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Consumer Guide: World Music Edition (2008)

Les Amazones de Guinée, Youssou N'Dour and more world music makers

A big believer in crossover, impurity and genre transgression, I had my doubts about devoting an entire Consumer Guide to "world" music--which as it turned out meant mostly African with a foray into salsa. But the buildup, especially of Honorable Mention type possibilities, just got too big, so I immersed and came up with this. Normal patterns of cultural integration will re-emerge within a month or two. On this compilation and that, I definitely found some singers worthy of more detailed investigation.

Les Amazones de Guinée: Wamato (Stern's Africa) The first album in 30 years by these female militia members, most of whom started making music together in the '60s, and boy have they been saving it up. There's abundance in the three lead vocalists alone: a soprano who slices the air like few African-American counterparts; a near baritone whose hectoring interludes suggest a mom bawling out her kid from an apartment window; and for normality's sake, a rich growler in the big mama mold. Trancey desert guitar patterns are cut by a sour two-sax horn section, sweet chorales offer relief, and they even have tunes. "Mères d'Afrique," the best and last is called, and sweet mother, I believe. A

Youssou N'Dour: Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take) (Nonesuch) Unlike the two previous Nonesuch albums by Africa's premier pop star--the 2002 ecumenical, the 2005 Muslim--this isn't designed to inspire conversion experiences. But believe that its melodicism and vocal dexterity exceed those of whatever contemporary standard-bearer you favor in those realms, that the clarity and range of the singing epitomize what is usually meant by beauty, and that at 48 this Sufi has got him some beats. Having long realized that crossover was most gracefully accomplished by conceptual clarity, he keeps things organized this time out by tending to business at home. On half the tracks a banjo-like ngoni, which this being Senegal N'dour designates a xalam, gestures toward the Malian desert directly to his north, imparting a capering intricacy and folkish flavor to what remains Dakar dance music. To most Americans, however, it will probably just sound like Africa, and pretty darn good. A

New York City Salsa (Fania) For 40 years now I've been turned off classic salsa by the horn tuttis--their blare, their flash, their pretentious precision. And the first time I heard Tipica 73 pianist-leader Sonny Bravo kick things off with the crashing intro of Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C Sharp Minor," I cringed. But long immersion in Puerto Rican culture, as well as three relatives who are part-time salsa musicians (none of whom, even the trumpeter, loves horn tuttis), has taught me to hear salsa's rhythms, especially as driven by the piano montunos and vocal coros that are so tight and gorgeous on this 30-track comp from the label that invented the stuff. I'm not attuned enough to readily distinguish one legend from another, but I know that around my family Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Hector Lavoe and Larry Harlow are revered. I note that as the style gains presence, the horns quiet down. And by the end of the second disc--Palmieri, Puente, Lavoe and who are these Lebron Brothers driving "Sin Ti"'s piano-conga-cowbell-trumpet over the top? I'm feeling it. A MINUS

Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues (Soundway) Knowledgeable compiler Miles Cleret says no concept here, just a bunch of records he didn't want to die, and more power to him. Beyond Celestine Ukwu and Sir Victor Uwaifo, none of the 26 artists was in my recall vocabulary, including Mono Mono and the Funkees, who I'd failed to notice on 2001's Nigeria 70 funk comp. But from the retooled folk tunes on the trad extreme to the Afrobeat on the prog, most of Cleret's treasures are winning, probably because highlife controls the middle--though horns sound occasionally. Anglophony does push the Yoruba and Ibo aside now and then. But the focus is always Nigerian. As Cleret translates Mono Mono: "Don't teach us our own culture; this has been our way for ages and we know it best." Which must be why they feel free to interpret funk to mean a few Ernie Isley moves. A MINUS

Tabu Ley Rochereau: The Voice of Lightness (Stern's Africa) The master of Congolese song is the rare singer whose sound signifies like a great jazz horn player's--hear, for instance, how his velvety tenor lifts his duets with his Diana Ross-like consort Mbilia Bel on her accompanying compilation. And that was toward the end of the long peak that begins very near the beginning of this sumptuous 29-track double. Dividing neatly between his African Fiesta National and Afrisa International band, the name switch that more or less marked his realization that first the double-sided 45 and then the LP were means to the authenticité of long, instrumentally expansive recordings, so it's more songful on the 18-track 1961-1969 disc and more grooveful on the 11-track 1969-1977. But even toward the end, with "soukous" becoming a byword, the lilt of classic rumba gently prevails. A PLUS

The Rough Guide to Congo Gold (World Music Network) This chronological tour of rumba-not-soukous begins with a crackly 1949 78 featuring founding father Henri Bowane and coasts home on guitar-weaving revivalist and synth-embracing neoclassicist tracks by old Franco hands Papa Noel and Madilu System. But it peaks in the middle, when Verckys' yakety sax gives way to the scrumptious Franco Volkswagen ad "Azda." Then it levels off high and gentle. With five of the 12 selections by Franco or Rochereau, who made more great records than most of us will ever know, the delights of their unknown pleasures obliterate the redundancy of "Azda" and the Rochereau-Mbilia Bel hookup. Finally the perfect complement to Celluloid's lost Hi-NRG Zaire Choc! CD. As playable as Afrocomps get. A

Think Global: Women of Africa (World Music Network) The de facto fantasy is that an entire continent, from South Africa to the Western Sahara, is in some crucial respect a single place. The styles don't mesh, of course. But the voices do, stronger in timbral solidarity here than when carrying their own full-lengths. Crowned queens--Oumou Sangare, Miriam Makeba closing with the inevitable "Pata Pata"--are outdone by such sisters as South Africa's Busi Mhlongo and Somalia's Setona, both of whom have full-lengths that are now on my to-do list. B PLUS

Umalali: The Garifuna Women's Project (Cumbancha) This collection belongs first of all to the Garifuna women Cumbancha's Jacob Edgar calls "the true caretakers of Garifuna songs"--Sofia Blanco, whose piercing sweetness leads two of the dozen tracks and whose daughter Silvia takes two others; powerhouse Chela Torres; Julia Nuñez succeeding her ailing mother with a brief threnody for her murdered son. But it also belongs to Ivan Duran, who spent years collecting material in the field and then brought singers into his studio 50 miles or much more inland from the Caribbean coastal areas that are home to Afro-Carib Garifuna communities all the way down to Nicaragua. Adding guitar parts and finding vocal arrangements, eliciting a solo from a local Hendrix, hooking up with Fatboy Slim only not so's you can tell, Duran never cheapens the material. Instead he achieves the misbegotten world-music dream of rendering the folkloric "accessible." Alan Lomax should have been so canny. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • Marcel Khalifé: Taqasim (Connecting Cultures) Lebanese peacenik creates functionally peaceful three-part composition on an oud that could make Sandy Bull have a cow.
  • M'Bilia Bel: Bel Canto: The Best of the Genidia Years (Sterns Africa) 1982-'87 versions of Rochereau's Afrisa International accommodate his wife's sweet, small soprano ("Nazali Mwasi," "Contre Ma Volonte").
  • Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata From the Cabaret Era (iASO) Dominican son, approximately, moved to a city it romanticizes and once in a while sends up (Rafael Encarnaciòn, "Muero Contigo"; Juan Bautista, "Estoy Aqui Pero No Soy Yo").
  • David Buchbinder: Odessa/Havana (Tzadik) Canadian trumpeter meets Cuban pianist for decent enough jazz and musical tales of Marranos, Roma and Sephardim ("Freylekhs Tumbao," "Lailadance").
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of the Hungarian Gypsies (World Music Network) Cooler and crazier the more Balkan it gets (Khamoro, "Lingara/Csavargok"; Kàlmàn Balogh & the Gipsy Cimbalom Band, "Calusul Dance").
  • The Rail Band: Rail Band 1: Soundiata (Belle Epoque) The root source of Salif Keita, Mory Kante and Djelimady Tounkara put to a completist test few bands still working stuff out can ace ("Armee Malienne," "Fankante Dankele").
  • Fernando Otero: Pagina de Buenos Aires (Nonesuch) Argentinian classical pianist embraces tango without squeezing the breath out of it ("El Momento," "De Ahora en Mas").
  • Shiko Mawatu: Kimbanda Nzila (Tabilulu Productions) Facile Congo guitarist leads gorgeous Congo singers through overextended Congo metaphors over synth-washed Congo band ("Kupanda," "Terminus").
  • Afrissippi: Fulani Journey (Knockdown South) Senegalese guitarist moves to Oxford town, joins Kimbrough-Burnside crew, shows Ali Farka Touré who can play the blues ("Dono," "Ngol Jimol").
  • The Rough Guide to Salsa Dura NYC (World Music Circuit) The Jimmy Bosch title cut establishes how magnificent this groove can be, everything else how often it's just missed (Jimmy Bosch, "El Embajador"; Ricky Gonzalez, "Mi Rumba Es Candida").
  • Roswell Rudd & Yomo Toro: El Espìrito Jìbaro (Soundscape) Not "Latin jazz," Latin plus jazz, with which guys this friendly equals fun ("Pouchie & the Bird," "Mayor G").
  • The Rough Guide to Salsa (World Music Circuit) The international durability of classic clave, once Cuban, then Puerto Rican, now Afrodiasporan (Fruko y Sus Tesos, "La Máquina Del Sabor"; Grupo Caribe, "Sombre Una Tumba Una Rumba").
  • Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Segu Blue (Out Here) Youssou N'Dour's xalam/ngoni man expresses himself, with the blues nod catchy but hardly the biggest prize ("Andra's Song," "Bassekou").
  • Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu (Heads Up) Joseph Shabalala goes out like a pro, relying on his old gimmicks because he finally feels no need for new ones ("Kuyafundw' Osizini [Ilembe]," "Iphel' Emasini [Nature Effects]").
  • Felipe Salles: South American Suite (Curare) Brazilian reed player embraces classical canon without betraying his rhythmic schooling ("Seven Days," "Somewhat Frevo").
  • The Rough Guide to Latin Funk (World Music Network) Not so great as individual bands, nice change-up as a movement--also a party (Antibalas, "Che Che Cole Mombassa"; Quantic, "Politick Society").
  • Roswell Rudd & the Mongolian Buryat Band: Blue Mongol (Soundscape) Weird trombone vocalism, weird Tuvan vocalism, Arctic ingenue ("Gathering Light," "Four Mountains").
  • The Greatest Songs Ever--West Africa (Petrol) Crossover nobodies array credible Afrocentrist miscellany (Nam, "Africa"; Dioss Diabaté, "Iloyoro").

Choice Cuts

  • Richard Lemvo & Makina Loca, "Kasongo Boogaloo" (Think Global: Salsa, World Music Network)
  • Irakere, "Bacalao Con Pan"; Los Van Van, "Y no le conviene" (Si, Para Usted: The Funky Beats of Revolutionary Cuba: Volume 1, Waxing Deep)
  • La Lupe, "Fever"; Johnny Ventura, "Guajira Con Soul"; George Guzman, "Marilu" (The Bad Boogaloo: Nu Yorican Sounds 1966-1970, Fania)
  • Ray Santiago, "It's a Man's World" (The Rough Guide to Salsa Clandestino, World Music Network)

Dud of the Month

Latin Reggae (Putumayo World Music) Really, I wasn't expecting reggaeton, just maybe the deep thrum of Bristol Brooklyn Bridge on Rough Guide's Latin funk comp. What I got was Barcelona, the whitest hotbed of internationalism on the planet. Six of 11 tracks hail from that paradise, and whatever the artists' political bona fides--said to be legion, including a tithe or something to combat poverty in Latin America (tricky term, that "Latin")--they could pick up some skank from the Bellamy Brothers, who I bet would still also have better lyrics even if I knew what these were. The bouncy cheer and quiet comfort always purveyed by this label run amok. C MINUS

More Duds

  • African Party (Putumayo World Music)
  • Mamadou Diabate: Heritage (World Village)
  • Tcheka: Nu Monda (Times Square)
  • Tiempo Libre: What You've Been Waiting For/Lo Que Esperabas (Shanachie)
  • MSN Music, Apr. 15, 2008

    Apr. 2008 May 2008