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World Music CD Reviews, October 2008

Album of the Month

MC Yogi - Elephant Power - on Spin The Globe

MC Yogi: Elephant Power
White Swan Records

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Chant-inspired albums seem to be a dime a dozen these days, with artists finding inspiration in everything from ancient texts to nature to astrology. MC Yogi's Elephant Power stands trunk and tusks above that sometimes-ordinary crowd, a unique fusion of hip-hop and Hindi chant that will move both body and spirit.

MC Yogi (aka Nicholas Giacomini) clearly has deep rooting in the Hindi traditions, rapping eloquently about the pasttimes of Ganesh, Krishna, Hanuman, and other characters/dieties. It doesn't hurt his case that contributors to the album include Jai Uttal, Krishna Das, and Bhagavan Das. Their traditional chants help ground some of the songs where Yogi's lyrics are heartfelt but could seem a little flippant, as with the refrain on "Ganesh Is Fresh."

Elephant Power consists of nine full tracks and several brief but interesting tidbits, including beats meet sacred toning on "Chakra Beatbox" and the Hare Krishna chant paired with scratching and a heavy heavy beat on "Bhakti Boombox." And if you need a refresher on the life and accomplishments of Mohandes Gandhi, you have to check out the clever biography of the Mahatma on "Mahatma's Message," featuring vocal work by Sukhawat Ali Khan.

Check out the video of "Mahatma's Message."

©2008 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


various artists: Sesame Street Playground (Putumayo)
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This new CD/DVD combo from Putumayo shows how the culture of Sesame Street has spread around the globe, with 13 songs from Tanzania, Brazil, France, Russia, South Africa, India, China, Israel, Mexico, Palestine, and the Netherlands. The inclusion of a DVD with five music videos helps balance the relative brevity of the music CD, weighing in at under 30 minutes.

"Music is an extremely powerful medium... While musical style is unique to different regions of the world, music itself is something we have in common," says Sesame Workshop President Gary Knell.

Many of the songs are either unknown to me or forgotten with other childhood details. Others are clearly distinct to their own cultures, such as the "Traditional Game Song" from Palestine and "Galli Galli Sim Sim," the Indian show's theme song that sounds like a kids' Bollywood tune.

I would gladly have done without the USA version (or any version) of "Elmo's Song," but the Tanzanian "Don't Be Sad Song" really lives up to its billing, with an uplifting rhythm and Kiswahili vocals.

But honestly, who could argue that the album's highlight is a Chinese version of "Rubber Duckie," sung by Zhima Jie? As kids' albums go, Sesame Street Playground will stand up well to repeated listenings by adults. Just skip over Elmo.

La Cherga : Fake No More (Asphalt Tango)
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I've got a lot of respect for Garth Cartwright -- he's a great proponent of Balkan and Gypsy music, and I highly recommend his book and CD compilation Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians. Yet... we have our points of disagreement. Such as this album.

Cartwright wrote a lyrical introduction in the album notes, evoking an alternate universe in which Lee "Scratch" Perry relocates to Tito's Yugoslavia, laying the foundations of a Balkan dub style that culminates in La Cherga's sound.

The album drew me in at once with a great Balkan energy, hot rhythms, and great horn riffs. Also enticing is the very idea of a "pan-Balkanic consciousness" that could help transcend the failed politics that have bathed much of the region in turmoil. "These musicians," Cartwright writes," all too familiar with the insanity of nationalism and the impotence of bombs and the bleak reality of refugee visas, have created a temple of tolerance, one built on diversity."

But on subsequent listens, La Cherga sounds less fresh. The little-girl vocals of Irina Karamarkovic start to sound ordinary. She's got a nice voice, but seems to be phoning it in, a sense that isn't aided by the uninspired English-language lyrics. Maybe I'm missing the irony, but on the opening track "Cooking Dub" when she repeatedly sings "We are going nowhere," it seems to set the tone for the rest of the album. "Don't Go This Way" similarly could serve as a warning away from the song's insipid tag "Don't be braindead" and the ersatz ursari vocals.

The irony of La Cherga is that the English lyrics that should have provided a point of entry for a broader audience are what will likely be driving listeners away. And that's a shame, because the band has a promising start with its unique blend of dub and Balkan flavors. And if you can get past the bad apples, there are some gems on this CD, including "Wedding Song," "Rembetiko 22," "Muki's Pub," and "What a Wonderful Life."

Cartwright got it half right, and so did La Cherga.

various artists: Acoustic France (Putumayo)
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The first song on the new Putumayo compilation Acoustic France begins with a bossa nova guitar riff and cuica. Continental confusion? Naw...this really is French music. What could be more French than a breakthrough hit about unemployment? And the "cuica" on the song "Assedic / Welfare" is in fact a voice. Oh, those clever French! I'm a little puzzled about Putumayo's definition of "acoustic" however. Sandrine Kimberlain's poppy "Le Quotiden" features some (admittedly tasty) organ and electric guitar. But what the heck -- the "France" part of the title is also stretched by including New Brunswick singer Pascal Lejeune and San Francisco group Rupa & the April Fishes. In any case, expect some engaging tunes by great French-speaking artists, and you can decide for yourself if maybe it should be called "Mostly Acoustic French Diaspora."

Margot Leverett & The Klezmer Mountain Boys: 2nd Avenue Square Dance (Traditional Crossroads)
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Somewhere in the black mining hills of Donetsk, a group of poor immigrants from Appalachia toils long days to bring the black rock to the surface. But at night, they grab their instruments and bring their American bluegrass, country gospel, jazz, and rock music to the town's dancehall, mixing it up with the local musicians' klezmer and folk traditions. At least, that's one possible explanation for the curious musical mix offered on the second album by Margot Leverett & The Klezmer Mountain Boys.

The songs are fun and varied with "High Lonesome Honga" and "Electric Kugel" brushing elbows with Bill Monroe's "Stoney Lonesome" and "Mississippi Waltz." The traditional country gospel tune "Little Moses" is played nearly straight, with just a touch of Leverett's klezmer clarinet. Her instrument is much more prominent elsewhere, and her crack team of collaborators makes this a strong album all around, and a great listen even if didn't know you were into Jewgrass music.

Binario: Binario (Far Out Recordings)
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Yes on the beach.

That's not an affirmation of where I'd like to spend my next vacation. It's a reasonable description of the sound of Brazilian band Binario. They've got something of the prog-rock sensibility and rhythmic adventurousness of the famed British group, while keeping things a bit more melodic. It's really only when the group vocals (more like drunken shout-singing, really) kick in on the third track, "Balinha," that you know your ears have strayed beyond the Anglo progressive scene. It may not be the "world music" we expect from Brazil, but Binario's fresh angle on space-funk-psychedelic-jazz may have you thinking of Ipanema in a whole new light.

Buika: Nina de Fuego (Warner Music Spain)
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It's a disservice to Buika that she appears half-naked on the cover of this CD, like some tawdry aspiring pop star. From the first note she sings on her sophomore album, her breathy voice evokes the bittersweet nature of life with a maturity that is belied by that photo.

The Spanish-only liner notes may leave some holes in the monoglot's understanding of the lyrics, but perfectly clear is Buika's craft in creating a tasty album with courses including traditional Spanish fare (coplas, flamenco, gypsy rumba) along with a jazz/torch sensibility and a sprinkling of Afro-Cuban spice. She also spent a couple years in Las Vegas, sometimes doing Tina Turner and Diana Ross impersonations. But, she says, "Las Vegas is not like a normal city. There is no humanity there."

A little digging reveals that Concha Buika was born in Equatorial Guinea, and grew up near a Gypsy community on the island of Mallorca. As for her defiance of musical genres, she says "“I don’t know what is flamenco or what is blues or jazz or rock. I only know what is singing and playing. For me the flamenco of [Mexican singer] Chavela Vargas is the same as Dinah Washington. It’s music that comes from the depths, from the place where everything pure comes from. For me [musical] styles seem like little dictators.”

The reality is so much more than the CD's cover can convey, since Buika's voice and musical choices convey a bare emotional richness much more engaging, enticing, and satisfying than any titillating photograph.

©2008 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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