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World Music CD Reviews, November 2005


On Ensemble

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The On Ensemble wants to expand your concept of taiko. Among other things. It's not just a bunch of semi-naked men pounding on big drums, but a contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional Japanese percussion music.

The LA-based On Ensemble (pronounce that "ohn") is four young musicians who take a musically and legally innovative approach to their craft. Musically, they incorporate such diverse elements as throat-singing, guitar, koto, found sounds, and turntablism. Legally, they license their music under the Creative Commons license, allowing free non-commercial sharing of their songs. In that spirit, the best way to convey the spirit of their music is to let you listen to a song from their newly released debut CD, Dust and Sand. The track includes a conversation between the drums and turntables - listen closely to this 21st Century taiko.

On Ensemble: "Zeecha"

Check out the On Ensemble website for a steaming heap of free taiko downloads!

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media


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Nuremberg. Just the word, and you're already thinking of the war crimes trials, aren't you. Well, get over it. There's more to this Bavarian city than the ghosts of Nazis. Lots more. And while it may not be the hottest thing since a little publication by Copernicus in 1543, Orange Winds' new CD Dahab Walk has a lot going for it. The trio (Andrea Goettert and Achim Goettert on horns, Charles Blackledge on percussion) makes a loud, joyous noise, one that will appeal to fans of jazz and world music.

A theme of winds blows them from Africa to the Caribbean to Mexico to Asia. All the way the reeds and flutes (including some guest fluting by Dieter Weberpals) create catchy melodies that dance lightly over Blackledge's deft world percussion. This stripped-down world jazz will make your ears smile.

If you like your music bigger, louder, and with vocals, the Orange Winds trio also plays in the German ska band Papa SKAliente, which has just released an album called Skajazz.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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

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Acoustic string fans, rejoice. Japan has had an earful of the Swedish trio Vasen, hosting two tours in less than nine months. The latest was a weeklong swing in January 2005, during which the music on this disc was recorded at the Mandala Minami-Aoyama in Tokyo. What the Japanese find so appealing in the music of Mikael Marin (viola & fiddle), Olov Johannson (nyckelharpa & kontrabasharpa) and Roger Tallroth (12-string guitar) only they can say. But the trio's energetic swing is irresistible for any acoustic-music fan. Their style reminds me a bit of Old Blind Dogs (minus the vocals, percussions, pipes, but with all of the skill and energy). The 17 tracks draw largely on Vasen's last two studio albums Trio and Keyed Up, and the included DVD provides additional features, including a band history and "Nyckelharpa 101."

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Who are Amadou and Mariam thinking of? Each other, obviously, as they've taken their improbable musical love story from a shaky, disapproved start at the Mali Institute for the Young and Blind to international stardom. Also of fellow Africans, for whom their songs have encouraging social messages. Perhaps even of Western fans, whose purchases of their African blues music have propelled them into the world music spotlight. In musical logic, this album belongs after their first three releases (Sou Ni Tile, Tje Ni Mousso, and Wati) but before this year's Manu-Chao-ified Dimanche a Bamako. Je Pense a Toi contains original versions of songs from the first three CDs, pumped up with horns, organ, and more. Musically, A&M deliver straight-up blues, particularly on the driving "Chantez-Chantez." But bass and organ can't erase the influences of Mali's sparse desert landscape (think Tinariwen) on tracks like "Toubala Kono." Don't look to Amadou & Mariam for traditional African instruments (though there's a little djembe here and there); do come for some of the best of African blues. You'll find it.

FRIGG: OASIS (Northside)
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Named for the Nordic goddess Frigg, this Finnish-Norwegian is living proof of the ties between Nordic folk, swing, and even a little bluegrass, country, and pop. The opening track "Jokijenkka (Riverdance)" signals that this is music for dancing, and "Fantomen" brings the pace of Balkan speed brass in the form of a Swedish polka. Oasis includes slow tunes too, such as the somber Estonian-bagpipe-led funeral march "Peltoniemen Hintriikin Surumarssi." A very promising second album from a young band emerging as a Nordic folk leader.

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To fully appreciate Bob Brozman's latest musical journey, you need to start without him. Start by getting the Smithsonian Folkways 3-CD anthology Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea. Pull out the disc called Guitar Bands of the 1990s. Listen to the raw guitar and voice music, the result of missionaries' introduction of guitars, ukuleles, and Western harmonies into the area starting in the 1970s.

Whether a result of time or Brozman's influence, the arrangements on Songs of the Volcano are more polished, though still earthy, his addition of slide guitar giving the impression of some long-lost Polynesian tribe. I was sorry to note that there's no overlap in bands between the two albums - a direct comparison would have been very enlightening. Volcano is certainly more accessible and more melodic, while retaining some of the late-night-campsong quality of the group vocals. This album is fascinating, and Brozman deserves kudos for his efforts to preserve and strengthen PNG's musical traditions. But even with the included DVD, Volcano doesn't erupt with as much appeal as his past collaborations with single master musicians Debashish Bhattacharya, Rene Lacaille, and Takashi Hirayasu.

WAWALI BONANE: RESOLVE (Flingshot Productions)
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Congolese singer Wawali Bonane may have found a home in Seattle, but his musical heart is clearly still in Congo (the former Zaire). You may know Bonane from the compilation Safarini in Transit: Music of African Immigrants. On this new 9-track CD, his soukous tunes burst with the signature silvery guitars hovering over Afro-Cuban rhythms. Whether of love or loss, misbehaving friends or colonialists, his songs are an invitation to dance the night away. Though he doesn't sing in English, the messages of love and good times are clear. The liner notes also include short descriptions of the songs ("We should be appreciative of our women. Men, shape up!"). As great as this CD is, you know this kind of music is even better live, so get out and see him!

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The Either/Orchestra is a ten-piece jazz ensemble based in Cambridge Massachusetts. The Ethiopiques series of recordings is known for re-releasing music from Ethiopia's "golden years" in the early 1970s. What strange events conspired to bring them together?

Let's just say that a chance 1994 encounter between E/O bandleader Russ Gershon and a CD called Ethiopian Groove: The Golden 70s led to E/O's reinterpretation of some Ethiopian classics. And a chance encounter between this music and the ears of Buda Musique's Francis Falceto let to an invitation for E/O to perform at the 2004 Ethiopian Music Festival. And that's where this live 2-CD set originated. That's the story, though the liner notes provide far richer detail.

But I know you're now wondering if this sounds like jazz or like world music, right? Well, yes. And the tilt of that "yes" depends on where you're listening from. Fans of Ethiopian music will hear familiar rhythms and melodies, such as the unmistakable Arabic tinge of "Muziqawi Silt" (which has, in the hands of the Daktaris and Antibalas become an Afrobeat anthem). Less Ethiopized ears may simply hear an adventurous jazz big band experimenting with unusual rhythms and exotic melodic lines. This illusion holds up through most of the first CD, but is shattered on the last track, "Soul Tezeta," when the Motown ballad feeling gets a rich dose of vocals by Michael Belayneh. Also graced with Ethiopian voices are the shuffling "Antchim Endelela" featuring Bahta Gebre-Heywet, and the sublimely torchy "Shellela" sung by Tsedenia Gebre-Marqos. While the Ethiopiques series has provided some great blasts from the past, this latest release proves that Ethiopia's unique and compelling music lives on today. Highly recommended.

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Australia-based Petrol Records seem to want to be the Putumayo of loungey music. Except that Putumayo doesn't put semi-naked women on their CD covers. And they do provide individual song and artist notes. On second thought, they're little like Putumayo, aside from the penchant for compilation albums. This one's trying to evoke a downbeat, upscale very cool St. Tropez club. While Putumayo aims for the head as much as the heart, Petrol just wants to get you in a mood. Imagine a Frenchified Buddha Lounge and you get the idea. This one's for club/lounge/chill fans than world music lovers, though it's not without its moments, particularly the charming "Kiss Moi" by Benjamin Sportès.

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Wanna dance? This 13-track compilation will get your salsa juices flowing, with tasty tracks from Bamboleo, Maraca, Arte Mixto, and others. Most of the artists supply multiple tracks, leading one to wonder if Petrol was lazy, or just really happy with the few artists they got. Probably the latter, given the tight mix and consistent energy of the CD. Myself, I'd include some artist info, though for that you can check out the website of Ahi-Nama Music, who licensed much of this music to Petrol. But really, you'll probably be much too busy dancing to read musicians' biographies.

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I've had throat-singing on my mind of late with the passing of Paul Pena and the recent tour of Tyva Kyzy. Now comes a very different take on a throat-singing collaboration. Jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, who in 2003 explored West African sounds with Toumani Diabate on the CD Malicool, has turned his attentions to the Mongolian Steppe. A chance meeting in 2002 led to improvisational sessions between Rudd and two singers, Odsuren and Battuvshin Baldantseren. The liner notes of Blue Mongol point out that "the trombone derives from the same acoustical principles [as overtone singing]." So they explored the sounds, and in fall 2004 finished recording this album. Just released by Soundscape Records, its 13 tracks range from odd fusions like "Buryat Boogie" to the "American Round" of traditional US songs, to traditional songs Mongolian songs. Rudd's trombone may sound a little out of place at first, but the more you listen, the more it makes sense.

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Two CD set from the pioneering Indian musician, the man George Harrison calls "the Godfather of World Music." Disc 1 includes a track of Shankar introducing the concepts of Hindustani classical music, along with six musical tracks. Disc 2, labeled "Into the West," includes samples of Shankar's collaborations with Harrison, Phillip Glass, and others.

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Brilliant Afro-soul-funk from a little-known but highly influential Sierra Leone artist. The man of whom Fela Kuti said "The music carried me away completely. ... Can you understand my situation at that club that night? Needing to find a job for myself, but enjoying the music so much I even forgot I myself was a fucking musician. ... After seeing this Pino, I knew I had to get my shit together. And quick!"

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A fine collection of songs to the Orishas, the representatives of the divine in the Yoruba tradition that spread from West Africa to Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, and beyond. Cuba is said to have the purest form, called Santeria or La Regla de Ocha. That's the history and spirit; the sound is primarily call-and-response vocals over polyrhythmic percussion featuring the sacred bata drums, though a bit of piano sneaks in as well, as on the melodic, flowing tribute to ocean goddess Yemaya. The recording is crisp and clear and the music tight, overall an inspired and inspiring recording.

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Instrumental music doesn't get any cooler than this. Toronto bassist Bottomsly runs the gamut from reggae ("Belize City Bakin'") to groovy jazz ("Trouble Makin' Freak") to various flavors of dub and funk. He can afford to toss in a little variety on this generous 2-CD, 25-song CD. It's one of those rare albums that forces a tough decision between playing it low and chillin', and playing it loud and dancin'. Try both.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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