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World Music CD Reviews, August 2007

Album of the Month

Balval: Blizzard Boheme

Balval: Blizzard Boheme
Whaling City Sound

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There's nothing new about Gypsy music, right? Since the Romani people left Punjab and Rajasthan a thousand years ago, they've been mixing and blending their culture with that of the lands in which they've settled. Their music is having a major resurgence now; jumping on the Gypsy caravan are modern groups across the globe and others rediscovering their own Romani roots. Which is to say that I've heard a lot of Roma/Gypsy music. But when I popped in this modest disc by Balval (their name means "the wind"), I was blown away.

Paris-based Balval are at once thoroughly modern and deeply rooted. Awena Burgess's voice is perfect and compelling, whether digging her reedy tones into a melody, scatting wordless syllables (what's Roma for "niggun"?), or injecting vocal percussion to urge the band to play faster, sweeter, deeper. And the rest of the group -- Rosalie Hartog (violin & voice), Daniel Mizrahi (guitar), Benjamin Body (double bass), and particularly guest percussionist Bachar Khalife -- play tight arrangements that put one in the mind of a late-night port-city Balkan bar where strangers and misfits gather. Strangers and misfits with serious musical chops.

The songs on Blizzard Boheme hail from many cultures --Hungary, Serbia, Russia, Moldavia, and beyond -- and many styles. Translated into English, the Romani lyrics read like sweet haiku about romance, love, flowers, death, poverty, and dancing. "Dumbala Dumba" for example, is rendered in part as "Balalau has a shop at the Intercontinental / He sells meat with no bones / to pretty girls / and three-cent chewing gum."

The focus isn't on the lyrics, or even the superb musicianship, but on the emotion that Balval creates. The feisty "Sude Phabaj" commands your feet to dance; the somber "Keren, Chavorale, Drom" is the soundtrack to an old man's bittersweet dance; and the soaring ghazal-like vocals that start the Hungarian tune "Blues" blend to a teetering dance number and a stunning dumbek solo (at least I think it's a dumbek; Khalife is so good, he gives his instrument new voices).

World music fans, I implore you to buy this stunning album right now, both for your own sake and to encourage this amazing group keep playing their heart-stoppingly great Romani music.

©2007 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Te Vaka: Olatia (Spirit of Play)
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Polynesian culture has a musical champion in Opetaia Foa'i, leader of the New Zealand based Te Vaka. He dedicates this new collection to those Hawaiian, Tahitian, and Samoan leaders fighting for island sovereignty and cultural preservation. Musically, it's what we've come to expect from the group: powerful songs about indigenous culture backed by melodic vocals, haka-fueled chants, and log-drum percussion. The 13 tracks include the percussion-heavy "Lua Afe," written to inspire the famous All Blacks rugby team to victory; "Mataliki / Little Stars," a tribute to the first recognized Maori pre-school; and the multi-lingual Greenpeace-commissioned environmental plea "Our Ocean."

Gaudi + Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Dub Qawwali (Six Degrees)
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I've weighed in before on remixes of great vocalists (see Oct. 2005 review of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Chillout Sessions). So you won't be surprised that I approached this album with skepticism. And having listened, I'm still skeptical. Gaudi is a talented artist and his dubtronica often blends surprisingly well with the vocals of the great Pakistani Qawwal. But the emotional edge of Nusrat's singular voice is dulled by the constant beat required by the dub idiom. The sound is often too full, not leaving the space for soaring vocals that Nusrat has in other, more traditional recordings.

That said, Nusrat was no stranger to cross-cultural collaborations -- having worked with the likes of Michael Brook, Eddie Vedder, and Peter Gabriel -- and I suspect the master would have liked what Gaudi has done here. The songs may not have the intensity of the original (though moments shine through, particularly on "Jab Teri Chun Main Raha Karte They"), but Gaudi has made this ecstatic Sufi music available to a whole new range of listeners, some of whom will certainly follow their curiosity to other Nusrat recordings.

The vocal tracks Gaudi used came from a collection of recently discovered and rare studio recordings made in Pakistan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Six Degrees Records is releasing the album as a celebration of Nusrat's life 10 years after his passing.

Nathamuni Brothers: Madras 1974 (Fire Museum)
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If you've been following global music recently, you might hear the phrase "Indian brass band" and think of an Indian wedding band, or the UK-based Bollywood Brass Band. Well, stop it. Instead, think of what might happen if you gave classical Carnatic musicians brass and woodwind instruments, and let them play. It ain't the hip global brass music of today, but then these recordings were made back in 1974. Producer Robert Garfias explains how these recordings came about: "In January of 1974, I was in Madras on my return to Burma. Knowing of my interest in brass bands, my friend T. Ranganathan arranged for these musicians to record for me on the patio of his house."

The music is said to be somewhere between English military tunes and traditional ragas, and along with the brass and the "Albert System E-flat clarinets," there's also a fairly heavy rhythm from tavil drums. It's unusual music, and with Fire Museum pressing just 500 copies of the CD, grab one while you can.

Sound samples:
Varnam in Raga Shankarabharanam Janya
Varnam Sami Ninne Raga Shankarabharanam
Javali Apaduruku Lonaitine, Raga Khamas
"English Note"

Various Artists: Songs of the African Coast-Cafe Music of Liberia - recorded by Arthur Alberts (Yarngo)
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Back in 2003, I reviewed the predecessor to this album, a CD by the same name but with fewer tracks and very limited distribution. Now Arthur Albert's great-nephew Guthrie Alberts has formed Yarngo Records and re-issued this wonderful compilation of unusual African music, complete with delightful photos of the musicians and additional tracks, the most engaging of which is certainly the adventurous and humorous "Nothing But Leaves." Alternative tracks of "Gbanawa," "Bush Cow Milk," and "Nana Kru" are also included on this sparkling 18-song disc, which defies expectations of African music. Read the original review from December 2003.

©2007 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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