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World Music CD Reviews, December 2009

Album of the Month

Seheno - KA - on Spin The Globe world music radio

Seheno: KA
LokAnga

artist website

The timing of this album's arrival shortly before Christmas was certainly a coincidence, but that makes it no less of a wonderful gift. A late but solid entry onto my list of best new music of the year, KA is a sparkling blend of Malagasy rhythms and singing with jazz, blues, Indian instruments, and more. On KA, Seheno has assembled an excellent backing group including precise and spirited percussion from Parbhu Edouard. And the recording is so crisp that one can hear and relish every nuance. If you're familiar with Malagasy music from artists such as Tarika, D'Gary, Rajery, or Jaojoby, you'll recognize some common elements: rhythms here and there, the accordion on "Teo." But I can safely say you've never heard Malagasy music quite like this. I wouldn't call it fusion in any sense, just the sound of a Madagascar-born woman who integrates the music of her tradition with that of other places she's lived and traveled, including Europe and India.

Vocally, Seheno nears the vocal presence of Angelique Kidjo or Zap Mama's Marie Daulne, with the depth of Comoran singer Nawal. It's a heady combination, right from the a capella start of the title track that leads off the album. On that song, the instrumentation builds to a full Malagasy-infused dance tune, then fades back to voices. And voice is the thing -- as great as the music is, it's Seheno's voice that makes this such a compelling album. From the lilting love song "Falyfaly" to the Indian sargam (vocal percussion language) inspired "Gaga," I'm hanging on every syllable. If this is her debut album, what's she going to sound like when she gets better?

The icing on the cake is the packaging; the round CD cover is handmade by artisans in Calcutta with "sensual and eco-friendly materials." From the music to the medium, Seheno's KA is a class act, and this album is sure to launch her to greater recognition from global music fans.

©2009 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media
(this review originally appeared at SoundRoots.org)

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

 

Forro in the Dark: Light a Candle (Nat Geo Music)
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So I'm making lists and taking names. Lists of my favorite albums of 2009, names of the bands who created the music. And one that has been simmering in the back of my mind for some time is the latest from NYC-Brazil troupe Forro in the Dark. It hasn't been at the top of Spin The Globe's playlists, but on a recent road trip with a vanload of testosterones, I popped in the headphones, tuning out the talk and tuning in the forro. And I soon found my self regretting not digging into this disc earlier.

Forro, if you haven't discovered it already, is a festive dance music from northeastern Brazil. The name may have come from English from back when dances were advertised as being "for all." Or it may be a derivative of forrobodó, meaning "great party" or "commotion". I'm not going to try to settle that argument; I will tell you that Forro in the Dark make great music, based on the distinctive rhythms and instruments of the style, including breathless flute and incessant triangle. Not so traditional is the electric guitar that provides a key element of the band's sound. Not all of the rhythms are native Brazilian; "Nonsensical" uses a reggae beat and English lyrics that say "If you don't like Bob Marley / You better stay away from me / ...Something wrong inside your brain." Okay, not deep, but it sure is fun.

The other English-language songs are amusing, and off-kilter enough that they don't sound like a "world music" band simply trying to rope in more Anglophiles. "Better than You" could be taken as a cautionary tale of the dangers of self-improvement that neglects humility improvement. And "Silence Is Golden" (featuring vocals by Sabina Sciubba of Brazilian Girls) is the tale of why sometimes, it's just best not to speak.

There's enough tradition in the mix that I found myself hearkening back to what was probably my first exposure to forro, the 1991 compilation Brazil Classics 3: Forro etc. And come to think of it, there was electric rhythm guitar on that album too. So what do I know. Let's just say that Forro in the Dark are keeping the forro dance/party sound alive, whether they're neo-traditional or not.

“All the traditional elements of forró are there. We respect the tradition,” explains guitarist and vocalist Guilherme Montiero, “but that’s just the starting point. We’re open to all styles. Forró creates the space, but our imaginations and our creativity are our only limit.” “Our instruments, our way of writing songs is very connected to those roots,” drummer/vocalist Mauro Refosco adds. “But our approach to playing and our attitude and energy comes from rock and roll. Living in New York helped us break the rules a little. We like to play loud.”

For proof of their penchant for loud, look no farther than the great retro rocker, "Perro Loco." Though perhaps the song that crystalizes the band's eclectic approach is "Lilou," which combines a classic forro flute sound with swinging electric rhythm guitar and turntable scratching. The more I listen to this album, the more I like it even better than their debut CD Bonfires of Sao Joao. And it's making a strong play for my best-of-2009 list.


Soznak: Dear Dad Tango (self-released)
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Somewhere in London there's a jungle growing in a library, and a bear consulting the card catalog as a soft mambo plays. That's one snippet from the DVD portion of a most curious CD from a group called Soznak. Actually named after a Middle-Eastern mode which brightens and elevates the sound of a piece of music, the group could easily find themselves wedged in next to African-rock outfits such as the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International and Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara. But with members from many corners of the world, including Spain, Angola, Congo, Kwa Zulu–Natal, Cameroon, Iran, Iraq, and Ireland, the group's sound is not so easy to pigeonhole. The CD's catchy opening track "Tata Y Mama" might best be described as Congolese calypso. The vocals, jazzy horn lines, and mbira in "Sugar Stick" show influences from southern Africa. Then there's the Latin funk feel of "Traffic Jambo." It's a mixed-up world, this land of Soznak, and the acid-trip artwork of the CD and the odd short films on the accompanying DVD do little help the listener's equilibrium. Yet the more I listen I'm drawn into this strange sound collision, this multicultural masala. I can't explain Soznak, but I can enjoy them. You might, too.


Cesaria Evora : Nha Sentimento (Lusafrica)
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I doubt Cesaria Evora is capable of recording an album that doesn't drip with a sense of delicious melancholy. I don't understand a bit of the Cape Verde Portuguese in which she sings, but as Evora says, "Music is just the universal language. Even if you don't understand the language ... you listen because you like the rhythm of the song." Not only are the songs on this album are up to the Barefoot Diva's own high standards, they break new ground with the inclusion of Egyptian strings and melodies on the title track and several others. It's not a jolting addition, either musically or historically, since Cape Verde lies in the trade routes from West Africa to Arabic North Africa and beyond to Europe.

In a 2006 interview Evora said "What delights me today is the happiness of having got through all the years of suffering to better enjoy the life I live now. At home we say 'it's better to drink the venom first and the honey later'. Now I'm drinking the honey." It must be particularly sweet to have recovered from the minor stroke she suffered while on tour in 2008, and this gorgeous album is a sweet dose of morabeza, the Creole word for love, friendship, and good feelings, and a welcome splash of island warmth in the midst of a cold northern winter.


Tommy T : The Prester John Sessions (Easy Star)
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You'd never guess from the music the this album comes from the man who creates the driving bass lines for gypsy punkers Gogol Bordello. Perhaps, instead, from a friend of Bill Laswell's who has spent time in both Jamaica and Ethiopia. Just as Mulatu Astatke's recent retrospective gives us the roots of Ethio-jazz, Tommy T digs into his Ethiopian roots (he was born and raised there), blends them with his experiences in Western music, and emerges with a fantastic album of Ethiopian-tinged jazz, dub, and reggae.

In an interview at Tadias.com, Tommy T (born Thomas T. Gobena) describes his new project as “an aural travelogue that rages freely through the music and culture of Ethiopia.” And he's not alone on this journey. Ethiopian singer Gigi (who you may know from her work alongside husband Laswell with Tabla Beat Science) does vocal duties on the tracks "Eden" and "The Response," both highlights of the album.

Gogol Bordello bandmates Pedro Erazo and Eugene Hutz contribute to the "Lifers" remix. And elsewhere, Ethiopian melodies emerge from the horn section and through the distinctive Ethiopian violin known as masinko. It's a delicate act of production work to keep these traditional bits balanced with all the modern elements (electric guitar, bass, drum kit, organ) and to my ear, it all works. Fans of the Ethiopiques series of reissued recordings will know already that these elements aren't actually new to Ethiopian music.

"In the 70s, funk, wah-wah pedals, and jazz had a huge impact on Ethiopian music," Tommy explains. "The Prester John Sessions will give people an idea about the musical diversity of Ethiopia, which includes influences and ideas borrowed from the sounds of the 70’s with the added bonus of up-to-date production values."

If you've enjoyed your way through the Ethiopiques series, this album will take you the next step to truly modern Ethiopian sounds, alongside Gigi and Bole 2 Harlem (a group featuring Gigi's sister Tigist). It's essential listening for the adventurous ear, and a great gateway to the wonders of Ethiopian music.

"I believe in music without boundaries," Tommy says. "Music should be inclusive, not exclusive. People who love music know the best music is created without boundaries and limitations. The Prester John Sessions take that idea to the next level."


Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: I Speak Fula (Sub Pop / Next Ambiance)
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Seems these days you can't read a 2009 top 10 list without tripping over this album. To be sure, I Speak Fula is a superb offering of West African music, centered around the bajno-like hunter's harp known as ngoni. Great percussion, great energy, and guest artists including Vieux Farka Toure, Kassy Mady Diabate, and Toumani Diabate.

The string work is intricate and masterful, and the overall sound generally more lively than Kouyate's Afro-blues-oriented 2007 debut album Segu Blue. All that said, I suspect there's extra hype for this one because it's been picked up by grunge pioneers Sub Pop on their new Next Ambiance sub-label. Perhaps Kouyate will further win me over when the group tours the USA in early 2010, but for now I'm bucking the hype and putting this on my list of great albums that almost made my 2009 top 10 list.


©2009 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

 

 



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