(from The Beat, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2007)

Steven Feld isn't your normal everyday field recordist, even though Time of the Bells 4 (EarthEar/VoxLox) starts off like a typical world music collection with a charming example of the Sardinian canta a tenore polyphonic vocal style. The rich and lusty voices of the quarter Su Hussertu manage to simultaneously evoke the most saintly monastic ritual and the bawdiest bacchanal. The belled sheep bleating and clanging in the background seem to be just icing on the cake. But the hoofed accompanists are, to Feld's way of thinking, equal collaborators in this music of the fields, which evolved from ancient shepherd's songs. In fact, you can hear a distinct animal influence in the human vocals, especially the bovine bawl of the bassu parts.

            If anyone else had recorded the next track, "Sunday Bells of Venice," we would expect to get exactly that and nothing more. But instead of presenting us with a squeaky clean example of church bells heard from the Piazza San Marco, Feld plops us into a café packed with Japanese tourists. The hubbub of conversation, clinking of glassware and boom box playing pop songs add a rich context to the tolling, showing how the bells interact with local life on one particular day. There's a nice moment near the end of the track where the voices drop as the bells reach a crescendo. Then we hear Madonna's "Like a Virgin" tootling in the background.

            Feld intriguingly mixed song and soundscapes from a rainforest village in Papua New Guinea on his multi-disc Bonsavi release. He is obviously a man who hears music everywhere. The "Copenhagen Carillon" in and of itself probably struck him as too sterile a subject matter. Combine the chimes with the clomp of feet, the buzz of traffic and the patter of falling rain, and he provides us with a kind of orchestra work. "John Cage once asked if a truck going past a music school was more musical than a truck going past a factory," he reports in the liner notes. "This piece asks a similar question. Do we hear a carillon become more musical – or less – by its interaction with environmental public sounds?" I suspect I know how Feld would answer.

            In the performance piece "Iraq World Peace Bell, with Rahim AlHaj," Feld rings the largest bell in the world with surprising delicacy. As the 66,000-pound Millenium World Peace Bell with a seven ton clapper tolls somberly in Newport, Kentucky, Iraqi exile AlHaj plays a lovely oud improvisation. The ghostly "Hiroshima: the Last Sound" closes the disc. The track achieves chilling effect as the pulsating voices of a cicada chorus nearly overwhelm the reverberating overtones of the yearly tolling of another peace bell.

            Speaking of cicadas and speaking of Japan, Feld takes his love of found sound to the max with Suikinkutsu: A Japanese Underground Water Zither (EarthEar/VoxLox). The single, nearly hour long track documents the dripping of water into an underground ceramic bowl from a chozubachi stone basin that are both associated with the traditional tea ceremony. Playing first or second fiddle to the water chimes are various cicada soloists plus birds far off in the background. While not exactly a dance floor filler, Suikinkutsu creates a tranquil aural environment perfect for those times when you don't want your mind cluttered with melody or your furniture funkified.

            Feld's Time of the Bells 3 included tracks by Ghanaian ensemble Por Por, which gets a disc of its own on Honk Horn Music of Ghana (Smithsonian Folkways). Forget electric guitars, saxophones or talking drums, and anything resembling highlife, juju or other previously exported regional styles. Feld has discovered the exceptionally eccentric La Drivers Union Por Por Group, whose instrumental arsenal consists of squeeze-bulb taxi horns, drums and the inevitable bells. The results resemble either a nicely orchestrated traffic jam or angry waterfowl invading an assembly line, but it's marvelous either way. As engagingly odd as the genre might seem, it turns out to be a logical modern extension of nmenson animal horn music of the Akan-speaking peoples of southern Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire. Tracks like "Trotro Tour of Ghana" that add vocals dilute the strangeness, but enough untamed tooting thrives to make this the best West African party platter since a Barrister fuji disc. You know what the bumper sticker says: Honk if You Love Por Por. And you will!

            Ka Hikina O Ka Hau (Dancing Cat) by Keola Beamer boasts two anomalies in the Hawaiian slack-key guitar genre. First, it's a cd of winter songs subtitled "The Coming of the Snow" from islands that only experience the powdery stuff on their mightiest mountain peaks. (When Beamer and other Dancing cat-label slack-keyers played a concert here in West Michigan in the 1990s, one of the musicians confessed in wonder to have never suffered the miseries of winter before.) The second oddity is that, instead of being another jewel in Beamer's crown of traditional-based Hawaiian releases, Ka Hikina O Ka Hau showcases his classical music chops.

            Now, you may reasonably argue that I'm stretching things to the limit by including recordings of bells and ceramic bowls in a world music column. And surely I've gone off my already creaky rocker by including performances of compositions by Satie, Ravel, Strvinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others. However, this cd also includes "Chiquilin de Bachin" by tango scion Astor Piazzolla, the traditional Brazilian "Tutu Marambá," and Beamer's own "Poli'ahu" (The Mauna Kea Snow Goddess). This playfully chilly piece, whose arpeggios suggest falling snow, adds George Winston's plucked and muted piano phrasings to Beamer's quietly commanding guitar.

            It's that mastery along with Beamer's slack-key tunings throughout that put a Hawaiian stamp on most of the material through multi-tracked guitar arrangements primarily by Beamer and Daniel O'Donoghue. On "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," Keola plays two steel string guitars, three nylon string guitars, and two electric guitars with such deftness and delicacy, you have to listen closely to pick up on how much is going on.

            The greatest tribute I can pay this album is to note that one of my favorite tracks is a rendition of a song I otherwise avoid with gritted teeth. But Beamer's rippling guitar duet with Winston of "The Little Drummer Boy" is a refreshing snowball of delight. The segue into Winston's "Winter Aloha" is so seamless and the entire performance so natural, you may start hearing seasonal vocal versions of  "Drummer Boy" as a Hawaiian song gone wrong.

            Members of Tinariwen may have grown up listening to Led Zep and Santana, but the down and dirty guitar chugging on Aman Iman: Water is Life (World Village) puts me more in mind of rockabilly than arena rock. I blame the one-string 'walking' alto riffs on "Matadjem Yinmixan" (Why All This Hate Between You?), "Cler Achel" (I Spent the Day) and other tracks for nudging me toward expectations of a Johnny Burnett-style echoplex vocals. But these Tuaregs of northeastern Mali have something just as good with their aching lead vocals straight out of a Sahara honky-tonk and band-of-outlaw female voices backing them with equal proportions of honey and vinegar. It's a tight communal sound with irresistible riffs that unroll for mile upon mile and songs that never run out of steam.

            Not all trance music makes good dance music here, though I suppose you could clomp and sway to "Ahimani" (Oh My Soul), which gets its juice from recitations by touring-shy poet Japonais. "Soixante Trois" (Sixty Three), about the Tuareg rebellion of 1963, is pitched to an even lower vibe; buzzing guitar and vocals barely above a whisper create a dead-of-night, campfire-lit memorial to those who fell to the Malian army. Final cut "Izarharh Tenere" (I Lived in the Desert), featuring Ibrahim Ag Alhabib backing himself on acoustic guitar, is downright ghostly. Later an electric guitar chimes in, and although the pace picks up, the same mysterious ambiance hangs on. All the cuts have a degree of this, a sense of eavesdropping on a group of people who know some hidden truth that I can only guess about. This and those devilish riffs add up to a wonderful album.

            Dobet Gnahoré joins the rarified company of African art divas Rokia Traore and Sally Nyola with her wide-ranging Na Afriki (Cumbancha). Singing in seven languages and blending seven times that many influences, the Côte d'Ivoire-born Gnahore weaves in and out of Colin Laroche de Féline's acoustic guitar sparkles. Multi-tracked choruses and other instruments take a backseat to this duo, providing Na Afriki with a distinctive sound that feels grounded in the traditional, compared to the classical music overreaching that tended to scuttle Traore's and Nyola's later releases. Nor does she allow arrangements to come between her and her subject matter.  Her passion is as much a hallmark as her versatility. The acid jazz leanings of "Inyembezi zam" prompts a pop delivery that still manages to keep close to the neo-roots tenor of the strongest songs here. Best of all is when we get an overdubbed assemblage of our diva all singing together ecstatic loops of melody, as on "Télodé," which is just about as good as any music gets.

            I am a lucky man. I bought Culture's Two Sevens Clash back in the early '80s, and while I listened to it a lot, I didn't play it to death. I hadn't heard it since I retired my turntable over a decade ago, which means that Two Sevens Clash (30th Anniversary Edition) (Shanachie) still sounds fresh and vibrant. But how could it be otherwise? This reggae milestone has everything going for it, including prophetic lyrics delivered like incantations intended to bring down western civilization, and these are set to a percussive beat that boasts an odd mixture of rapture and urgency. Joseph Hill and company's vocals celebrate the coming of the Biblical Endtimes with the unwavering fixity of a blowtorch in the breeze, merging a seductive pop approach with a cheerily chilly unearthliness. "Calling Rastafari" and "Two Sevens Clash" are so archetypal, it's as if they had always existed and Culture merely channeled them.

            The 30th Anniversary Edition adds five additional tracks, including versions of "Natty Dread Taking Over" and "I'm Not ashamed" with I Roy, each clocking in at over seven minutes, and while the original songs hardly needed an additional overlay of spaciness, it's cool to see I Roy added to the embarrassing richness of artists already on board, from Sly and Robbie to Tommy McCook and Bobby Ellis. If I didn't play this album into the ground when I first got it on vinyl, I'm drilling a deep spiral with it now.

            St-st-stuttering dub production gives the blandly titled but consistently entertaining Life (Fir House Productions) by Ijahlar (Featuring Zaro & Jey) the edge, so that even the lover's rock kind of cut "Girl You're Sweet" jumps out to take you by the hand. It evokes almost any classic reggae act you can shake loose from memory, blending the glossy surface of Steel Pulse with the take-no-prisoners directness of Israel Vibrations. Fire it up between a Burning Spear and Culture cd, and it won't jar your nostalgia a bit. Nice songs, instrumentation, and singing. What more could you want?

            Antoine Nedule Monswet took the stage name Papa Noel, because he was born on Christmas, and his latest ode to joy, Café Noir (Tumi Music), is a bright and shining gift to every lover of Cuban and Congolese pop. Recorded at Studio ICAIC in Havana with a roster of impressive African and Cuban musicians, these sweetly nostalgic songs prove that the 77-year-old rumba congo legend – an alumnus of golden-age OK Jazz, Les Bantous de la Capitale and Orchestre African Jazz – hasn't lost his guitar chops or his silky voice.  Joining Noel on two songs is Cameroonian superstar Manu Dibango, who lays down an infectious riff on "Soukous Son" and briefly solos on "Africa Mokili Mobimba."

            It may be unfair to compare this large cast romp with releases by the Congolese luminaries that mine similar musical vein as Kékélé, the ensemble Papa Noel helped found, considering all the extra instrumentalists and vocalists on board here. But the territory covered bridges genres like few other exercises in roots reconciliation.  The merengue-zouk-soukous hybrid "Soleil" moves through a goofy 'be happy' synthesizer opening only to switch to a tough turn-on-a-dime muted trumpet section. But just as you're assimilating that change, a smooth accordion break jumps out to pave the way for Papa's luxuriant acoustic guitar figures, a terse but pleasingly teasing vocal, and finally a stampeding percussive close complete with talking drums. Now that's the way to put it all together.

            Your reaction to Alevanta! (Riverboat Records) will have a lot to do with how Benjamín Escoriza's voice tickles your ears. If you revel in the gritty extreme of sandpapery flamenco vocals, this will shove you into abrasion heaven. If you favor a smoother approach, you'll still find lots to admire here, since at least a few songs show the softer side of the lead voice of Radio Tarifa. It's a beautiful meeting of Granada gypsy, North African, and medieval elements combined with bits and pieces of Latin pop and even rap.

            Once I'd inoculated myself to Escoriza's elastic pipes, I started enjoying the power and passion of a voice that slots right into the hard-driven arrangements. He shakes hands with a vernacular oboe on the ancient-around-the-edges "Paquita La Guapa" and embraces the rambunctious rockification of "Hambre." The calming flute is a nice touch here, as is the surprise soprano sax that pops up on "Rumba Del," which opens with the bleat of sheep and the clang of bells. Shades of Steven Feld! Joining Escoriza are various Radio Tarifa collaborators, including Vincent Molina, Jaime Muela, and Fernando Mejias. They make Alevanta! a logical extension of the band's releases, but with an idiosyncratic slant that pushes the boundaries of flamenco in a somewhat more aggressive direction.

            Based on sheer output alone, I knew that films were a blockbuster industry in India, but until I read DJ Ritu's liner notes to The Rough Guide to Bollywood Gold (World Music network), I hadn't realized the importance of these movies to the first generation of Indian immigrants to the UK and North America. Tin the 1950s and '60s especially, Bollywood films provided a much needed sense of community with the motherland. Soundtrack songs were something that could be taken from a movie – first in memory only, later with LPs, and occasionally via reel-to-reel recorders that were smuggled into theaters – and shared with friends and family to add a sense of 'back home' to life in a foreign country. The kids who grew up hearing this music from their parents or grandparents haven't lost their connection to the music. According to Ritu, the classics remain wildly popular in UK clubs today.

            Bollywood Gold collects several pieces of this gold in all their glorious excess, including tracks by essential playback artists Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and others. Those of us who lack links to the subcontinent will listen incredulously to the campy flirtatious bantering between Jolly Mukherjee and Sridevi on "Chandni O Meri Chandni," Kumar's unexpected bout of Swiss yodeling on "Zindagi Ek Salar Hai Suhana," the James Bondian stylings of "Mehbooba Mehbooba" with Dudley Doright lead vocal by Rahul Dev Burman, and the surf guitar and drum excess of "Aaja AajaMain Hoon Pyar Tera." The delightful crimes against composition go on and on, song after song, and I can't remember when I've had such a grand and giddy time with an album.

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