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World Music CD Reviews, June 2009

Album of the Month

Madera Limpia on SoundRoots.org

Madera Limpia: La Corona
Out There Records

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On one side of the fence in Guantanamo, Cuba, lies the controversial USA military base. On the other side: poverty, desperation, and fantastic music. The Cuban side of the fence is home to Yasel Gonzalez Rivera and Gerald Thomas Collymore, the guys behind Madera Limpia. Their music is a seamless blend of traditional rhythms and instruments with the modern global sounds of hip-hop and reggaeton. The result is an energetic, organic mashup that will appeal to world-music lovers far more than the heavier hip-hop of Orishas, and will appeal to everyone a little tired of Buena Vista Social Club and ready more more modern Cuban sounds. Best of all, the content is socially conscious, with songs about spying neighbors, poverty, prostitution, greed, love, conspicuous consumption, and emigration, among other things. Fast-track this as one of the best albums of 2009.

©2009 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Baka in the Forest: Traditional songs of the Baka women recorded live in the Cameroon rainforest (March Hare Music)
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Martin Cradick & the Baka at Gbine: Baka Beyond the Forest (March Hare Music)
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My first exposure to the songs of the rainforest pygmies was in a cassette of field recordings done by Louis Sarno in the 1980s (the tape a companion to his book Song from the Forest).

The sounds of otherworldly yodels and melodies drifted among animal noises, and were labeled with evocative titles about hunting, gathering honey and mushrooms, and weddings.

Soon afterward, I was enjoying elements of those songs in the music of Zap Mama, Pierre Akendengue, and Baka Beyond. The latter group has done an admirable job of giving back to the Baka, the people of the rainforest, creating a an organization to funnel profits back to the musicians communities and even building a solar-powered multitrack studio for the Baka in 2004.

The two new CDs are natural companions, and could easily have been issued as a two-CD set. Baka Beyond the Forest is more familiar Baka Beyond fare, as the guitars of Martin Cradick and vocals of Su Hart combining with a variety of Baka instruments in their usual Afro-Celtic style.

Baka in the Forest returns to the raw sound that so fascinated Sarno: the yodeling notes of the Baka yelli hunting songs echoing throughout the forest, simple string melodies on indigenous instruments, water drumming in the river. Unfortunately lacking is any information on the specific Baka artists on Baka in the Forest, but in a personal note Cradick mentions that among the songs on the CD are recordings of an artist named Bounaka playing the ngombi (a stringed harp constructed entirely of materials from the rafia palm tree). These recordings, Cradick writes, "are very special to me as [Bounaka] was very ill and made a big effort to come out of his hut to play them one evening in January." Bounaka, whose family first looked after Hart & Cradick when they visited the Baka in 1992, died just a few weeks ago.

Together these albums paint a marvelous picture of a people finding a way to balance their traditions with a changing world. For those of us who may never get to Cameroon's rainforest to experience Baka culture first hand, the magical songs on these two albums are the next best thing to being there.

Tea: Dreams (Teajuana Music)
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Four years ago, I had mixed reactions to the debut album by the group Tea, made up of French guitarist Franck Balloffet, California drummer-keyboardist Phil Bunch, and some musical friends. The group's second release has a similar vibe, with lush, rich Afropop tunes more suited for chilling out than for gettin' down.

The songs following are widely varied, from the pop-ballad languor of "Haunty" to the club-beat "Ibiza," to the hint of reggae on the upbeat "Envie." And while music never really cuts loose, the musicians and vocalists are top-notch. Steve Kgondo, (formerly with Tabu Le Rochereau) sings the opening track "Vibration," which sounds something like Youssou N'Dour meeting a jazz-fusion band. And Brian Auger's B3 work on "Bilobela" is downright tasty.

No song notes or lyrics are included, so one may conclude that the group's emphasis is on the gently upbeat mellow vibe of the music. And that's fine, but as with a pleasant but somewhat bland meal, I'm left wanting to reach for a splash of something hot, something spicy. In the end I find myself wanting to like this album a lot more than I actually like it.

Santero: El Hijo de Obatala (City Hall Records)
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I don't know of a lot of music out of Guatemala, and when I hear songs about the Orishas, I tend to think of Cuba or Brazil, or perhaps Colombia or Uruguay. But a musician called Santero is rearranging my musical world. Incorporating traditional Orisha chants and rhythms with hip-hop and soul elements (just check out the horns and organ on "Oba"), Santero concocts a pump-it-up blend of post-national music. Santero's family bounced around Central America, then various cities in the USA, laying the foundations for his music with various bands and DJ gigs. But he has always kept a connection with his spiritual roots.

"The way we speak with our ancestors, the way we call them down, is dance and song, but mostly through rhythm and bata drums," Santero says. "All the tracks are transposed traditional bata drumming. ... My ideal goal is to expose people to the Lukumi tradition in a non-judgmental way. The traditional isn't as strong and I just want to make sure there is a whole new generation exposed to it."

The album is sung and rapped in Spanish and English, with lyrics ranging from condemnation of ocean pollution to prayers (danceable prayers!) to Orisha dieties Obatala (on "Baba Ade") Ogun (on "Machete") and "Ochosi." Cuba's past and present blend beautifully in the hands of Santero, from whom we'll be eager to hear more.

©2009 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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