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World Music CD Reviews, April 2008

Album of the Month

The Ipanemas: Call of the Gods
Far Out

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If you wanted to, you could call Os Ipanemas the Brazilian version of the Buena Vista Social Club. But I don't want to. What I do want is to try to describe their fresh Afro-Brazilian sound. Fresh even though the band began back in 1962.

Led by septuagenarians Wilson Das Neves (percussion, vocals) and Neco (guitar), the band oozes smooth charm without lapsing into cliche. These two endow the group with a wealth of experience, having recorded and toured the likes of Elis Regina, Tom Jobim, Wilson Simonal, Jorge Ben, Chico Buarque and Elza Soares. Wilson also performs with the Rio samba troupe Orquestra Imperial.

At the risk of comparing apples and oranges, I find myself contrasting this album with the music of Eddie Palmieri, whose live show I caught recently. Eddie's band was tight and each member was at the top of his game, pumping out blistering solos on horns and percussion. But I found myself growing a little numb to the music, which seemed to come all at one temperature: hot. They provided too little dynamic variation. After a while, even on the most pleasant tropical afternoon one requires a cool drink.

The Ipanemas know cool. In contrast to Palmieri's boil, they simmer through the album's ten tracks. The rhythms are distinctly Latin, becoming distinctly Brazilian only (to my ear) when a bit of samba bubbles up, or when I recognize the soft syllables of Brazilian Portuguese in the vocals.

Their music maintains deep roots in the Candomble spirituality that is Brazil's equivalent of Haiti's voudon or Cuba's santeria. "Those who sing samba," Wilson asserts, "sing it in praises of the Orixas. Brazilian music is religion. For our forefathers it comes from religion. So really, samba is a religion in Brazil." And there's no better place to catch a little of this cool spirituality than on Call of the Gods.

©2008 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Jamshied Sharifi: One (Ceres Records)
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I was surprised when I popped in this CD to hear the unmistakable tones of Yungchen Lhamo. A Kansas-born New York-residing multi-instrumentalist, Sharifi apparently has a modesty that lets others play a central role, even though it's taken him ten years to release his second album, following the 1998 release of the sublime A Prayer for the Soul of Layla.

Sharifi has not been idle in the meantime, producing albums for Mamak Khadem (Jostojoo), Yungchen Lhamo (Ama), Monika Jalili (Noorsaaz), Susan McKeown (Bushes And Briars), and Nina Stern/Daphna Mor (East Of The River), and working on various soundtracks. Indeed, there's a soundtrack quality to One, where influences ebb and flow like tides, washing over the listener. On "A Charlotte Sky," the voices of Paula Cole and Hassan Hakmoun float over lines of mbira laid down by Sharifi. And Mamadou Diabate's kora and a blend of Middle Eastern and African percussion back the powerful voice of Abdoulaye Diabate on "Darfur is Burning."

One is less introspective than Layla, casting its net wide for musical-cultural influences, and feeling in the end like a series of camel-caravan tours to various oases of global music.

Freshlyground: Ma'Cheri (Sony-BMG/Freeground)
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More great neo-Afropop from the multicultural South African troupe Freshlyground -- again blurring the borders between pop and traditional music with wild abandon. I better understand the lyrics of their English-language songs, but the world-music guy in me prefers the Xhosa songs, which seem to incorporate more African elements. Like the title track, which leads off the album with a township vibe and a powerful horn section. And if you don't speak the language, you'll find lyric translations on the band's website.

These guys know how to write some damn catchy hooks, and I just don't get tired of listening to the nuances of lead singer Zolani's fine voice. Ethnomusicologist purist should back away slowly...for the rest of us, Freshlyground has come up with another great album.

Debashish Bhattacharya: Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide Guitar Odyssey (Riverboat)
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The Indian slide-guitar master -- using three guitars he designed himself -- gives a virtuoso performance on his new CD, which shows his knowledge not only of classical Indian ragas, but also elements of jazz, blues, flamenco, and Hawaiian music, which he incorporates into his music. Stunning music and a treat for raga fans and more general world music appreciators alike.

Beth Nielsen Chapman: Prism-The Human Family Songbook (BNC)
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Beth Nielsen Chapman has a gorgeous voice, and on her new double CD Prism, she employs it in the larger service of human spirituality. The booklet nestled in the attractive packaging tells the story of each song, and of Chapman's decade-long journey to travel around the world, assembling songs and chants from different spiritual traditions. The two CDs are dramatically different. The first is heavily produced and wouldn't sound out of place on mainstream pop radio. It begins with the infernally catchy "God Is In (Goddes In)," and also includes a cover of perhaps my favorite tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Beautiful Fool" (and includes the song's author Don Henry on guitar). The second CD is more sparse and chant oriented, including songs from Gregorian, Tibetan, South African, Jewish, Orisha, Navajo, and other traditions. The two CDs make a strange package, but one that is held together by Chapman's powerful voice and her global vision of the strength of the world's diverse spiritual traditions.

On Ensemble: Ukiyo Live (self-released)
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Trying to label the music of the Bay Area's On Ensemble is an act in futility. For shorthand I call them a neo-taiko group, and while that accurately captures their Japanese drumming roots, it doesn't really give an idea of the lengths to which they go in bringing global influences into their music. The four members add a drum kit, along with throat singing, riqq, turntable, and dumbek, and that's only a hint of the complete sound they produce. I've always considered taiko to be fascinating in its combination of music with dance-like choreography. These guys take it a step farther, while being respectful of the tradition from which they draw so heavily. This CD was recorded at the ensemble's fourth annual home concert series; for value-added visuals of this music I recommend the DVD On Ensemble Live at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

©2008 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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