Mother Earth! Father Sky!
We say: Mystical, haunting music from the steppes of Tuva
Huun-Huur-Tu is probably the best-known group of "throat singers" from Tuva, a region of Russia near the Mongolian border. In this style of singing, the singer controls both the sung note and the overtone, which can sound like a flute or a buzzing whistle. If you listened to the seminal world music mash-up group Deep Forest, you heard a lot of songs that featured bits of Tuvan music. This new album of theirs is a slight departure as it is the first one to feature a guest female vocalist.
This is some of the strangest music you will come across, but the songs also feel quite grounded. There are unusual sounds and structures, but the melodies use the regular 12-tone scale our ears are used to hearing. Lyrically the Tuvan music is said to be all about landscapes and topography. Musically, it feels strongly attached to the place where it came from: you can almost see the steppes and the grazing animals, with the wind blowing on your face, whether you understand a word of it or not. If you want to hear something that truly surprises you and is still pleasant to listen to all the way through, check out Huun-Huur-Tu samples at Amazon or eMusic.
Read our related travel feature, The Singing Shaman of Tuva.
Putumayo Presents: African Reggae
We say: Reggae comes full circle with strong tracks from Africa
If you are currently looking at snow on the ground outside your window or are just tired of being cold, go into denial by putting this African Reggae selection on your music player. It'll immediately brighten your day. This is the most solid collection Putumayo has put out in quite a while, the kind of CD you can pop in to accompany a barbeque with beer without wanting to ever get up and skip a track. The fact that it's consistently better than most compilations from Jamaica—the land of reggae itself—says a lot.
It's only fitting that Africans should so easily adopt reggae since of course it has its roots in the musical elements the Jamaican people brought with them. This collections moves around the continent, though three of the tracks are from the Ivory Coast and two are from Cape Verde. Some tracks lean closer to Jamaica, some lean closer to their country of origin, and Kwame Bediako's "Steppin' into Zion" could have been the standout track on any classic reggae album from the past. All of the songs succeed though in a musical form where if you get the groove and melody right, the rest will fall into place.
Bob Marley would have turned 64 this month and it's a safe bet that he would have approved of the way the phenomena he started is still spreading through Africa today. Hear samples at the Putumayo site.
We say: Pour a glass of Port and get comfortably sad
Mariza is one of the hottest artists in Portugal, routinely selling 40,000 to 80,000 copies of each CD there, in a country with a population of only about 10.6 million. She is known for singing revamped versions of Portuguese Fado music, a melancholy style of songs that dates back to at least the early 1800s. You don't really need to understand Portuguese to hear the longing and sadness in the music and lyrics. With Mariza's strong, mournful voice and the accompaniment of a small chamber group, the emotions ring true in any language.
Terra branches out a little more than her previous works, with more flamenco guitar and a couple duets (including one with Buika, reviewed here in a previous issue). She also drops the strings in favor of a smaller backing ensemble. The impeccably produced result is not groundbreaking, perhaps, but most fans wouldn't want it to be. This is an engaging album from an international star. Catch her soon on a 3-month North American tour that goes well beyond the usual whirlwind 5-city quickie. (Burlington, Amherst, Santa Fe, Vancouver!) See the full schedule here.
We say: A perfect accompaniment to your next white sofas and cocktails outing
What is really "international music"? What is coming out of speakers around the world? In the past decades, we could have pointed to the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Ricky Martin, or—Lord help us—crap like Ace of Base, Phil Collins, or Kenny G. Now what you're most likely to hear in the coffee shops and lounges of the world is more faceless, an ear candy soundscape rather than a distinctive voice. Today's international music is downbeat electronica, non-household names like Thievery Corporation, Gotan Project, Zero 7, or one of a hundred groups following their leads. This music moves across cultures seamlessly, with lyrics in a multitude of languages, in a mixture that draws from multiple continents.
Lal Meri is one of those aspiring groups and based on the tracks they have laid down on this CD, you will be soon be hearing them in hip cocktail lounges and boutique hotels from Barcelona to Buenos Aires. Carmen Rizzo is the experienced hand in the trio, having done work behind the mixing board for the likes of Seal, Coldplay, and his own project Niyaz. Vocalist Nancy Kaye proudly wears her influences on her sleeve, perfectly adopting the sultry female vocalist role of her heroes like Massive Attack and Portishead. Ireesh Lal is a relative unknown, but is clearly a gifted songwriter and instrumentalist. Fittingly in this cross-cultural world, the bio materials are devoid of information on where any of the three are from except to say they are from "different backgrounds." But you can hear plenty of elements from India and the Middle East, especially on the single "Dreams of 18."
While it may not be apparent to the listener, this album does make one notable departure from the norm: there are no samples taken from past sources. Everything was built from the ground up, with real musicians and original material. While it's easy to accuse this trio of mimicry, the end result does not sound at all like a thrown-together project to cash in on a trend. It's a solid album that should rise above the pack.
Perceptive Travel editor Tim Leffel is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, now in its 3rd edition. He once wrote bios and marketing copy for now-forgotten rock bands, but he currently spits out more heartfelt raves on the Cheapest Destinations Blog and the Practical Travel Gear Blog.