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Spin the Globe reviews, December 2003

World Village


Flamenco has passion, power, drama, pride. Trying to change something so pure can be fraught with danger; the attempts have yielded many mediocre albums along with a few good ones. Ojos de Brujo (Eyes of the Wizard) have managed to update the tradition convincingly, in a way I couldn't have anticipated. Using the tools of hiphop along with solid traditional singing and instrumentals, Bari is a genre-bending release that will appeal to fans of traditional flamenco (okay, except the real strict traditionalist ones) and world fusion fans alike. From the scratching on "Ventilador R-80" to the stripped-down dancehall feel of "Quien Engaña no Gana" to the rollicking pace of "Calé Barí" (featuring guest vocalist Cheikh Lo), Ojos de Brujo hauls flamenco into the 21st century. With strong female lead vocals, great arrangements, and undiluted energy, expect to see them soon at a world music festival near you.

Not unlike: Lo'Jo, Gipsy Kings, Radio Tarifa

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Self-released, correoareo.com

For a traditional music group, Correo Aereo covers a lot of ground. Playing the music of Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, and Peru, the duo of Abel Rocha and Madeleine Sosin take their inspiration from such greats as Mercedes Sosa and Soledad Bravo. Sosin contributes vocals, violin, and percussion. Rocha sings and plays harp, guitar, and percussion. Their voices blend beautifully in their common range. Joining them on their 2000 release Lo Que Me Dijo El Viento (What the Wind Told Me) are Robert Halverson (bass, guitar) and Rosie Ochoa (bass, vocals).
The CD has a subdued energy, sometimes somber sometimes festive. It opens with a pair of sad songs: the feisty Rocha original "Cuatrapeado" and the melancholy "Pena Huasteca (Huastecan Lament)." "Al Son de la Tambora (The Alcatraz)," a song from Peru, is upbeat with strong rhythm and call and vocals. Other songs tell of love, loss, and admonitions.

Reading the English lyrics available on the band's Web site, one might feel less than fully informed about the songs. Some context would be helpful along with the song translations. Is the character in "El Caimán," for example, just a womanizer, or is there a deeper meaning? "Everyone whispers about me / why to I like the pretty ones / but they won't say / that I love them all / that is the real caimán / the one that is played in Tamaulipas."

The duo is much better about putting their music into context when putting on a live performance. At a recent show at Traditions Café, Sosin explained that "El Caimán" was to be broadly interpreted. "It's also about people who resemble that animal. It could be about George Bush. Or a warning to young girls about guys who smile too much and have big teeth."

The live show featured several songs about death and dark themes, including two interpretations of the classic "La Llorona" (the Oxaca version and the "fiery wirey" version). But Sosin waves off any suggestion that it's a morbid fascination. "If you can play and dance with death, just think what you can do with life!"

Originaly from Santa Fe, the duo spent several years in Austin before settling in Seattle in 2001. Putumayo's Music of the Coffee Lands II, the movie "The Life of David Gale" and the radio news show "Democracy Now!" have all featured the songs of Correo Aereo. But any fan of Latin American music will want to feature this CD in their home stereo.

Not Unlike: Susana Baca, Mercedes Sosa

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Re-released by Guthrie Alberts,
Buy CD / Hear Samples

In the 1940s, Arthur S. and Lois Alberts drove around remote West Africa with a Jeep-powered tape recorder. "I wanted," he wrote in an August 1951 National Geographic article chronicling the trip, "to show that so-called Darkest Africa has more to offer than the tom-toms and jungle chants usually associated with it by the Western World." Now reissued by his great nephew Guthrie Alberts, these recordings from coastal cafés provides a chance to hear this unusual music, which recently was featured in the first installment of the PBS series "The Blues."

The impression of the music is Caribbean, not African. Sounding like old calypso (or a secular Joseph Spence), the first three songs depend on a simple, repetitive guitar riff with percussion by a cigarette-tin scraper and an empty whisky bottle, over which the Ibo group sings in English and local dialect.

The sound changes on the sixth track, the first of three compositions by the blind Liberian pianist Howard B. Hayes. Recorded live at the Yarngo Bar (with one of the few pianos in the city) and accompanied by the quirky backup singing of Malinda Parker, the humorous songs have a rollicking barrelhouse quality. "Chicken Is Nice" relates reasons not to marry women from certain parts of Liberia: "I don't want no wife from Sino / she might go out at night / she'll challenge me for a fight."

A highlight of the CD is Hayes' "Bush Cow Milk" - a clever song in which an uninterested woman tells a suitor to milk a bush cow ("a dangerous, ornery jungle beast" the notes point out). The suitor replies "When the sunshine above stops getting hot / ...and elephants are sleeping up in coconut trees / ... When mosquitos take flight, and swear not to bite / ...then I'll milk a bush cow for you."

The second half of the CD features songs by Monrovia's Greenwood Singers, starting with the self-explanatory song "People! Go Mind Your Business." Their songs are mostly concerned with love and romance, though social and political references are clearly embedded within them. Of particular note is the bouncy trumpet solo on "Gbanawa" -the generous liner notes tell how the musician obtained a trumpet just two weeks before from an American sailor, and taught himself to play by "concentrated listening to an American jazz disc."

This unusual African music is archived at the Library of Congress, and some has been available on a Rykodisc CD entitled The Arthur S. Alberts Collection: More Tribal, Folk, and Cafe Music of West Africa. For now, this disc is available only from Guthrie Alberts at the Web site above. Support his work to keep this music available, and tell him Spin the Globe sent you.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Riverside Records, www.riverside-records.se

Since I first heard their 1997 album First Summer, Mynta has had me hooked. With a unique Indian-jazz fusion that incorporates hiphop elements and, in the case of Teabreak, Celtic flavors, they've remixed their masala with ear-pleasing results. As always, the voice of Shankar Mahadevan often leads with South Indian vocal percussion or Qawwali-style singing. The lightning-fast fingers of Fazal Qureshi (brother of Zakir Hussain) add crisp tabla throughout. Joining them are Christian Paulin on bass and tanpura, Max Ahman on guitars and saz, Jai Jhankar on tabla and vocals, Ola Bothzen on percussion, Santiago Jiminez on violin, and Jonas Knutsson on saxes. In fifteen years together, the members of Mynta have learned to play as one, going from loud and rich to small and lean, with not a note out of place. "Teabreak" is a high-energy intro to the CD, with tight vocals and violin pairing to lead the way in a driving multi-pronged fusion. Celtic influences appear in the chords of "Jaane Kya Hua" and the fiddling on "OA's Celtic Dance" and "Small and Angry." Other songs slumber toward soft jazz, only to extricate themselves with bursts of instrumental energy. If the regular tracks weren't energetic enough, the CD includes three bonus remixes, complete with thumping club beats.

Not Unlike: Shakti, Horace X (the song "Ten Years Ago" made me think of them), Jonas Hellborg

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Self-released, www.mandragora.mus.br

The Brasilia-based duo of Jorge Brasil and Daniel Sarkis has a unique take on Brazilian music. Their energetic instrumentals are highly original, maintaining the kernel of Brazilian sound while exploring other sounds and instruments with ease. Throat-singing, sitar, dumbek, djembe and other imports sound right at home in this intriguing mix.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Outcaste Records, www.oi-va-voi.com

Oi Va Voi first caught my eye as nominees for a BBC world music award. I gathered that they were another band taking their Jewish heritage and retooling the sound to the 21st Century. Now that I've finally got a copy of their first CD, I'm delighted to report that the sound is nothing like that. Sort of. Though all six members have Jewish roots, the sound is that of a confident group of musicians in a worldly city making sense of culture, sound, past, future. Most familiar to Spin the Globe fans will be Sophie Solomon, the violinist who collaborated with Socalled on the recent hiphop Jewish wedding album Hiphopkhasene.

The first two tracks on the Laughter through Tears feature Scottish singer KT Tunstall, sounding very much like an early Gwen Stefani. These may be their best hope for pop stardom, with their easy-access English lyrics (altough "Refugee" is based on a traditional Armenian song). Then the band digs deeper with "Od Yeshoma," Steve Levi's Hebrew vocals and clarinet taking the lead over cascading electric bass and soft electronic loops. The languages, singers, and instrumentations vary through the rest of the album. In the notes, Solomon acknowledges the influence of "Armenian, Serbian Gypsy, Crimean, Tatar, Hungarian, Klezmer, Sephardic, and Yemenite Jewish music."

The song "Gypsy" is perhaps one of the most enjoyable on the CD, with a "Balkan dancehall" beat, dancing sax solos, and guest vocalist Earl Zinger toasting over it all in his gravelly voice: "There's a room at the top of the heart of the ghetto / Where the gypsy's been and gone..."

The final track, "Pagamenska," is a slow rambling piece with harp and fiddle trading off with Majer Bogdanski speaking about the part of music in Jewish culture. Then there's a hidden five-minute track at the end, an instrumental pop-dance piece. None of this, by the way, will remind you of klezmer. And some say that the CD does not capture the extraordinary energy of Oi Va Voi's live show. But the album may tell you a lot about the direction of Jewish music in the new millennium.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Boudisque Recording, www.boudisque.com

Spare and haunting, the music of Ali Bahia El Idrisi's native Morocco comes shining through on this tasty CD, along with much more. His arrangements incorporate traditional instruments like oud, ney, darbouka and shakers right alongside fretless bass and and sampled loops. The effect is rhythmic, haunting, and engaging, with passionate vocals. "Gelfou Alfou Hadami" gets its groove from bass and organ, sounding like chillout Rai or the Nubian groovitude of Ali Hassan Kuban. The title track is similarly chillin' - but by the time you reach "Dodovoiz" the electronica is turned up a notch for an enjoyable though far less organic result, one that sounds like jazzy ethnolounge as much as North African music. "Red Planet" is an alien soundscape of heavy beat and minor-key organ, sounding like a slow, foreign power-rock ballad. The CD includes clear artist credits, including the deft work of Michel Banabil on sampler and many other tools, but sadly no song notes or translations. A great, exploratory album by an artist worth watching.

Not Unlike: Ali Hassan Kuban, Natacha Atlas

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Blue Flame, www.blueflame.com or www.almsforshanti.com

To listen to them, you'd never guess Alms for Shanti are based in New Jersey. Not with multiple guesses. Certainly not when I told you that band founders Uday Benegal and Jayesh Gandhi previously spent 14 years as the singer and guitar player for India's most successful rock band, Indus Creed. Their current geography may be curious, but their sound builds on their background with a compelling blend that apparently wasn't marketable in the US. It took the German label Blue Flame to sign the band, then get a CD to me on the west coast of the US. Strange route, but interesting and unique music. The CD opens with the title track, light bells and very Indian sounding strings, then vocals. Crisp drumming and loops propel their tracks along, but not at the expense of the sounds that root this as Indian music. "Superbol" is an energetic interplay of vocal percussion and drum kit. M
ore vocal percussion on "Nag Chum" though this time with tabla and sounding more like acid jazz ala Bombay. Much of the rest of the CD is slower, including the ballad "Jiya Jaaye," the crooning piece "Jawaab Do" and a couple nice instrumentals and remixes of the two vocal percussion pieces. The whole Indian rock thing is new to me, and while trying to wrap my mind around it I'm still lacking adequate descriptions. So just go to their Web site and listen. They apparently have a CD with English lyrics to the same songs as the Hindi ones on my CD; take your pick. For the musically curious, interesting treasures await.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Traditional Crossroads, www.traditionalcrossroads.com

What...you never made the obvious connection between klezmer and bluegrass? Formed in 2001, this group has played at a number of high-profile venues including the White House and Carnagie Hall; now there's a recording for the rest of us.
The CD begins with "Cluck Ol' Hen & Kolomeyke," showing off the common instrumental language of of the two forms. When Leverett enters the song and squeezes clarinet over the bluegrass base, you start to see the boundaries dissolve, then the pace quickens for the second section and the balance shifts toward klezmer. The blending, blurring, and recognition continues throughout the CD on the medleys like "Lonesome Fiddle Blues & Sid's Bulgars" and on stand-alone pieces like "Sea of Reeds." These great musicians clearly love playing soulful music...whether its old country or hill country. Guests include Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars, Michael Alpert, Zalmen Mlotek, and Ruslan Agababayev.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Pirnima Productions, davidmichaelharp.com

Port-Townsend-based David Michael and Randy Mead have been musical collaborators since the 1980s. Their sixth duo album, Magic Carpet is a smooth instrumental ride through a lush landscape of strings and flutes. The two multi-instrumentalists are joined by Joe Breskin (guitars and bass) and Marco Zonka (percussion) in making they call "cinematic world fusion music." Much of it does sound like a film score, music that would accompany big-screen images of, perhaps, nature scenes. The song names support this image: "Purple Mountains," "Dark Waters," "Aerial Crossings." The New Age flavor of this CD may not appeal to those seeking more fire or tradition in their music, but Michael and Mead have found a formula for atmospheric instrumentals that clearly works for them.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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