(from The Beat, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2006)

            Baluchistan. Kazakhstan. Umbrellastan. They're all countries in Central Asia, aren't they? It's hard keeping track based on the scant information we get in the media from the various 'Stans,' with the notable exceptions of Afghanistan and Newsstand. Almost no Central Asian music trickles our way, though we did get a tantalizing glimpse on 2002's The Silk Road anthology. But thanks to an ambitious decade-long project funded by the Aga Khan, who is presumably no relation to Chaka Khan, we're finally getting a taste of what we've been missing.

            The first three volumes of Smithsonian Folkways planned ten-volume Music of Central Asia series are extraordinary, even if I can't pronounce any of the performer's names, the genres, instruments, or song titles. Producer Dr. Theodore Levin of Dartmouth University has done all of that for me, and in addition has selected a wide palette of musical styles for Volume 1, Tengir-Too: Mountain Music of Kyrgyzstan, Volume 2, Invisible Face of the Beloved: Classical Music of the Tajiks and Uzbeks, and Volume 3, Homayun Sakhi: The Art of the Afghan Rubab. So grab a strong cup of coffee and a ziggurat, then sit back for great sounds and video, too. Each of these lavishly packaged releases includes a DVD containing a 24-minute documentary on the artists and styles, plus a glossary of the instruments.

            The music on Tengir-Too is scratchy, bouncy, twangy and can be unexpectedly pretty. It's also programmatic, with instrumentation that describes scenes and events in nature with a humility demonstrating respect for the rough and tumble natural world of the traditional nomadic culture. While it's no surprise to see two members of the Tengir-Too native instrument ensemble crouching in a yurt that's dwarfed by an emerald green valley in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, I got a jolt watching Bakyt Chytyrbaev washing his hands in a stream one moment and the next moment inputting kyl kiyak horsehair fiddle music into a computer as he talks about adapting to city life.

            The scene is emblematic of the ensemble's achievement, as Tengir-Too group leader Nurlanbek Nyshanov's puts traditional solo nomadic music styles into a modern context by adapting them to group arrangements. The whimsical piece "Jangylyk" that kicks off the disc transforms a herder's humble jew's harp into an instrument for a trio, turning a simple tune into a canon with contrary-motion melodic motifs. Rysbek Jumabaev's recitation of the "Kökötöidün Ashy" episode from an epic poem about the national hero Manas fits nicely in a vernacular flute, fiddle, and hand drum setting that evokes the sweeping action of the story.

            One of the greatest pleasures of the DVD and cd is noting the stylistic differences between players of a single instrument, the three-stringed fretless komuz lute. Zainidin Imanaliev, who learned the komuz by ear from phonograph records, plays in a sandpapery strumming that perfectly complements his sweet and liquid voice on the romantic ballad "Küidüm Chok" (I Burn, I Smoulder Like Charcoal). His occasional yodels at the end of verses suggest a Kyrgyz version of Slim Whitman. Nurak Abdrakhmanov attacks his instrument on "Atilla Khan" with the pull-off fingering pyrotechnics of a Hawaiian slack-key guitarist, and his showboating technique is as fun to watch as hear. Namazbek Uraliev reveals an even nimbler virtuosity on the jaunty instrumental "Kengesh."

            The selections on Invisible Face of the Beloved couldn't contrast more strongly with those on Tengir-Too. In place of a selection of varied songs, this disc presents an extended performance of the Central Asian court music called Shashmaqam which lacks even the slightest hint of playfulness. Take that other Asian vocal music of the Sufis containing an unexpected 'q' – I'm talking about qawwali – and imagine an ascetic, constrained, and highly formalized version of the same, and you vaguely approach the feel of what's on tap here. Shashmaqam has a similar not-in-any-hurry ebb and flow that seesaws back and forth between meditative and ecstatic sections. But while qawwali as a folk idiom dares to suggest through performance how an encounter with the divine might sound, the mathematically precise Central Asian approach to Sufism feels more dogmatic and disciplined. This recently invigorated classical music dates back to the Middle Ages, and at any given moment in the performance, you might think that you were in fact hearing a polished example of folk music. The rigor of the genre comes via the complex underlying system of poetic modes called aruz, which develop throughout the single 70-minute "Maqam-I Rast" piece on the disc. Sophisticated hand drum rhythms are as key to the progress of the performance as are the dutar and tanbur lutes, and the sato bowed tanbur.

            The DVD documentary Revitalizing Shashmaqam; Court Music of Central Asia lacks the intimacy of the Tengir-Too documentary. We meet few of the musicians up close, and while the scenes of the Academy of Maqam teaching sessions are tantalizing, I never found an easy entry point into this sprawling genre. I would have appreciated less footage of banquet attendees chewing as music plays in the background and more nutritional information about what we're hearing.

            The Afghan rubab double-chambered lute has a distinctive sound at times resembling a banjo, or all things, and at other times recalling a koto, sitar or hammer-string instrument. Since our mass media relentlessly portrays Afghanistan as a barely civilized wasteland, the refined classical ragas performed by Homayun Sakhi on The Art of the Afghan Rubab are particularly refreshing. Carrying a whiff of Ottoman court music and strong influences from Iranian and North Indian classical styles, the three compositions overflow with ornamentation and rhythmic intensity. Accompanying Sakhi is tabla player Toryalai Hashimi, who pumps out the intricate beats in rapid fire style.

            The accompanying DVD illustrates what a difference an intimate documentary can make in opening up an unfamiliar form of music. We see Sakhi in his Fremont, California home demonstrating how he might alter a musical passage to make it his own, and showing off different instrument techniques. At one point, he plucks his rubab harp-like with both hands, playing it in the style of an Indian santur. His warmth and enthusiasm really project, especially in the concert footage with his tabla player Hashimi. After watching the video, I couldn't help but want to pop in the CD and delve deeper into the music. Volume 2 would have benefited from a documentary this strong.


            The opening cut on the dvd/cd set The Continuing Adventures of Taraf de Haidouks (Crammed Discs) shows the Romanian gypsy ensemble playing faster than I've ever heard humans play before as they send traditional-based styles into the stratosphere, and then far out into space. For those readers old enough to remember vinyl recordings, playing a 33 rpm lp at 78 falls short of capturing the effect of the live cd, which was recorded at London's Union Chapel. It's closer to the burble of a tape recording on fast forward as the band bites down on lightning charged arrangements. But cut two "Little Buds" slows things down with a vocal that inched my hand toward the stop button until I realized that the exaggerated lead vocal was of a piece with the band's love of excess. But when "Cintec de dragoste si joc" followed with another dollop of farcical singing, Taraf nearly lost me.  Thankfully the 12-minute-long extravaganza "A Stork Crosses the Danube, in the Company of a Raven" jumps back to the frantic take on gypsy swing with corkscrewing violins, galloping bass, and chattering accordion all fighting for solo time. It's enough to give a timid soul the heebie-jeebies and incite the foolhardy to try and tap a toe to this mayhem. After that, I was ready for more vocal melodrama.

            Although the dvd includes a 58-minute video called "Taraf de Haidouks Live at Union Chapel," interview segments with Johnny Depp, Gabriel Yared and others dilute the locomotive power of the performance. Undoubtedly the interruptions were needed to keep circuit breakers around the world from popping as the white-hot concert footage unreels, but the digressions impede the current flow. Redeeming the dvd are the 52-minute documentary "No Man is a Prophet in His Own Land," plus the 17-minute "On the Road with Taraf," the 23-minute "The Taraf Speak to You," and an 8-minute snippet from the movie Latcho Drom. That's a lot of material, and this is a superb two-disc set.

            Alone at My Wedding (Crammed Discs) is appropriately horny compared to Taraf de Haidouks, which doesn't employ a single member of the brass community. But Kocani Orkestar wields trumpets and tubas, and the Macedonian gypsy band knows how to use them. They've also got violin, accordion, clarinet, and slaphappy hand drums. It's Balkan big band music as its best – loopy, swooping, catchy, crafty, and brimming with contrasts and vigor. Even the vocals are smooth. So where's the DVD? A person gets spoiled, you know.

            Serbian band Kal brings rock and roll intensity and a forceful pop aesthetic to Kal (Asphalt Tango). Cracking beats and howling reeds duke it out on disc opener "Duj Duj," while "Dvojka" marries a hook-filled tune to tabla-style rhythmic shout-outs and violin zigzags. That's bigamy, you say? Well, this is big music that even appropriates dollops of hip hop kultur, and these guys have got the ear for the memorable musical device – like the percussive rasps on "Komedija" (featuring raspy guest vocalist Rambo Amadeus) or the stuck-note acoustic guitar riff on "Djelem, Djelem." Best of all, the genre defining yearning vocals are anything but generic, signifying soulfulness to spare.

            Nuru Kane isn't your typical Senegalese troubadour with extraordinary voice and artistic vision. Looking northward, he's developed an idiosyncratic style for Sigil (World Music Network) that draws from the musical genres of the Sahara Desert peoples. The rollicking, rock and roll rhythm of the Gnawa supercharge "Niane" with a catchy underpinning of engaging melodic interplay. The Arabic-inflected "Coléro" evokes stark yet still luscious Moorish song styles with gliding harmonies piled on top to make this a gotta-hear-it-again track. But that's true of the whole disc, and Kane is just as alluring when he slips into a slow acoustic guitar-dominated performance like "Toub" and "Talibe." Look for Sigil in plenty of 'album of the year picks' a few months down thte road. In the meantime, if your humdrum life occasionally resembles a parched wasteland, let this refreshing recording be an oasis.

            The Cuban-Congolese mix doesn't get any sweeter than on Kékélé's Kinavana (Stern's Africa), which finds the African superstars gifting us with sons from the golden age of both Havana- and Kinshasa-based pop. Stellar lead vocalists Nyboma, Madilu Bialu, Loko Massengo, Bumba Massa and Wuta Mayi are institutions onto themselves and all the more glorious when joined on a couple of cuts by the legendary Mbilia Bel. Isabel Martinez adds welcome fire to "Ba Kristo," the band's take on the Cuban classic "El Carretero." Smooth arrangements and Lingala-language lyrics put a nice spin on "Mace," last heard on Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer as "Guateque Campesino," and Guillermo Portabales' "Nostalgia Guajira" gets a stylish remake as "Ponton La Belle." Don't bother dipping into your old lps for the best in classic rumba, when everything you need is here.

            Chicano Zen (Artemis/Triloka Records) by Charanga Cakewalk sounds a lot like a continuation of last year's Loteria de la Cumbia Lounge. Same engaging amalgam of lounge music and Latin styles, same low key vibes. This isn't a bad thing, except for those of us who were hoping that new age lounge act was just square one of Michael Ramos' quest to recast Latin music in modern threads. Happily the electronic pulse isn't the main element in recordings rife with acoustic instruments, such as the Vera Cruz-style harp, oodles of insinuating percussion, and Spanish language vocals that lift these cuts way above the ambient. Adding punch and flow to the voice department, respectively, are Ruben Ramos and Paddy Griffin on "No Soy Feliz," And if you're looking for evidence of evolution, Zen boasts a virtually bottomless textural richness and – thanks in part to Lila Down, who contributes songwriting as well as vocals – an almost inexhaustible tunefulness. It's a blast from start to finish, or maybe more of a high octane simmer.

            If you are of Persian extraction, you already intimately know the traditional ghazals that Sussan Deyhim performs on Madman of God, Divine Love Songs of the Persian Sufi Masters (Crammed Discs). But you won't recognize the unabashedly modern arrangements, which twist and stretch the songs. It isn't that the New York City-based vocalist hitches her texts to a club aesthetic or submerges the lovely melodies in electronic grunge. On the contrary, every nuance of minor-key longing blooms magnificently. Multi-tracking her elastic voice, she layers lush waves of sound on top of sparse string and hand drum settings, creating the otherworldly soundscapes that these expressions of celestial aches deserve. Imagine Canadian boundary-busting songstress Laurel MacDonald visiting the Dune planet, and you come close to the swirl of "The Candle & the Moth," while the breathy lament "Daylaman" (Inextricable) evokes lonely winds winding through a canyon. Sufism seeks to express the ineffable, Deyhim succeeds by using impassioned nonverbal vocables to stretch ay beyond the limits of traditional song.

            When Randall Frazier of Rooftop Productions emailed to ask if I'd review (Kush Arora Productions), I told him no, I didn't like bhangra. What could I have been thinking? With its goofy disembodied voices and skewed Bollywood-meets-Lee-Perry aesthetic, Kush Arora's disc is a gas. The artificial blend of reggae and Indian beats couldn't feel more natural, and if you can find a more obnoxious vocalist than the bellowing N4SA on "Sex and Violence," I want to know about it. On second thought, I guess I don't. Equal parts crazy and ultra rhythmic, Bhang Ragga puts the bang in bhangra. And if that joke has been used before, I don't want to know about it.

            Fisherman Style (Blood and Fire) by The Congos and Friends might be too much of a good thing with 24 cuts based on the instrumental and sometimes vocal tracks of the Congo's justifiably legendary Lee "Scratch" Perry-produced 1977 song "Fisherman." The talent roster is as wide as the sea, featuring stalwarts Horace Andy, Big Youth, U Roy, Max Romeo and many others, plus, on disc two, Luciano, Ricky Chaplin, Raggamonica and other more recent artists. Thing is, no matter how far the new vocals and lyrics may deviate from the original, we're still basically hearing the same song 24 times. The results would have been much more interesting if the performers had been given full liberty to speed up, slow down, chop up, cut, and paste the source material.

            More modest in scope and easier on the brain is More Pressure: Straight to the Head (Pressure Sounds). This superb reggae anthology presents a song followed by a version with unpredictable results as Michael Rose, Cornell Campbell, Ras Iruna, Rick Storm, Barrington Levy and other artists both well known and obscure take their moment in the spotlight. While most dub versions tend to selectively subtract from the original recording in order to emphasize the vocal innovations, Bongo Gene's "Skyjack" gets a remix that adds a luscious sax section and sax lead. Straight to the Head goes straight to the pleasure zone.

            The back cover blurb of The Best of Pérez Prado, the Original Mambo No. 5 (BMG/RCA Legacy) proclaims, "Now, for the first time ever, experience the classic mambo sensation in this collection of Pérez Prado hits." In what possible sense is a retrospective a "first time ever" experience? The statement becomes even more ridiculous when you consider that the very same label, BMG/RCA, issued its Cuban Originals-series Prado anthology in 1999, so it feels like déjà vu all over again. The good news is that the 22-track Best of Pérez Prado only has five cuts that are identical to the 16-track Cuban Originals-series release, and you can never have too much of Maestro Prado. So for the first time, second time or how ever many times you want to claim, this is a worthy disc.

            A little Moby goes a long way with me, but pile on the Moby Dick, me boys. A welcome reissue of Paul Clayton's 1956 lp Whaling and Sailing Songs from the Days of Moby Dick (Tradition Records) just blew in. Clayton selected 'forecastle songs' and sea shanties from the middle of the 19th century that the crew of a whaling ship setting out from New Bedford, Massachusetts would have sung. Most of these ditties originated in the British Isles, though "Ranzo" may have Portuguese roots, and "Shenandoah" could have floated south from Canada. The ballads and other narratives give a good picture of what sailors at sea thought about, as indicated by the titles "The Girls Around Cape Horn," "Spanish Ladies," "The Maid of Amsterdam," and "The Dying Sailor to His Shipmates." Whales, of course, surface in others. Clayton's forthright delivery does the material well, and only a scurvy landlubber would harpoon such a fine body of work.

            Tradition Records, by the way, is a new label dedicated to reissuing classic folk recordings, and has recently released such treasures from the 1950s as The Lark in the Morning; Songs and Dances from the Irish Countryside (featuring Tommy Makem, Liam Clancy, Paddy Tunney, and Patrick O'Keefe), Odetta's At the Gate of Horn, and Mrs. Etta Baker Family and Friends' Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians.

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