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World Music CD Reviews, August 2006

Album of the Month

Habana Abierta: Boomerang
Calle54 Records

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I'm not sure what to make of my newfound obsession with this album. I don't understand much of the band's language, either in their songs or their website. But here's the deal: this album rocks. It manages to be both just-picked fresh and still full of catchy hooks that reel you in. The title is apt, for the band boomerangs not just geographically, but also between elements as diverse as rock guitar, Latin rhythms, and Beach-Boys-worthy vocal harmonies. I hope to get some lyrics or song notes soon for a better idea what I'm grooving to, but my first few ignorant runs through the album have me favoring the energetic "Boca Abajo," the horn-punctuated funky rocker "Como Soy Cubano," the yodelly and more traditional sounding "El Gato y El Raton," and, well, the other 11 tracks as well. For reasons I can't fully articulate, this is a shoe-in for one of my favorite albums of the year so far. Especially at this time of potentially dramatic change for Cuba, you owe it to yourself to check out this adventurous and irresistable Cuban group (now based in Madrid), whose name translates as "Open Havana."

©2006 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Destani Wolf: Again and Again... (Brave Wolf)

We first heard Destani Wolf as part of the Latin Hip-Hop group O-Maya, in which her standout vocals blended with beats, Latin roots, soulful pleas for justice ("Nothing Less than Freedom"), and even raps about George Bush ("Mentiroso"). O-Maya has since broken up, in large part replace by AguaLibre, with whom Wolf still performs.

Again and Again...,Wolf's debut solo album, further highlights this talented young woman. It is an apt vehicle for her powerful voice, whether it's the bilingual reggae stylings of "Cecilita," the funky soul of "You Should Know," or the brief-but-sweet a capella "Mind in the Way." Our favorite tracks (given our "world music" leanings) include "Cecilita," "Enchanted Soul (aka Tranquilo)," and the tabla-spiced "De Donde Eres."

Imagine Sade and Lila Downs meeting up in some little-known urban soul club and you'll have some sense of the sound. Wolf frequently performs in the Bay Area, and it wouldn't be surprising to see her find broader success with this strong album.

Uun Budiman and the Jugala Gamelan Orchestra: Banondari (Felmay)
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Okay, so this may not have the funky basslines of Sabah Habas Mustapha. But like his Jugala All Stars, the Jugala Gamelan Orchestra has a distinctly modern form of Indonesian music. Under the dictator Sukarno, Gugum Gumbira took elements of then-banned western rock music and masked them in traditional music, creating the dance hybrid known as Jaipongan. Banondari marks his return, as well as the debut of the singer Uun Budiman. A fascinating if still somewhat challenging work.

Think of One: Trafico (Crammed)
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A brilliant album by a multi-national group of musicians, Trafico blends brass bands, Gypsy themes, and Brazilian vocals and rhythms into music over which veteran singer Dona Cila's voice soars. "When the band first started," guitarist-singer David Bovee says," we all left school because we wanted to go to Senegal. ... We were always coming up with ideas and getting into a van and would just go for it. But now sometimes even airplanes are involved." You won't mind getting stuck in this trafico jam. Highly recommended.

Duo En: Winter Cranes (Koto World)
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Koto-shakuhachi duets aren't often on our playlist. But as the meditative yin to the yang of energetic global dance tunes, Duo En hits the spot. The Seattle-based husband and wife duo (Elizabeth and John Falconer) are serious long-term students of Japanese music, and they have found a solid middle ground between their Western roots and their Eastern musical passion. In their hands, these classical Japanese instruments sing out Western Christmas standards "Greensleeves," "White Christmas," and "Silent Night." Also included is "Somewhere over the Rainbow Is a Winter Wonderland...)," on which the koto sounds more like a Western harp. The title track evokes a more traditional feel, as does "Snow Dream." Winter Cranes is a fresh and unusual holiday album rich with quiet beauty.

Chicago Afrobeat Project: Chicago Afrobeat Project (CAbP Music)
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Chicago may be known more for blues than Afrobeat, but this four-year-old group of musicians may expand some minds. While the somewhat drifty opener "Talking Bush" fails to move my nyash, the remainder of the album hits a sweet spot. CAbP (as they abbreviate themselves) aren't big on singing, though there's a rapped poem on "West Ganji." So while you aren't getting the biting social commentary of, say, Fela Kuti or Antibalas, you do get seven long, juicy original tracks with tight arrangements. Morikeba Kouyate's kora riffs in "Jekajo" and Tj Okinola's talking drum throughout the album are delightful West African flavors rarely heard in Afrobeat. Otherwise it's mostly what you'd expect: funky polyphonies, attitudinal horn and sax solos, circular bass and guitar lines, all competing to get you dancing.

Ali Farka Toure: Savane (World Circuit / Nonesuch)
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Ali Farka Toure was known as one of the best and most original guitarists in the world until his recent passing. This album was already in the works then (on the heels of In the Heart of the Moon, his Grammy-winning collaboration with Toumani Diabate) , so it's really his last word to his fans. So African music fans will be pleased to know how pleased Toure himself was with the recording. "I know this is my best album ever," he said. "It has the most power and is the most different."

Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra: Boulevard de L'Independance (World Circuit / Nonesuch)

Recorded in a series of all night sessions at Mali's Hotel Mandé, Diabate's latest offering maintains a vibe of acoustic tradition while incorporating modern influences (and musicians from Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso, as well as Mali) into a rip-roaring ride through Diabate's imagination, richly appointed with strings and horns.

©2006 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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