All posts by Tom Orr

Tom Orr is a California-based writer whose talent and mental stability are of an equally questionable nature. His hobbies include ignoring trends, striking dramatic poses in front of his ever-tolerant wife and watching helplessly as his kids surpass him in all desirable traits.

Reggae Remake is in the Pink

Easy Star All-Stars – Dub Side of the Moon
Easy Star All-Stars

Dub Side of the Moon (Easy Star Records ES-1012, 2003)

I first learned of this project while interviewing Eric Smith of Easy Star Records in late 2001. When he told me the label was planning to do a reggae remake of Pink Floyd’s perennial bestselling rock album Dark Side of the Moon, I was intrigued, but not to the extent I knew some people would be. Though I was (and am) quite fond of the music and attitude that comprised the Pink Floyd original, I certainly didn’t count myself among its more rabid fans. I never even owned a copy, but given how omnipresent the album was at parties, on the radio and in college dorm rooms, I didn’t need one. Still, whether your affection towards the original is casual or hardcore (or if maybe you’re just a fan of solid reggae), you’re likely to be floored by how well the Easy Star All-Stars have pulled this off.

Guitarist (and label co-founder) Michael Goldwasser and keyboardist Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod (also a member of Afrobeat band Antibalas) were responsible for reconfiguring the tracks inna reggae style, and they’ve done so brilliantly.

The original’s opening heartbeat sounds are rendered on nyabinghi drums, potentially indulgent rock guitar solos are replaced by DJ chatting, and, in a particularly inspired move, “Money” is laced not with cash register cadences but the bubbling/coughing rhythms of a water pipe being smoked. But don’t get the idea that this is all played for laughs, for nothing could be further from the truth.

The gloomy life-cycle cynicism of the original is still the core aesthetic, and most of the distant, elusive sonic textures (such as the melancholy guitar and keyboard accents) are intact.

Essential to this reggae re-casting are the disc’s guest artists, with Frankie Paul nailing the frustrated but resigned tone of “Us and Them,” Kirsty Rock giving “The Great Gig in the Sky” the right anguished/orgasmic vocal wail, Ranking Joe and Dollarman toasting their way through the gaps and Dr. Israel doing sufficient damage to “Brain Damage.” Plus, there are a few dub versions at the end to make a good thing even better, enhancing the rock-to-reggae transition while adding an extra starkness that even Pink Floyd themselves likely couldn’t have envisioned.

I don’t know if the Easy Star gang embarked on this with a so-crazy-it-might-just-work outlook or the complete opposite, but let’s all be glad they saw it through.

This disc has gotten a lot of positive reviews already, and I’m pleased to add my voice to the chorus of approval.

Buy Dub Side of the Moon

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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New Old Sounds from Xavier Quijas Yxayotl

Xavier Quijas Yxayotl – Aztec Dances
Xavier Quijas Yxayotl

Aztec Dances (Canyon Records CR-7045)

Mexican-born flute player Xavier Quijas Yxayotl continues to tap into the ancient yet strangely refined sounds of Mesoamerica in his recordings. From the 1300’s until Spanish rule was imposed in 1521, the Mexica (Aztec) civilization flourished in what is now Mexico, and their winds-and-percussion-dominated music was essential to the ceremonial and religious aspects of everyday life.

Like Yxayotl’s albums Crossroads and Singing Earth (the former a collaboration with Native American flutist Robert Tree Cody), Aztec Dances is full of sounds that don’t get any more earthy. Utilizing flutes and percussion instruments constructed of wood, gourds, clay, reeds and the like, the music is layered and dense, with the percussion often surprisingly melodic in addition to being rhythmic.

The flow and intensity of the beats varies, often within the same track, but the changes always feel natural, never jarring. An array of drums and struck percussion ripples in low, medium and high ranges while dryly articulate rattles and flutes convey celebration, spirituality and cultural identity in gently urgent fashion. There is an empathy between Yxayotl and his three drummer/percussionists which recalls the fact that musical notation was almost unheard of in the Aztec world.

One can’t help but feel that all this sounds much as it must have centuries ago. Aztec Dances is raw and beautiful, perfect for when an antidote to slickly polished music is needed.

Buy Aztec Dances

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Baka Beyond – A Celtic Heart With the Beat of an African Drum

Baka Beyond – East to West
Baka Beyond

East to West (Narada World 72435-43725-2-0)

It’s been a decade since Baka Beyond’s Spirit of the Forest, a landmark collaboration in which eclectic English guitarist Martin Cradick and his vocalist wife Su Hart traveled to Cameroon to meld the rhythms and voices of the forest-dwelling Baka people with acoustic guitar, mandolin and some studio tweaking to produce an ethnic/folk/global hybrid that still sounds inspired. Once Baka Beyond evolved into a true recording and touring band, their music began to take on a distinctly Afro-Celtic feel.

On East to West, the violin, pennywhistle and uilleann pipes that combine with an array of African percussion don’t sound particularly groundbreaking, but it sure is a great fit. The interplay is sweetly evident during the instrumental passages, where the jig-and-reel melodies compliment the intricate rhythms (and vice versa) with a symbiosis that is all at once joyful, sensual and invigorating.

Cradick’s guitar and mandolin still provide much of the sparkle while Hart’s vocals (particularly on the lighthearted “Ra-Li-O” and the pensive “Silver Whistle”) suggest sounds emanating from a pub in the middle of a rainforest. Baka Beyond has indeed moved beyond- Baka percussion and vocals played only a minor role in the creation of this disc. Still, the band remains dedicated to improving the quality of life for the Baka, paying royalties for use of their music and assisting charities connected to their cause. So while East to West is a highly enjoyable album, it’s also the latest step in a crossing of cultures that will continue to benefit all involved.

Buy East to West

[Editor’s footnote] Read the following article about the Baka’s new nightclub in the jungle: Nightclub in the Jungle

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New Gypsy Music Releases- Different Approaches, Both Hit the Mark

Besh o Drom – Can’t Make Me!
Besh o Drom – Can’t Make Me! (Asphalt Tango Records CD-ATR 0203, 2003)

Jony Iliev and Band – Ma Maren Ma (Asphalt Tango Records CD-ATR 0102, 2003)

As Rom (Gypsy) music gets bigger and bigger globally, the parameters that define it have begun to blur. These two very fine recordings are satisfyingly well within the realm of what one would expect Gypsy music to sound like, but both succeed on their own terms.

Besh o Drom (their name means “go your own way”) include source material from all over the Balkans and Eastern Europe in their music, and they toss off a couple of traditional-sounding pieces before bringing in rock, jazz, cabaret, hip-hop and electronica accents to jack up the fun meter a few notches.

“Cigansko Oro” bops as hard as any Gypsy brass music and bounces around a few well-placed turntable scratches before dropping into an almost mambo feel with some oddly processed vocals. That’s followed by the rich, rhythmically sensual “Afgan,” and such is the eclectic nature of Besh o Drom. They’re obviously skilled musicians who take chances and liberties and make them pay off, moving from the familiar to the unexpected fluidly and expertly. Compare, for example, the entirely nutty “Pergeto (scat song)” with the salty strut of “Kanna Solo” (which includes some of the most killer udu drumming you’ll ever hear) and you realize how many and varied are the strengths of this album and this band.

Jony Iliev and Band – Ma Maren Ma
The approach taken by Jony Iliev and Band is more straightforward, but their sound, honed in the Gypsy quarter of Sofia, Bulgaria is very rich nonetheless. Iliev’s vocal style is confident and brimming with emotion despite its unpolished gruffness, perfect for the range of melancholy to celebratory heard in the songs. Some Middle Eastern and flamenco strains are evident in the Balkan grooves laid down by the band (aptly described as “diabolically swinging” on the back cover), who stretch out on a few instrumentals that provide cool contrast to Iliev’s vocal workouts.

Ma Maren Ma is a deep, subtly effective album of modern Gypsy music, highly recommended for fans of the genre and the curious.

Buy the albums:
Besh o Drom – Can’t Make Me!

Jony Iliev and Band – Ma Maren Ma

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Classic Dub Reissues Strip Reggae to the Roots

Augustus Pablo – Rockers Meets King Tubbys in a Fire House
Augustus Pablo – Rockers Meets King Tubbys in a Fire House (Shanachie SH 45055, 2003)

Ja-Man All Stars – In the Dub Zone (Blood and Fire BAF CD 041, 2003)

The practice of dubbing reggae music- breaking it down and reconstructing it via studio tweaking and remixing -has become an inseparable component of reggae. In dub, the inner core of bass and drums is left intact, with other instruments and effects sliced and diced to accentuate the rhythm and blow your mind to varying degrees. Sounds come, go and come again, and an expert dub mixer can create a “version” of a reggae track that brims with spiritual depth, mischievous fun, empathetic musical vibes, or any number of other sonic sensations.

Augustus Pablo, who died in 1999, was a master of dub and instrumental reggae who created mystical music unlike any other. An accomplished keyboard player, his signature instrument was the melodica, a wind/keyboard hybrid often regarded as a child’s toy. Pablo’s melding of the melodica’s reedy etherealness with the pulsating rhythms of reggae was nothing short of pure genius.

His 1980 release Rockers Meets King Tubbys in a Fire House (so named because dub pioneer King Tubby had a sizable hand in the mixing) was one of many landmark albums he recorded, and it’s been re-released with 4 additional tracks. These are dubs of songs by Pablo himself and other artists he produced, and it’s mesmerizing from start to finish. Highlights include the time signature-bending title track and the mildly Spanish-sounding “Dub in a Matthews Lane Arena,” but the whole disc is highly recommended.

Ja-Man All Stars – In the Dub Zone
One of the many strengths of England’s Blood and Fire label is tracking down and re-releasing golden age reggae and dub that may otherwise have been in danger of fading into obscurity. Dudley “Manzie” Swaby was a Jamaican producer who did some fine but often overlooked work in the last half of the ’70s. In the Dub Zonecompiles two of his dub albums on one CD.

The roots and culture slant predominant in reggae at the time is reflected in the sparse, urgent sound of these dubs, though there’s a snappy brightness that surfaces often enough. In his own liner notes, Manzie states that the disc is all about the love for the music felt by those who created it. It shows. These are crucial dubs laid down by some of the finest Jamaican players, including drummer Sly Dunbar, who is heard on many tracks on the latter half of the collection experimenting with the emerging syndrum sound he would later use to great effect with Black Uhuru. If you’re already familiar with the very high quality of Blood and Fire’s output, you’ll need no convincing that this is an essential dub release. If not, buy it and enjoy convincing yourself.

Buy the albums:

Augustus Pablo – Rockers Meets King Tubbys in a Fire House

Ja-Man All Stars – In the Dub Zone

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