Category Archives: CD Reviews

British Tradition

Kate Rusby - Underneath The Stars
Kate Rusby – Underneath The Stars
Kate Rusby

Underneath The Stars (Pure Records. PRcD012, 2003)

British folk/traditional music doesn’t come much better than at the hands of Rusby and her crew of excellent musicians. The last CD celebrated her career to date and this new one sees her consolidating her place in the music. She revives songs from the tradition whilst developing her own songwriting skills. So we hear her once again putting superb tunes to the words of some well, and lesser, known lyrics. And as ever she is surrounded by arrangements that include fiddles, accordions, whistles and guitars.

The Good Man, which opens the CD tells a tale of wifely deception and a puzzled husband while lost love and press-ganging come together in Cruel. On Let Me Be, a girl wishes that men would leave her alone, except of course the man she wants who is ignoring her ! The course of true love and all that.One of the most beautiful melodies on a CD that’s overflowing with them has to be The White Cockade, another well known story of a young girl’s separation from her love who’s gone to serve the King. She delivers it flawlessly with some excellent accompaniment from John McCusker’s cittern in particular.

There are also a couple of collaborations. For example she mixes a Phil Cunningham tune with parts of a song from Newcastle, The Waters Of The Tyne, re-working the words in her own style. Bring Me A Boat is the result of this meeting and features a subtle brass quartet along with some fine nyckleharpa. There are several self-penned songs too which draw on the tradition and also her own life, as in the autobiographical, ‘Falling’.

Let’s face it, Rusby and band cannot put a foot wrong in their interpretation of British traditional music and the more contemporary material. Long may it continue.


Tango Siempre’s Nocturno

Tango Siempre

Nocturno (ARC Music, 2003)

Tango Siempre’s Nocturno, found on ARC Music, is ripe with all the sharp twists and turns and gentle caresses of the tango itself. Lush and sexy, Nocturno is the musical incantation of Pete Rosser on accordion/bandoneón, Ros Stephen on violin, Kylie Davies on double bass and Johnathan Taylor on piano. These four musicians extract the juice from every piece on this enchanting CD.

Tango fans are sure to enjoy “Silueta Porteña,” “Nocturno Tango” and “Invierno Porteña.” The classical and contemporary study of these fine musicians shines through on such pieces as “La Ultima Curda” and “Basslineloss.” “Pa’que Te Oigan, Bandoneon” speaks of the virtuosity and power of their extraordinary musicianship.

Tango Siempre’s Nocturno penetrates the soul and calls out the inner dancer.


TJ Nelson is also a fiction writer. Check out her latest book, Chasing Athena’s Shadow
<>. Set in Pineboro, North Carolina, Chasing Athena’s Shadow follows the adventures of Grace, an adult literacy teacher, as she seeks to solve a long forgotten family mystery. Her charmingly dysfunctional family is of little help in her quest. Along with her best friends, an attractive Mexican teacher and an amiable gay chef, Grace must find the one fading memory that holds the key to why Grace’s great-grandmother, Athena, shot her husband on the courthouse steps in 1931. Traversing the line between the Old South and New South, Grace will have to dig into the past to uncover Athena’s true crime.


FFynnon’s Celtic Music From Wales


FFynnon, Celtic Music of Wales (Green Linnet GLCD1221, 2003)

Somewhere in the mid 90s I became a traitor to my Celtic heritage – I got sick and tired of Celtic music.  I know, I know.  Shame on me.  All those over-produced, sappy renditions of traditional folk tunes started to sound the same to me and I quit listening.  So when I got handed a Celtic CD to review, I eyed it with dread. 

Thankfully I can admit that Ffynnon’s Celtic Music From Wales on the Green Linnet label was pleasant surprise.  Ffynnon is comprised of Lynne Denman on vocals and bodhrán; Stacey Blythe on keyboard, accordion and vocals; and David Reed on six-string bass guitar, keyboard and vocals. 

The CD varies from sweet to sultry and doesn’t cover up the group’s sound with over production. The spare instrumentation of this CD allows the vocals to blossom. The sometimes bright keyboard work, coupled with bodhrán and accordion, offers that familiar Celtic mystery without lapsing into the cliché, with the chunky play of the six-string bass guitar lending a moody element to the mix.

Tracks like “Felton Lonnin” and “Ty Crwn” are chock full of Celtic charm. “Beth yw’r Haf” and “Dacw Nghariad” ignite the Celtic influence with some jazzy elements. It’s the six-string bass guitar that charges tracks “Chwaer Mari” and “Le Petit Cordonier” with a funky backdrop. For traditionalists, “Aros Mae” is a breathtaking vocal piece that captures the Celtic soul.

Ffynnon’s Celtic Music from Wales is an enticing work and proof that it’s safe for traitors like me to return to the tribe.



TJ Nelson is also a fiction writer. Check out her latest book, Chasing
Athena’s Shadow
<>. Set in
Pineboro, North Carolina, Chasing Athena’s Shadow follows the adventures
of Grace, an adult literacy teacher, as she seeks to solve a long
forgotten family mystery.  Her charmingly dysfunctional family is of
little help in her quest.  Along with her best friends, an attractive
Mexican teacher and an amiable gay chef, Grace must find the one fading
memory that holds the key to why Grace’s great-grandmother, Athena, shot
her husband on the courthouse steps in 1931. Traversing the line between
the Old South and New South, Grace will have to dig into the past to
uncover Athena’s true crime.


A Rare Taste of Kenya

Jabali Afrika - Rootsganza
Jabali Afrika – Rootsganza
Jabali Afrika

Rootsganza (Converge Records, 2003)

Only a tiny amount of Kenyan music has made it to the US market, despite a great musical diversity in this country of 31 million people of 47 ethnicities. I won’t attempt to summarize Doug Patterson’s detailed account of Kenyan music , but suffice it to say that this is only the third Kenyan CD I’ve actually laid my hands on, and one of the others is oud music recalling Kenya’s time under Arabic rule.

Jaliba is Kiswahili for “rock” – not the musical genre, but the conglomerated mineral, specifically a large rock upon which band members used to meet. And their music is founded upon the African rock of rhythm blended with vocal harmony.

Opening Rootsganza is “Amatingalo,” a broad tribute Africa. Growly male voices run through the countries singing “viva Kenya…Uganda…Tanzania…Zimbabwe….” You get the idea. The singing isn’t polished, but it fits beautifully with the variety of songs about country, family, and love. Following the funky drumming of “Percussion Discussion” is “Sweetness (Utamu),” a beautifully harmonized a capella choral song. The piano-and-strings ode to motherhood “Letter to Mama,” is sweet nearly to the point of sappiness, with the refrain “Sweet mama, Super woman / I love you forever.”

There’s plenty of variety in the 16 tracks, including lead vocals by sweet-voiced Lois Mutua on “Forever Young” and “Nabhangu.” Making a social comment on joblessness and police brutality is the Caribbean-flavored “Eastlands Yard,” while “Grandma’s Milk Gourd” simmers with Afro-beat energy. Jabali Afrika is now based on the US east coast, so keep an eye out for live shows. Sitting on a festival lawn soaking in these warm, loose sounds would complete a summer’s evening. Or just pop in this CD for a rare glimpse of Kenyan tunes.

(c) 2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media


Drop the Debt…and Dance!

Drop the Debt
Drop the Debt (Say It Loud! / World Village 479008, 2003) 

The problems following the invasion of Iraq seem to have awakened the Bush administration from a slumber on the need for debt relief (We’re shocked! Shocked!). But the problem of developing-world debt has long been on the mind of others, including the Jubilee organization. Imagine paying 38% of your income just to service your debt. But don’t get me started; we’re here to talk about the music of debt.

Yes, the issue now has an all-star soundtrack, thanks to the efforts of new indie label Say It Loud. Featuring a stellar lineup of musicians (most from Africa and Latin America), Drop the Debt is simply great listening. And even if you’re an amazing polyglot (songs come from 14 different nationalities), you won’t feel like anyone’s hitting you over the head with a guilt skillet. The closest thing to an anti-debt anthem is "The Third World Cries Everyday," a richly orchestrated, mostly-English song by Africa South, an amazing constellation of musicians including Oliver Mtukudzi, Louis Mhlanga, Suthukazi Arosi, Khululiwe Sithole.

The rest of the CD is even better. It kicks off with the deep reggae mood of "Baba" by the combined forces of Tiken Jah Fakoly (Ivory Coast) and Tribo de Jah (Brazil). Brazilian vocalist Chico Cesar shows just how fast and percussive Portuguese can be sung on the folksy "Il faut payer (devo e não nego)," a collaboration with the Fabulous Trobadors of France. Bringing in Latin sounds is "Cosas pa’ pensar" by Colombia’s Toto La Momposina with a fabulous horn section. Cameroon’s Sally Nyolo combines with Shingo2 of Japan for the drum-and-voice tune "Tilma (remix)." Like turntablism? You’ll dig French group Massilia Sound System’s "Osca Sankara." If funk is your thing, "Argent trop cher (money’s too expensive)" by Tarace Boulba of France and Ablaye Mbaye of Senegal will definitely help you get a groove on.

Lyrically, the CD stays on topic, though each song highlights a different aspect of the debt burden. The translations give a sense of the widespread problems. Senegal’s El Hadj N’Diaye sings "For 40 years we’ve been repaying / A debt that endlessly grows / … We even say we’ll never be able to pay it back / That it’s planned that way." Zedess (Burkina Faso) sings "Even a democratic president / Who wants to lead his country out of poverty / Comes up against the policies of the technocrats / Who decide the priorities."

Massilia Sound System’s "Osca Sankara" includes samples of a speech given on debt relief by Burkina Faso President Thomas Sankara, shortly before his assassination in a coup. Other songs take a more personal look. Tiken Jah Fakoly and Tribo de Jah’s "Baba" laments a farmer who works hard but realizes no profit when the harvest is in. Congolese artists Faya Tess & Lokua Kanza look to the future in "Bana": "This land belongs to our children / It’s in their name that we demande the debt be canceled / and the accounts revised…."

This is a great CD that just happens to champion a great cause as well. All the tracks are exclusive to this release, and with a variety of styles and consistently high energy it’s bound to have wide musical appeal. Get it as a wide-ranging survey of contemporary world music or as a political statement. But get it.

Okay, just one last word on selective debt relief. Read this statement from the conservative Heritage Foundation, and ask yourself why they and "President" Bush aren’t including Senegal, Burkina Faso, Columbia, Brazil, Zimbabwe, and other poor countries in their push for debt relief. Just substitute one of those countries for "Iraq" and see if it fits as well: "If Iraq’s debts are not forgiven, the Iraqi people will be financially crippled for a generation, or even generations, eliminating any prospect of a growing and prosperous Iraq. If European and Arab leaders truly want to help the people of Iraq, the best way to demonstrate this would be by easing the debt burden."

For more on debt relief, see:

(c) 2003 Scott Allan Stevens, Earball Media

Buy Drop the Debt.


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.

Buy Smooth Africa II


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.

Buy Salsa Around the World


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
will get a lesson that combines geography, culture and

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
Robert Plant & Justin Adams
Sedoum Ehl Aida
Lo’Jo & Django
Oumou Sangare
Ali Farka Toure
Adama Yalomba
Ludovico Einaudi & Ballake Sissoko
Kel Tin Lokiene
Kwal & Foy-Foy
Aicha Bint Chighaly
Baba Salah

Buy Festival in the Desert


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


Stripping for peace

Ishtar - Emet
Ishtar – Emet

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.