(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 19, Number 2, 2000)
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
The square yo-yo. Doggie diapers. Bulgarian disco. Hair in a can. Gary Bauer. Bad ideas, every one of them. And as the old century yields to the new, strange lapses of judgment make a gallant stand, spreading like the flu from one cd to another.
Imagine that you're marketing the first American release by three talented brothers from the N'Daiye griot family of northern Senegal. Upon learning that the first names of these brothers are Ass, Mass and Pap, wouldn't you suggest another title for their debut disc? But, no. Either because the disc was simply ported over from a European release where English double entendres are easily overlooked, or to grab the attention of rap fans and jaded online shoppers, the Intuition label moved boldly forward with Ass, Mass and Pap. Bad idea. Thankfully the N'Daiye brothers chose Djanbutu Thiossane as the name of their group, which translates as "legacy of our ancestors" rather than suggesting a clinical procedure.
The music onboard is a narrow notch away from top notch, blending peppery mbalax with the more ascetic sound of the Sahel that in its calmer moments reminds me of Malian guitarist Afel Boucom's 1999 debut, Alkibar. This sparseness translates into up-front vocals and handdrums without a lot of instrumental sweetening-just occasional kora accompaniment, an organ burble on "Wadiour," and violin and accordion cameos. The leanness gives the folkloric stylings admirable urban credentials, but that doesn't mean I respect the rap references in the chanted ditty "¿Que Comemos?", though the propulsive hand drums save the day. On this cut as well as "Immigrés," trap drummer Babcar Dieng leans toward too much cymbal punctuation. But the N'Daiye brothers have found a sound that I hope they keep developing, and if the disc title and a few instrumental particulars are a touch rough by American standards, the uncompromised rootsiness makes up for the bumps. [Distributed by Nubanegra]
While sample-based music is the be-all for gen-next cybersetters, I hate the notion of stripping away the most interesting aspect of foreign music-rhythmic complexity-and replacing it with the same canned drum machine beats you hear on techno discs and car commercials. Bad idea. What we're left with on Nelson Dilation's DubXoticEthnoFunkaDelia (Universal Egg) is exactly what the title suggests. It's world music as exotica, the modern day equivalent to lounge music with splashes of irony stirred into the psychedelic mix. So if you prefer your didgeridu, Mideastern modalities, filmi references and throat singing emulations distilled and scrambled, the parched will find suitably thin gruel here. [Distributed by Allegro Music]
Load Heaven's Dust (Six Degree Records) by French band Ekova into your cd player, and a disc playing time of 73-minutes comes up. But a full 18 minutes of that time is eaten up by extended dead silence at the false ending of final track "Venus and One." Bad idea. This kind of thing amused me on Finnish joiker Wimme's 1997 disc Gierran, but the retread strikes me as gimmicky, just like the band's central conceit of singing in made-up languages. Since "Sebrendita" finds Evoka in a Sami mode via Dierdre Dubois' faux Finnish tongue, I gotta bet they heard and copied Gierran the same way they apparently borrow from Afro Celtic Sound System, Lisa Gerard, and other world music recyclers. By my count, that makes the ethnic references here third hand. Though the Balkan-Scandinavian hybrid "Temoine" gets more appealing with each listening, I'm running out of reasons to listen. For artifice as art, I'll stick to Canada's Laurel MacDonald, and for French bands trafficking in imaginary languages, I'll dip back to Magma's 1973 Mekanïk Destructïw Kommandöh.
Coordinating musicians in African, Indonesian, Chinese and South American studios to perform songs by a pair of composers sympathetic to local material seems like a promising approach to the worn-out anthology format. But Songs of Innocence (Virgin Classics) drastically narrows its audience by pulling lead vocals out of the mouths of babes, and squeaky-voice babes at that. Bad idea. Really bad idea. En masse, the tikes blend innocuously with the strings and woodwinds of inventive orchestral arrangements, and the flow from genre to genre between and within songs is smart and sassy. Yet only a parent lost in love with childhood could find consistent pleasure in the quavering mechanics of the naive voicebox. A kid's song shuffled into a broader palette of folk music usually provides a welcome break. Breaking the cd is the only respite here.
In her previous solo cd outings, Norwegian violinist Annbjørg Lien came to us in neo-folk garb with her hardanger violin beautifully hogging the acoustic instrumentation. On Baba Yaga (NorthSide), she emerges from the roar of synthesizers in an art-rock record complete with mellotron that would have done Peter Gabriel-era Genesis proud. Bad idea? Actually, no. This concept album about the legendary witch of the disc title benefits from the cinematic treatments that frame her sometimes delicate, sometimes fierce fiddling. Accompanists from her own band Bukkene Bruse, Väsen's guitarist Roger Talroth and other innovative souls keep enough ideas flowing toward the listener that even homegrown throat singer Ailo Gaup manages a good fit. Huge grandiose slabs of sound advance and retreat like glaciers, while other bits of program music suggest a quiet thaw of dripping icicles. Segments occasionally drift toward the mush of Deep Forest-style fusions, but the taste and superb chops of this ensemble along with a potent rock dynamic keep the excitement rolling.
Do you really want to hear South African township music defanged and arranged for three violins and a cello? The Soweto String Quartet's second album, Millennia (BMG/RCA Victor), doesn't seem like as bad an idea as their Zebra Crossing debut. There's virtue in digging into the melodic side of mbaqanga while demonstrating that there's more to maintaining rhythm than riding a Fender bass and drums. The string timbres bring an unexpected tenderness to the original tunes that redeems the overarching gentility. If you thought Kronos Quartet's rendition of "Purple Haze" was fun, this will surely please. Inspired playfulness aside, however, this is too far a stretch for me.
Thomas Mapfumo's 1999 tour was originally called "Unplugged," but the Zimbabwean daddy of chimurenga added electric bass and a drum kit to his first American show. So the tour became a 50th birthday celebration for Mapfumo instead, though "full circle" might have been a better theme. Mapfumo is credited with inventing modern Zimbabwean pop by adapting traditional mbira melodies to electric guitar. On Live at El Rey (Chimurenga Music), he returns to thumb-piano accompaniment with extraordinary intertwined mbira leads by Ngoni and Bezil Makombe. But is the acoustic thing a good idea? I was ecstatic hearing it on the glorified boombox that services our dining room and kitchen, but less enthusiastic when I popped in on my big stereo. As the soundstage opened up and spaces between instruments widened, the intimacy that had driven the music dissolved. With a little effort, it's still darned good listening with Mapfumo signifying like a medicine man over the virtual music box accompaniment, but because the textures are far less varied than on his amplified material, I either lock into it or I don't. Late at night with the lights turned out, you can hardly beat it for atmosphere. [Distributed by Sterns]
Recent cds like From Mali to Memphis and Kulanjan have emphasized the continuity between Manding traditional music and American blues. But none have made the connection as sublimely as Mamadou Diabate's Tunga (Alula Records). Diabate's six piece ensemble plays songs that are recognizably within the Malian jali tradition, but with blues elements (most transparently on "Dounuya") and a jazzy touch to Diabate's kora solos, Fuseini Kouyate's ngoni fretwork and joyous balafon expositions from Famoro Diabate. The players weave their magic so tightly, it took me a couple of listens to separate the rapid kora and ngoni exchanges. Even when the round and woody tones of the balafon join in, the group plays with the telepathy of a single large instrument. It gets even better when vocalist Abdoulaye Diabate takes the lead on a couple of cuts, while New York-based jazz bassist Ira Coleman gives the tracks just enough funky modernity to liberate the ancient string and percussive voices. Virtuosity is taken for granted from a kora player named Diabate, but even more than his famous cousin Toumani, Mamadou gently pushes the edge with his beautiful, soulful precision.
I'm late reviewing Originalité (RetroAfric) which was released in the summer of 1999. But since this disc collects the first recordings of Congolese bandleader Franco dating back to 1956-57, a few months tardiness won't hurt. Newly processed via the increasingly effective CEDAR system, the songs here have nice mid-fi sonics with mellower midrange and less shrillness to the highs than other collections I've hear from the same time period. A case in point is Roots of OK Jazz (Crammed Disc), whose Franco tracks from 1955-56 for the Loningisa label house band, Bana Na Loningisa, just pre-dates those here. Though Franco's career spanned three decades, his reputation was so well established by the time he and his bandmates first hit vinyl as OK Jazz that their boastful theme song "On Entre OK, On Sort KO" (you enter okay, you leave KO-ed) was already a gimme.
Packed with three-minute cuts tailored for the limitations of 78 rpm records, Originalité hints at the powerhouse soukous to come. It shows the band first tinkering with the transformation of Cuban music to a local and later pan-African sound. Spanish melodies, Latin horns, claves, bolero rhythms, and new world rumbas predominate, though "Mado Ya Sango" showcases a short guitar break that presages the Franco approach of laying on variations of repeating figures until delirium results. As the cliché goes, if Franco had only recorded the classics on this disc and done nothing else, his reputation would stand. The material is that good. The innovation of moving African pop away from brass bands and toward the electric guitar here meets lively, charming songs perfectly suited to the new form. And some of them really swing.
Senegalese vocal group Touré Kunda gave me an early taste of African pop back in the '70s. Two offspring from that band, Omar and Daby Touré, may well catch the ear of new listeners and inadvertently urge them toward rootsier genres in their first cd as Touré-Touré, the indefatigable Laddé (Tinder Records). Exuberant to a fault, the brothers' harmony-laden approach is tough to resist. Following in their fathers' footsteps, the Touré's music is geared to an international audience with all the mainstreaming that implies. But Touré Kunda pressed its case with a more aggressive edge. The closest this gets to gritty is the Peewee Russell-esque so-called "baryton" sax on "Casamance." And Kunda never stooped to stereotypes like the universal "African Woman" at work "in the fields." Those urban gals at work in the field of java-scripting must look elsewhere for their paean. But boys will be boys, and as lightweight pop goes down, select moments here thrill.
We don't get much Reunion music in the U.S., unless you count the millennium-opening Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tour. Danyel Waro's Foutan Fonnkér (Cobalt/Melodie) is the real thing, though. It's dance music from the Indian Ocean island of Reunion showcasing the maloya work song beat and Waro's unstinting poetry. Part Amira Baraka, part Sting, the sweet-voice Waro descends from his home in the sugarcane fields of St. Paul in a live performance of smooth flowing drum and vocal music that lets no one off the hook. "Caustic Poem," the only Creole-language song with lyrics translated into English, lambastes Reunion's apparently incomplete independence from France in an anti-European tirade whose words couldn't be quoted in this family magazine. Most of the references to local politics sail right over my head, but it's easy finding balm in a kind of slowed-down samba beat whose gentleness belies the strident content. The deep maloya groove seems to go on forever, and with a purveyor like Waro and his all-percussion ensemble, it's fitting that it should.
The age of the material on Songs of Seduction (Rounder) is evident from the creaky vocal cords of the old 'uns performing the ribald ditties collected by Alan Lomax in 1950. The septua- and octogenarians here are the only folks with a clear memory of the unbowdlerized versions of folk songs exploring the exploits of roving scoundrels and generous milkmaids. Recorded at the pubs, firesides and hearths of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the songs are fairly mild by contemporary standards, though I wouldn't bet on the one about the guy "with his long fol-the-riddle-i-do right down to his knees" ("The Knife in the Window") making it on radio. I don't truck much with today's Celtic neo-folk, getting lost in the tangle of massed fiddles and pipes. These rough hewn performances of unaccompanied voice plus a few single-instrument instrumentals have an authenticity that instantly appealed to me. The original version of "Foggy, Foggy Dew"--not the censored Benjamin Britten or Burl Ives version--is worth the admission ticket, as is the unexpected grace and non-retributive context of these wild and wicked songs. [Distributed by Sterns]
The photo of Mack trucks on the cover of More Happy Moments with Hoven Droven (NorthSide) says it all. This is barreling-down-the-highway, move-it-or-lose-it Swedish folk played at maximum volume on amplified instruments. Part Uriah Heep (the heavy metal band), part Uriah Heep (the Dickensian creep), Hoven Droven's discovery of power riffs at the bottom of centuries-old traditional songs is a big slab of frozen reindeer flank in the gut of us listeners who generally associate the European north with the music of consolation. Along with the guitar, organ, drum, sax and fiddle wielding crew, two song sparrows from Swedish girl group Rosenberg 7 trade in their usual harmonies for appropriate vocal chord abuse. If you don't find enough klompen dancen on the standard audio portion of this enhanced cd, jam it in your computer and extract a quintet of additional songs in the MP3 format. At the same time, check out the video of the band. The liner notes call it a "home movie," and though it lacks the sneaky professionalism of the performances, it is suitably jumpy and raw.
One of the oddest anthologies I've seen to date is The Rough Guide to World Music, Volume One (World Music Network), featuring the music of Africa, Europe and the Middle East. I guess they ran out of room before squeezing in Massachusetts. Intended to accompany the excellent resource book of the same name in its updated second edition, this disc takes upon its shoulders the impossible task not only of surveying the music of two-and-a-half continents in the present tense, but also in providing a historical sweep. Thus we get Franco's 1957 signature tune "On Entre OK, On Sort KO" brushing elbows with Oliver 'Tuku' Mtukudzi's "Neria" from 1999. I sure can't fault compiler Phil Stanton for his taste in songs, which also includes gems by Aster Aweke, Cesaria Evora, Salamat, and Taj Mahal & Toumani Diabate. But I can quibble with the overriding concept of trying to fit all and everything in a single disc, especially when the Rough Guide series has so many focused releases. Closing cuts by Hungarian and British folkies Muzsikás and Norma Waterson are certainly worthy, but they feel out of place. The inclusion of Wimme's technoshamanic "Gierran" is downright bizarre.
On a more contained, but still daunting, scope is The Rough Guide to Calypso & Soca (World Music Network), which unfurls kaiso, rapso and everything in between. Wisely, this highly entertaining disc avoid prime cut classics, contenting itself with solid, second tier songs like Sparrow's "Phillip My Dear," Lord Kitchener's ambitiously arranged "The Bee's Melody," and Ajala's "Bring the Rhythm Down." That way folks with other T&T compilations have less chance of finding reruns here, plus it spares compiler Jean Michel Gilbert the impossible task of putting together a single greatest-moments disc. The ebb and flow from old time calypso to in-your-face rap-derived formats is nicely programmed with nary a jarring note. But how can you say "soca" without including Arrow?
Generic title aside, the best anthology of music from Cape Verde I've heard to date is the Putumayo label's Cape Verde. Avoiding too much of the slow-paced morna style, Cape Verde keeps up the momentum with bright and sparkling samba-flavored songs whose textural complexity is forwarded by productions so clean and bursting with presence, the scrape of a pick across guitar strings brings a kind of revelation. The sign of a great collection is that it makes the listener hunger for more, especially Boy Gé Mendes' bouncy bit with reggae references, "Cumba letu," and Marta Alice's "Sol Na Tchada" sweetened with Luis Morais klezmer-like clarinet slides. Sophistication is the key to making song after song memorable. Many pieces here mix local forms with jazz and Latin currents along with European lounge leanings, thus you could mine Ana Firmino's "Chico Malandro" all day and still barely scratch its depth.
Sacramento's hardest working worldbeat band !Akimbo
is back with their second eponymous-label cd, Here With Us
(!Akimbo Records), and if the energy level of this disc is representative
of the concert photo on the cover, !Akimbo live would be a blast. Those
who like their world music influences shaken, not merely stirred, should
give these Californians a try. [www.digimag.com/music/akimbo]
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
[Copyright 2000 Bob Tarte]