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Spin the Globe reviews, February 2004

ABYSSINIA INFINITE FEATURING EJIGAYEJU "GIGI" SHIBABAW: ZION ROOTS
Network

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Abyssinia Infinite's "Zion Roots" is really the second CD from two longstanding collaborators: Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw and Bill Laswell. Gigi, a singer from Ethiopia, released her self-titled CD in 2001. Laswell produced that CD and contributed bass lines, and the two also worked together in Tabla Beat Science."Zion Roots" continues the deserving emphasis on Gigi's powerful vocals, in songs that lean clearly toward tradition. Modern touches bubble just beneath the surface, but co-producers Shibabaw and Laswell deftly avoid the trap of over-producing. Instead they collected a multicultural backing group including accordion and guitar player Tony Cedras (South Africa) and percussionists Aiyb Dieng (Senegal) and Karsh Kale (US-India). From the opening "Bati Bati," a traditional love song, to the funky energy of "Lebaye," the music is tight, balanced, and well arranged. Liner notes include some song and lyric details, though Gigi is tight-lipped about some details. ("'Gela' means 'body,' but I probably shouldn't say any more than that!") But detailed lyrics aren't necessary to enjoy this CD; it's got grooves that cross boundaries, and vocals that speak across ages.

Not Unlike: Aster Aweke, Susheela Raman, Sheila Chandra

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

GIANMARIA TESTA: ALTRE LATITUDINI
Le Chant Du Monde

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It begins with breathing, a rhythm barely articulated that grows into "I prefer it like that," a song about moments "without too much noise / as when one is alone / in a doorway waiting for the rain to stop." His low voice dripping with romance, longing, and maybe just a little joy, Gianmaria Testa enchants on this CD. The minimal arrangements - guitar with some accordion here, some whimsical horns there - leave his whisper-singing to work its magic on your heart. English translations are provided, but unnecessary to convey the weight of emotion and experience Testa brings to his music. Not just for Italians or world music lovers, this is a smoky Italian nightclub for your ears.

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

VARIOUS: ABAYUDAYA-MUSIC FROM THE JEWISH PEOPLE OF UGANDA
Smithsonian Folkways

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Abayudaya refers to the 600 or so practicing Jews living near Mbale in eastern Uganda. The story of this community, told in fascinating detail in the liner notes, is as interesting as the music itself. Opening this varied collection of high-quality field recordings is a choral call-and-response version of Psalm 136 in the Luganda language. Then "Katonda Oyo Nalmana (God Is All-Knowing)" brings high-energy drumming and chanting. Several short tracks are a capella lullabies, with insect noises adding context to the soft voices of the women singers. Most of the songs are sung in Luganda or Lusoga, with some forays into English and Hebrew, as on "Twagala Torah (We Love the Torah)" and the children's song "We Are Soldiers." The emphasis throughout the CD is on vocals, in part because the voice is the only instrument permitted on the Sabbath. But other days of the week, the Abayudaya use traditional drums and strings, even electric guitar and keyboards, as on the bouncy rendition of Psalm 150 and the song "We Are Happy." This delightful and unusual slice of African spiritual music is perhaps best summed up in the words of a community leader: "Why did God place some Jews in Uganda and some in America? I think the purpose was to make it a colorful world."

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

RAVI: THE AFRO BRAZILIAN PROJECT-TRAVELS WITH THE AFRICAN KORA IN BRAZIL
ARC

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His label calls this "world chill-out" music. While I'm not sure what that is exactly, I can tell you that this CD is more Brazilian than Afro, the latter influence being provided almost exclusively by Ravi's kora (21-stringed West African harp). Ravi is a British multi-instrumentalist whose previously releases include "The Afro-Indian Project" and several kora-centric albums. For this CD, Ravi spent six months in Brazil. The resulting music ranges from the upbeat "21-String Samba" to the thumping dance-funk of "Driving to Buzios" to the sparse atmospheric sections of "Amazon Journey." The latter, a four-part song that has Ravi playing Tibetan singing bowl, thumping his chest, and throat singing, plunks you right into the rainforest, evoking a far different feel than the urban music dominating the CD. If you like your kora playing traditional, look elsewhere. If you're interested in slickly produced, accessible Brazilian music with kora highlights, here's the disc for you.

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

ROMANO DROM: ANDE LINDRI
Daqui

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If you haven't dipped into the new wave of Rom (Gypsy) music emerging from Eastern Europe, this CD is a good place to start. The sophomore effort from Budapest-based Romano Drom finds the group with energy to burn, starting with some tight harmonica and flamenco guitar work on the opening track "Dema Mamo." The emotionally gritty vocals dominate, of course, along with fast, percussive rhythms ("Xanamiko," "O Milaj") or slow, tension-filled drinking songs and laments ("Mishtoj mange" "Ande Lindri").

Not Unlike: Tekameli, Aco Bocina, Gipsy Kings

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

DALLAM-DOUGOU: NEW DESTINY
Jumbie Records

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"The number of African-Hungarian jazz bands in Brooklyn," Raul Rothblatt replies to my question, "is the same as the global number...and that number is one." Dallam-Dougou, its members smushed into proximity in the bustle of New York, makes modern music out of traditional pieces. The 11 artists on the CD include Rothblatt on cello and bass, Andy Algire on balafon, Sylvain Leroux on flutes, and Kalman Magyar on fiddle and viola. A combination of Hungarian and West African terms, the band's name means something like "land of melody." This land includes Romanian/Gypsy tunes with balafon melodies ("Mahala Á La Mandingo" and "Balushari"), Bach cello suites with Fulani flute ("Prelude"), and other uncategorizable delights.

Six of the eight songs are instrumentals, many with an emphasis on Rothblatt's cello, including the subdued, jazzy "Union Square" where he pairs with Avram Fefer's clarinet in remembering the human solidarity in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The tribute song "New Destiny" features powerful singing by Abdoulaye "Djoss" Diabate. And the bouncy "On My Way (Oy Yoy Yoy)," based on a traditional Moroccan song, features harmony by Mai Lingani and Abou Sylla.

The liner notes include a fascinating description of the Sosso Bala, the "first balafon," which dates back to the 1300s and is under the care of the Kouyate family today. Jumbie is donating a portion of concert and CD revenues for preservation of this priceless piece of musical and cultural history. (For more information on the Sosso Bala, email Balla Kouyate at BallaKouyate[at]yahoo.com.)

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

VRANISHT: KENGE POLIFONIKE LABE
Daqui

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Heard any good Albanian music recently? Wondering what Albanian music actually sounds like? Here's a great place to start. The otherworldly polyphonic singing of the six men of Vranisht takes a capella harmony in unique directions. The pulsing voice adding rhythm under the melody adds a peculiar energy to the songs, as other voices add drones and harmony. The resulting songs have the enthralling quality of Gregorian chants, though these last less than three minutes and are concerned not with spiritual matters but with love and food, slavery and suffering. Many of the songs tell of the suffering under the rule of occupying forces: Ottoman Turks, Italians, Germans. The CD notes claim that the six singers are working men, occupied as a hotel owner, a shepherd, a builder, a baker, a farm technician, a school principal, and a restaurateur. But on this live recording, they're singers of life, pure and simple.

Not Unlike: The Bulgarian Voices

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

MARIA BETHANIA: MARIA
Kardum

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This reissue of a 1988 CD opens with "A Terra Tremeu / Ofá," featuring the vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, showing Maria Bethania's efforts to put her own spin on Brazilian music. The sister of famed composer Caetano Veloso (a half-dozen of whose songs she included on this album), Bethania has had an illustrious career as a singer, since her debut in 1963 at age 16. Many songs on this subdued album clearly show her show-tune background, while others veer in different directions, like the torchy piano-bar "Poema Dos Olhos Da Amada." The percussive samba "Eu E Água" is the most energetic song on a CD some world music fans may find veering too much toward soft-rock/soft jazz. Includes four bonus tracks not on the 1998 release.

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

IVICA MIT & MORAVA RIVER BAND: IVICA MIT & MORAVA RIVER BAND
Production MIT - Ivana Cankara 7, 11080 Belgrade, Serbia & Montenegro, email: egajicb@eunet.yu

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Straight outta Serbia & Montenegro! This high-energy combo gives their instruments a serious workout on their self-titled CD, on which traditional arrangements share space with some interesting experiments. "Dve Devojke" combines a hiphop beat with women's vocals and an incessant sax line. The trilling lead clarinet on "Gajdarsko" soars over what sounds like programmed drums and electronic bagpipe. With no liner notes, one is left to guess at the instrumentation and song content. The programmed drums get downright cheesy and distracting on "Mitska Sedmorka," but this is an exception that is forgotten as the following track "Vlajna" kicks into high gear with sax and accordion trading the manic lead melody as the pace accelerates. Though not all the experiments work, some show possible directions for expansion of this furious music. (Not distributed in the USA; contact label to buy CD).

Not Unlike: Ivo Papasov, King Naat Vekiov, Boban Markovic Orkestar, Fanfare Ciocarlia

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

VARIOUS ARTISTS: SUFI
ARC

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Yet another compilation of Sufi music? Well, yes. You may be familiar with the ecstatic music of Sufi Islam through its most popular singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He's represented on this CD with the track "Main To Piya Se naina Lagaa Aayi re," an 11-minute display of his passion and vocal agility. The real delight on this disc, though, is the variety of approaches to the tradition. In just nine tracks (Sufi songs tend to be long), we hear three very different female vocal styles: the emotional but controlled Abida Parveen, the reedy voice of Husna Naz (matching the sharp fiddling of the Sindh Music Ensemble), and the near-operatic tones of Zohreh Jooya. The other six tracks burst with subtle variety as well, including the very contemporary "Yaad" by Shafqat Ali Khan, complete with saxophone solo, bass, and keyboards. This may not excite the palate of Sufi aficionados, but its variety provides a good introduction to the tradition, and a few of its practitioners from Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Syria.

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

THE UKRANIANS: ISTORIYA-THE BEST OF THE UKRANIANS
Omnium

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If you like your world music with a Slavic punk sensibility, where else would you turn? The Ukranians have been churning out energetic tunes since their debut in 1991, and this CD collects some of the highlights of their half-dozen releases. Actually a group of British musicians, the Ukranians have been embraced in Eastern Europe, touring Ukraine as guests of the Ministry of Culture, and storming Poland in 2003. Multimedia materials from the latter tour are included as a bonus on this CD. But the music is the thing, and the selections here hit the right notes. From the folkish "Oi Divchino (My Sweet Girl)" to the incessant, driving drums and fiddles of "Smert' (Death)", the band keeps the energy high throughout. Covers of The Smiths' "The Queen Is Dead" (Koroleva Ne Pomerla"), The Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK ("Anarkhiya"), and The Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" (Chekannya) are included in the mix. And starting the CD is a previously unreleased cover of The Tornados' 1962 hit "Telstar."

Not Unlike: Kultur Shock, 3 Mustaphas 3, Limpopo

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

STUDIO PAGOL: SERENDIPITY
Le Maquis / Naive

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Just because it was inevitable doesn't mean it isn't fun. The updating of traditional Indian music continues, this time with music from Bengal getting the treatment. The electronics are cranked up on Serendipity, with heavy dance beats and synthesized effects throughout. The ethnic vibe is lost on a couple tracks when the electronics become too thick, but overall the masala of modern and traditional spins an engaging magic, grounded by the strong, varied vocals. The title track includes hard-edged guitar and a rock sensibility atop Bengali roots. The soaring vocals of Madiha Feguigui on "Caravane" evokes images of nomadic traders and musicians. Guest artists include Moroccan singer Shamal'hia and Bengali multi-instrumentalist John Liton Baroi. And CD includes two rather unusual covers of The Beatles "Tomorrow Never Knows," though they aren't the strongest tracks.

Not Unlike: Zohar, Tabla Beat Science

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

VARIOUS: SOUNDS OF THE FAR EAST
ARC

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Geographically based musical compilations can be problematic. If the "Far East" includes Mongolia, why not Tuva and eastern Russia? What this CD really amounts to is primarily a survey of traditional string instrumental music from China (pipa), Japan (koto), Mongolia (horsehead violin), Taiwan (various two-stringed fiddles), and Korea (komun'go zither). Exceptions to the string rule include thundering percussion on the wild drum and gong song "Chang'gu Dance" from Korea, and the Japanese taiko piece "Otoko-koko-ni Arika." There's also Richard Stagg's shakuhachi flute solo "Gekko roteki," and the concluding track from Festa Filipina: "Malong-taghing baila," a refreshing taste of the rhythmic Filipino version of gamelon music. But don't get this one if you don't enjoy the fiddling and plucking of all manner of strings. A lot of the "Far East" is omitted (like singing!), but the included music is well-recorded and enjoyable, and the generous tri-lingual track notes provide useful context.

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

VARIOUS: HAVANA & MATANZAS, CUBA, CA. 1957-BATA, BEMBE, AND PALO SONGS
Smithsonian Folkways

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The third CD from the historic recordings of Lydia Cabrera and Josefina Tarafa, this disc is a snapshot of sacred music of Cuba just prior to the 1959 revolution. The rich liner notes include details of the songs, as well as the stories of the women who recorded it. Ironies abound, not least that the women used as their base the sugar-plantation home of Tarafa's family, one of the forces perpetuating the harsh conditions faced by the descendants of slaves, the very people whose music they recorded. The songs on this CD (originally released on the 14-LP set Music of the African Cults in Cuba) include tributes to the Orishas from different African traditions: Yoruba, Dahomean, and Kongo-Angolan. Centered on sacred chants, the songs sometimes also include drums, shakers, and other percussion instruments. The audio sounds somewhat compressed - not surprising for music captured 50 years ago on a portable tape recorder. But the soul of these Cuban workers, and the heart of other styles of Cuban music, is still clearly audible.

©2004 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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