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World Music CD Reviews, June 2008

Album of the Month

various artists: Nigeria 70-Lagos Jump

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I don't know what's going on with Strut Records -- their .uk website is defunct and their new .com site is under construction. But whatever internal machinations are afoot, I can tell you this: I love the music they're dragging out of the archives. Back in 2001 it was the marvelous (now out of print?) box set Nigeria '70 The Definitive Story of 1970's Funky Lagos, a broad compilation of some hot Afrobeat and close musical relations.

Now out is something of a sequel to that release. Subtitled "Original Heavyweight Afrobeat Highlife & Afro-Funk, Lagos Jump includes 16 tracks of similar material (though only two artists make a repeat appearance, Peter King and Sir Victor Uwaifo & His Melody Maestroes [video]). Inspired but by no means constrained by the emerging genre called Afrobeat, these artists explore jazz, funk, rock, and R&B while usually retaining some elements of Nigerian music in the form of drums, or the rhythmic and lyrical structures of Highlife or Fuji music.

To my ear, standout tracks include "Igbehin Lalayo Nta" by the obscure Afrobeat band Dynamic Africana, and Bola Johnson & His Easy Life Top Beats' "Ezuku Buzo" with its unusual scratchy rhythm guitar playing tag with the chanted vocals.

It's another solid offering from Strut -- one you may find even educational if you can just sit down for a moment and read John Collins' expansive liner notes the history and context of Nigeria's popular music instead of dancing to the catchy grooves.

More info and a free mp3 from the album at www.strut-records.com/nigeria70

©2008 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Lindemann & Tewan: Thai (Amori)
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I love musical surprises. So when I opened the package containing this CD and popped it in for a listen, I was blown away. It begins with traditional Thai instruments playing what sounds like a very traditional song, perhaps some sort of royal ceremony, my uninformed mind suggests. A female voice chimes in, and you settle in for a pleasant jaunt though tradition. But then... somewhere along the way you're jolted back from your reverie as what sounds like a jazz combo kicks in. What the heck is this?

This, it turns out, is the musical brainchild of one François Lindemann, Swiss musician and visionary of Thai jazz fusion. "This isn't," he says, "in any way some form of world music, but a true meeting between two worlds, an exchange, [saxophonist Sapsanyakorn] Tewan being the musical go-between, our ideas reunited." And so I sit back and enjoy the sonic surprises. And it's not even my birthday.

The LA Drivers Union Por Por Group: Por Por-Honk Horn Music of Ghana (Smithsonian Folkways)
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Both strange and wonderful, this CD is a survey of a most unusual style of music created by the LA Drivers Union of Accra, Ghana, using a variety of squeeze-bulb horns and even air pumps as well as various percussion instruments and a few more traditional musical instruments. The style is called Por Por (pronounced paaw paaw), and extensive liner notes (with great photos) explain its context and how it "tells a multi-layered story of musics involving local and regional history, colonialism, the diaspora, and globalization." Of course, you don't need to get all intellectual to simply appreciate the unbridled enthusiasm of the players and their unusual sound. A unique slice of odd music that will capture the heart of any adventurous cultural adventurer.

Sergio Mendes: Encanto (Concord)
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I'm not one to wax nostalgic about Burt Bacharach songs, but honestly, is "The Look of Love" really improved by adding a skanky rap by Fergie. In a word, no. Fortunately, the new Sergio Mendes gets on somewhat firmer footing after that shaky start. And I have to remind myself that Sergio's heart has always been firmly in pop music (remember Fool on the Hill?). So it's no surprise that he collaborates here with artists including will.i.am, Carlinhos Brown, Natalie Cole, and Juanes. He also does a number hailing back to his days with Brasil '66 -- "Dreamer" features vocals by Lani Hall, who gave voice to that group's sound and trumpet by Herb Alpert, who initially signed the group way back when. So I'm contenting myself that there's a Latin/Brazilian flavor to this album, and a few really tasty samba-flavored tracks ("Odo-ya," "Catavento/ Catavento E Girassol," and "Morning in Rio") among the more poppy offerings. Perhaps not for the focused ethnomusicologist, but if you enjoyed Sergio's last album Timeless (with the Black Eyed Peas), you'll want to give this a listen.

Chambao: Con Otro Aire (Norte / Sony BMG)
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Con Otre Aire is the fourth album from the Spanish-rooted group Chambao – I can’t tell you too much about their evolution, as I’ve only heard this and their previous album, Pokito a Poko. That release was denser and more heavily produced, while the new offering has a more rootsy, acoustic feel – one I find much more interesting and enjoyable. Varied and lyrical, the album builds on a flamenco foundation without being limited by it. There’s plenty here to appeal to all kinds of listeners; fans of the Gipsy Kings, Ojos de Brujo, and Estrella Morente (who contributes vocals on “Lo Bueno Y Lo Malo”) will certainly enjoy Chambao…while finding their music quite distinct from those artists.

Inemo: Afro Funky Beats (Black Mango Music)
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Tony Allen: Afro Disco Beat (Vampi Soul)
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Distant relatives seem to continually emerge from the extended family of African musicians. Some of them seem to wilt when out from under the shadow of their musical mentors/teachers/bosses. Not a few, however, have carved out their own identity. Among the latter, Tony Allen certainly stands as a towering figure, not only having created Afrobeat rhythms in his time with Fela Kuti, but continuing in recent years to explore new musical territory, often in collaboration with younger artists. His newest release is a two-CD set of early music, from his first four solo albums with Afrika 70 and the Afro Messengers. As was the fashion then, these are long tracks, ranging from the eight-minute “Road Safety” to the 17-minute political rant “No Accommodation for Lagos,” recorded in 1978 – the year Allen and Kuti decided to pursue separate musical paths. Read the liner notes for some insight into how a tardy Fela horn solo on this track caused tension between these two Afrobeat giants.

Inemo Samiama – or simply Inemo – is also from Nigeria, but the coat tails he followed were worn by Majek Fashek, with whom he played in a band called Jah Stix. His resume includes work with Tony Allen and Congolese collaboration master Ray Lema, but most importantly he has created, in Afro Funky Beats, a great African dance album. The lyrics aren’t always, well…, deep, but then why would you be looking for social commentary in a song called “Zebra Jammin’” anyway? Enjoy this one for what it is: a pulsing Afrobeat/Afropop dance party that gives your brain a break.

K'naan: The Dusty Foot on the Road (Wrasse)
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K’naan raps so smoothly, you’d think he grew up deep in the heart of US hip hop culture. In truth, he hails from the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. And like Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal, he has learned the language of hip hop fluently, yet he comes at his music from a unique cultural and musical perspective. K’naan raps over organic sounds on several tracks: “Wash It Down” has no music other than hands drumming on water; “The African Way” uses only hand drums as support for his rapid-fire wordplay. Other tracks include acoustic guitar, but most tracks on the album are shockingly stripped down for a hip hop recording. K’naan is certainly a better rapper than singer (proof of which is in “Be Free”), but this live recording shows that he clearly has the showmanship to get the London crowd singing along. If not for the sprinkling of mild profanities, Dusty Foot would certainly be getting more US airplay; K’naan’s sharp, raw, powerful music deserves that, and more.

Pacifika: Asuncion (Six Degrees)
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It’s not often that a new Latin alternative/pop band grows up among the towering Douglas firs of British Columbia. But Vancouver-based Pacifika isn’t letting their northern climate get in the way of making catchy tunes. Admittedly, their global influence stems from the origins of the band members: singer Silvana Kane was born in Peru; Toby Peter grew up in Barbados, and Adam Popowitz, well, he’s actually Canadian, though with a rather diverse resume. Together they make music that wouldn’t be out of place in an Ibeza lounge, or as an opening for Trio Mocoto or Zuco 103. Layers of sound often overshadow the ethnic roots of the musicians, but Pacifika isn’t in the business of ethnomusicology – they’re creating gently global music for a culture that’s only just starting to emerge.

various artists: BalkanBeats Volume 3 (Eastblok)
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My friends in New York say that Balkan music is all the rage there these days. This compilation may make you ask why it would ever have been out of style. This is pure dance fun with a heavy Balkan twist, from bands you know -- Slavic Soul Party, Shantel, Goran Bregovic -- and a few others you'll be happy to discover. Watcha Clan's lilting "Balkan Qoulou" is a personal favorite, also "Parno Graszt's "Drunk of Sorrow" and The No Smoking Orchestra's "Dobrila." The overt electronic programming is kept to a blessed minimum, letting the fantastic Balkan rhythms stand largely on their own. With these beats in their ears, even the hardhearted and lead-footed will have trouble staying off the dance floor.

The Darbuki Kings: Lawrence of Suburbia (Darbuki Kings Records)
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Somewhere, in a desert between Persia and the Gobi Desert, a group of dusty, sunburnt men wanders. The air is dry, the sun hot, and an unnatural stillness hangs around their necks like a heavy wooden yoke. They’re searching for something, but they can’t find it. Not under scorpion-infested rockpiles, not in the shade of a tree at the oasis, not in the cold, clear night sky. They can’t find it because I have it, right here in my CD player. It’s the soundtrack that their journey lacks, a collection of middle eastern rhythms and melodies that sent my mind into its own desert until I found an oasis of understanding, a certainty, really, that this is indeed a soundtrack. It’s the music behind the story, but not the story itself.

Storytelling albums have a strong central voice of some kind, whether instrumental or vocal. The Darbuki Kings are clearly impressive musicians (Robin Adnan Anders, a.k.a. Adnan Darbuki, is a founding member of 3 Mustaphas 3 and Boiled in Lead). But they don’t seem to want to step out of the background. This is apparent in the album’s dry, distant sound quality, as well as in their arrangements and playing. It’s a fine piece of work, but with an emotional distance that keeps it from being a CD I’d grab just to listen to. But it's great mood-setting music for your next Silk Road theme party.

©2008 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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