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World Music CD Reviews, December 2004


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Don't get me wrong - I love Putumayo, and I love Te Vaka. But a CD on which four of the eleven tracks are from the New Zealand-based pan-Polynesian group makes it something less than a regional survey, and more like "Te Vaka & Friends." With a track as well from Maori singiner Whirimako Black, Aotearoa (the early Polynesian term for New Zealand, meaning "Land of the Long White Cloud) is well represented, as are Papua New Guinea (Telek and O-Shen) and New Caledonia (OK! Ryos and Gurejele). That covers ten tracks; the other is from Matato'a of Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island). So nothing from the many dozens of other South Pacific islands and island groups, including Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Tuvalu, Guam... And as someone who loves new discoveries, I'm disappointed that I'm already familiar with most of these artists.

Musicially, the CD has the accessible, upbeat style you've come to expect from a Putumayo compilation. Neither traditional folk nor cheezy tourist stuff, the songs emphasize vocal harmonies, rhythms (yes, a few log drums), and mostly acoustic instruments. The simplest track is Telek's "Abebe" - just a guitar and voices singing about butterflies that represent ancestors. On the other end of this somewhat narrow spectrum is Gurejele's "Watolea," a bouncy soft-soca condemnation of French colonialsm. You'll learn a few things about the groups, their songs, and South Pacific culture from the tri-lingual album notes. You even get a recipe for "Chicken in Coconut Cream" with this pleasant if unadventurous album.

For a broader perspective on South Pacific culture, you might want to attend the conference Culture Moves! Dance in Oceania from hiva to hiphop 9-12 November 2005.

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media


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So you love Celtic folk-punk? Well, my friend, turn your gaze eastward and behold the raucus wonders of Revelling Crooks. Based in Germany but emphasizing Gypsy, Jewish, Irish, and "Italian spaghetti western" music, RC indeeds runs the gamut from heavenly to possessed. The CD opens with a "The Goose," a fast Gypsy ode to the pure happiness of life (and dancing women). The notes (in German and English) are both educational and enigmatic. The English-language "Winter Days/Hora," for example, is "a melancholy digression from the cold winter months, where one is sometimes prone to depression, the best thing to do is to have oneself buried, and after a long hibernation, to awaken in the summer again." Full of surprises and odd changes, Revelling Crooks are like Boiled in Lead meets the Red Elvises. They even manage to work in some Bertold Brecht ("The Countess"), a Shakespeare sonnet ("Seventy Six"), and a cover of the Jean Richie song "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore." This whole mad, wonderful adventure is perhaps best summed up by the band's description of the CD's title track: "An evening in a bar can end terribly, especially when you awake in the morning on a train track in the arms of a beautiful angel. A song about dragons on the streets, fish'n chips in the water and blissfully drunken ghosts, who stand at your side on such nights." Revel!

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media


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Janubia isn't the first vocalist to abandon language in favor of sound. A few years ago, Ekova made a spash with their own fake language paired with worldly grooves. Janubia takes a different approach with her more soulful voice, Alex de Rafols' flamenco-pop guitar riffs, and Andrew Mills' unobtrusive percussion. The result is far less otherwordly than Evoka, and accessible enough that you can imagine hearing it on adult contemporary radio. Except that they don't play non-English stuff, do they? Unfortunately, Janubia's web site oozes a deep and abiding hatred of Macs, so additional information on her is inaccessible (attention webolution9, we have a problem...). Or maybe that's part of her plan, along with the lack of liner notes, to make listeners focus on the music. Janubia (the Spin the Globe investigative team did discover that she's actually Nebraska native Robin Banks) possesses a precise and engaging voice, but overall I find myself unmoved by the songs. Unable to connect them to any cultural or linguistic roots, you may, like me, wonder if it wouldn't have been easier and more satisfying to write lyrics in a real language.

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media


Other recent arrivals of note:

Anja Music
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A celebrated figure in the yoga community known for his intoxicating chant sessions, Dave Stringer has been chanting since the early 90's and has performanced all over the country. JAPA (a Sanskrit term that refers to the repetition of mantras) was recorded in a series of live studio sessions and features five elongated call-and-response style kirtans. The music is a mix of Eastern and Western instruments, including harmonium, guitar, sarod, saxophone violin, percussion and other sounds. Stringer's voice is rich and expressive, making a nice counterpoint to his backing ensemble, which includes vocalists Toni Childs, Seane Corn and Donna De Lory as well as Girish on percussion, Domonic Dean Breaux on flute, and many others. A fusion of different sounds and cultural elements, this divine mindtrip is one you won't want to miss. (mas-india.com)

World Village / Lusafrica

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Libertad again pays homage to her Afro-Peruvian roots, but the arrangements for the album are more delicate and less dance oriented than previous projects devoted to this repertoire. Libertad is at her most compelling on thoughtful and contemplative tracks like "Dos gardenias," where her voice floats angelically above a sparse piano accompaniment. Not limiting herself to music of her homeland, Libertad also includes a powerful rendition of Brazilian composer Chico Buarque's "Funeral of a Farm Worker." Libertad’s shimmering voice rules this recording - clear, intense and always beautiful. (label)

Six Degrees

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Selwa is a heartbreakingly stunning record, credited equally to Tibbetts' knowing fingertips. The light guitar flushes and electronic solitude woven into Drolma's voice is bafflingly mythical. The album sounds of no place or time, and that's not to call it "transcendent." No, their work roots one deeply before uplifting occurs; like the coiled kundalini of the yogi, it begins at the base and slowly unfurls before exploding through Shiva's eye. "Song of Realization" is a nine-minute meditation sparsely decorated with acoustic guitar and light percussion; the gorgeous "Palden Rangjung" (quoted earlier) followed by "Vakritunda" prove technology's well-earned place within sacred music, as the soft digitialism induces the same transparencies as Drolma's poetry. If two worlds have ever met without cliché, Selwa is the language they will speak. (ethnotechno.com)


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Over a thirty-year career, multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus has created his own world, one based on a life of constant study of diverse culture, religion, musical instruments and form. Each of the sixteen albums he has recorded to date has incorporated newly acquired instruments from places as far abroad as Armenia, Bali and Tibet. Micus records his albums alone, painstakingly building layer upon layer of instrument and voice, ultimately creating a music that is as spiritual as his sources. But with his latest release, Life, he has produced a recording that transcends past endeavours, going straight for the essence on a 53-minute, ten-part suite that is based on Micus' favourite Koan, a Zen Buddhist riddle meant to identify the limits of the intellect and stimulate a more perceptive approach. This album of gentle beauty, subtle drama and occasional confrontation is less about merely listening and more about broader perception. (allaboutjazz.com)


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