Category Archives: CD Reviews

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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Africa-Pella by Alain Nkossi Konda

Alain Nkossi Konda - Africa-Pella
Alain Nkossi Konda – Africa-Pella
Alain Nkossi Konda

Africa-Pella(Afrikool Music Productions–Germany, 2003)

While there is plenty of folk roots music coming from the African continent, a multitude of African pop artists hailing from the Diaspora have also appeared on the scene including such artists as and others too numerous to mention here. And in fact, new genres have been created for African pop to distinguish it from its folk-rootsy cousins. Newcomer Alain Nkossi Konda is a member of a new generation of Afro-pop artists in their 30’s and blending modern technology with African rhythms and sensibilities. This new generation of musicians appears more interested in love and relationships than previous generations that explored spirituality and social issues. That seems to be the case on Nkossi Konda’s Africa-Pella, a recording that marries stylized African beats and guitar with warm programming, resulting in pleasant light pop that will please listeners who would rather walk on a road paved with commercialism, that the old dirt road of the ancestors. That’s not to say that Africa-Pella lacks sincerity or passion, but is most likely the product of Congolese musician spending most of his years in one of the world’s music capitals, New York City where a musician can’t help, but be shaped by the pop music industry. His penchant for entering songwriting contests has also led him on the road to commercial success. He was the first artist to sign to Harry Belafonte’s Niger Records label (Palm Pictures). However, Konda is manning his own ship and destiny. True to his animal namesake, (Nkossi means “lion” in the Kikongo language), Konda too has a lion heart going boldly where other musicians fear to tread and his only safety net comes from his familiarity with pop structure and African music. Yet, the tracks on Africa-Pella leap frog into various genres ranging from Marley anthemesque Middle Passage and Let Me Hold You to the funky Bolingo and the haunting chamber piece, Flame and the Wind. The opener, Unconditional Love (winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, 2003) and the radio-friendly Manuela also appeal to Konda’s songwriting talents.

The music here is fresh-face and overly slick at times. It sometimes suffers from an artist trying to tame the musical force. Konda could certainly benefit from working with musical collaborators and a talented producer while finding his true musical roots as opposed to cribbing off of pop musicians that came before him. There’s an original voice waiting to be released, if only he would give up control and tap into it. As it is, with so many African pop artists releasing CDs with a pop emphasis, we might grow weary of this genre in the near future.

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CD Review: Au-Dela Des Mots by Alan Stivell

Alan Stivell



Au-Dela Des Mots
 

(Disque Dreyfus FDM 36224-2, 2002)

It is many years since Renaissance of the Celtic Harp brought Stivell’s work to my ears. He made links between Breton and the music of Ireland, Scotland and Wales and stood up for his own language and culture. I liked both of these facets and still do. Now I have his 21st album, all instrumental and featuring a number of different harps among less traditional devices like loops of electronic soundscape.
The opening and closing track, La Harpe, L’Eau, Le Vent gives you some idea of his territory. It is an impressionistic journey full of rippling harp textures recalling wild coastlines and Atlantic breakers crashing over rocks. There are a number of pieces like this, suggestive of landscape and climate.

Another instrument that complements the harps is the Irish, or uilleann pipes.These are featured along with wind and waves on two of the versions of La Celtie et L’Infini. They are used to even greater effect on Goltraidhe or Music In The Scale Of Sorrow, as their lament skirls over Stivell’s richly atmospheric plucking. It is very moving and evocative, as is Et Les Feuilles Repousseront, which is rendered in more prosaic English as Winter’s End. The shimmering chords and chiming strings are suggestive of hope and respite from hard fingers gripping the land. Sorry, it just brings out the poet in me!

Another renowned harpist inspired Demain Matin Chez O’Carolan in which Stivell successfully re-creates both the delicacy and swagger of the great blind Irishman’s tunes. Whistler and piper, Ronan Le Bars, adds further colour to a lovely melody.
Though Stivell’s priority is still Celtic music it is possible to hear diverse influences from the blues, Spain and Africa. These are blended seamlessly showing what he prefers to call natural similarities between the musics.

If at times there are slight leanings to a Celtic Ambient style it is still miles away from the blandness of Celtic Chillout or Celtic Cafe terrain and I’d certainly recommend it.

Buy

Au-Dela Des Mots

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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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CD Review: Sinikka Langeland

Sinikka Langeland – RunojaRunoja (Heilo HCD 7180, 2003)

There has been a great deal of interest in new music coming out of Norway, mostly in the field of jazz/ambient, so it is good to hear something which has its origins in older words and music. In this case it is rune songs, which are partly based on shamanic incantations. Since these don’t have melodies as such, Langeland has borrowed themes and tunes from Finland and Karelia.Runic incantation is often used for healing and protection and requires a powerfully emotive delivery. She certainly follows this tradition. Her voice is clear, intense and covers a wide range of expression. Of course, I don’t actually know what she is singing about but the power and purity are moving and transcendent. She fixes the listener’s attention as she shifts from near whispers to sustained vocal somersaults.

Although this is an older music there are contemporary presences here in the form of Arve Henriksen and his weird otherworldly trumpet, bassist Bjorn Kjellemyr and drummer Pal Thowsen. They are all skilled improvisers, an important concept in rune song, and they contribute varied settings, both sparse and rich, alongside her commanding voice. Henriksen’s vocal style of playing is a perfect foil to Langeland, especially on Ukko and Tirun Lirun. But look out for the rhythmic bass which drives Pakeneva.

Further instrumental colour is added by Langeland’s kantele, that ancient stringed instrument which produces cascades of ringing crystal notes that, alongside bowed bass and trumpet, enhance the haunting atmospheres of tracks like Vinterrune.

At times she displays a hard edged tone to her singing, a bit like Julie Tippetts. At others there’s a trace of Mari Boine Persen. But that apart I can’t readily think of any real comparisons. It is a refreshing sound and one that I would like to hear more of.

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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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Reconfigured Burning Sky Should Still Score with Native American Music Fans

Burning Sky – Spirits in the Wind
Burning Sky

Spirits in the Wind (Canyon Records CR-7047, 2002)

Pared down to the duo of Aaron White and Kelvin Mockingbird (both of whom are proficient on guitar and Native American flute) Burning Sky continue to make great music, though the feel now is one of soulful intimacy rather than exploratory inventiveness.

Their three previous albums for Canyon were trio efforts with percussionist Michael Bannister as a core member, and for 1998’s wonderful Enter The Earth (Ryko), the group added a bassist to become a quartet. By that point they were part neo-traditionalists, part canny global fusionists (including African, Celtic and many other flavors in the mix) and part jam band. I’m not sure what kind of personal or professional shake-ups led to the current version of Burning Sky, but the fact that Spirits In The Wind is a work of considerable beauty indicates they couldn’t have been too very painful.

Acoustic guitar and flute in various solo and duo arrangements carry most of the disc, with a chamber music sensibility occasionally riled by blues riffing, growling didgeridoo or production that seems deliberately not fancy.

Interestingly, White and Mockingbird are joined by former Doors drummer John Densmore (credited with playing the dumbek, but it sounds more like a jembe), who adds some pleasantly primitive pounding on an effective cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and elsewhere. This is not music that’s going to blow you away, but with pieces like the closing “Shadow Man” taking their sweet time, you may well find yourself drifting away instead.

This album can be seen as something of a musical crossroads for Burning Sky- they’ve blazed trails, and now, likely on their way to blazing more, they’ve paused to make music that’s lovely and unpretentious.

Buy Spirits in the Wind

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Baikouba Badji and Modibo Traore – Babu Casamance!

Baikouba Badji and Modibo Traore

Babu Casamance! (Cafe Tilibo, 2003)

Modibo Traore has a mission. Visit his website and you’ll notice an emphasis on leprosy prevention as much as on his new CD. A dollar from each CD sold returns to Senegal for leprosy and sustainability projects. And the title track “Babu Casamance!” was recorded at a leprosy village in Teubi, Casamance. This CD completes a circle for Traore, who learned traditional songs as a youth by assisting with ceremonies, then pounding out the rhythms on his homemade tin-can drums with plastic heads. Now based in Seattle, Traore returned to Senegal in January 2003 to play and record with the people of Casamance and master bougarabou player Saikouba Badji of Gambia.

Close your eyes and you’ll find yourself under a shade tree in midday, or around a fire late at night, soaking in the rhythm, the clapping, the group singing. The recordings by Rebecca Zimmer are wonderfully clean and crisp, but the liner notes remind that the musicians are not professionals-special thanks are extended to the musicians who gave up valuable time away from their jobs to participate. Except for translations of song titles, no song details are included. But the titles alone convey a variety of real-life themes: “Father gave me a need to dance,” “Man is tired,” “She wants peanut sauce,” and “Shake it!” An authentic aural slice of rural African life, this music will transport you to a village far away, where people make wonderful music about familiar concerns.

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CD Review: The Rough Guide to Ska

Various Artists

The Rough Guide to Ska (World Music Network. RGNET 1083, 2003)

There have been many introductions to this energetic music and there are some overlaps. A few of the artists present here show up on other compilations, for example, the 3cd Trojan Ska Box Set. The material though is not duplicated. This set comes solely from work produced by Vincent ‘Randy’ Chin between 1960 – 64 and includes the usual suspects ; The Skatalites, The Maytals, Roland Alphonso, Don Drummond and Rico Rodriguez, among others.

It is always a real pleasure to hear Rico’s warm, melodic trombone and there are three samples from 1961, including Rico’s Farewell, recorded before he left for the UK. It features some fine ensemble playing as well as each soloist offering a personal goodbye. But there is also some fine inspired playing from the man himself on the shuffle, Rico Special, especially when he begins his solo and the drummer’s brushwork springs into life to crisply underline his fluent blowing. There is a lot of magic crammed into 3 minutes worth of playing.

The Skatalites produced their own kind of magic too and it isn’t surprising when you consider that the line-up included players like Tommy McCook amd Roland Alphonso on saxes, Drummond on trombone and Jackie Mittoo on piano. Their fondness for re-working tunes from different genres is evident here on Ska-Racha, adapted from the Mexican song, La Cucharacha, and Baby Elephant Walk, based on the theme from the movie, Hatari. They produced some of the most driven ska from fairly unlikely sources.

There are plenty of vocal tracks too though I’m not sure that Alton & Ellis is really ska, it’s more like doo-wop. Lord Creator’s vocal style was cool and mellow and Don’t Stay Out Late is a suave, urbane piece of advice to his underage date. A little tingue in cheek too ! Bunny & Skitter only produced a couple of tracks for Chin but their steady shuffling A Little Mashin’ is worth hearing as is the lesser known Basil Gabbidon’s Iveree. Both show the influence of blues and r’n’b.

The quality of a few tracks suffers from deteriorating master tapes but overall the selection sounds great, a reminder of the energy and freshness of this music.

Buy The Rough Guide to Ska.

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