(from The Beat, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2005)

One of the joys of listening South African Zulu vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo is the way in which the male voices fill all the aural space. The waves of harmony hang beautiful tones and overtones on nearly every conceivable sonic notch, while the slow legato style leaves few nooks and crannies for ornamentation, much less a breath. So, the strings of the English Chamber Orchestra and members of the International Festival Orchestra have their work cut out for them on No Boundaries (Heads Up Africa). Arranger Isak Roux floats violins over the choral group's heads, sweeps low strings under their feet, and stirs in bouts of percussion. Between verses he interpolates orchestral maneuvers that primarily restate the melodic themes and mark time until the voices reenter. While this isn't far off the mark from what orchestration does for pop music in general, it would have made a huge difference if a dazzling soloist urged us to actually look forward to the instrumental sections.

            Paul Simon showed lots of smarts co-writing "Homeless" with Ladysmith's Joseph Shabalala. The pair penned a memorable song that played to both artists' strengths. A similar approach would have worked wonders on this project. Simply supplementing "Homeless" with strings doesn't improve on the original a cappella version, and the same can be said for "Awu Wemadoda." Sometimes the instrumental additions actually make for a bit of an incongruous muddle. The violins and donkey clip clops that introduce "Dona Nobis Pacem" resemble a Van Dyke Parks' slice of pop Americana and mix weirdly with the Latin lyrics despite the song's folkie African gospel character. Give it points for confounding genre expectations, I guess.

            On other tracks, transplanting the Ladysmith to classical music turf definitely yields a mixed bag. Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" has the virtue of combining tenor Robert Brooks with the Ladysmith blend of voices, but Roux's arrangement takes the starch out of the Zulus by shoving them into the background. "Sanctus" (Heilig, Heilig, Heilig) is something else again, however. The interplay between the operatic Brooks and the hymnal Ladysmith is inspired, and the alternation between Schubert's text and Shabalala's Zulu vocal parts is brilliant. More of this equal give and take would have made the entire CD a must-listen, rather than just this single track. As it is, No Boundaries is lovely and dependably attractive, especially for folks uncomfortable with an entire disc of unaccompanied vocal music. It just doesn't fly as high as it might have.

            We won't pretend that Voices from Heaven (Shanachie) by the 32-member Soweto Gospel Choir offers any more South African authenticity than Ladysmith with violins, especially since Christianity isn't exactly a homegrown tradition. The drums behind a few of the otherwise a cappella pieces seem almost as out of place as they'd be at a Lutheran Sunday service in Lake Woebegone, and the guitars and keyboards elsewhere feel a bit perfunctory. Still, the vocals shimmer and signify, and the version of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross" wields a tasty lead vocal by Sibongile Makgathe. So give praise for medium-size favors and enjoy the performance.

            Of course I should have remembered that 1982 falls within the drum machine era. Consequently, ARC Music's reissue of Orchestra Makassy's Agwaya as the appreciably wordier Legends of East Africa, Orchestra Makassy reveals a signature sound that isn't as innocent as it might have been. In fact, thanks to that incessant infernal thump, the music feels dated in a way that earlier African pop releases often don't. Alumni of the Dar-es-Salaam-based Tanzanian-Zairean rumba band include Mose Fan Fan, Remmy Ongala, and Tshimanga Assossa. Of the three, only Assossa is on this disc, but it remains a worthy re-release for its sweetness that harkens back to the glory days of Congolese-style music. Two "additional, never before released tracks" join the material from Agwaya, though the liner notes don't provide any more info on these cuts.

            You don't run into fully recognizable English language lyrics on Laurel MacDonald's Luscinia's Lullaby (Improbable Music) until the eighth track, "Beauty Found Me." This would be an idiotic comment, of course, were Macdonald from Sicily or even Quebec. But the Cape Breton-born vocalist-composer lives in Toronto and happens to prefer singing in Latin, Welsh or 'supralingual vocables' on this disc. "I love the purely abstract characteristics of vocal sounds as distinct from language," she wrote me in an email, "the percussive qualities of certain consonants, the richness of open vowels; guttural sounds, aspirated consonants, sibilance, etc." And divorcing her voice from meaning certainly highlights its beauty.

            While it would be a mistake to imply that she is any kind of heir to Brian Wilson, you won't find a vast philosophical difference between MacDonald's "Song for This Child" and Wilson's "Our Prayer" from Smile in terms of harmonic complexity, melodic twists, and spiritual depth. And if on "Nenia Sirenes" MacDonald seems closer to avant garde artist Meredith Monk, who enjoys pushing the human voice to unearthly extremes, Wilson doesn't exactly occupy the mainstream, either. And isn't that the keyboard timbre from "Good Vibrations" at the beginning of the jazzy title cut? Producer-keyboardist Philip Strong, who wrote or co-wrote about half the cuts, merges MacDonald's vocals so tightly with the instrumentation that it isn't always easy to separate the two. That's definitely Laurel adding Central Asian-style throat-singing to "Murmur of Pearl," but is that a keyboard doing the same on the traditional Celtic piece "Cadal Chan Fhaign Mi?" Beach Boys. Sicily. Throat-singing. Forget about it. Why worry about dissecting the songs when Luscinia's Lullaby weaves its world music influences, smooth arrangements, and MacDonald's voice into a kind of waking dream.

            I've been hoping for a follow up to Sabah Habas Mustapha's Y2K dangdut pop masterpiece So La Li, but so far it is not to be. The next best thing is the value-added reissue of his breakthrough 1992 English language disc with Indonesian musicians, Denpasar Moon (Kartini Music). The title song made such a hit in the home country that around 40 artists cut their own versions. The reissue includes a version with Sabah Habas' 3 Mustaphas 3 bandmates plus three other tracks with the British Balkan beatboys. Among these, a Javanese version of the Hank Williams' classic "Lost Highway" is a cross-cultural hoot, and the Indonesian take on "The Last Waltz" ain't half bad, neither. A couple of songs from the original Denpasar Moon material seem to be less about dabbling in Javanese styles than they are about letting Sabah Habas cut loose with romantic pop ballads that wouldn't have fit in with the 3 Mustaphas 3 nor with Camel, the British progressive rock outfit of which his alter ego Colin Bass is a member. But the reissue is uniformly charming, and if the inclusion of a "Denpasar Moon" video raises the question of whether three versions of this song are too much, the answer is, bring on the cover versions, too. The overwhelming success in Indonesia and Europe proves that "Denpasar Moon" is a great song, but is it, in fact, a good one? You bet your dang dangdut!

            What if Hawaii and Zimbabwe were neighbors? Hawaiian-born guitarist Paul Prince blends slack-key and Shona guitar styles on Ocean Bells (Afropolynesian Records). For the most part, the cd sticks to one genre per song, but the title track revels in what is probably the world's first amalgamation of these styles, creating a sound that's both propulsive and meditatively beautiful. And while Thomas Mapfumo's "Hondo" uses the familiar guitar-as-mbira Zimbabwean approach, listen closely and you'll hear a few slack key ornamentations. The Mapfumo-penned pieces flow naturally with Prince, who toured three times as solo acoustic guitarist for Thomas. Like the late Michael Hedges, Prince's style is so complex and multi-layered, it is astonishing to realize that you're only hearing one performer with no accompaniment or overdubs. Prince is joined by mbira player Joel Lindstrom on "Chemutengure," and 'queen of mbira' Ambuya Beauler Dyoko contributes lead vocals in a live performance of "Kuzanga." Also on the disc are a bouncy version of Hawaiian legend ray Kane's "Wai'anae Slack-Key Hula" and a live instrumental solo rendition of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," which the captivating Prince makes his own.

            If you don't know who Rachid Taha is, don't worry. Tékitoi (WrasseRecords) includes the 45-minute documentary ¿Kienes? on the accompanying DVD, though you'll learn more of the essentials about this Algerian French vocalist on "Rock El Casbah," his high-octane punk bellydance version of the familiar Clash song "Rock the Casbah." Steve Hillage, the former lead guitarist for the '70s pothead pixie space music band Gong and Taha's collaborator for 21 years, is all over the disc with terrestrial power chord riffs and programming. He produces, too. Taha has got more charisma in his little finger than most of us can muster in our entire frames, and his affable personality is as winning as his constant sense of humor. Musically, he's all over the map from rai to gypsy to cabaret. Brian Eno even finds a guest niche as co-composer and electronic drummer on the personal anthem "Dima!" Whatever else Taha might be, the guy's definitely a rock star.

            Roman-born, Munich-raised lead vocalist Sabina Sciubba, the only female in the ironically named Brazilian Girls (Verve Forecast), sings in a detached style reminiscent of male samba rocker Arto Lindsay. But I'll take Lindsay's whimsy over Sciubba's jaded come-on. The sentiments expressed by the NYC-based ensemble aren't always exceptionally complex. "Don't stop, don't stop, until I come," she sings in "Don't Stop," while the chorus of "Pussy" contrasts the mile deep stare of a club gal with the simple desires of the protagonist, as voiced in the stripped-to-essentials chorus, "Pussy, pussy, pussy, marijuana." But the unexpectedly bright singing and the rocksteady arrangement with woozy horns redeem this little slice of cynicism, just as the French lyrics and cabaret atmosphere of Eurotrash tango "Homme" give it easy appeal. "Lazy Lover" tinkles with Neapolitan ornamentation, while the snapshot "Corner Store" has Aaron Johnston's peppy drumming and a Balkan-esque brass chorus. The various influences go together nicely, but if the results seem a tad affected, consider that Sciubba sometimes performs wearing an eye mask.

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