(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 20, Number 5, 2001)

(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)

Once upon a time, the city of Mostar was considered a model for how fractious ethnic communities could learn to live together. The Bosnian war changed everything, though amid the general destruction groups of musicians struggled to instill a small sense of normalcy. Meeting by candlelight, they quietly assembled to perform the bluesy style of Turkish-influenced café songs called sevdah. After the war, vocalist Illijaz Delic, accordionist Mustafa Santic, and other musicians staged a reunion in the MCP recording studios, making three demo cuts that recreated the spirit of the wartime concerts. These remarkable songs form the centerpiece of Mostar Sevdah Reunion (Times Square Records), featuring an expanded version of Delic's ensemble which was apparently in such a hurry to cut this disc, it didn't even bother to give itself a name.

Sevdah musicians are considered a breed apart from other Bosnian players, and there is a mysterious intensity to almost every note that transforms love songs into a kind of Balkan qawwali and turns a piece about shoeing horses by moonlight ("Mujo Kuje Konje Mjescu") into an esoteric tract whose emotional force denies common sense. It ain't exactly easy listening. Disc opener "Asik Osta' Na Te Oci" (I Fell in Love with Your Eyes) unfurls with the slow deliberation of a moth emerging from a cocoon. Running water paired with environmental clunks and rattles suggests either the river separating Bosnian and Croatian halves of the city or perhaps dishwashing duties at a local café kitchen. A moaning accordion and the leisurely entrance of the magnificently operatic Delic throws timeless gravity in the face of anyone expecting instant payoffs a la pop.

Like the blues, sevdah mines the deepest human emotions, holding nothing back in its examination of the terrible beauty of life. One of the disc's most powerful cuts, the thumping, piledriver of a love song "Dul Zulejha," swells with relentless urgency out of proportion to its delicate subject matter (Zuleiha the Rose). The lyrics about a country girl communing with the dew does little to explain the militant rhythm thumped by accordion, bass, and drums as trilling strings set up an anxious counterpoint. Fortunately the incandescent "Moj Dilbere" follows, lightening the mood. "Queen of the gypsies" Esma Redzepova takes a whip-crack dance rhythm as her own, trading verses with Delic with all the passion and ribald underpinnings of an Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo son.

Squarely in sevdah's corner is the bellydance rhythm of the faster songs that speaks of Turkish origins, violin solos with the phrasings and fire of Balkan gypsy songs, and an ornamented, quavering lushness to the vocals. This disc adds taut arrangements, crisp studio ambience, and polished cabaret drumming you might expect from a Tony Bennett session. Sevdah Reunion's lack of concessions to an international audience makes the regionalisms difficult to penetrate. For example, are these songs allegories or merely nods to history? But the strictly local flavor gives the disc an undiluted power and, if you grant it a little leeway, a constant ability to enthrall.

She's the mouth from the south, the biggest voice since God thundered, "Let there be sound." Macedonia's Esma Redzepova roars and crackles on Chaje Shukarje (Times Square Records), a collection of Balkan, Greek, and Turkish gypsy songs that will char the paint right off your walls. Going full tilt every moment in emotional thrust if not in volume, Redzepova matches pipes with The Teodosievsku Ensemble's wailing reeds and cooking brass. The material hies to the traditional vein with arrangements updated to feature pressure-cooker reed and brass solos, including a guest turn from trumpeter Frank London of the Klezmatics. Separating Redzepova from American pop vocalists whose go-for-broke attitude substitutes volume for nuance is the sense that the drama wielded by the Queen of the Gypsies is earned. The tonsil-bursting, anguished-drenched sevdah showpiece "Hajiri Ma Te Dike" isn't just about magnificent singing, but personifies the miserable historical lot of the eastern European gypsies. There's bone-jarring fun to be had as well. With its snare drum sizzle, pulsing electric bass, and Frank London's soulful organ, "Nasvali So Ujum" invents gypsy funk that succeeds on pop terms as well as a transcendental level as Esma whoops, spirals and climbs the listener's spine to the accompaniment of an icy trumpet and clanging guitar chords.

I was in a typically crabby Saturday morning mood, cursing all the errands I had to run while en route to Blue Ribbon Feed Co. to buy several 50-lb. sacks of grains, food pellets and vitamins for our pet ducks, hens, geese and turkeys. Too grouchy even for "Car Talk," I popped Super Rail Band de Bamako (Indigo) into the CD player, and before the first cut was half way through, I felt tiny stirrings of joy. With their souped-up horn arrangements, galloping rhythms, and the dueling electric guitars of Djelimady Tounkara and Kabine Keita, these previously unreleased recordings from 1992 comprise the closest thing to sunshine in a bottle you'll ever find.

The energy alone puts most current African pop releases to shame as Mali's legendary Manding rock ensemble tears through complex arrangements with military precision. "N'Donikegniba" flaunts more abrupt starts and stops than the morning train to Bamako, and a whinnying, uncredited trumpet solo diesels the exuberance into uncharted territory. In fact, you'll search in vain for a song that doesn't wield the go-for-broke attitude of a finale or the freshness of the first few numbers of a live set. And for better or worse the studio ambience faithfully recreates the slightly addled mix of a concert setting. Maguett Diop, who is apparently the best friend of this disc's recording engineer, gets his trap drums mixed way up front, while Tounkara's phosphorescent leads are muted and bustled back toward the Buffet Hotel's kitchen. Reverb sweetens the vocals, mitigating the directness that supercharges jali singing, but Mamadou Ouedraogo's saxophone and various unbilled horns snap and snarl in the foreground where they belong. The broad palette still works, meshing the expertise of these musical mechanics with locomotive force.

To benefit those of us who unfortunately missed most of the Rail Band's poorly distributed catalog, Christian Mousset and associates created France's Indigo label. Two classic releases within six months make a great start. After a long hiatus, the Rail Band is touring again, and with luck not only archival recordings but also new projects are in store from this small orchestra that's got just about everything going for it - from the dreamy guitar arpeggios of Congolese rumbas to the glare of neo-griot styles. Toss in Cuban horns and enough flailing percussion to inspire a mbalax fanatic, and you're part way to glory land. [Distributed by Harmonia Mundi]

Speaking of mbalax, El Hadj N'Diaye embarks on a risky strategy with Xel (World Village) by relegating Senegal's signature rhythm to backdrop status and opting for a kind of guitar rock ballad style instead. Dramatic songs on a variety of human rights issues use spare, moody arrangements that set the focus squarely on N'Diaye's expressive vocals. It's a good thing the passion shines through these wordy pieces, since Wolof isn't exactly a widely spoken language. Sure, his better known countrymen Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour don't exactly stint on the verbiage, but they typically fill their albums with big arrangements that spotlight their voices as brilliant lead instruments. The subdued electronics and traditional instrument colorings on Xel build soundscapes that frame N'Diaye's messages, pushing his occasionally over-the-top singing right into the listener's lap. "Yoon Wii" flares with the melodramatic excess of a Celine Dione clunker, but it's the exception rather than a modus operandi. Love song "Kaki" wears its yearning large, complementing N'Diaye's sometimes pleading, sometimes cooing vocals with lovely amplified guitar figures. "Xale bi" kicks off with an understated fuzzbox sound in the Cream mold before gliding into a touching lyric about Dakar's forgotten street children that surprises with an English language chorus. Like Sevdah Reunion, the gut-wrenching intensity of Xel makes it more than a mere diversion and less than an easy listen. But N'Diaye's pop sense has the sense to join hands with his conscience, and the overall result is an idiosyncratic triumph.

When I first laid eyes on Baaba Maal's Missing You (Mi Yeewnii), I thought Palm Pictures had accidentally sent me a bootleg from some Dakar kiosk. The cover sports a weirdly cropped, none too flattering pic of a glowering Baaba floating on an iron gray background with the yellow title type heaped in the lower left hand corner. After the bloat of Nomad Soul, the cover grittiness is undoubtedly a signifier that the Senegalese superstar has returned to his roots in easily his best release since 1984's Djam Leelii, and that's going back a lot of years. While not as stripped down as last century's collaboration with Mansour Seck, Missing You avoids the crossover moves of Maal's last several releases and is closer in spirit to Seck's solo recordings. Not only isn't there an embarrassing turn in earshot, but the songs are also uniformly excellent, serious but not self-serious, with toughness that sprouts from a traditional instrument ensemble rather than big budget electronics. Ambient sounds of children on "Yoolelle Maman" and bird chirps on "Fa Laay Fanaan" announce the return of the prodigal, who cut most of these songs in a makeshift studio outside his house in Toubab Dialaw, but the effects are unnecessary. The local atmosphere is everywhere. "Leydi Ma" gets its urgent ecology message over with Seck's stinging acoustic guitar, martial sabar drumming, and vernacular flute. "Laare Yoo" cops a buzzing figure from a hoddu lute to launch a dense Fulani dance to friendship, wrapping Maal in enraptured back up singers and drums as thick as leaves. Mallet instruments, various African stringed things, gospel touches, and even a little musica Cubana blend beautifully into the disc's 11 songs. Slap it into your computer and enjoy a video of Maal's version of traditional Senegalese piece "Miyaabele" plus a 10-minute documentary on the making of the album, which is about as good as modern African pop gets.

The eight extended mbalax cuts on XV Anniversary Live (Djoniba Records) lope by as busy percussion nudges basic backing riffs propelled by three keyboards, two electric guitars, drums and bass. Senegalese troubadour Thione Seck fills in the cracks with a weightless, boyish voice that orbits the controlled tumult undisturbed. Though Anniversary is indeed a concert document, the mix we get is curiously abstract and untethered. Despite the scattered crowd noises indicating that this music was played for people whose feet were firmly anchored to some floor somewhere, no sense of physical space lends life to the instruments. Adding to the dead ambience, Seck's vocals trail an artificial echo. Instead of connecting with the listener, his lovely singing resembles a tacked-on holographic projection with little to distinguish his performances from song to song. It's too bad, because he's talented enough in the pipes department to warrant a better format. Even worse, my cd suffers a couple of drop outs on "Khare Bi" in which all sound momentarily vanishes. Radio contact is quickly re-established with whatever asteroid this originated from, and the pleasant stuff churns on.

Compiling an anthology of early Congolese music without including Franco, Rochereau, and the other big names is like putting together a history of early 1960s British rock that excludes the Beatles and Rolling Stones. But that restriction ends up making Ngoma, the Early Years, 1948-1960 (PAMAP) more interesting rather than less. Too excited by Martin Sinnock's review in the last issue of The Beat to actually pay attention to what Martin wrote, I had been expecting a disc of tremors indicating the rumba avalanche to come. But the overriding approach is the acoustic guitar and vocal style pretty ubiquitous to Africa though informed by local influences. It's a portable style that traveled with the workers who poured by the thousands into the swelling capital of Leopoldville from across the continent. While the effects of Latin music grew as more people gained access to radio broadcasts and 78 phonograph records, resulting in Wendo's son-drenched "Babengaki Biso Toboyi" from 1956, the spell cast by other genres is also strong. "Ekoko Bata," an advertising jingle for Bata shoes, could be the rhythmic and vocal-arrangement prototype for the earliest Toots and the Maytals ditties (cf. "Sweet and Dandy"). "Bibi Bertha Mosoko" presents compelling evidence that Léon Bukasa was a calypso enthusiast with wailing reed arrangements right out of the Roaring Lion songbook. And if those aren't cowboy yodels on Bukasa's "Année," I'm not a country hick.

Ngoma, Souvenir ya l'Indépendance continues the story of the Congo's first commercially viable record label with an even broader range of styles and much improved sound quality. The material ranges from Bukasa's simple, anthemic paean to his parents' village of "Bukole" complete with patriotic bugle parts, to peppy, jazz-influenced Kikongo pop by Paul Mwanga. As expected, Franco and his kith stirred up a formidable Latin music wake, but the quality of the permutations continually surprises. Musekiwa Isaac and Vedette Jazz roll out a fiery cha-cha-cha with wildly dissonant guitar on "Chérie Akimi Ngai," only to put a Chuck Berry-influenced romp topped with Satchmo-styled vocals on the flip-side. "Ekedy" shows Manu Dibango blowing a cool sax on a song with Paul Desmond and Perez Prado overtones. The style and sophistication of this material is easily on a par with America's burgeoning rock and pop movements of the same date. Both the familiarity and strangeness of Souvenir make it highly recommended to anyone fascinated by the progress and detours of the first big wave of pan-African popular music. These German import cds are difficult to find, but you can get them through Sterns by calling 212-964-5455 or e-mailing infonyc@sternsmusic.com.

Guitarist Papa Noel, who makes a low-profile appearance on Ngoma, the Early Years via the Léon Bukasa track, "Bibi Sultani", revisits classic Congolese music with the charming Rumba Congo (Sterns Africa). Kékélé counts guitarist Syran Mbenza and OK Jazz vocalist Nyboma among its cast of luminaries from the 1960s. Disc opener "Mbote Ya Pamba" establishes such a warm and cozy tone, if it were a house, I'd live in it as a hermit. Acoustic guitars, Viviane Arnoux's sighing accordion, and Ben Belinga's tenor sax strike a nostalgic mood across the album, matching the cheek-to-jowl harmonies and gentle Latin-derived rhythms. The Papa Noel showpiece "Baninga" breaks with tradition as Jean Luc Pinot's violin comes waltzing in, but its just another set of lapping strings that fits right into the clavé-driven groove. Hot on the heels of Papa Noel's recent solo release and last year's Sam Mangwana Sings Dino Vangu, Rumba Congo seems poised to usher in an antidote to the beatbox-paced songs we've gotten the past decade. But as nice as this disc may be, I don't expect anything like the groundswell the older Cuban material has received, since these songs carry few echoes for American listeners. But "Mbote Ya Pamba" has been rattling around in my head all week, and that's echo enough for me.

Yes, I nurse an antipathy toward drum machines and their silicon spawn because of the way they steamroll rhythmic complexity. But there's enough else going on in Macire Sylla's Maya Irafama (Trace) that the tick-tocks slide off the squonking horns, Janet Jackson-esque hooks, and Sylla's soulful signifying like moisture on a dolphin's back. "Dié" hatches a reggae rave up, "Sougué" a tribal hip hop melt down, and "L'Amour est sorcier" the slinky love song you'd expect, and all three complement the Soussou traditions more than they nullify them. With her adaptable voice and ear for pop sweetening, Macire's global funk could do for Guinea airplay what Angelique Kidjo did for Benin.

Airbow (NorthSide), a collaboration between Maria Kalaniemi and Sven Ahlbäck, comes by its title honestly. The Finnish pair fuses their respective instruments so tightly, accordion and violin often seem as one. Swedish and Finnish traditional tunes along with modern compositions styled after Swedish and Finnish traditional tunes form the grey matter for the duo's telepathic interplay. But few folks will confuse the brainy results with folk. Diamond-tipped, micron-perfect instrumental technique gives away the classical music training, as does an occasional fascination with moody textural explorations that leave me looking for something to listen to. But not for long. The elegant duets include enough highly-charged polskas to get my blood moving, and the dark trills and hardanger fiddle overtones have the shivering beauty only the best Nordic music is capable of delivering. Vocalist Susanne Rosenberg adds fey vocals to "Sörglåten" and "Nu Skall Vi Gå Skogen," plus more compelling vocalizations to "Luoto" that emulate the throatiness of Kalaneimi's squeezebox. Johan Hedin bows his nykelharpa to four songs, bringing a second shade of orchestral complexity to a duo that's an orchestra unto itself.

Fans of timba who tear their hair out over the revival of classic Cuban music won't have a follicle left on their scalps after La Familia Valera Miranda's A Cutiño (Naïve). Members of this extended family have been musicians since the 19th century, and they dip back to nearly extinct variants of the son to prove it, including "Vuel como el Aguila" with its archaic bass patterns and nostalgic subject matter. It's technically a cantos de aves or 'bird song' devoted to the theme of simple bucolic love, but Enrique "Quique" Valera's jazzy touches on the Cuban cuatro guitar keep this and other lost styles sounding fresh. Snippets from vintage recordings by the late Catalina Miranda and daughter Milla remind us that this current compendium fits into a continuum. And apart from its historical value, A Cutiño kicks out the campesino jams. [Distributed by Harmonia Mundi]

The Rough Guide to Cuban Music is the publisher's second vest pocket-size world music reference book (assuming that your vest is rather large). In contrast to the updated second edition of Steve Barrow's exhaustive The Rough Guide to Reggae, Cuban Music is less like an authoritative work and more like a much expanded chapter from The Rough Guide to World Music's second-volume overview of Latin American genres. Attractive, packed with information, and fun to read, its 350-page length disappoints when compared to the 599-page Rough Guide to Irish Music vest-pocketer. It's still a good primer on the subject, though the chapter groupings by song styles such as son, bolero, and trova result in rather arbitrary choices of which artist bios to include under a given heading when so many top performers straddled genres. For example, mambo innovator, bandleader, and versatile vocalist Bény More somehow gets listed in "The Origins of Son" chapter. The divisions by genre do help explain the finer points of how danza, danzón, and danzonete differ or explore rumba variations with a succinctness that a strict chronological approach might lack. It's a nice little book, and the "First Edition" imprint on the spine gives hope that next time around this Rough Guide will be roughly more complete.

(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)

[Copyright 2001 Bob Tarte]

Technobeat Central  
Columns by CDs and Artists / Columns by Date
Columns by Subject / Page of the Whale