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World Music CD Reviews, July 2005



artist site : buy CD/hear samples

Paris-based Algerian musician Rachid Taha doesn’t mind being mislabeled. The New York Times recently called him “a leader of the current generation of raï musicians.” Never mind that his music isn’t raï, it’s rock. Admittedly his rock has an Algerian heart, which causes it to be variously labeled raï or world music. “I’m much closer to Neil Young than to Khaled,” Taha says in a Spin the Globe interview. But he insists that it doesn’t matter what labels others place on him or his music, as long as people listen.

Taha’s Tekitoi (Who Are You?) is his first album since 9/11, and is filled with rawness and heavy questions (“When will I find peace?” “How did you come to forget the law?”), along with defiance against oppression and abused power. The rock/punk influence is clear, particularly in his decision to include an Algerian-flavored take on the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah.” The song is not only a declaration of his own rebellious nature and a tribute to Joe Strummer. Taha tells how he met the Clash in 1982 and gave them some of his recordings just before they released the song, in which he hears the influence of his early music. Also, he says, he’d heard the Clash song being used by US troops in the first Iraq War – “I wanted to show that this is not a war song, but much more a peaceful song.”

While the music is strong and raw throughout, Taha’s messages are delicately balanced between anger and optimism. Anger takes the lead on “H’asbu-Hum” which calls to get rid of liars, thieves, oppressors, traitors, propagandists, the lazy, and other miscreants. Taha has no qualms when asked to describe just whom he has in mind: “I’m thinking about each and every dictatorship – in Arab countries, and in Western countries as well. Chirac, Bush, Blair – they do promises, and the promise never goes through.”

Still, he says, “I’m not in a hurry to shout my anger.” Songs like “Stenna,” which he wrote for his son, show some optimism creeping in. Translated, the lyrics read “Wait / Be patient / Paradise will open up” “I wrote it about my son, to tell him that he has to be patient in life, and has to get rid of all this hate that can be in him. And never let yourself down.” So is this world-punk rocker an optimist? “I’m a joyous pessimist,” he insists.

The CD’s title track is in the form of a dialogue between a young Frenchman (voiced by Christian Olivier of the band Les Tetes Raides) and a young Algerian (Taha) asking each other “Who are you?” Asking this question, Taha says, “is part of the healing process…. If you start to recognize that we are the same, then you don’t want to do something bad to someone else.”

World peace through French-Algerian punk music? Why not! “Unity is somehow a universal message,” Taha says. “More and more people have a certain way of seeing the world that pushes them to spread this message.”

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Palm World Voices / Palm Pictures

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As more music "albums" come stuffed full of extra features -- remixes, alternate takes, music video files, concert DVDs -- it seems many compilations have been slow to follow suit. But change is afoot. Palm Pictures, a label with a history of cross-germinated products (e.g., Scratch, 1 Giant Leap), is releasing a series of CD/DVD/booklet/map multimedia products as "Palm World Voices." The series kicks off with Vedic Path, a thoughtful, probing look through music and video at India's rich religious heritage.

Well, not really.

The multimedia bits are here, but despite the title, the focus isn't specifically on the spiritual music and culture of the Hindu Vedas. Rather, you get a general overview of India, with each element going a slightly different direction. Let's break it down:

The CD: Artists ranging from India's Ali Akbar Khan & Asha Bhosle to Germany's Dissidenten to American John Wubbenhorst give this 10-song, 62-minute disc geographical variety. The musical palette is limited, however. There's a meditative sameness to many of the selections, particularly in contrast to the sounds of the Indian diaspora that are omitted: Bollywood, Asian Underground, and that wonderful Tamil drum language, for starters. The inclusion of Pakistan's Abida Parveen, known for her sublime singing of Sufi (er...that's Muslim, not Hindu) songs, further baffles. The lack of any notes on the songs, artists, or even the selection criteria leave the listener scratching her head. Pleasant, if puzzling, this CD might better be called "India Chill."

The DVD: To a soundtrack of the same ten musical tracks (in different order), the DVD wanders across the landscape of India, from mountains to deserts, seashore to city. Without narration or apparent structure, the informal filming captures landscapes, faces, and ceremonies. It's clear from many scenes -- holy men bathing in the Ganges, a cattle-painting ceremony, the blessing of a new auto-rickshaw -- that spirituality infuses the culture. Yet again the "Vedic" focus is fuzzy, with "secular" images like a nighttime street party and a pottery factory. And despite the apparent free-spiritedness of the filming, the omissions are telling. No images of telemarketers, software engineers, or other signs of the growing technology sector, the middle-class, the rich. Few cars, few offices. No government, police, or military. No death. It comes off as an idealized, even stereotyped view of India: the struggling -- but stoic and colorful -- poor masses. And again, no explanation of why the filmmakers made these choices.

The booklet: Generous with photos, pleasingly laid out, the booklet begins with a photo of a monkey, opposite which are three quotes -- by Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, the the Indian Ministry of Tourism and Culture -- all singing the praises of India. I check the back of the box to see if maybe this whole thing is a project of the Ministry (It doesn't appear to be) before turning the page. Following are elements on Indian history, classical music, instruments, religion, yoga, the Beatles. It seems that writer Robin Denselowe may be trying to make up for the narrow focus of the music by breathlessly including every aspect of the nation in his essay, from the number of Indian-Americans working in Silicon Valley to bits on Buddhism, Bollywood, and Indian pop in the West. And yes, there's a page on the Vedics, in case you forgot the title and supposed focus.

The map: Ah, the map. Produced by those seasoned mapmakers at National Geographic, the large, colorful map centers on the geography of India, of course, with text, photos, and illustrations taking up much of the outer landscape. The map, unlike the booklet, provides photos of musical instruments, along with graphics of the major religions, faces of a variety of people, and more. One wonders why this couldn't have served the purpose of general education about India, with the booklet delving more deeply into, well, whatever the focus is supposed to be.

The verdict: Vedic Path is promising, if somewhat disjointed and unfocused. It certainly might be better titled "A Beginner's Guide to Indian Music and Culture" or perhaps "An Armchair Tour of India." The promise of such projects is great, so one can only hope that Palm tightens up the focus and multimedia coordination on future releases, which include packages called Africa, Baaba Mall, Brazil, Mandela, and Spirit.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Audiovisuals de Sarria

artist site

Malagasy singer/multi-instrumentalist Kilema has yet to make a name for himself in the USA, though he has played throughout Europe in the last decade, including with the Justin Vali Trio. Playing the marovany, Kilema constructs beautiful harmonies. His smooth, soft voice sings songs of travel, nostalgia, rain, and other important themes. Kilema plays the silbato on "Lamako (Applause)", a song that sounds like an improvisation by a samba group lacking actual drums. Throughout, Lavi-Tani is a first-class, highly engaging CD with tunes that will appeal broadly.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media




r-H: BLACKASIA VOLUME 1 (Black Asia Recordings)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

As Blackasia's flangey intro bleeds into "Bollywood Lust," you know you're in for a ride. Electronica blends with strings, male qawwali-style singing is puncturated by female moans, tabla and drumkit dance together. The global style and outlook of pruducer r-H put everything into play. Electronic and acoustic instruments meet in a masala of Asian grooves, all anchored by infectuous dance beats. Highllights include the mellower "Lemon Grass" and the tabla-meets-Dobro tune "Indian Blues." And turntable fans will dig the wild collage of "Sushi," complete with J-pop girl vocals, shamisen, growly Sumo shouts, and of course those beats. Borrowing, like his nation-state, from across South Asia, r-H may help put Singapore on the world's musical map.

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Oregon-based Pink Martini is huge! At least, they're huge elsewhere. They're riding high with two albums on the Songlines May top 10, and fan mail coming in at least 10 languages. What's all the fuss about? What is it about their retro-loungy world/Latin/jazz vibe that draws in the fans? It is, in a word, sweet. Several tracks ("The Gardens of Sampson & Beasley, "Veronique") hew closely to jazz sensibilities, while others borrow tasetefully from the musical (and linguistic) traditions of Japan, Italy, Brazil, and France. But the polyglot pieces are just tools, not paraded out as cool just for their diversity. Following a roadmap of strong songwriting and catchy melody, the talented musicians drive a simple, straight road to a nostalgic place in the listener's heart. And that appeals in any language.

artist site : buy CD
I've liked parts of this Scottish band's previous albums, but this one grabbed me by the collar and wouldn't let go. Recorded live at halls in Scotland, Mexico City, and Bloomington, Indiana, the sound is crisp and clear, and the band's energy is great. Radical Mestizo (the name comes from a Mexican journalist's attempt to describe their music) is a neo-celtic romp that will appeal to fans of Old Blind Dogs and lovers of well-played energetic music in general.

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Japan's leading bad boy of the samisen is back! Honestly, I don't know if he's all that bad, but he's certainly one of the leading proponents of this ancient instrument (samisen photo) both at home and globally. His third album, Eternal Songs has a less electronic, more traditional feel and includes some real world-music gems like "Matsuri Bayashi" and "Moment" -- duets with the Wadaiko drums. While the orchestration gets a tad thick in a few places, this is certainly Agatsuma's most engaging and enjoyable album to date.

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I generally defer to KAOS's Na Mele O Hawaii show on such matters, but this Cd caught my eye. These Christian hymns sung in Hawaiian with guitar and ukulele accompaniment are delightful. And even the one tune familiar to me -- "Kei Ka Hoa O Iesu La (What a Friend We Have in Jesus)" -- sounds in the hands of these talented musicians more a statement of personal faith, and less an evangelical call. More subdued than the loose and jaunty hymns of Joseph Spence, this album is a quiet charmer.

I CANTORI DE CARPINO: TARANTELLA (l'empreinte digitale)
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One of Italy's most enthusiastic supporters of the music directs a roots adventure on this recording of the taranta music of Italy, leading an ethnic band in the driving rhythms of battente guitarist and vocalist Sacco Andrea (born in 1911), accompanied by two other elderly singers (Maccarone and Piccininno) and by a group of 5 young people from Carpino (between 13 and 20 years old) who accompany their grandfathers in the style of Carpino.

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Ry Cooder isn't content making nice-sounding music. Now he wants to teach us history at the same time! This concept album is a tribute to the Los Angeles neighborhood of Chávez Ravine, a Latino area flattened in the 1950s in the name of progress. Lyrics and music are filled with period references, starting with "Poor Man's Shangri-La," in which the pilot of a UFO describes the area. Communists, police, boxing, cool cats, and government housing all figure into the nostalgic mix, along with baseball in "3rd Base, Dodger Stadium" (one of the structures built on the site). Enhanced by a rich booklet of photos, notes, and lyrics, the project also includes many guests artists, among them Led Kaapana, Chucho Valdes, Flaco Jiminez, and David Hidalgo. If learning history had been this much fun in school, I would have paid more attention!

LAZY BOY: LEFT HAND SIDE (Self-released)
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Opening is the title track, the cute calypso-lite "Left Hand Side" dispensing traffic advice to moped-riding tourists. After this mildly promising start, the CD fails to climb much above, well, mildly promising. The bouncy music ranges from country to caribbean to Buffett-ish. But while the upbeat tunes about pirates, love, and cricket are undoubtedly great party music, the music, singing, and songwriting are rather undistinguished.

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If you love the drama of flamenco but sometimes find the intense emotion just too much, perhaps Flamenco Chill is just the thing. While cool and steady in keeping with the "chill" vibe, this compilation still puts much of the original feeling in front of the smooth beats, particularly on Agua Loco's "La Plazuela." While accessible and great for background music, Flamenco Chill is not for purists.

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After the upbeat reggae start of "Shine," Berlin-based drummer/producer Stefan Korn guides this CD through experimental, ambient, pop, and electronic soundscapes. Perhaps the best approach is to, as the packaging suggests, file this under "Electronic World Lounge."

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Can Afrobeat work with non-African vocals? Judge for yourself on this energetic album from the Bay Area's Afrobeat orchestra. Present are the big horn sound, the polyrhythms, and especially the anti-establishment attitude. The Spin the Globe jury is still deliberating, but a convincing character witness is the band's bus, which can run on straight veggie oil. (Biodiesel is passe? Already?) If you're enjoying the wave of Afrobeat washing over the USA, Aphrodesia is worth checking out.

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This high-energy zouk band makes its home in Belgium, though its heart is clearly in Africa. This 28-minute EP includes all the danceable polyrhythms and shimmering guitars you'd expect from good Congolese music. Neither the CD nor the band website have much information, but this festive music speaks for itself. The first track -- which translates as "Where Does the Dark Skin Come From?" -- is available as an mp3 download. Listen and enjoy!

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Really more the Rough Guide to Contemporary Celtic music, this compilation includes stellar contributions from the linkes of Kila, Natalie MacMaster, Kornog, Flook, and Spin the Globe favorites Old Blind Dogs. Or maybe it should be called the Rough Guide to the Music of the Celtic Diaspora, what with music from Canada, the USA, France, and Spain as well as from the British Isles themselves. If you like this sampler, you've got a lot of exploring ahead, for the included artists have many excellent CDs in styles ranging from traditional to neo-traditional to Celtronica.

Yet More New Releases:

All contents ©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media. All Rights Reserved. For reprint permission, contact us (we're generally very cooperative).



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