Ali Farka Touré: La Drogue

Red by Ali Farka Touré This record was once so rare, it seemed more a rumor than a real disk. BBC broadcaster Andy Kershaw says he "felt as a gambler must feel when he hits the jackpot" after finding a copy of the Red LP in the discount bin of a Paris record store. When he played this track on the radio, fans responded with a desperate enthusiasm, frustrated by their inability to locate the obscure release. This is magical stuff indeed, the musical equivalent of pixie dust. Touré is the master of his personal, sprightly 6/8, a groove that seems to turn in on itself under his hands. His vamps are simple, but delivered with a holistic purity that will enchant you, almost as if you looked up in the sky and saw that the clouds had started forming perfect concentric circles. A few years ago, the Red and Green releases by Ali Farka Touré were finally made available on an easy-to-find reissue. So you have no excuse for missing out on this artist. Even if you only plan to buy a handful of "World Music" CDs for your collection, this one must make your short list.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Ali Farka Touré: Sidi Gouro

Red by Ali Farka Touré Ali Farka Touré has sometimes been called the "John Lee Hooker of Africa." Such a description tells us how crazy our musical genealogies have become. After decades of tracing the blues back to Africa, we are now tracing African music back to the blues. Yes, Touré's music is somewhat reminiscent of Hooker's hypnotic solo guitar work from the late 1940s and early 1950s, but the Malian musician captures a serenity in his performances that one will never find in American blues. The Green album (original cover shown to the left) is one of Touré's masterpieces, and finally available in a widely distributed reissue after many years as a rare collector's item. This opening track is so relaxed in ambiance, despite the fast underlying 6/8 pulse, that you might not pick up the deep melancholy of the lyrics, which translate as a sorrowful tribute to a friend from Touré's youth. In translation they read: As soon as I sit down my heart begins to weep. When I start to think, my heart begins to bleed. . . . And here we do find an uncanny parallel with early blues, that troubled performance art of introspective and largely unmediated self-expression in which personal tragedy was somehow transmuted into a commercial product. If you are looking for powerful songs that disdain the slickness, the market-driven focus, the chart-seeking vanity of our times, this is a recording that you will want to have.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Rokia Traor: Dounia

Mali is a landlocked nation that stretches from the Sahara in the north to Cte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso in the South. It is one of the poorest nations on earththe average worker makes around $30 per week. But its musical riches are the rival of any other country on this sonically charged continent. This country has given us, to list a few names, Afro-pop star Salif Keita, guitarist Habib Koit, the exceptional band Tinariwen, kora master Toumani Diabat, and the late Ali Farka Tour, in my opinion the finest of the African guitarists. But this music is sometimes cussedly difficult to track down. You might consider attending the famous Festival au Dsert in Mali, but you may change your mind when you learn that you need to fly into Timbuktu, and then make the trek to Essakane deep in the desert, a trip that according to the festival web site is "difficult and potentially hazardous." Fortunately the music of Mali is increasingly available on CD. Even so, it would be worth a long trip to hear Rokia Traor. This singer captures the hypnotic rhythms, crisp guitar playing and in-the-moment performance style that we have come to associate with the best of Malian music. This artist deserves to be far better known, and this release is a timely reminder that Mali still has musical riches to share.

December 11, 2008 · 0 comments


Warsaw Village Band: Wise Kid Song

The wedding is getting out of control. You have had too much ?ubrwka vodka, and even though you cut the last one with apple juicethe bartender called it szarlotkathe world around you starts to blur. The band is playing a crazy 6/8 number, the string instruments and voices in some drawn-out battle for supremacy. The words seem shouted rather than sung, or maybe it's a fight breaking out by the bandstand. You head toward the noise, but before you get there a girl in a peasant dress and intense hazel-colored eyes grabs you by the hand and pulls you into a dance. You can hardly stand, so how can you even think of mastering these movements. The voices have dropped out now, and the strings come together in a throbbing repetitive vamp, devilish music for a migraine mazurka. Somehow you fall into the proper stepsor maybe you just make up your own. This song seems to have taken up permanent residency inside your head, and you want to ask the girl in the peasant dress what the words meanthe singers have started shouting againbut your partner has gone. The music has subsided but it continues to play on in your memory. You have a hunch that this melody will stay with you for the next few days, unless you can kill it with something stronger. You turn toward the bar, in quest for another glass of ?ubrwka. This time, you will take it straight.

December 10, 2008 · 2 comments


Frank Corrales: Morena De Mi Amor

Guitarist Frank Corrales, who passed away in 2007 after a long battle with diabetes, first made his mark in Tex-Mex music by apprenticing with the masters: the great accordionist Flaco Jiminez and Flaco's father, the conjunto pioneer Santiago Jimenez, Sr. But when he tried to step out as a leader on his own CDs, Corrales met with resistance. Many distributors refused to carry his Border Spice release, claiming that there was no market for this type of crossover. Yet in time Corrales found a larger audience, and his Cantina Classics, from which this track hails, continues to be a favorite. Heck, some of his music is even showing up as ringtones these days (the ultimate sign of having arrived as a performer in the new millennium). His music has verve and personality, and also a certain staged over-the-top quality that only adds to its appeal. If you haven't experienced the joys of Tex-Mex guitar, here is the place to start.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Toumani Diabat: Si Naani

The stereotyped view of African music presents it as dominated by drumsyou remember the old Hollywood films with the rhythmic throbbing in the background and some old geezer in explorer garb pronouncing: "The natives are restless tonight." I hate to disappoint you, but many of my favorite recordings of African music have no drums on them. In fact, one could make a case that the string tradition is the crowning glory of the continent, and the various traditional cultures present us with countless instruments that remind us, in varying degrees, of our own Western guitars, harps, banjos, lutes and the like.

The kora has a special place in the pantheon of African string instruments, at least based on the hold it exerts over the Western imagination. This 21-string harp has long fascinated outsiders with its prepossessing appearance, the fragile beauty of its music, and its social role as accompaniment to the griots who are the preservers of local tradition and history. Toumani Diabat is the leading exponent of the kora in the current day, and has been known in the West ever since the release of his Kaira recording in 1988. But Diabat is more than the preserver of old traditions; he also has focused on bringing the kora into the modern day. He has collaborated with various jazz, pop and blues artists, as well as played a key role on several iconoclastic "world fusion" projects. His 2008 release The Mand Variations is more traditional in flavor, but even here Diabat shows off his innovative "Egyptian tuning" of the kora, which gives his playing a more exotic flavor. On this track, he puts his personal stamp on two traditional worksa love song from northwest Mali and a 19th-century griot piece praising Fula warriors from central Maliand shows that love and war can coexist, at least in the world of musical performance. This moving 10-minute track, and indeed the whole CD, will leave you anything but restless tonight. This release is an important contribution to Diabat's oeuvre and is one of the most important recordings of traditional African music in recent memory.

December 09, 2008 · 1 comment


Garoto: Nosso Choro

Garoto's death in 1955, a few days before his 40th birthday, robbed the music world of one of the most provocative guitarists of the 20th century. Even now, his name is typically unknown even to passionate fans of so-called "World Music," although his pioneering efforts set the stage for the rise of bossa nova a few years after his passing. Indeed, it comes as little surprise that Luiz Bonfá and Laurindo Almeida were among his protégés and that the master of bossa nova guitar João Gilberto has been active in preserving and spreading Garoto's music.

This solo track captures the distinctive virtues of Garoto's guitar work. A song such as this might fool you into thinking that it is some timeless folkloric piece . . . except that the sophistication of the harmonic movement is far too modern for any traditional work. Not until Antonio Carlos Jobim rose to fame would Brazilian commercial music have such a master of impressionistic chord changes. One suspects that this artist, born Anibal Augusto Sardinha in 1915, soaked up the sounds of American jazz when he toured the U.S. with Carmen Miranda in 1939-40. No, the rhythm is not bossa nova, but "Nosso Choro" captures the wistfulness of that later style of music. Above all, Garoto impresses with his tone control and relaxed mastery of the guitar.

Note: I also recommend Paolo Bellinati's impeccable recreations of Garoto's music. Those who find themselves put off by less-than-high-fidelity audio quality may want to start with Bellinati before moving to the original Garoto recordings.

December 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Buena Vista Social Club: Chan Chan (Live at Carnegie Hall)

The late 1990s success of the Cuban ensemble known as the Buena Vista Social Club was remarkable from several different angles. The wide crossover success in the United States of any band not singing in English is always a cause of surprise. But even rarer is a hit album by a group of senior citizens. Add to it the global political implications of overnight stars traveling from Havana to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall, and you have all the ingredients of a made-for-TV movie.

Certainly there was more than a little hype involved in the popularity of this band. After all, these musicians had been largely forgotten even in their native land, before becoming international stars of World Music. Yet this ensemble delivered the goods onstage, as they demonstrated at their July 1, 1998 Carnegie Hall concert, finally made available on CD ten years after the event. "Chan Chan" captures a world-weary, bittersweet temperament that most fans would hardly associate with Cuban music. But these musicians had seen many ups and downs in their long careers, and something of the wisdom of the tribal elder is distilled in this song composed by the late Compay Segundo. Alas, many of the other stars of this band have now departed, but this record still makes for compelling listening long after the hype has faded.

November 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Milton Nascimento: Anima

Anima marks one of the highlights of Milton Nascimento's career. On the title cut, he somehow creates a music without passport or lineage. You can try to fit this into the history of Brazilian music, but it really sounds more African. Or maybe it's pop or some new type of jazz. You might even be forgiven for labeling it as a crazy takeoff on the minimalism of Terry Riley and Philip Glass. But toss all the labels out the window. This is Milton's universe, and he has created an individual soundscape out of his own personal musical journey. He enlists the group Uakti to help out with their unusual homemade instruments, and layers shimmering, echoing vocals on top of a hypnotic rhythm. This is magical stuff, the sonic equivalent of pixie dust. In fact, the whole Anima project marks a milestone in modern world music. It's a shame it isn't better known.

October 30, 2008 · 1 comment


Joseph Spence: I'm Going to Live That Life

Joseph Spence had been playing the guitar for more than 30 years when researcher Samuel Charters stumbled upon him. "When you go out into a new part of the world with a tape recorder to look for music," Charters has written, "you always dream that someday you might find a new performer who will be so unique and so exciting that their music will have an effect on anybody who hears it." Charters' encounter with Joseph Spence was one of those rare moments. This artist is a true one-of-a-kind. Spence played with an unconventional tuning and a willy-nilly technique of his own invention. His recordings sound deceptively simple, but guitarists struggle to get the feeling just right when trying to imitate his style. Spence keeps melody, harmony and rhythm moving along with a boisterous energy, and his "singing"—more an exhortation than a conventional vocal—adds to the celebratory tone. This is the record to start with if you want to know how music sounds when all the commercial angles and marketing decisions are removed, and song is reduced (or "elevated" might be the better word) to a pure and perfect expression of the human spirit.

October 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Taj Mahal (with Toumani Diabat): Zanzibar

Although blues music has deep African roots, the combination of these two traditions in the recording studio typically presents a stark contrast in musical styles. Here blues Maestro (also the name of this CD) Taj Mahal is joined by Beninese vocalist Anglique Kidjo and Malian kora player Toumani Diabat, The results take us into unpredictable world music waters where few blues artists dare to swim. The rhythm, which is broken down into two bars of three beats followed by a bar of two beats, is hypnotic, and the intersecting vocal lines are quite effective. You will hear few flatted thirds on this track, and the performance is a departure from what you might expect from Taj Mahal. Those seeking more familiar blues fare will find it elsewhere on the Maestro CD, but this performance is a standout effort.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Toots Thielemans (with Milton Nascimento): Travessia

I have several versions of Nascimento singing this composition that first brought him widespread attention among the Brazilian public—when it placed second at the 1967 International Music Festival—including his debut recording of the song and his awkward 1968 version in English. But this collaboration with Toots Thielemans is my favorite. Nascimento is in top form, especially when he delivers a wordless vocal in the high register, and Thielemans contributes a lyrical melody statement. My only complaint is that the track lasts only three minutes, and the ending arrives somewhat abruptly. Three minutes might be the perfect length for boiling an egg or generating crossover airplay, but this diehard Nascimento fan would have liked to hear several more choruses.

September 02, 2008 · 1 comment


Tony Scott: The Murmuring of the Mountain Stream

This recording from 1964 comes with a lot of baggage. It is the father of New Age music, some suggest, or maybe a cheesy type of bland background music. But we urge the listener to adopt the zen mind and LET GO OF THE BAGGAGE!

Put aside the dogma. Forget the liner notes by Alan Watts. Just listen to this track as a duet between clarinet and koto. Appreciate the give-and-take, the graceful interaction, the sensitivity to sound and space. This is breathtaking music, and very deep. Ten months after Scott recorded this LP, John Coltrane entered the studio to make A Love Supreme, and one would not be remiss in finding a connection between these two projects, despite their much different sonic textures. Scott, like 'Trane, was probing a spiritually-charged approach to improvisation, one that went beyond traditional definitions of the jazz vocabulary.

'Tis pity that the jazz critical establishment has forgotten this recording, or at times actually disowned it. Don't you make the same mistake. This is fresh, experimental music that still retains its pristine power more than four decades after its initial release.

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Tony Scott: Is Not All One?

Some people will tell you that this album represents the birth of New Age music, back in 1964. Or is it a pioneering World Music collaboration between East and West? Or, as I prefer to see it, a forerunner of "Ambient Music" before Brian Eno coined the term? Alas, the jazz world has never taken much interest in this release, even though it represents collective improvisation of a very high order. Of course, the jazz folks have never really come to grips with Tony Scott in any shape or form. Here was a guy who thwarted all their expectations, spending time in all the wrong places to build a jazz career . . . from his early training at Juilliard to his time overseas immersing himself in Asian musical and mystical traditions; from his trips to South American and Africa to his final move to Italy. Another mark against Mr. Scott: he played the clarinet, championing it when almost every other reed player signed up in the camp of Adolphe Sax. Someday the jazz world will achieve blissful Zen enlightenment and figure out that someone this creative and daring should be championed as a hero of the art form. But you don't need to wait for that to happen. You can check out Scott's oeuvre, and this fresh, beautiful recording, right now. Happy satori!

June 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Orchestra Baobab: Pape Ndiaye

Fans unfamiliar with the odd twists and turns in the history of Afro-pop might be surprised by the Cuban flavor in this Senegalese band. But there is a long history of Latin idioms permeating African music styles, much of it stemming from the popularity of Franco and other Congolese musicians who developed a pseudo-rumba sound that swept the continent. Orchestra Baobab has long been renowned for its mastery of this style, which manages to combine a rhythmic fervor with a languid sensuality. This music, a modern reworking of an old griot song, is like a drowsier salsa, mesmerizing yet also relaxing. This ensemble has enjoyed a wide following since the 1970s, but disbanded for a period. Yet on this opening track from their new Nonesuch release, they reassert their mastery of a style that has lost none of its appeal with the passing decades.

June 23, 2008 · 0 comments


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