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World Music CD Reviews, October 2007

Album of the Month

Kobo Town -Independence

Kobo Town: Independence

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Kobo Town is the result, to some extent, of a revelation by founder and bandleader Drew Gonsalves. Growing up in Dieto Martin, Trinidad, he hungered for foreign status symbols like running shoes, and was ashamed when his father brought home a new pair of shoes with the label "Made in Trinidad and Tobago."

In the liner notes to Independence, Gonsalves writes about the widespread dismissal of the homegrown in favor of the foreign, and how this music has turned him back to his roots. "Written out of a love for old-time calypso, roots reggae and dub poetry, this record is also driven by a desire to join the effort of those West Indian artists, activists and musicians who have recognized that the wounds in our society run deep into our past, and that recovering a sense of cultural national and spiritual self-worth is a crucial first step in the path toward healing and renewal."

Right. So it's got roots and good motivation. But, I hear you ask, what of the music?

Good news on this front, also. Chock full of positive messages, Kobo Town also knows how to lay down a groove, with strong vocals and tight arrangements. Highlights (and there are many) include the domestic violence song "Abatina," with its dark storyline and compelling rhythm; "Higher than Mercy," which delivers an anti-war message in lyrics with near-haiku beauty and simplicity; and the anti-tyranny reggae anthem "Blood and Fire." And Gonsalves' shoe story rings loudly in the lyrics of the bright, positive "Beautiful Soul": "All the time, They tellin' the lie, we are what we buy / in the paper, on the poster, in the magazine."

Lovers of old calypso, new ska (like Ska Cubano), and positive vibrations will love the righteous balm of the Caribbean poured through the sounds of Kobo Town.

©2007 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Yale Strom & Hot Pstromi: Borsht with Bread, Brothers (ARC)
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The Absolutely Complete Klezmer Songbook
Edited by Yale Strom (Transcontinental Music Publications)

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Yale Strom's brain should be designated a site of international cultural significance. Well, his brain and his violin-playing fingers, and possibly some other parts as well. Working in many media, Strom has worked to learn, preserve, and share Jewish and Rom music and culture from Eastern Europe. His latest works:

The CD Borsht with Bread, Brothers includes songs from Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Poland, Germany, Russia, Belarus, and Moldava. Picture yourself in a tavern full of sweaty men dancing to the vigorous "Svalava Kozatshok." Or get rebellious in an old-school sort or way to the anti-Czarist "Vemen Veln Mir Dinen, Brider (Whom Shall We Serve, Brothers)," with its brooding mood and seriously soulful vocals by Elizabeth Schwartz: "Whom shall we serve, brothers? / It's not good to serve the Russian Czar / Because he bathes in our blood." Well, no...that's not good. While the music stands on its own, the rich song notes (and lyrics and translations for those songs with words) give historic and cultural context -- in four languages!

The Absolutely Complete Klezmer Songbook gives Strom a chance to show that he's not just a musician, but also a collector of songs and stories and information and music. Essentially an enhanced fake book, the volume includes a 20-odd page history of Jewish music from Biblical times to present day; 400 pages of sheet music (313 songs!) organized by song type and occasion; a glossary of (mostly Yiddish) terms; and a 36-track CD of klezmer tunes performed by Strom and Hot Pstromi.

Even non-musicians will find fascinating tidbits in the history section, from the role of Felix Mendelssohn's grandfather in suppressing Yiddish language and music to the role the khasidim played in reinvigorating Jewish music and dance, even the occasional tradition of hurling snowballs at Jewish newlyweds. If you're a musician devoted to or just curious about klezmer music, The Absolutely Complete Klezmer Songbook is a rich and unparalleled resource.

Various Artists: Brazilian Playground (Putumayo)
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The latest installment in Putumayo's Playground series explores the music of Brazil. It starts with the soft voice of Gui Tavares singing "Pancada," about his falling-apart but still well-loved car. World music lovers will recognize the tune of "Tum Tum Tum," popularized by Jackson do Pandeiro and interpreted here by Roberta Sa. Other songs concern such kid-friendly topics as coconuts, budding romance, dancing, happiness, trains, even a samba done by animals. Focused as it is on samba, bossa nova, and forro the compilation is friendly, smooth, and accessible, though it lacks any exploration of the percussive side of Brazilian music that also entrances kids.

Leni Stern : Africa (self-released)
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Leni Stern, methinks, is the female alter-ego of Markus James. Like James, Stern is a guitarist who has integrated into her music the sounds of West Africa. This 13-song album grew out of an EP called Alu Maye (Have You Heard), which was recorded at Salif Keita's Bamako Studios in Mali's capitol. The full album is infused throughout with African instrumentation in a deeply understanding (not touristy) way. Africa vocalists share the singing, and musicians add n'goni, kamelengoni, percussion, and other sounds. Get past the cover image of the skinny white girl in torn jeans, and you'll find a cross-cultural gem.

Nathalie Cora: Petite Terre (self-released)
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The West African harp known as kora (or cora) is largely an instrument of male musicians, but a few are breaking that mold. Quebec-based Nathalie Dussault is one of those, and her compositions and playing are both stunning. I know little about her or her music (there's little to be found about her in English), but her music speaks volumes: thoroughly modern compositions that nonetheless reveal the hard work she's put into learning this traditional instrument fluently. Kora takes center stage most often, but is joined by electric guitar, bass guitar, accordion, bansuri flute, and the odd sound effects to create her own rich soundscape. Definitely recommended!

Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Latin Funk (World Music Network)
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Someone more famous than I once asked, "what is soul?" A rhetorical question, yes, and not unlike the Rolex, if you have to ask, you probably can't afford it. Or don't already have it. "Funk" may be a similar universal term whose definition depends more on attitude than instrumentation. It's more art than science. James Brown spread funk from America to Africa. So what are the roots of funk in Latin America? No se. But this is a great collection of music from artists as diverse as Cuban Santeria singer Bobi Cespedes, NYC-based Afrobeat orchestra Antibalas, and Chilean hip hopper DJ Bitman. This compilation is a great launching point for exploring the world of Latin funk.

DobaCaracol: Soley (label)
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At the heart of Montreal-based DobaCaracol are Doriane Faberg (Doba) and Carole Facal (Caracol). A chance meeting at a 1998 rave led to their musical collaboration, a 2001 debut called Le Calme Son, and this album, Soley, released in 2004. I don't know what they've been up to in the meantime, but Soley is a wonderful romp of Afrobeat, tribal groove, and catchy melodies. Fans of French singer Camille will love "Etrange," while Afrobeat aficionados will dig "Anda." Compelling, accessible, and unique, Soley leaves me hoping for more music soon from this talented duo and their friends.

Manu Chao: La Radiolina (Nacional)
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I'm pretty sure what I need is a chance to see Manu Chao live. That and more linguistic skills. Because as it is, I love the concept of Manu Chao: rebel musician, critic of globalization, self-proclaimed "citizen of the moment." I appreciate that he's honed such a unique sound with songs that repeat odd electronic hooks and blend together like a just-out-of-mind dream. And yet, most of his work is in languages I don't speak, and without lyrical comprehension, the sound devolves to just so much clever guitar rock, despite Rolling Stone's characterization of it as "miraculously accessible." Don't get me wrong: I like it. I'm amused by it. I just don't crave it like those who pack soccer stadiums to see him, those who jump up and down like little kids at the thought of this, his first studio album in six years. I want to get excited, but the thrill isn't there.

Terrakota: Oba Train (Felmay)
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Hailing from Lisbon, Terrakota bring a multicultural, multilingual sound to the table. I'd need to brush up on my Portuguese to grasp the nuances of the lyrics, but the Afropean sensibilities are rich, blending talking drum with electric guitar. And, for that matter, sitar with drum kit. It's all a beautiful Babel bound to hook fans of Lo'Jo and other global blends. Do check this one out!

Shukar Collective: Rromatek (label)
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I've made no secret of my love for Shukar Collective's first album, Urban Gypsy. A graceful balance of traditional Romanian "bear-tamer" vocals with subtle programmed beats, it brought new life (and a new audience) to an old art form.

The collective's second album is a lateral move. They certainly won't be accused of recycling ideas, but neither is it clear that they're building on the first album. Rromatek tosses out the old balance, and leaps into a more techno sound, letting the beats and programming dominate much of the album. Incessant thudding may be great for the club, but less appealing to the world music fan. Several tracks with less electronica work well for me, including "Oh, Girl," "Ragga Mami," "Napolament," and the "hidden track" at the end of the album, a re-imagined "Taraf."

Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara: Soul Science (Wayward)
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Love the rootsy African blues guitar sound of Tinarawin? Then get thee hence and procure this new offering. Justin Adams has been called the British Ry Cooder -- maybe that is acknowledgement that he's a mean guitarist and a great collaborator. In this case, he teams up with Gambian master musician Juldeh Camara to create a musical dialogue that Adams refers to as "the ancient Soul Science of music," but I just call rip-roaring great.

©2007 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media




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