We say: African pop star calls in reinforcements
Benin-born Angelique Kidjo is one of the best at blending the sounds of Africa with slick production pop sounds to create a new form altogether. Despite her international stardom, her contract with Columbia Records didn't last and this album came out on Razor and Tie, distributed through Starbucks. This didn't keep her from aiming this straight at a mass audience though, packing the album with well known guests such as Peter Gabriel, Ziggy Marley, Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana, and Branford Marsalis. Thankfully this is no forgettable Willie Nelson duets album though. In most cases the guests enhance already good songs and add another layer of interest.
The cover version of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" is a standout, with Joss Stone adding her gutsy vocals to an Africanized version of the classic hit. Amazingly, the song ends up sounding like it was written this way. "Papa" should go down as one of the great international dance songs of '07 and "Sedjedo" with Ziggy Marley is a match made in world music heaven. The title track (with Alicia Keys and Branford Marsalis) is simply beautiful and Kidjo's reinterpretation of Ravel's "Bolero" is a risky move that succeeds. Amandou and Miriam create a double dose of African funk on "Senamou." There are very few missteps among the 13 songs, though the Josh Groban number (with Carlos Santana) is a pretentious stinker. It'll grate on some listeners' ears like Michael Bolton backed by Kenny G, but since Kidjo has been on Groban's tour, we'll consider it a business decision rather than an artistic one.
The Tony Visconti production is simply awe-inspiring, with Djin Djin being one of the best headphone experiences of the past year. This is not raw, stripped-down world music, but a sensuous aural experience that creates one great sonic landscape after another. This probably would have been a great album without the countless remix tweaks and guest appearances—the songs are that good on their own—but for the most part the additions make it the Grammy-nominated classic it will be remembered as.
Afro Disco Beat
We say: 12-minute songs to keep the party hopping
I'm normally not going to tell you where to buy your music, but with this double album compilation, you will get far more than your money's worth if you join eMusicand download it there. That's because there's no such thing as a short track on this collection, with all songs clocking in at 8 minutes or more and two stretching to 13 minutes.
Nigerian Tony Allen was the drummer and some say the driving force behind Fela Kuti's band, one of the first international success stories from Africa in the 1970s. The tracks presented here were pulled from various solo albums. What they have in common is that they are all hopping, long-form jams featuring horns, thumping bass, occasional vocals, and of course Allen's percussion. This is party music in the truest sense, infectious beats that keep the dance floor filled and the heads bobbing. Despite the length of these jams, they seldom get boring. Nobody is allowed to overindulge in self-centered long solos and on most tunes it just feels like nobody wanted the music to stop. The recording budgets were probably less than low, but the result is that these are "one take" songs that come across like a live performance without the crowd noise.
If you've got a party coming up, you could put this Afro Disco Beat collection on and be set for a while. Your guests won't understand most of the lyrics, but they won't be able to resist moving to the beat.
Putumayo Presents – Tango Around the World
We say: Why leave Argentina?
Sometimes an album comes along that makes you scratch your head and say, "Why?" Yes, I understand that people outside of Argentina and Uruguay record tango music, but is that reason enough to make a collection of it? Like reggae collections that feature music from outside Jamaica and Cuban music collections of recordings from people with no Cuban heritage, the whole idea seems redundant.
That's not to say this isn't an enjoyable album. All the tracks are listenable and the artists all do a good job of capturing the essence of the sound, whether it's Ousmane Touré's tango with a Senegalese twist or Liana's "Estrela da Tarde" from Portugal. Other songs come from Finland, Brazil, Norway, Greece, and Serbia.
After a few plays, however, the standouts are clearly the four from Argentina. They have more of that essential melancholy mood and they just feel more, well, authentic. Federico Aubele represents the new guard, Daniel Melingo's smoky, Leonard Cohen-like voice adds gravitas, and Hugo Díaz shows how he made the harmonica a popular substitute for the bandoneón. Tango Around the World is not a substitute for a good tango album from the source in Buenos Aires, but it's an interesting and solid collection that shows how the form can stretch and bend.
Editor Tim Leffel spent seven years working for RCA Records before discovering that devoting his life to promoting lousy music was not so glamorous after all. He is author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and is co–author of Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.
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