We say: Ethiopian musicians twist and turn styles into different shapes.
Although more likely to filed under "jazz" than world music," this album by a gifted young Ethiopian pianist/composer has more than enough rhythmic and melodic elements from his homeland to hoist it onto these pages. And when he brings in vigorous African percussion (the traditional kebero drum), the Creole Choir of Cuba, and a squirreling fiddle (the single-stringed messenqo), it connects across musical and geographic boundaries.
Classically trained but schooled on Ethiopian folk songs, Yirga also knows his way around funk and soul, the angular style of Thelonious Monk ("Dance with the Legend") and has been a member of the Ethiopian-fusion group Dub Colossus. Here are bouncing horn-lead tunes ("Abet Abet" "Firma Ena Wereket") and passages of quiet contemplation ("Ye Bati Koyita") alongside the vocal tracks (which in places are a bit featherweight, like the Fifth Dimension). However because of that diversity — and perhaps by having parts recorded in Addis Ababa and England — this does feel lacking in overall focus. And despite being world music, it will mostly appeal to those who would file it under "jazz".
We say: Your library of bomba and plena just got a shelf-filler.
The excellent archive label Vampi Soul — which brought you collections of Nigerian High Life, Cumbia and pre-revolution pop from Iran — here pulls together a double album subtitled "The bomba and plena explosion in Puerto Rico 1954-66". For most of us, myself included, this was not an explosion heard round the world but the excellent liner notes — with terrific reproductions of album covers and band shots — fill in the technical details while neatly introducing such legendary figures as singer Ismael Rivera ("in my house [he] was what Elvis Presley was for the gringos", says rapper Tego Calderon) and percussion player Rafael Cortijo, who kickstarted orchestrated bomba and plena styles.
This is a lot of upbeat rhythms (30 songs) and rapid Spanish, doubtless too much for uneducated gringo ears, but once more it is sombreros off to Vampi Soul for another fine archive which sounds vital and alive.
Nobody Can Live Forever; The Existential Soul of Tim Maia
We say: A likable but obviously hard-to-live-with legend from Rio.
Tim Maia, who died in '98 aged 55, was a larger than life character in Brazilian music. There was a musical about his life and he certainly filled his days: at 17 he illegally emigrated to New York; was deported four years later (caught smoking marijuana in a stolen car); brought American soul, funk and black politics back home with him; was married five times; handed out LSD to his record company people; started the first indie record label in Brazil; believed we had been exiled on Earth and would be rescued by flying saucers from our home planet . . . Sort of like Curtis Mayfield crossed with a decadent Scientologist who had been fed Santana's cloud-piercing guitar.
This excellent — if slightly period-locked in the 70s — collection was a decade in the collating but for its sultry low funk ("O Caminho Do Bem"), broody soulful blues ("Ela Partiu"), snappy psychedelics ("Quer Quiera, Quer Nao Quiera") and Sly Stone-like political rock ("Brother Father Mother Sister") it was worth the effort. Maia was a man of excesses and some of his song titles hint at his philosophy ("Let's Have a Ball Tonight," "I Don't Care," "You Don't Know What I Know"). He was a rare one and although he said nobody can live forever he also seemed to believe his music might just. Terrific.
We say: Romantic guitars from Portugal but heading elsewhere.
The 2011 album The Art of Portuguese Fado Guitar was a delight by this master of the instrument (and lute-like 12-string) because he also stretched into stately tango. Longtime accompanist to fado singer Cristina Branco, Castelo here again takes inspiration from places (Paris), predecessors and fellow musicians (Cesaria Evora, Fernando Mauricio, Jose Fontes Rocha), and of course love.
Beautifully executed with small groups, diverse and interesting. But that earlier album pushed the dramatic and the introspective ends further so it might still be the one to go to if you just want one album of fado guitar.
Graham Reid is a New Zealand—based writer whose first book Postcards from Elsewhere won the 2006 Whitcoulls Travel Book of the Year Award in New Zealand. His new collection The Idiot Boy Who Flew won the Whitcoulls Reader Choice award and is available through www.amazon.com. He also hosts his own music/travel/arts website www.elsewhere.co.nz .