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World Music CD Reviews, January 2007

Album of the Month

Forro in the Dark: Bonfires of Sao Joao

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Forro, my Brazilophile friend Juli tells me (and Wikipedia confirms), is a Brazilian musical style, the word for which is derived from English. It stems from dances that were held "for all," and mutated from there. And mutated is a good description of the sound of Forro in the Dark, a NYC-based band that has caught the ears of both myself and David Byrne. Yes, the Brazil-loving singer/producer has his thumb stuck in this pie, singing on the tracks "Asa Branca" and "I Wish (Bundle of Contradictions)." But the real story starts long before your hear Byrne's distinctive tones. The album opens with "Indios do Norte," a rush of bass, triangle, and raspy guitar, with an irresistible melody played by Jorge Continentino's pifanos (a breathy Brazilian flute). It's a little hard to pin down the band's style, which wanders from the high-energy opening to Bebel Gilberto's guest appearance on the soft bilingual "Wandering Swallow." Then there's the calypso-esque call and response of "Que Que Tu Fez," and the campy country feel of "I Wish..." and back to two energetic instrumental/chant pieces to close out the project.

Byrne talks about the collaboration in his online journal:

I sang “Asa Branca” and “I Wish” — the latter song emerged out of a jam. I was warming up with some chord changes and Mauro suggested during the recording session that we all improvise around those chords. The result was surprisingly good — but, maybe because I can, I suggested that with just a few words added, with a vocal, the song might be more focused. The lyrics and vocal turned it into a vaguely Country outpouring of pain, anger and loss — which maybe made explicit the link between forró and north American country music.

Byrne's contribution is not the reason to get this album. It's variety, energy, and the promise that Forro in the Dark is even better live are, and make me wish I could catch them live at Nublu in NYC. Perhaps they'll tour; on the basis of this crazy, wonderful album, I encourage you to encourage them.

©2007 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Ranirim: Morning Star (Northside)
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The promo materials fall all over themselves to compare Ranirim to a folksy ABBA. Lovers of acoustic or Nordic music might be more inclined to pick this album up if told that it's devoid of cheesy disco beats and insipid lyrics, and instead rife with traditional instruments in modern arrangements. Some of the vocal harmonies remind more of Karelian groups (Burlakat, Varttina) than those ABBA babes. And I don't remember...did ABBA use a nyckelharpa? In any case, don't be put off by pop comparisons. They're more like the Swedish Old Blind Dogs.

Chris Berry & Panjea: Dancemakers (Wrasse)
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His press materials shout the unlikely story. Chris Berry is only 23 years old, but has lived and studied mbira and ngoma in Zimbabwe for a decade, and has achieved gwenyambira (master) status. But despite this achievement, he's still a California boy at heart, and pop rules this album, with a little reggae and other seasonings. The sound is Freshlyground meets Rocker T at a rave in Harare. Fabulous horns, great grooves, and lyrics steeped in social consciousness. It's damn catchy stuff, just don't expect anything sounding like Stella Chiweshe or Thomas Mapfumo (except on "Home" with prominent mbira and African-style guitar backing the English and Shona lyrics). Other highlights include his pointed criticism of capital punishment "Why Do We" and the crazy-beat title track.

Cuchata: Sangre Mixto (Eleggua)
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Is Seattle an emerging hotbed of Latin Alternative (aka Alt-Latin) music? You can't get much farther away from Latin lands geographically or meteorologically, but bands including Cuchata (formerly Machete) are working hard to include Latin tunes in the Seattle landscape. Cuchata's second release, Sangre Mixto, sees the band expanded from three to five, now incorporating a couple of horn players. Still at the heart of the band are Marcelo Quinonez's unique vocals, which have a haunting quality, at once intimate and aggressive, inviting and unsettling. While the sound is not a radical departure from the previous album, the horns serve as a powerful foundation for Marcelo's vocals and guitar, and provide some refreshing musical alternatives. Biggest complaint: the black-on-dark-brown text makes the CD artwork nearly illegible. Hard to categorize, easy to enjoy, Cuchata is sure to catch the ears of many more listeners with this album. But decide for yourself: Cuchata provides two full tracks for your previewing pleasure: "Nueva" and "Sistema Mayoridad."

Malika Zarra: On the Ebony Road (self-released)
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Malika Zarra's debut release, On the Ebony Road, digs deep into jazz idioms, but the Morrocan-born Zarra still conveys a strong sense of her North African roots through the vocals and arrangements. The instrumentation is simple: guitar, bass, drums, and percussion (including dumbek and cajon). Percussionist Brahim Fribgane also adds oud on some tracks. All this is support for Zarra's slinky vocals, which weave in and out of the music, her voice another instrument rather than something bobbing atop them like a cork on water. After hearing Zarra's strong contribution to Richard Khuzami's recent album Fused, it's a delight to hear her immersed in her own musical atmosphere. Fans of Susheela Raman and Natacha Atlas, or those looking for something like them but leaning a bit more toward jazz, should be sure to check out this strong debut.

Bola Abimbola: Ara Kenge (Fast Horse)
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Rich in groove, Bola Abimbola's Ara Kenge is a fresh blast of danceable rhythms. The Nigerian singer was born and raised in Lagos, and blends the music of his roots (fuji, juju,Highlife, apala, and Afrobeat) with a diversity of instruments (mandolin, vibes, timbales, ukulele) and other musical influences. Rich harmonies soothe while the beat makes you wanna get up and dance. Abimbola appears to be based in Denver, though much of the production took place in Seattle. With too little new music from Nigeria hitting the international market, the positive grooves of Ara Kenge are a welcome addition.

©2007 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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