Album Review: Sally Nyolo – Tiger Run – This tiger’s trying new tricks.

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Sally Nyolo is a Cameroonian singer who used to sing with Zap Mama and has released several solo albums. I had heard her name but not her music so I put on this disk with curiosity, also because it has a good strong cover image, released on Riverboat/World Music Network.

On first spin I’m not sure where to place it. It’s got diverse styles, and languages. It’s got rhythm, but the overall impression is that it’s quite smooth for African music, tempered by jazz and soul ballads. Nyolo’s vocals are, as maybe to be expected, at the core, with – for me – that slightly off-key African pitching; and they are mixed strangely far back in the song ‘Welcome’, an unusual arrangement that makes me think of the close harmony vocal swing of Triplets De Belleville.  It stands out on the album as different, and good for that. It also features some voice-overs as off the radio, referencing China’s involvement in Africa, I think. The album has some nice bass grooves but I want them turned up in the mix to drive the music more.

On the whole I prefer the songs in African languages. There are a couple in English but the lyrics don’t do it for me; sometimes English sung in an accent works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The very mellow title track, Tiger Run, has words that have been sung a thousand times. “Like a bird in the sky I’m flying, flying on my own way, to share more, to see.” I read Jonathan Livingstone Seagull many many years ago, in one reading standing in the bookshop. Track 9 is similar: ‘Kilimanjaro, it’s the place to go… I went up there. Then I saw the African roots.’ I want more poetry. Less message and cliché.

I worry that maybe the songs in other languages are the same, but I just don’t understand them. The finely-titled ‘Eeeh’ is one of the more characteristicly West African, high guitars dancing around the vocals. Let’s just go with the music, it’s good.

The French song Le Faiseur De Pluie Par Tour Les Temps (I speak French but I don’t understand this long title!) starts off melodically, almost as an African version of The Carpenters’ Top Of The World. And then some really curious operatic vocals come in in the background.  It feels overall like Nyolo is experimenting a bit on the album. As with all experiments, they don’t always bring the results you expect, but are probably worth doing.

It sounds like I don’t like the album. That’s not true; there’s nothing not to like. But I’m not sure I like it as much as I’m supposed to. I also think the simplicity of the songs will probably catch me if I listen several times more: it is catchy. Without meaning it in a disparaging way, it’s a great African album you might put on when friends are round and you don’t necessarily want to transport them to sweatiness Fela Kuti’s Shrine club.

Tigers in Africa? The last track Tiga is pronounced Tigger. I’m really wishing Nyolo was thinking Winnie The Pooh when she chose this song title, but now I’m looking for playful irony as well as everything else, and that might just be too much to ask.

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