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World Music CD Reviews, May 2008

Album of the Month

Firewater: The Golden Hour

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I love life -- even with the earthquakes, floods, and political turmoil. But that's not to say I can't appreciate a good escapist message, especially one delivered with the deep growly angst that Tod A pours into The Golden Hour's opening track, "Borneo." He sings: "Gonna set my sails for the virgin soil / You know I don't wanna die for the price of oil / ... So I'm getting out of here." Whether Borneo is really an oasis from conflict and stupidity, he sure makes a compelling musical case with the song's jungle beat, jangly guitar solo, and great backing vocals by the Levantine Boys Choir.

The whole album is something of a travelogue of the adventures of Tod A, the soundtrack to his brilliant blog postcards.blogs.com. ("Everything started off smoothly enough, as everything usually does before going horribly wrong. Disasters of any magnitude rarely seem to come with any huge preamble.")

On the album he sings of disasters and adventures -- rooted in his travels, during which he was "drugged, robbed, detained, and later struck down with severe intestinal problems," finally calling a halt to the whole misadventure when "I was forced to end my trip at the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border, due to general ill health and the unnerving likelihood of kidnapping." As he sings on "Three Legged Dog": "I've been down so long that comin' up is giving me the bends."

Like any good storyteller, he turns his misadventures into great tales, incorporating a wide variety of musical styles he's encountered: Bhangra on "This Is My Life" and "Bhangra Bros," Jewish niggun on "Some Kind of Kindness," and various shades of swing noir. Tying it all together are his gritty, bluesy vocals, and a deep punk sensibility.

Imagine, perhaps, a twisted South Asian version of Paul Simon's Graceland as reimagined by Tom Waites. Yeah, that about sums up this amazing release, which may have only one foot under the umbrella of "world music" but has already become one of my favorite albums of 2008.

Check out The Story Behind The Golden Hour (youtube)

©2008 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Etran Finatawa: Desert Crossroads (Riverboat)
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Part of the second wave of North African desert guitar bands following the global success of Tinariwen, Niger's Etran Finatawa use plaintive voices and ragged guitars to tell the taleds of their people. Their nomadic lifestyle threatened by modernization, nationalism, and dispersal, the Tuareg group sings to keep their culture alive and to convey some of their wisdom -- gleaned through generations of living in a harsh desert environment -- to the rest of the world.

Various Artists: African Party (Putumayo)
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Before reading the tracklist for this new Putumayo compilation, I thought for a moment about the soundtrack for my ideal African party. Someone from the Kuti family would be there, or at least someone doing Afrobeat, along with Freshlyground, Yawo, the Gangbe Brass Band, Amampondo, An Ethiopian playing that crazy off-kiter guitar rock they've got, Angelique Kidjo, some Nigerian and Senegalese rappers, and maybe Wendo Kolosoy, if he is feeling up to it. I want people who can get the dancefloor moving! Right then... who has Putumayo come up with? Well, none of the above. Most are familiar names, and great musicians: Sekouba Bambino, Oliver Mtukudzi, Chiwoniso, Les Go de Koteba, Kotoja, Louis Mhlanga, Bonga, along with a few less known artists. And the music is great, but it has a kind of sameness throughout. And no Afrobbeat. Maybe I was expecting something a little more dance-compelling. Maybe I'm thinking more African Groove than African Party. This is a great compilation, don't get me wrong, but it's not the African Party I had going on in my mind.

Narasirato Pan Pipers: Solomon Islands-Cry of the Ancestors (ARC)
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If you think panpipes are the exclusive domain of Andean street musicians and Zamfir, you've got to check out this album. Hailing from the Solomon Islands, the Narasirato Are'are Panpipers are subsistence farmers and fishermen who also happen to be amazing musicians. The 17 songs on this album add up to 53 minutes of satisfying, diverse music concerning nature, culture, animals, the sea, and yes... playing the panpipes. The song "Auni Totoraha Ni Are'are'" concerns the latter, though with somewhat clunky English lyrics ("It's a historical talent / We have many original panpipes / Originated from the Are'are people / We are living traditionally...". The other songs (such as the powerful "Warato'o / Prophetic Word") and the strong technical quality of the recording make up for any weak points; overall the album is a fascinating slice of a musical culture I've never before encountered.

Various Artists: Bollywood Steel Guitar (Sublime Frequencies)
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On the latest offering by otherworldly label Sublime Frequencies, our ears are met by the mind-bending sounds of steel guitar songs ripped from the silver screens of Bollywood. Yes, amid the love-song duets and full-village dance scenes, India's film offerings also include the unique sounds of slide guitar. You may not know the movies (ranging from 1962 to 1986) or the players (no Debashish Bhattacharya here), but the irresistable pop tunes are, well, sublime.

©2008 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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