Category Archives: CD Reviews

CD Review: Kristi Stassinopoulou–The Secrets of the Rocks

Kristi Stassinopoulou - The Secrets of the Rocks
Kristi Stassinopoulou – The Secrets of the Rocks
Kristi Stassinopoulou

The Secrets of the Rocks (Hitch Hyke Music/USA:Tinder, 2003)

Greek multi-media artist Kristi Stassinopoulou possesses a limitless talent and a unique world-view. Kristi’s most recent release, The Secret of the Rocks features Kristi’s vocal and writing talents as well as, giving listeners a peek into her spiritual and mysterious world.

The artist published two books in the past, Seven Times in Amorgos (1993) and the mystery novel, The Fiery Sword (1995) along with a collection of CDs as a solo artist and member of the group Selana which she formed with her partner, Stathis Kalyviotis, another multi-talented musician.

The Secret of the Rocks revolves around ocean themes. Everything from seaweed, (Red Adders), the wind mentioned on various tracks, the moon, rocks, sand and mysterious elements surface in Kristi’s poetic lyrics. And in fact, this beautifully packaged CD combines poetry and music in a compelling fashion while reflecting on the life of beach bohemians who eschew television and perfume ads.

The music that appears on the CD marries Greek (rembetika) and Balkan folk roots with electronic and psychedelic pop-rock and its easy to see where a drug culture might be attracted to this ethereal music. And others such as myself also find the CD enjoyable. The music which in part is inspired by American and English psychedelic groups from the 1960′s such as Jefferson Airplane can also trace its roots back to Mediterranean, North African and Indian music in which influenced the psychedelic musicians from the past.

Kristi and Stathis create something fresh from their various influences while marrying the past with the future. Similar to their last North American release, Echotropia, Kristi treats her voice like a musical instrument. She whispers, narrates poetry and sings in various modes and scales. On the titular track, her raspy whispers hang lightly over percussion, drone and ambient guitar recalling early Cocteau Twins’ releases. On Waves, she utilizes the Greek scale and oriental modes. For the most part, her vocals embellish synthesizer-guitar-sample mixes, but on the tracks, Strong Wind Blockade, The Fates and Calima, saz (a Turkish pear-shaped string instrument), ney and bagpipes are introduced. And if you listen closely to the collage of instruments that appear on this CD, you will also hear accordion, lyre and various percussion instruments.

The groovy 70′s style Whirlpools with its jazzy guitar and provocative lyrics, “and if you hear the sirens scream at night, it’s my heart’s whirlpools that sigh,” is one of my favorite tracks. The other worldly, The Days Go By, the melancholic Calima with its desert images and the catchy R.E.M-esque verse-chorus-verse Summer Moon are also gems waiting to be unearthed and brushed of their sand.

Any artist that draws on the ocean and moon for inspiration will touch our souls. The Secret of the Rocks also delves into contemporary Greek mythology, nature spirits and the unknown without ever losing its musical footing. And it is one of those CDs that grabs a hold of your senses while transporting you into another time and place.

Buy The Secrets of the Rocks

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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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Bembeya Jazz–Bembeya

Bembeya Jazz - Bembeya
Bembeya Jazz – Bembeya
Bembeya Jazz

Bembeya(World Village, 2003)

Released on World Village, sporting three vocalists, four guitarists, a horn trio, drums and percussion, Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz has reunited after a 14 year hiatus to commemorate their 40 plus year history. The end result was the group’s first European appearance in over a decade at the Musiques Metisses Festival and Bembeya, a CD that acts as an anthology.

The legendary octogenarian Cuban musicians made famous by the recording Buena Vista Social Club comes to mind and it’s not too far fetched to draw comparisons between the two groups. Both groups derived from nightclub musicians that reached legendary status in their respective countries and both groups suffered hardships due to politics or economic hardships only to return in their later years more dynamic than ever.

The Bembeya Jazz group first formed in 1961 as part of the new president Sekou Toure’s national arts and culture program. When persuaded by his uncle, guitarist Sekou Diabate, “Diamond Fingers,” created the nucleus of Bembeya Jazz. The group continued to evolve and expand through the 1960’s and 70’s by adding two rhythm guitarists and dancing girls. The group also experienced success within Guinea’s nightclub scene. By the 1980’s Guinea’s economy began to crumble, and while most musical acts suffered from this hardship, Bembeya Jazz was fortified by the arrival of their new young vocalist, Sekou “Bambino” Diabate who also contributed griot traditions to the group. However, this success proved short lived after Bambino left the group to pursue a solo career.

Founding member Sekou Diabate broke out on his own too, recording an album with his wife, Djanke Diabate and a solo album (Diamond Fingers) as well. He was residing in Paris when he was asked to return to the group. This led to Bembeya Jazz’s recent festival performance in France as well as, this recording. (For more historical information, see the CD liner notes).

The eight tracks on Bembeya span from 1965 with the group’s first song, Bembeya to 1987 with Yelema
Yelemaso, a song about heroes and troubadours. Sanfaran dates to 1974 and speaks of an old and revered woman sorceress. Gbapie written by Diagbe Traore is a love song about a young man that woos a village girl with his musical talents. Sabou, written by Sekouba Diabate brought in a new infusion of the Manding griot tradition and speaks of the cause of something or synchronicity.

Fans of the Ganje Brass band or the numerous orchestras or jazz outfits found throughout the African continent will enjoy Bembeya Jazz. Of course, since the group has been around since 1961, I imagine they have already garnered a sizable international following. If not, this recording should do the trick.

Buy Bembeya

(Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music).

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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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CD Review: Hedningarna 1989-2003

Hedningarna - Hedningarna 1989-2003
Hedningarna – Hedningarna 1989-2003
Hedningarna

Hedningarna 1989-2003 (Northside, 2003)

Hedningarna’s newest release on NorthSide promises to take listeners back in time, far back in time, when some of our ancestors lived in tribal communities in dark forests. The music on Hedningarna’s anthology focuses on tribal rhythms, primal urges and promises a ritualistic experience to its listeners. The CD also reflects on the Nordic group’s evolution that began in 1989 when a Swedish trio of music students, Hallbus Totte Mattsson, Anders Stake and Bjorn Tollin first met at college and shared their passion for Swedish folk music.

Over the next fourteen years, various Finnish vocalists including, Sanna Kurki-Suonio, Tellu Paulasto and Anita Lehtola, Liisa Matveinen would loan their talents to Hedningarna’s recordings (Liisa Matveinen and Tellu Paulasto also appear on Wimme’s latest release, Barru).

Hedningarna (a Swedish word for heathen) eventually married traditional acoustic Swedish music with techno-beats and this rave consciousness comes through on the 1997 release, Hippjokk which includes the original trio along with guest vocalist Wimme. The instrumental tracks, Dokaren, Skane and Hoglorfen come from this period, as does, Navdi/Fasa in which Wimme contributes a yoik. And this founding trio can also be heard on one of the group’s earliest recordings, Bjornlaten off of the debut release, Hedningarna. The song itself portrays a plucked lute and dissonant fiddles foreshadowing the emergence of an innovative folk-roots movement in which this pioneering group would lead.

This anthology opens with the ritualistic Tuuli (Trä, 1994) in which vocalists Sanna Kurki-Suoni and Tellu Paulasto engage in intricate harmonies compliments of Finno-Baltic traditions and marry those harmonies to Wimme’s yoik. The vocals are then laid over a backdrop of primal beats and Nordic musical textures igniting an explosion of sounds. The new recording, Suet Ulvo, a frenzied rave follows and if that one doesn’t get listeners on their feet dancing then the Sasha remix of Kruspolska (1993) will do the trick. Tina Vieri slows things down a bit while it focuses on vocals that snake through Swedish bagpipes and power beats. Chicago, (Kaski!, 1992) possess a bluesy element played on a willow flute and lute.

Other tracks worth mentioning are Ukkonen and Neidon Laulo from the Karelia Visa CD (1999), a recording that involved a trip to the Karelian region on the other side of the Russian-Finnish border in which runo-songs were collected from elders still carrying on the tradition. The vocals are haunting and fused with willow flute, heavy drum beats and melancholic sentiments. Vattoi, another new track again features vocal harmonies compliment of the runo-song tradition.

Hedningarna, a forerunner of groups such as the Swedish band, Garmarna and Sami yoikster Wimme could
be credited for the folk-roots-techno craze that is currently being exported out of most of the Scandinavian countries. Hedningarna unwittingly cultivated the soil and planted seeds that have emerged as a new musical consciousness that revives traditional music and presents it to a younger audience. (Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music).

Buy Hedningarna 1989-2003

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Luneda by Laio

Laio - Luneda
Laio – Luneda
Laio

Luneda (World Muxxic, 2002)

Galician sextet Laio releases Luneda a blend of Galician folk roots (Celtic) and techno. Laio’s music falls into the international Celtic category much like AfroCelts, (a multi-ethnic group that also marries roots music with modern technology). Various tracks including Herrera and Chic’o Cuarto easily draw comparison’s to AfroCelts’ latest release Seed. However, Luneda’s international flair recalls the French nuevo tango group Gotan Project who also mix bandoneon and programming and Finnish accordionist Maria Kalaniemi’s Ahma–just substitute wind instruments for strings.

However, I do not wish to give you the impression that Laio has been lifting tunes off of other Celtic or Nordic artists, for this group has created an original tapestry that came together after careful research of Galician’s traditional music. Brothers, Pedro and Pablo Pascual spent ten years collecting folk-roots music from elders who reside in the mountains (Paradanta region) of Galicia. Later, they transformed the traditional music by marrying it to samples, loops and contemporary trappings. Take for instance, the track Faj&Jasto which fuses funky hip hop beats with accordion, bouzouki and clarinet. Then the tune swings into a jazzy 70’s disco mode in which the trombone solos. Je Sacrifie Les Poulets boasts a French title and various traditional instruments reminding us once again that we have stepped into international Celticism.While the bulk of the CD is instrumental, three of the tracks feature guest vocalists. Canto De Reis, a traditional song that has been transposed by wa wa guitar that frolics with accordion, bag pipe and clarinet, features Sra Concha do Carnal on vocals. Her trembling vocals take on an instrumental effect, relegated to the background. Whereas, guest vocalist Ma Roman who contributes her Celtic vocals on Luneda and The Heat of the Sun, remains up front. Also joining Laio is award-winning bagpiper Edelmiro Fernàndez on Canto De Reis, Chic’o Cuarto and Xainda (written by Fernàndez).

It becomes increasingly clear with every track that this sextet enjoys exploring new musical frontiers while never losing their passion for Celtic music. And the group has shared this passion at festivals up and down the European’s West Coast and across Canadian’s provinces while collecting kudos from the music press along the way. Luneda only solidifies Laio’s likely success on the international scene. Most important though is that Laio joins other Galician artists such as Carlos Nuñez and Xose Manuel Budiño in revealing Spain’s Celtic roots.

Buy Luneda

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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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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.

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Au-Dela Des Mots

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