(from The Beat, Vol. 26, No. 3, 2007)

At first blush, and I blush pretty easily, the Occidental Brothers Band Dance Band International seems to be as much of a West African relic as the African Brothers Band. The jangling guitar, rippling sax, Cuban percussion and dry-as-a-bone production on the Chicago-based band's same-name, same-label debut suggests some lost pop gem from the 1960s. But as easily confused as I often am, I would never confuse this with an actual import in the end. Kyle Hernandez's acoustic bass solo on "Ana Masi Ife Uwa" is unlike anything you're likely to hear on Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe's original version of this highlife ditty. The small-combo presentation is also a big departure from the powerhouse African ensembles, and the lack of vocals stamps these stomping sounds as different, too.

            From Guinea's Bembeya Jazz to Franco's OK Jazz, I always puzzled over the use of the word 'jazz' in African band names, since the resulting music never much resembled American jazz, unless these bands were simply reclaiming the term. But even though you'll find scant evidence of anything approaching a swing tempo on Occidental Brothers, the reinvention of Orchestra OK Jazz's Congolese juggernaut "Bomboko Awuti Na New York" features furious contrapuntal soloing that definitely leans harder toward jazz than it tilts in the rock direction. And I might as well make the same claim about most of the other tracks. Though the playing occasionally gets busier than the DC Madam's cell phone, threatening to tie Nathaniel Braddock's guitar and Greg Ward's alto saxophone into knots, the two complement each other's passages with equal parts precision and delicious abandon. Time and space, not weight and matter, are what count.

            All of the band members are impressive, but it's guitarist Braddock more than anyone else who propagates the golden age African pop sound. A Ghanaian vocalist reportedly joins the band in an upcoming recording, and I'm eager to hear how the change affects an already successful approach. I can't help but thinking it will get even better.

            Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the music store comes a new compilation of West African tracks that you definitely won't confuse with the Occidental Brothers. Featuring funk-crazed Afrobeat, mutant high-life and other gyrating eccentricities, Bokoor Beats (Otrabanda Records) wrenches us back to the 1970s when John Collins' Bokoor Studio in Ghana was assembling one wildly inventive, can't-unstick-it-from-your-brain song after another.

            Whether these tracks are inferior to the selections on the Naxos-label's 2002 release Ghana Electric Highlife: Sessions from the Bokoor Studios is a world-shaking consideration that raises the question, by what criteria do we judge these specimens in amber? Drenched in the conventions of the day largely borrowed from summer-of-love psychedelia, the songs only lack the sob of a wah-wah pedal to cap their dated appeal. (And I may have simply overlooked the crying guitar while grooving to the bottomless bell-bottom beat.) The first three tracks by the Bokoor Band suggest that the house ensemble had been hoarding War recordings, especially on "There is Time" with its "Cisco Kid" harmonica intro and chanted nursery rhyme vocals. The raging "Atiadele" (Deceiver) by Mangwana Stars may vault us forward to 1986 with dollops of driving guitar, tasty electric guitar licks and engaging declamatory vocals, but its organ noodling suggests the stoned sixties.

            Even A-level West African artists such as Prince Nico and King Sunny churned out scads of B-level material, so every track here easily earns its diploma. Collins has promised to reopen Bokoor Studio, and I can't wait to learn what the current crop of local musicians have to offer, which of the alumni return, and whether the Bokoor Band has conquered "Low Rider."

            Any three minutes of Suphala's Blueprint (Suphala Productions) contain more inventiveness than you usually find on an entire cd. Opening track "Maybe There's a Place Where Someday You and I Can Go" starts with an acid jazz riff plus Suphala and Vikter Duplaix's unison vocals before shape shifting via a burst of tabla and harmonium. No sooner is the Indian fusion apparently established then a classical violin figure drifts in, followed by a bansuri flute solo suggesting Sundanese pop. With its cut-and-paste world beat montage style, rhythmic sound effects and burst of noise guitar, "The Blank Page" could almost be the latest track from Brazil's DJ Dolores. But it's pure Suphala.

            Blueprint is a textbook example of how a drummer can maintain her identity while surrounding herself with the strongest talents. Those talents include violinist Mazz Swift, guitarist Vernon Reid (on "Auramatic," produced by King Britt), bansuri player Rakesh Chaurasia, cellist David Gotay, and Suphala playing just about everything else. Edie Brickell contributes an ethereal vocal to "Music Like Memory," straddling the rhythmic complexity of a song that's anchored by Suphala's drumming and, on top, a lazy violin accompaniment that wanders inside a kind of lovely fog. Suphala's percussion is superb throughout the disc – a friend asked me if one of her passages was electronically sped up – and her taste in arrangements and collaborations kicks everything up another notch.

            Speaking of DJ Dolores, I'm afraid that the Brazilian mixologist's wildly creative concoctions have spoiled me when it comes to listening to his countrymen's work. Hip hop is one thing. But the Portuguese-language rap on The Inspiring New Sounds of Rio de Janeiro (Verge Records) failed to inspire me, since I still struggle to get by as an English-speaking monoglot. That means I have to look for meaning in the way the various artists on this anthology structure the instrumental portion of the songs, and these are only occasionally strong enough to hold my attention. I do like the guitar riff appropriated from vintage Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" that opens Movimento na Rua's "Soldados Nunca Mais," and I admire the way the salsa-samba horns complement Gabriel Moura's exuberant vocals on "Erasis." Eking more depth from these songs requires a soul with deep understanding of the poetic intricacies of Portuguese, and I'm so far from even pronouncing the artists' names correctly, that I lack what I require from these tracks.

            "Kan Marau La" rocks to what may be the heaviest riff that humans have every played. Fanfare Ciocarlia's monstrous, growling locust buzz of brass blots out the sun as the Romanian heirs to Mothra circle, circle and descend to the ruined ground in an aggressive paean to unrequited love that's as catchy as a field of thistles. Forget electronic instruments. Only the acoustic variety could make such an unholy howl as saxophones, trumpets and tubas clash over clattering drums. Early recordings by this gypsy brass orchestra were exclusively instrumental. More recent releases have added a smattering of voices, but on Queens and Kings (Asphalt Tango Records) an all-star cast of Romany royalty steps behind the mike. Bucharest's Dan Armeanca slips between the blasts, blats and throbbing to deliver the aforementioned tale of hurt. On "Que Dolor," members of French gypsy ensemble Kaloome merge flamenco-inflected North African flavors with Balkan bombast, and the two halves fit together so neatly, you want to hear it done again. So we get "Cuando Tu Volveras," too, but its brass edge is smoother than the earlier cut.

            "Sandala," sporting rapid fire vocals by soulful Serbian Saban Bajramovic, sounds remarkably like klezmer, suggesting cross-pollination between certain Yiddish and gypsy styles. It's barely a notch removed from old-time circus music, too, and I'd wager that a significant percentage of the European circus population of the 19th and 20th centuries was comprised of gypsies. The manic tempo, clashing instrumental textures and loopy violin and cymbalon solos of the same song also conjure up cartoon soundtracks, but I'm at a loss to explain the connection, unless Jewish musicians played key roles in the pioneering days of animation, just as they did in early jazz.

            Esma Redzepova lives up to her Queen of the Gypsies moniker on "Ibrahim" by nearly blowing the brass band off the stage with her impressive lung power, Bulgaria's Jony Iliev rocks the mahala out of "Mig Mig," Mitsou treats us to her somewhat creepy munchkin impression on "Duj Duj," and if you think you've heard everything at this point, brace yourself for the twisted, blaring assault on Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" that caps off this extraordinary disc.

            I doubt that there's much of a gypsy presence on the Comoros Islands of the Indian Ocean. But Nawal's Aman (Nawali.com) relies on a similar amalgam of Indian, Arab and European vocal styles, but with the added plus of African influences, including the mbira on "Meditation" and the backing vocals throughout the cd. Nawal brandishes a big voice, and she knows how to use it, effortlessly dominating the sparse arrangements with her trio that suggest Middle Eastern Sufi music. Grabbing repetitious melodic figures between her teeth on "Salama," she twists, shortens and elongates them, yodeling, ululating and otherwise signifying as she strives to root the listener to the eternal present moment. The occasional English lyric pops out of the French and local language mix; "too much pollution," she sings on "Narizambe," or "there is nothing that is not God," she tells us on "Meditation." If her seriousness crosses the line into piousness, and her original vocal approach sometimes stoops to platitudes, Aman is still a compelling listen.

            My acquaintance with Raul Malo is through his Los Super Seven sessions with members of Los Lobos and his first solo release, Today, which included Spanish-language songs and a multicultural bent. In that context, After Hours (New Door/Universal Music) feels like an anomaly to me, but to fans of his country band the Mavericks, this disc of mostly Nashville standards is a different kind of stretch. Malo says he was inspired by Ray Charles' 1962 landmark LP Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music in which Charles recorded songs 'live' in a single take whenever possible. But After Hours may remind you more of k.d. lang's Absolute Torch and Twang. Instead of taking a conventional approach to classics, Malo opts for a night-style small combo setting, turning Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" in a bit of western swing, or squeezing out every drop of emotion from the old Eddie Arnold hit, "Welcome to My World." It's good stuff, and Malo sings the heck out of every song, but I miss the Latin material. Even a couple of Freddy Fender ballads would have lent an extra dimension to the project.

            The challenge of dub is paring down a song to its basic rhythmic elements without destroying the song's identity. Dub done wrong sounds way too formulaic, because anything of interest from the original track can end up on the cutting floor. But the sparkling tracks on Essential Dub (ROIR) brim with hooks, from the clarinet squeals on Oku Onuora's "Dub Out" to the squealing falsetto voices on Ras Michael's "Truth and Right." The songs are no less tough for the melodies and textures that survive the dubification process. You could pogo to the nervous rhythm of Dub Trio's "Drive by Dub," one of the sparser tracks here, but you'll probably return to it as much for the gooey keyboard chops and melodica swirls as for the explosive percussion. And ya gotta love any anthology that dubs punk metal power reggae band Bad Brains into a mellow croon. We also get Bill Laswell, Niney the Observer, and Bush Chemists here. It's one juicy song after another from the former cassette-only label (remember the cassette?), which apparently possesses one heck of an archive.

            Having suffered through hours of bad Vietnamese pop music at local restaurants, I'm pleased to savor the delicacies of The Rough Guide to the Music of Vietnam (World Music Network) with their mix of mostly gentle-sounding traditional fare and the inevitable streamlining influence of modern formats. Saigon-born Parisian Huong Thanh  presents a gorgeous example of the quavering microtonal cai luong vocal style with guitarist/producer Nguyen Le on "Crossing the Valley." Thanh Quy turns in a similar performance, this time of the traditional quan ho style, on "Ngoi Tua Song Dao" (Sitting by the Peach Mullioned River).  Blue Asia confirms the aptness of its name when this brainchild of Japanese producer Makoto Kubota team up with one-string dan bao player Thuy plus funk/jazz drummer Bernard Purnie to coax out the inherent bluesy quality of a traditional Vietnamese genre. Doubling the firepower of the dan bao, Kim Sinh zips up and down the two-string dan nguyet in bottleneck fashion on "Cau Doi Cau Cho." But don't expect the dan bao to lie down and play dead in the face of competition. Who else but Dan Bao Vietnam charm a gaggle of Japanese tourists with a rip roaring amplified and electrified version of cowboy classic "Riders in the Sky" – proving how little it takes to make a better noise than restaurant music.

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