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World Music CD Reviews, January 2009

Album of the Month

K'naan - Troubador - review on Spin The Globe, http://spintheglobe.earball.net

K'naan: Troubadour
A&M Records

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The third album by African rapper K’Naan arrived heavy with copyright warnings and light on liner notes. Fortunately, we know K’Naan from his debut album The Dusty Foot Philosopher, his stripped-down live 2007 recording The Dusty Foot on the Road, and from his eagerness to musical shoulder-rubbing with the likes of Damian Marley, Dead Prez, and Ba Cissoko (video). Peppered with powerful lyrics and images, Troubadour is harder-hitting and more consistent, showing significant maturity. At the same time, K’Naan makes choices that won’t please everyone; he's taking a distinct leap from the African bin to the hip-hop bin with this album, sampling some R&B idioms and beats and lyrics about hard-partying alongside citing the ongoing narrative about his childhood in war-torn Somalia.

There's a strange tension in all this, with the rapper trying to prove that he’s more real than the very people with whom he wants to party and indulging in a fair amount of self-promotional boasting. He also embraces drum-machine culture and largely eschews African rhythms or motifs, with the welcome exception of the instrumental sample that starts “ABC’s” and the vocal chorus on the final track, “Somalia.” K’Naan’s singing voice hasn’t improved much, but he goes there only on a couple songs (including a new version of “Dusty Streets”). The great news is that his rapping seems even sharper these days, with crisper delivery and more nuanced lyrics. On “Fifteen Minutes Away,” he tells a tale of want while waiting for a money transfer:

The worst thing is the waiting
It’s spiritually draining ...
I couldn’t afford some omlettes
I’m broke like an empty promise
Sometimes when I’m in a meeting
and everyone else is eating
I feel so awkward asking
so I pretend like I am fasting.

Putting his eggs in the pop music basket, K'naan will certainly win more converts among mainstream listeners if they embrace the lyric he launches atop the compelling if somewhat typical beat on “Does It Really Matter”: “If the beat is hot / does it matter where or who it’s from?” While he doesn't want you to forget about the troubles he left behind in Somalia, the larger question may be in which musical direction this talented young rapper ultimately decides to go, and whether he'll bring his African music fans along with him.

[A free download of "Somalia" is available here.]

©2009 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Eprhyme: Waywordwonderwill (Word Life)

This one is a bit off the beaten Spin The Globe track, but Jewish rapper Eprhyme ("e-prime") has a message, and he's not shy about sharing it. I caught him recently at Temple Beth Hatfiloh, where he and klezmer group The Erev Ravs performed separately and in collaboration.

Some of my favorite pieces were when they shared the stage, but Eprhyme's cutting vocals are captivating even when he's performing with pre-recorded beats, as on his CD. His cleverly worded message on "Beggin for Change" brings a fresh perspective to the urban class clash, and "It's All G_D" finds universal values that transcend religious labels.

An EP with some songs from this album apparently was released on K Records, though the full album isn't listed on their site. So go get it directly from Eprhyme, and watch for him to make some inroads into the fanbase of folks like Matisyahu and even the Klezmatics.

More eprhyme:
at K Records

Azam Ali, Keyavash Nourai, & Shahrokh Yadegari: Green Memories (LilaSound)
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Azam Ali is undoubtedly the big-name musician on this album. But if you approach it expecting something like her work with Vas or Niyaz, you'll be wrong. Sort of. Green Memories is billed as a "structured improvisation work by Shahrokh Yadegari," who plays the Lila, "a computer music instrument which allows the performer to process and manipulate live acoustic material in real-time. And in content, Yadegari describes the work as "a sad yet hopeful meditation on our natural and mental ecology."

“I wanted the piece to be the voice of the earth,” Yadegari explains. “And this is why the piece sometimes sounds ambient. Recent ecological changes are messages to us from the earth. We may be a little too late but… I think right now we really better listen.”

The whole project was inspired by the poetry of Forough Farrokhzad. You may not have heard of her, and even a knowledge of Persian won't help you understand the vocals, since Ali sings in sounds, not words (with one exception) -- as she does in her work with Vas. If you, like I, find it a but puzzling that musicians would pay tribute to a poet without actually giving voice to her poems, one listen will convince you that this is poetic music -- emotional, transcendental, and open to interpretation. It demands even more patience and focus than another recently released Persian album, I Am Eve by Mahsa & Marjan Vahdat. The rewards for your attention are rich. Layers of sound drift like seeds on the wind, patterns form and dissipate, and only on the final track is this sublime album's message finally given words, taken from a translation of the Farrokhzad poem "I Pity the Garden":

No one thinks of the flowers,
No one thinks of the fish,
No one wants to believe
that the garden is dying...

Bat Makumba: Boteco (self-released)
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A boteco, I’m told, is the Brazilian equivalent of a French cafe or Irish pub, where people gather not only to imbibe the local liquids, but also to meet, ruminate, create, and pontificate. Bat Makumba might have been conceived in such a place, but their funk-rock-samba sound is too big for such a small setting. These guys rock, as is evident when pop in their second album, groove through the bouncy, party-inspiring opener “Vai Explodir,” and then come face to face with the fierce guitars and heavy drumming of “Nacao Francisco,” the love child of Chico Cesar and Kid Rock. The group creates a truly global sound, based upon but by no means limited to Brazilian motifs. The English lyrics and Dead-esque slow jam of “Sliding” and the flute-meets-percussion “Cade Minha Muie?” further demonstrate the band’s refusal to be pigeonholed. Lyrics or song notes would have improved the package for those of us who don’t grok Portuguese, but that omission shouldn’t stop listeners from digging this fantasticly energetic collection of 21st Century Brazilian fusion.

Calexico: Carried to Dust (Quarterstick)
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An eager publicist insisted that I have a listen to Calexico’s latest offering. The group has been on the periphery of my musical knowledge in recent years, though I admit to never developing a hunger for their sound. Apparently this album is a shift more toward the global music I’m inclined to write about. Or is it? From the git-go you’ll notice the Spanish portion of the opening track “Victor Jara’s Hands” backed by some mariachi-esque horns. Not exactly “world music,” but approaching Los Lobos territory.

Then a couple brooding tunes and an odd 40-second guitar-snare interlude. A few more songs zip past in the blur of telephone poles half-seen between road and desert through the headlights’ sideways-leaking light -- intriguing, but dark and out of focus. Then... what’s this? “Inspiracion” sounds like something tasty out of the Ry Cooder-on-the-border songbook and features vocals by Amparanoia’s Amparo Sanchez. Now we’re talking! Then, more telephone poles. Another town, called “El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)," this one with nobody around to sing but boasting a compelling cowboy-whistle refrain worthy of a decent spaghetti Western. Then a few more telephone poles before the car runs out of gas and comes to a creaking stop in “Contention City.”

I’ll give this another listen without my “world music” hat on, but for those seeking a global landscape, be advised that Carried to Dust’s charms are widely dispersed amid broad swaths of melancholic desert.

Gipsy.cz: Reprezent (Indies Scope)
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Unabashedly Gypsy, unabashedly modern, Radoslav “Gipsy” Banga raises his hands and eyes on the cover of his new album. Shocked at his musical success? Praying for his culture’s survival? Or perhaps (note the bed-head) awakened suddenly to the duty to continue spreading a socially conscious message along with his infectious, feel-good Roma fusion? Whatever it “reprezents,” the cover opens to reveal an album that I’m told is full of social content but appeals to this non-Roma as a damn fine party album and a fantastic fusion of traditional and modern sounds. From ballads like “Vecernice” to scratch-laced rap tunes like “Dobry Den” to full-tilt dance numbers like the opening “Benga Beating (video here),” Gipsy.cz’s varied compositions are unceasingly engaging, and flat-out fun, with a rare, energizing in-your-face cultural pride (the kind also seen in the Maori-fusion of Moana and the Moahunters). Highly recommended!

KAL: Radio Romanista (Asphalt Tango)
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KAL makes Gypsy music; KAL makes modern urban music. And there's no separation between the two. The musical equivalent of nuclear fusion, the Serbian band seems to create ever more energetic tunes, upping the ante from their self-titled 2005 debut with the 13 songs on Radio Romanista (the title track tells of a radio station in the imaginary nation of Romanistan, homeland of the Gypsies). Traditional touches pervade the album, comingling with urban beats and outstanding (and often very speedy - check out the fiddling on "Romozom" and "I'm Gypsy"!) instrumental prowess (audio samples).

KAL bandleader Dragan Ristic has a fantastic ear for modernizing his rich musical roots without losing the essential elements. With KAL's success," says Ristic, "we're proving the music of your ancestors is still valid, still lives." And it's not merely alive, it's dancing down the street and pulling you along it its wake.

Ignore the narrow-minded reviewer who said of this album (and I'm not making this up!): "It's a sad commentary on the state of the world when you can no longer count on ethnic groups to behave the way you want them to." Tradition isn't static, music is constantly evolving. KAL's sound is as authentically "Gypsy" as anything from Vera Bila, or anything from Gypsy.cz, for that matter.

Sure it's early in the year, but go ahead and mark Radio Romanista as one of the best albums of 2009.

Femi Kuti : Day By Day (Mercer Street)
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Even as more Afrobeat bands emerge seemingly from every city and nation, the family that started it all continues to contribute to the living history of the genre. Femi Kuti's new Day By Day is his first studio album in seven years, following closely on his brother's 2008 Seun Kuti & Fela's Egypt 80. Kuti continues to slip jazz and soul into his vernacular, sometimes to the extent that you couldn't reasonably call it Afrobeat. Other tracks are more clearly in the Kuti tradition, such as "You Better Ask Yourself," with it pointed questioning about religion and the exploitation of Africa's resources and the similar message of "One Two." Femi leads the album not only with his compelling, poweful vocals but also playing sax, organ, and trumpet. Overall the album isn't as edgy as his father's or brother's work, but its smoother vibe and radio-length songs make it likely to be well exposed, and it's a solid, if not groundbreaking, addition to the Afrobeat library.

Buena Vista Social Club: At Carnegie Hall (World Circuit)
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What can I possibly tell you about the BVSC that you haven't already learned from Wim Wenders? This new double album from the old Cubans is chock full of classic Cubans doing classing songs ("Chan Chan," "Candela," "Quizas, Quizas," "Veinte Anos"). And while you know that it's a big-hall, big-band production that may not bring the best glimpse of each artists' subtleties, the music still tugs at hearts nostalgic for a Cuba that once was and a handful of its amazing musicians rescued from obscurity.

Taj Mahal : Maestro (Heads Up)
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I don't know how Taj Mahal still sings the blues. Forty years of success in the music business have given him the juice to attract some big names to record on this celebratory album, including Angelique Kidjo and Toumani Diabate on "Zanzibar" (that they hail from the other coast of African is mere trivia; stop your whining), Los Lobos on "Never Let You Go" and "TV Mama," Ziggy Marley on "Black Man, Brown Man," and Ben Harper on "Dust Me Down." As you might expect from all that, Maestro shows Taj Mahal's tremendous range, from blues to folk to electric blues-rock, from reggae and calypso to African and Latin. "The one thing I've always demanded of the records I've made is that they be danceable," Taj says. "This record is danceable, it's listenable, it has lots of different rhythms, it's accessible, it's all right in front of you. It's a lot of fun and it represents where I am at this particular moment in my life." And Taj fans will jubilantly join in when he gets to the part of "Strong Man Holler" where he sings "Baby you so fine / you make me wanna smack myself." Maestro is fine music from a master who has never stopped exploring.

©2009 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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