Category Archives: CD Reviews

Japan for Sale

Japan for Sale, Volume 3
Japan for Sale, Volume 3
Various Artists

Japan for Sale, Volume 3 (Sony Music, 2003)

The Japan for Sale series showcases various current music styles produced in Japan. Most of the music on this album is too poppy for me, but there are some interesting discoveries among the bubble gum pop and post punk material.

The first great discovery is Goku, who combines jazz riffs with great electronic grooves and rapping. DJ Krush mixes electronic beats and scratching with sampled voices.

Loop Junktion creates a great concoction of funky jazz grooves with hip hop. And Kyoto Jazz Massive has developed a hybrid sound that combines exciting electronic beats with funk jazz.


A Reggae Great Gets His Due

Jackie Mittoo – Champion In The Arena 1976-1977
Jackie Mittoo

Champion In The Arena 1976-1977 (Blood and Fire BAFCD 042, 2003)

Jackie Mittoo is hardly the first name that comes to mind when you think of reggae, but the importance of the man in the history of Jamaican music cannot be overstated. A piano whiz from a very young age, he was in his mid-teens when he became the musical director at Clement Dodd’s famed Studio One in 1963.

His unmatched skills as a keyboard player and arranger, as well as his ability to turn bare-bones ideas into fully developed songs, led to his being a founding member of the legendary Skatalites as well. When the original Skatalites disbanded in 1965, Mittoo continued as an essential part of Studio One’s house band, playing with and providing guidance for some of the brightest stars in reggae.

From the late ’60s on, he divided his time between Canada (where he made his name recording easy listening music, of all things), Jamaica and England, eventually branching out into producing works by such artists as Musical Youth. But it was as a keyboard player that his brilliance was most evident, whether jamming in a smoky Kingston studio or a boozy British pub.
Champion in the Arena 1976-1977 collects tracks cut in Jamaica for producer Bunny Lee, and though it’s firmly within the realm of instrumental reggae with touches of dub, the versatility of Mittoo’s playing is evident throughout.

Over a foundation of riddims played by the likes of Sly Dunbar (drums), Robbie Shakespeare (bass) and Chinna Smith (guitar), Mittoo lays out intricate solos, organ sweeps suggestive of gospel and soul music, murky riffing that accentuates the steadfast reggae pulse and cool jazz-like passages.

It’s atmospheric, rawly ambient beautiful stuff, and it grooves like nobody’s business. Jackie Mittoo’s death at the age of 42 was a tremendous loss to reggae, and the consistently excellent Blood and Fire reissue label has done lovers of the classic Jamaican style a great service with this crucial release.

Buy Champion In The Arena 1976-1977


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 demand 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 Mambazo (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