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World Music CD Reviews, December 2005


World Village

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Say you live in Algeria, on the edge of the Sahara desert, and you open a nightclub. As night falls and the air cools, people slip out of the landscape and into your club, sipping drinks, talking, eating. Later, perhaps much later, a group of eight musicians amble onto the stage. You had your doubts about booking this lot; while half of the musicians are from Algeria, the other half are from (gasp!) the UK. What could they know of the music and rhythms of the North African landscape? But you take a chance. They begin with a song ("Mul Sheshe/The Turbaned One") that opens with flute, atmospheric keyboards, and raw vocals that evoke tradition, then plunges into horn-driven urban funk. And the crowd seems to be right along for the ride, even if they're baffled by the sprinklings of English words. You smile, and think this little club might just work out.

Even listeners without the Saharaoi ambiance will dig this CD, chock full of traditional-modern juxtapositions and catchy phrases. "Moussa" is a slow funeral song in the "dheka" style, complete with ululating women. "Irgazen L'agnawa" celebrates a Gnawa wedding with deft drumming, fiddling, and celebratory singing. And the short speedy Sidi Mansour relates a trip to go see Sheikh Mansour. Mul Sheshe takes the listener on a fascinating musical journey from village roots to city sounds, complete with the bittersweet knowledge that there's no going back.

Fantazia's previous CD, The Lost Place, is available as mp3s from calabashmusic.com

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Label Bleu

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I know what you're thinking: "Jewish hip-hop? Sounds tasty. But is it kosher?" You can hear David Krakauer's answer to that question in an exclusive Spin the Globe interview. The short answer is: Why not? Klezmer is a living thing, not a dusty museum relic. As such, it's being reinterpreted and reinvented. This album combines Socalled's fine turntable work and sampling with the musicianship Klezmer Madness - built beats and live instruments working as one, crumbling the boundaries of traditional klezmer.

Krakauer admits that the title is deliberately provocative - many of the stories and tales told by grandmothers aren't really "lies," but myths ("superstitious devices" according to Socalled), though he sees plenty of lies in broader society. It was these lies, and the general mood of our divided, war-sick nation, that inspired the reinvention of the classic klezmer tune "Romania, Romania." In the hands of the Bubbemeises crew, the song's usual upbeat longing for a departed paradise is replaced by a howling stormy night, the Romania of dictatorship and repression, though not without glimmers of hope. The hope of a better world is given different voice by the poet 99 Hooker in "Bus No. 9999," a beat-poet rant by an urban bus rider who's had enough of slow buses and rude, uneducated people.

Other songs go in different directions: "B Flat a la Socalled" becomes klezmer funk, while "Turntable Pounding" updates the tradition of singing niggunim (wordless melodies) to the beat of fists of tables. But the gem of the album is the title track, and Socalled's delightful rap on various bubbemeises: "Get off the kitchen table or you'll never get married / And never whistle walkin' past where people are buried / If you can kiss your elbows then you're probably gay / and yo if you cross your eyes you know they'll stay that way...." A unique and satisfying album for adventurous listeners.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media


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Born into a griot family in Senegal, Thione Diop now lives in Seattle where he performs and teaches. But he hasn't lost touch with his roots. Every year he takes groups to study music, dance, and culture in Senegal, and during his most recent trip home, he recorded the music for this CD. Sunu Africa (which is Wolof for "Our Africa") features no less than 17 other musicians, none well known in the West but many of whom sport familiar griot family names: Cissoko, Diop, N'Diaye. This is the real thing - a modern recording of traditional music featuring kora, balaphone, various drums (sabar, djembe, djun djun, and the wooden box drum azziko), and various vocalists. Appropriately, the album begins with "Rippo," a call for respect of elders, with female vocals supported by kora and djembe. The second track, "Tassou-mbara boukki," has a very different sound, with raspy lead vocals and a deep samba-like beat. The album is nicely varied, with drums, kora, and balafon taking turns at center stage. The short track of men speaking excitely in Wolof goes unexplained, but brief song notes give a sense of the other tracks. No worldbeat fusions here, just very solid traditional playing. Recommended.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media


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Nawal comes from a tiny group of islands between Madagascar and the African mainland. She's the first professional woman musician from the Comoros, and her Sufi Muslim background blends with her island's multicultural heritage and influences of her international travels to create music that's unique, distinct, and palpably spiritual. At a recent live performance in Olympia (following a Spin the Globe interview), Nawal had the cafe crowd singing in Arabic. Mid-song I caught my breath with the symbolic beauty of this in our deeply divided world. Musicians on Kweli includes Nawal's brother bassist Idriss Mlano, percussionist Stephane Edouard, Ivan Lantos on flute and gumbri, Mikidache on guitar, Ignas on n'goma, and others. Nawal's flat, vibrato-free voice may take a moment to get used to, but by the end of the opening track "Al Djalilu (The All-Powerful)" you've recognized in this unique sound some truth you've always known. It's just being sung in a different voice. Throughout the album, her voice and the answering chorus play with intricate polyrhythms accomplished with with surprisingly little drumming.

Actually a re-issue of a 2001 album not originally available in the US, Kweli is easily one of our favorite discs of the year, its subtle appeal growing at each listen. Highly recommended!

After the Olympia show, I talked with Nawal and found out about another fascinating project she's involved with, in addition to recording for a new album. Along with Góo Ba (Senegal), Zé Manel (Guinea Bissau), and Tunde Jegede (Nigeria), she's writing something called the Sahel Opera. Yep, that kind of opera. Of course, along with the operatic singing, you can expect some heavy African content (the music director is Wasis Diop!). The opera's website says it "scrutinizes the relation between Europe and Africa in a critical and humorous way."

The Sahel region is generally taken to include the lands between the Sahara to the north and the savannas to the south. Which means that small islands near Madagascar aren't traditionally included. But Nawal was pursuasive in her argument for inclusion, the Comoros being similarly Muslim and French-speaking. So the islander was accepted. Watch for the Sahel Opera to go on tour in 2006-2007.

©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


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The latest by Hawaii's HAPA (duo Barry Flanagan and Nathan Aweau) includes lots of great Hawaiian-language music, and even a crazy beat-poet jazz piece called "Kealoha Bebop w/ Charlie" and a cover of Bob Marley's famous "Redemption Song." All around great contemporary Hawaiian music.

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Billed as the Latin answer to Gotan Project, Novalima are a collective -- hailing from Barcelona, Hong Kong, London, and Lima, Peru -- that concocts a tasty brew of Afro-Peruvian roots-electronica (rootstronica?), an intriguing update of the music brought to Peru by African slaves, music now known as musica Afro-Peruana, or, simply, "Afro." Novalima has nothing like Gotan's dark tango moodiness; what they do create is a brighter, loungey vibe where congas meet tasteful loops, vocals drift in and out, and everything's cool. The beats go a bit overboard on "Zamba Lando" and "Mayoral" but that's not to say these are bad tracks. They're just overshadowed by great tracks like "Machete" and "Cardo." Like Orishas and Daude, Novalima pushes the boundaries of Latin music and makes it sound great.

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The latest in Putumayo's Lounge series (after Euro, Sahara, Blues, Latin, and World Lounge), Asian Lounge features 11 relaxed tunes appropriate for any chillin' occasion. Some of the tracks are so laid-back they lack personality, blending into one big tofu smoothie. These are redeemed somewhat by a sprinkling of standout tracks, including Prem Joshua's "Funky Guru" and Nitin Sawhney's "Koyal," a duet featuring Bollywood star Reena Bhardwaj and Jayanta Bose. Other tracks come from the Yoshida Brothers, Ancient Future, Blue Asia, Deepak Chopra, Nataraj XT, Biddu Orchestra, Xcultures, and Bali Lounge. Tasty to be sure, but half an hour after Asian Lounge you may find yourself hungry for something more substantial.

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Subtitled "Ancient chants of the clan mothers for every child of the earth," this album begins with a prayer/invocation and segues into 10 accessible, pleasant Native songs with drumming, flute, and call-and-response vocals. Jamie Sams, of Cherokee and Seneca descent, is also an author of books on Native traditions. John York used to play with the Byrds and The Mamas and the Papas - how they got together is a mystery for someone else to unravel.

MICHAEL JOSEPH: O-GLEPI (self-released)
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There's something charming about the music of guitarist/songwriter Michael Joseph Ulery. His promotional material emphasizes his mixed heritage, not just his Native American roots, and his mixed musical background (rock/punk/jazz/blues/classical/bluegrass). And his acoustic music reflects the mind of someone being who he is, not some marketing ideal. O-Glepi begins with folky acoustic guitar chords under a Native flute melody called "Ancestors Song." Then a hit of acoustic blues guitar with flute on "Gourdhead." The flutes of Amon Olorin mesh well with the guitar, and are featured on two solo tracks. Michael Joseph shows off his own licks on the multitracked "Red on White (Blood on Snow)." He's clear about his music, saying "It is not meant to represent any one particular culture...like the artist...it is a product of various musical and cultural influences." Humble and refreshing, O-Glepi is a sweet taste of contemporary acoustic music with Native (and other) roots.

AMIRA SAQATI: DESTINATION HALAL (Barraka El Farnatshi/Barbarity)
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Halal, if you were wondering, is the Muslim equivalent of kosher. Working under the name Amira Saqati (Moroccan term for "a piece of something"), Youssef El Mejaad and Pat Jabbar provide fresh direction for contemporary Arabic music. Destination Halal was recorded during Ramadan 2004, and has a rootsy sound, largely because of the use of traditional instruments including oud, gembri, violin, and darbuka. And then there's the rapping (as on "Madinti" and "Felestin"), and the techno beats ("Marrakesh X-Press," "Psy Habibi," and "Hel Aeynik"). Some songs may be over-produced for world music fans, but the more-acoustic songs including "Sabra Dimi," "Oumayma," and "Galbi Tabe" are well crafted, crisply recorded, and worth the price of admission. If only they'd included notes on the songs' meanings!

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With a start of Afro-Cuban rhythm and soaring sax on the title track, you might expect this to be the work of some high-energy Latin group. But a spoken intro to the second track, "Anything is Possible," reveals the truth. Oye-oba plays "underground African spiritual music," and his roots are Afro, not Latin. Hailing from Nigeria, Oye-oba boasts work with King Sunny Ade, Babatunde Olatunje, Fela Kuti, Tony Allen, and Manu Dibango. Of these, Adura Power is most like the Soul Makossa sound of Manu Dibango, driving rhythms woven with sharp horns and half-spoken, half-sung vocals into a tight, danceable Afropop (and without Dibango's sometimes-cheezy synth). A little soukous here, a little Afrobeat there, slow for the love song "Ife (My Lover)" then upbeat with screeching guitar solo for "E-Mura (Let's Build A Positive Nation)." This solid, very satisfying album ends with shades of Fuji on "Ajo (Journey)," a pleasing blend of drums and vocal harmonies.

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Mighty Sparrow is calypso royalty - if you had any question about that, just check out the size of his crown! Born Slinger Francisco, the prolific calypsonian has a body of work that goes back to the mid 1950s. This collection includes early work with biting political and social commentaries, as on the track "Mad Bomber," an eerily relevant 1958 song about a man who planted bombs around New York City. While there's some overlap with Smithsonian Folkways' 2000 release Calypso Awakening, First Flight is still a great CD for any calypso fan.

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The worst aspect of this album is the cardboard case. It's innovative, and I applaud the lack of plastic. But instead of a booklet, one finds no fewer than 14 tiny sheets of paper - including one for the lyrics of each of the 11 tracks. Artistic, yes. But how many of these pieces will still be with the CD in a year? Fortunately, when you pop in the CD, the brilliant music will banish such complaints from your mind. I don't really know what to call this music - it's got a touch of Manu Chao anarchy, a little Radio Tarifa multiculturalism, and tons of hard work and imagination. Parra has recorded songs on all four of Spain's official languages (Castilian, Catalan, Galacian, and Basque) and explored musical traditions from all over the Iberian peninsula, seeking lost or endangered sounds. From the rapping speed-talk on the baile-juego (dance game) "Galandun" to the bagpipe-led sheep-shearing song "De Esquileo," Parro has created a work of wonder that should send many digging deeper into the musical offerings of Iberia.

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Yiddish, Gypsy, and other Eastern European musics, including a "communist hymn" from this five-member multicultural group (hailing from Bulgaria, Spain, Ireland, and the UK). Lots of strings and crazy rhythms in the 13 delightful instrumental songs.

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Melodic, engaging, and jazzy, Testa's second CD extra-muros was previously available only as a rare and expensive import. Imagine Bob Dylan doing Italian jazz, with material based on his job as part-time station master at a train station (Testa's real-life job!). If you speak Italian, you'll have the pleasure of delighting in his gifted wordplay; the rest of us will simply enjoy the sound of well-crafted songs, melodic and sublime, sharing universal truths and sorrows.

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Prior to the 1979 revolution, Iranians were not listening to Persian hip-hop, but rather traditional tunes and love songs. Preserving a slice of this pre-revolutionary history is Monika Jalili. Her self-released album NoorSaaz (a combination of the Farsi words for "light" and "creator" or "musical instrument") includes ten songs (totaling just over 40 minutes) of music. She calls it world fusion, but the music sounds fairly traditional to inexpert ears, incorporating her strong, crisp, almost operatic voice with violin, oud, guitar, and percussion. No song lyrics are included, although the song titles are translated, giving some idea of the meaning. And on at least one track ("Soltan-E Ghalbha/Ruler of Hearts)" she sings one verse in English. A fine Persian diversion.

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From the opening notes of "Pan Bata" with steel pan and congas leading the charge, you might well mistake this for a Caribbean group. What soon becomes clear is that Spanish group Tactequete is no respecter of musical boundaries as they pursue the perfect groove. This troupe of global percussionists and their phalanx of instruments make all manner of melodious racket, from the calls of birds awakening on "Bona Nit" to the watery sounds of "Aigua," on which they play everything from udu to sponges to a bowl of corn flakes. The accompanying DVD shows the band in action, performing 11 songs, about half of which also appear on the CD. A must for any lover of world percussion, found instruments, and entrancing rhythms.

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Eyes open, people. This may not be quite what you expect from a disc with the name Les Nubians on the cover. Rather than a continuation of the group's African hip-hop/R&B vibe, this is a collection of music and poetry harvested from their connections with poets during their last international tour. "Here," the notes assert, "is the new generation of Griots, MC's, slammers, singers, urban poets, underground poets, modern poets...let's say poets. Or Nouveaux Griots. Or ECHOES." Five tracks feature Les Nubians, the others roam freely in style and delivery. The 21 tracks are divided into four sections: Motherland, Urban City Life, Love Stories, Spiritual Human Nature. The French-language poetry/lyrics will be lost on English monoglots, but the English tracks include Jamarhl Crawford's biting "War in Babylon" and the smoldering "Fire" from Queen GodIs.

TRIO MOCOTO: BELEZA! BELEZA!! BELEZA!!! (Ziriguiboom/Crammed)
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Imagine Motown moved to São Paulo in the early 1970's and you'll have a reasonable picture of the sound of Trio Mocoto. All three original members return for their first album since 1977's Samba Rock. Known as the "fathers of the samba soul beat," Trio Mocoto tear through 13 joyous tracks from the bouncy "Chiclete Com Banana" to the funky "Lírio Para Xangô" on this guilty pleasure of an album.

All reviews ©2005 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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