We could all do with a shot in the arm these days. No, I’m not alluding to the COVID-19 vaccination, currently being worked on around the globe with great haste. This is about a general mood enhancer.The arts in general and, specifically, music can do wonders for our emotional health. Judging by its output to date, Quarter to Africa could fit the joy-inducing bill just fine. The multicultural Israeli roots ensemble recently released its sophomore album, Falafel Pop, which comfortably ticks all the glee boxes. The title of the album, to anyone familiar with the local improvisational-leaning music sector, immediately suggests something of a dig, or a nod, at the members of the Israeli jazz community who tend to weave consumer-friendly mass appeal melodic strands through their numbers. The populist approach seems to work, and Israeli jazz artists – in normal times – are well received at jazz festivals and venues right round the global gigging circuit.Yakir Sasson, who plays a broad range of instruments, including saxophone and guitar, freely admits to the marketing-oriented hook inherent in the record name choice.“People know what falafel is, not just in Israel,” he explains. “But you can also mention it in England, or France or wherever and people know what it is and actually enjoy it. So why not?”Sasson and fellow multi-instrumentalist Elyasaf Bashari form the backbone of the group, which has been getting audiences up and jiving, here and around the world, for the past six years. They generally tailor the musician lineup to the venue and/or project in hand, but regardless of the instrumental layout, you can always count on getting a bucketload of positive vibes at their shows.BUT IT is not all roses. There is a music industry axiom relating to the popularity and expectation-laden minefield artists have to warily navigate when releasing their second record. That is doubly challenging when the debut offering is a smash hit.While it is fair to say that Quarter to Africa did not exactly sell millions of copies of its first album, The Layback, which came out in 2017, I wondered whether Sasson and Bashari had some apprehension ahead of the follow-up recording. The answer was in the affirmative, but not for the aforementioned reason.“We were all set for a grandiose record launch, with a show at the Barby Club [in June], but it was canceled the day before,” says Sasson. “We wondered whether it was the right time to release a new record, with all that was going on [with the pandemic]. But we decided to put it out anyway, even though we weren’t able to have the release concert. We worked on the show for a long time. We were due to have guest appearances by vocalists like Ester Rada and Leah Shabbat and Ravid Splotnik. We rehearsed really hard for the show, and then it all went up in smoke because of the outbreak of the second wave [of the coronavirus].”Sasson says that was frustrating in the extreme but feels that he and Bashari and the session musicians did the business. “In terms of the production level, and the music and the message, I think we took the step up. I think we improved in terms of the sound, the feeling and the vocals. I feel it is a more mature effort.”SASSON, BASHARI & co. may have moved along the artistic continuum and street-level experience timeline, but they have lost nothing of their alluring joie de vivre. The insouciant sensibilities of Afrobeat and groove are still very much part and parcel of what they do.Still, Sasson did use the word “message” in his appraisal of the record, and there do, indeed, appear to be some subtexts to the rhythmic and melodic front line.“Tir’eh Hayom” (See the Day), the third cut on Falafel Pop, comes across as something of a salute to late Mizrahi music megastar vocalist Zohar Argov, complete with a Yemenite backbeat.“There are a couple of allusions to Baghdad and ‘Haperah Begani,’” Sasson notes, referencing one of Argov’s biggest hits.There are also some political undertones to the work. “It is a surrealistic song, but also a very realistic song. It was written during Operation Protective Edge, when they threw some missiles at us in Tel Aviv [in 2014].”The lyrics depict an idyllic day by the sea in Tel Aviv, when suddenly a missile lands, followed by an elephant. The Sasson-Bashari text segues into political quarters with “enough of wars” and talks about “a desire for change and growth.” The score starts to edge into cacophonic domains before closing with the opening Shangri-la scene with an oxymoronic chaser.Work in earnest on Falafel Pop evolved over a couple of years, with much of the music and lyrics that eventually made it onto the 13-track finished article emerging in creative situ, as the musicians felt their way through the mesh of ideas, and constantly explored new avenues of expression.Sasson, who is also a major force on the local jazz scene, says it has been a growing process for all concerned.“I listen to the first album and I sometimes think we were so much more naive then. But I think this is a much richer and well-formed effort. Mind you, I’ll probably look back at this album a few years down the line and find all sorts of things I might have done differently,” he chuckles. “It’s a process.”The odyssey to creative excellence continues. “I strive to comprehend the whole,” he observes somewhat enigmatically. “We all work off a base, [musical] sentences, phrases and such like. We are all looking for the truth.”At the end of the day, Sasson would like us to listen to his “truth” and smile. “I want to enjoy my journey, and have everyone join in. Hopefully, soon we’ll be able to show people what we have been doing, live.” Can’t wait.