Category Archives: CD Reviews

The Mahotella Queens

The Mahotella Queens

The Best Of – The Township Idols (Wrasse Records Wrasss. 098)

One of the things I most associate with the Queens, apart from their own impassioned vocals, is the coarse growl of Simon Nkabinde Mahlathini. So when I received this I was delighted to find an old favourite of mine, Jive Motella, included. It was lovely to hear the Lion of Soweto juxtaposed with the glorious three-part harmonies of the women.
He is featured on several tracks here in this celebration of their history and it provokes both sad and joyful feelings. Sad, because there will be no more such unions. But listening to Zibuyile Nonyaka or Thina Siyakhanyisa is as exciting an experience as you’re likely to find in the wide field of African music.

But before I forget, this is a review of the fabulous Queens. It spans the range of their albums, both with and without Mahlathini, and mixes the rhythms of South African tribal music with jazz and gospel influences. They call it mbaqanga, from the Zulu word for cooking pot. There is even a reggae influence on I’m In Love With A Rastaman which is full of swagger and bounce. Truly up-lifting. Equally buoyant is Kumnyama Endlini from their latest cd.

There are plenty of examples of the Queens’ close harmonies but one of the most memorable is the closing track Dilika Town Hall, a traditional song that features their unaccompanied voices. You can feel the purity and power that makes any other instrument redundant.

A couple of tracks don’t do them justice, like Women Of The World, which sounds diluted, bland even. But most of the album is great to hear again. They still sound as fresh as ever, keeping alive the sound and spirit of ‘the indestructible beat of Soweto’.

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Live Releases by Masters of Roots Reggae

Burning Spear- Live at Montreux Jazz Festival 2001 (Burning Music Productions BM 314, 2002)

Culture- Live in Africa (RASCD 3270, 2002)

Burning Spear and Culture are two of the most unwaveringly committed practitioners of Jamaican roots reggae the world has ever seen. Their continued global popularity is exemplified in numerous ways, including the strength of their live performances.Burning Spear (born Winston Rodney) has nearly 35 years of reggae stardom under his belt, and despite being rather gray in the dreadlocks these days, he shows no signs of throwing in the towel. From the start, his music has focused on the African repatriation philosophy of Marcus Garvey and the power of reggae as a uniting, healing force. Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival is a solid sampling of his mesmerizing, shaman-like onstage persona as he runs down a selection of mostly older material. As always, his backing band (including, crucially, a horn section) is top notch, deftly nailing the main body of each song as well as dropping into tight dub passages while Spear himself spaces out on percussion. The songs, including such classics as “Man in the Hills,” “Slavery Days” and “Columbus,” remain true to the intensity of the original recorded versions, though Spear frequently re-configures the vocals with scat spontaneity and chanted emphasis on key lyrics. He remains one of reggae’s greatest singers, laconic and understated at times, soaringly authoritative at others. Burning Spear has made several high quality live albums over the years, and this one easily assumes a place in his prolific and impressive body of work. (E-mail: burningspear@worldnetatt.net)

Though they remain a harmony trio, Culture has become increasingly synonymous with lead vocalist and songwriter Joseph Hill. Hill also emphasizes the importance of Marcus Garvey and African roots, but where Burning Spear often comes across as a stern teacher, Hill is more like a lively Rastafarian street preacher. Recorded at a reggae festival in South Africa, Culture’s live disc scores high marks also, as much for including songs from all phases of their career as the hard-hitting strength with which they are delivered. Hill engages the audience like an old friend, giving shout-outs to Nelson Mandela and radiating good vibes at every turn. The sound is a little ragged at first, but by the time Culture launches into a fervent “Disobedient Children,” things are locked up tight and you’ll be in the spirit and in the groove just as surely as if you’d been there. Loose, energetic and full of fire, this is a mightly testament to the power of live reggae. (www.rasrecords.com)

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Barahúnda – Al Sol de la Hierba

Barahúnda

Al Sol de la Hierba (Nufolk, 2002)

Barahúnda is part of a growing number of Madrid contemporary folk bands. The group draws most of its inspiration from various Spanish folk music traditions and the Sephardic diaspora. Barahúnda was initially led by singer Helena de Alfonso and stringed-instrument specialist Miguel Casado (he left the group after the recording). The all acoustic band features Helena de Alfonso’s outstanding Medieval, Sephardic and Spanish folk vocal stylings combined with various Spanish and Middle Eastern string instruments, along with superb zanfona (Spanish hurdy gurdy) work, all accompanied by Spanish, Middle Eastern and Indian percussion. The pieces included in this recording include original compositions as well as Medieval Galician-Portuguese cantigas, Arab Andalusian music, jotas from Zamora and Burgos, a Breton tune, and Sephardic lullabies and love songs.

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The Maytones: Their Greatest Hits

The Maytones

Their Greatest Hits (Heartbeat 11661-7575-2, 2002)

For whatever reason–maybe because they didn’t sport dreadlocks or have a militant name–the Maytones tend to be overlooked when one speaks of the initial surge of Jamaican roots reggae in the 1970s. Also, in a time when the vast majority of reggae groups that emphasized harmony singing were trios, the Maytones were a duo. Leave it to Heartbeat Records, who excel at releasing contemporary reggae as well as crucial reissues, to remind us all of how much more a prominent place in reggae history the Maytones ought to have. Lead voice Vern Buckley and harmony singer Gladstone Grant blend flawlessly over rhythms laid down by an epic cast of Jamaica’s finest players. The songs–“Holy Ground,” “Judgement a Come,” “Money Worries,” “One Way,” etc., are mostly of the roots and culture variety, though the angelic quality of Buckley’s and Grant’s voices wrap superbly around a few love songs as well. The disc features some extended dub mixes with guest toasters including the late great I Roy, and the production work of Alvin Ranglin crisply accentuates both singers and players. Fans of such groups as the Mighty Diamonds, the Heptones and Justin Hinds and the Dominoes will love this, but roots reggae adherents in general won’t want to be without it. (www.rounder.com/heartbeat)

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South African Choral – Songs of the Alexandra Youth Choir

South African Choral – Songs of the Alexandra Youth Choir
South African Choral

Songs of the Alexandra Youth Choir (Naxos World 76025-2, 2002)

Even in the darkest days of apartheid, some of the most defiantly beautiful music came from South Africa. Today, the nation remains troubled and the music remains beautiful. Alexandra Township, just outside Johannesburg, is a place where music has long flourished despite poverty, oppression, limited resources and nothing like the same level of dubious fame affiliated with places like Soweto (though Nelson Mandela once went into hiding there).

Listening to the Alexandra Youth Choir (first established in 1988), the feeling of gospel-fervor faith in the face of adversity is evident, along with the enduring power of traditional Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa songs.

The 20 selections here showcase considerable range, from glorious call-and-response to sweet surrender spirituals and foot-stomping testimonials. There’s some perfectly suited instrumental accompaniment here and there, but the majority is just harmonious voices singing as one mighty force. A perfectly wonderful CD, full of passion and power that gets to the very core of you.

The Naxos World label hasn’t been in existence for very long, but quality releases such as this show that their future is likely to be very bright.

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Reves D’Oasis – Desert Blues 2

Reves D’Oasis – Desert Blues 2
Reves D’Oasis – Desert Blues 2 (Network 22.762, 2002)

The first volume of this series, 1996’s Ambiances du Sahara, was a sprawling treasure chest of music from the vast regions covered by the world’s largest desert. The critical praise it received was considerable, and the recently released second volume takes another bountiful trip around the same countries to come up with a further load of riches. Africa’s Saharan countries create music as enjoyable as it is subject to analysis- the likelihood of it being the basis of American blues, its Arabic roots, etc.

Desert Blues 2 starts off with strong selections from Majid Bekkas and Boubacar Traore, featuring melancholy guitars and vocals winding around nervously tapping percussion. Gradually, over the set’s two-disc length, the songs run a gorgeous course between bright and celebratory and solitary and very bluesy indeed. The same multiple facets as volume one are in evidence, along with the same balance of familiar and lesser-known names. Plenty of calabashes and n’goni lutes are heard, but there’s also bottleneck guitar spacing out alongside kora, Tuareg and Gnawa sounds that keep the journey a spiritual one, music that could’ve come from the Mississippi Delta if not for the growly non-English lyrics, ancient pentatonic scale riffs serviced by modern dance grooves and loads more of the same kind of diversity you’d expect to come from and area roughly the size of the U.S.

A fair number of the songs are by women, and the set is also reflective of their artistic emergence from certain countries and cultures where their role has been secondary. There’s a lot going on here, and anyone who bought the first volume with the thought that there must be much more will find out how right they were. Reves D’Oasis will refresh and rejuvenate you like bountiful flowing water found in the midst of barren desolation. 

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Nakai, Eaton, Clipman, Nawang

Nakai, Eaton, Clipman, Nawang

Nakai, Eaton, Clipman, Nawang - In A Distant Place
Nakai, Eaton, Clipman, Nawang – In A Distant Place

In A Distant Place (Canyon Records)

After several trial recordings together, R. Carlos Nakai and Nawang Khechog have succeeded in combining their visions of music for meditation and peace. On the same road for many years, the two flutists – Nakai on cedar and Nawang on bamboo – have pursued peace, contentment and joy through their music, Nakai from the West and Nawang from the East.

Nakai has found his way using his Native American background solo and with scores of collaborations. Nawang has until recently walked the path solo composing pieces based on Tibetan philosophy for TV and film scores. Now the two have found success in their expression together. William Eaton’s unique harp guitar provides the network of notes for them to bond to.

Will Clipman’s acoustic percussion grounds the group. The chanting in both Native American and Tibetan adds focus to an already meditative album. This album breaks new ground in its spiritual aim, and it is well worth noting that with it, the distance between the ancient Native Americans and the Tibetans has grown smaller.

Buy In A Distant Place

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Pizzimenti, Antonio Paolo

Antonio Paolo Pizzimenti

Atlante – Musiche dai Teatri (Dunya Records)

The variety of themes, influences and musical arrangements is astounding in this collection of pieces written for the theatrical production Codice Atlantico by the Italian composer and arranger Antonio Paolo Pizzimenti.

Pizzimenti is well known for his work in Italian advertising, radio, TV, and soundtracks. Working mostly behind the scenes as a sound engineer for the Italian star Eugenio Finaldi, ane The Memphis Horns, he has also added his musicianship to albums by Roberto Vecchioni and Banda Isiris.

Lead mostly by keyboards and percussion, and using everything in his repertoire from bagpipes, organs, and heavy drums each piece is very unique and enjoyable. Even without seeing the theater piece, one can appreciate the complexity and density of this music. Drawing on Celtic, African, Italian folk music, Middle Eastern and Latin themes, the music is arranged to draw the listener in, dance and sing, and then go on with life – such is the ideal of life in Italy.

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Yat-Kha

Yat-Kha - Aldyn Dashka - The Golden Cup
Yat-Kha – Aldyn Dashka – The Golden Cup
Yat-Kha

Aldyn Dashka – The Golden Cup (Yat-Kha Records)

Yat-Kha is the latest project of Albert Kuvezin from Tuva, Siberia, who started his career in music by playing electric guitar along with his Deep Purple records during the Soviet era. As a hint of the format of this album, Albert appears on the cover wearing his electric guitar over his heavy Siberian coat.

A diversion from the folk music of Tuva seen in so many places – on recent European rock albums, throat singing is used to evoke a raw energy. The Bulgarian Choir Angelite sang with members of Huun Huur Tu. But this album goes the next step, getting away from the uniqueness of the style and featuring great songwriting, superb musicianship and a real sense of humor. On a few songs, Albert is joined by Sailyk Omnum, who sings in the bluesy Tuvan women’s style. Band members include the venerable Aldyn-ool Sevek, who toured for many years with the Sayani Ensemble, Tuva’s Official Folk Singing and Dancing Group. This is the next chapter in Tuvan music.

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Triny Gipsy Streams

Triny - Gipsy Streams
Triny – Gipsy Streams
Triny

Gipsy Streams (Supraphon)

Iveta Kováĉová, Dagmar Podkonická and Jana Ryšerová met at the Prague Conservatory, all interested in Roma (gypsy) musical heritage. According to Iveta, they explored their roots together at her home, and found much to sing about. Their sound compares well with the Scandinavian vocal group Varttina in their range and accomplished vocal quality. Harmonies are not as complex and close as the Bulgarian Women’s Choirs or as simple as some Caribbean ditty, but find their own center in each song.

Their arrangements sensibly feature the wonderful timbre of the three voices. No one singer dominates, but each carries a unique sound, identifiable, and, after a while, you’ll be listening for your favorite. And when blended together, they sound sweet.

What makes this album super smart is their top notch band who coax rhythm and meaning out of every beat. Using a truckful of folk and electric instruments, they keep the songs lively, modern and fun, even when the lyrics are repetitious or nonsense. Very fun music to listen to on your way anywhere.

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