The editor's choice selection of the 10 best new releases, a track from each album appears on the issue's CD covermount.
Queens and Kings
In less than a decade Fanfare Ciocarlia, a brass band from the Romanian village of Zece Prajini (meaning ten fields) have become one of the spunkiest brass bands in the Balkans, and on their fifth album they are joined by a galaxy of Gypsy stars from the Balkans and beyond. The opening track is a manele classic from Dan Armeanca, the king of this popular Gypsy style. With its throbbing, burning brass in place of the more usual accordion and synth, ëKan Marau Laí makes it clear thereís no stopping the Gypsy kings and queens surfing this effervescent tidal wave. ëQue Dolorí, also a manele tune, features Perpignan Gypsies KaloomÈ with their fizzing guitars and handclaps alongside a full-bloodied trumpet extravaganza. Thereís a sweetly Oriental mood in the Romanian love song sung by the Hungarian Gypsy singer Mitsoura, with her dusky, childlike vocals. And sheís joined on the Indian music-inspired ëDuj Dují by 20-year old Florentina Sandu, grand daughter of the late Nicolae Neacsu, the wonderful old fiddler of Taraf de HaÔdouks. Other stars include the incomparable Esma Redz?epova from Macedonia, and Saban Bajramovic from Serbia in a seductive Balkan tango. Also at the party are the almost masculine-voiced Ljiljana Buttler, whose career has been revived with her work with Mostar Sevdah Reunion, and Bulgariaís Jony Iliev in a fantastic party number about a Gypsy girl whose eyes go ëmigí, lips go ëzupí and hips go ëstrakí. Allegedly. The triumph of this record is to make all this diverse vocal and instrumental talent work so well together and reveal its passionate and unruly Gypsy heart. As Garth Cartwrightís review of the live Bucharest concert suggested last issue, this is surely the most irrepressible Gypsy disc of the year.
This CD of music from the African-American Garifuna people of coastal Belize is a delight from beginning to end. One might imagine it to sound similar to that of Jamaica or to be infused with Cuban rhythms. But whilst the Garifuna ñ who live along the entire Atlantic coast of Central America ñ have adopted reggae in their bars on the cayes of Belize and the beaches of Costa Rica, this is mainly for the European tourists. The music of their own communities is far closer to West Africa. West African languages still infuse the Garifuna tongue; together with Carib and Arawak Amerindian, French and Spanish. And ñ at least on this CD ñ the rhythms and vocal style, together with the echoing womenís voice chorus sound more West African than anything you will here in the Americas (including Bahia). Each song here is based on a traditional Garifuna rhythm and is sung in the Garifuna language but whether they are gentle laments, warm, lilting ballads or funky, tight dances they feel far closer to Baaba Maal or Youssou NíDour than Bob Marley or Buena Vista and the singing and musicianship is similarly consummate throughout. A real surprising treasure, which is as rich and multi-layered as it is easy on the ear.
Bassekou KouyatÈ & Ngoni ba
Out Here Records
Following the crossover success of Amadou & Mariam and Tinariwen, the latest release from Mali to pique the interest of an indie-rock audience customarily resistant to anything branded world music is this fine album from Bassekou KouyatÈ and his ngoni (lute) quartet. On the surface this is surprising, for itís a deeply traditional record, undeniably wonderful to anyone with a love of African music but with few of the obvious hooks commonly used to snare a mainstream audience. With the exception of one track, there are none of the electric guitars that let White Stripes fans connect with Tinariwen and the production by the estimable Lucy Dur·n eschews the flashiness of the pop makeover that Manu Chao gave A&M.
So why the interest? At the end of last year Damon Albarn took a party to Mali that included such pop luminaries as Fatboy Slim and Radio 1ís Zane Lowe. While there, they saw KouyatÈ play live. Needless to say, they were blown away and returned to constitute a persuasive posse of celebrity cheerleaders. If thatís what it takes, then fine: having graced recordings by Ali Farka TourÈ and Toumani DiabatÈ, KouyatÈ deserves to move centre stage and Segu Blue is a very special record that deserves the widest audience. The intricately intermeshing strings of the four ngonis at times ripple with the harp-like dreaminess of a kora, but although the sound is richly melodic, with an enveloping warmth and a bunch of sharp-as-a-knife tunes, itís earthy and rhythmic as well as ethereal. A variety of guests do the vocal honours, including KouyatÈís wife, the splendid Ami Sacko.
Bana Congo presents Papa Noel
Revving up for a summer tour with an 11-piece band of Cuban and African hotshots, the illustrious Congolese guitar maestro Papa Noel sounds raring to go. Despite a career that stretches back some 40 years, Papa N hasnít always been in the public eye. His comeback some half a decade ago was given a leg-up by Mo Finiís Tumi Music ñ bent on reminding the world of a forgotten great of African music, a veteran guitarist of stellar, God-given talent. Noelís stints with everyone from Rock ‡ Mambo and Les Bantous de la Capitale to Francoís legendary OK Jazz helped carve out a reputation that endures today.
Following recent albums such as the acclaimed Bana Congo Cross Border, this latest instalment recalls 1940s and 50s Congolese rumba, with its electric guitars and Latin congas, brass line-ups and ubiquitous Cuban influence. The likes of sonero and tres player Coto-Antonio Machin GarcÌa, trumpeter Osmil OrdÛÒez GarcÌa and a chorus of Cuban vocalists add Latin flavour. The resulting rumba callejera (street rumba) is infectious and danceable, and given the occasional kick in the pants by the rich alto sax of Cameroonian legend Manu Dibango. The first track, fittingly, is a paean to Congolese rumba and by association, African identity. Others serve as multi-textured reminders of democracy, love, and the highs and lows of life. Central African vocalist Sultan Zembellat sings in a host of dialects on the salsa-smooth ëSalsa Africaineí; Noel swings his guitar on self-penned instrumental ëLatin Reverieí. And indeed, Noelís guitar is of the essence throughout, crossing borders with verve, cheek and ease.
Thierry 'Titi' Robin
Guitarist, oud and bouzouki player Thierry ëTitií Robin first recorded with Rajasthani tabla player Hameed Khan in 1984. But heís far better known in his native France where his role as an honorary Gypsy has often found him performing with flamenco and Rajasthani musicians ñ notably the singer and dancer Gulabi Sapera. Robinís recent London performances with accordionist Francis Varis (at the excellent world music evenings at Pizza on the Park) hopefully mean weíll begin to see more of him in the UK. Anita!, a live concert recording from 2005, features ten Robin compositions for accordion, percussion and string bass plus flamenco vocals from JosÈ Montealegre. The predominant musical influence is flamenco, but there are flavours of French accordion music, manouche Gypsy and elements of the Balkans as well. What comes over most strongly is the sheer musicality of Robinís playing ñ technically, emotionally and in his dialogues with his fellow musicians. (This was apparent on stage, too.) ëMa Gavali Rumbaí is an infectious confection that gives Gypsy rumba some Balkan twists in a way that is probably unique to Robin.
The Anita! CD is fantastic, but Robin fans will probably want to get the deluxe Jivula version, which has a substantial three-and-a-half-hour DVD (WN145106). This includes a pretty thin documentary in which Robin chats in the car en route to the grave of El CamarÛn in AndalucÌa, concert footage of several pieces from the live CD, his work with the Rajasthani singer and dancer Gulabi Sapera and, most interesting, a documentary on Sapera herself and the Kalbeliya ësnake-charming casteí in Rajasthan.
Towards the end of his life Ibrahim Ferrer wrote: ëif my days ended tomorrow I would leave very satisfied in having achieved my wishÖ to sing a boleroí. Ferrer had always wanted to record an album of boleros, the romantic Cuban ballads that he excelled at. (ëDos Gardeniasí was one of the absolute highlights of the Buena Vista Social Club album.) In his career pre-Buena Vista, he was told his voice was only suitable for faster numbers ñ according to Juan De Marcos Gonz·lez, that was partly because of his strong Santiago accent. The first two Ferrer albums were packed with big production numbers. This album is based on the sensitive, stripped-down quartet playing of Roberto Fonseca on piano, CachaÌto Lopez on bass and Manuel Galban on guitar creating that smoky 3am feeling, with occasional strings, clarinet and harp.
Ferrerís voice was never big and brassy. Here itís at its most introspective, and full of tenderness. The album was due to be completed after his death in August 2005, and it sounds like a sophisticated demo recording. It works partly because boleros can be sickly sweet and melodramatic, whereas here the sense of intimacy and gritty humanity makes up for any imperfections or lack of polish. Even in the corniest numbers such as ëQuiz·s, Quiz·sí (which we know in English from the Doris Day version ëPerhapsí, Ferrer brings out the bittersweet emotion, the sense of nostalgia and love lost. Not, perhaps, the first album you might use to introduce a friend to Ferrerís music, but essential for his many fans, and a wonderful swansong of a mythic life by a great singer.
Julie Fowlis has given Scottish Gaelic song a thrillingly contemporary makeover in this, her second solo album, while remaining true to the musical tradition of her native North Uist. She has made these beautiful songs accessible to a wider world in much the same way Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy did with English folk song. Fowlis was last yearís recipient of the Horizon Award for best newcomer at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, while this year she was shortlisted for singer of the year. Her voice has continued to develop considerably since her debut album to the excellence it has reached today.
The whole album is high quality throughout, without anything even approaching a weak number: a good half dozen songs are major achievements. Of special note are a ëPuirt-a-beulí (mouth music) set which epitomises the Gaelic tradition, a Skye song learned from Flora MacNeil, and one of those marvellously upbeat songs about a memorable boat journey. Thereís a sense of balance between faster and slower tempo songs, while a lively set of tunes provides yet more variety. Her accomplished whistle playing seamlessly complements her singing and she is ably backed up by some of the best Celtic musicians around, including …amon Doorley, John McCusker, Donald Shaw and Michael McGoldrick. It all adds up to the best Gaelic song album I have ever heard.
Songs For Sad Women
Rabih Abou-Khalil is an intriguing musical alchemist who, in recent years, has made a German big band sound like a blow-out in a caravanserai, turned a Sardinian basso-profundo into a demonically possessed scat-singer and challenged the BBC Concert Orchestra with Arabian rhythms. Every one of his recordings seems to bring together novel musical combinations and the sound world he reveals in Songs for Sad Women is one of his most alluring yet.
He is joined by his regular percussionist Jarrod Cagwin and utilises two instruments ñ the duduk and serpent ñ that have probably never been performed together before. The duduk is an Armenian woodwind instrument with a distinctively plangent, clarinet-like sound. The serpent is probably better known for its use in 19th-century chapel gallery ensembles that accompanied hymns: however, its mellow sound ñ somewhere between a bass clarinet and a sensitively played trombone ñ is the ideal bass instrument to support the subtleties of the other instruments. Within this ensemble, Abou-Khalilís oud playing is more elegant than ever and the engineer has captured the sound beautifully. Though Abou-Khalil is notoriously wary of musical categories, Songs for Sad Women sits among his more obviously Oriental recordings and finds a perfect balance between structured composition and tasteful improvisation. This is Rabih Abou-Khalil at the top of his game: witty, inventive, playful and serene.
Alevanta! (Get Up) will excite all who mourn the 2006 demise of Radio Tarifa. Tarifa singer BenjamÌn Escoriza (with his seductively smoky and, letís face it, downright sexy voice), and reeds player Vincent Molina (the third man of the original core group), working with Juan Albert ArtÍche, the visionary producer who recorded Tarifaís seminal Rumba Argelina, have created an intriguingly brilliant sequence of 11 original songs that hit you squarely in the guts as well as between the ears.
It draws on similar Tarifa sources ñ Moorish, medieval, Sephardic, Andalusian folk and rumba-flamenco ñ but in completely different ways and is in no way more of the same. Heralded by the striking ëCarambolaí, with its ney flute, Indian harmonium, riq, daf and tambourine percussion interacting with flamenco guitars and saxes, the songs are structured through intricately rich contrast. The arrangements are governed more by percussive, rhythmically textured weave and exchange than flow.
With Escoriza drawing more on his Granada flamenco roots (most notably on ëPaquÌta la Guapaí, ëTangos del Vecinoí and ëTalism·ní) the overall impact is less languid and dreamy, more jagged, emotional and upfront in its passion. ëHambreí gives us heartfelt politics, while ëRumba del 14í is touched by Central American marimba. And to follow the irresistible ëRap de Marrakechí with the closing, brief ëArrÛpame con tu Almaí (Wrap Me In Your Soul), expressing the ultimate intangibility of desire, makes a startling finale.
Simply put, this is one of the worldís great musicians at his lifetimeís peak. There is everything to relish and nothing to prove. Chaurasiaís music moves so fluidly that one section blends into another like the continuation of a single impulse. Itís an elaboration of ëRaga Yamaní, in which the prominent sharpened fourth and sharpened seventh (to use Western terms) give the music an aspiring but confident character, embodied in a wonderfully spacious introductory alap which in 11 minutes takes all the time it needs to reach up to a calm but still vivid top octave.
The music moves on, and youíre aware of a pulse only after it has started. The invention flows and the technical demands step up equally gradually, each so much a part of the other that you canít separate them. Two minutes of unforced brilliance elegantly tail off, and the tabla of Sabir Khan, benefiting from superb studio sound, gives a short sparky flourish and settles in to share a medium-paced composition. Chaurasiaís flute moves forward in bedazzling, increasingly creative flurries, every so often stopping on astonishing sustained notes while the rhythm rolls forward in an equally stunning accompaniment, if a little more showy. The second composition goes very fast, with brilliant tabla solos and bursts of repeated notes from the flute that youíd call spectacular if they didnít sound as irrepressible and spontaneous as a force of nature. However, there is a little coda that brings us back to earth, returning the music to the stillness that it came from.