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World Music CD Reviews, July 2006

Album of the Month

KAL front cd cover

Asphalt Tango

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From the ashes of years of political and military conflict in the Balkans comes this brash Gypsy music. Kal (Romani for "black") is a group of 21st century Rom who blend traditional instruments (violin, accordion, guitar, bass, percussion) with modern beats and sensibilities. Incorporating past with present results in such gems as "Dvojka," an upbeat dance tune with a little vocal percussion that reminds of the Romani roots in India, where such voiced rhythm has become an art form. But there's nothing dusty about Kal -- indeed, you'll find it hard to sit still amid the buoyant tunes. From the powerful vocals of Dragana Berakovic on the opening "Duj, Duj" to the simmering "Gurbetski Tango," Kal takes you on a wild witty ride. Fans of Balkan speed brass or other energetic Eastern European music will find this album hard to turn off. If only they'd included some track notes/translations.... Highly recommended.

©2006 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Tasa: Urban Turban (self-released)
buy CD/hear samples | band site

The third outing by Tonoto-based Indian fusion group Tasa includes some special charms, not least the assembly of guests that contribute vocals to the non-singing core group. The album opens with the tabla of bandleader Ravi Naimpally and the gradual addition of other instruments including the powerful voice of Shahid Ali Khan (he may not be Nusrat, but he holds his own). The 11 original compositions reveal influences including qawwali, raga, funk, and jazz, and the rhythmic and melodic variety (with leads taken by different singers as well as oud, flute, sax, and guitar) keeps things interesting.

Do not, by the way, confuse this album with the Swedish group Urban Turban.

Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Planet Rock (World Music Network)
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Live Locally, Rock Globally.
What defines rock? Guitars? Drums? A driving energy? Maybe we just know it when we hear it. And if you're still under the delusion that rock is confined to Anglo-American circles, listen up. From the opening guitar-organ riffs of Dengue Fever's "We Were Gonna" to the frenetic punk beats of the closing "I Would Never Want to Be Young Again" by Gogol Bordello, this disc proves that the rest of the world can rock. Admittedly, those two tracks are from US-based groups, but between them you'll find artists from Niger, Tuva, India, Portugal, Algeria, Hungary, and beyond (but no Rachid Taha, curiously). A few of the tracks are so far out on the edge of the "rock" umbrella that they're getting wet (La Reunion's Yela, Ukraine's Haydamaky, and Congo's Konono No. 1, for example). And aren't the Hip Hop Hoodios less rock and more, um, hip hop? Still, if rock can't be inclusive, what can? Just be advised that if you're using this disc as a launching point into more world rock, you might find the full albums of some of these artists (particularly Palestine's Rim Banna and Guinea's Ba Cissoko) a far cry from Van Halen.

Orchestre Baka Gbine: Gati Bongo (March Hare)
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This band's story started even before Martin Cradick and Su Hart visited the forest home of the Baka people in Cameroon. They found two great guitarists on that journey, and in the ensuing years more musicians honed their skills as Baka Beyond helped spread their music far and wide. Now Cradick has returned to record the group Baka Gbine at their home, using a solar-powered laptop. Buoyant with life, these songs were redorded in 2004 and 2005. The modern arrangements (including guitars, bass, mandolin) don't detract from the amazing polyphonies for which the Baka are know. Nothing against Martin and Su, but it turns out the Baka make delightful Afropop all on their own, thank you!

Etran Finatawa: Introducing Etran Finatawa (World Music Network)
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Love Tinariwen? Then your next step should be to check out Niger's answer to the Malian group of Taureg former rebels. Etran Finatawa (the name means "stars of tradition") combine the Taureg sound with music from the Wodaabe people, whose homeland has long been a crossroads between North Africa and the sub-Saharan. Songs about camels, sand dunes, love, and dancing, all with entrancing circular vocal polyphonies and electric guitars. Another delight from the desert.

Slavic Soul Party: Bigger (Barbes Records)
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Roosters, crazy drumming, horns that won't quit, and those fascinating, exotic Balkan changes are gonna make you wanna dance. Surely one of the most melodic and catchy instrumental albums of late, Bigger is fun through and through, from the bouncy swing of "Ya-Ya" to the oom-pa of "Rufalina" to the New-Orleans-style "Look-Ka Py Py" (original by The Meters). Oh, and the track notes include this tidbit: "Recorded January 4th, 2005, 3:15-7:30pm with a 45 minute dinner break..." I'm scared of them!

Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of Iran (World Music Network)
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There aren't a lot of record labels that go out of their way to feature music from countries with reputations as international villians. Sure Sublime Frequencies is making a go of recorded radio broadcasts from Iraq, Libya, and North Korea (among other places), and Norway's KKV brought us the sublime Lullabies form the Axis of Evil. But in the face of dehumanizing talk from the White House, we're yet to see others take up this cause. Well, while you wait for Putumayo to compile Axis of Evil Groove, you can dig on this collection of music from nuclear renegade Iran. It's a broad survey, ranging from Dastan Ensemble's classical music to O-Hum's underground rock sound. Perhaps not an album you'll listen to repeatedly from start to finish, but it will surely add layers of complexity to your understanding of Iranian culture.

Ska Cubano: ¡Ay Caramba! (Cumbancha)
buy CD/hear samples | buy mp3s

Putumayo A&R guy Jacob Edgars started this new label to feature artists (as opposed to the compilations favored by Putumayo). And I'm glad he did. I've been hearing about Ska Cubano, and finally I've got my hands on 14 sweet ska tracks that include various Latin and Caribbean influences in the mix -- and a big dose of humor and fun. There's the not-so-subtle sexual innuendo of their cover of the calypso hit "Big Bamboo," a re-interpretation of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," and a raft of other songs backed up by instructive bi-lingual liner notes. A quirky pleasure.

Three unreleased tracks from the Ay Caramba! recording sessions are available as mp3s at skacubano.calabashmusic.com

Terje Isungset: Igloo (All Ice Records)
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Musically speaking, this is a little out of my normal tastes, as it tends toward experimental (or otherwise irregular) rhythms and melodies. But it's certainly notable for the way the music was created. If you want to do this yourself, here's the plan:

1) Wait for winter;
2) When the local river freezees over, cut out hunks of ice;
3) carve the ice into instruments (ice percussion, iceofon, icehorn, iceharp);
4) Set up cold-hardy microphones;
5) Play and sing.

Yep, nothing on this one but ice and human voices. The iceofon (a balofon/xylophone) has astoundingly clear, melodic notes. The All Ice site has a video of this frozen music for your enjoyment. Only my preference for more predictably melodic music keeps me from giving this my heartiest recommendation, but it's definitely recommended if you like the idea of listening to Bjork sing from the inside of a walk-in freezer.

©2006 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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