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World Music CD Reviews, October 2006

Album of the Month

bole2harlem cover

Bole2Harlem: Volume 1
Sounds of the Mushroom

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Ethiopia's first family of hip strikes again. This time it's Gigi's kid sister Tigist, who joins up with Maki Siraj as the voices of a multicultural monster that takes East African grooves to a new level.

Anyone familiar with the marvelous Ethiopiques series of releases will find this album a natural progression into modern sounds. But for the uninitiated, this will be nothing short of a musical revelation, a plexus punch of exotic vocals and catchy beats backed by a wall of horns.

The group grew from a collaboration between Ethiopian-American vocalist/ songwriter Siraj and composer/ producer/ multi-instrumentalist David Schommer, who explains where some of the musical influences originated:

"I go to my corner bodega and hear the best salsa and merengue. I walk down to the Ital juice store and hear the best reggae. The Senegalese and Malian vendors are blasting their traditional and modern music. Our album has a little bit of all that stuff in there. Some of the songs, like ‘Hoya Hoye,’ are like a walk down the street in Harlem. I heard one of the hat vendors playing an old school break-beat and thought, ‘Of course! That’s the same tempo as Hoya Hoye!’ Then I came upon one of Harlem’s church choirs spilling onto the streets on a Sunday morning. That inspired the opening line of the song that goes ‘Feelin’ alright!’ We used riffs that could be either from the American Blues or from Amharic Tizita. We are open to all the sounds of Harlem and the experiences of Ethiopia."

This could have been a risky venture. Combining such disparate elements as traditional Ethiopian singing, kalimba, hip hop beats, reggae guitar, dance beats, kora, gospel organ might have resulted in an unpalatable brown stew with indistinguishable ingredients. With the elements tastefully ("gently" seems inappropriate term for such a powerful album) combined, Schommer steps up as a world music force. And Bole2Harlem makes the kind of earthy, danceable music likely to be met with enthusiasm by critics and world music fans alike.

From the Ethiopian port of Bole to the cultural hub of New York's Harlem ("the entry/exit place for Contemporary African Music in America," the liner notes point out), this music starts from the experience of Ethiopians abroad. “Bole2Harlem is about being from Ethiopia and living in Harlem, in America, around the world,” says Siraj. “It’s a journey, one CD that takes you thousands of miles from one place to another.”

Bonus: check out the Bole2Harlem video Ensaralen Gojo.

©2006 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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

I-Fam: Du Nouveau Sang (Home Records)
band website

Browsing through past reviews, you'll notice that we're not raving fans of reggae. Sure, we like us some Bob Marley, and now and then other reggae folks sneak into our ears, the likes of Alpha Blondy, Matisyahu, Macka B, and The Refugee All Stars.

Here's another group we've been groovin' to of late. I-Fam is a Belgium-based world/reggae act, and they've recently released an album called Du Nouveau Sang (New Blood). Their label is Home Records, which has released some truly intriguing (and difficult to categorize) music of late, from the likes of Turlu Tursu and Jugalbandi Trio. But I digress.

The music of I-Fam (aka One Big Irie Family) is tough to describe. It certainly has reggae roots, but hip-hop vocals dominate songs like "Fils Du Levant" (mp3 sample) though it's hip-hop with tasty live music, not canned beats. The title track (mp3 sample) starts with beat-boxing, then swings into insistent vocal harmonies. The lyrics speak of resistance: "We are the lions in this kingdon / and if you come against us / we become more and more strong / 'cause we are young / and we got thunder, brimstone and fire." The rest is French to me. French like Lo*Jo or Sergent Garcia. Do check this band out.

Three songs from the album are available for download at I-Fam's myspace.

King Platypus: Life's a Mess, Let's Dance (A. V. Fistula)
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Like the oddball critter from which their name is derived, King Platypus is an odd but somewhat compelling collection of parts. It's a little jazz, some rock, a touch of country-folk, and some ethnic instrumentation. Kind of like Brave Combo without the polkas. Songs include the jazz standard "My Favorite Things" along with a slew of originals and the curious bi-lingual "America Linda/America the Beautiful/American Cantata." I don't find Jake Micheal's lead vocals the most compelling, but there's a sweet sincerity to this album that can't be denied.

Radio Mundial: Momento Eterno (Palm Songs)

Whether you call them Latin alternative, rock, or world music, Radio Mundial rocks. Latin percussion grounds the sound, but beyond that they're willing to pull out all the stops, dipping into funk, soul, reggae, and rock. Momento Eterno includes two songs in English, but I prefer the Spanish tunes, particularly the funky "Pa'ffiba," and "Bombo" (free mp3!). Great party music no matter your native tongue.

Mamadou Diabate: Heritage (World Village)
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Mamadou Diabate is a Mali-born, US-based kora player familiar to world music fans. His new album Heritage features his instrumental group, which includes Guinean guitarist Mory Kante, balafon player Balla Kouyate, percussionist Baye Kouyate, and bassist Noah Jarrett. At the heart, however, is Diabate's stunningly eloquent kora playing.

Diabate acknowledges a musical growth achieved by living in the US and playing with jazz musicians: "Playing jazz has developed my techincal skill and my improvisations. If I go too far, I lose the character of Mande music. But in jazz, I am free and that has changed me. In Mali I would not have these experiences. Living in the United States has made me a better musician."

As a bridge between the past and the present (check out the conversation between kora and guitar on "Salimou"), Heritage is a must-have CD for any fan of West African music,

Ana Moura: Aconteceu (World Village)
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Stunning new release from an increasingly well know young fadista.

“The delicate, tragedy-haunted fado music of Portugal has been taken up by a new generation of singers. Among the most widely praised is Ana Moura, who brings a sultry, smoke-tinged voice to fado’s dramatic arcs.” - The New York Times


©2006 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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