(from The Beat, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2008)

            You don’t listen to a Toots Hibbert song expecting Cole Porter. It’s not about sophistication, at least not in terms of the melody and lyrics – though his compositions are packed with great ideas and lots of heart. A Toots song is mainly about the performance. So, if the words seem more repetitive than inspiring, and the tune sounds like another tune you’ve heard before, relax. Toots has got the voice, and he’s got the magic. And he’s definitely on a roll with Light U Light (Concord Music Group), a rock solid disc of reggae, near-reggae, and non-reggae music in which a classic American feel eclipses the golden-age Jamaican vibes. But who’s paying attention to anything but Toots?

            First cut out of the chute is “Johnny Coolman,” which gets a Southern rock vibe thanks to slip-sliding from Derek Trucks, son of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks and rising guitar hero. The rural twang continues on second cut “Premature” as ray of light Bonnie Raitt hits this song about children having children hard, but stylishly, with her sweet, strong folky-blues voice and slide guitar. The lyrics are catchy but sketchy. You probably won’t know they’re about an underage girl working the streets and not a comment on the MPAA ratings system unless you read Roger Steffens’ liner notes.

            Since American music references abound throughout the disc, you might expect the Ray Charles classic “I Got a Woman” would be the album centerpiece that Toots hits right out of the park. And he does. But the other songs are so uniformly strong, “Woman” easily nestles into the compositions penned by Toots.

            Toots may no longer be the force of nature that turned “Pressure Drop” and “Funky Kingston” into a hurricane of pure energy, but forty years into his career he remains a tropical storm. He gets tempestuous on “Celia,” the rockers cut that showcases Toots mastering a pop sensibility born of gospel shouter style with basic lyrics and a generic melody that do everything that he wants them to do. They provide a ladder for him to climb in order to sing up to heaven and proclaim down to the earth.

            The musicianship is top notch, but some of the arrangements have a slightly synthetic feel in a way that I can’t quite work out. Maybe it’s just a matter of production, but otherwise good songs, such as “Don’t Bother Me” have a closed-in quality that’s at odds with Toots’ wide embrace. Still, this is an exceptional album.

            We get 100-percent tough, authentic Jamaican musicianship on When Rhythm Was King (Heartbeat), an anthology of Studio One tracks that could just as easily be called When Vocals Were Over the Top. And if you think I’m disparaging a nice set of songs, I make haste to point out that I consider the apogee of the rock and roll era to be the Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis Sun Studio years, stutters, hiccups, yodels and all. Stand out, stand up tracks include Sugar Minott’s purring lead on “Come On Home,” Bob Andy’s melodramatic suffering on “Unchained,” Dillinger making much ado about a fad du jour on “Natty Kung Fu,” and viscount of vibrato Alton Ellis getting “Mad Mad.” The list goes on an on, all the way to Leroy Sibbles’ deadpan romantic delivery of the Heptones’ rudie, “Fattie Fattie.”

            It’s the rhythms, not the vocals, which made these songs endure. Proof of the fact is documented in Joshua Blood’s fascinating liner notes. 1968’s “Unchained” spawned 50 cover versions, 200 songs borrowed the rhythm from 1967’s “Mad Mad,” and Michigan and Smiley’s 1979 “Compliment to Studio One” bounced its beats in 80 versions. That’s the easy part. Sugar Minott’s 1977 “Come on Home” is itself a version of a 1969 Supreme-label single by Cornell Campbell and the Eternals, while Dillinger’s 1976 “Natty Kung Fu” is just one of over 75 variations on Roy Richards’ “Freedom Blues.” You’ve got to be some kind of rhythm detective to tell your antecedents from your descendants. Or just enjoy tracks by the Wailing Souls, Johnny Osbourne, Dennis Brown, the Silvertones and other classic performers.

            Hearing the ‘Deluxe Edition’ reissue of The Abyssinians’ 1967 landmark reggae album, Satta Massagana (Hearbeat), I’m tempted to ask, why don’t they make them like this anymore? But they didn’t make them like this back then very often, either. The wraith-like harmonies of Bernard Collins, Donald Manning and Lynford Manning, impeccable musicianship, and majesty-with-a-sledgehammer ambience help separate this from other historic discs that sound comparatively dated now. The audio quality far surpasses that of this year’s other significant reissue, Culture’s Two Sevens Clash, whose somewhat metallic sonics reminded me of a highly compressed MP3.

            Nobody played the reggae guitar chug with more intensity than here, and the stately horns of “Abendigo” have such an unearthly quality and such a sense of inevitability, it’s as if the ground opened up and brass-wielding prophets emerged to blow a few riffs. In fact, with a number of harmony trios, the artistry is all in the voices and the instrumental backing is a side note. But not here. “I and I,” to name just a single song, would be unimaginable without the melodic bass line and the rolling thunderclap of drums. And the rock steady hymn “Jerusalem” would be much diminished if it lacked the sax phrases up front.

            “Jerusalem” is one of four bonus tracks added to the previous four bonus cuts appended to the 1993 reissue. “Poor Jason Whyte (Extended Mix)” is the only other newbie. The remaining two tracks are versions, nice but not essential and hardly comparable to the 1993 additions, which feel as if they should have been onboard all along. And you should be onboard, too, since this is one of the reggae masterpieces of all times – and it’s just gotten a little bit better.

            When a career retrospective of an important artist is released, I usually want to own it for the historical value. The Voice of Lightness (Sterns Africa) isn’t one of these releases, though. Yes, the songs are crucial cornerstones of Congolese pop music. But that isn’t why I love them. This two-disc Tabu Ley Rochereau anthology culled from recordings made between 1961-77 is one album that I play the heck out of, because nobody in any genre ever made better music.

            Ken Braun of Sterns Africa has made such inspired choices that instead of wondering how 29 songs by one artist will hold my short-spanned attention, I’m sufficiently fascinated by what I hear to long for access to the 600-plus recordings that The Voice of Lightness draws from. Every cut justifies its inclusion, from the looping vocal line of  “Savon Omo” that echoes the circular guitar lines, to the contrast between the simple, almost cabaret-style melody of “Pesa le Tout” and Dr. Nico’s highly ornamental guitar. With some of these early tracks, there’s a sense of disconnect between the vocals and the guitar, as if two different songs have been merged together, though the blend between voice and accompaniment is as tight as corset by African Fiesta’s 1966 “Mokolo Nakokufa.”

            I blame the sensation of any disconnect on a combination of seasonal allergies and my attempts to focus on the sweet vocal harmonies and, in fact, to try to think of these tracks as vocal music with guitar, rather than the other way around. It ain’t easy, though, since not only the electric guitar runs but also the chattering sax lines keep derailing my narrow train of thought. But I do justify the attempt. Opening track “Kelya” from African Jazz way back in 1962 wafts me right into the middle of an idealized tropical island, but even those delicate vocals failed to prepare me for the fragility of the opening notes to African Fiesta National’s “Christine” from 1969. Even more remarkable is Rocherau’s vocal on “Mongali,” a song told from a woman’s point of view, which dispenses with the usual cascading electric guitars in favor of subdued acoustic accompaniment.

            It’s a blast hearing the invention and refinement of Congolese music over the decades, including vocals from Grand Kallé and Sam Mangwana, guitar from Dr. Nico and Michelino, and saxophone from Manu Dibando and Modero Mikanisi. Together they created some of the most sophisticated pop ever made, and if anything, it sounds better than ever now.

            Speaking of Congolese legends, I’d be a bigger fool than usual not to mention Colombiafrica, the Mystic Orchestra’s Voodoo Love Inna Champeta-Land (Riverboat Records). So what does champeta, a high octane Afro-Colombian people’s music, have in common with superstars of soukous? Dally Kimoko, Diblo Dibala, Sékou Dibate, Nyboma and Rigo Star join the nonstop merry making. Titanic horn arrangements crown jubilant vocals and festive beats. If this isn’t a street party, I don’t know what is.

            Wearings its roots large on its sleeve and flaunting a dazzling mix of vocals and guitar, Bachata Roja – Acoustic Bachata from the Cabaret Era (iASO Records) is the perfect follow-up to an evening with Rochereau. They truly don’t make music like this today, because the glory years of Dominican bachata, when it was rustic rather than mainstream, began in the 1960s and was steamrolled by legitimacy in the 1980s. This anthology collects the cream of the cream of the crop, including the most influential artists like Rafael Encarnación, Elaidio Romero Santos and Leonardo Paniagua. Superhuman guitarists Edilio Paredes and Augusta Santos, who pluck a dizzying number of notes per second, add back up to many of the songs.

            It’s no wonder that these tracks defined a genre, since they are catchy as all get out. To listed to Julio Morales’ murderously sweet “Yo Pagaré  La Cerveza,” about a bar fight forestalled by a prostitute, or Efraín Morel’s frantic mangulina-derived “Esta Noche Me La Llevo” just once is to need to hear them both again, and that’s the story throughout this disc. Part of the appeal is the convention of laid back vocals delivering gritty subject matter, though the daringly dramatic “Ladrona” defined Felix Quintana’s career. Just as it took rock a couple of decades to look back respectfully at its origins, acoustic bachata is starting to get the widespread recognition it deserves, and I can’t recommend this cd too highly.

            It wasn’t true yesterday, and probably won’t be true tomorrow, but for today, and just today, I’m weary of music remix projects in general and gypsy music remix projects in particular. Nuit Tsigane, Gypsy Night at le Divan du Monde, Caetano Fabri Remixes (Crammed Discs) is highly recommended if you’ve never heard a gypsy music remix before, or if you insist on buying every gypsy music remix. You can happily add it to Balkan Beatbox, Nu Med (by Balkan Beatbox), Electric Gypsyland, Row Gypsy Fisherman Row (I’m not sure about this last title), and all the other versions of performances that were pretty darned sharp in their original incarnation. Nuit Tsigane incorporates top notch songs from Kal, Kocani Orchestra, Fanfare Ciocarlia, Taraf de Haidouks and others, which is a way big plus. On the minus side, the remixes recombine song elements without making them distinctive from the source material in ways that make me hear anything new, nor do they elevate the pleasure quotient.

            The dreamy quality of the songs on The Rough Guide to Indian Lounge (World Music Network) plus the mitigation of the more grating aspects of Bollywood fare (e.g., dolphin-pitched vocals and lurching tempo changes) reveals heavy mixology at work – okay, make that light mixology, since this is aerie faerie stuff. Even Apache Indian is smooth and mild mannered on “Om Numah Shivaya,” which is more of an invocation than the usual bhangra exhortation, complete with chanting chorister backdrop. Lush synthetic orchestral washes, gentle rockin’-the-cradle percussion and ethereal flutes abound, making this a tasty New Age-flavored dollop of aural ice cream that benefits from Debashish Bhattacharya’s down-to-earth slide guitar on “Maa.” Elsewhere, Atif’s “Aadat” has the sparsest sprinkling of jazz, Lopa’s “Blue Sky Calling” calls out breathily for acid jazz, and Indian Motorcycles’ robotic “Sonorous Star” is the ultimate bad acid trip. I feel my acid reflux acting up.

            While I don’t admire every molecule of Jidka – The Line (Riverboat Records) by Mogadishu-born Saba Anglana, I love the crazy mix of Italian hip-hop with East and West African styles. She’s a fine singer, as ”LeTemps Passe” proves. Whether the passion is as much of a performance as is her rap persona, these songs still hold my interest. For every wallowing in chirpy waifish attitude comes a silvery shot of Lao Kouyate’s kora, often playing off Taté Nsongan’s acoustic guitar, or a clever bit arrangement that makes me think Saba’s got a shot at greatness.

            The Darbuki Kings demonstrate all the nerve of 19th century travelers to Central Asia. Theirs is no simple task on Doumtekastan (Darbuki King Records): to breech the barricades of a harshly beautiful and mysterious land armed only with stringed instruments (if they even own a lowly shepherd’s flute, they keep it in its quiver) plus the percussive prowess of Robin Adnan Anders, founding member of Boiled in Lead and the late, often lamented 3 Mustaphas 3. Antonio Albarran contributes bouzouki, sitar, guitar and laouto (whatever that is). Unlike the Mustaphas, the Kings eschew trafficking in obvious humor, aside from the ethnological forgery of the cd cover, in favor of a fully buzzing string sound that cries out for an incense cake. Romance abounds, especially on the heady extravaganza “The Seven Thieves,” with its cinematic drone, clattering melody line and stirring percussive pulse. Ancient instruments never sounded so fresh.

            It’s easy to forget that in other cultures music has a role aside from entertaining us as we putter along in our SUVs. Iranian Shahram Nazeri popularized the 13th century Persian poet Jalaladdin Rumi by creating new classically-based song forms for his texts. He’s been doing this since the 1970s, and for The Passion of Rumi (QuarterTone Productions), this extraordinary singer hitches himself to arrangements by his son Hafez Nazeri, which adapt Persian classical music to a somewhat more western style. Unlike the performances of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who famously rocked out Rumi and other Sufi texts with his roof raising qawwali, the songs here are meditative, but still highly dramatic. They’re the stuff of contemplation, though there’s much to appreciate in the senior Nazeri’s sometimes subtle, sometimes soaring vocals. And there’s also enough impressive instrumentation to keep this disc spinning. Helpful liner notes help to demystify this approach to a legendary mystic.

Main Menu / Columns by Date / Reviews by Artists / Bob's Books / Dave Hucker / Hey Mr. Music