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World Music CD Reviews, February 2006


Madrigaia: Pleiades

artist site : buy CD/hear samples

"If you begin with something as pure as the voice, the expression of one's soul...and let the voice be inspired by a multitude of cultural influences, telling the story of our world... a natural evolution occurs, boundaries disappear and people come together sharing one vision, one voice."

That's one of the most useful and accurate liner introductions I've run across. Madrigaia, a seven-woman group from Canada cast their musical net wide, singing songs from Brazil, France, Uruguay, Poland, and beyond. And they carry it off beautifully, with music that sounds natural and grounded (I'm baffled how one critic heard a "new agey feel" anywhere in this album.)

The album opens with a chorus of powerful voices and what sound like found instruments, then a quick segue into a catchy wordless melody backed by bass and percussion. Only looking at the notes do you realize that the instruments include wine glasses, mixing bowl, and other household items. It makes sense for a song entitled "Three Ways to Vacuum Your House: Part I." Then it's off to Brazil and the classic Veloso tune "Ile Aye," with subtle samba beat under clean harmonizing vocals. (This song, by the way, won Madrigaia the "Best World Fusion" distinction at the 5th annual Independent Music Awards.)

And the wandering continues. "Heart Song" draws on First Nations influences (think Ulali with polyrhythmic percussion). Further in is the dynamic Bulgarian tune "More Zajeni Se Guro," with sharp, dark voices and strange rhythms. At this point, Madrigaia are just getting warmed up. You've still got the tango "La Cumparsita," the funky French harmonies of "Tourdion" (with fabulous bass and udu), the a cappella "Chanson Démodé" and on and on.

The year is young, but I have no doubt that I'll return to this album's copious pleasures again and again, and it will end up on my "Best of 2006" list. Pleiades is consistently engaging, with strong sure voices and delightful backing music. Run, don't walk, to get this album!

©2006 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Lagbaja: Africano...the mother of groove
Motherlan' Music

Lagbaja's website

Lagbaja's notes on Africano

For an album coming from a relatively well-known Nigerian bandleader (remember WOMAD USA?), known for a groove built on traditional Yoruba rhythms, Africano is full of surprises. It opens with a vocal piece called "Drum Affirmation" (chants, not drums), then launches into "Africalypso," in which Lagbaja speak-sings about the history and diaspora of African music. Good grooves, and great soaring vocals by Ego Ihenacho, but there's something awkward about the way she repeats each line word-for-word. Oh, about the words. "Though I have used Pidgin English copiously in the past," Lagbaja says, "none of the songs on this album is performed fully in Pidgin. From now my focus is on my mother tongue, Yoruba and my second language, English. Pidgin takes a back seat."

Next up is "Who Man?," a tribute to womanhood that sounds more like the old Lagbaja, though with a sparse backing groove of drums, piano, and particularly bells. Then it's Afrobeat & horn time, with "Mammoney Horns" and "Mammoney," a commentary on the god of money with backing riffs from Benin's Gangbe Brass Band.

Then the album changes distinctly, with the love song "Rock Me Gentle," the R&B ballad "Never Far Away" with Ihenacho taking lead vocals over a soaring string section (and leaving one wondering what makes this a Lagbaja song). Then Lagbaja himself sings with the strings on the Yoruba jazz piece "Aisan" before dipping into rock ("Dream Come True") and rap ("Scream"). It's back to the old Lagbaja Afro-groove on "Skentele Skontolo" before another string-backed ballad ("Emi Mimo") slows the pace down again. And the album concludes with seven drum-only tracks, collectively called "Africano 101 - Naked Grooves."

Admittedly, it's difficult to know much about the musical path of Lagbaja, whose only broad US release was 2001's We Before Me, which was a compilation from previous albums. Still, it's curious, to say the least, that Lagbaja's linguistic change is accompanied by such a scattered musical offering. And what happened to all that great sax?

Individually, most songs on Africano are strong, but it feels like two albums reluctantly merged: one of Lagbaja's deeply rhythmic Yoruba-based dance tunes, and another of his realized dream for richer orchestration ("I had wanted to work with strings for years but never could afford it.") along with the less successful forays into rock, R&B, and rap.

While dedicated Lagbaja fans will enjoy most of this album, others may find his earlier albums a more consistent introduction to the Lagbaja sound.

©2006 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

THIS JUST IN! ... New World Music CD Releases


Soweto Gospel Choir: Blessed (Shanachie)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

I love this music. Powerful voices blending with an uplifting spirit and message. Doesn't matter that their theology might not mesh with mine. Doesn't matter if I don't understand the lyrics (though five of the 18 songs are sung in English). Doesn't even matter that they tread on well-worn stones like Solomon Linda's "Mbube." The harmonies have viceral impact - particularly "Nkosi Sikelel'iAfrika." I love that they've included the protest song "Weeping," which first entered my consciousness on the lips of Vusi Mahlasela. While I like Vusi's sparse, clearly articulated version better, SGC's richer arrangement doesn't dilute the song's powerful lyrics. If you like South African gospel and want to expand beyond Ladysmith Black Mambazo, get Blessed.

Uta Bella: Uta Bella (Mia Mind Music)
buy CD/hear samples

Born in Cameroon and now living in New York, Uta Bella released the album Nassa Nassa in 1993, and merits a passing mention in A History of Bikutsi in Cameroon. She's toured throughout Europe but hasn't made much of a name for herself in the US. This new album may not change that. It's short (35 minutes) and the bouncy songs include - for my taste - too much synth. The track "Nassa Nassa" digs into funk bass, but the sound is dated and only mildly interesting. Bella could use some musical freshening up. Recommended for die-hard Afropop lovers only.

Andromedaa: The Reach (Mark Set Go Music)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

Andromeda is a global instrumental quartet. Well, perhaps not completely global, but wide-ranging, with bits of Balkan, tango, jazz, Appalachian, European classical, Celtic, and who knows what else. The result is an appealing collage of banjo, accordion, bass, jazz, mandolin, violin, guitar and (sometimes) drums. Drawing from their backgrounds and many musical traditions, Andromeda has created a unique, compelling instrumental music, the 12 original songs rich with musical conversation and emotion.

Yiddishe Cup: Meshugeneh Mambo (Yiddishe Cup)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

Marracas? Check! Floofy shirts? Check! Tongue in cheek? Check! Six Jewish nuts cut loose with Latin, rock 'n' roll, even bluegrass ("I Am a Man of Constant Blessings") stylings. It may be schtick, but in your mind it'll stick. Big fun.

Hradistan & Jirí Pavlica: Hrajeme si u maminky (We Play With Mom) (Indies)
artist site & song samples (including two free, full mp3s)

The Czech label Indies has fingers in many musical pies, from traditional folk to experimental rock. This is the first kids' album I've heard from them, and it's a charmer. Accessible without sounding watered down, the 37 (yep, 37!) short songs include adult and kid voices with simple, catchy melodies. The songs are organized by season: zima (winter), jaro (spring), leto (summer), podzim (fall), along with four ukolebavky (lullabies). The words are from a book by Jirina Rakosnikova, I'd be singing along if I knew some Czech. The lyrics are included, but no translations or song summaries, as the album is apparently intended for a domestic audience.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Long Walk to Freedom (Heads Up)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

It's been 20 years ago since Ladysmith Black Mambazo first caught the world's attention with their amazing vocal harmonies on Paul Simon's Graceland. This 13-song album retraces some of that their path as something of a greatest hits album, albeit one shared by copious guest singers. But as much as we like fusions and cultural mash-ups, Ladysmith Black Mambazo are great artists who make great art, and adding to great art doesn't necessarily make it better. Melissa Etheridge fits right in on "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," as brilliantly re-interpreted by Joe McBride. The other collaborations are good, if not great, including guest artists Zap Mama, Sarah McLachlan, Taj Mahal, Emmylou Harris, Lucky Dube, Hugh Masekela, Vusi Mahlasela, and others. Standing out for the wrong reasons is "Rain Rain Beautiful Rain," on which Natalie Merchant sounds uncomfortable and out of place. If you want the best of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, get one of their albums sans guest vocalists, orchestras, or chillout remixes.

Julia Sarr & Patrice Larose: Set Luna (No Format / Universal France)
buy CD/hear samples

My ears are beautifully baffled by this album. Beautiful throughout, it might be described as Afro-Brazilian flamenco, with West African Muslim vocals. The players help explain the unique sound: Julia Sarr is a Senegalese-French singer, and Patrice Larose is a French guitarist with more than one finger in a flamenco pie. Set Luna (Wolof for "So I've Observed") is a work of haunting grace and beauty. Sarr's emotion-laden voice works perfectly with flamenco guitar, just as the sharp sound of djembe echoes the usual flamenco percussion on cajon. Yet this is not a flamenco fling with African overtones; it is a unique collaboration by two skilled musicians who blend like siblings. Youssou N'Dour sings on "Set Luna DJamonodjî," Leïty M'Baye sings and plays percussion on "Yitté" (the most "African sounding" track), and Mino Cinelu contributes subtle percussion throughout. But Larose's deft fingers and Sarr's soulful voice are the stars of this show. Don't expect Afropop; expect beauty.

Duo En: En-Affinity (Koto World)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

Seattle-based John Falconer and Elizabeth Falconer not only husband and wife, but are married musically as well. Their closeness is on display in this subtle, gorgeous album of duets between Elizabeth's kotos, and John's shakuhachi. Great music for background or meditation, it also bears up to active listening. The couple aren't dabblers; they have studied the music from master teachers, and have lived in Japan. And they've managed to achieve a balance between precision and relaxation in this fresh recording with ancient roots.

Various Artists: Golden Afrique Vol. 2 (Network)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

As if Africa wasn't producing enough wonderful contemporary music! Following the delicious Golden Afrique Vol. 1, Network has pruduced another 2-CD set, this one highlighting music from the "golden era of African pop music," 1956 to 1982. Shimmering guitars, horns, even accordions populate this era, always with an eye toward the dance floor. Artist include Franco, Sam Mangwana, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Manu Dibango, and many others. This hearty meal will take some time to digest.

Guy Mendilow: Live (Earthen Groove)
artist site : hear audio samples

Well-known in Boston (where he was voted the Best World Music Act by Boston Phoenix readers) Guy Mendilow should find a much broader audiences with this brief (32 minutes) but solid album. Not yet 30, Mendilow learned and absorbed music growing up in a succession of countries where his musician/professor father worked. Recorded live at two shows in Boston and one in Eastampton, New Jersey, this album of nine songs has moments of uneven sound (note to producers: don't include sing-a-longs when the audience is inaudible) but still clearly highlights Mendilow's talent. One of his skills is choosing collaborators: Yulia Van Doren sings beautiful harmonies on several songs, and on "Awendeje" [mp3 sample] and "Le Avot Sheli" the electric mbira of Andy Bergman (who plays sax on other tracks) is a fine complement to Mendilow's berimbau and overtone singing. A melodic, acoustic vibe ties the album together, though the songs have African, Israeli, Ladino, and Shaker roots. The Shaker contribution is an astounding version of "Simple Gifts" [mp3 sample] performed solo with guitar and overtone singiing. But my favorite is the first song I heard by Mendilow - the sparse, rhythmic, "Experiment" [mp3 sample] featuring overtone singing, berimbau, and jaw harp by Bergman. A nice live album indeed, but I expect his upcoming studio album to be even better.

[Note: as of this writing in January 2006, Guy Mendilow: Live has not yet been released. Check for it on CDbaby alongside Mendilow's previous album Soar Away Home.]

The Afro-Semitic Experience: Plea for Peace (Reckless DC Music)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

And on the eighth day, the Lord saw everything that was made. And while it was indeed very good, the Lord's brow became furrowed. For lo, the Africans played their drums hither, while the jazz cats jammed yon, and the gospel musicians raised a joyful noise on their own. And the Lord spoke with a mighty voice that shook the trees and shuddered the very foundations of the earth, saying "Get Ye Together!" And behold, the various and sundry musicians ran together in a heap. Jazz idioms kissed the feet of gospel steel guitar riffs, klezmer motifs anointed the head of Latin rhythms. The Lord smiled, her toes tapping. Amen.

Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars: Carnival Conspiracy (Piranha)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

Klezmer at Carnival? If you're feeling like you missed the lecture on Jews in Rio, don't despair. While some Brazilian reference sneak in, this album is just another fine excuse for klezmer trumpeter London and his crazy gang to make some great party music. "The concept," London says, "is to party until you are beyond rationality, and then forced to stand on one leg and explain the meaning of existence and give a dvar Torah on the dialectic of social order and repression while being tickled. It's a drinking game. It has no meaning and is as serious as your life."

Fabulous singing, wailing, and yelping by Marjana Sadowska grace the boisterous opener "In Your Garden Twenty Fecund Fruit Trees." Other such whimsical song names adorn tunes mixing bits from the Balkans, Bavaria, ...heck, wherever brass bands are found. "Another Glass Of Wine To Give Succor to my Ailing Existence" involves something that sounds like a barking cuica, though no mention of the instrument is to be found in the credits. Backing artists include Maracatu New York (a Brazilian percussion ensemble) and Kol Isha (a collective of women who sing traditional mystical Hasidic music).

As if the music wasn't entertaining enough, London's liner notes add a touch of the surreal to the album.

Carnival has power to elicit cathartic laughter in even the most constipated. Not the "Heh-heh-heh we stole the election and made billions of dollars pillaging the environment and launching an illegal war" laughter so fashionable in these times; but true Ambivalent and Universal Laughter which does not deny Complexity but affirms it. Laughter that purifies from dogmatism; liberates from fascism and pedantry, from fear and intimidation, from didacticism, naiveté and illusion, from the single meaning, from sentimentality. Laughter which Restores the Almighty Ambivalent Wholeness of our Existence.
Esteemed reader, you have purchased the greatest recording of all time, a CD so powerful that it will cure you of all ailments from impotence to flatulence.

And so on... (read London's complete liner notes). London may be nuts, and the music hard to describe, but Carnival Conspiracy will have you up and dancing in your own private Carnival.

Sui Vesan: Merging with the Brook (World Village)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

Punk yoiking from Slovakia? Sue Vesan has that sharp vocal style common to the Nordic and Eastern European lands, but what to make of the music? "La Lo La Lo" opens with minimalist percussion sparse driving guitar riffs under Vesan's stacatto vocals. Bold, take-no-prisoners vocals. Vocals like Laurie Anderson meets the Bulgarian Voices, or the lost acoustic experimental-rock album of Mari Boine. Suffice to say, Sui Vesan is a unique vocal talent, and her sparse arrangements show this off beautifully. While I wish the CD included lyrics or song summaries, the fascinating music stands on its own. Adventurous listeners, you'll love this one.

©2006 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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