There were nearly 150 entries from Massachusetts to this year's NPR Tiny Desk Contest. Five panelists — Billy Dean Thomas, Erin Chase, Christian Burno, Charley Ruddell and Amelia Mason — were tasked with choosing a favorite. But it's hard to pick just one. So as we prepare to reveal the panel's top choice, we're highlighting a few entries that left an impact.
Albino Mbie is building a bridge between his southeast African roots to the vibrant and historical Boston jazz scene. The Mozambican singer-songwriter grew up in Maputo, the nation’s capital, and built his first guitar out of an oil can and some scrap wood; now, he has West African guitar phenom Lionel Loueke as a mentor—whose mentor is Herbie Hancock. This lineage is exhibited on “Golden Smile,” Mbie’s sprightly NPR Tiny Desk submission, a wholesome ode to his homeland that effortlessly blends African elements with R&B and jazz fusion.
Mbie’s lyrics depict African images broadly and reverently, with phrases like “Breathing the heat from Sahara” and “Staring at the sculptures of snow in Kilimanjaro” in every verse, the atmosphere of the music jovial, if not celebratory. “I feel lucky to have grown in this paradise/ When just waking up in the sunrise is a reason to smile,” he sings over a percussive break, the chirpy strums of his guitar driving the rhythmic machine. Between Mbie’s effervescent positivity and his band’s undeniable groove—the band is so solid, by the way—it’s hard not to get infected; I’m bobbing along as I type this at my desk.
Clocking in close to six minutes, “Golden Smile” is quite a substantial journey. I equate it to watching the sun for the scope of a full day, a bright and joyful verse and chorus like the first half of a clear-skied day in the plains, the song’s rhythmic mid-section bringing on the ceremonial togetherness of the sunset, the closing compositional modulation and Mbie’s jazz-tinged solo as a moonlit celebration under the stars. It’s not easy to write a song that encapsulates the convivial spirit of an entire continent, but “Golden Smile” makes a fair effort, capturing a small, but sweet slice of life.