Category Archives: CD Reviews

Party On!

Maxwell Street Klezmer Band - Old Roots New World
Maxwell Street Klezmer Band – Old Roots New World
Maxwell Street Klezmer Band

Old Roots New World (Shanachie, 2002)

Hailing from Chicago and named after the infamous Maxwell Street, (an area compared to New York’s Lower Eastside) and where Russian Jews immigrated during the last century, the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band ignites a party mood. However, I don’t know if I would use the word band to describe this orchestra size unit. One photograph that accompanies the CD, Old Roots New World sports 17 musicians that amounts to lots of strings, horns, woodwinds, percussion, two vocalists and a non-stop celebratory mood.

Most of the compositions included on the discs were written during the heyday of American klezmer music and during a time when swing was the newest trend in jazz music. Many of the songs are short in length with the exception of Klezmer Rhapsody that last 17 1/2 minutes and it plays more like a frolic than a rhapsody.MSKB, although larger and hailing from Chicago, draws comparisons with their New York counterpart, The Klezmatics. However, singer Lori Lippitz who founded MSKB in 1983 leads this band and along with her troupe of musicians has played stages throughout Europe and across America. I am not an expert on klezmer music, but I imagine that it’s rare to find a klezmer band of this size and importance led by a woman. Obviously Ms Lippitz is one extraordinary woman and musician.

The songs on the CD for the most part portray optimism and originate from films, weddings (Leah’s Saraband was composed by Artistic Director Alex Koffman for Lori’s wedding) and other celebrations. The actress-acrobat-dancer-songwriter Molly Picon is honored twice on the recording on the tracks Play Fiddle, Play/Yidle with the Fiddle that derives from a film that Molly appeared back in 1937 and the song You Should Only Be Well, written by Molly. The words to the song might offer hope to those folks currently struggling with their lives, “The air is free the whole world over…the sun shines just the same for the rich or poor…have a little fun, a little laughter, sometimes with friends.”

Springtime marks a Jewish tango that doesn’t speak of sexual longing, but over the anguish of losing a loved one. A woman mourns the murder of her husband. Ironically, the musician, Avrom Brodna who wrote the music for the tango, died in a concentration camp in 1943. On a lighter note, Live to Enjoy features Ralph Wilder’s spunky clarinet solos embellished by frenzied horns and snazzy percussion. Musicianship in general is highlighted here with plenty of clarinet arpeggios, sparkling horns, weeping strings and crystal clear soprano vocals. The musicians bring their love for klezmer music to this disc and they have a rollicking good time sharing their music with a deserving audience.


Taj Mahal’s Hanapepe Dream

Taj Mahal

Hanapepe Dream (Tone-Cool/Kan-Du Records, 2003)

For those feeling a little listless and slothful in the grip of summer’s dog days, let me suggest Hanapepe Dream, the latest from Taj Mahal and The Hula Blues found on Tone-Cool/Kan-Du Records.

The follow up to their 1998 Sacred Island, Hanapepe Dream liquefies the Hawaiian, West African, Blues and Caribbean influences and pours them out perfectly blended. Heavy with lilting Hawaiian steel guitar, bright ukuleles, the slick wah wah of slack-key guitar and saxophone, it slides down cool and frosty like some exotic drink on a hot summer’s day.

But it is Taj Mahal’s voice that intoxicates – that voice that is smooth and silky one minute and rough and rich the next. “Black Jack Davy,” the charming duet “Moonlight Lady” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Creole Belle” are testaments to Mahal’s powerful command over song lyrics. Set to a shuffling beat and playful sax, Taj Mahal entices the listener with a playfully naughty vocal seduction on “Baby, You’re My Destiny” that culminates with some scat vocals. Mahal even gets in a version of “All Along The Watchtower,” proving that Mahal refuses convention.

I do have to mention the liner notes for Hanapepe Dream. I don’t know who was responsible but – shame, shame, shame! There wasn’t a single mention about the musicians or any of the production staff. The musicians behind The Hula Blues include Carlos Andrade on slack-key guitar; Fred Lunt on Hawaiian steel guitar; Kester Smith on drums; Rudy Costa on saxophone, flute, kalimba and clarinet; Pat Cockett on liliu ukulele; Wayne Jacintho on tenor ukulele; Michael Barretto on baritone ukulele and Pancho Graham on acoustic guitar. These guys are just too good to not mention and proof is in the instrumental title track.

All-in-all Hanapepe Dream is a delightful elixir for those summer doldrums



TJ Nelson is also a fiction writer. Check out her latest book, Chasing
Athena’s Shadow
<>. Set in
Pineboro, North Carolina, Chasing Athena’s Shadow follows the adventures
of Grace, an adult literacy teacher, as she seeks to solve a long
forgotten family mystery.  Her charmingly dysfunctional family is of
little help in her quest.  Along with her best friends, an attractive
Mexican teacher and an amiable gay chef, Grace must find the one fading
memory that holds the key to why Grace’s great-grandmother, Athena, shot
her husband on the courthouse steps in 1931. Traversing the line between
the Old South and New South, Grace will have to dig into the past to
uncover Athena’s true crime.


Klezmer Gypsies Take The Stage

Les Yeux Noirs – Live
Les Yeux Noirs

Live (World Village 4680190, 2003)

Led by classically-trained violinists Eric and Olivier Slabiak, Les Yeux Noirs created one of last year’s more memorable albums with Balamouk, a seamlessly brilliant Gypsy/klezmer blend that brought out the best in both styles, individually and collectively. This new live disc shows them to be just as tight onstage (in case you had any doubt), and though many of the tunes were also highlights of Balamouk, most are carried beyond their already substantial studio counterparts. A little extra jamming length here, a bit more tricky soloing there, and the result is a nimble and lively performance that is no mere rehash.

A tartly stomping “Cioara” kicks things off, with the crinkly tones of the cimbalom and dancing percussion bouncing to and fro between the rich violins as guitar, bass, cello and accordion lubricate the Balkan and Yiddish accents with loving grace. Faster pieces like “Calusul” and “L’Alouette” reach delightful frenzy without sloppiness, though the band’s softer side is evident on two versions of the tender “Lluba,” including a new take with a children’s choir adding depth to the traditional lament. In fact, the balance of fast and slow tunes give this disc a good sense of pace that many live albums lack. Then when you factor in solid versions of such originals as Balamouk’s Afro/Euro title track, you have a live set that delivers mightily in terms of innovation and exciting musical border-crossing. Listening to this will make your feet move and your heart ache. You’ll love it.

buy Live


Preaching to the Choir

Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria - Mechemetio
Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria – Mechemetio
Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria

Mechemetio (Intuition, 2000)

Bulgarian choir music and folk dance drew awareness in the West when 4 AD Records released records by the choir phenomenon Le Mystere des Vois Bulgares back in the late 1980’s. While the world music genre was beginning to formulate around that time, it was the alternative music crowd, especially fans of Goth music that embraced Bulgarian choir music. A few years later, Kate Bush invited another Bulgarian vocal group, Trio Bulgarka to lend their talents to a couple of tracks on her release, Sensual World (Bush is one of those artists never mentioned for her contribution to world music).

Seemingly Bulgarian vocal music disappeared from public awareness even though other vocal-centered groups such as the Finnish group Varttina and the Italian a cappella quartet, Fauarella give homage to Bulgarian vocal music on their CDs. The Persian-American vocalist Mamak Khadem of Axiom of Choice studied Bulgarian vocal styles and this adds a unique flavor to her vocal palette. So it comes, as a bit of synchronicity that a CD of Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria, recorded in 2000, would cross my path at a time when I am discovering vocal music.Similar to the Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria (I am using the English translation), Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria features a full-fledged choir, including 21 of Bulgaria’s brightest vocal talent. Those folks who have been following Bulgarian music will recognize a few of the names of the vocalists, including Nadka Karadzhova, who once sang with the Mysterious Voices. She of course, appears as a soloist on the disc, but she shares soloing duties with a long list of vocalists. The album, Mechmetio was recorded at Hall 11 of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria, reminding us that the Bulgarian government still exudes pride in one of their national treasures.

Vanya Moneva conducted the choir and Emil Minev produced the recording. The project pays tribute to the great Bulgarian choir composers and arrangers of the past and especially Philip Kutev (1903-82), the man responsible for the more innovative compositions. However, some of the tracks were composed more recently and by new composers. The performance although haunting to some extent also possesses playful elements. The harmonies add a unique dissonance and the songs are also peppered with whoops and crescendos. It’s a complex music that I won’t even try to explain nor could I without ever having studied it. Yet, I do find that it lends itself to a pleasurable listen. For anyone who wishes to delve further into Bulgarian music, I recommend picking up Rough Guides World Music, Volume 1 and read the insightful chapter on Bulgaria or peruse the liner notes that come with the CD.


California Singing

Deborah Falconer - Brave like me
Deborah Falconer – Brave like me
Deborah Falconer

Brave like me (Ravish, 2003)

A life of singer-songwriter is a hard one. Any songwriter can come up with interesting chord progressions and insightful melodies, but the true test of a singer-songwriter comes with penning of lyrics. Poetry and universal thinking isn’t everyone’s forte and few songwriters have the talent of a Tom Waits, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. Most songwriters, including Deborah Falconer with her CD release, Brave like me, write too personal of lyrics resembling something cribbed from a diary. She’s not alone of course, since I noticed a lot of self-absorbed lyrics coming from the rock and pop genres which is why I began listening to music sung in other languages.I do not know Deborah’s age or background, but I would suggests that she travel to other countries, get a broader view of the world, besides her own personal life. I suggests that she learn other vocal styles besides the heart-aching one that too often recalls Tori Amos or Ricky Lee Jones since this just doesn’t come across as authentic. I think as Deborah grows as an artist her song writing will mature into something more universal. At the moment she is playing it safe by sticking with the usual Western instrumentation and not stretching her vocals or emotions. She could learn a lot from her songwriting predecessors and contemporaries, Patti Smith, Ani DiFranco and Janis Joplin. In the meantime, Brave like me proves pleasant enough with sweet chord progressions embellished by strings, piano, pedal steel and electric organ. It’s the perfect CD for the white middle class college crowd that hasn’t crossed the bridge yet from me to us or from America to the rest of the world.


Disco d’Afrique

Kaleta - Kaleta Jaa
Kaleta – Kaleta Jaa

Kaleta Jaa (Kaleta Music, 2003)

West African rhythms mixed with thumping disco beats and lots of programming, sadly has become the latest trend. This African pop extracts African dialects and styles then distills these elements in a tepid atmosphere of electronic drums and keyboards. Front man and masked musician Kaleta, born in the Republic of Benin and a veteran of the West African music community, has fallen into the trap of marrying modern technology with the musical heart of West Africa. Kaleta who leads the band with the same name sings in a variety of languages including Yoruba (Nigeria), Fon, Goun (Benin), Eur (Toga) as well as, French and English. He has also mastered various genres of music such as reggae, R & B, high-life, African JuJu and rock, while proving his prowess on guitar, percussion and vocals. And yet, despite all Kaleta’s talent, this CD fails to excite me.Kaleta isn’t the first West African musician to don a mask. Nigerian super star Lagbaja of the group with the same name also wears a mask, but for political reasons. And Lagbaja fronts a high octane group that is heavy on polyphonic rhythms played on African percussion, a hot and heavy horn section as well as, delicious call & response vocals. And this is still considered African pop. Kaleta who has performed with and recorded albums for Nigerian’s King Sunny Ade, and the Afro-Beat Fela Kuti, relies too heavily on American influences and he falls under the weight of an alien culture (he resides in New York). While he can master West African styles of music, his songs on Kaleta Jaa are clogged with electronic drumbeats, cheesy synthesizer and rock guitar solos that feel out of place.

On occasion, a hint of African percussion peaks through along with call & response vocals such as on the ending of the song, Magicien and the vocal tracks on Kaleta-Soukous come across as the most authentic music on this CD. I don’t wish to spoil Kaleta’s celebratory mood with my hunger for more ritualistic African music, but if I wanted to hear disco beats I could just turn on any commercial radio station. I want to hear African percussion in its purist form and maybe I am a lone wolf crying in the wilderness, but I will keep howling until my needs are met.


Kaleta Jaa


Colombia Goes African

Batata y Su Rumba Palenquera – Radio Bakongo
Batata y Su Rumba Palenquera

Radio Bakongo (Network 24.127, 2003)

About 300 years ago, a group of escaped African slaves barricaded themselves in a safe haven near Colombia’s Caribbean coast, successfully fought off Spanish colonizer’s repeated attempts to recapture them, and eventually founded the first free village of its type in the Western Hemisphere. That village, Palenque, survives to this very day as a spiritual and musical center of African culture in Colombia.

Paulino “Batata” Salgado is a master drummer and vocalist coming from a long line of musicians who’ve kept African tradition alive in Colombia through the rhythms, songs, dances and attitude that first asserted African identity there long ago.

Batata spent two decades touring the world as lead drummer in Toto la Momposina’s band, and he brings a good bit of the international to this splendid album. When recordings of African music began to reach Colombia in large numbers in the 1960’s, they were snapped up by sound system operators and listeners who instantly recognized the link between their own refined grooves and the sounds of the Congo, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and beyond.

Radio Bakongo celebrates that link with its foundation of drum rhythms that found their way from Africa to such places as Colombia, Haiti and Cuba, topped by instruments and melodies that reference varied African and African diasporic music.

The Colombian cumbia style gets a good showing, with many a pulse-quickening helping of rumba, highlife, Afrobeat and soukous adding to the celebration. Every song is a percussion-thundering, horn-blaring, vocal-testifying jam session of the highest order, reducing the space between Africa and Colombia to the amount of room it takes to shake your hips. This is African/Latin fusion at its sweaty, serious best, and one of the must-have releases of the year.


Music on the Fringe

Maraca - Longe
Maraca – Longe

Longe(Indies Records, 2003)

When I first moved to Seattle in the late 80’s I found myself hanging out in arty dives where I immersed myself in art rock and experimental jazz. At the time, innovative artists such as Amy Denio, Jeff Greinke, Rob Angus and others (most likely influenced by similar scenes in Manhattan and San Francisco) were turning music inside out and creating new musical possibilities. This acted as my antithesis to the ever so popular grunge and even some of the grunge musicians would sit in with the more experimental players. I mention this Seattle scene that spawned and or attracted musicians such as Wayne Horovitz because the Czech experimental jazz-ethnic world musical group, Maraca would have found a perfect fit in Seattle back in the late 80’s.

As you might imagine, Maraca bends the rules a lot while creating soundscapes as opposed to actual songs. They weave a tapestry of tape loops, French horn, samples, strings, wind instruments, didgeridoo and even Pan’s flute in which vocalist-violinist Gabriela Pliskova sings in hushed tones, creaks or sends her clear soprano vocals sailing over the top of a dreamscape. She is joined by Petr Filak (guitars and oud), Tomas Rohleder (percussion), Robert Prokop (sampler, didgeridoo), Pimpa (cello), Radek Bednarik (woodwinds), Rudi Linner (French horn) and Ales Obkracil (bass).

The group’s recording Longe somehow creates a multidimensional fabric that recalls black box theatre, underground cinema and any other art form that lies in the fringes of society. Longe is both eclectic and imaginative, but certainly not for the average listeners and even the more sophisticated listener would have to set a mood before popping this disc into the stereo.

Many of the tracks revolve around Gabriela’s vocals set against an arrangement of strings, horns and tape loops or samples. The guitar is often repetitive creating a hypnotic effect while various instruments, such as the oud and didgeridoo are used sparingly to create an exotic atmosphere. All the tracks are set to the work of the most famous Portuguese author, Fernando Pessoa, but only a couple tracks come close to reflecting the Mediterranean including Nuven and meu triste coracao. The track, I know, possesses an Arabic or Middle Eastern tinge with wailing clarinet and Gabriela’s impassioned vocals.

While this recording proves unconventional and makes for an intriguing listen, the songs end abruptly while failing to flow into one another. Most of the tracks could be called mood pieces and at least one track, e hoje e ja outro dia could come straight out of a B-thriller. It sets a dark and creepy mood while never quite fitting in with the rest of the tracks. Obviously, this CD is not a crowd-pleaser, but it does offer other musicians inspiration. And it’s always refreshing when musicians bend the rules and define their own musical boundaries. Maraca does that and does that quite well.

Buy Longe.


Gnawa Njoum Experience

Gnawa Njoum - Boum Ba Clash
Gnawa Njoum – Boum Ba Clash
Gnawa Njoum Experience (No Fridge/Boom Ba Clash NOCD 097, 2003)

Gnawa music from Morocco has attracted the attention of many musicians in the fields of rock, jazz and world music. Some of the hybrid sounds that came out from these experiments were really interesting, others were frightening.

Gnawa Njoum Experience is definitely one of the positive experiences. The album is the result of an encounter between traditional music by Gnawa Njoum (from Essawira, Morocco) and several musicians from the Parisian electronic music scene, including UHT. The lyrics are in English, French and in Arabic, accompanied by trance-like acoustic rhythms provided by the Gnawa and a series of electronic beats that range from funk to reggae.


In a Beirut Mood

Jalilah's Raks Sharki 6  - In a Beirut Mood
Jalilah’s Raks Sharki 6
In a Beirut Mood
Jalilah’s Raks Sharki 6

In a Beirut Mood (Piranha CD-PIR788, 2003)

This is a recording of Lebanese-style raks sharki music, better known as Oriental dance or belly dance. The Arabic orchestra, which includes violins, ud, qanun, nay, accordion and percussion; is led by conductor and pianist Ihsan Al-Mounzer.

The music is instrumental, with a heavy emphasis on Arabic percussion instruments.Jalilah is one of the top belly dancers in the world. Born in the US of German and Mexican descent, she has lived and worked in various Arab countries, recording various raks sharki albums.

Buy In a Beirut Mood.