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World Music CD Reviews, February 2005

Buda Records

artist site : buy CD

It starts with the horses. A man rides across the steppe, humming, the wind swirling around him. Then a plaintive violin, throat singing, rhythmic instruments. The latest Russian throat-singing sensation, Okna Tsahan Zam hails not from the east, but from the Kalmykia Republic, home to the only Buddhist people in Europe, according to the liner notes. How to explain the similarity to the music and singing of Tuva, Mongolia, and parts east? Easy. In the wars and shifting alliances of the Soviet Union, many Kalmyks found themselves on the wrong side and were exiled to Siberia in 1942. They were allowed to return home in 1957. Zam was born on the road home in 1957, and a series of dreams convinced him to leave his engineering career and pursue singing. The result is this CD-DVD set, on which field recordings blend with studio sessions in support of Zam's singing (both "normal" and overtone). Engaging bilingual French-English notes tell the story of the Kalmyks, the music and instruments, the making of the CD, and the content of the music. The songs are mostly traditional, though studio musicians add bass, percussion, guitar, and accordion in modest doses. And the CD includes two remixes of the traditional women-and-horses tune "Davour Ghalzen," the latter of which seems constructed from bland AAA radio leftovers. Skip that track, and you've got an engaging addition to the small but growing library of overtone singer CDs.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

T3 Records

band site : mp3s : previous CD Feribot

Hailing from the undivided metropolis of Berlin, Di Grine Kuzine takes the tools of the Balkan band and bends them in new directions, exploring klezmer and the other multicultural musics that blend in Germany's once-and-again capitol city. Their newest CD is named Funky (English) Pukanky (Bulgarian: popcorn); the liner notes explain the explosion of a corn kernel as the kind of transformation their music aims for: "Suddenly everything seems to happen on its own. And whether you're in Costa Rica, Spain, Germany, or Bulgaria, it's always the same. Funky Pukanky - long live that magic moment of transformation!" This upbeat, mischievious spirit pervades the CD, which includes songs from Macedonia, Bulgaria, Sicily, Serbia, Germany, Romania, and beyond, both originals and reinterpretations. Tuba player Steve Lukanky anchors the sound (and, one assumes, had something to do with this album name as well...). Add the reeds of Max Hacker, the drums of Snorre Schwarz, the trumpet of Karel Komnatoff, and the accordion and voice of Anexandra Dimitroff, and you've got a winning combination. From instrumentals like "Cirque de souris" to the silly but infectuous English-language "Karel's Kumbia," this is a bowl of popcorn you'll devour quickly, wanting more. Fortunately, more is on the way; a new album is in the works, including the quirky "Berlin," a song written for a contest to best express the multicultural face of modern Berlin. Listen for it on Spin the Globe, and look for more from this talented outfit.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media


info : buy CD

"Did you hear of boychick Pincus, how he opened wide the gate and hippety-hopped over the sweet warm meadow?" Thus begins the story of Pincus and the Pig, a klezmerized retelling of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, written and narrated by none other than master storyteller Maurice Sendak, with music by the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra. You know the story, but to hear the Yiddish twist on this classic is a delight. Need more incentive to listen? Pincus is depicted by the clarinet, the cat is a banjo (no catgut jokes, please), and the bird kvetches from his perch in the tree. The CD comes with a storybook insert illustrated by Sendak including a Yiddish glossary and even stickers of the main characters. And Shirim goes on after the story with four additional klezmer interpretations -- of Brahms, Mahler, and Satie. Full of humor light and dark, Pincus will appeal to klezmer-loving kids of all ages. Only a nudnik wouldn't enjoy this album!

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

World Village

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Though disappointingly short at just 52 minutes, the DVD of the 2003 Festival in the Desert nonetheless gives a fascinating glimpse into the soul of this increasingly popular musical event. Held in the Malian desert near Essakane, the festival is a showcase for (mostly Malian) artists, particularly those with desert roots. Tartit, Tinariwen, Django, and Ali Farka Toure were there in '03, along with Oumou Sangare and festival boosters Lo'Jo. Trekking from farther away were Robert Plant & Justin Adams. Rocking the locals from a desert half a world away are the Dine punk band Blackfire. The DVD is a tasty morsel, but its short length (and the disproportionate time spent on the non-Malians) leaves one thirsty for more. I would have loved to watch some of the informal Tent Sessions recorded by Afropop Worldwide well away from the ululating and camel snorts surrounding the mainstage. Maybe next year.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Flag of Freedom

info : buy CD

Read STG's review of Alileche's previous CD, The Source of Water (Taawit)

Between the Arab culture of Northern Africa and the more well-known sub-Saharan cultures, the Amazigh people struggle for survival and recognition. California-based Moh Alileche serves as something of a musical ambassador, calling attention to his people's plight with sadly beautiful music. The new album opens with "A Culture on the Brink of Extinction," relating how the government uses Rai music (and bribes and other means) to erode the Amazigh culture. (Sadly, Alileche missed an opportunity to further educate listeners by including liner notes helping distinguish the differences between Amazigh and non-Amazigh musics. Instruments and scales are similar, so the casual wanderer might miss the distinction.) The songs "North Africa's Destiny" and "The Abandoned Homeland" echo this cultural decay. Yet also included are traditional songs, along with songs about wedding celebrations, love, windstorms, and hope. While the music isn't as fiery as Tinariwen's desert blues or as poppish as Rai, it's eminently enjoyable, ranging from the sparse, somber "North Africa's Destiny" to the danceable longing of "When You Are Away," a duet with singer Linda. Alileche's dedication to his cultural mission might be summed up with lyrics from the song "Toward the Summit": "I expect to encounter troubles / ferocious heat, paralyzing cold, merciless storms / yet I shall surpass each one. / I know I will reach my destination / even if it takes a long time." No fan of North African music and culture will regret spending time with this fine CD.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media


Other recent arrivals of note:

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South Africa's quintessential singing group returns with a project where, as the title "No Boundaries" suggests, the legendary all-male vocal ensemble led by Joseph Shabalala steps outside its usual repertoire and style. Joined by the string section of the English Chamber Orchestra, other instrumentalists and arranger/conductor/pianist Ralf Gothoni, the music ranges from signature tunes of the group's Zulu iscathamiya ("tiptoeing") style (Paul Simon's "Homeless") to "Amazing Grace" and new arrangements of Bach's "Jesu" and the "Sanctus" movement from Schubert's "Deutsche Messe." The results are sweetly delivered with that gorgeous and unmistakably Ladysmith sound, but too often the sheer beauty of its voices are lost in a wash of glittering strings, winds, piano, harpsichord, harp and varied percussion that adds little to its performance. (Billboard)

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Compiled by Songlines editor Simon Broughton, this Rough Guide is one of the first compilations to survey the music of this topical but little known region. Musically the area is fantastically rich, and this selection ranges from Tajik rap to the Presidential Ensemble of Kazakhstan and to the masterful instrumentalists on the long-necked lutes that define the music of the region. The Rough Guide To The Music Of Central Asia includes popular singers who have appeared in the West such as Sevara Nezarkhan as well as lesser-known hidden treasures.

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Unusual, atypical Malian pop music, with a softer, folkish edge to it, dipping into blues, acoustic musings and what seems almost like French musette music, on the album's opener, "Cherie." Although Soumaoro is a Bamako old-timer, an erstwhile member of Salif Keita's 1970s band, Les Ambassadeurs, this is actually his first solo album, recorded after decades of musical activity. In his day job, Soumaoro is a teacher for the blind, and has even formed a musical group whose members are all visually impaired. For something mellow and a bit different than the standard Malian fare, this is a record worth checking out. (slipcue.com)

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Not simply a group, Imani Ngoma Troupe forms part of a cultural association that organises various educational programmes including fostering young musical talent on the island and promoting its music overseas. Here we have music for ritual dances (from marriages to initiation rites) employing ngoma drums, zumari (a wooden clarinet, probably of Portuguese origin), sanduku (a kind of rudimentary one-string double bass) along with various other percussion instruments. Particularly stirring are the female vocals that give body to lyrics that give equal weight to the problems of contemporary society and the timeless mysteries of the human heart. Listening to Bape one finds oneself instantly immersed in the magic of a musical territory that is truly unique, a place brimming with unusual sounds, colours and perfumes where the circulation and melding of different styles and genres has long been embraced as a necessity rather than the fleeting whim of fashion. (album notes)

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Maria Marquez has a haunting voice and sometimes sounds a little like Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson tone-wise. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, and based in Oakland for years, Marquez utilizes some of the Bay Area's top "world jazz" musicians, including guitarist Andre Bush, pianist Omar Sosa, and percussionist John Santos among many others. While "Besame Mucho" is familiar, most of the other songs are lesser known but no less worthy. It might be a slight stretch to call Marquez a jazz singer, but her musicians definitely have jazz as part of their heritage, along with South American and Latin American folk songs. Even though she is generous in allocating solo space, Marquez is the main star and she is in top form on her third recording, giving very expressive treatments to the Spanish lyrics (AllMusic)

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Flor de Luna is an offshoot of a group of Latin American musicians who founded La Calaca a few years back. The group’s aim was to explore traditional Mexican music. The three founding musicians, Alfonso R. Mosquera (Ecuador), Gildardo Mejia Rodriguez (Mexico) and Gerardo Gutierrez Bernal (Mexico), are all steeped in the music and culture of Latin America. Most of the rhythms used on this record have their roots in traditional Mexican music, however you can also hear elements of music from the Peruvian Andes, of African-influenced music from the Peruvian coast, of Afro-Cuban or Ecuadorian music, and even classical Western instrumental music. Each of the 17 musicians taking part in this CD brings his or her own contribution to the musical whole, with the aim of creating something both original and highly traditional. (label)

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Burkina Faso is a country with cultural diversity sewn into its DNA. As a territory that is home to sixty different ethnic groups it can be forgiven and perhaps even congratulated for not producing a coherent national musical style. It’s this complex interlock of cultural grids that forms such an essential part of Amadou’s performances. Without forgetting the folkloric heritage of his hometown, natural curiosity cannot help but lead him elsewhere, ears forever on the alert for the new and unpredictable to add to his repertoire. Which is why the tracks of Sya resound with echoes of Wolof or Mossi territory (the Mossi are the ethnic group that accounts for around half the country’s population, and whose culture is a hothouse for would-be griots) adapted to the temperament of the djembé.
Listening to Amadou Kienou’s playing is sure to prove an unforgettable experience not only for percussion heads and others already addicted to African music but also for the floating listener in search of the balm of natural, limpid sounds. (label)

artist site : info : buy CD

Lobi Traore has been hailed as an African John Lee Hooker. Traore plays guitar and other traditional instruments, and draws inspiration from his vast knowledge of the rich folklore of the Bambara region. Mali Blue is a selection of the best songs from his four solo albums released 1991-1998. Alif Farka Toure produced several of these songs, and plays guitar on some tracks. (label)

band site

One of two Winnipeg taiko groups releasing CDs early in 2004, Fubuki Daiko’s second full-length is a fast-paced and pulsating affair. Proving why they’re a world-renowned drumming group, Fubuki also mix in shinobue (bamboo flutes), chimes and a host of other percussion instruments in their complex, multi-track arrangements. Happa is a brilliant blend of flutes and drums, set over brisk Polynesian rhythms, while Yorokobi is pure rolling thunder. Fubuki Daiko is also not afraid to incorporate modern influences into their traditional art. Images and Atmosphere pays tribute to Neil Peart and Rush, while Hanabi is a piece inspired by Benny Goodman’s big band music. (uptownmag.com)

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Unfortunately, often referred to as "the Greek blues" (yeah yeah yeah), rembetiko (rebetika, rebetiko) is nonetheless a rootsy and raw form of urban music that devloped uniquely in Greece, via both its local underground and its imigrants, and as with all folk music, moved outward into the world. This double CD set has 33 tracks, 9 of which are released for the first time on this anthology or taken from out of print publications.


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