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World Music CD & Book Reviews, January 2005


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This review includes quotes and information from an interview with Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz aired on Spin the Globe on 10 December 2004

In 1981, Yale Strom had degrees in American studies and furniture design & art, when he went to a klezmer concert that changed his life. He was so enthralled with the musicians' improvisation on klezmer themes that he asked to become a member of the group. The band's refusal was a blessing in disguise, leading Strom to head to Eastern Europe to research the music at its source. This book tells the story, some twenty years after his travels.

It's appropriate that this is a travel story. Strom relates how travel has changed both the Yiddish language and klezmer music. "The DNA of klezmer is the musical scales of the Middle East.... Then you take that DNA... and add local indigeneous sound" just as Yiddish speakers built German and Slavic layers atop the language's Aramaic-Hebrew base as they traveled.

Strom, who has played violin since age eight, dove into his tour behind the mysterious Iron Curtain, hitting Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, and Romania. In each new town, he sought out the Jewish cultural center, or kosher restaurant, or some other vestige of Jewish life. What he found was a faint shadow of the height of Jewish culture - what he calls Yiddishland - from the 1890s through the 1939s. In that era, klezmer was a functional music played at dances and weddings to pay the bills. Strom had to scour the landscape for remaining musicians from that period - many had quit playing, emigrated, or been killed in the death camps of World War Two.

One of the few still-active klezmers is Leopold Kozlowski (nephew of Naftule Brandwein), who became the subject of Strom's 1994 film "The Last Klezmer." From Kozlowski and other (sometimes non-Jewish) musicians, Strom learned and collected old klezmer tunes. The book includes 15 songs - mostly previously unprinted, along with a couple Strom originals.

The book also includes food. "When you talk about Jewish culture," Strom asks, "how can you not talk about Jewish food?" The narrative relates what he ate, and some amusing and awkward moments arising from his vegetarianism. Elizabeth Schwartz has reconstructed recipes, some only through exhaustive research since Strom's descriptions of the food were sometimes incomplete. The most difficult recipe to reconstruct, she says, was the complicated Hungarian desert Flodni. Schwartz must have gotten it right in the end; a Hungarian-descended friend used as a taste-tester declared it "pornographically good." Also included are recipes for what Schwartz swears are "the best latkes I've ever had" and Zuppa Ogorkowa - Polish dill pickle soup. (So odd sounding, I had to make it; it was wonderful.)

The darkness is never far away from the storyline, however. Strom visits concentration camps, and feels the impact of the Holocaust in the lives of survivors. Sidebars give the Jewish history of each country, from the high points to the pogroms and discrimination. Strom makes a comparison with Jewish history and modern-day genocide in Africa: "3.8 million people have been killed.... How little the world has learned in 60-plus years since the genocide of the Jews and the Rom."

Two decades after his journey, Strom sees new life being breathed into Jewish communities in Easter Europe as more Jews are admitting their Jewishness. "It's almost anti-establishment," Strom says, "it's hip!" Still, he says, klezmers today have not grown up in an atmosphere like Yiddishland - they've had to learn it as a second language and culture. "You can't capture the past, that sense of Yiddishland, the language, the literature, the thinking. It will never be the same."

Yet at the same time, the thirst for klezmer is expanding well beyond Jewish communities. "One doesn't have to be Jewish to love Klezmer," Strom asserts. And today musicians like Frank London, Solomon and Socalled, The Klezmatics, and others are pushing Jewish music in new directions including jazz, hiphop, experimental, and avant-garde. Yet "no matter how many people come to this beautiful form of music," Schwartz says, "they're never going to make up for all the people who were forced to stop playing it."

It's a shame the book doesn't include an epilogue on such cultural changes since Strom's 1981 trip, though that's a small complaint sure to be addressed in his other projects. With the recipes, the music, the photos, and the stories of klezmers, apathetic border guards, decade-old secrets, and spontaneous music, A Wandering Feast is delicious through and through.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Narada / CCP

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The short, bright life of Brenda Fassie ended in 2004. She never became a household name here in the US, but in her native South Africa, the singer was beloved, in spite of her rocky personal life. Encouraged musically by her mother (and named after country singer Brenda Lee), Fassie formed her first band at age 4, became a young star, then struggled with drugs and a public reluctant to embrace an admitted lesbian. Released in South Africa in 2001 and now worldwide, the 20 songs on this compilation include her hit "Vul'indlela" from her comeback album Memeza, as well as her first hit, "Weekend Special." Fassie attracted a number of unofficial titles, including "The Queen of African Pop" and "The Madonna of the Townships." Warning: Her urban Afropop may have too much pop-R&B influence and too many cheesy arrangements for some African music fans. Still, Fassie's clear, powerful voice helped link traditional music to more popular styles. Her influence was punctuated by the visits to her death-bed by Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela, and President Thabo Mbeki. Global pop icon Brenda Nokuzola Majoni Fassie lives on in her music.

Proceeds from CD sales go to the Nelson Mandela Foundation to help Africans infected and affected by HIV/Aids.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Eko Star

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One of the first keyboard players in Fela Kuti's Egypt '80, Dele Sosimi steps out with his own vision of Afrobeat with six original tunes on Turbulent Times. Sosimi's vocals may not be as powerful as Fela's (who's are?) but his grooves are tight. Feyi Akinwunmi's complex drumming and Femi Elias's driving bass give backbone to the rhythm, and its refreshing to hear more prominent bass (even solos) and keyboard alongside the traditional Afrobeat horns, rhythm guitar, and percussion. The prominent piano gives the music something of a Latin feel, though the pidgin-English call-and-response vocals are vintage Afrobeat. I'd love to have more in the way of track notes, but you don't necessarily need track notes to groove...

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Dug Up Music

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Perhaps someday water will fill the crater of Mt. St. Helens and the new lava dome will rise above the waters. Perhaps some enterprising settlers will build homes there, creating their own music and culture. But why bother - it's been done. Amid the waters of the world's largest volcanic lake, the Batak people live in saddle-roofed homes on Samosir Island. Though renowned across Indonesia for their musical ability, the Batak have little music available internationally. Marsada (Batak for "together") is a working band that plays regularly for weddings, funerals, parties and festivals in the Lake Toba region. Though hailing from a lake in the center of Sumatra, Marsada sounds like a lost musical cousin of Hawaii (perhaps another Indonesian pan-Polynesian connection like that explored by Tarika on Soul Makassar?). Rich in vocal harmonies, upbeat, and very accessible, Marsada plays traditional folksongs and ceremonial music, mostly with local topics like gathering wood, cooking food, and love. Pulo Samosir is a delight throughout, a new path for world music fans to enjoy, a new tropical island to dream about on a long winter's night.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Sheer Sound

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On their second album, African supergroup Mahube continues pushing musical boundaries with 11 new original songs. To USA listeners, the most recognizable voice will be Oliver Mtukudzi, and most of the cast from the first album has returned including Phinda Mtya, George Phiri, Steve Dyer, Louis Mhlanga, and many others. Missing is Suthukazi Arosi (she's probably busy with her own new CD; see below). An excellent blend of the musical styles of southern African, Qhubeka! will appeal to fans of South African jazz, Tuku, township music, and the like. The mostly smooth vibe (the exception is the more racous "Ngondo") conveys messages of struggle, tradition, and such themes. The booklet includes full original-language lyrics and English summaries.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



I'm so square. Despite what I like to think of as an open mind and a global awareness, I didn't even know Germany had a thriving medieval-goth-rock-bagpipe scene. But these two releases recently found their way into my mailbox and opened my eyes. English-language information on the bands is elusive. The CD covers convey the general dark flavor of the bands and their attitudes, but little else. So here's what my ears say.

Named for the common crow, Corvus Corax is pipe-o-rific. The CD cover shows no less than five pipers, along with two drummers and one gentleman whose activities are unclear. Gaudily festooned with tattoos, leather, and punky hairstyles (one member, known as Teufel ["devil"] sports his hair in two red "horns"), the band starts the album with a wall of drumming, a thin trumpet fanfare, the the gaggle of pipes blasts forth. It's hard-edged and fast, but really, it's just high-energy world music. They mix up the beats, including hiphop rhythms on "Douce Dame Joliet." Singing is minimal, mostly in the form of group chanting. Basically, if you don't like pipes, don't bother. If you like pipes and rhythms, Corvus Corax is worth a listen, attitude or no.

Potentia Animi combines medieval male harmonies with bagpipes, drums, and guitars. Parts of the CD ("Gaudete") could be mistaken for sacred Christian chanting. Indeed the lyrics, to my Latin-untrained ears, speak of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Other tracks, like "Suendern," are sung in German and sound like dark pop ballads.

With their generally dark vibe and enigmatic nature, these CDs are apparently aimed at established medieval-goth-rock-bagpipe believers. But there's undeniable crossover appeal for world music listeners who appreciate Celtic rock and punk, even big Taikoesque drumming (admittedly without Taiko's dramatic pauses). I'm surprised how much I like these bands, even though I'm square.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Contre Jour

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Just six months ago I was introduced to this wonderful group and their African brass jazz. African brass bands may have their roots in the military brass bands of colonial powers, but Gangbe proves that the horns have stepped out on their own. After their guest appearance on Lo'Jo's album boheme de cristal and their own previous CD Whendo, Gangbe busts out of the gate again on this new album with "Noubioto (the beggar)," a cautionary tale about Africans becoming "eternal beggars" sung to crystal-clear horn harmonies and tight percussion. Trilingual song summaries keep your head in the groove even as your hips shake of their own accord. Includes the brass-drenched"Remember Fela," which grooves despite the absence of the signature polyrhythmic drum kit Tony Allen permanently welded to the soul of Afrobeat. In the relatively subdued "Awhan-Ho" the band lays down the horns to sing about the sorrow of war and the need for peace. File it under African or Jazz, Funk or Gospel, or maybe Afro-Orleans-Brass. Better yet, just keep it blasting from your stereo and you'll never need to worry about where to file it!

Gangebe also appears on the new Lo'Jo CD, Ce Soir La... (see review below).

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

World Village

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From a band many (including myself) first experienced live as part of WOMAD comes a long-awaited live album. Though the lineup of this musical collective/commune varies over time, out front are Lo'Jo longtimers Denis Pean and sisters Nadia and Yamina Nid El Mourid. Other guests include Benin's Gangbe Brass Band (see review above) on horns and rap (as on the energetic "Senor Calice"). With the usual pan-Mediterranean sound soaked in smoke and mystery, the CD consists mostly of live renditions of songs from their previous albums. The two new tracks are the slow-burning opening "Invitation," and "Cada Hombre (Every Man)," on which Yamina's kamel n'goni and voice take the spotlight. Lo'Jo's Cirque-de-Soleil vibe is given an image as well, with a CD-ROM movie of the band performing "Tangito" beneath rope artists Le Selene. Beautifully recorded, Ce Soir La... is truly the next best thing to being there.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media


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There have always been a number of South African groups working in the shadow of internationally renowned Ladysmith Black Mambazo (see 2003's Rough Guide to South African Gospel). Few of these artists have broadly reached US ears, however. Now, on the eve of major US tour, the Soweto Gospel Choir may change that. Like Ladysmith, SGC incorporates traditional rhythms and vocal harmonies in their vocal-centered music. At the same time, they include elements more familiar to US gospel groups, including soulful solos and "Western" instrumentation. Oh, and cover songs old (the traditional song "Malaika") and newer (Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross"). A wonderful and varied collection of African gospel. Their tour concludes in Seattle March 24, 2005. For more tour details, click here.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Long Distance

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With the growing buzz about the Festival in the Desert, another Taureg group is a welcome addition to the world music shelves. Tinariwen has grabbed a lot of recent press, with thei energetic 2004 USA tour, but Ikewan sounds more like Ensemble Tartit, a group I associate with the first year of now-defunct Womad USA. Like Tartit, the voices of women lead Ikewan, most often in a traditional call-and-response style backed by handclaps and light percussion. It's an effective mix, trancy and organic. Ikewan sings about weddings and love, happiness and healing, magic and ritual. Though only one track "Elehed yalla reicha" was recorded at a live performance, the entire album evokes an informal desert camp, the sky stretched overhead as these ageless voices wind among the dunes.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media


Other recent arrivals of note:

Lost Grove Records

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A fine mug of Tea. Guitarist Franck Balloffet and drummer-keyboardist Phil Bunch, familiar to audiences from the much-missed groove ensemble Bateke Beat, have come up with a tasty set of Parisian Afropop. Songs of love, loss, pain and desire are put forth by a veritable United Nations of voices, backed by lyrical fretwork and percolating rhythms. "Voyages du Jour" could've used a little less sugar and a little more spice. (u.redlandsdailyfacts.com)

Sheer Sound

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It is clear from the word go that the album is extremely personal and all about life experiences. Arosi composed nine of the songs in conjunction with the likes of Bheki Khoza, Lifa Arosi, Babes Ndamase and Joe Nina. She describes the album as being, “healing, educative, as well as entertaining.” “We have lost that special gift that God blessed us with, that is ubuntu, humanity, and yet ubuntu is the key for our lives," Arosi says. (jazzathon.co.za)

Forrest Hill Records

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Mimmo Epifani and his band of Barbers have created one of the best records of the year: This is by turns a bellyaching funny, heartwarmingly emotional, deeply political, majestically satirical and always perfectly executed record that belongs in the musical vanguard while being deeply rooted in tradition. - Nondas Kitsos, RootsWorld


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"These musicians from the Balkans perform their repertoire with a lot of humour: a marvellous alternative to Emir Kustrica's No Smoking Orchestra!" (Le Monde). And their new repertoire is brim-full of imaginativeness. Besides numerous compositions of their own, it includes exciting renderings of great traditional Balkan music. And it again crosses borders, playing about with themes from Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania and Turkey. (Networkd Medien)

Nations Records

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Masterminded by Fun-Da-Mental’s Aki Nawaz, Abantu spotlights the emotively diverse lungs of Durban’s Mighty Zulu Nation, said to be a young Ladysmith Black Mambazo. What appears as something of a labour of love, Nawaz has given Indo-Pak treatments to a distinctly African sense of space and dynamics of song. It’s a brave experiment. Giving rightful prominence to The Voice, Nawaz’s addition of tabla, dhols, and harmonium assume a filigree quality, lacing around a distant culture as though it had been an accident of history that they were ever separated. Without a big white face to front this project, it’s going to take a leap of faith the size of Table Mountain for a mainstream audience to take Abantu to their hearts. Oh well, it’s their loss. By the art of restraint, Aki Nawaz has pulled off a rare triumph. The Mighty Zulu Nation are a vital band of young singers that sound at once like tradition, and the brightest of futures. (musicomh.com)


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Rai is raucous, hedonistic North African pop, and Abdelkader Saadoun is one of its Kings! DJs, Belly Dancers and the fast, heavy and danceable rhythms from Saadoun and his band create a carnival atmosphere for his new album Freedom. You won't be able to stop yourself from joining in! (komedia)

Third Mesa

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With the overwhelming success of his first and second CDs, CASPER LOMAYESVA is a man on a musical mission. This Hopi / Diné native has spent the past years traveling throughout the country performing his unique reggae sound and exposing the realities of life on the reservation. His much-anticipated third CD, entitled “ Honor the People ” is almost ready and will also be released on his own record label Third Mesa Music. Casper's success lies in his unique musical vision, and it comes straight from the heart. His lyrics tell the stories of reservation life. It is front-page news that's never been heard. The music is reggae with a blend of herbs and spices from a variety of musical influences. Same tree…different branch. (Rockthenativevote.com)

Skinnyfish Music

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Saltwater Band consists of eight Elcho Island men. Their unique music, which combines reggae with other genres, traditional language and culture, has made them one of the most admired and successful Indigenous bands in Australia. After their stellar debut album, Gapu Damurrun, Saltwater made fans wait for four years for their second release. Djarridjarri/Blue Flag has received widespread acclaim and showcases the Saltwater sound, which features beautiful and soulful harmonies fused with influences from both modern music and the spirit of the Gumatj people, language and culture. (www.vibe.com.au)

Sheer Sound

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Gito Baloi may have earned his reputation as a virtuoso bassist, but as his tapestry of evocative acoustic guitar picked timbres ("Salaam" and "Mosaic") shows, he was an equally mesmerising guitarist. Shaping a haunting pastoral blues flow ("Mountain Wind"), hymn-like narratives ("Thorn Tree") filter through sparse slide guitar sketches ("Iklanganile I Afrika"), while the bittersweet songscapes of "Um Lugar ao Sol" and "Skeleton Coast" are mapped by meditative folk song rhythms and borderless celebrations ("Canarias"). (musica.co.za)


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