Stronghold Sound Presents | Sembeh Ma Fa Fe
album review by John Powell
Stronghold Sounds Presents Sembeh Ma Fa Fe. On this first volume, over 25 singers and players native to Guinea Conakry came together to record a set of tunes that can be categorized under reggae or hip hop, depending, and under world music, if you factor in that these artists are West African. While very few songs are in English, it’s clear to see through the blending of old and new sounds how West African traditionals evolved into artists like Collie Budz.
Different people sing each song, but it seems to be a collective effort, threaded together by San Francisco-living friends, producer Dub Snakkr and Alpha Oumar “Bongo” Sidibe. The music is generally roots rock steady, the drums with just enough programming to make it all sound slightly pop. Over 16 tracks, and with so many contributors, there are definitely highs and lows to this volume, and it’s more of a niche market for those that like more gangsta sounds but are willing to be worldly too.
On the opener title track the rock steady beat is handed off by focused bass and hip hop drums. Singers toss around verses, some singing them out and others rapping them. “Sembeh Ma Fa Fe” is Susu for “Strong sound coming,” so this song is a real welcome into the next hour and fifteen minutes of music, which lives up to its title.
“What A Life” has much more of a dancehall sound, only instead of programmed percussion, everything here is organic. Harkening back to the roots of this sound, it’s easy on songs like this one to see where Eek a Mouse and Buju Banton got their sense of flow. Propulsive, staccato call and response ties the chorus to the verses.
Songs like “Ghetto Di”, sung by Tiralleur, a group of West African rappers, are interesting in how familiar the verse-passing sounds. “Ma Vie De Galaire” uses autotune and synth blips among organic drum n’ bass. It’s a head mover for sure.
Above all, Bongo’s “Root Boy” is the best track, a wholly reggae skank reminiscent of some of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s best beats, and also the only track not recorded overseas. Ska horns and guitar push it forward while Bongo, backed by Wontanaba Revolution, sing smoothly, “Immigration/ civil war.” It’s so rootsy that you have to appreciate its reggae mentality in an album of mainly crossover sounds. Nope, this is all old school, even the crisp guitar solo.
“African Unity” is very similar, reggae roots with lyrics in English, but it’s just as catchy, as is “Dancehall Sound”, which sounds exactly how you’d assume. For a compilation, the tying forces are strong. The album is as varied as it is similar, which is no easy feat. The tone is set from minute one, and up through the closer, Kati’s four and a half minute “Sigi Sabeh”, an afrobeat rap drawing from 70s sense of simplicity, Sembeh Ma Fa Fe has something for everyone, which means of course that there are undoubtedly moments when the sounds are too different and fans of one might lose interest in the other.
Yet again, this album is a product of musical evolution, and a project reflecting on the history of this oddly placed but highly apparent sub-genre of music. More often than not instrumentally sparse, the songs focus on elements of the history, a mode of education much more colorful than a museum and much more accurate than any textbook.
Bottom line: Stronghold Sounds’ compilation of artists is a hit and miss but mainly hit collection of rap, reggae, and world music as it pertains to the lines of all three genres thinning in the new century of Guinea Conakry.