Category Archives: CD Reviews

Zambia Roadside – Music from Southern Province

Zambia Roadside – Music from Southern Province (SWP, 2003)

SWP is a small label doing great work. Quite apart from the mammoth task of compiling and releasing the original Hugh Tracey recordings from the ILAM archives, SWP’s Michael Baird is becoming a very well travelled man, spending considerable time in southern and central Africa recording the authentic sounds of the people he encounters.

Zambia Roadside is a compilation of Tonga music recorded as recently as August 2002. What this collection provides is a contemporary insight into the sounds of ordinary Southern Province musicians, sounds not readily available to us overseas as they do not fall into easily definable commercial categories. We are granted a tempting glimpse into the broad and diverse range of sound emanating from this largely unfamiliar musical area. There is an abundance of styles and line-ups on Zambia Roadside, ranging from the one-man-and-his-guitar combo of Short Mazabuka, to the full-bodied, xylophone accompanied Mukuni Palace Women’s Choir. Personal favourites are any of the three tracks performed by Green Mamba, one of which is acoustic rumba, complete with that unmistakeably Congolese vocal timbre. The fact that these tracks are acoustic by no means detracts from their ability to deliver a punching beat. What is incredible, given the depth and quality of sound, is the fact that most of the instruments are home made (the same applies to the instruments of most of the artists featured). A particular highlight has to be the rumba-based “Busiku Bwanduuma”, for its tight vocal harmonies and teasing rhythmic plays towards the close of the song. This song is right up there with the very best soukous for it irresistibility.

It sometimes pays to step off the main road and venture a little off the beaten track. “Zambia Roadside” bears testimony to this.


Klezmatics on the Rise

The Klezmatics – Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf!
The Klezmatics

Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! (Rounder Records 11661-3197-2, 2003)

The venerable Jewish roots music called klezmer has seen peaks and valleys of popularity, and much of its recent visibility can be attributed to a combination of general interest in world music and good old fashioned resiliency. A good klezmer band knows how to strike the right balance of serious tradition, innovation and a bit of meshugge. That said, The Klezmatics remain arguably the best practitioners of klezmer around.

Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! contains songs of both simple beauty and wild abandon, tossing in touches borrowed from Celtic, Balkan, Latin and other musical realms. The result is very much an album for our times, a post-9/11 longing for unity through celebratory and introspective music in a world very much in need of it. Pieces like “Davenen (Prayer),” achieve maximum impact through wordless instrumental surges, but such others as “Yo Riboyn Olam (God Master of This Universe)” and “Hevl Iz Havolim (Vanity is Vanities)” draw lyrics and music straight from tradition to spell out the way to spiritual wisdom or plain common sense. Though a few moments of pure sonic nuttiness save the proceedings from approaching a tone that’s completely serious, this is mostly a food-for-thought album.

A cover of Holly Near’s “I Ain’t Afraid” asserts that we all have a lot more to fear from religious zealots than from God, while “Barikadn (Barricades)” laments mankind’s need to fight in the streets. Throughout it all, the band’s rich tapestry of brass, reeds, strings, accordion, keyboards and percussion does a superb job of taking it to the max or taking it easy. This is a very fine disc, full of good times, great sounds and hope in the face of uncertainty.


Don’t Pardon My French

Various Artists – French Caribbean
Various Artists

French Caribbean (Putumayo PUT 211-2, 2003)

Musically, some Caribbean islands bear strong marks of having been former colonies of Spain, England or The Netherlands. Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe, however, were under French control back in the day. As elsewhere in the Caribbean, enslaved Africans provided the rhythms that today form the basis of popular music in those places.

Putumayo’s French Caribbean is a celebration that is as lively as it is sultry and sensual, oozing forth beguine, compas and other styles with melodic strains cut from the same cloth as French chanson or cabaret music and beats straight from Africa.

Some of the songs, such as the selections from Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly and Haiti Twoubadou, groove to a choppy gallop like what you’d hear in cumbia or reggae, resounding with a folkloric feel shared by Kali’s banjo-picking quadrille and Emeline Michel’s graceful ode to motherhood. There’s modern-sounding tracks to keep things balanced, embellishing the roots via electronic and hip-hop touches without drowning them.

The disc ends with a live track from the mighty Kassav’, who combined the various traditional musics with up-to-date studio technology to create the rousing contemporary style known as zouk. It’s a fitting final note to a nicely put together collection that will leave you wanting to explore the region’s music further.

Buy French Caribbean


Good Weed Indeed

Yerba Buena - President Alien
Yerba Buena

President Alien (Razor and Tie 7930182894-2, 2003)

It’s easy to like a band whose name means “good weed.” Truly, it appears that some degree of herbal assistance may have played a role in Yerba Buena coming up with their mix of salsa, Afro-Cuban, cumbia, rock, hip-hop, urban funk, Afrobeat and a few other kitchen sinks. It’s the Latino edge that stands out most, though the many global flavors in this serious party music are fully integral and not mere adornment.

The rap elements are the least interesting aspect (there’s even a lame reference to “J-Lo” in the opening track), though they do manage some deft twists and turns by utilizing unusual cadences and gearing their intensity to match the abundant percussion. Some of the adventurous instrumental work here (the horns of Ron Blake and Rashawn Ross in particular) recall the freewheeling sounds of the Fania All Stars and other vintage Latin boogaloo, and show clearly that this band is just as much about giving the roots their due as they are about sounding cutting edge. In other words, the mix of old and new is a good one, with equal parts Orisha-inspired rhythms and street swagger.

The songs often take unexpected turns into tight percussion breaks, jazzy solos or spaced-out vocal tangents with no loss of groove momentum. There’s plenty of variety as well- compare the smoky fun of “Fire” with the assertive “Definition of a Warrior,” and you hear the mark of a band that’s diverse in subject matter as well as sound. The core band members are players and singers of considerable skill, but assisting Yerba Buena are numerous guest artists who’ve rubbed elbows with guitarist/keyboardist/bandleader/sonic mastermind Andres Levin in his many musical projects.

These include Carlinhos Brown, Mark Ribot, Yosvany Terry and Andy Gonzalez, adding licks and kicks that deepen and sweeten the proceedings. President Alien is fusion music with appeal likely to reach far and wide. Be prepared not only to fall under its spell, but to go down dancing.


CD Review: Kristi Stassinopoulou–The Secrets of the Rocks

Kristi Stassinopoulou - The Secrets of the Rocks
Kristi Stassinopoulou – The Secrets of the Rocks
Kristi Stassinopoulou

The Secrets of the Rocks (Hitch Hyke Music/USA:Tinder, 2003)

Greek multi-media artist Kristi Stassinopoulou possesses a limitless talent and a unique world-view. Kristi’s most recent release, The Secret of the Rocks features Kristi’s vocal and writing talents as well as, giving listeners a peek into her spiritual and mysterious world.

The artist published two books in the past, Seven Times in Amorgos (1993) and the mystery novel, The Fiery Sword (1995) along with a collection of CDs as a solo artist and member of the group Selana which she formed with her partner, Stathis Kalyviotis, another multi-talented musician.

The Secret of the Rocks revolves around ocean themes. Everything from seaweed, (Red Adders), the wind mentioned on various tracks, the moon, rocks, sand and mysterious elements surface in Kristi’s poetic lyrics. And in fact, this beautifully packaged CD combines poetry and music in a compelling fashion while reflecting on the life of beach bohemians who eschew television and perfume ads.

The music that appears on the CD marries Greek (rembetika) and Balkan folk roots with electronic and psychedelic pop-rock and its easy to see where a drug culture might be attracted to this ethereal music. And others such as myself also find the CD enjoyable. The music which in part is inspired by American and English psychedelic groups from the 1960′s such as Jefferson Airplane can also trace its roots back to Mediterranean, North African and Indian music in which influenced the psychedelic musicians from the past.

Kristi and Stathis create something fresh from their various influences while marrying the past with the future. Similar to their last North American release, Echotropia, Kristi treats her voice like a musical instrument. She whispers, narrates poetry and sings in various modes and scales. On the titular track, her raspy whispers hang lightly over percussion, drone and ambient guitar recalling early Cocteau Twins’ releases. On Waves, she utilizes the Greek scale and oriental modes. For the most part, her vocals embellish synthesizer-guitar-sample mixes, but on the tracks, Strong Wind Blockade, The Fates and Calima, saz (a Turkish pear-shaped string instrument), ney and bagpipes are introduced. And if you listen closely to the collage of instruments that appear on this CD, you will also hear accordion, lyre and various percussion instruments.

The groovy 70′s style Whirlpools with its jazzy guitar and provocative lyrics, “and if you hear the sirens scream at night, it’s my heart’s whirlpools that sigh,” is one of my favorite tracks. The other worldly, The Days Go By, the melancholic Calima with its desert images and the catchy R.E.M-esque verse-chorus-verse Summer Moon are also gems waiting to be unearthed and brushed of their sand.

Any artist that draws on the ocean and moon for inspiration will touch our souls. The Secret of the Rocks also delves into contemporary Greek mythology, nature spirits and the unknown without ever losing its musical footing. And it is one of those CDs that grabs a hold of your senses while transporting you into another time and place.

Buy The Secrets of the Rocks


Original Masters of Ska Show Their Love

Skatalites – From Paris With Love
The Skatalites

From Paris With Love (World Village 468017, 2003)

No matter how much ebb and flow there is in the popularity of ska, the fact remains that it’s one of the most recognizable and enduring forms of music on the planet. It’s been 40 years since the Skatalites combined shuffling jazz and r+b with Afro-Caribbean rhythms and sharp accents on the off beat to create a style that went on to influence and inspire punk rockers, reggae rebels, musicians of various stripes and listeners the world over.

Ska started out not only as music but as a reflection of contemporary culture, with many ska songs over the years being reconfigured versions of popular classics or drawing ideas from movie soundtracks and matinee idol personas. The Skatalites continue to keep that spirit alive to this very day, and From Paris With Love is the latest jewel in the crown of their long and distinguished career.

Recorded in the French capital late in 2001, the disc includes the amazingly honed chops of longtime members Lloyd Brevett (bass), Lester Sterling and Cedric Brooks (saxes), Lloyd Knibb (drums), and Dizzy Moore (trumpet) as well as perennial vocalist Doreen Shaffer singing on a few selections.

The 15 tracks are heavy on updated old favorites, and though the production is considerably more polished than the often ragtag quality that made vintage Skatalites recording so charming, no one would deny that this band has earned a bit of gloss.

Ageless and timeless as ever are the likes of “Rock Fort Rock,” “African Beat,” “Freedom Sounds” and “Guns of Navarone,” with a smattering of new instrumentals like “Skata Skata” fitting right in. Horn melodies and solos bob and weave over tightly skanking riffs and rhythms, with Knibb’s dead-on drum fills always hitting the mark and the entire ensemble recalling glory days of ska that never truly went away.

The latter-day additions to the group earn their wings alongside the old masters, the album sounds great throughout, and ska fans from Paris to Polynesia will be grooving with renewed vigor.

Buy From Paris With Love.


Bembeya Jazz–Bembeya

Bembeya Jazz - Bembeya
Bembeya Jazz – Bembeya
Bembeya Jazz

Bembeya(World Village, 2003)

Released on World Village, sporting three vocalists, four guitarists, a horn trio, drums and percussion, Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz has reunited after a 14 year hiatus to commemorate their 40 plus year history. The end result was the group’s first European appearance in over a decade at the Musiques Metisses Festival and Bembeya, a CD that acts as an anthology.

The legendary octogenarian Cuban musicians made famous by the recording Buena Vista Social Club comes to mind and it’s not too far fetched to draw comparisons between the two groups. Both groups derived from nightclub musicians that reached legendary status in their respective countries and both groups suffered hardships due to politics or economic hardships only to return in their later years more dynamic than ever.

The Bembeya Jazz group first formed in 1961 as part of the new president Sekou Toure’s national arts and culture program. When persuaded by his uncle, guitarist Sekou Diabate, “Diamond Fingers,” created the nucleus of Bembeya Jazz. The group continued to evolve and expand through the 1960’s and 70’s by adding two rhythm guitarists and dancing girls. The group also experienced success within Guinea’s nightclub scene. By the 1980’s Guinea’s economy began to crumble, and while most musical acts suffered from this hardship, Bembeya Jazz was fortified by the arrival of their new young vocalist, Sekou “Bambino” Diabate who also contributed griot traditions to the group. However, this success proved short lived after Bambino left the group to pursue a solo career.

Founding member Sekou Diabate broke out on his own too, recording an album with his wife, Djanke Diabate and a solo album (Diamond Fingers) as well. He was residing in Paris when he was asked to return to the group. This led to Bembeya Jazz’s recent festival performance in France as well as, this recording. (For more historical information, see the CD liner notes).

The eight tracks on Bembeya span from 1965 with the group’s first song, Bembeya to 1987 with Yelema
Yelemaso, a song about heroes and troubadours. Sanfaran dates to 1974 and speaks of an old and revered woman sorceress. Gbapie written by Diagbe Traore is a love song about a young man that woos a village girl with his musical talents. Sabou, written by Sekouba Diabate brought in a new infusion of the Manding griot tradition and speaks of the cause of something or synchronicity.

Fans of the Ganje Brass band or the numerous orchestras or jazz outfits found throughout the African continent will enjoy Bembeya Jazz. Of course, since the group has been around since 1961, I imagine they have already garnered a sizable international following. If not, this recording should do the trick.

Buy Bembeya

(Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music).


From the Throne Room of the Juju King

King Sunny Ade – Synchro Series
King Sunny Ade – Synchro Series (IndigeDisc 0004, 2003)

King Sunny Ade – The Best of the Classic Years (Shanachie 66034, 2003)

Many U.S listeners can trace the beginning of their interest in global music (and African music in particular) back to the early 1980’s, when Island Records began issuing stateside the music of Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade. The label had an interest in promoting sounds from Africa in the west: Bob Marley had recently passed away, leaving a void in some shadowland of mainstream acceptance for a musician from the “third world” to fill. King Sunny Ade was a reigning monarch of juju, a Nigerian meld of traditional Yoruba beats with further layers of modern electric instrumentation. It was a dense, complex and highly enjoyable music, with an army of percussion instruments, the chiming of multiple guitars and intoxicating call-and-response vocals carrying on in long, subtly shifting grooves that never quite seemed fast or slow.

Juju went on to become, to global music fans, one of the most familiar genres of African music, with several well-known practitioners. But for many, Ade was where it began. These two releases will fill in a few gaps for fans who haven’t had much chance to sample some of the Ade works that have gone largely unreleased outside Africa. The Indigedisc album includes tracks from the early ’80s, right about the time Ade was beginning to make a splash in the States. Some of the material, in fact, can be heard in altered versions on his first two Island Records collections. But a rehash is the last thing you should expect. Included also is the entirety (three lengthy tracks) of an album called Gbe Kini Ohun De not previously available in the U.S., and even the familiar stuff here (including a dub version of the popular “Ja Funmi”) is likely very different from what you’ve heard before. Despite the multiple layers of percussion, guitars, voices and effects, the sound has the airy quality that characterized Ade’s music at the time- it flows easy but cuts deep. Beautiful stuff.

King Sunny Ade – The Best of the Classic Years
On Shanachie’s The Best of the Classic Years, we are blessed with songs from earlier in Ade’s career, when he was recording for the African Songs, Ltd. label in the late ’60s to early ’70s. The richly lengthy grooves, serpentine guitars and percussion and caressing Yoruba vocals are heard in all their emerging glory for over 70 minutes of heavenly juju bliss. Listening without distraction is strongly advised.

Good luck trying to choose one of these discs over the other, because both are absolutely essential. The juju sounds of King Sunny Ade were a primary trailblazer towards the establishment of that vast category we now call world music, and revisiting the roots of those sounds via these two superb offerings will make you feel very, very good.


CD Review: Hedningarna 1989-2003

Hedningarna - Hedningarna 1989-2003
Hedningarna – Hedningarna 1989-2003

Hedningarna 1989-2003 (Northside, 2003)

Hedningarna’s newest release on NorthSide promises to take listeners back in time, far back in time, when some of our ancestors lived in tribal communities in dark forests. The music on Hedningarna’s anthology focuses on tribal rhythms, primal urges and promises a ritualistic experience to its listeners. The CD also reflects on the Nordic group’s evolution that began in 1989 when a Swedish trio of music students, Hallbus Totte Mattsson, Anders Stake and Bjorn Tollin first met at college and shared their passion for Swedish folk music.

Over the next fourteen years, various Finnish vocalists including, Sanna Kurki-Suonio, Tellu Paulasto and Anita Lehtola, Liisa Matveinen would loan their talents to Hedningarna’s recordings (Liisa Matveinen and Tellu Paulasto also appear on Wimme’s latest release, Barru).

Hedningarna (a Swedish word for heathen) eventually married traditional acoustic Swedish music with techno-beats and this rave consciousness comes through on the 1997 release, Hippjokk which includes the original trio along with guest vocalist Wimme. The instrumental tracks, Dokaren, Skane and Hoglorfen come from this period, as does, Navdi/Fasa in which Wimme contributes a yoik. And this founding trio can also be heard on one of the group’s earliest recordings, Bjornlaten off of the debut release, Hedningarna. The song itself portrays a plucked lute and dissonant fiddles foreshadowing the emergence of an innovative folk-roots movement in which this pioneering group would lead.

This anthology opens with the ritualistic Tuuli (Trä, 1994) in which vocalists Sanna Kurki-Suoni and Tellu Paulasto engage in intricate harmonies compliments of Finno-Baltic traditions and marry those harmonies to Wimme’s yoik. The vocals are then laid over a backdrop of primal beats and Nordic musical textures igniting an explosion of sounds. The new recording, Suet Ulvo, a frenzied rave follows and if that one doesn’t get listeners on their feet dancing then the Sasha remix of Kruspolska (1993) will do the trick. Tina Vieri slows things down a bit while it focuses on vocals that snake through Swedish bagpipes and power beats. Chicago, (Kaski!, 1992) possess a bluesy element played on a willow flute and lute.

Other tracks worth mentioning are Ukkonen and Neidon Laulo from the Karelia Visa CD (1999), a recording that involved a trip to the Karelian region on the other side of the Russian-Finnish border in which runo-songs were collected from elders still carrying on the tradition. The vocals are haunting and fused with willow flute, heavy drum beats and melancholic sentiments. Vattoi, another new track again features vocal harmonies compliment of the runo-song tradition.

Hedningarna, a forerunner of groups such as the Swedish band, Garmarna and Sami yoikster Wimme could
be credited for the folk-roots-techno craze that is currently being exported out of most of the Scandinavian countries. Hedningarna unwittingly cultivated the soil and planted seeds that have emerged as a new musical consciousness that revives traditional music and presents it to a younger audience. (Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music).

Buy Hedningarna 1989-2003


Luneda by Laio

Laio - Luneda
Laio – Luneda

Luneda (World Muxxic, 2002)

Galician sextet Laio releases Luneda a blend of Galician folk roots (Celtic) and techno. Laio’s music falls into the international Celtic category much like AfroCelts, (a multi-ethnic group that also marries roots music with modern technology). Various tracks including Herrera and Chic’o Cuarto easily draw comparison’s to AfroCelts’ latest release Seed. However, Luneda’s international flair recalls the French nuevo tango group Gotan Project who also mix bandoneon and programming and Finnish accordionist Maria Kalaniemi’s Ahma–just substitute wind instruments for strings.

However, I do not wish to give you the impression that Laio has been lifting tunes off of other Celtic or Nordic artists, for this group has created an original tapestry that came together after careful research of Galician’s traditional music. Brothers, Pedro and Pablo Pascual spent ten years collecting folk-roots music from elders who reside in the mountains (Paradanta region) of Galicia. Later, they transformed the traditional music by marrying it to samples, loops and contemporary trappings. Take for instance, the track Faj&Jasto which fuses funky hip hop beats with accordion, bouzouki and clarinet. Then the tune swings into a jazzy 70’s disco mode in which the trombone solos. Je Sacrifie Les Poulets boasts a French title and various traditional instruments reminding us once again that we have stepped into international Celticism.While the bulk of the CD is instrumental, three of the tracks feature guest vocalists. Canto De Reis, a traditional song that has been transposed by wa wa guitar that frolics with accordion, bag pipe and clarinet, features Sra Concha do Carnal on vocals. Her trembling vocals take on an instrumental effect, relegated to the background. Whereas, guest vocalist Ma Roman who contributes her Celtic vocals on Luneda and The Heat of the Sun, remains up front. Also joining Laio is award-winning bagpiper Edelmiro Fernàndez on Canto De Reis, Chic’o Cuarto and Xainda (written by Fernàndez).

It becomes increasingly clear with every track that this sextet enjoys exploring new musical frontiers while never losing their passion for Celtic music. And the group has shared this passion at festivals up and down the European’s West Coast and across Canadian’s provinces while collecting kudos from the music press along the way. Luneda only solidifies Laio’s likely success on the international scene. Most important though is that Laio joins other Galician artists such as Carlos Nuñez and Xose Manuel Budiño in revealing Spain’s Celtic roots.

Buy Luneda