Mahala Rai Banda
We say: The ghetto never sounded like this before
Roma brass band music has been very much in vogue over the past couple of years with the success of artists like Boban and Marko Marković and Romania's Fanfare Ciocarlia. The films of Emir Kustarica and the growing popularity of Serbia's Guča trumpet festival have had their part to play too and a number of us are now quite familiar with this turbo–charged style of music. Taking their lead from the forbearers of commercially successful Romanian gypsy music—the hair–ruffling brass blast of Fanfare Ciocarlia and the incomparable violin and accordion dexterity of Taraf de Haidouks—Mahala Rai Banda combines the best of these two traditions to produce a hybrid with a younger, more urban edge. To front the brass ensemble playing, a handful of energetic guest vocalists, mostly feisty females, have been recruited. The result is an exciting, unholy mix that expands the spectrum of the Roma canon to incorporate Romanian pop, reggae, rumba and oriental grooves.
Despite its high–octane nature (with just a single ballad on the CD) there is considerable finesse to the playing here, along with what seems like easy virtuosity and astonishing tightness. Ghetto Blasters is infectious good fun and provides the perfect soundtrack for the wildest of parties, although it is probably not an ideal choice for early mornings or very late nights. The "Mahala" in the group's name refers to the Roma neighborhood found in most eastern European cities, the Roma equivalent of what some might call a ghetto. In most cases, the mahala is usually a poor neglected quarter tucked away from view on the wrong side of the tracks. In this exhilarating recording, the Mahala Rai Band makes the ghetto sound like the best place to be if they are playing in town.
Totó La Momposina
We say: Ageless Colombian grandmother charms the sun from behind Andean clouds
The opening track on this album begins quietly with just a languid solo trombone and at first you wonder where it is going before drums and horns crash into the mix and you immediately know the music's provenance: Colombia. Totó's warm voice is next to arrive—fun loving yet earnest, and still sounding youthful and fruity despite her age. Although the singer is now in her 70th year, this is no Buena Vista–style cracked–vocal nostalgia. In fact, Totó La Momposina sounds as if she is at her absolute prime, midway through an illustrious career rather than anywhere close to the end of it.
The music featured here is a long way from the strident modern salsa popular in Cali and Bógota, and celebrates some of Colombia's lesser–known musical traditions. Rather like the Colombian equivalent of Peru's Susanna Baca, Totó La Momposina has immersed herself in her country's more overlooked Afro–Colombian and indigena traditions. The result is a joyous affair, with hand drums, spirited call–and–response vocals and a caliente brass section playing with all the energy and dynamism of a live performance. It is fantastically rhythmic throughout, without a trace of programmed beats or even a traditional drum kit to be heard anywhere. Instead, the songs rely on the syncopation of African rhythms to propel them along, with a tight brass section punching behind the melody and gaita flutes and guitars adding the color.
Each song on this recording seems to segue organically to its successor and takes the listener on a musical journey that includes cumbia, Andean flute melodies and what, to these ears at least, sounds rather like Cuban son montuno, along the way. With African rhythms, Spanish guitars and pre–Colombian flutes combining to carve out a unique musical topography, this sounds like the sort of celebration you might accidentally stumble on at a Colombian feast–day party or country wedding. Imagine a dusty town square on a hot sultry afternoon in Colombia's backcountry and you are halfway there.
Ghana Special: Modern highlife, afro–sounds & Ghanaian Blues 1968—81
We say: Forgotten retro classics from a golden era of Ghanaian music
This lovingly compiled and attractively packaged double–CD delivers very much what it says on the cover. It is a funky compilation of recordings—mostly single releases—from what was something of a golden age for West African music. Golden age or not, it is unlikely that many will have heard much of this selection before as most of the recordings featured here were plucked from obscurity and few, if any, were ever heard outside of Ghana on their first release.
In recent years, Ghana's music industry has played second fiddle (or should that be n'goni) to that of Nigeria, Mali and Senegal, all of which have emerged to become well–regarded exporters of West African music. This was not always the case: back in the 1970s, Ghana was more of force to be reckoned with, with highlife often being the first guitar–based African music that many of us would ever hear, a decade before the term "world music" was coined and the bandwagon started to roll slowly downhill.
Rather like the recent Ethiopiques re–releases, the music featured here reveals unselfconscious influences that embrace funk, jazz and American soul and R& B (and I mean the old 'R&B', not what passes for it today). Listening to this, you realize what a god James Brown must have been at the time, and what an enormous effect he had on music worldwide.
Like a lot of electric African music from yesteryear, the music has a wonderful patina to it that seduces with its warm, broad–smiled character: valve amplifiers and mellow guitars, the funkiest riffs, slightly out–of–tune horns, the odd bum note and one–take spontaneity. It is all deliciously retro: you can almost smell the dust burning on overheating amplifiers and feel the breeze from wafting bell–bottoms.
The Spy from Cairo
We say: Funky Arab dub; shame about the song titles
On first examination, Secretly Famous might be considered over–ambitious, setting out as it does to include the full gamut of Arab musical styles and genres. It would be easy for the product of such broad inclusion to sound like a badly conceived and disjointed sampler but, as it turns out, this is far more organic than you might imagine, with each successive track complementing its predecessor without any noticeably jarring effect. Incorporating Moroccan and Egyptian tunes, Arab vocals, ney and mizmar flutes and ouds, with darbuka drums to drive it all along behind a deep bass groove, the music here might best be described as Arab dub. On occasion, it brings to mind some of the more Middle Eastern flavored work of English dub–meister, Jah Wobble; elsewhere it sounds like the sort of thing you might end up dancing to in a hip Cairo nightclub.
There is an array of Arab styles here: belly dance tunes like Saidi the Man, funky oud Rai workouts like Oud Funk and trance dance pieces like Sufi Disco. It is just a shame that annoying titles like Indian Dope (yes, it's got a sitar) and Reggada (OK, it's a reggae tune) and even Kurdish Delight, do little to help you take the music seriously. Titles such as these just give the impression that no one could be bothered spending ten minutes thinking up more imaginative alternatives. Perhaps the target market is simply someone who wants to buy a Middle East–flavored dance album that covers all the bases. In that case why doesn't The Spy from Cairo (a.k.a: multi–instrumentalist and studio wizard Zeb, originally Moreno Visini) just call himself 'The Oud Dude' and be done with it?
Thankfully, the music is actually far better than the pedestrian titles might suggest, and The Spy from Cairo/Zeb is clearly a talented musician with a good ear and eclectic tastes. There's an underlying groove that runs throughout this recording that makes Secretly Famous quite compelling. It is all very danceable too, which is really the point: hip–shaking, shoulder–wobbling, arms in the air—Aiwa!
Laurence Mitchell is a British travel writer and photographer with a special interest in transition zones, cultural frontiers and forgotten places that are firmly off the beaten track. He is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia, Belgrade and Kyrgyzstan and a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. His photographic website can be seen at www.laurencemitchell.com.