Category Archives: CD Reviews

Puerto Rico meets Brazil by way of Jamaica

Bayanga – Bayanga
Bayanga

Bayanga(RAS Records 06076-89603-2, 2003)

RAS Records, known as one of the finest reggae labels, steps a bit off their beaten path with this disc. Yes, there is a helping of reggae spirit in Bayanga’s pulsating rhythms, soulfully conscious lyrics and the dreadlocked appearance of some of its members, but there’s more at work here.

Bayanga are a sizable band from Puerto Rico with a passion tending to lean more towards sounds from elsewhere in the African diaspora. They’re perfectly capable of taking a crafty turn into salsa, plena, bomba or Santana-like Latin rock, but the main inspirations seem to come from Brazil and Jamaica.

The wall of percussion that forms the backbone of nearly every song is largely of the Brazilian variety, and Bayanga do some great things with it. Check the clever combination of Brazilian cuica and Australian didjeridoo on “Cohimbre’s Stylee,” for example, or the expert looseness with which the percussion battery can hammer away at the very spot where the guitar or keyboard chop would be in traditional reggae.

Don’t overlook the band’s versatile horn section, though, or the steady guidance of keyboard player/musical director Eduardo Cabra in his ability to navigate forays that include dips into ska, samba and Cuban rhythms. Lead singer Hermino Cabrera doesn’t have much of a vocal range, but his deft phrasing and assured charisma keep the songs moving.

It’ll take more than one listening to pick up everything this disc has going on, and you won’t mind putting forth the effort. With a bluesy slide guitar here or a simple but attention-grabbing melodic punch there, Bayanga have reached into some well chosen sources to come up with a very good sound all their own. Brazilian music fans, reggae lovers, percussion enthusiasts and anyone who appreciates deeply satisfying grooves without a drum machine in sight will enjoy this one.

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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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Review for Crazy Rhythm Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt – Crazy Rhythm
Django Reinhardt

Crazy Rhythm, 2 CDs plus booklet (Iris Music 3001 864, 2003)

I’ve always been fascinated with musical prowess of guitarist Django Reinhardt. Normally, I wouldn’t consider putting a Reinhardt review on a world music site, his music is more aptly placed on a jazz site, but in doing some research after receiving a compilation from French label, Iris Music, I realized the origins of my fascination. That tight, neat guitar work that marked him as truly gifted was based upon his gypsy heritage.

Crazy Rhythm is a two-CD set with 48 tracks that will knock your socks off. With the likes of Stephane Grappelli, Coleman Hawkins, Dicky Wells, Benny Carter and Freddy Taylor playing and singing along makes it downright delightful.

Reinhardt was born in a gypsy camp in Belgium in 1910 and eventually ended up with his mother’s family in a makeshift camp in Paris. The tribe was known as the Manouches or French Gypsies. Django started out his young life playing violin and guitar with a gypsy troupe, and later touring dancehalls playing popular music. He was 18 when a fire raced through a caravan he was in, severely injuring a leg and destroying some of the use of the fingers on his left hand.

Django found himself forced to give up the violin. Being a self-taught musician, Reinhardt didn’t give up on the guitar and taught himself a new technique in fretwork for the frozen fingers on his left hand. Soon, Django turned from gypsy song and popular dance band music for the latest trend – jazz – and in 1934 The Quintet of the Hot Club was founded.

Crazy Rhythm features Django with The Quintet of the Hot Club, Coleman Hawkins & His All-Star Jam Band and Dick Wells & His Orchestra. The compilation contains such classics as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “After You’ve Gone,” “Georgia On My Mind” and “Solitude.” I have to admit that more than once I felt like I was trapped in Woody Allen movie. But pieces like “Miss Annabelle Lee” and “Lady Be Good” prove that Django never lost that bit of gypsy soul.

With Stephane Grappelli’s violin singing sweetly on “In a Sentimental Mood” you can guess that Django and Stephane had a musical relationship that doesn’t come along very often. “Improvisation” is a marvel, especially if you’re reminded that Django was self-taught and lacked complete use of his fingers. The most amazing aspect is that all the recordings took place in between 1936 and 1939, proving that there are those capable of quantity and quality.

Django Reinhardt fans, Stephane Grapelli fans and fans of the early years of jazz are sure to enjoy this compilation. As an added bonus, the accompanying booklet, with both French and English translations, contains some interesting histories, observations and stories. The booklet also has some fabulous photographs of Django. Crazy Rhythm is a compilation that possesses a delightful opportunity for devoted Django fans to infect newer listeners.

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Viking Ice And Epic Sagas

Steindór Andersen - Rimur - Icelandic chants
Steindór Andersen – Rimur – Icelandic chants
Steindór Andersen

Rimur – Icelandic chants (Naxos World, 76031-2, 2003)

Predating Christianity in the Nordic countries, the Vikings practiced a pantheistic religion and various myths and tales came from this period. Similar to the Greeks with their epic tales, The Odyssey and The Iliad, Norse legends also existed around this time and have survived through the ages, despite suppression from monotheistic religions.

The Icelandic chant or rima (plural rimur) which are epic songs can in part be traced back to Eddic and Skaldic poetry of the Viking Age. This epic poetry relies heavily on complex metaphors, rhyming meter and are often times constructed into cryptic crossword. The rimur that appear on Steindór Andersen’s collection mostly come from the 1700’s to the early 1900’s featuring exerts of epic poems by Jon Sigurosson (1853-1922), Jon S. Bergmann (1874-1927), Sigurour Breidfjord (1798-1846), The Reverend Hannes Bjarnason (1776-1838) and others.

The rimur were recorded in the Icelandic language and at varying settings including a church, the Salurinn Concert Hall and a small household using portable state of the art equipment. This allowed Steindor and Oscar-nominated Composer and Producer Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson to record the rimur in settings similar to the original settings in which rimur were performed. In the distant past, rimur were performed outside in fields and in sleeping lofts. And rimur proved to be a popular form of entertainment during the Middle Ages and contemporary times despite the Christian church’s ban on these epic tales. Yet, this didn’t stop Icelanders from leaving church service early to hear rimur nor did it stop Reverend Hannes Bjarnason from composing and performing these so-called work of the devil.

Today a resurgence of rimur has attracted Icelandic youth to discover their Viking roots. This is due in part to the society IDUNN which formed in Reykjavik in 1929 and has preserved the tradition to this day. However, Steindor’s recording marks the first non field recording and features a couple contemporary fixturings. A didgeridoo or another chanter accompany Steindor on tracks 13, 15 and 17 and an Irish harp appears on tracks 16 and 18. Normally, rimur are performed a capella because they represent stories being sung instead of narrated. Listeners unfamiliar with the Icelandic language will enjoy the chants’ aesthetics in the same vein as enjoying Tibetan or Gregorian chants, but will miss out on the rich nuances provided by metaphors and rhyming meter. As it is, brief synopses of the stories are included.

Buy Rimur – Icelandic chants

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La Ruta de los Foramontanos by Balbarda

Balbarda - La Ruta de los Foramontanos
Balbarda – La Ruta de los Foramontanos
Balbarda

La Ruta de los Foramontanos (self produced, 2002)

Madrid has become a hot spot for world music and contemporary folk bands. Balbarda is yet another group to add to the list. The band plays mainly instrumental music. Balbarda is proof of what good things can happen when you combine several musical traditions in the Spanish capital’s melting pot. Most of the fascinating melodies are based on Castillian folk music, with contemporary arragements. But there are also thrilling Celtic influences, flamenco rhythms and jazz elements.Four musicians, including three multi-instrumentalists form the band: Xurxo Ordóñez plays various types of Spanish bagpipes and flutes. Jota Martínez is an outstanding hurdy-gurdy player who also plays sings and plays percussion. Javier Monteagudo plays guitars, ud, and percussion. Ana Alcaide plays fiddle.

Since this is a truly independent release, the best way to find out how to purchase a copy of the album is to contact the bandat their Web site: www.balbarda.com

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Love Trap by Susheela Raman

Susheela Raman - Love Trap
Susheela Raman – Love Trap
Susheela Raman

Love Trap (Narada, 2003)

Described as “more beauty and more beast,” by the BBC newcomer winner, Susheela Raman, her latest release Love Trap seduces its listeners into taking a wild ride through international musical territory. The titular track with its erotically charged lyrics tossed over a tapestry of Arabic Indian exoticism certainly qualifies this album as the hottest release this summer. And don’t be surprised if the words “love trap” emerge into everyday language since this catchy phrase tells all. Love Trap is the English language version of Ethiopian songwriter Mahmoud Ahmed’s Behmen Sehbeb Letlast, which translates to “it is impossible not to love you.” And it is impossible not to love Susheela’s latest recording with its explosion of percussion, soaring vocals and gorgeous instrumentation provided by who’s who of the global music scene. The repertoire is a mix of folky-blues and a musical journey through the Carnatic tradition of southern India, where Susheela was born to Tamil parents in 1973 and where she trains with Hindustani vocalist Shruti Sadolikar.

Two of the tracks, the Bollywood classic Ye Meera Divanapan Hai with its light drums and bansuri (Indian flute) treatment and Sakhi Maro which features the musicians from Tama on kora (Tom Diakite), clay pot (Djanano Dabo) and guitar (Sam Mills), act as a by product of these musical lessons. Sam Mills, (Susheela’s husband) who produced the award-winning Salt Rain also came on board to produce Love Trap and the album was recorded at the El Cortijo studios in southern Spain. Various musical guests traveled to Spain to appear on the recording, including Afro-Beat drummer Tony Allen, tabla performer Aref Durvesh, Greek clarinetist Manos Achalinotopolous, members of Tame, flamenco pianist David Dorantes, as well as, Tuvan musicians Radik Tiolauch and Albert Kuvezin of the rock group, Yat Kha.

The songs on the album hail from ancient times or are covers of recent international pop, but all of the songs feature innovative arrangements that blend the best of India, North Africa, Mongolia and continental sounds.

The bewitching Love Trap which is sung in a five-note scale representative of Ethiopian church music (not that you would equate this song with church music), features Allen on drums and back up vocals and instrumentation that twangs with sexual intensity. Susheela’s seductive vocals are at an all-time best showing off her versatile talents. The melancholic cover of Joan Armatrading’s Save Me features guitar and tabla light and is sung in a bluesy-Indian style. While Love Trap speaks of the beginning of a love affair, Save Me comes at the end of an affair. The Indian classical songs, Amba and Manusoloni feature Tuvan musicians Radik Tiolouch (also contributes horsehead fiddle) and Albert Kuvezin along with electric guitar and light programming. Bliss begins with an Erik Satie style piano solo performed by David Dorantes and is soon joined by a swirling bansuri duet which is further embellished by Susheela’s vocals.

Also worth mentioning is the dissonant Half Shiva Half Shakti showcasing the dual drumming talents of Allen who performs syncopated jazz rhythms that are fused with Durvesh’s explosive tabla beats. Clarinetist Achalinotopolous contributes a manic performance as well. Susheela and company end the CD with a Durvesh’s tabla beat extravaganza (Blue Lily Red Lotus) and the experience in total will leave listeners breathless. Love Trap isn’t an album for the faint of heart. This is an album that will get your blood pumping, your hormones racing as well as, raising your musical aptitude.

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Yol Bolsin by Sevara Nazarkhan

Sevara Nazarkhan - Yol Bolsin
Sevara Nazarkhan – Yol Bolsin
Sevara Nazarkhan

Yol Bolsin (Real World/Narada, 2003)

Real World Records has released some of the most beautiful music composed and sung by women. Joining
the ranks of such divas as Yungchen Lhamo and Estrella Morente is 25-year old Uzbeki star
Sevara Nazarkhan. A celebrity among young women in her home, Tashkent, Sevara carries on a regal
tradition of the solo woman court musician. She brings to us music of Central Asia (Uzbekistan, once a member of the Soviet Union), that combines melodies plucked on a doutar (a lute), with minimal percussion and mesmerizing soprano vocals. Sevara’s debut release on Real World, Yol Bosin (Where Are You Going?) is a culmination of several centuries and another treasure from the Silk Route.

Sevara, a direct descendent to a musical past that dates back to the 1600’s, blends traditional music with pop sensibility while blurring the boundaries between entertainment and ritual music. The same music played at weddings and other rites of passage ceremonies also substitutes as a commercial release that meets the demands of Uzbeki consumers. Of course, you will find the same scenario played out in Turkey, Greece and other parts of the world where ceremonial music is massed produced for public demand.

Yol Bosin features folk, Sufi and peasant songs in which Sevara takes a few liberties singing about taboo subjects. For instance, My Dearest Song, reflects on hope of marrying someone outside of the arranged marriage tradition. In Sevara’s favorite song, Gadir, white snake symbolizes freedom and heartache. The lyrical Soginomai Bayot and El Nozanin showcase Sevara’s immaculate vocals and range. Most of the songs are rooted in the Near or Middle East and at times, Sevara’s voice could be compared to that of a classical Persian vocalist. This traditional music can also be linked to shamanistic traditions in Central Asia, although it was the male bards called bakhshi that used music to connect to their spiritual ancestors and not the women vocalists.

Produced by French producer Hector Zazou and featuring musical master Toir Kuziyev (doutar), Yol Bosin
offers us a haunting and exotic musical tapestry by a new and exciting feminine voice. Sevara’s timeless songs already feel like classics even if they have not yet come into blossom. The songs are soft yet edgy, ethereal yet earthy, ancient and contemporary.

(Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music).

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Faraualla

Faraualla - Faraualla
Faraualla – Faraualla
Faraualla

Faraualla (Amiata Records, 1999 Recording/released in the US in 2001)

Often times I discover incredible recordings when perusing the public libraries music shelves. On one fateful day, I picked up the Italian a cappella group Faraualla’s debut recording. Although this recording was recorded in Florence, Italy in 1999 and released in the US two years ago, I had only recently learned about the quartet and polyphonic choir music.

Faraualla’s enchanting and beguiling performance falls somewhere between a Bulgarian choir and the Belgian group Zap Mama. The four vocalists, Christina Palmiotta, Gabriella and Maristella Schiavone and Teresa Vallarella give their vocal chords a workout, sometimes singing in only pitches dogs can hear or singing in a guttural fashion, but mostly their vocals reflect a sweetness similar to the Finnish group Varttina. (For some reason, playing this CD attracts raccoons to my back porch).

The recording features 14 varying tracks with origins found in Hungary, Bulgaria, Corsica, Native America, Russia, Italy and Dalmatia. The tracks are backed by drummer Pippo D’Ambrosio who performs intricate rhythms and polyphonic beats on bendir, tar, singing bowl, hand drum, bells, cymbals and a collection of percussion instruments that would cause others drummers to salivate.

Each song is given a different treatment from rousing gypsy dances to the playfulness of a child’s game and as the songs flow into one another, I can’t help wish that the music would never stop. I find this album irresistible and I wonder why it received so little attention when it was released. I found a few reviews hidden on the Internet and most of the reviews were by other folks such as myself who discovered the CD by mistake or coincidence.

One woman reviewer found Faraualla’s songs to be reflective of African music due to the call and response a cappella vocal arrangements augmented by polyphonic rhythms. I find this music to be otherworldly and international since it draws from various traditions presented to us over time. I realize that this is an older release, but Faraualla is a group worth noting and worth knowing.

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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.

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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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