
So take the wonderful energy of African music. Add lyrics in English that are well written and connect powerfully with the characters. Add a powerful alto voice, which can add ripples of notes right along with the band, but always in service of the song. Stir. And you have This is the Story, an album to savor.
Miriam Lieberman : As-Salaam
Miriam Lieberman : Rhythm and Sound