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World Music CD Reviews, September 2006

Album of the Month

Régis Gizavo, Louis Mhlanga, David Mirandon: Stories

Régis Gizavo, Louis Mhlanga, David Mirandon: Stories

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Who doesn't marvel at the world of musicians? They travel, they meet players from other nations, even other continents. And once in a while, they form bonds that blossom into amazing collaborations. Think Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate's Kulanjan. Bob Brozman and Takashi Hirayasu's Jin Jin/Firefly. Hukwe Zawose and Michael Brook's Assembly. To the list of favorite cross-cultural collaborations, add Stories.

The tale in this case is that of Zimbabwean guitarist Louis Mhlanga (see solo album review below), Malagasy accordionist Régis Gizavo, and French drummer David Mirandon. The latter two have played together for a decade, but the tale of how they met, and how Mhlanga joined up with them, is one you won't read about in the liner notes.

Indeed, only five of the 12 songs are given any description in the notes, which include no lyrics. Yet this leaves me curiously unperturbed. Perhaps it's the rootsy yet immanently catchy melodies, or the way the three musicians play like old friends. The sparse notes imply that the album was recorded "live" with no overdubs, though my ears hear a bass line that is neither accordion nor guitar.

Regardless of that minor detail, what you do get is master musicians working beautifully together. Among the most catchy pieces are the irresistible "Mari Hakuna" and "International Rumba," both penned by Mhlanga (who wrote the majority of the songs on Stories). Gizavo shines on "Efa Olo Be (Be Responsible)." Mirandon, who provides brilliantly subtle percussion throughout the album, gets a moment in the spotlight on the brief-but-satisfying "Fénélus." Each of them deserves credit, but the real story here is how musical brothers can be born in different nations, yet will still manage to discover each other and create from that discovery beautiful sounds. Very highly recommended.

©2006 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

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


Louis Mhlanga: World Traveller (Sheer Sound / Calabash)
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Like so many great guitarists, Louis Mhlanga is self-taught, and started young (age 10). He learned by copying pop and rock music by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple. He also studied African guitar traditions, and like fellow Zimbabweans Oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo, he transferred the patterns of the mbira to his chosen instrument.

On World Traveller, his third solo album, Mhlanga shows a sophisticated side and brings in friends from his travels: Orchestra Baobab is featured on the opening "Rhumba All The Way, a lilting invitation to dance with shimmering guitar. A different guitar flavor kicks in on "Spreading Some Love" featuring Jamaican axeman Ernest Ranglin." The slow "Kamba Kemaziso" features the distinctive guitar of Habib Koite (and nods to "All Along the Watchtower"), along with the acoustic bass of Mhlanga's longtime collaborator Eric Van der Westen. “My music is just an expression of my experiences and the connection I have with day-to-day events. Mhlanga says. "It is also about the happiness I feel when I’m able to reach other souls through my music.”

In a flurry of southern African talent, he reaches out to Busi Mhlongo, Oliver Mtukudzi, and Chiwoniso, all of whom are featured on the rhumba "Zuva." The album also features the catchy Mhlanga originals "International Rhumba" and "Mari Hakuna" -- which you can find in different versions on Mhlanga's new collaboration Stories, reviewed above. Get this as a complement to Stories, or just get it. Highly recommended. I just hope I get a chance to see this amazing artist perform live some day.

Pauliina Lerche: Malanja (Ruote)
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Her second solo album finds singer/multi-instrumentalist Pauliina Lerche more in touch with her Finish/Kerelian roots, and less prone to experimentation than on her previous Indian-flavored Katrilli and in her work with Kriya. She plays accordion, kantele, violin and deltar, accompanied by accordion, acoustic guitar, vibraphone, kaval, low whistle, Estonian bagpipes, dobro and Carnatic violin. Lerche grew up in the musical hothouse of Rääkkylä in Northern Karelia, which has produced numerous ethnic/folk music groups, the most famous of which is Värttinä, in which she played in the original line-up. In addition to her solo career she also sings and plays violin in Burlakat, a group that sings in the Karelian language.

Various Artists: Palm World Voices: Spirit (Palm Pictures)
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Various Artists: Palm World Voices: Mandela (Palm Pictures)
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Dear Palm Pictures:
First, I want to say how much I admire your Palm World Voices series of releases. Sure, some cynics might accuse you of mining your back catalog for these compilation releases, but even if that's true, you've clearly put a lot of additional effort into them. There's the music CD and the DVD replete with on-location video and sound from around the planet. And the amazingly detailed National Geographic fold-out map with photos, drawings, and heaps of info. And the detailed 40-50 page booklet with more history and context, all bundled in an attractive (if somewhat flimsy) case.

Still, aspects of these releases have been hit or miss. Just as Baaba Maal was better than Africa, I find Mandela more engaging than Spirit. Frankly, I was surprised upon opening the latter to find that it wasn't -- as I supposed -- a general celebration of the spiritual traditions of the planet, but rather an ambient music-and-video perusal of the "people of the desert" with a strong emphasis on the Middle East. I wonder if this was a marketing decision, a concession to the supposition that it would be difficult in these times of war and terror to sell something labeled as Arabic or Middle Eastern?

I'm sure the Mandela project was free of such complications. Nelson Mandela is today so widely revered as the key that opened the door to a modern, one-man one-vote South Africa, that who wouldn't want to hear, watch, and learn more about him? His story is really the story of modern South Africa from his royal birth to his 27-year imprisonment to his triumph as the first freely elected president. The president of all South Africans. The DVD, with images from the pre-transition violence to the celebratory inauguration ceremony, marvelously conveys the highs and lows the nation has experienced.

The CD with 26 pieces of music from the likes of Vusi Mahasela, The African Jazz Pioneers, The ANC Choir, The Specials, Johnny Clegg and Savuka, and many others is a delight. And I love that you've concluded it with the stirring "Black President" by the late Brenda Fassie. This is truly a powerful and fitting multimedia tribute to one of the great and inspiring leaders of our age.

Your Palm World Voices projects may have a few flaws, but overall they're wonderful contributions to global understanding. I wish you every success with this series.

Various Artists: Afro-Uruguayan Rhythms: Candombe (Surmenages World Rhythms)
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Why would someone want to parade through the streets carrying a drum big and heavy enough to hurt their back? That's the question posed by Pablo Cuña, director of "Comparasa Ruanda" on the DVD part of this percussion-drenched package. His answer: "When you start playing, one enters Candombe magic bubble, where its original religious and mystical aspects can still be found, generating an energy that makes you find your inner strengths." Grammar aside, anyone who has drummed knows what he's talking about. And while Uruguay's candombe may not be as well known as similar Brazilian or Cuban rhythms, it's no less powerful. As the scenes of neighborhood processions show, it's the people's music.

This CD/DVD combo is a great point for starting or continuing your exploration of candombe. The CD comprises 15 pure percussion tracks both solo and ensemble, so you can hear and learn about the drums separately and as an ensemble. The DVD also includes an introduction to the various drums and how to play them, along with musician interviews and scenes from candombe processions (think carnival!). Two quips: 1) The live procession scenes are overdubbed, so you don't get to hear the actual drumming from the groups you're watching; 2) the DVD chapters aren't quite as listed. Otherwise, this is an excellent production that should be at home in the collection of any drummer or world music fan.

More on candombe:
Candombe at wikipedia

Albert Kuvezin and Yat-Kha: Re-Covers (World Village)
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"It wasn’t until the sounds of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and Slayer reached his homeland of Tuva—a remote area of southern Siberia nestled between the Altai and Sayan Mountains—that Kuvezin found the musical bridge between his voice, his heritage, and the universe." So says the promo material, and hearing this album of rock covers done in booming kargyraa, who are we to argue. Either you'll love this or find it baffling and incomprehensible. The tracklist tells the story:


  1. When The Levee Breaks (Led Zeppelin)
  2. Man Machine (Kraftwerk)
  3. RamblinŐ Man (Hank Williams)
  4. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Iron Butterfly)
  5. Love Will Tear Us Apart (Joy Division)
  6. Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles (Captain Beefheart)
  7. Song About A Giraffe (Vladimir Vysotskiy)
  8. Orgasmatron (Motorhead)
  9. Will You Go, Lassie, Go? (trad., from the McPeake Family)
  10. Toccata (Paul Mauriat)
  11. Black Magic Woman (Carlos Santana Version)
  12. Exodus (Bob Marley)
  13. Play With Fire (Rolling Stones)
  14. Song Of Mergen (Alexei Tchyrgal-Ool)

Izaline Calister: Kanta Helele (Network)
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Wowed as we were at Calister's first album, this follow up (subtitled "Afro-Caribbean rhythms and ballads from Curacao Part 2") is no disappointment. Tight arrangements and songs ranging from the festive "Mi So Den Boso / Come Eat and Drink" to the Cape-Verde-pensive ("Bisami Si / Say Yes") highlight Calister's songwriting strength, and the wisdom of the various arrangers she employs for different musical styles. Highly recommended.

Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of Malaysia (World Music Network)
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What may surprise about the music on this new compilation is the degree to which this music doesn't sound Asian at all. Middle Eastern influences abound, as do Bollywood themes. A result of Malaysia's centrality in regional trade, the sounds also reflect the nation's multicultural identity, with a population of Indian, Chinese, Malay, and others. This disc will contain surprises for even the jaded world music palate.

Elisete: Gaagua/Longing (self-released)
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Simply put, where else are you going to get Portuguese-Hebrew reggae-pop? Only, I assert, from someone like Brazilian-born Elisete Retter. The emotion of the title track refers to Elisete's nostalgia for her homeland, even as she solidifies her roots in her adopted Israel (where she's lived for 15 years now). With a light, buoyant Brazilian vocal style and solid arrangements (that admittedly sometimes veer too far into bland pop territory), Longing is a pleasant if not groundbreaking cultural mashup.

Gani Mirzo: 1001 Noches (World Village)
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Born in Qamishli, Kurdistan, Gani Mirzo now teaches at the Liceo Conservatory in Barcelona. In the wake of the sacking of the National Library of Iraq during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, he collaborated with Comediants theater-troupe leader Joan Font to create a multimedia work. This is the soundtrack to that production, which revolves around an emblematic book. More than a million books were lost, among them thousands of copies of The Thousand and One Nights. This book, Font says, contains it all: "the abuse of power, travel, infidelity, the Baroque world, myths and legends that are still alive. ... To deliberately erase the traces of a civilisation is a shameful act, however doing so for bastardly interests, under the guise of democratic ideals is a crime against humanity." The music by Mirzo (oud), Neila Ben Bey (voice), Chandra Naraine (percussion), Juan Jose Barreda (flamenco guitar), and Sergio Menem (cello) is rich and haunting. Also mysterious, as the liner notes include no specific information on the 24 songs. An engaging work, but it makes me want to see the full production. Where's the DVD?

Richard Khuzami: Fused (Dahdoo Records)
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Richard Khuzami was raised in New York, but has roots in Lebanon. This album draws from many traditions, including funk, jazz, and Bollywood, most with a Middle Eastern musical foundation. His website has lyrics to all the songs, from the amped-up, percussion-drenched intro "Bazaar Bop" to the multicultural-themed duet (triet?) "Mayflower Daughter Marrakesh Lover" with singers Li Chauviere and Emrah Yilmaz, to the self-explanatory "Faruk's Funk." The song "The Serpent" (no relation to Snakes on a Plane) is a duet between Arab-American Maurice Chedid and Israeli-American Dorit. Khuzami says the lyrics are "a plea for sanity in an insane part of the world: If we all practiced the basic tenants of our related religions, then all the manipulations of demigods on all sides would have no success: Respect and tolerance: with it we can move mountains, without it we can only destroy." Well, yeah. Nice message, and a great find for lovers of Middle Eastern percussion and/or Arabic pop.

Nikitov: Vanderlust (Chamsa)
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For an odd collection of musicians with roots in classical, jazz, latin, rock, and Balkan music, Nikitov is straight outta Haarlem. And New York. Led and managed by vocalist Niki Jacobs, the group spins through 14 tight and twisting Yiddish tunes on Vanderlust (which of course is Yiddish for "a desire for travel/adventure"). From traditional songs ("Ruymeynien trink Melodye," "Di Alte Kashe") to originals such as the instrumental "Hora di Gitar," this warmly recorded album captures a wide emotional range from joy to sorrow and back again.

The Buddhist Monks: My Spirit Flies to You (Universal)
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Do Buddhists lack sex appeal? Are they just old men chanting in a musty temple? Those are questions you might ask if you were defining the problem to which this this album is, perhaps, a solution. The monks of Sakya Tashi Ling Monastery in Catalonia, Spain, recite mantras for purification and health, and it's these mantras that were recorded in a 10-hour session of "consecutive chanting." Turns out, many more hours of work ensued, perhaps also in a marathon session, judging from some of the dicey decisions made in adding overbearing beats and electronic bits to the monks voices. I'll concede that the mixes are fairly tame by some standards, not thumpy dance-floor monstrosities. Yet I feel about this as I do about remixes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo: With vocals that are so inherently powerful, you risk weakening them by adding to them. Even if the music is well arranged and the women's voices are hip and soulful. The chanting here often becomes mere percussion for songs that want to be pop anthems, or soulful ballads. My Spirit Flies to You is too much, too slick, too overproduced. Frankly, it's trying too hard. It may have some crossover appeal, and it might even serve as a gateway to world music for some mainstream listeners. But world music fans, beware.

©2006 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media



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