(from The Beat, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2004)

An excellent test of artistry, character, and especially taste is how well a singer can sell a song in a non-native tongue. Youssou N'Dour's few offerings in English can be nearly as indecipherable to Americans as his Wolof. And when King Sunny Ade croons the awkward couplet, "Juju music is so nice, and the mood is so right," on "E Dide E Mujo," you would just as soon the lyric remained obscure. Caetano Veloso goes whole hog on A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch) by offering an entire set of American songs without a single phrase in Portuguese.

            Veloso is more of a song stylist than a technically accomplished singer. He can take a song you never wanted to hear again, like Morris Albert's "Feelings," and make it almost compelling. "Cry Me a River" and other songs with at least a modicum of bounce show off his phrasing strengths, while a plodder like "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" fizzles despite an unconventional big band arrangement. Yet Veloso's sheer warmth and emotional maturity manage to make the occasional piece of pop ephemera come off as if it were a standard. Thus, Kurt Cobain's "Come as You Are" stands comfortably with compositions by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.

            Not all is happy in cover version land, however. Talking Heads' "Nothing But Flowers" benefited on the group's Naked CD from David Byrne's ironic combination of deadpan delivery and screechy hysteria. Veloso's humorous sweetness nearly bungles the 'anti-environmentalist' joke of the song. Similarly, his dryly wry version of Bob Dylan's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" downgrades a composition that once had bite into a kind of linguistic exercise. With its dj sound-effects, "Ma" feels nearly as tongue-in-cheek as Bryan Ferry's send-up of a "Hard Rain a Gonna Fall" some years back, and I don't think Veloso intends Dylan disrespect. In an interview sheet accompanying the promo copy of A Foreign Sound, the Brazilian legend admits dissatisfaction with his performance here, but he felt he still needed to include, because the disc title draws from the lyric.

            "Ma" isn't the only song onboard that evokes an immediate oh-no factor. "He's not doing 'Love Me Tender' is he? And as a lullaby?" you might find yourself asking. Plus, I doubt if there's a single singer on the planet who could possibly brush the cobwebs from "Jamaica Farewell," "Nature Boy," and "Diana." Still, the charm of the album is inescapable, not just because of Veloso's seductive voice, but also the clever arrangements that introduce hints of Brazilian music that are no more obtrusive than his accent. "The Carioca" from an old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie gets a Bahian rhythmic twist. "Cry Me a River" sails down uncharted waters which Veloso terms "halfway between bossa nova and Monsueto Menezee's carnival sambas," while "Diana" gets a bossa nova beat.

            It's a smart recording. Even when the material founders, Veloso's intelligence rescues these songs he loves and saves this project – sometimes just barely – from coming across as a glorified case of singing in the bathtub.

            Arto Lindsay spent his adolescent years in Brazil. He's probably best known for his work with New York post-punk band DNA in the early 1980s. More recently, he has returned to his roots with idiosyncratic samba-based excursions. Salt (Righteous Babe Records) jettisons Lindsay's noise-guitar heritage in favor of silky electronica and dreamy bilingual vocals more reminiscent of Astrud Gilberto than Arto's friend Caetano Veloso. I'm not sure how effective he is at singing in his second language, Portuguese, since I barely make my way in English. But his wispy voice stretches a wee bit thin over ten tracks. The title cut is one of many that gets it right. "Salt" is set to bubbling keyboards with a timbre reminiscent of steel drums, while Lindsay's vocals are filtered and pushed back in the mix, as if he were just another instrument. Soaking up his collaborators is key to getting the most out of this disc. These include programmer, bassist, keyboardist Melvin Gibbs, plus ex-Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid. It's Lindsay who wails feedback from blocks away on the catchy "Combustível," although the back-up singers arrive too late to fatten up the vocals. While this may not be the spiciest neo-tropical music ever made, it's ultimately seductive, proving that sometimes all you need is a pinch of salt.

            If there's one artist who has truly mastered the art of singing in a non-native tongue, it would have to be Orriel Smith. This classically trained vocalist studied under William Herman, the teacher of the famous New York Metropolitan Opera diva Roberta Peters. Smith's first album was the 1964 folkie classic A Voice in the Wind. Her latest release takes a somewhat different approach to down home music. You might call it closer to the ground. The World's Favorite Cluckoratura Arias treats us to excerpts from well-known operatic arias by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Offendach, and Meyerbeer as a chicken might have performed them. And an extremely talented chicken, I might add. She clucks, ba-gawks, and trills her way through lovely melodies with unexpected grace, hitting high notes with more verve than most of my hens ever demonstrate, even during egg laying sessions. Once you recover from the initial shock of the concept, step back and experience awe at Smith's range, control, and humor. On Dinorah's "Shadow Song," our accomplished hen is even accompanied by a cat, which made our poultry slightly nervous when I played this in the barn. Overall, they thought the cd was clucking wonderful. [www.orrielsmith.com]

            David Darling adds the foreign sound of his cello to the vocals of The Wulu Bunun people on Mudanin Kata (Riverboat Records). Although they are native to the island of Taiwan, the Bunun aren't related to the majority Han people of mainland China. They are of Austronesian heritage, and the vocal music from the isolated high-mountain village of Wulu has a singsong character and limited scale reminiscent of some indigenous Indonesian styles. Many of the songs are so similar that Darling's cello augmentations can't do much to distinguish one from another, though the boasting toast "Malas Tapag" (Celebration) stands out as a sort of a Wulu rap. One performance distinguishes itself completely from the naivety of the others, though. With its eight-part murmuring harmony and its falling and rising tones, "Pasibutbut" (Prayer for a Rich Millet Harvest) is the sibling to and probably the inspiration for (via a 1950 recording) Gyorgy Ligeti's eerie monolith music from Kubrick's  2001: A Space Odyssey. Supposedly developed from the drone of insect voices, this staggeringly beautiful choral piece is rich with harmonic overtones, not to mention suggestions of thought becoming form that would please a Neoplatonist. Wisely, Darling holds back his melancholy cello accompaniment until almost the end of a song that is so sonically sophisticated it might as well as dropped fully formed from another world.

            "The winds of Waimanalo are blowing my cares away," sings the Makapuu Sand Band in a track whose lyrics and brave sincerity may unintentionally remind you of the title song of the folk parody film A Mighty Wind. Winds of Waimanalo (Mele Records) is only the second album in 32 years from the Sand Band, so the group's nostalgic approach to Hawaiian folk is big on 1970s ambience with occasional suggestions of the Beach Boys along with more distant echoes of the Kingston Trio. It's pretty darned difficult music to resist with beautiful harmonies, cantering acoustic guitars, good-timey electric bass, and sun drenched vibes courtesy of three cousins of legendary Hawaiian bandleader Sol K. Bright, whose "Hawaiian Scotsman" gives the disc a rousing close. The Hawaiian-language songs come off without a hitch, and you'll need to go off-island to find another band with so much positive attitude. [Distributed by Cord International.]

            Afropop detective Mile Cleret is back, and he's unearthed more toe-tappers and head-scratchers from the Nigerian pop universe on Afro-Baby [SoundWay]. The music on this anthology of tracks from 1978-79 owes a huge dead to Fela Kuti's Afrobeat style, and Fela himself appears in top shouting form from his 'Ransome' days with Africa 70 on "Fogo Fogo," featuring the wailing tenor sax of Igo Chiko and Tony Allen's heavy, heavy drum kit. But the cut is out-Fela-ed by disc opener "Alikali Adajo" from trumpeter Satch Ayo's smokin' Sahara All Stars, which glides into the James Brown-tiful "Lagos Sisi" with sharp horn charts fronted by bandleader Bala Johnson. But, as usual, it's the weird cuts that make this collection, starting with The Mebusa's weirdly funky, vaguely reggoid instrumental "Son of Mr. Bull Dog" that must have sounded retro even when it was first released. "No Wrong Show" gets top vote for wrongheadedness, however, with a bellowing lead vocal at least an octave below Thony Shorby Nwenyi's comfort threshold. Meanwhile, the Afro-disco ditty "Asa-Sa" by Fred Fisher, twin brother of Sunny Ade steel guitarist Bob Ohiri, makes its American equivalent feel as tame as Abba. Everybody onto the dance floor, let's do the shoulder shrug! Compiler Cleret hints at a second volume of Afro-Sound to come. All I can say is, "No wrong show!"

            Producer Ben Mandelson had a small crisis of conscience with South African musician Shiyani Ngcobo. The Zulu maskanda style has traditionally been a one man, one guitar format, but market pressures in South Africa had broadened and diluted it to a pop ensemble genre. Consequently, Shiyani Ngcobo had been playing in duos and trios for years rather than performing solo. And recording him alone with his guitar and vocals may frustrate world listeners not exactly fluent in isZulu (though his amazing acoustic guitar playing sings in a universal language). Ngcobo solved the problem in his own way. By the time Mandelson caught up with him in Isipingo Hills, he had formed a garage band of his own with a distinctive, decidedly non-mainstream sound. Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo (World Music Network) mostly documents the group sound, featuring bassist Aaron Meyiwa, fiddler Thulasizwe Ndlangisa, female vocalist Phathekile Lukhozi, and Msawakhe Mkhize on concertina, though there are exceptions throughout this wonderfully varied album. "Sevelina" finds Shiyani strumming and singing in Zulu high-lonesome style and in no need of any backup, while "iJadu" is a lovely a cappella piece with rich harmonies and loads of depth. But the ensemble performances steal the show with an approach that suggests blues, funk, mbaqanda, and an Irish reel all playing at once and intertwining in a thicket of melody and rhythm. Mandelson writes in the liner notes that he recorded way more than would fit on a single disc, so here's hoping that a follow-up cd follows soon.

            Banish the purple dinosaur. Throw Raffi out with the bath water. Sit your kids down and make them listen to Singing in the Streets: Scottish Children's Song (Rounder Records) instead, or it will be no supper for the urchins tonight. While musicologist Alan Lomax roamed the British Isles about 50 years ago, he supplemented his field recordings of folk artists of the day with musical snapshots of children performing well-known pieces "Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?", "London Bridge," and "A Tisket A Tasket" –  along with obscurities "Chinese Government," "I Paula Tay, Paula Taska," and the incomparable "Mother, Mother, I Am Ill." Legendary Scottish traditional musician Ewan MacColl offers the background to some of the songs on brief interview snippets while gracing a few with his inimitable voice. The fascinating liner notes provide lyrics and commentary on all 56 selections. I can't improve on the back cover blurb, which calls the tracks "timeless musical gleanings of evocative or surreal ephemeral children's lore."

            They've both got really big fiddles. And they know how to use them. Shankar, inventor of the '10-string stereophonic double violin,' is joined by Gingger on a double violin of her own for a clever blend of Indian, western classical, and pop music on Shankar and Gingger's Celestial Body (Mondo Melodia). Adding to the full sound of this two-person string quartet is Gingger's mostly wordless and always breathy vocals, which have a bowed-string ambience of their own. "Voices From Heaven" gets Beethoven-esque in the flavor of its intensity while simultaneously leaning toward raga territory. "Open Your Eyes" makes a stab at techno territory, but the synthetic drums are nowhere near as compelling as Sivamani's human percussion elsewhere. This sweeping, lofty disc never touches ground and keeps constantly on the move with inventive arrangements.

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