(from The Beat, Vol. 24, No. 3, 2005)

Marta Topferova's vocals are peculiarly well suited to accompaniment by a French horn, and how many singers can you say that about? On La Marea (World Village), her dusky voice, midway between that of a bossa nova diva and a Marlena Dietrich-style chanteuse, has the gently weathered texture of muted brass. And while the French horn is usually a stodgy instrument best suited to regal flourishes, Chris Komer swings the phrasing with the deftness of a jazz trombone on "La Gran Manzana" (The Big Apple), while Topferova's Venezuelan cuatro etches streaks of sunlight in the background.

            On "Grano de Arena" (Grain of Sand) she contrasts her dead-of-night vocal delivery with phosphorescent harp leads by Edmar Castaneda, who shrugs off perfect chords with such élan, you may think you are hearing a particularly gifted pianist. The lovely quirkiness continues on the unexpected instrumental "La Gaita Ajena," Topferova's version of a Venezuelan version of a Galician gaita dance. Standing in for the bagpipes you'd find on the ancestral Spanish gaita are Yulia Musayelyan's flute, Angus Martin's accordion, and Pedro Giraudo's galloping acoustic bass. At the end of the disc, "Fin de Fiesta" (End of the Party) reprises the song, adding a clamorous live feel along with voices, violin, added percussion, and boisterous fun.

            Topferova comes to her outsider's take on Latin music by growing up in the Czech Republic listening to her parents' Inti-Illimani records, associating with the Latino community and teaching herself Spanish as a teenager in Seattle, and later undertaking years of Latin music in New York City, Spain, the Caribbean and South America. But the end results of her studies are anything but studied. She and her New York-based ensemble swing with the organic rightness of a homegrown genre. Nothing comes across as transplanted or secondhand. Urban, homogenous, and smart, her sultry, laidback style crackles with verve.

            I'm glad I started with the DVD portion of the DVD-CD set Di Korpu Ku Alma (Escondida Music) by Cape Verdean vocalist Lura, because the visuals reveal intensity to the music that is harder to locate on the studio disc. A good case in point occurs when Lura performs "Raboita di Rubon Manel," paean to a homegrown anti-colonial hero. Lura sits in a chair to belt out the song while whomping on a small tchabeta cushion resembling a cross between a leather purse and a beanbag that she's placed on her lap. Her facial expressions and the silent percussion on the video lend a sense of urgency that's absent from the candy-coated studio version on the accompanying disc.

            That's not to short shrift Lura's gifts as a convincing singer. A single hearing of "Tó Martins" will make the strong melody – and smooth arrangement by keyboardist Fernando "Nando" Anrade – feel like an instant friend. Some of the distance that lies between Lura and legendary Cape Verdean diva Cesaria Evora is due to the difference between Evora's mastery of the deeply melancholy morna style and Lura's concentration on the brighter batuku and funana genres. Thus we get the fast-paced "Batuku" with its faux rap break and "Vazulina," whose liquid electric guitar lines may remind you of Camerounian bikutsi. But syrupy romantic ditty "Padoce De Céu Azul" demonstrates that Lura leans toward confectionary European pop. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since she's wise to go with her strengths. But check out the morna-flavored "Tem Um Hora Pa Tude," then imagine the strength that Evora would wield here compare to Lura's slightly bittersweet puff.

            You might be led slightly astray by the title of Luciana Souza's continent-hopping disc Duos II (Sunnyside). Yes, there is a Duos I. But these are duets in the sense of Souza pairing herself with a single guitar accompanist, and no matter how strong the collaborator, her voice can't help but dominate the performances. Recorded in New City and São Paulo, the disc favors highly romantic arrangements with a few jazz vocal excursions – including a version of Nathan Marques' samba "Sai Dessa" that flies along Romero Lubambo's gypsy-flavored note flurries. Using instrumentally sparse yet melodically rich settings to highlight Souza's elastic, expressive voice comes across as a pretty good idea, especially given a repertoire that includes compositions by a host of Brazilian greats from Buarque to Jobim to Veloso. While it might have been nice hearing Souza backed by an instrument other than the guitar – I'm thinking sousaphone for the obvious reason – what works, works, though the variety of a couple of her earlier releases would have added spice.

            One-woman fireworks display Beth Custer shoots out clarinet pyrotechnics and politically charged lyrics on Respect as Religion (BC Records). A graduate of Bay Area world beat bands City of Tribes and Lights in a Fat City, Custer has moved on from her former mission of charting planetary landscapes with mescaline atmospheres to generating bracing yet consistently entertaining agitprop. If the disc opener "Empire of the United States" doesn't tell you all you need to know, her biting lyrics about imperial illusions and oil-fueled greed hitched to her roller coaster of a voice will make you see the light. The punky, jumpy jazz-rock base provides the perfect launching pad for her passionate clarinet odysseys, and her brassy Ensemble is tops. [www.bethcuster.com]

            Way back in the earliest years of the wind-up phonograph, 78 rpm recordings by the great classical tenor Enrico Caruso had a profound effect on American popular music. His soaring excerpts from operatic arias and his romantic Neapolitan ballads enjoyed crossover appeal with a hugely varied audience and influenced generations of performers here. Think Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and the oh-so-ethnic Louis Prima, whose adoration by New York's Italian community provided the context for John Turturro's film Big Night. In the post-World War II decade, there was so much musical interplay between Italy and the USA that you might ultimately say that Italian pop became as American as pizza pie.

            Italian musical styles of the 1950s, with their meaty, bouncy grounding in jazz and swing, get a nice showcase on the Putumayo label's Italian Café anthology. Don't look for techno or hip hop here, though lounge music addicts might find their fix in the occasionally weird amalgamation of international genres that these high-octane ditties squeeze in. You'd have to search as far afield as Indian film music to encounter a sonic juxtaposition as odd as the meeting between Le Hot Club-style gypsy cabaret jazz and a clanging country flavored slide guitar on "Cannelloni." The song's Giogio Conte, who switched from lawyer to full-time musician in 1993, is one of the newcomers on the disc who refreshes the café blend with plenty of wit. Another contemporary artist, Vincent Capossela, spins tale of love "Che Cossè L'Amor" by lassoing Cuban brass and Mexican marimba to Italian vibes.

            Other standouts include "Un Bacio a Mezzanotte," which Quartetto Cetra wields like a Doris Day vocal production number as heard inside a Fellini funhouse, plus a jumpy rendition of "Carina" by Italian music legend Niccola Arigliano, who laid down this track at the venerable age of 80, in a delightful demonstration of the longevity of this music.

            You just can't fault a reggae album that contains a remix of "Kung Fu Fighting." Viennese born duo Axel Hirn and Flo Fleischman, better known as Noiseshaper, twiddle the knobs and add instrumentation to Carl Douglas' dreadful (in the non-Jamaican sense of the word) 1975 radio hit as the penultimate ditty on Rough Out There (Sound From The Roof). If "Kung Fu Fighting" has a shortcoming, it's that the new version seems to downplay the ridiculousness of the original, but that may be an unintentional consequence of the exaggerated effects that populate dub productions and the somewhat cartoonish delivery of vocalist Juggla on most of the other tracks. He shows himself to be a highly versatile singer, though, switching from raggamuffin snarl on "Ruff Like a What" to a sweeter delivery on the infectious title cut. Similarly, musicians/producers Hirn and Fleischman effortlessly undulate from tough vibes to tinkling pop throughout this disc of bountiful pleasures. [Distributed by Caroline]

            When a member of Romania's gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia was asked about the influence of jazz in the ensemble's repertoire, he replied, "Who's to say our cousins who went to the US didn't help invent jazz?" Well, Jellyroll Morton comes to mind off the top of my pointed head. But we'll just assume that this back cover blurb of Gili Garabdi, Ancient Secrets of Gypsy Brass (Asphalt Tango) is pure marketing strategy, as is the kick off cut, a giddy yet unexpectedly chaos-free version of the venerable "007 (James Bond Theme)" that features a dizzying succession of brass and woodwind solos. Resembling a maniacal fusion of klezmer, bellydance music and polka, the gypsy genre was never more approachable nor impressive than illustrated here with stuttering tempos, impossible time signatures and stop-on-a-molecule arrangements – though the guys are more than willing to play loose and boozy, too, as on the tango-flavored "Ma Maren Ma." Quotes from western classical music, a nod here and there to rap, and party numbers like "Godzilla" make this Fanfare's most varied fanfare to date, and for sheer energy alone it's way out on its own.

            Return to Peace by American composer/pianist Mark Dunn is subtitled A Celtic Journey Through Central America. That got me thinking I'd be hearing a heady concoction of Irish and Meso-American music. But despite song titles like "Tegucigalpa" and the accompaniment of two Latin musicians – Randall Najera on acoustic bass plus Carlos Vargas on percussion – the result is lovely Celtic fare with a New World, New Age tint and without other obvious ethnic touches. Dunn traveled extensively through Central America and bought a house in Costa Rica, so what he is doing here is painting his impressions with his strongest brush. The title cut shows off his cosmic piano chords in a thoughtful style that still has plenty of zip, plus strong ensemble playing featuring Peter Nitsche on violin. "Freedom's Dance" lowers the temperature, but even this slower keyboard piece has a quiet intensity that keeps it moving. [www.markdunnmusic.com]

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