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World Music CD Reviews, May 2009

Album of the Month

Staff Benda Bilili: Très Très Fort

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Yes, it sounds like a movie script. A group of paraplegic street musicians who play near the zoo in Kinshasa, Congo, catch the ear of well-place westerners (including Damon Albarn, members of Massive Attack, and filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye. The latter have been documenting the group since 2005. And Staff Benda Bilili's debut album has now been released, produced by none other than Crammed's Vincent Kenis (who also brought us Konono No1, Kasai Allstars, and the Congotronics series). If you're familiar with those outings, you won't be surprised to learn about the group's homemade instruments (many solos are played on a one-stringed tin-can lute/guitar).

The group's story is more unusual than its music, which isn't too far from the Afro-Cuban blend of many other Congolese groups. But their unique story, instruments, and obstacles to success make this an album well worth checking out. Marvel at their resilience, read how their lyrics influenced the last Congolese election, and move to the languorous rumba-funk grooves.

©2009 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Hip Hop Hoodios: Carne Masada-Quite Possibly the Very Best of Hip-Hop Hoodios (Jazzheads)
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The new/old album by Hip Hop Hoodios (out May 12) provides a chance to revisit some of our favorite guilty pleasures from the world's premier Jewish-Latino hip-hop outfit. Funny as hell, the Hoodios are nonstop funny, frequently crude, and always entertaining. The humor starts with the album's title; as the second (or, if you count the Raza Hoodio EP, second-and-a-half) album, it seems a little early for a "Best Of" -- but if you're new to the band or willing to duplicate some of the songs you already own, go ahead and nab this one. From the sopomoric ("Dicks and Noses") to the politically savvy ("Agua pa' la Gente"), this is an exercise in nonstop energy, odd cross-cultural lyrical and melodic lines, and simply the best musical narrative of the cross-pollination of Jews and Latinos you're willing to find anywhere this side of southern Spain. Listen to the end for the laugh-out-loud cover of...well, why should I tell you when you can hear it here?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDohR2r9Zlc

various artists : ¡Salsa! (Putumayo)
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Okay, honestly I don't know much about salsa. So a new compilation of danceable Afro-Latin tunes is a chance not only to enjoy the music, but to learn a little more about the style. As a musical style, salsa has been around for at least half a century in various incarnations, often flavored by claves, timbales, piano, and tight horn arrangements. It's a worldwide phenomenon, and artists on this album hail from Cuba, the USA, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, even the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some of the names here are legendary (Poncho Sanchez, Eddie Palmieri), others may be less familiar. All of the artists on this solid (if short at 46 minutes) compilation deliver tasty tunes that will get your hips moving. Read the liner notes and learn something, or just let your hips sway.

Oran Etkin: Kelenia (Motema)
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"Kelenia" is a Bambara word for "the love of people who are different from each other." It's also the perfect title for this album, a stunning collaboration between an Israeli-born New York reed player and his Malian-American band. Oran Etkin bridges the span between Africa and America by building on his jazz and Jewish roots, integrating his clarinet and saxes seamlessly with the balafon of Balla Kouyate, the calabash percussion of Makane Kouyate, and the bass of Joe Sanders. He also brings to the album's mix the talents of Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke and other guests. The album's opening track, "Yekeke," sets a high standard with Etkin's clarinet and Kouyate's balafon soaring like birds playing in a spring breeze. The rest of the album varies, sounding here like improvisational jazz with unusual instrumentation, and there like traditional West African tunes subtly updated. And then there's Etkin's unique Africanized version of Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing." I'm still marveling at the naturalness of this album, and how beautifully in sync the musicians are in integrating their diverse backgrounds into a seamless whole. Might as well just stick this in the CD player and leave it on "repeat" for the next month or two. It's that enjoyable.

Moana and The Tribe: Wha (Black Pearl)
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Since her debut recording in 2002, Moana Maniapoto has been merging Maori traditions with popular music elements. Rap, soul, dance, and spoken-word blend with haka and traditional instruments and percussion. And there's usually a powerful cultural message within the song, about the importance of ancestors, the history of treaties, the tradition of moko, or some such.

Those messages continue on Wha, though the music is markedly different than previous offerings, owing less to pop music as Moana shows a more mature side to her songwriting. There's the rich orchestration on "Pae O Riri" ("heat of the battle"), the brief instrumental title track featuring the glass harmonium, and the subdued power of the peace piece "Rangikane Ana." These tracks are generally quieter than Moana's previous work to be sure, but no less stirring.

The resilience of Maori culture still rings through. The words of the reggae/dub track "Whaura" concern Pacific nations' continuing struggles with sovereignty and independence. And the famous Maori haka makes several virile appearances, most notably on "Te Apo," which addresses the greed at the heart of many global trade agreements and includes sounds from the street protests at the 2006 WTO conference in Hong Kong. (Find more song details and lyrics here.) Wha is a mature, engaging album from of today's best conscious global outfits.

various artists : The Revolution Present Revolution (Rapster)

Even as the Obama administration shows (long-overdue) signs of warming towards Cuba, there's still a cultural chasm with the island nation. Think about it. The Buena Vista Social Club thing was back in the late 1990s (album, 1997; film, 1999). Hip-hop group Orisha's groundbreaking debut A Lo Cubano album came out in 2000. And since then?

There have been musical releases from Cubans in the last decade (among them, Ska Cubano, Telmary, Yusa, and Juan-Carlos Formell), but none with such a broad impact. Where are the next generation of Cuban superstars? Why don't we know about them?

Executive producer Zack Winfield and his colleague Ado Yoshizaki, together with producer-manager Tim Hole, dreamt up the idea of marrying the extraordinary skills and talent of the cream of Cuba's young musicians with the know-how and worldly perspective of cutting edge producers from the UK and the US. It’s from this idea that Revolution was born.

The Revolution presents Revolution features some high-profile US and UK producers paired with an array of young Cuban musicians. The album opens with Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) with someone named Lateef The Truth Speaker doing a track called "Shelter," which though terribly catchy disctinctly lacks any elements that scream CUBA! This is immediately followed by two killer bilingual dance tracks by Bjork's Guy Sigsworth: the manic "Crazy Love" and the UFO-obsessed "Cuba Boom." Other songs -- including the dreary "Lies" and the indie-angst of the final track "In Time" -- leave me less enthused. Fortunately, between those two are four more spicy offerings, "14Me" by Poet Name Life with Orishas. This is not the Buena Vista Social Club and the album is uneven in parts, but it's a tall quenching drink for anyone thirsty for new Cuban sounds, and a glimpse of where the island might be headed post-embargo.

©2009 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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