Category Archives: CD Reviews

Capping a Decade of Excellence

Africando – Martina

Martina (Stern’s STCD 1096, 2003)

It’s been 10 years since Africando began the full-force re-Africanization of salsa. Of course, the musical give and take between Africa and Latin America had been going on for generations, but even the most Latinized African popular music was getting too slick and synthesized and a return to roots was clearly in order.

The first Africando album, Trovador, set the global music scene ablaze with its combination of veteran African vocalists and seasoned Big Apple Latin musicians. They’ve kept it hot since then, exploring on subsequent releases salsa’s connections to Cuba, Senegal, Haiti, Puerto Rico and beyond.

Part of the fun of Africando is finding out who’s shown up to sing on their albums. From the start their vocal lineup has consisted of permanent, recurring and just-passing-through singers. On their last studio disc alone, 2000’s Mandali, they were billed as the Africando All Stars and lived up to the expanded moniker by including the likes of Salif Keita and Koffi Olomide.

Their new release, Martina, soars as brilliantly as anything they’ve done before. The unifying theme of the disc is the edification of African Women in all their strength, perseverance, grace and beauty that goes well beyond physical. Africando regulars Sekouba Bambino, Medoune Diallo, Ronnie Baro, Gnonnas Pedro, Eugene Shoubou and Amadou Balake are back, and guest vocalists this time include Senegalese troubador Ismael Lo, soukous smoothies Nyboma and Kester Emenya and Puerto Rico’s Joe King.

The complete seduction of your ears, soul, feet and hips begins without delay on track 1. “Lindas Africanas” (“African Beauty”) features the vocal ensemble singing with understated passion of exactly what the title suggests, sweetened by perfectly placed violin and timbale solos.

There’s no letup from there as two versions of the love song “Abibou” plead their cases in Diula and Spanish, “Azo Nkplon” throws in an electrified violin that wah-wahs like a cat in heat, Ismael Lo offers a touching paean to a friend who died young, guest Adama Seka stingingly scolds unfaithfulness on “Dioumte” and the horn-drenched salsa grooves swing flawlessly for the duration.

Malian arranger Boncana Maiga and Senegalese producer Ibrahima Sylla guide the whole thing with the same expertise and intuition they’ve wielded since the inception of Africando, showing how something that started out as a great idea can carry on with that greatness undiminished. A marvelous disc, but here’s a question to ponder: why, given the theme of the album, were there no female singers on board? A minor quibble, since the finished work is so good, but worth thinking about.

Buy Martina


Celtic music of Spain

Tejedor - Llunaticos
Tejedor – Llunaticos

Llunaticos (Aris Música/Resistencia, 2003)

Although half of my family can claim Spanish ancestry, I have only known about Spain’s Celtic tradition for the past two years (Galicia & Asturias). However, until very recently I was unaware of Asturias’ Celtic music scene which includes pop star Hevia (inventor of the electronic bagpipes), Llan de Cubel, Felpeyu, Asturian Mining Company (led by an American expatriate) and Tejedor. Tejedor,
comprised of two brothers, José Manuel and Javier Tejedor and their younger sister, Eva have one eye on tradition and the other one on contemporary arrangements.

Most of the songs that appear on Llunàticos (lunatics) were composed by Javier and José, but with a Celtic folk-roots flavor. The trio employs an array of Celtic musicians and a vast collection of traditional instruments that are augmented by electric instruments at times. The opener, a tongue and cheek instrumental, Hell Bagpipes, brings in a host of musicians including, Igor Medio (bouzouki, guitar), Horacio Garcia (bass guitar), Fernando Arias (drums), Ramón Morán and César Ibarretxe (keyboards), Merce Santos (hurdy-gurdy), Xabier Zeberio (nickelharpa) and Ibón Koterón (alboka). José contributes bagpipes and Javier adds accordion and percussion. The result is anything, but hellish and a fan of Celtic music could describe it as heavenly.

Three ballads Married Woman, Swallow and Maruxina feature Eva on vocals. She also contributes pandereta and tambourine on Maruxina, a song about a maiden with dubious sexuality. Married Woman and Swallow flow in a lyrical fashion and are embellished with acoustic guitar, flute and other Celtic instruments. Maruxina begins with a cappella vocals set over drums & percussion and eventually guitar, bouzouki, bagpipes and accordion join into the traditional song’s quick tempo. The song also provides some unusual music twists that match the duplicitous nature of the song’s titular character.

While I do not have time to comment on all 12 tracks that appear on the recording, most of the songs fall into the instrumental category. The titular track marries Celtic music with electronic dance while, the slow instrumental lament, In the Memory features misty-eyed bagpipes along with violin, double bass and keyboards. The melancholy instrumental Etna blends flute and low whistles with a string quartet. And Floreo of Remis (written by José Remis Ovalle), allows José Manuel Tejedor to showoff his bagpipe virtuosity as he sails through quick tempo arpeggios and leaves listeners begging for more.< Llunàticos showcases a remarkable trio with lots of youth appeal and passion for roots-music. I wonder what this group will do next and I look forward to future recordings.

Buy Llunaticos


What Could’ve Been

Polo Montanez – Guitarra Mía
Polo Montanez

Guitarra Mía (Evolver EVL2017-2, 2003)

Originally put out by the French label Lusafrica in 2002, this is a sparkling, joyous disc that nonetheless carries an air of sadness. Fernando Borrego Linares, better known as Polo Montanez (“Polo of the Mountains”), died at the age of 50 as the result of a car crash in his native Cuba not long after the album’s release.

It was a tragic end to a man whose life had taken on something of a storybook quality. He was 47 years old when a representative from Lusafrica heard him performing at a restaurant in Las Terrazas, a lesser-known tourist spot noted as a respite from the hustle and bustle of Havana.

Polo’s repertoire was uncharacteristically comprised of all original compositions that deeply encompassed the classic Cuban “country” elements without relying on overly familiar standards. Polo’s first Lusafrica release, 2001’s Guajiro Natural, was a success in Cuba and beyond, even earning double platinum status in Colombia. Guitarra Mía, much like its predecessor, is loaded with styles rooted in Cuba’s African/Spanish heritage (bolero, son, guajira, etc.), with varied arrangements and Polo’s simple but remarkably elegant singing leading the way.

As a balladeer his voice is tender and heartfelt without overreaching, and when the album shifts into celebratory mode, as it sometimes does mid-song, he soars like a bird. Acoustic guitar, tres, bass, percussion and sweetly sharp background vocals provide a lively backdrop with occasional strings and trumpet, giving the entire album (recorded in Havana but mixed in Paris) a fullness and flow that’s as good or better than just about any of the traditional stuff coming out of Cuba these days. And that’s saying a lot.

There’s no telling how much more international stature Polo Montanez could have achieved had he lived, though the small but impressive body of work he left behind provides a very good glimpse of the possibilities.

Buy Guitarra Mía


Rocky Mountain high

R. Carlos Nakai - Sanctuary
R. Carlos Nakai – Sanctuary
R. Carlos Nakai

Sanctuary (Canyon Records, 2003)

There are many among us who can say that Navajo-Ute flautist R. Carlos Nakai is the first Native American musician they have heard. I discovered Nakai while listening to Rough Guides Native America. Nakai had teamed up with the Black Lodge Singers and their joint effort brought chills to my spine. Since that time, I have sampled a few of Nakai’s 20 or so recordings and each time, I listen to his lofty flute, I truly feel at peace with the world.

Nakai has influenced countless Native American and non-native musicians with his diverse and vast repertoire which can be found on Canyon Records and SilverWave Records. Nakai who recorded his first flute album in 1983, has performed with jazz artists, symphonies and other Native American performers.

He has collaborated with The Black Lodge Singers guitarist/luthier William Eaton, composer James DeMars, AmoChip Dabney, Mary Redhouse and others while employing diverse musical styles. Nakai has recorded flute melodies of various tribes including, Omaha, Zuni, Lakota, Kiowa, Cheyenne and others. He has performed in concert halls as well as, in outdoor settings.

Sanctuary’s 12 tracks were recorded on Native American land in the Rocky Mountains among glacial streams and alpine refuge. Nakai performs his original compositions on a bass cedar flute and a standard flute. He captures the tranquility of his sacred environment with every flutter or throaty note played on his wooden flute.

Nakai emits the confidence of a veteran musician and he allows his instrument to capture the spirit of his sacred environment. His listeners might be sitting in traffic listening to his whistful notes and yet, they will be transported to a rugged mountain setting. However, it is best to listen to Nakai when relaxing or meditating at home or taking a break from work.

And for those listeners who find themselves enraptured by Nakai’s flute, can delve into his prolific catalogue. With so many classical, jazz and traditional recordings to choose from, listeners can enjoy this diverse and universal performer’s repertoire.

Buy Sanctuary

Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music


Aztec Reggae

Vick Silva - Roots Man Dance
Vick Silva – Roots Man Dance
Vick Silva

Roots Man Dance (Rhombus Records)

Los Angeles based Chicano musician-producer Vick Silva offers 11 tracks of Aztec-influenced reggae on Roots Man Dance. The reggae for the most part resembles the Jamaican variety with the exception of lyrical themes that revolve around Aztec mythology and ancestral roots. And the use of Aztec instruments such as a jaguar gourd horn, Teponaztli, flutes and Kikiztli compliments of musician Michael Heralda add a unique spice to the mix. The tunes possess the right groove with a sunny message for Chicanos and other races in touch with their culture. And for those folks, who prefer the traditional reggae with wailing saxophone solos, call & response vocals, organ, guitar and a strong reggae beat will find this recording enjoyable.

Vick works with a number of musicians and back up vocalists. All the musicians prove adept on their instruments and vocal abilities. The songs don’t miss a beat and the lyric ring out spiritual and cultural messages that are universal in scope. Vick and his musicians deliver reggae tunes at a moderate tempo with easy beats and suave vocals. However, I find that the songs flow all too well into one another and stripped down instrumentation, such as a track that features only voice, guitar and light percussion would have been a nice change of pace half way through the recording. I am thinking of Bob Marley who would throw in an acoustic ballad such as Redemption Song to add musical diversity.

However, for those reggae fans seeking catchy choruses and impassioned phrases, Quetzal Dragon, People of the Sun, Second Wind, Heaven n ‘ Earth, and Possibility should do the trick. “49” offers a respite from the wailing saxophones and We Are plays as a social anthem that incites Chicano pride. Vick slows things down a bit on Teotihuacan that falls into a sort of trance enhanced by haunting flute. Roots Man Dance proves to be a sincere effort from a group of musicians dedicated to keeping reggae and Aztec roots alive. For more information go to

Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music.

Buy Roots Man Dance.


Songs of the Desert

Tinariwen - Radio Tisdas SessionsTinariwen

The Radio Tisdas Sessions 
(World Village, 2002)

Blues returning to its African roots can be heard in the Malian nomadic group, Tinariwen’s debut release, The
Radio Tisdas Sessions. And unlike many album titles that refer to intangible experiences, the title of
Tinariwen’s CD refers to actual recording sessions that took place at a Tamashek radio station between the
hours of 7 p.m. and midnight because that was when electricity was available. But then blues in any form has
never been about convenience or living a lush life. And in fact, the desert blues, a mixture of North African
music with American blues and sung in the Tamashek language, speaks of oppression of a maligned people
(read the CD liner notes). The music here is said to be inspired by Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and speaks out
against human injustice. Actually, I am just guessing since I do not understand the language in which the songs were written.

Tinariwen might be called a tribe rather than a band since ten musicians, including three women backup vocalists appear on this album. Heavy on guitar and vocals, imagine Dylan when he first went electric and you will come close to describing the music on this CD. The Radio Tisdas Sessions was produced by Justin Adams who has also produced Lo’Jo (the group that discovered Tinariwen on a trip to Mali) and also produced Natacha Atlas’ CD’s. The first track, Le Chant Des Fauves features a lilting melody with Ibraham on lead vocals and is embellished by a female trio. Imidiwaren sounds like good old fashion American blues if it weren’t for the Tamashek title and lyrics. Tin-Essako was recorded live at the debut Festival in the Desert that took place in Kidal, Mali January 2000.

If the French group Lo’Jo hadn’t met members of Tinariwen on a trip to Mali, the group might have not been
discovered. Well, there is always the chance that Ry Cooder might have met up with Tinariwen at some point, but… And with a large hunger for world music, it is refreshing to hear yet another style of music coming
out of Mali.

Buy The Radio Tisdas Sessions.

Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music.


Peace In Our Time

Culture – World Peace

World Peace (Heartbeat 11661-7764-2, 2003)

We can’t take another war/we want world peace.” So sings Culture’s Joseph Hill on the title track of this album. An obviously simple sentiment perhaps, but it’s that sort of directness that has kept Culture among reggae’s most longstanding representatives of excellence for over 25 years. Along with Burning Spear, Israel Vibration and others, Culture has steadfastly refused to dilute their reggae with the dominant modern dancehall style, instead delivering their message of Africa as Zion, Marcus Garvey as prophet and common man as conquering hero in the same manner as always. That is, in the same true roots style that Bob Marley brought to the world and that many in the world still thankfully have a passion for.

Don’t get the impression that Culture is stuck in some kind of ’70s time trap, however. On this disc of all-new material for the Heartbeat label (most of whose previous Culture releases have been reissues), the sound is clean and modern but still right and tight. Real bass and drums and layers of bubbling keyboards, guitars, horns and percussion carry the day. Vocally, things are at maximum niceness as well, with Hill pleading for the likes of “Sweet Freedom” and “No Segregation” backed by an enhanced chorus of voices augmenting the group’s usual harmony trio configuration.

Culture continue their knack for remaking past songs, here giving their “Dog A Go Nyam Dog” a more aggressive bassline and a greater urgency. That urgency is echoed in many of the songs, but it’s the duality of the final two that really spells it out: “Babylon Falling” warns of the destruction that awaits the wicked, while “Holy Mount Zion” assures the righteous of the eternal abode to come. Both songs are built on a framework of spirited nyabinghi drumming, and are a fitting wrap-up to an album that delights in (and on all counts succeeds in) keeping the true reggae fire blazing.

Buy World Peace


Fiddling in French

Hart Rouge - Une Histoire de Famille
Hart Rouge – Une Histoire de Famille
Norouet – Spirale (Ozone Music Group, 2001)

Hart Rouge – Une Histoire de Famille (Red House Records, 1999)

There used to be a time when musical traditions were more defined, but today as I review folk roots groups from Scandinavian countries, Spain, France, Canada and the UK, those lines have grown blurry. Celtic music fuses with traditional Quebecois or Scandinavian fare while many musicians in their twenties and thirties take to this music, liked a parched earth drinking new drops of rain. The energetic Quebecois trio, Norouet is one such group and while they are not alone in stirring up the Quebecois musical community, they can also be mentioned in the same sentence as the British quartet, Flook and the Spanish Celtic group, Tejedor. All of these groups add spunk to traditional fare, with plenty of inventiveness, humor and a great deal of respect for folk roots.

Norouet is comprised of Eric Beaudry (who performs double duty with La Bottine Souriante) on vocals, guitar, bouzouki, mandolin and feet, Stephanie Lepin (vocals and fiddle) and Patrick Graham (percussion). Norouet contributes a variety of traditional tunes on Spirale and also strike out with their own compositions written by Stephanie and Eric. And whether they are kicking their heels to a traditional jig and reel or inventing their own fun is always the main ingredient. Also worth noting, the recording was produced by Toronto’s musician extraordinaire Oliver Schroer who has put out prolific work of his own. Oliver’s violin virtuosity can be heard on La Complainte du Forgeron, Air d’autre Part and Gazon Bleu. Other guest musicians include, Christopher Layer (uilleann pipes, flute), Francois Marion (electric bass), David Woodhead (electric bass), Jean-Paul Loyer (banjo), Tess LeBlanc and Simon Beaudry (choral vocals). And listeners get a mixed bag of Scottish, Acadian, Breton, traditional Quebecois, bluegrass and a short experimental chamber piece.

Spirale takes flight on a traditional note with the call & response, Jetend le Moulin and then the trio steps into a reel entitled Vaut Ben Mieux that’s followed by Reel de la Pauvrete and Beaudoin-Boudreault, (also reels). The musicians offer a quick respite with a couple of ballads, en Passant par Paris and Marguerite. Then they move into the titular track, based on crooked Breton music and written by Stephanie. A few more highlights include la Complainte du Forgeron about a blacksmith that would rather forge peace then create instruments of war as well as, a seductive frolic, Mon Cher Amant that recalls the saying, when the cat’s away, the mice will play. And well, I can’t get away without mentioning the bluegrass Gazon Bleu composed on a $50 banjo at a kitchen table.

I’ve enjoyed several listens to Spirale and I think it will spend lots of time spinning in my boom box. I highly recommend this disc to fans of Celtic, Quebecois and new music. It’s not quite the music that our grandpas listened to, but when you’re kicking up your heels in a jig, you aren’t going to care,

The more I learn about traditional Quebecois music, the more diversity I find within this genre. The term Quebecois can be misleading since traditional Quebecois music can be found throughout Canada’s French-language speaking outposts. Hart Rouge (siblings from the Campagne family) hails from Willow Bunch, Saskatchewan, near the US border. The group took their name from the original name of the town where they grew up, Hart Rouge. From what I can gather from CD liner notes is that many Quebecers moved out to the prairies as homesteaders during the early 1900’s, but that they didn’t leave their French language or culture behind in Quebec. Therefore, you will find traditional Quebecois music on Une Histoire De Famille, along with an array of historical photographs. By the way, I am told that members of Hart Rouge currently make their home in Montreal.

Although Hart Rouge has performed pop-rock music on their albums along with traditional fare, Une Histoire De Famille, Suzanne, Michelle and Paul Campagne, Davy Gallant, Michel Dupire and guest musicians perform on mostly acoustic instruments and sing in French. Half of the songs fall under traditional arrangements and the other half were composed by band members. Along with uilleann pipes, accordion, violin, flute, feet, percussion, electric bass, acoustic/electric guitars, the Campagnes deliver gorgeous vocal harmonies, call & response and a cappella renderings. The tone here is often nostalgic and sober with a subtle urgency I can’t explain.

Smaragdos Margara by Carlos Martinez and Salvador Cardenal is a Spanish ballad sung in Spanish. Ce Matin Sans Hesiter (Bertrand Gosselin and Jim Corocan) marks a lively call & response song with lively 4-part a cappella harmonies and Vichten (Arthur Arsenault) follows a similar path with breathtaking harmonies. And if you haven’t guessed, this is another one of those albums that begs to be listened to several times.

Buy Une Histoire de Famille


Sufi Serenity

Ensemble Ibn Arabi – Chants Soufis Arabo-Andalous
Ensemble Ibn Arabi

Chants Soufis Arabo-Andalous [Arab-Andalusian Sufi Songs] (Long Distance 0450103, 2003)

The mystical facet of Islam known as Sufism has long regarded artistic expression as a path to greater connection with God. Sufi beliefs flourished alongside the greater expanding influence of Islam over the centuries, and the musical rituals of its followers ranged from highly esoteric and ecstatic to more restrained, sometimes merging with the folkloric traditions of the regions where Sufi ideology found favor.

The Morocco-based Ensemble Ibn Arabi recreate, in beautifully low-key fashion, the music that emerged from the zaouias (Sufi meeting places) in Spain back when that nation was a home to the cultures of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The tracks on this disc resonate with a richness that seems rooted in the distant past, though some of the viewpoints espoused in the lyrics (such as the unequivocal “I Believe in the Religion of Love”) would do well to take on new meaning nowadays.

Musically, things stay at the soothing, meditative end. Songs that often wax whimsically on the nature of love both human and divine float along a current of longing vocals, oud (lute), qanun (zither), ney (flute), violin and the echo of lightly rumbling frame drum. Improvised solo instrumental passages (known as taqsim) connect the songs in a manner reflective of the exchange of ideas so valued in the zawiyas of old, representing also the cooperative spirit shared by the ensemble as musicians and preservers of a tradition that they obviously treasure.

Sufism has found a greater niche in today’s world through the popularity of such forms as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ecstatic qawwali music and Hassan Hakmoun’s Gnawa trance tunes, but this softer side of Sufi also plentifully nourishes the desires of the soul.

Buy Chants Soufis Arabo-Andalous


The Purest Voice

Bill Jones

Two Year Winter (Brick Wall Music BRICK 005CD, 2003)

Anyone who has followed the progress of Bill Jones in the last few years will be well aware of the purity of her voice, her refreshing treatments of British traditional and other songs and her disdain for the Folk Police. She is instantly recognisable as someone who is developing her own niche in the music.

The new CD finds her solo and with a talented crew of like-minded musicians around her. For example the title track sees her collaborating with Anne Hills and makes use of a fine arrangement that showcases the work of Shanti Paul Jayasinha on cello along with Stewart Hardy’s violin and Sarah Wright’s flute. In another joint effort with Hills, Lost Chances, the music is stripped down to accordion and cello with Jones’ voice clear and to the fore. The tune is a borrowing from the Irish and adds poignancy to the lyrics.

Her own version of the story of Grace Darling, the Northumbrian heroine, marries another Irish tune to her words and an arrangement that recalls some of the Swarbricking of classic Fairport days.An interesting percussive edge is supplied by Keith Angel who plays djembe and shaker.
A further development is apparent on Diddling Set a group of tunes featuring her ‘diddling’ or lilting or mouth music – whatever you wish to call it. She is as sure voiced on this as on any other material and her singing is further enhanced by some flugel horn and flute.

Finally all jigs don’t need to be flat out string busting affairs, do they ? She takes Night-time Jigs and slows down the pace, giving the lovely Irish and Northumbrian tunes space in which to be heard.

If you haven’t heard her then this is a good place to start, if you have you wont need further recommendation.

Buy Two Year Winter.