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World Music CD Reviews, September 2009

Album of the Month

Laya Project

Laya Project
EarthSync India

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watch: trailer 1, trailer 2

In December 2004, a tsunami swept through communities bordering the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, the Maldives, Myanmar and India. This DVD and two companion audio CDs document the music and the culture of these people and their post-disaster resilience. The film cuts together video of the musicians recording with scenes of everyday life for these cultures on the edge of the sea to a musical track of field recordings sometimes mixed with studio recordings. Young boys run along a dirt street rolling bicycle tires; muslims pray in a mosque; fishermen tie nets beneath ominous clouds.

The filmmakers and audio engineers don't make an appearance in the film. No narration tells you what to think of these cultures; people speak (a little) and sing (a lot) for themselves, and titles identify locations. Otherwise the meaning remains open to one's own interpretation, though it is clear that the filmmakers value the region's rich history and cultural diversity.

The focus is on the local people, whom you can find out more about at the website www.layaproject.com -- including film clips and a wealth of information not included in the photo-rich companion booklet. In India, for example, the filmmakers' car became their mobile recording studio, with seats removed and car batteries connected for power. In the Indonesian village of Takengon, locals performed the Didong, a popular song including remarkable body percussion.

Much of the music and imagery conveys a rich local life focused on work, school, community, and spirituality. The film doesn't show much explicit joy; neither does it include any sympathy-milking images of sorry or destruction. The people are just people, living their lives, apparently pleased to share their formidable musical skills with the wandering filmmakers.

If there's a flaw in Laya Project, it may be that the filmmakers tried too hard. They cleaned up the audio so much it's hard to believe that the sound you're hearing actually came from the outdoor sessions you're watching. And except for a few interviews (with subtitles), the film contains little to acknowledge the massive tragedy that took more than a quarter-million lives just five years ago and that was the very impetus for the filmmakers. But Laya Project is dedicated to the survivors, not the dead, and this region is their home. They're more than survivors, statistics, victims; they are vibrant living people, and this film is a deep, respectful, and touching glimpse of their life and culture.

©2009 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Khaled: Liberte (Wrasse)
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I've seen this album with two covers. One version shows a staid standing Khaled posing as another blank-faced Khaled sits at a mixing board with a lovely woman peering over his shoulder. The second version shows the famed Algerian singer alone, standing with arms outstretched, face contorted in ecstatic song. Khaled and his rai music have always been about powerful emotions, so I'll take the album behind cover #2, thank you. The mixing board actually deceive some, since in the past Khaled (or his producer) has leaned heavily on synth sounds and of course rai is widely known for heavy vocorder use.

Liberte brings a far more acoustic sound, with rich orchestrations that eschew electronics and provide a wonderful backdrop for Khaled's stunning vocal surges. Whatever it is that Khaled that has brought Khaled a new found liberty (heaven knows I can't understand any of his lyrics!), this album is a beautifully crafted blend, with strong musicians supporting but never overshadowing the singer. Early favorites include the gnawa-infused "Gnaoui" and "Sidi Rabbi," in which the singer pleads (I'm told) for forgiveness for the foolish things he's done in his lifetime. This marvelous album will not be counted among them.

Depedro: Depedro (Nat Geo Music)
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Preconceptions? You find it hard to form any based on the abstract art on this CD's cover. Of course there's the name -- Depedro -- sounding vaguely Latino. Indeed... You see that half the song titles are Spanish. But then the other half are English. You're still puzzled, so there's nothing to do but throw the CD in the player.

You're greeted by guitar and horns on the folk-rocky “Como El Viento,” on which the vocals reveal pronunciations from Spain. And just about now you realize that Depedro isn’t a person; this is really an album by Jairo Zavala and friends, though this fact sheds no more light on the music, since you haven’t heard of Zavala before (though later you realize that he's the touring guitarist for Calexico, and has penned songs for the likes of Spanish star Amparanoia and Spanish instrumental surf troupe Los Coronas).

Now you’re on “La Memoria,” which with its driving beat and banjo highlights might be a country/alt-rock thing if the lyrics weren’t in Spanish. The album continues – catchy but puzzling – veering from “Camanche” sounding like a Latino version of some 1970s action TV show theme to a fantastic vibes-and-moog-laced interpretation of the Mexican folkloric classic “Llorona.”

You love the sound of this album. Perhaps it reminds you a bit of Ry Cooder’s “Chavez Ravine,” or something from Lila Downs. And you get to thinking that this might just be the perfect first release for National Geographic’s new label Nat Geo Music. Like the magazine, you find this music both foreign and familiar, alien and accessible, a little puzzling yet beautiful throughout.

Salaam: Salaam (self-released)
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I'll be the first to admit that I'm no expert on Iraqi music. Even before the turmoil that befell the country during and after the rule of Saddam, Iraq seemed to export far less music than many of its neighbors, and much of that from expatriates. You've got your Aida Naddem, your Kadeem Al Saher (or however you want to spell it...), Naseer Shamma, Munir Bashir, Ahmeed Mukhtar and the like. And a few years back our friends at Sublime Frequencies brought us the eclectic compilation Choubi Coubi (Folk And Pop Songs From Iraq). But Iraqi offerings were still few and far between. ARC records has helped with a couple of releases, by Daoud and Saleh Al-Kuwaity (Masters of Iraqi Music) and Ahmed Mukhtar (The Road to Baghdad).

But now, you need look no farther than Chicago for a solid dose of Middle Eastern music with its roots in Iraq and spanning the ages from 17th century Ottoman court music to Iraqi popular songs. On their self-titled CD, Salaam does that and more, dipping also into Turkish, Syrian, and North African themes...even a little blues and jazz, as on "Yugrug." There's some similarity to Brothers of the Baladi, though the Oregon-based Brothers are a bit more far-reaching with their Middle Eastern sound, going so far as to cover the Doors' "Paint It Black" on their Eye on the World album.

Salaam may be less brash, but their sound is growing on me, particularly the subtle fusion of "Nihavent Saz Semaisi" and the energetic "21st Century Gypsy." So far, my favorite track may the love song "Retik," with traditional music underlying some nice solos, including a buoyant, fluid trumpet solo in the spirit of Samy El Bably. Salaam may not have the slickest presentation and their CD could use a little design help (track numbers!), but their music reveals solid chops, an adventurous spirit, and a joy in performing that makes for marvelous listening.

©2009 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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