(from The Beat, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2006)

            Gigi encircles a song like a leopard stalking her prey on Gold & Wax (Palm Pictures). She moves lithely, never in a hurry, never expending unnecessary energy. Her watchfulness is central to her approach – she's totally attuned to her surroundings – and producer Bill Laswell helps her move in for the kill by allowing her plenty of space. The sonic environment here is bigger than on Zion Roots, a 2000 release which came to the US two years after her groundbreaking 2001 disc Gigi. But in place of the jazz legends on Gigi, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Pharoah Sanders, Gold & Wax goes for a gilded, coolly molten take on Addis Ababa funk populated by international players as diverse as Parliament/Funkadelic founding keyboardist Bernie Worrell, neo-griot Foday Musa Suso, electric guitarist Buckethead, and percussionist Karsh Kale.

            "Jerusalem" provides the perfect showpiece for Gigi's contemplative approach to a song, and at a radio unfriendly length of 8:56, it unfolds at the same leisurely pace as an overnight rain. But the Ethiopian-born Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw isn't about razzle-dazzle. She's all about building and holding a mood. She enters "Jerusalem" with a husky contralto, but once a reggae vibe takes hold, she switches to a reed-in-the-wind delivery that gathers strength as effortlessly as the flowing arrangement. In fact, the accompaniments throughout the disc are so tight and organically complementary to her voice, it seems as if I'm listening to a single complex instrument instead of a gaggle of telepathic players.

            While "Jerusalem" is as lovely a song as you'll ever want to hear, the faster paced "Semena-Worck" provides the pleasure of more upfront Amharic-language lyrics that sound like uncannily like English-language vocals played backward. This rhythmically driven piece is closer in spirit to Gigi than anything else on Gold & Wax, with punchy horns and Nils Peter Molvaer's signal processed trumpet solo reminiscent of Jon Hassell's work with Talking Heads on Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues. And speaking of tongues, it's to Gigi's credit that she makes the leap to English lyrics on "Utopia" without a trace of awkwardness. But I prefer the inscrutability of the Amharic vocals, whose foreign phonemes I fill in with familiar words. Who's that 'guitar man' she's singing about on "Antem," and is this actually a country music ditty? Oh, never mind. I love those Motown strings, unless I'm imagining them as well.

            Some bands play ska, some do cumbia, and others take a stab at Cuban music. Those that try to master the whole pan-Caribbean omelet usually end up with egg on their faces. Not so Ska Cubano, the London based ensemble whose borrowings on Ay Caramba! [Cumbancha] sound firsthand, because the band goes right to the source. From Santiago de Cuba, Beny Billy brings classic pipes recalling the glory days of Latin big band vocalists, plus a plucky tres expertise. Meanwhile, South London ska alumnus Natty Bo emotes the Jamaican material with a hitch and a quiver in his voice reminiscent of golden age stylists like Johnny Clarke. Also onboard are veteran Jamaican trumpeter Eddy "Tan Tan" Thornton and Cuban bass player Ray Crespo.

            These chameleons don't just change their spots from song to song. They constantly combine styles, taking us deep into ska territory with the clanging chords and trombone swoops that open "Tabú." But Billy's huge sonero voice and the chugging mambo horns transform the cut into, well, ska cubano. The double entendre-laden "Big Bamboo" plants its 1940s calypso roots in fertile ska soil, then adds campesino horns to the amalgam. While most of the cuts have a strong novelty song component – a comic vocal here, out-of-sync reeds there – they don't grow wearisome after repeated listenings. That's because the clever arrangements go light on the out-and-out gimmickry and lean on good vibes instead.

            The performances are so hot that when I fired up the disc I nearly melted CC Smith's cd player. That's impressive, considering that I live in Michigan, while The Beat's dreaditor lives in California. Even better, "Tabú," "Soy Campesino," and "Chachita" feel as if I've been hearing them for years, and I guess I have, since they're decades-old classic that the band freshens up with rough and tumble arrangements. This is one of the most fun platters that I've heard in decades, and it makes even a party-pooper like me want to party

            Call it a blessing, or call it a curse. Tango huddles in the shadow of genre great Astor Piazzolla. On Lunático (XL Recordings) Gotan Project nudges Astor's ghost into the sunlight without sacrificing the midnight ambiance that this moaning bandoneon-led style calls home. Punkish lockstep drums and squalling electronics give "Amor Porteño" a modern boost. So do an insinuating dance beat, Philly-style strings that get sidetracked in Andalusia, and Juan Carlos Cáceres' smoky spoken word vocals on "Notas." Each pulsating cut shines a different shade of gray into the gloom, like the cocktail jazz that twinkles in "Celos" as the café staff clears the tables. And in the requisite nod to legacy, the bandoneon is everywhere. But so is Argentine piano legend Gustavo Betelmann, who spreads a much needed liquidity on top of the tango lurch.

            Supercharged doesn't even begin to describe Tráfico, the Belgian-based band that hits the ground flying on Think of One (Crammed Discs). Penned and planned in the Canary Islands, this stylish pastiche of styles suggests acid samba, thanks to contributions from Brazilian musicians, including 'mother figure' Dona Cila – check out her winsome lead vocal on "Tirar Onda" – percussionist Carranca, and vocalist/percussionists Cris Nolasco and Ganga Barreto. At times, Think of One may make you think of Brazil's DJ Dolores in the way it juxtaposes the folkloric and the just plain loopy – isn't that the Bonanza tv theme song that pops up unexpectedly in the middle of the cavalo marinho ditty "Tahina?" On the whole this band has a weird sensibility that's all its own, and one heckuva horn section to boot.

            Is that a Dominican Bob Dylan on the first track of The Rough Guide to Bachata (World Music network)? The melody and delivery say yes, but King of Bachata Antony Santos says non in song lyrics that aren't exactly about the chimes of freedom. Instead, he's carping about the lack of female companionship inside his gilded cage on "La Jaula de Oro," poor fellow. Meanwhile, Luis Vargas treats us to an operatic Roy Orbison turn on the aching "Ve Y Dile." And although we may not find a Caribbean Neil Diamond here – nor even a Neil Young – Antony Santos crops up in different guise on "Por Mi Timidez" mellifluously emoting as a wonderful Congolese-style electric guitar plucks staccato arpeggios behind a male chorus. That guitar is such a genre staple, we may as well be listening to the same instrumentalist throughout the disc. The Putumayo label's Y2K Republica Dominicana bachata anthology brought more variety to the table, but this is still a solid sampler.

            When I first broke open Descarga Oriental (Piranha) and let it tootle in the background, I only noticed Oscar Oñoz's Latin horn and Cuban percussion fronted by a highly ornamented piano. But by the time third cut "Ana Ouana" announced itself with Maurice El Médioni's extended intro, the Algerian element hit me like a ton of figs. Mentally transpose his piano improvisations to a Mediterranean qanun zither, and the focus suddenly shifts from Havana to Oran in what must be the world's most organic son-rai fusion ever, if not the only one. Or think of it as Caribbean bellydance.

            Algerian-born El Médioni pioneered the 'piano oriental' style and at age 74 guested on Khaled's 2004 album Ya-Rayi. Adding insinuating beats is ex-pat Cuban Roberto Juan Rodriguez, whose percussion has supercharged discs by Ruben Blades, the Miami Sound Machine, and Lester Bowie, not to mention his work in Yiddish genres. I will mention the texture added to the disc by El Médioni's French-language vocal with female chorus on the infectious "Oran Oran" – and without the back-up singers on "C'etait il y a longtemps" – while his organ accompaniment gives three cuts a tasty retro rai ambiance.

            From Niger Etran Finatawa cook up a pudding of North and West African sources on the guitar band's debut cd Introducing Etran Finatawa (World Music Network). Sounding like the late Ali Farka Toure collaborating with Dimi Mint Abba and tossing in a smidgen of Eric Clapton, the ensemble takes off from the traditional music of the Tuareg and Wodaabe peoples. Any similarities to successful Saharan band Tinariwen may be purely intentional, although it's equally probable that scads of nomadic rockers bubble below the commercial radar. Slightly off-kilter guitar rhythms, engaging call and response vocals, and the happiest tambourine in the hemisphere inspire bright songs that are perfect for capping off a day of cattle herding or hunching over a computer keyboard.

            World beat doesn't get much rootsier than the sparkling Tou Manbre (Dadisound Productions) from Lataye. Boukman Eksperyans founding members Daniel and Marjorie Beaubrun plus vodou priests Alex and Sheila Tanisma contribute to the authenticity of the Haitian sound, while gorgeous harmonies and crisp arrangements make each cut a standout. The first two songs function as a kind of invocation for the full-tilt rasin mizik pop workout "Edike," featuring Daniel's Marley-esque lead vocals. Also in the Wailers vein we get a "Concrete Jungle"-style fuzz guitar solo on Marjorie's "Dakout Saa." Less musically ambitious than Boukman Eksperyans, which sometimes sunk beneath the weight of its gravitas, Lataye creates immediately accessible pleasures that continue to uplift the spirit long after the disc stops playing. [www.lataye.com]

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