Category Archives: CD Reviews

Fear Not The Smooth

Various Artists – Smooth Africa II: Exploring the Soul
Various Artists

Smooth Africa II: Exploring the Soul (Heads Up HUCD 3077, 2003)

Yeah, I know. An album with “smooth” in the title fills your head with unspeakably horrible thoughts of lite jazz blandness or adult contemporary syrup that’s sure to induce nausea. But this is Africa we’re talking about, not middle America. Lo and behold, this is actually a very good selection of African jazz and pop artists ideal for fending off the very same mediocrity that “smooth” is often a code word for in the first place. Don’t get me(or the title) wrong- this is smooth stuff, but in the best sense of the word.

Concentrating on the southern part of the continent, the disc features big names like Ladysmith Black Mombazo (uncharacteristically singing with instrumental backing) and Oliver Mtukudzi pitching in with the kind of strong material that’s earned them international status. But just as good are the less
immediately recognizable names (Allou April, Prince Kupi, Gloria Bosman) and even a couple of American artists (Andy Narell, Spyro Gyra) who’ve been embraced on the African scene.

It’s a well-balanced collection, positioning the Afro-jazz-pop work of Joe McBride and Jimmy Dludu alongside Mtukudzi’s swaying melancholy and a breezy electronic stomper by Shaluza Max.

Narell’s steel pan track reinforces the strong ties between Africa and the Caribbean, and though Spyro Gyra’s closing “Cape Town Love” does seem to be riding the coattails a bit, it’s a pleasant tune that keeps the mellow but unmistakably alive mood. A solid compilation well worth owning, Smooth Africa II overcomes its misleading title hands down. I missed out on the first Smooth Africa that this is apparently a sequel to, but if it’s anything like this it must be worthwhile too.

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Saucy In Any Language

Various Artists – Salsa Around the World
Various Artists

Salsa Around the World (Putumayo PUT 213-2, 2003)

Salsa (the music, not the condiment) has become one of the most recognizable and popular genres around. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s also become one of the most adaptable. Despite the very distinct Latin characteristics that make salsa what it is, it can start a party in many a culture. Bands all over the planet are playing salsa now, often splicing in shades of the dance or traditional music of their own country to create refreshing hybrids or punch up the groove factor even more.

Salsa Around the World, in much the same spirit as the Candela/Tinder Salsa Mundo series, offers up salsa from both hemispheres. Straight up and authentic, but with enough local color from each nation represented, the collection scores.

Scotland’s Salsa Celtica get things underway with with a high(land)-stepping piece not unlike Cuban charanga, and the heat stays on from there. Senegal’s always-versatile Toure Kunda and Cameroon’s Richard Bona show just how deep salsa rhythms sound when re-introduced to their African origins.

For a taste of salsa mixed with the angular intensity of Arabic pop, give Morocco’s Mousta Largo a listen. India is represented by the too-brief charms of Shaan’s Bollywood-inspired mix, and the swinging tracks from Japan, Greece, Finland and Haiti will have you marveling at how lovingly (and infectiously) they make the salsa sound their own.

There’s a nice amount of depth here, but check your cares at the door. This one’s all about the good time that everyone occasionally needs and that salsa music never fails to deliver.

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Festival in the Desert

Various Artists - Festival in the Desert
Various Artists – Festival in the Desert
Various Artists

Festival in the Desert (World Village, 2003)

I am not much of an adventurer so I have to tip my hat to the musicians, journalists and music fans who trekked out to the Sahara Desert of Mali, (Essakane to be exact) to attend, perform or manage the Festival of the Desert. This compilation chronicles the third annual Festival in the Desert and features live tracks of the 20
musical groups that performed at the 2003 festival. Even for those individuals like myself who are perfectly satisfied seeing the Sahara Desert romanticized in films and novels, (Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind) instead of experiencing it in person, will enjoy this celebration of Malian culture. And if camels and sand turns
you on, then you will doubly enjoy this CD.I first heard about the Festival in the Desert when I interviewed Denis Pean
(Lo’Jo) at WOMAD USA July 2001. Although I thought he was a bit crazy at the
time to participate in a musical festival held in the middle of a desert, he
painted a lovely image and Lo’Jo’s time in the African desert also shaped their
multi-cultural music. The inaugural festival took place during an eclipse, no
less and has been gathering steam and kudos from the world music press ever
since its auspicious birth. The CD comes with a booklet that explains the
history and other facts about the festival. And listeners of Festival in the
Desert
will get a lesson that combines geography, culture and
humanitarianism.

The compilation features varying musical artists that represent nomadic groups
such as the Tuaregs, griots, desert blues musicians, European acts and a Navajo
punk band (Blackfire). You will find rock star Robert Plant singing a blues
number, kora performer Ballake Sissoko sharing the stage with Italian musician
Ludovico Einaudi, the desert celebrities, Tinariwen, Kwal and Foy-Foy and Ali
Farka Toure. Other notables include Lo’Jo, who along with Django organized this
festival, the reputable Oumou Sangare and rising star Afel Bocoum (former
prodigy of Ali Farka) and notable Aicha Bint Chighaly. In short, the CD offers
74 minutes of music ranging from traditional to rock (although thankfully, light
on the rock music and heavy on the Malian fare).

I realize that there are already numerous compilations of Malian musicians, yet
this one comes with a lot of heart from people who turned an impossible dream
into reality. And here’s hoping the auspicious eclipse brings them good fortune.

Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music.

List of Artists:

Takamba Super Onze
Afel Bocoum
Tartit
Robert Plant & Justin Adams
Sedoum Ehl Aida
Lo’Jo & Django
Oumou Sangare
Ali Farka Toure
Tinariwen
Adama Yalomba
Tidawt
Ludovico Einaudi & Ballake Sissoko
Kel Tin Lokiene
Kwal & Foy-Foy
Tinde
Aicha Bint Chighaly
Igbayen
Baba Salah
Blackfire
Django

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Contagious Drumming in Toronto

Toronto Tabla Ensemble - Weaving
Toronto Tabla Ensemble – Weaving
Toronto Tabla Ensemble (Canada)

Weaving (Naxos World, 2001)

Toronto might not be the center of the world, but people from all over the world have adopted the Canadian city as their home. The city has benefited from its array of Bengali, Punjabi, Pakistani and South Indian immigrants as well as, those from Africa countries, the Caribbean, Europe, the Philippines, China, Hong Kong and other exotic locales.

In an article with Indian Canadian filmmaker Depha Mehta, the director said that Toronto appeals to her because people can be themselves without having to lose their cultural identity. Musically, speaking, Toronto, like its French cousin Montreal can compete with Paris and Brussels in that
Toronto has grown into a mecca for world music.

It’s hard for me to believe that the snowy city (and it gets extremely cold during the winter months) attracts musicians from the hotter climes, but they arrive in Toronto and they make music that would put a smile on any city’s face. The Toronto Tabla Ensemble, which features immigrants, sons and daughters of immigrants as well as, homegrown Canadians has spawned a tabla oriented scene. Led by Ritesh Das who started the ensemble in 1991, TTE isn’t just a collective of drummers, it’s a phenomenon.

Not only has TTE wowed the press with their occasional performances, but a few of Ritesh former students have gone on to form their own groups, Ed Hanley of Autorickshaw acts as one example. TTE also takes advantage of the multicultural scene in Toronto over the years has collaborated with Arabic vocalist Maryem Hassan Tollar (a guest on this CD), jazz diva Rita di Ghent (also a guest), Japanese Taiko drummer, and flamenco artist Esmeralda Enrique to name a few.

The 2001 release, Weaving (appropriately titled) features Ritesh Das, his partner Kathak dancer/choreographer Joanna Dunbar, tablaliyas Santosh Naidu, Gurtej Hunjan, Rakesh Tewari, Morgan
Doctor, Neel Punna, Anita Katakkar, Prasanna Ketheeswaran and Devin Persaud with Suhanya Ketheeswaran on keyboards. Other musical guest include guitarist/Banjitar player Levon Ichkhanian (who created soundtracks for filmmaker Atom Egoyan) and bassist Ian de Souza.

And as anyone would guest with that lineup of musicians, the songs here are eclectic. While the musicians do study traditional Indian music, they later bend that music on its ears creating provocative world fusion. But don’t expect drum machines or rave consciousness on this CD because you won’t find those ingredients. Weight features power drumming along with a vibraphone that carries the melody. Geometry and Walk follow a similar arrangement. Achchha, composed by and featuring vocalist Rita di Ghent along with bassist Ian de Souza, blends funky jazz bass with jazz improv vocals. Bablo-Lo marries Indian with Persian/Armenian music while showcasing Levon Ichkhanian on Banjitar.

Arabic vocalist Maryem Hassan Toller along with Roula Said, Yvette Tollar, Jayne Brown, Brenna McKrimmon, Jeff Martin and TTE provide another multicultural composition (Nizil Il Matar Fag’a) with stellar vocals. The titular track features a tabla choir conversing with a jazz drum kit. These exploding beats whet the appetite for the final track, Waterfall which it self sounds like carnival samba drums, an Indian drum procession and polyphonic African drums rolled into one. It’s the sort of music that awakens all the senses.

And as far as Toronto goes, the healthy world music scene will continue for the foreseeable future. Not only are groups such as TTE, Autorickshaw and Tantra garnering international notoriety, but Ritesh’s current and future students will be making their musical marks on the city. For more information visit www.TablaEnsemble.com

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Stripping for peace

Ishtar - Emet
Ishtar – Emet
Ishtar

Emet [Truly] (Atoll Music – France, 2003)

Ishtar, lead vocalist for the French group, Alabina manifested her dream of creating an album based on her mixed heritage (Egyptian, Spanish and Moroccan). According to her press release, “Ishtar transcends the frontiers of diverse religions and cultures to convey her message of peace to the world.” And if you look at the CD liner notes, you will see a contradictory message in which the exotic vocalist strikes a provocative pose wearing lingerie and a fur coat while yanking chains out of her coat. Well, I don’t know what the readers of this review are thinking, but I am thinking that we won’t have peace in the world until we stop exploiting our bodies to sell products and stop killing animals in the name of fashion. And what kind of message is Ishtar trying to send out to Arab women or women in general? Is she trying to convey that we won’t have peace in the world until all women have the freedom to flaunt their bodies in public and wear fashionable fur?

Ishtar does have other talents, including her vocal gifts featured on her debut solo release, Truly. The album also features North African rhythms (recalling groups such as Sawt Atlas at times), Arabic violin, piano, strings and horns. And while all of these instruments embellish this collection of songs, the obligatory programming weakens the carefully thought out arrangements. Ishtar displays her versatility with string-drenched laments, rock and Arabic pop. Her forte is the Arabic pop which is noticeable on Allahalek Ya Sidi with its juicy percussion and trumpet and Lo Dai Baahava. Nasse Ve Tire features flamenco guitar and Ls’orech Ha Yam highlights a virtual duet with the late Ofra Haza. The stunning Horchat Hai Caliptus is the crowning jewel on the CD with its solemn piano, cello and string arrangement and Ishtar’s heartfelt vocals.

Truly (Emet) is certainly worth a listen or two, but I feel that Ishtar needs to rethink her marketing strategies. If she truly longs for peace in the world, then she might consider dropping the Playboy bunny image and let her music speak for it self. And following the example of Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo would also be a good idea. Lhamo after all has set a good example for any of us to follow. She is a walking embodiment of peace.

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020-The End Of Illusions

020

End of Illusions (Constitution Music Records, 2003)

The music of this CD could make Astor Piazolla proud. It has mixed the best elements of tango with a touck of rock. The music is great from the first track “What you See” until the last one “The End Of Illusions”. The sound of the bandoneon creates a special atmosphere that makes each song special. This is an unique album different from the rest. I recommend it specially for those who are awaiting to hear something new.020 (zero2zero) is based in Buenos Aires (Argentina). It is formed by Maxx (vocals), Diego Velázquez (guitar), Hernan Padro (bass), Marcelo Ferrari (piano), Leadron Lijan (drums) and special guest Daniel Rugeiro (bandoneon). For more information go to: www.zero2zero.net

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Vintermåne

Vintermåne - Vintermåne
Vintermåne – Vintermåne
Vintermåne

Vintermåne (Lindberg Lyd NOMPPO201001, 2002)

Norway seems to produce quite a few excellent groups that combine melancholic Scandinavian folk music with jazz and atmospheric sounds. Vintermåne is a group formed by three outstanding musicians: Anne Gravir Klykken on vocals, Frøydis Grorud on saxophone and Torjus Vierli on piano and keyboards. The sound of the group is clean and full of exquisite ambience. There is little jazz improvisation in the group’s music. The group’s sound is characterized by Anne Gravir Klykken’s beautiful vocals performing duets with Frøydis Grorud’s sax, accompanied by Torjus Vierli’s minimalist piano.

The album features several guests musicians. The one that attracted my attention is Jørn Simenstad, who plays the delicate willow flute, one of the most wonderful instruments from the Nordic lands.

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Diane Jarvi: whimsy and gritty

A CD review by Susan Budig

Flying Into Blue (Lupine Records, 1999)

Diane Jarvi told me this CD was made to appeal to everyone with lots of lullaby
recordings. Indeed, looking through the tracts, I see many of the selections are
lullabies. But far from putting me to sleep, I am curious and intrigued. I even
find myself mentally singing the lead song, “Flying Into Blue” while exercising
at the gym! Needless to say, I don’t find it lulling.In Finland, Jarvi is known as the Minnesota Satakieli (The Minnesota
Nightingale). Aptly nicknamed, Jarvi’s voice is sweet, yet sensuous, matching up
with the melodic kantele, a Finnish folk harp. Jarvi plays the 36 string kantele
for the instrumental, “Kristiina’s Waltz” and also for a Russian karelia, “Makaa
Pieni Blatentsaine.” I imagine little fairies flittering about on their gossamer
wings during the song “Uni Tullee” sung in Ingria and played on the 5 string
kantele.

About midway through the album, Jarvi’s voice changes. It becomes throaty and
full and ensconced with ethnic flavor as she pours out “Àillohas.” Jarvi says,
I try to enter the song and the language with as much empathy and respect as possible.” You’ll
hear that attitude in every note. This song, sung in Sami, is a joik, a tribute
to an event, landscape, emotion or person. Joiks are intrinsic to the Sami
culture. You might hear many other artists sing joiks, but you’ll never hear
another sung with the raw, yet understated power of Jarvi as she tells us of the
“wild child of the wild tundra.”

The many varied languages Jarvi uses could make for a chopped up compilation,
but not so with “Flying Into Blue.” The smooth transitions from Yiddish “Raisins
and Almonds” to the Spanish tongue of the Mexican tune, “Arrullo,” are seamless.
We are treated to a bit of Gaelic sound with “Mullach A’ Tsi.” When “Aa Tuuti
Lasta” is sung in Finnish, Jarvi sounds as though it’s her native tongue. And
well it might have been if her two sets of grandparents had stayed put rather
than emigrating to the United States from Finland. All the languages, all the
sounds complement one another without clashing or fighting. It’s a delightful
synchronization. http://www.cdbaby.com

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Ancient and Modern

Various Artists

The Rough Guide To The Music Of Pakistan (World Music Network RGNET 1116CD, 2003)

This comparatively young country has musical roots and traditions that go back hundreds of years taking in Sufi songs and the classical ghazal whilst also embracing sounds that come from modern film music and pop. This cd, like many of the Rough Guides, offers a very worthwhile taster.

Going back to the older traditions of Sufi poets, Pathane Khan, with minimal accompaniment, praises his master in the words of Punjabi mystic poet Kwadja Farid. This is a fine start to the album, solemn but uplifting. In a stronger rhythmic style Abida Parween also draws on Sufi song, combining two in one on Yaar Di Gharoli. Again the devotional content is central and the live context of the performance adds to the immediacy and passion as she delivers her message. The ghazal form has several airings on the cd and the one I find most moving is by Farida Khanum. She has a very deliberate way of conveying the song’s meaning, restrained and intimate, her plea for a lover to linger is convincing, even though I have no knowledge of the language she uses.

A transcendent experience, perhaps. A male ghazal singer, Medhi Hassan, also makes a strong impression. He is joined by tabla and sarangi for his version of Thumri In Raag Desh, which tells of the pain suffered in separation. His voice and sarangi echo each other in the melody’s undulations.

There are also examples of purely instrumental music whose fairly prosaic titles belie their beauty and elegance. My favourite is from Sultan Muhammed Channe & Shah Wali. Traditional Pashtoun Song – that’s the title – showcases the rahab, a four string lute that has a peculiar resonance, at times like the oud but often more like a banjo.

Of contemporary sounds Vital Signs are probably the most pop orientated though Sajad Ali and Faakhir also display Western influences alongside more traditional/classical roots.

No compilation of this sort would be complete without the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Aj Rang Hai Hai Maa takes us right back to the beginning, well at least 700 years, having been composed by qawwali’s founder, Hazrat Amir Khusrau. It is sung with the typical exuberance and celebration we expect from the great man. His voice takes off on an unimpeded lyrical flight leaving me, at any rate, with a sense of both joy and loss. It is a fitting end to a varied and vibrant selection.

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Second Generation, First-Rate Reggae

Morgan Heritage – Three In One
Morgan Heritage

Three In One (VP Records VPCD 1656, 2003)

After bringing reggae to the punk rock massive with their participation in the Warped tour, Morgan Heritage now offer up their most wide-ranging and best album yet. These offspring of reggae singer Denroy Morgan deliver roots consciousness with just enough touches of pop and dancehall to occasionally lighten the load.

The disc opens with “Jump Around,” a bopping dance tune reminiscent of Third World, before the more serious stuff starts kindling the righteous flame. Potent tracks like “Ah Who Dem,” “Rebel,” “Falling Race” and the acoustic “Anti-War Song (Someone Knows)” speak of religious hypocrisy, government corruption, personal responsibility and other such topics to wrap your mind around, demonstrating the sharpness with which the band have developed not only as singers and players but as insightful cultural observers.

There’s also a rousing ska number (“Everything is Still Everything”), some soulful love songs, spiritual reassurances and more, all tied up in a lengthy package of modern roots reggae rhythms characterized by by solid drums and bass laced with tightly tasty bits of guitar, keyboard and harmonies.

Morgan Heritage are consistently outspoken regarding their commitment to keeping the spirit of reggae pure and heartfelt, and Three In One shows how well they’re keeping the faith.

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