(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 21, Number 6, 2002)
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
The gliding ease of Specialist in All Styles doesn't even hint at the long and tortuous road that led to its arrival. Orchestra Baobab no longer existed when World Circuit label founder Nick Gold decided that Senegal's seminal band deserved an album of new material following the success of 2001's Pirates Choice. Problem was, Baobab had recorded the songs on Pirates Choice almost 20 years earlier in 1982, and the group had split apart by the end of the 1980s when its music had fallen from favor at home.
Things could hardly have been more different in 1970, when Orchestra Baobab enjoyed the most auspicious start-up any band could hope for. Three ministers in the Senegalese government decided to bankroll a chic nightclub to compete with Dakar's trendy Miami Club, home to the capital's best-known musical group, the Star Band. To ensure the success of the new club, the owners raided six members from the Star Band for the Baobab Club's house band. These included saxophonist Baro N'Diaye, self-taught Togolese guitarist Barthélemy Attisso - who had originally moved to Dakar to study law - and singers Rudy Gomis and Balla Sidibe.
Medoune Diallo, with his passionate sonero's voice and respectable delivery of Spanish-language lyrics, nurtured the love affair for Cuban-derived pop music that had dominated Africa for decades. However, as African nations increasingly shook off their colonial past, indigenous styles moved toward the forefront. Griot singer Laye M'Boup brought traditional Wolof songs into the Baobab repertoire for a bit of gritty local ambience. The mix proved wildly popular, and soon the band was performing seven nights a week at the club. Along with the Star Band, Guinea's Bembeya Jazz National, and Mali's Rail Band, Orchestra Baobab achieved dizzying heights of regional popularity.
Everything changed by the end of the '70s when the Star Band's new musical style called mbalax shook up the prevailing Cuban influences with stuttering rhythms, bursts of rapid-fire percussion from handheld Wolof tama drums, and edgy guitar excursions. But the Star Band's biggest sensation was lead vocalist Youssou N'Dour, who contributed a nasal, Islamic-inflected delivery, hard-bitten passion, and a seemingly limitless falsetto range. In 1982, the year that N'Dour launched his international career fronting his own group, Super Étoile de Dakar, Orchestra Baobab retreated to the studio to record a set of velvety-smooth Cuban- sounding songs. While the album did little for the band in Senegal, a French release gradually achieved legendary status. During the same years that the band was disintegrating back home, its reputation rose abroad as bootlegs of the 1982 sessions made the rounds.
One captivated listener was Nick Gold, whose decision to start the World Circuit record label sprang from his enthusiasm for the Baobab tracks. In 1989, with a nod to all the bootlegs that had preceded it, World Circuit legally released the material as Pirates Choice. The album had two far-reaching effects. It brought the then-defunct Orchestra Baobab its first international exposure. It also spawned Gold's interest in the pop music of pre-revolutionary Cuba, setting the wheels in motion for the Buena Vista Social Club recordings, which Gold produced with Ry Cooder.
The Social Club franchise revealed a huge audience for the classic Cuban sound. So, in 2001 Gold reissued Pirates Choice as a double cd containing six additional tracks from the 1982 session. He also tracked down the Baobab members for a supporting tour that garnered such rave reviews a new album became a no-brainer.
If any doubts existed as to whether the reunited band could top Pirates Choice, Specialist in All Styles quashes them. The joyous guitar and drum interplay that kicks off disc-opener "Bul Ma Miin" generates sparks from a Jamaican rock steady-style rhythm even while it bathes the flames with cool vocal harmonies. Before you've caught your breath, Barthélemy Attisso strides in rippling his guitar strings like the teeth of a pocket comb before switching to surf guitar licks and spacey runs. The hand drums roil as the codas pile up, clutching us to a mythical Afro-Cuban bosom that smells of gardenias and sweet yesterdays.
"Jiin Ma Jiin Ma" puts the slinky mambo moves on cruise control with Issa Cissoko's continental saxophone swoops, as vocalist Rudy Gomis coos, urges and laments with the poised persuasion of a 1940s cinema star. This time around Attisso uncoils a snaky solo that moves from muted San Francisco Summer of Love concatenations to creamy George Benson chording. Each song basks in humidity and extended twilight, supported by production that maintains a concert ambience reminiscent of the 1982 songs, where warm, slightly fuzzy sound substitutes for digital extremes. But the arrangements are fuller than those of Pirates Choice and the climaxes harder hitting.
An obvious comparison is a recasting of Pirates opener "Utrus Horas" as "Hommage à Tonton Ferrer." The passionate song brings the African-Cuban connection full circle as guest vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer joins Baobab's Gomis, Ndiouga Dieng, and Assane Mboup on lead vocals. The 1982 version was an appropriately solemn warning to the breakaway Senegalese region of Casamance. The update loses little of the drama of the original, but when Ferrer steps in to deliver his trademark neck-prickling croon, except for the electric guitars and African drums, the piece comes across like a romantic bolero from Ferrer's post-Buena Vista Social Club solo album. Icing on the cake is a second guest vocal on the song by none other than Youssou N'Dour - who originally knocked Baobab from grace in 1982 and who returned to co-produce Specialist.
It's sort of a West African version of the Buena Vista Social Club story as the music of an older generation reaches a new generation of listeners. But the payoff for the band isn't the acclaim the album is receiving here. It's a bid to return to the top of the heap back home.
Ever since his 1990 debut album Buscando América, Ruben Blades has given voice to complex social issues in the context of exhilarating salsa-based music. Mundo (Sony Music), his 17th record and his first full-blown world music album, is even grander in scope and temperament than 1999's Tiempos, which blended modern classical music with Latin themes. Celtic, Malian, Spanish gypsy, Brazilian and jazz vocal music are only the most obvious influences in Mundo's seemingly bottomless pit of invention. The subject matter is barely less ambitious, orbiting an activist conscience that still simmers over injustices stretching back to the 15th century as explored on the elegiac "Parao" (On My Feet), inspired by Isabel Fonseca's book Bury Me Standing, about the plight of medieval European Gypsies.
The seamless collaboration between Latin and Irish instruments feels so natural on "Primogenio" (Beginnings), where bagpipes signify above furious hand drums, and "A San Patricio" (To St. Patrick), which opens and closes with whirling uilleann pipes, you wonder why this Latino-Celt connection hasn't occurred to anyone else. Carlos Núñez came closest on 1999's Os Amores Libres, but his reference point was Celtic-influenced northern Spain. The scorching flamenco-flavored "Bochinches" (Gossip) finds Blades in such superb voice, he could easily front Spanish Gypsy group Ketama, which also forges fresh old world-new world Latin connections. In another turnaround, the Pat Methany-Lyle Mays song "First Circle" featuring Brazilian vocal group Boca Livre and Costa Rican group Editus is lovely, lush and jazzy, by turns soothing and inspirational, and I wouldn't have missed it a bit if it had been omitted.
By now, no one should expect Blades to make a groove album. While Mundo boasts more than its share of hot solos and danceable moments, a salsa reconfiguration of the Malian traditional song "Jiri Son Bali" fades out just as it starts to cook, as do a couple of other cuts, though "Sebastian" with its Brazilian forro-style accordion gallops from start to finish. But instead of the urgent voices of Cuban-derived music, the backing singers on Mundo often come across like a glee club, and the atmosphere isn't helped that the choice of reed is a soprano sax associated with blandest jazz pop. Even the blast of horns and trombones on the barnburner "Estampa" (Profile) are softened and sweetened.
The worst suspicions that Blades occasionally aims his material to people snoozing in the back bleachers seem confirmed by the 9-11 tribute on board, a Latinate rendition of "Danny Boy" sung with affected catch-in-the-throat sentimentality by Broadway vocalist Lupa Mason. After Blades enters with a Spanish-language lyric, the song achieves the virtue of surprisingly good Irish strings plus salsa percussion in its long instrumental close.
There's enough going on in Mundo, including a profusion of goose-bump-inducing moments, that most any world music fan should find lots to love - even if the wide-ranging grab this, grab-that approach sometimes feels more filling than satisfying. If you come to Mundo looking for a salsa album, you'll walk away from it with one hand empty. But if you approach it as heady international pop with a smattering of salsa, it will definitely meet your nutritional needs.
Surprise is the one reaction you don't anticipate from an Eliades Ochoa album. Admiration, yes. But you don't expect the unexpected. If anything, the master of the Cuban country son errs on the side of tradition, as on 1999's enjoyable yet slightly stiff Sublime Ilusión. But Estoy Como Nunca (Higher Octave) lives up to its translated title I Feel Better Than Ever with a relaxed sense of confidence that finds the Santiago de Cuba cowboy taking risks that pay off big. You notice the expansiveness right away with the rhythmic, freewheeling title cut whose airy swing rides the updraft of Los Lobos member David Hidalgo's acoustic guitar. And what's that, a bass solo near the end? "Arrímate Pacá" jumpstarts with a syncopated vocal section punctuated by handclaps, stutters around an internal coda, gets quiet with a bass and guitar passage, then hops back onto the propulsive vocals.
A lovely instrumental version of the Ernesto Lecuona classic "Siboney" with flamenco overtones emphasizes the ornamented Spanish style of early 20th century Cuban compositions. And guest vocalist Raul Malo of Los Super Seven and Mavericks fame reprises "No Me Preguntes Tanto" with a version that's more folkloric than the big-band blowout on Malo's Today cd. Anibal Avila's laughing trumpet makes a nice counterpoint to the interplay between Malo and Ochoa's elevated vocals, which generate heat despite the cool of the arrangement. As always, Eliades preserves the solid traditional base of campesino music, but he's never sounded like he was having this much fun before in his post-Buena Vista Social Club outings, and come to think of, neither have we.
Putumayo's Congo to Cuba anthology promises to explore the Africa-Caribbean musical dialog in the same way that the label's Mali to Memphis album probed links between West African traditions and American blues. There's enough high-quality Congolese material out there to fill about a dozen collections on this theme. But Congo to Cuba opts for the conservative approach by including exactly one cut from the Congo, Tshala Muana's uncharacteristic salsa foray "Congo." That scores about a 'C' in the truth-in-advertising department, upgraded to a 'B' for the spine-popping virtues of the West African pieces on board.
Mama Sissoko's "Safiatou" fills a son groove with liquid Guinean guitar, while fellow citizen Mama Keita adds a kora and Mandingo drums to "Tougnafo." Senegal's Pape Fall brings the bounce of a synthesized balaphon to the airy charanga "African Salsa." From Benin, Gnonnas Pedro mysteriously transforms the Beny Moré classic "Yiri Yiri Bon" into "Yiri Yiri Boum," tricking up the bottomless rhythm with an electric piano solo tossed off with Fela Kuti-style abandon. The Cuban tracks lag a little in comparison. Chocolate Armenteros delivers a so-so version of "Ritmo de Mi Son," though Monte Adentro's brassy "Igualita Que Tu" leaps to the head of the class. Good as this disc may be, I still long-o for the Congo and wish there were more of it here.
I never understood all the hype about Yat-Kha as Tuvan throat-singing punks. They always hit me as folkies that took the amplified path, merely because they loved rock music, too. But with the reissue of the band's first album, Yenisei-Punk (Global Music Center), I'm no longer struggling for links to the Clash and other headbangers. Instead, the downcast mood and harsh ironies of this 1995 release are right in line with classic Joy Division or Swans.
Albert Kuvezin, a founding member of Tuvan folk group Huun-Huur-Tu, started Yat-Kha in reaction to the strictures of sticking with a traditional music ensemble. But wouldn't you know that Kuvezin ends up fulfilling the cultural preservation role anyway by thrusting a lost-art style of contrabass throat singing called kanzat squarely in the center of Yat-Kha's repertoire. You won't, in fact, find anything resembling the showcase of throat-singing styles that characterizes Huun-Huur-Tu releases. Even later Yat-Kha albums are encyclopedic in their stylistic approach compared to the metal-rubbing-metal croaks that Kuvezin coaxes from his larynx throughout Yenisei-Punk. One throat erupting in scrapes is bracing enough. But a bitterly funny version of pre-Perestroika Tuvan anthem "Beautiful Soviet Country" ("Solun Chaagai Sovet Churtum") set to doom-laden electrified morinhoor lute ends with a leaden chorus of massed a cappella Yeti voices capable of peeling the skin off your nose. An equally cheery ditty called "In the Endless Black Steppe" ("Karangailyg Kara Hovaa") features an effect that sounds like a wickedly sharp saber being drawn across a whetstone. The austere, severe effect of the album is enhanced by the absence of percussive parts. This apparently didn't go over well with one band member, whose credit reads: "Anai-Haak (trumpet, also wanted to play gong)."
West Africa's Sahara Desert may be dry as a bone. But Tinariwen's music flows as steadily as a river with its rippling percussion, loping electric guitar, and a compulsive beat that suggests determination and a lack of hurry. Just the thing for slogging through the sand. The Tuareg nomads who call themselves Kel Tamashek, or "those who speak Tamashek," are one of Africa's many nationless peoples. You can hear their home base of Mali's Sahel region in The Radio Tisdas Sessions (World Village). The snapping guitar arpeggios and tapped percussion recall the proto-blues of Ali Farka Toure, whose birthplace borders the Sahel. The plaintive voices and loose unison singing carry vague echoes of North Africa's Gnawa people as well, but calm transcendence rather than ecstasy carries the beat. Turn on this disc, and it's difficult to turn it off as the music seems to merge with the listener's environment as surely as wind, clouds, trees and those annoying people who expect you to work at the office rather than write cd reviews. Oh, sorry
Immediately pleasant as Tinariwen's oeuvre may be, it takes a few listenings for the songs to open up and distinguish themselves. "Zin Es Gourmeden" with its echo-laden, super-heavy electric guitar is a fast standout, especially since the female chorus cranks up the amplitude and accompanying wraith-like flavor to protrude above the soloing. "Tessalit" darts in the opposite direction with acoustic guitars and a bluesy lead vocal with the gravel of a John Lee Hooker. It's lovely, soulful music full of contrasts between delicate textures and the constant earthy push.
The Rough Guide to the Music of the Indian Ocean (World Music Network) isn't simply the best Indian Ocean anthology I've ever heard, it's the only one I've ever heard. Several seldom-recorded islands weigh in with fabo songs. Denis Azor puts Mauritius on the map with the hard-partying segá rhythm on the horn-, accordion- and drum machine-driven "Ala Li La." Françoise Guimbert wafts earthy vocals over crunchy instruments supporting tough beats on "Sak La Point," while fellow La Réunion resident Danyel Waro attacks a similar groove with an army of drums on the throbbing "Bayoun." Culture Music Club burrows deep into Zanzibar's taarab amalgam of Indian film music, Egyptian bellydance and East African percussion with the sinfully rich, string-chocked "Wacha Yakufike."
And you gotta love the Seychelles String Band performing an off-kilter version of "Polka," whose well-traveled tune we graced with words along the lines of: "Hucker is a friend of mine, he resembles Frankenstein. When he does the Irish jig, he resembles Porky Pig," back in my much-missed grade-school days. On a higher note, Madagascar's Ricky Randim-biarison slices up a local music style that glistens with pan-Indian Ocean elements, then tosses in heavy bass bounces and production by Brazil's Airto Moreira. Mayotte, Rodrigues and Grande Comore are other neglected islands that make the sonic grade. I'm ready for volume two devoted to reefs, atolls and shoals.
If you've been wondering when a Mexican pop group was going to respond to the Beach Boys' 1966 album Pet Sounds, I'm happy to report that the deed is done. The self-titled disc by Volovan (Lakeshore) captures the quirky verve of the classic band while leaving the harmonic complexity and visionary angst to braver souls. Pet Sounds, as oldsters might recall, was the artistic magnum opus that ushered in Brian Wilson's psychic dissolution while tolling the death knell for surf music as a genre. This slightly punky nostalgia from Monterrey (Mexico) won't start or stop any movement larger than the revolution of said compact disc. Still, the songs are peppy and there isn't a didjeridu or Tuvan throat-singing sample within earshot, which counts for quite a bit these days.
From the front cover close-up of pan pipes and inset shot of an Incan ruin, you might be excused for thinking that Andean Songs (Naxos World) was an album of traditional material. Takillacta, which is Quechua for "song of the people," delivers the folkloric goods on disc opener "Pampa Lirima" with rippling charango guitar, puffing pan pipes, and a skittering high-mountain melody. But what's that piano doing on "Huajra" behind the quena flute, and are those jazzy change-ups derived from pre-Columbian sources? "Valz del Sur del Bronx" must be a salute to inner-city Machu Picchu, I guess. "Angel Jaco's Song," which nods its head at bassist Jaco Pastorius, is Andean solely by virtue of traditional instruments anchoring the mix. I've got nothing against fusion music, and this is definitely a pleasant listen. But nothing in the packaging, back-cover blurb, or genre tag "Andes/Peru Pan Pipes" hints that the unwary buyer is destined to visit a piano bar.
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
[Copyright 2002 Bob Tarte]