(from The Beat, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2004)

Bob Dylan's ditties are so well suited to reggae adaptations, it's a great white wonder that no one has thought of a reggae tribute like Is It Rolling, Bob?(Vol. 1) (RAS Records) before now. Dylan's socially conscious songs have the requisite finger-pointing righteousness of the finest Rasta rant along with strong, straightforward melodies and, in many cases, a hymnal quality that goes down well with roots rock. Come to think of it, his romantic compositions lean toward high-handed preachiness, too, which may explain the dearth of female artists on this star-studded disc.

            The lyrics to "Just Like a Woman," for example, show not a sliver of compassion for the unfortunate gal who "breaks just like a little girl." It's a typical Dylan love-'em-and-leave-'em composition, but Beres Hammond delivers the song with such empathy, that we end up believing he actually feels a twinge of regret over the woman he walks out on. And JC Lodge pulls the old gender switcheroo with "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," proving that the girls can be every bit as simple minded as the boys. 'Why think at all?' is my spin-off philosophy. But she goes far with the catchy melody, and that's a solid virtue.

            The key to any cover version is how well an artist succeeds in making us set aside our memory of the original. But the particular problem with Dylan's catalog is that many of his best-known songs often came to us through a host of other artists. I've heard so many versions of "Blowin' in the Wind" that Don Carlos' straight-ahead treatment vanishes in the smoke rings of my mind through the foggy ruins of time. "Mr. Tambourine Man" is so indelibly identified with the jingle jangle Top 40 single by The Byrds, that Dylan's performance of his own song on the Royal Albert Hall concert Bob Dylan Live 1966 sounds fresh, genuinely vivid, and fairly obscure, especially when compared to Gregory Isaacs' buoyant but oddly weary treatment on Is It Rolling, Bob?

            Of all the artists on board, Nasio nails the revisioning concept best with his exhilarating take on "Gotta Serve Somebody," on which he interjects, "It may be Selassie I, or it might be the Lord" in place of Dylan's grouchy reference to the devil. Nasio sounds as if he's having barrels of fun with the material, though not nearly as much as the mighty Sizzla, who laughs infectiously as he rips through the lyrics of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" while subverting it into a marijuana paean. Both of these performances provide a refreshing contrast to the reverence shown on other tracks. "Lay Lady Lay" gets a treacle coating of tinkling bells at odds with the song's icky come-on – or maybe not – which doesn't mean that The Mighty Diamonds are anything less than superb on pipes. But what's missing is a madcap, wicked rendering of this old warhorse by a jokester like Eek-a-Mouse. And shame on Sizzla for not inserting the refrain, "Everybody must get stoned," into his private pot party. What a missed opportunity.

            Other noteworthy performances include Toots Hibberts' beautifully bluesy reading of "Maggie's Farm" and Michael Rose's understated yet chilling telling of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol." Superb backing by Sly and Robbie, Dean Frasier, Earl "Chinna" Smith and other reggae royalty seal the deal on a great concept package. But open the puffed up booklet at your peril to learn that Nasio "carries a deep Marley vibe" or that Luciano "chooses to go by the characteristically humble sobriquet, 'The Messenger.'" (Please refer to me as The Writer from now on.) A nice contribution by ol' mumbles himself closes the disc, but "I and I (Reggae Remix)" has little reggae in the mix. But it's all right, ma. I'm only needlin'. Is It Rolling, Bob (Vol. 1) still delivers sufficient pleasures to make me look forward to the magic swirlin' ship of Volume 2.

            Electric guitar wizard Sekou Diabate opts for an acoustic feel on Guitar Fö (Discorama). Playing with emotion instead of obvious flash, this senior citizen of pickin' achieves a laid back ambience with oodles of intensity just beneath the surface somewhat like the style of Hawaiian slack key masters. In his twilight years, comedian George Burns once said he owed his long success to a practice of never performing material that was younger than he was. Diabate, who co-founded Guinea's Bembeya Jazz in the 1970s, follows suit by treating us to a repertoire of classic rumba-flavored songs from the heyday of African pop, some of which have become standards with his band. The Bembeya Jazz showstopper "Diamond Fingers" gives him a chance to strut his stuff, while "Diamano" with its lovely vocal harmonies vastly improves upon the somewhat bumpy version last heard on Bembeya Jazz's 2003 disc Bembeya. But for one of the best examples of Diamond Fingers at his most lustrous, check out "Dabia Baba" with its impressive string stutters and oodles of heartfelt grace.

            You'll never accuse Issa Babayogo of pandering to an audience with his singing. His baritone vocals tend toward the monotonous and mechanical, and when he goes into one of his all too frequent 'talking blues' riffs, you might as well be listening to a Malian computer programmer spitting out code. That's why the techno underpinnings to the songs on Tassoumakan (Six Degrees Records) work so successfully. Samples, drum machine loops, and mix effects join hands with acoustic instruments, such as balafon and Issa's kamélé n'goni lute, plus Mama Sissoko's eminently welcome electric guitar. Female vocalists, including Awa Diabate and Yalomba Traore, add a much-needed sweet lilt to performances that favor dark mutterings over melody or emotion. The cool electronic arrangements in the service of appealing grooves help put the songs across. "Kanou" has unexpected piano accompaniment and a West African trip-hop feel, while "N'Deri" broadens the sonic palette to include a cello. The only thing missing from this addictive group of nicely arranged songs is a strong lead vocalist, and Issa does come maddeningly close at times. Maybe he'll take the plunge and try expanding his emotional outreach next time around.

            African rave music with programmed polyrhythms is a good idea, so the fact that Ex-Centric Sound System falls back on standard hip hop beats on the majority of the tracks on West Nile Funk (Indieland Entertainment) is disappointing. Artificiality is such a given in music remix projects, that complaining about the disconnect between drums and melody is probably pointless. The surprise here is that, despite the cut-and-paste feel to disc opener "The African Bee," the song doesn't rely on second-hand material. It's built upon Nana Dadzie and Miss Adevo's mean flute duet, but feels as if a folkloric bit recorded decades earlier were grafted to a rhythm machine track. So where did the immediacy go? "The Original Ragga" puts live drums up front and mates them with energetic call and response African vocals. Though the composition has plenty of verve, it would have been nice to hear more organic changes to the arrangements and less emphasis on mixology. And the title song doesn't even attempt the poly-percussive splendor of West Nile funk mastersAli Hassan Kuban or Salamat, giving us the same old drum machine rat-a-tat-tat instead.

            How can anyone resist a disc that includes a tune called "My Horse Died on Me"? That's far from the only charm that pushes Si soy llanero (Smithsonian Folkways) into the must-have category of Latin American recordings. The putative title track, "Plainsman, Yes, I Am a Plainsman" - not to be confused with "And I Am a Plainsman," "I'm a Smooth-Haired Plainsman" or "A True Plainsman," which are also included here - showcases the essential elements of joropo music from the Orinoco Plains of Colombia. Grupo Cimarrón provides the backing for the horsemanship boasting of Wilton Games' no-holds-barred recio-style singing, while Grupo leader Carlos Rojas Hernández rides his bucking bronco of a furiously percussive harp. Meanwhile, one of the backing guitarist hits his instrument so hard, you don't just wonder that he doesn't snap the stings. More incredible is that his enthusiasm doesn't smash his guitar to kindling. This first song is an example of an archaic style known as 'robust coarse.' And although it is easily the wildest performance on the disc, even the tamest example of joropo goes flat out hog wild, including the rousing "Un llanero de verdad" featuring Ana Veydó Ordóñez, one of the few female singers in the hard-edged golpe recio style. Expansive, adventurous and brawling, joropo is clearly cowboy music, and Si soy llanero is as tough as horseshoe nails.

            In its debut cd, jazz band Spooky Actions improvised around the music of classical composer Anton Webern. On Songs of the Nations (Muse Eek), the instrumentalists take on Native American themes in one of the most cliché-free discs on the subject you'll ever hear. The results don't have much in common with jazz. For the most part, they provide dreamy accompaniment to vocalist Thomas Buckner's compelling interpretations of songs from the Sioux, Arapaho, Zuni, Chippewa, and Cheyenne peoples. "Ghost Dance" builds an appropriate spooky atmosphere around John Gunther's clarinet with vague intimations of klezmer. On "Sun Dance" Gunther's flute echoes and dances around Buckner's chant. Closing track "Zuni Lullaby" highlights a soaring operatic performance by Buckner and Kirk Driscoll's measured drumming. Guitarist Bruce Arnold creates lovely string-like guitar textures on the stately "Behold the Dawn," which also makes the most of Gunther's woodwinds. The arrangements are sparse, yet brimming with creativity and respect for American Indian cultures.

            The Piemonte and Valle D'Aosta (Smithsonian Folkways) volume of the Italian Treasury series kicks off with a dance by the La Bersagliera village brass band that you'll want to play again and again. "Monferrina" features peppy staccato horn parts, 'beep beep' female vocals, and the pleasant buzz of way too much wine from prime grape growing country. It's a nice contrast to the rustic a cappella female chorale tracks that comprise much of this entertaining 35-song collection. Like most of the cds that recorded in the field by Alan Lomax, this time capsule from the early 1950s is a small slab of audio archaeology. Lomax collected songs and song styles that were in danger of extinction 50 years ago and only performed in isolated areas – often by the elders. The rugged feel of the material presented here is exemplified by "Che bel felice incontro" (What a Fortunate Encounter). According to the entertaining liner notes, "Only after the intervention of a handsome young smuggler did five lovely mountain girls consent to stand in front of the microphone for half an hour and sing, throwing their voices far out across the valley with such force that the tape machine distorted the sound." Other highlights include the waltz "Donna Donna" (Woman Woman), the sprightly polka "Tarantella" with wonderfully elastic clarinet lead, and the circle dance "Brando" featuring comic clarinet reminiscent of a Laurel and Hardy soundtrack that's actually about the rite of passage into manhood. Few cds pack in this amount of fun and unforeseen loveliness.

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