Album Review: Sankofa “The Uptown Strut”

“It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten”-African Proverb

Sankofa means just that.  The group pays homage to a genre of years past.  Prior to the emergence of the blues was an almost forgotten music produced by string bands.  The fiddle and banjo were the foundation of this era.  Listeners who are unaware of the revival may be perplexed by this album.  For those that appreciate and understand this genre, “Sankofa’s” music will take them  back to the frolics and corn shucking of days long forgotten.

The mental imagery brought by the album “The Uptown Strut” is in black and white,  brining to mind pictures from your grandmothers dusty attic.  Where overalls and and a new pair of work boots would suffice for a night of dancing, and women with soft flowing finger waves swayed in the dusty breeze of a barn party.

The lead track “The Old Folks Started It” is a fitting title. The song starts with a moonshine soaked banjo and violin riff.  With Dom Flemons reworking Minnie Wallace’s song from the late 1920s. The chorus of “The old folks start it, the young folks got it. Now everybody is crazy about the downtown strut.” Held another meaning then, but now it suits the basis of this whole CD.  Life being brought to a “old people’s” genre by the young.  Rebirth of the past.

Next is “Ha-Ha Blues.”  This song is a fun listen. Sung by Ndidi Onukuwulu, it is a womans anthem, a cheating man and the woman who laughs at his infidelities.  Imagine a woman strutting around her bedroom, applying makeup for a night on the town while throwing the “dirty dogs” clothes out the window. Ndidis voice has a playful warble that is pleasant to the ear and makes you want to dance around the house.

“Weed Smokers Dream” is out of place.  It has a dark, pacing with a bottle of whisky sound to it.  It’s sung by Sule Greg Wilson and is a story of a woman that is telling her man he is no good for “giving all his stuff away” which could be taken a few ways.  Standing alone it is a solid song but placement after the playful “Ha-Ha Blues” takes away from it..  It was titled “Why Don’t You Do Right” and renamed in 1936.  “Sankofa” Played with this name by timing the song to a perfect four minutes and twenty seconds.

The CD travels through songs of love, betrayal, cheating and all the life issues song writers are inspired by. Its biggest fault is it is organized like a live show.  While this would work well in a   venue where there would be narrative breaks in between each song. With no transitions it can be jarring.  It goes from jovial, to dark, to sultry within the first four songs and then jumps randomly throughout the rest.

One of the shining stars of this album is the song “Can’t Strain My Brain” sung by Onukuwulu.  She takes the 1984  “Sly and The Family Stone” song and simplifies it.  Just her sultry, crystal like voice and a banjo.  It is so pure it’s almost chill inducing. The simplicity of this song is evidence of a masterful ear with the ability to rework one classic into another.

While there are many hits on this album, there are misses as well. “I Can Tell The World About This” is one.  It is a spiritual which by itself is enjoyable, but it should not be on this album. Tucked in between the soulful “Can’t Strain My Brain” and one of the other misses, the knee slapping “Brown Skin Girl.” Which includes lyrics like, “I’m going to trip down the road and make her brown skin mine.”  With proper placement on the track list “Brown Skin Girl” may not be a miss, but its hard to go into this song after the hymn.  The Kazoo and whistling opening of “What’s The Use of Getting Sober” is fun but the spoken portion is almost cringe worthy in its awkwardness.  The off-key singing makes it a good drunken sing along but it is not a standout.

Skip forward to “Sing Sing Prison Blues” and you will quickly forget the last four tracks.  It is a finely reworked version of Bessie Smiths 1924 version. Russell masters this song but it is unfortunate that this rework while making it a more sultry, less dark version did not find ways to lengthen it past the unsatisfying short two and half minutes. It is that good.

“Sitting In Limbo” on the other hand should of been placed in the vortex that is the middle of the album.  The Jimmy Cliff cover just does not work.

The album begins to close with the sexy tease that is “Don’t You Make Me High” Russell sings “Don’t you feel my leg cuz if you feel my leg your gonna feel my thigh and if you feel my thigh your gonna go up high.” This 1937 Blue Lu Barker track induces thoughts of silk stockings and garter belts, mists of perfume and sultry, teasing red lips.

Track fourteen is another low and makes one question the producers judgement.  “You Got Me Rolling” causes a almost instinctual urge to skip. Perfect example of how song placement is key.

The closing song is “Let’s Go Get Stoned” the opening immediately brings you to last call at a juke joint.  The tired bartender wiping down the counter while a small group of stragglers sits around a piano drinking straight from the bottle.  The 1965 song originally performed by “The Coasters” is a nice end to a sometimes disjointed album.

Overall, this is a great journey throughout musical history.  There are indeed highs and lows but they are due more to song placement and choices rather than lack of talent.  The back cover features Russell and Onukuwulu as bookends to Flemons and Wilson.  This is an ironic image. The album is like a empty sandwich. Artisan bread with a piece of velveeta in between. The women stand out on every track. The men are talented but could not stand up to these songbirds.

“Can’t Strain My Brain”

“Sing Sing Prison Blues”

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