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World Music CD Reviews, October 2005

FEATURED RELEASES

FRESHLYGROUND: NOMVULA
Freeground/Sony BMG

artist site : buy CD/hear samples

From South Africa comes the group Freshlyground; their new CD Nomvula blends African roots with irresistibly catchy pop melodies. And Zolani Mahola's swooping vocals (in both English and African languages) are reminiscent of an early Gwen Stefani - in a very good way. This is the kind of group that could achieve serious global success, because their African-rooted pop is so universal and appealing. Musically Freshlyground ranges from slow pop ballads ("Nomvula" and "Buttercup") to Safrojazz-inspired dance tunes ("Zithande" and "Mowbray Kaap") to world lounge ("Manyana"). I'd swear that Phil Collins must have had a hand in the poignant, pleading "Father Please." And while not all of their lyrics are translated in the liner notes, the typical pop themes of love and loss are augmented by enigmatic phrases evoking global unity and general positive vibrations. Honestly, even reading the lyrics I don't know what half of them are about. But with such feel-good music, it doesn't matter a whit. On the slow ballad "Human Angels" Mahola sings what might be the Freshlyground them: "Forget about your destiny. Get off your feet and live!"

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

THIONE SECK: ORIENTATION--EGYPT-INDIA-SENEGAL (Stern's Africa)

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What the heck kind of West African album starts with the trilling strings of an oud? That's the kind of question you might ask if you haven't already heard Youssou N'Dour's Africa-meets-Middle East project Egypt. The rich Muslim influence in Senegal accounts for that, and for the Egypt part of this new CD from singer-songwriter Thione Seck. But India? Well, it turns out that the Dakar theaters Seck frequented showed Bollywood films, and he became a fan of playback singer sisters Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar. This CD is an attempt to wrap all of these into a single package. Seck's singing is powerful throughout, whether with the swelling strings on "Siiw (Celebrity)" or with the drums and backup chorus on "Blain Djigueul (The Death of a Close Friend)," making this gorgeous, adventurous album a strong candidate for one of our favorite albums of 2005

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

THIS JUST IN! ... New World Music CD Releases


BADI ASSAD: VERDE
(Edge Music)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

Assad's voice has that sweet air of seduction you expect from Brazilian vocalists - along with top-notch guitar playing and vocal percussion. Worth the price of admission is the final track, a brief but amazing cover of the Brazilian classic "Asa Branca" on which Assad plays guitar, hums, and performs mouth percussion - all at once. In addition to such traditional tunes and her originals, Assad covers U2's "One" (which becomes a bossa nova) and Bjork's "Bachelorette" (with an Argentine tango twist). This CD is a must for fans of Brazilian music, guitar expertise, and great music in general.


MFA KERA & MIKE RUSSELL / BLACK HERITAGE: AFRO SOUL (Black Heritage Productions)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

Kera looks intimidatingly intense on the cover, but this Afropop album is full of catchy rhythms and vocals (African languages and English). The music draws from many cultures - not surprising since Kera was born in Madagascar, grew up in Senegal, lives in Paris, and works with an array of global musicians.


ERNEST RANGLIN: SURFIN' (Tropic)
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Instrumental Jamaican jazz, mon, with huge cross-genre appeal for fans of world music, jazz, reggae, and guitar music.


VARIOUS ARTISTS: SOUNDS ECLECTICO (Nacional)
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Lovers of modern Latin music will drool over this 16-track compilation of live recordings from the studios of KCRW. The disc features some of the biggest and hottest bands in the Alt Latin universe: Cafe Tacuba, Sidestepper, Juana Molina, Aterciopelados, Manu Chao, Ozomatli, El Gran Silencio. The fine song notes include the invitation extended to KCRW host Nic Harcourt by 70-year-old Cuban chanteuse Omara Portuondo to join her in her hotel room (he would have gone, he says, but he had a girlfriend). A great sampler of new Latin sounds from ballads to electronica to hiphop - just don't expect your abuelo's traditional music! Would love to hear more from the KCRW vaults!


EMMANUEL JAL & ABDEL GADIR SALIM: CEASEFIRE (Riverboat Records)
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From a land divided comes a plea for unity. I don't need to remind you of the turmoil in Sudan, where a tenuous peace agreement holds together a country torn by decades of strife between the more developed Arab/Muslim North and the less developed black, animist/Christian South. Stepping in as a voice for peace are Emmanuel Jal and Abdel Gadir Salim. The two are a real odd couple: The black, Christian Jal is a former Southern child soldier turned rapper; Salim is a highly-trained and respected Muslim musician/singer/composer from the North. Jal has a loose, raw vocal style while Salim's singing is smooth, rich, composed. Yet somehow it all works out, the contrast becoming an asset as they trade verses on songs like "Hadiya." The music varies as well, depending on the composer. Jal-penned "Baai" and "Nyambol" shimmer with the snaking modern grooves, while "Lemon Bara" and "Gamearina" feature Salim's rich, detailed orchestration. Rich liner notes and song translations help make this two-man plea for peace one of the most satisfying collaborations of 2005.

Read more about Emmanuel Jal from Time and at his own website, emmanueljal.net


MOUSSU T E LEI JOVENTS: MADEMOISELLE MARSEILLE (Le Chant du Monde)
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More great modern global music from Marseille, in the tradition of Manu Chao.


AFRICAN SHOW BOYZ: BROTHERS BOLD (Across The Way Productions)
artist site : buy CD/hear samples

This unique band from Ghana is made up of five brothers, who began their career as street performers (you can see clips in the DVD 1 Giant Leap). Their music is raw roots - drumming and singing and traditional instruments including kone, bin bill, bin douk, siyak, sisans, tonton sansan, mnan, fritusuwa, and durun, and the understated melodies and tight arrangements keep the music engaging and accessible. Their previous CD Spiritual Song featured several Bob Marley tunes. This one does feature an English-language track ("Suffer in Africa") but most of the music is the sound of the savannah highlands of Ghana's upper east. The closing track is a tribute to Babatunde Olatunji, an early supporter of their music. The African Show Boyz are currently touring the USA, and play at Olympia's Capitol Theater on September 25 (see calendar) with Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. Highly recommended!


BONGA: BONGA LIVE (Lusafrica)
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The Angolan singer returns after a long absence, with this lovely live album full of soulful Afropean music and his warm, gruff voice.


HURDY-GURDY: PROTOTYP (Northside)
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It ain't what you're thinking. Yes, it's a pair of Swedish hurdy-gurdy players. But in addition to playing the absurd little instruments, they use their Macs to sample, and mix, and distort, and remix. The result is hurdtronica, with thick beats and odd sampled noises as a foundation for melodies played with a more traditional sound. It's not for everyone, but many pieces are musically compelling, and the whole project is a fascinating take on tradition updated.


BORIS KOVAC & LA CAMPANELLA: WORLD AFTER HISTORY (Piranha)
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The latest installment from the Yugoslavian master of apocalyptic Balkan world music. Imagine a Balkan-born, sax-playing Tom Waites providing the soundtrack for Douglas Adams' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. You get the idea.


VARIOUS ARTISTS: MVET AI MENDZANG - MUSIC OF THE BETI IN CAMEROON (Wergo)
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We've come to expect some of Africa's most sophisticated jazz and world music. This CD offers something quite different - 1984 field recordings of the roots music of the Beti people, featuring mendzang (the Beti version of the balafon) and mvet zither (which looks like the hybrid offspring of kora and berimbau). Singers, backed by circular musical themes, wax about love, lust, nature, family, and such. Appreciation of the music is greatly enhanced by the rich 76-page booklet (German and English) with photos and notes on the culture, music, artists, and songs - complete with full lyrics. An excellent resource for lovers of Cameroon and African roots music.


VARIOUS ARTISTS: CENTRAL PARK SUMMERSTAGE-LIVE FROM THE HEART OF THE CITY (Circular Moves)
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If you can't get to NYC for their fabulous concerts, here's the next best thing. With tracks from Celia Cruz, Ben fold, Burning Spear, Marina Abad, Susana Baca, Kekele, Olu Dara, Simon Shaheen, Quantara, Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited, and NBRQ, you'll find the main problem with this CD is you want more.


STUDIO PAGOL: THE REST OF THE WORLD (Maboul)
band website : buy CD/hear samples
download free unreleased mp3 "Walou" - more free Studio Pagol mp3s here

Belgium-based Studio Pagol has captured the sound of the global dancefloor. The Bengal-Belgium-Morocco quartet has a clear club vibe, but manages to maintain an engaging acoustic ethnic element and also inject a bit of politics, as in the sitar-laced opening track "Stop!" ("please stop the war / I don't agree..."). The variety of lead vocalists and musical styles may make you wonder if this is really a single band. The Arab-pop opening of "Amanaman" gives way to an aggressively advancing wall of electronics. "Bhangra Night Fever" serves up the Punjabi dance with extra bass and a soulful trumpet solo. And the world of "Supreme Blue" bursts with chilled beats, scratches, and soulful vocals by Laila Amezian.

From these to the trancey "Urban Gnawax" and the spoken-word story at the heart of the sparse "Jealousy," Studio Pagol keeps you guessing, with surprises around every corner. The notes don't provide lyrics, but the band's website explains that the album is "all about our own special relationship with the planet we dwell on. In the lyrics of Studio Pagol, tenderness, wrath & humor are side by side." A "hidden" live track rounds out the CD, and gives a taste of the band's reportedly amazing live shows.

This album will fit nicely in music collections already containing such world-dance acts as Gotan Project, Zap Mama, and Natacha Atlas.


THE MOTHERS: TOWNSHIP SESSIONS (Mr Bongo)
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The Philani Mothers aren't really a musical group. Not in the modern, "western" sense. Their forming in 1986 was a reaction to health issues, not musical ambitions, a fact made clear by the title of their 1998 cassette, "The Philani Mothers Lyrical Heath Messages." This CD sees the likes of Nitin Sawhney, Kid Loco, and Kalahari Surfers reworking those original 10 vocal songs with some very groovy instrumentation. The track "Breathe Together" features Miriam Makeba, apparently doing the tricky breathing part. Far more effective than a similar reworking of the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo (see review below), Township Sessions is musically exciting, even if you don't speak the language.


BALKAN BEAT BOX: BALKAN BEAT BOX (JDUB)
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Take the rooster crow opening this CD as a warning, a wake-up call that your feet are going to want to dance and your head bob maniacally side to side. Balkan Beat Box does for Balkan music what fellow New Yorkers Yerba Buena done with Latin roots, twisting the tradition to their own nefarious ends. BBB blends Balkan horns and vocals, Middle Eastern rhythms, turntables, big fat power chords, and other musical flotsam into an exotic, compelling Balkan rave. Don't even try to resist.


DABY BALDE: INTRODUCING DABY BALDE (Introducing/World Music Network)
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Here in the West, people sometimes have difficulty distinguishing different countries in Africa, much less different regions. But a little geography helps explain the music of singer Daby Balde, who hails from the region of Casamance in Senegal's south. Casamance, cut off from the north of Senegal, is a diverse area (sandwiched between Gambia and Guinea-Bissau) with music distinct from the Dakar sound. A former taxi driver, Balde has a pure crisp voice with a hint of gruffness, and the musical arrangements are airtight. You'll understand the lyrics only if you speak Fula (a few songs are in Wolof, Mandinka, or French), but the liner notes suggest themes of culture, hard work, love, betrayal, home. "Waino Blues" provides a reverse bridge from Africa back to American blues; "Halaname" pays melodic tribute to "the best person in the world"; and the mournful "Hakurujamane" insists over acoustic guitars that "we are at the end of the world / We have to try to do good things / To do bad things will bring the end of the world sooner." World Music Network's "Introducing" imprint has presented another winner to the world in Daby Balde.


VARIOUS ARTISTS: THE ROUGH GUIDE TO AFRICAN MUSIC FOR CHILDREN (World Music Network)
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"More than twenty-six schools [in the UK] worked to select the songs on this compilation. Each class was given albums with dozens of songs from across Africa, and the students were asked to select their favorites. The responses from all of these surveys were tabulated" and the result is this compilation. I'm certainly not going to second-guess the choices (and besides, if you really need music from Madagascar, get the Rough Guide to the Music of Madagascar). What I will do is tell you that this CD would make a great introduction to African music for kids of any age. The fun accessible music runs the gamut from a mostly-instrumental Afrobeat track by Tony Allen & Tweak (Nigeria), to very different takes on African hiphop by X Plastaz (Tanzania) and JJC & 419 Squad (Senegal), to the sweet vocal harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo (South Africa). Don't look for a particular flow or logic in the 12 selections, just sit back and admire the diverse music of a huge continent.


KRONOS QUARTET AND ASHA BHOSLE: YOU'VE STOLEN MY HEART-SONGS FROM R.D. BURMAN'S BOLLYWOOD (Nonesuch)
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Ever read the lyrics to a familiar song only to discover you had no idea the real meaning? I just had one of those moments. Some years back, the song "Dum Maro Dum" snuck into my consciousness. It's catchy refrain can easily get lodged in your brain, and I figured that wasn't such a bad thing, since the refrain includes the Vaishnava chant "Hare Krishna, Hare Ram." Must be some catchy, pop version of a devotional song, I'm thinking.

Boy did I have it wrong. The notes to this new CD of collaborations between the audacious Kronos Quartet and the prolific Asha Bhosle tell a sordid tale. The song is from the 1971 film Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, which tells the tale of a wayward Indian girl who's fallen into the pot-hazed rebellion of a Katmandu hippie commune. She sings of "the nihilistic joys of smoking your cares away." The song title, by the way, translates as "Take Another Toke."

R.D. Burman had some sort of musical charm, producing maddeningly catchy filmi music for countless Bollywood movies before his death in 1994. And while Lata Mangeshkar was also a prolific "playback" singer, her younger sister Bhosle far surpassed her, by some estimates selling more "units" than Elvis Presley and the Beatles combined. The detailed liner notes include this and other juicy bits about this project, which includes music from 1970-1987. And while Kronos is central to the arrangements, the music is not at all "stringy," adding pipa player Wu Man and percussionist Zakir Hussain. This delicious CD sets a high standard for cross-cultural collaborations. Highly recommended.


LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: LIVE AT MONTREUX (Eagle Records)
artist site : buy CD/DVD & hear samples
LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: THE CHILLOUT SESSIONS (Rasa)
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The Zulu-gospel-rooted South African group needs no introduction, not since Paul Simon's Graceland and their own albums catapulted them into mainstream musical consciousness. These two new offerings, however, will appeal to dramatically different audiences. The first is classic LBM, recorded live at the 1987, 1989, and 2000 Montreux Jazz Festivals. Their powerful voices ring out in glorious harmony, the sound crisp and clear for a live festival recording. A welcome addition to the collection of any Ladysmith Black Mambazo fan.

While LBM has had successful musical collaborations with artists including Dolly Parton, Desree, and Kermit the Frog, The Chillout Sessions leaves me rather, er..., cold. The electronic music is tastefully done, sure. But the music tends to dilute power of those wonderful vocal harmonies and strip their emotional intensity. Maybe that's the intention of "chillout" music, but who wants a CD that's a pale remix of the original? This one is okay as soft background music, but for the real deal, go for Live at Montreux or LBM's other vocal-only albums.


All reviews ©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media. Reprint rights available - contact us.

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