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Spin the Globe reviews, July 2003
VUSI MAHLASELA
THE VOICE
ATO Records
www.atorecords.com www.vusimahlasela.com
If you name your CD The Voice, you'd better have the pipes to back it up. Vusi Mahlasela does. From the first listen, chills ran down my spine as I drank in his pure voice, singing in English and various African tongues. The arrangements and singing are more melodic than rhythmic, reminiscent of Cameroonian Richard Bona. But there's no mistaking the funky township jive roots of "Red Song" and "Ntate Mahlasela." Even singing a cappella on the intro to "When You Come Back" he has a distinctly South African sound (though an eavesdropper in the Spin the Globe review center says he sounds at times like an Irish tenor).

From the gospel feel of "Weeping" to the bouncy, trombone-and-organ-enhanced "Loneliness," this CD is a smoothly arranged vehicle for Mahlasela's extraordinary singing. The Voice is Mahlasela's first US release, though he's been recording music since 1991 and appears on the soundtracks from the films Amandla and Mandela as well as on Dave Matthews' "Everyday." During the first listening, this CD reminded me of Paul Simon's Graceland. Now, however, I just hear the voice of truth, singing songs that cut to the heart.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens

 

YALE STROM WITH HOT PSTROMI & KLAZZJ
CAFE JEW ZOO

76026-2 Naxos World, 416 Mary Lindsay Polk Drive, Suite 509, Franklin TN 37067
www.naxosworld.com

In 1981 at the age of 24, Yale Strom bought a one-way ticket to Eastern Europe and wandered the land searching for Jewish song. His curiousity has continued unabated since, and he's traveled, written books, directed movies, and made music aimed at sharing and strengthening Jewish culture. His latest CD reflects his wide knowledge of Jewish music, presented as different "species" or aspects of Jewish culture in the Café Jew Zoo. Strom laments the decreasing Jewish population even as Jewish culture and music are achieving more popularity. Often, he explains in the generous track notes, he feels like he's on display, an example of a nearly extinct species. He may be right, though I've been impressed recently with the number and variety of new Jewish/Yiddish CDs available, from the likes of Les Yeux Noirs (France), Fortuna (Brazil), the Klezmatics, and David Krakauer, among others.

From the darkly rhythmic Romanian "The Bonesetter's Last Dance" to the violin-clarinet duet "Stoliner Skotshne #1" to the funk-pop "Ten Plagues," Strom and the two bands he formed present a wide variety of music, infused with fine musicianship and bittersweet emotion. Whether you're a newcomer to the world of Jewish music or a frequent visitor, this zoo has plenty of entertaining attractions.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens

 

SOLOMON & SOCALLED
HIPHOPKHASENE

Piranha Musik
www.piranha.de

Not a lot of wedding soundtracks bear repeated listening. This is an exception. In blending traditional Jewish wedding music, historic-sounding audio samples, and hiphop beats, it treads an ambitious - and fine - line between campy and brilliant. Me, I lean toward the latter interpretation. DJ Socalled (who has also released a hiphop Seder CD) and fiddler Sophie Solomon (founding member of English klezmer-fusion band Oi-Va-Voi) have created a very listenable album that used the new to celebrate the old. To be sure, the questioning of the musical tradition carries with it other questions. In "(Alt. Shul) Kale Bazetsn" Socalled raps "Folks are sentimental and they'll always need their rituals / Plus as a concept it's dated, ketubah outmoded and faded / ... But yo, your arents woulda been so proud, so scream your damn vows out loud." High-profile musical guests David Krakauer, Frank London, and Michael Alpert add fiddles, horns, and vocals to several tracks. In structure, the 15-track CD varies between fairly straight musical numbers such as "Dobriden," "Zay Gezunt," and "Electro Taxim" and beat-heavy mixes including "Freylekhs Far De Kale" and "7 Blessings." Then there's the downright goofy side, like "Freylekhs Fun Der Khupe: Pelt Me With Rice," with its playful, bouncy horns, cartoony vocal samples and the indescribable "Hiphopkele." Hiphopkhasene is a vow-sealer unlike anything you've heard before.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens

GHANDAIA
UNO

Xochipilli Entertainment
www.ghandaia.com

 

Right off the bat I liked this band for their CD cover. Band name in small letters, CD title UNO in big bold letters (implying "it's our first CD, and we're not afraid to say so!"), and a little elephant in between. Um, but there aren't really any elephants in Latin America, right? I mean, not in the wild? Still, except for my friend Jim, who really has been chased by elephants, I don't know anyone who doesn't find these pachyderms charming in their immensity. The elephant seems to be the symbol of this nine-piece Austin-based band, whose name means "celebration" in Portuguese. Maybe they're just dreaming large, but this fine CD justifies that. It's a collection of samba, Afro-Cuban, funk, and reggae that stays tight without being uptight, with an underlying message of global unity and "levity of soul." From the reggae/ska/funk title track to the psychadelic guitar-rock of "Nos Eixos," these guys play with confidence and vision. You won't even snooze off during the soothing Brazilian songs "A Cor Do Som" and "Las Olas," though the latter begins with the softest batucada drumming I've ever heard. And the Brazilian thing gets downright funky in the curiously named "Dharma," which seems to be a Spanish-language ode to Krishna accompanied by bubbly bass effects and rockin' guitar solos. My Spanish isn't good enough to follow all the lyrics, but anyone can follow this groove. Ride this elephant, my friends.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens

RADIO MUNDIAL
LA RAIZ

Palm Pictures
www.palmpictures.com www.radiomundialband.com

 

Popping the CD in, you're met with a traditional cuatro line. Before you know it, a truly funky bass line has crept in, and your hips are moving. New York-based Radio Mundial (World Radio) does Latin music with traditional roots and contemporary urban branches, including funk and reggae. The opening title track sizzles with energy, followed by the deeply funky "Cuarto Sin Ventanas" and its sinuous groove and tight conga work. The bilingual "Hold On" starts as reggae/dub, only to transmogrify into a kicking ska piece. The soulful, jazzy arrangement of "Underneath" sounds a lot like a Stevie Wonder piece. But all the tracks are originals, and underlying the energetic grooves is a positive message. Says vocalist and guitarist Jean Shepard: "For me what inspires me to write has a lot to do with what gives people hope and happiness and I think what music does for me is that it gives you company and comfort as you go through life so I choose to give hope with rich rhythm and up-lifting melodies." Radio Mundial is a musical collective originally formed by Puerto Rican/Peruvian Shepard and Chilean Swedish DJ and producer Andy Delano, which helps explain the various influences. Tune your ears to crisp, fresh Radio Mundial, not far down the dial from funk and Latin and jazz but on a frequency all their own.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens

QUETZAL
WORKSONGS

Vanguard Records
www.vanguardrecords.com

 

This CD opens with the traditional-sounding "This Is My Home," a track that would have fit right in on Lila Downs' La Linea. But by the time the title track rolls around, it's clear that LA-based Quetzal leans more toward rock than tradition, even while keeping their Latino roots intact. Six of the songs are in English and four in Spanish, with "Time to Go" and its harmonious vocals spending time in both camps. As implied by the comparison to Lila Downs, the vocals by Martha Gonzalez are a distinct highlight of Worksongs. Whether belting tight-throated rock growls on "Decide" or soaring through the pop/R&B tune "Relationships," Gonzalez has a soulful lilt to her voice that reels you in. Traditionalists will be less happy with this CD than those from Radio Mundial and Ghandaia (reviewed elsewhere on this page) or even Quetzal's previous CD, Sing the Real, because of its frequent use of pop-rock-electronica devices. But especially because of its linguistic accessibility and use of familiar rock sounds, Worksongs might also reel in a catch of listeners previously unaware of the delights of contemporary Latin music.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens

 

YAYA DIALLO
NANGAPE

OZ001, Onzou Records, PO Box 53030, 1222 Douglas Street, Victoria BC, Canada V8W 3Y8
www.onzou.com

 

Don't confuse him with Guinea-born Afro-pop star Alpha Yaya Diallo. Yaya Diallo, a master drummer from Mali, uses traditional instruments in his playing of original compositions in traditional style. This album was originally released in 1980 but has a timeless sound with Diallo's skilled hands caressing the djembe, balafon, dounouba, tama, and conga. Joining him is fula flute player Sylvain Leroux. The music is soothing enough that you could put it on as background. But turn it up to hear the rich interplay of the instruments.

Balafon and flute take the leads on "Lobi à la Yaya," a song about originality. "When an original work is prepared, one must put one's soul into it," the liner notes say. "Ivorien" is pure rhythm, reminiscent of Polynesian log drumming. Starting with natural water sounds, "Outeme" is about the flow of time, balafon and flute hurrying along only to meet the water again at the end. "Wassoulou" returns to straight-ahead drumming.

The CD concludes with the title track "Nangapè," the notes for which describe a charming discussion between a six-year-old child and the wise elder for whom the song is named. At first the child is looking for quick answers to the miseries of life: "Rummage through your great library of life and give me the book I should read. Give me your magic formula." But the child learns patience and perspective from his elder, who assures him: "Continue like this and you will not only grow, you will grow to be great."

The five-track CD weighs in at just under 35 minutes (a reminder that the album was originally issued on vinyl), giving a short but rich visit to traditional Africa. The songs tell stories without words. If you do feel the need for more words, check out Diallo's books on music and healing, including The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings. And watch for his upcoming CD Live at Club Soda, which features Diallo's drumming alongside a full band.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens

 

ALESSANDRA BELLONI
TARANTELLE & CANTI D'AMORE

76049-2 Naxos World, 416 Mary Lindsay Polk Drive, Suite 509, Franklin TN 37067
www.naxosworld.com

Southern Italians will explain that tarantismo is a mental affliction encompassing depression, anguish, hysteria, and the like. This music is the cure. With the musicians of her performing troupe, I Guillari di Piazza, Belloni raises her strong, passionate voice to the myriad problems facing women in historical Italy and the present day. The songs retain a mostly traditional sound, though the instruments include bodhran, ocean drum, bansuri flute, sax, and berimbao. Excellent liner notes convey the context of each song, whether for the healing of despair, the plague, or unrequited love.

The wild, percussive, minor-scale "Tarantella di Ogliastro" is a traditional song to exorcise evil spirits. Belloni wrote "La Notte delle Stelle Cadenti (The Night of the Shooting Stars)" as she swam in the ocean making wishes on shooting stars. Starting with a slow, dreamy melody, the tune then turns rhythmic and sharp with the dancing flute giving it an almost Celtic feel. As you would expect from a singer and percussionist, some songs emphasize vocals, others rhythm, and many both, as on "Leva Leva," a fisherman's chant for success and protection. This music hits a deep, emotional place. "I hope to make people dance with the same passion that we have [in Southern Italy]," Belloni says, "creating that feeling of joy and lightness as being in ecstasy."

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens

 

DALINDA
TURQUOISE

EUCD 1780, ARC Music, PO Box 2453, Clearwater, Florida, 33757
www.arcmusic.co.uk

Pure, fun North African pop. Like Natacha Atlas, Dalinda brings her tradition along even as she plunges into the international dance scene. With crisp percussion and tight production by Egyptian great Hossam Ramzy, this disc sizzles with energy. Born in Libya and raised in Bosnia, Dalinda has a voice strong and clear enough to balance the club beats of "Yeslam Galbak (God Bless Your Heart)" and the more traditional but no less driving "Min Youm (Since the Day You Left)." Turquoise includes influences from the bubbling trumpet of Samy El Bably on "El Shams (With Every Sunrise)" to Moroccan-flavored "Esh-Hal-Qadni (How Will I Be Patient Enough)," co-written by Chalf Hassan. The ballad "Yaah (Oh How Much)" highlights a quieter side of Dalinda's voice, though this isn't her strongest suite. She shines most when fronting a dance groove, and fans of global dance should relish this offering.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens

 

ZOHREH JOOYA & MADJID DERAKHSHANI
MUSIC OF THE PERSIAN MYSTICS

EUCD 1792, ARC Music, PO Box 2453, Clearwater, Florida, 33757
www.arcmusic.co.uk

The Persian mystics of the title are the Sufi poets Mowlana Rumi, Haviz, and Saadi. Their poems speak of love and longing, an unfulfilled yet dedicated longing for, ultimately, the affection of the divine. Singer Zohreh Jooya and arranger/musician Madjid Derakhshani are both Iranians now living in Europe, and they maintain a traditional feel while incorporating vocal overdubbing and other Western influences. Musically restrained with slow tempos and mostly sparse arrangements, the songs rely on the vocals to convey the passion of the poetry, with mixed results. Zohreh's voice leans more toward opera than ululation, which might put off Persian-music purists even as it makes the CD more accessible to others. "Bon Voyage (Safar bekher)" by contemporary Iranian poet Shafii Katkani is included as "as counterpoint of modern reality to the old mystics," the liner notes explain, though the distinction may be lost on monoglot Westerners.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens

 

SHAFQAT ALI KHAN
SUBLIME SUFI

EUCD 1798, ARC Music, PO Box 2453, Clearwater, Florida, 33757
www.arcmusic.co.uk

Trance music comes in many flavors. Sufis use repetitive music and ecstatic singing to pursue a state of ego-less divine bliss. In the West, people often try to lose themselves (or find others) in the throb of electronic dance music. Sublime Sufi finds singer Shafqat Ali Khan trying to merge the two into "contemporary Sufi music." The opening track, "Ish Kamal (Love Sublime)," begins with a vocal call, joined by programmed drums, sax, and electronics. This sets the stage for most of the tracks:
Traditional instrumentation is subdued or absent, leaving Shafqat's voice soaring over synthesized beats and instruments. My ear is drawn more toward the exceptions: "Yaad (Memory)" features tabla and mandolin in its tale of sleepless longing, and "Journey to Marwa (Raag Marwa) is a moody night raga." The Urdu-language ghazal "Sitara (Sitar)" is also relatively free of electronics, though it sports a modern bass line. If you've been yearning for Qawwali with more beats, this may be for you.

©2003 Scott Allan Stevens



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