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World Music CD Reviews, February 2010

Album of the Month

Mulatu Steps Ahead - CD cover

Souljazz Orchestra: Rising Sun

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I have to admit a dismissive attitude toward this album when it arrived in my mailbox. I expected perhaps some faux-retro 1970s soul tracks, perhaps with a James Brown cover tossed in for good measure. I mean, these guys are from Ottawa, for heaven's sake, not a particular hub of funkiness in my experience. But I popped it in, and the lethargic horns of the 3-minute opening track "Awakening" did little to shift my position. But then, oh then my friends, then the fun starts.

"Agbara" kicks in with a percussive shout and a blast of Afrobeat-style horns. And suddenly the album has my interest, particularly with the unusual contribution of marimbas in the heavy mix. Sweet! The third track takes another turn, starting as a heavy dirge before whipping into a killer version of Ethiopian jazz (inspired by Strut label-mate Mulatu Astatke, who I'm told has a new album coming soon). Again the marimbas play a key role, giving the song an otherworldly Ethio-gamelan feel. A few of the tracks -- "Lotus Flower," "Serenity," "Consecration" --are more what I was expecting from the orchestra's name -- particularly the "jazz" part. But the African influence re-emerges on "Mamaya," which the band says is based on traditional rhythms from Guinea. For my money, the three Afro tracks are worth the price of admission, and the quieter songs give a nice breather from their frenetic energy.

I was curious enough about the band to track down their previous album Manifesto and found that it's even more heavily Afro-centric. The band tours during 2010, and I'm guessing they put on one killer show, so keep an eye out on your local venues.

©2010 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Jerry Leake : Cubist (Rhombus)
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As a sometimes-percussionist myself, I have a soft spot for pure rhythm CDs when well executed. Jerry Leake's Cubist took a couple of listens to grab me, you know...wading through the distracting melodic stuff and chanting and all. But grab me it does. While it's as much a jazz-fusion album as one focused on global rhythms, the creative orchestration of a broad array of instruments and beats makes for fascinating listening. Is "Plan 9" an alien invasion of Morocco? Maybe. "Caldera" runs through several Latin folk and jazz motifs, "Chrysalis" and other tracks feature tabla and other Indian flavors, and Africa comes through on "Smoke" and several other tracks. For reasons I can't clearly articulate, however, I find one of the most compelling tracks to be the counting song "Geo" -- which sounds like a mashup of the Futurama theme, Balinese kecak, and an instructive Sesame Street tune. Leake and his collaborators push the concept of world percussion and they push the listener into challenging and rewarding new musical realms.

The Worm : Writhing & Wriggling (Wormfood)
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Guilty pleasure admission: I've recently been listening to British pop music. Don't worry, SoundRoots isn't about to go all mainstream culture on you. In fact, this pop music does have discernible global roots, so it's not entirely off our usual track. Ironically for a band called The Worm, this group has a firm pop backbone that's often mixed with west African rhythms and instruments. But it's not African music, more like a three-way car crash involving a London pop-reggae band, M.I.A., at least one John from They Might Be Giants, and a kora player who was innocently trying to cross the street. The kora player in question is one Surahata Susso, who contributes some lovely riffs to "The Race," perhaps the most charming song about conception I've ever heard. The three core members of this London-based quartet (I know, but somehow this odd math makes sense with these guys...) are Max Baillie, Andre Marmot and Nicci Simpson. The whole 7-song EP exudes a buoyant innocence that belies The Worm's growing reputation as a festival/party band. Billed as "Afro-reggae-garage," The Worm might be better described as grown-up-kids music you can dance to. And you will.

Ocote Soul Sounds: Coconut Rock (Eighteenth Street Lounge)
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Just west of Olympia, capitol city of Washington State, there's a small saltwater inlet that's scenic at high tide, and fragrant at low tide. In this near mythical setting lies the Mud Bay Tiki Lounge, at which a strange crowd gathers, including government workers, hippie students, semi-employed loggers, the idle rich, and some unique bands. And if this album is any indication of their live sound, Ocote Soul Sounds should get a regular gig at the Tiki Lounge. Led by Martin Perna of Antibalas and Adrian Quesada of Grupo Fantasma, the group's sound is downtempo dubby Latin grooves with a side order of funk. While Ocote has a more relaxed approach to activism (with the exception of the biting anti-gentrification song "Vampires"), their chilled out sound will put you in the mind to make peace with your neighbors. And maybe you'll even dance with your social opposite to Ocote Soul Sounds at the Tiki Lounge next weekend. Stranger things have happened there.

Mulatu Astatke : Mulatu Steps Ahead (Strut)
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Seemingly right on the heels of his retrospective album New York, London, Addis, Ethiopian jazz great Mulatu Astatke (a.k.a. The Father of Ethio Jazz) shows that he's not standing still with nine tracks ranging from the mellow introspective jazz of "Radcliffe" to the Ethio-Latin sizzler "Boogaloo" (which yes, has hints of the Batman TV theme). The emphasis for much of the album is more on the jazz than the Ethio, with hints of the African coming via a solo here, a chord change there -- and the casual listener might not even mark those tracks as particularly exotic. Only on "I Faram Gami I Faram " and "Mulatu's Mood" are the ethnic roots forefront, and perhaps not surprisingly those are my favorite tracks along with the simmering kora-horn-piano-vibes "Motherland."

“I desired to ingest West individual styles within this edition and essay newborn structure of using the bonny good of the kora,” explains Mulatu in his own curious vocabulary.

The digital album includes the bonus song "Derashe" which sounds like a free-jazz rehearsal but in fact highlights the tralatitious diminishing scales of the Derashe grouping of Southern Ethiopia which were integrated into compositions by the likes of Debussy and Charlie Parker.

Though Mulatu is taking a step more toward jazz with this release, there's plenty of appeal for the fan of Ethiopian roots. And his clever integration of styles makes the music work even as your brain is going "huh??"

Lean a bit more about the history of Ethio jazz in this video -- including how Ethiopia's Emperor traveled to Europe in the 1960s and invited some Armenian musicians to teach European instruments to Ethiopian musicians.


©2010 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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