(from The Beat, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2005)

I guess if World Music Network had called its cd The Rough Guide to the Worst Latin Music Ever Recorded, no one would buy it. Okay, I would. And probably Dave Hucker. But it might also prove difficult to license tracks for an anthology with such a negative title. So the label decided upon the equally accurate The Rough Guide to Boogaloo and called it good, though you might call it awful – which isn't always a bad thing.

            You might be forgiven if boogaloo never made it onto your radar screen. Unlike the mambo, the cha-cha, and other Latin music crazes, boogaloo didn't exactly mesmerize the mainstream during its limping run in the late 1960s and early '70s. Ex-Beatle Ringo Starr's unmemorable 1972 single "Back Off Boogaloo" and 1967's soul-funk ditty "Boogaloo Down Broadway" by The Fantastic Johnny C indicate chart success in name only, since neither of these songs contained the needed mix of Latin music and funk. They only proved that the word 'boogaloo' had made it into the vernacular, though most people had little idea what the word referred to.

            In fact, judging from the selections on Rough Guide, a key requirement of boogaloo was peppering the song lyrics with the term 'boogaloo' as frequently as possible. Most genres that feel compelled to hammer the genre name in this manner do so because their audience may be uncertain as to exactly what it is that they're listening to, so we're not dealing with the height of sophistication here. We're dealing with the musical equivalent of microwave French fries with gravy poured on top – and boogaloo is just as likely to cause indigestion if you subject yourself to more than a few tracks at a time.

            The joy that can be eked from this collection comes from hearing such Latino luminaries as Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz and the Fania All Stars stoop low to conquer this happily disposable style. Tito Puente Su Orchestra gets top honors for submerging its genius in 1969's "Fat Mama," an invitation to dance that lacks the slightest hint of Puente's fiery percussion, though the mambo horns are rather nice. Ralph Robles' "Soul Nitty Gritty" from the same year calls particular attention to boogaloo's defining simpleminded lyrics (about 'chicks' dancing here) and inanely uncomplicated melodies. Add an electric guitar, and "Soul Nitty Gritty" would almost approach the compelling cornball sound of 1970s West African 'Afro-Rock' (but more on that later).

            The Fania All Stars come out relatively unscathed on "Son, Cuero Y Boogaloo," and that's due to the jazz underpinnings that leave plenty of breathing room for impressive horn solos. It swings, but is it actually boogaloo? And if the All Stars' slinky instrumental "Viva Tirado" counts as boogaloo, you might as well toss all of Santana's early recordings onto the smoldering heap. Skip the two tasty tracks mentioned above and zero in on Bobby Valentin's numbingly stupid reworking of the Batman tv show theme as "Batman's Boogaloo," or savor the legendary Willie Colon paying the rent on "Willie Whopper," which rides a boasting vocal and powerful horn accompaniment into oblivion, fizzling out just when it seemed to be on the verge of developing into something – rather like the boogaloo fad itself.

            Hats off to World Music Network for honoring such an underwhelming musical craze with a collection that runs the gamut from mediocre to flinchingly horrible while never failing to entertain. This collection is a must-have for your next party, and there's certainly nothing around to equal it – at least not until The Rough Guide to Lambada rises up from the primordial ooze.           

            Almost as ubiquitous as the cries of "boogaloo" on The Rough Guide are the James Brown grunts and squeals on – take a deep breath now – World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love's a Real Thing; The Funky Fuzzy Sounds of West Africa (Luaka Bop).  This succinctly titled anthology of oddities from the 1970s holds up a funhouse mirror to the American summer of love and refracts back a season of silly soul. The mix of R&B, flower power rock and neo-tribalism pays off with at least one memorable element per song. The twangy faux sitar guitar solo on the Gambian-based Super Eagle's "Love's a Real Thing" will tickle your inner ear as much as the ridiculously energetic fuzz guitar which leads "Allah Wakbarr" from UK migrants Ofo and the Black Company. Top honors for credibility straining go to Nigerian William Onyeabor's "Better Change Your Mind." Following a string of strength sapping lyrics addressed to the world's great nations comes a guitar with an incurable case of the hiccups engaged in what might charitably be termed a solo, as bass and drums grind on and on. The only pity is that this and other tracks aren't just a little bit worse. They're not quite in a league with the eyeball-rollers on the Evolver-label Afro-Rock collection from the same time period, but they'll certainly do. The only discordant note is sounded by Manu Dibango's "Ceddo End Title." Despite a somewhat goofy keyboard sound, the blend of marimba and interesting percussion is way too accomplished to hold its old with the rest of the super freaks here. 

            After Boogaloo's bumpy missteps, Afro-Latin Party (Putumayo), an anthology of Cuban-style music from around the world, is like slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes. Even if you aren't familiar with selections by African-Cuban ensemble Africando or California-based Ricardo Lemvo, Medoune Diallo's satiny voice on "Mandali" is as inviting to the ear as warm bathwater is to the toe. And before I exhaust my supply of similes, metaphors and clichés, I might observe that Pepe and the Bottle Blonde's tongue-in-chic mambo-esque "Cuétame Que Te Pasó" is as refreshing as the Portland, Oregon breezes that the band members presumably enjoy. Who knew that Croatians had gotten on board the salsa train? Cubismo (not to be confused with Cubanismo) hands us the ticket on "Morenita," while Ska Cubano from Britain via Cuba and Jamaica update the old chestnut "Babalu" with early '60s Caribbean rhythms.

            Uprooting by the Warsaw Village Band (World Village) is so astringent, doctors should prescribe it for cuts, bruises, minor burns and mental fatigue. Don't let the ensemble's home country of Poland lull you into expecting polite polkas. For anything approaching the dark, medieval intensity here, you'll have to look north to Finland and Sweden, probably because the Scandinavians have clung to their pre-Christian roots more tightly than elsewhere in western Europe. The Warsaw female vocalists are like the evil twins of Värttinä's peppy Finnish gals after a harrowing initiation into a Bulgarian mystery choir cult. Meanwhile the droning, sawing, violin-led instrumentation recalls Sweden's Hedningarna in their doom and gloom glory years. Although deft and precise to a turn, the musicians here are never slick, not even when introducing turntable scratching to the ganged sonic discord of the opening salvo "In the Forest." Song after varied song is pleasingly rough-hewn, thanks in no small part to drummer Maciej Szajkowski, who bashes his tinny cymbal for all he's worth. Also endearing is the strategy of introducing a composition with a purported snippet from a crackly folk music 78 rpm record followed by the Warsaw Village Band's updated Black Death skeleton dance rendition. This pairing is particularly effective on "Grey Horse," which features a kind of jazz vocal by husky-voiced songstress Maja Kleszcz. A plague on you if you don't like it.

            Algerian-born producer Cheb i Sabbah backs off on the heavy electronica as he pushes rai back in time on the frequently astonishing La Kahena (Six Degrees Records). Sabbah blends understated beats and judicious mixology with fiercely folkloric North African artists to create a sound with heavy echoes of bygone-century club music. Lead vocals from mainly female performers – like dance floor diva Cheba Zahouania – crackle with enough raw emotional energy to arc weld the bristling oud and clattering hand drums together into a throbbing glob of pulsating plasma. Sabbah integrates the machine beats so deftly with the acoustic percussion that they add intensity to the traditional rhythms rather than streamlining them into simplification. Joining Mahgrebi musicians B'Net Marrakech, Brahim Elbelkani, Khadija Othmani and others are groove gurus Bill Laswell, Richard Horowitz, Karsh Kale and Mercan Dede.

            When most people think of sufi music, they immediately think of The Beach Boys. But, no, that would be surf music. The most powerful voice of the mystical sect associated with Islam was the late, great, overweight Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose approach to Pakistan's qawwali genre became so popular, one of his songs was used in Pepsi commercial. Turkey's Mercan Dede takes a less effervescent approach on Su (Escondida). The easy flowing low-key compositions at times resemble the meditative zikr 'remembrance' repertoire, yet also have percussive propulsion characteristic of ecstatic dervish dances. Dub effects and a cool current of electronica match nicely with the traditional hand drums, string instruments and woodwinds, so that the zikr elements evoke new age connections and the dervish pulse provides a spiritual ticket to clubdom. Superior musicianship keeps the quality high. Hugh Marsh's electric violin on "Ab-I-Zen" recreates the Ottoman court music in all its lushness, while Sheema Mukherjee provides a lovely sitar lead on "Ab-I La'l." Elsewhere vocals, clarinet, and flute take the foreground on this thoughtful yet always entertaining disc that proves you can have your enlightenment and feel a little decadent in the process.

            Not since Ethiopia's multi-syllabic Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw has a singer dared the rarified air of the higher octaves with the look-ma-no-hands aplomb of Greece's Savina Yannatou on Sumiglia (ECM Records). Her breathy, romantic vocals might cause the linguistically challenged to lump her in with the Celtic fairy songbirds, but her band Primavera en Salonico adds appropriate if studiously parceled accompaniment to ditties from Mediterranean and Balkan locales. At times the instrumentation is so austere you might wonder if the Greek government taxes musicians on a per-note basis, but that only means that in terms of intensity the arrangements have nowhere to go but up. A case in point is "Yanno Yannovitse," a traditional song from northern Greece. When it finally accelerates from neutral to first gear, the effect of Harris Lambrakis' jazzy nay flute and Kostas Theodorou's near-rousing percussion is, in context, the equivalent of Metallica suddenly erupting in a barrage of power chords. This lovely, tasty cd lends itself best to listening through headphones, or through speakers in a small space. But don't subject it to your car unless your vehicle boasts superior noise proofing. The first puff of wind or squeak of a gear train will overwhelm Yannatou's oeuvre.

            Brazilian acoustic guitar pioneer Luiz Bonfá strums the stuff that helped defined the bossa nova sound in Solo in Rio 1959 (Smithsonian Folkways), which adds 30 minutes of previously unreleased material to songs from a long-out-of-print 1959 Cook label LP. Like so many Brazilian musicians, the tracks here show him looking outside his country at least as often as within via his jazzy, gliding renditions of standards like "Night and Day." And his classic "Manhã de Carnaval" is a bolero-based composition that might have fed into the creation of bossa nova but isn't recognizable as such. His depth and dexterity are everywhere, and "Variations on Guitar" bursts with a delicacy of feeling that few musicians could muster from an improvisation. It's difficult to imagine a music aficionado that wouldn't be happy with the wonderful disc.

            Don't confuse Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Journey: Beyond the Horizon (Sony Classical) with 2002's exceptional anthology of Asian music The Silk Road, A musical Caravan. Although both are part of renowned composer and cellist Ma's The Silk Road Project, this latest outing from The Silk Road Ensemble gathers eastern and western musicians in ensemble collaborations that borrow the polish and stateliness of European classical music. While often pretty, and featuring dazzling solos from Chinese pipa wizard Wu Man, the performances have the mainstreamed blandness of an NHK tv network documentary soundtrack, and that's exactly what they are.

            A far better example of music from the region is The Rough to the Music of Central Asia (World Music Network). Among the ear-openers on this rattling good sampler are selections from Uzbekistan's singing member of parliament Yulduz Usmanova, folk ensemble Ashkabad from Turkmenistan, and nary a mainstream moment to be heard.

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