The Idan Raichel Project
We say: An exotic schwarma with a fine aftertaste
The well-known art critic Robert Hughes argues it is not in the nature of political art to save anybody from oppression, but what it can do is prepare the mind for dissent.
The dreadlocked Raichel from Israel states no overt political message but his subtext is clear: in 2002 he began exploring the musical melting pot of his region so invited Ethiopian, Arab, Yemeni and black African musicians into his studio to record and swap musical ideas.
That is certainly extending the hand of peace and friendship in a troubled region, and an invitation for people to recognize their common heritages while accepting their differences. The resulting album was widely hailed and in 2005 there was an even more ambitious sequel.
This album is a collection of the most significant tracks from those two albums so it weaves many regional styles together, pulls in samples from ancient songs and draws on old texts, places traditional instruments alongside jazz synth keyboards, and doesn't shy away from being pop-conscious.
The generous disc also comes with three evocative videos, a link to the website where there are two other free tracks available, and other special features.
In a region where dividing lines between people are drawn at birth and hatred is often an inheritance, the sound of dissent from those precepts has seldom been so hypnotic, or persuasive.
The Rough Guide to the Music of South Africa
We say: Your collection of musical postcards from South Africa starts here.
In the wake of Paul Simon's Grammy-grabbing Graceland--which was now 20 years ago--township jive and the a cappella sounds of Ladysmith Black Mambazo were everywhere. And then, just as pop culture moves on, they faded from most people's consciousness.
Given the sheer diversity of South African music we sympathise with Phil Stanton who compiled this overview: a case of so much music and so little space.
But he covers the historical ground well: from the consciousness-raising reggae of Lucky Dube (here too under his alter-ego Oom Hansie) and the haunting poetry of Lesego Rampolokeng, to famous names such as Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. Here too is track by the Soweto String Quartet, some infectious pop from Chicco and Yvonne Chaka Chaka, and the legendary Big Voice Jack.
As with other Rough Guide albums the disc comes with a data track of further information, and helpful liner notes. A good overview for those new to South African music, although those who have traveled this path will doubtless be familiar with most of the artists here.
We say: Asian pop and Bollywood drop rhymes in a UK garage.
I won't lie to you: this noisy and often aggressive implosion of bhangra, Bollywood, hip-hop, reggae and house music won't be to everybody's taste. In fact I can hear the voices saying "turn it off" right now.
But this is the sound of modern Britain as I have heard it belting out of shops and cars in various black and Asian suburbs. It observes few boundaries and so the musicians just hammer together whatever takes their fancy, and keep things moving with propulsive beats. The music rarely makes it beyond clubs and Asian radio stations, so who better to compile a collection than Toby Shergold, who is a music writer and journalist for Britain's biggest Asian radio station Sunrise Radio?
He swoops on rare grooves by Sonik Gurus, Mentor Kolektiv and Juggy, and the result is a wall-shaking amalgam of dance floor beats and absurdly exotic Bollywood all washed down with a sugar-heavy energy drink and probably a party pill.
Frighteningly good fun.
Stone Cold Ohio
We say: A rapper's delight sings the blues.
Little Axe is essentially guitarist/singer Skip McDonald who shot to fame as a member of the Sugar Hill Gang, the house band for Sugar Hill Records which released such classic rap as Grandmaster Flash's The Message. Then McDonald went to England and linked up with the On-Sound crew and was a member of Tackhead which threw blues, dub, reggae and hip-hop into the cauldron.
The Little Axe project has been more bluesy and on this exceptional album (with Tackhead's Doug Wimbush and Keith LeBlanc again on board) McDonald digs deep into dark and menacing rural blues, the gospel and work-song traditions, and old soul to create music which is deeply spiritual, and while it is ancient-sounding also comes off as compellingly contemporary as they factor in dub echoes, samples and urban beats.
McDonald uses songs and ideas from Allen Toussaint, Blind Willie Johnson, the headlines of today's newspaper (on "If I Had My Way" about the war in Iraq and the Mighty Dollar), and ghosts of African chants.
This is convincing 21st century blues because it draws on the past to find its own voice rather than trying to simply recreate it. Exceptional stuff.
Graham Reid is an award-winning travel writer, music writer and journalist based in New Zealand. His book Postcards From Elsewhere won the 2006 Whitcoulls Travel Book of the Year award, and his website www.elsewhere.co.nz features travel stories, photos, rock'n'roll reminiscences, and a weekly music review in which he posts tracks from albums which have gone past radio programmers and other reviewers.