We say: India crashes into New York and creates a stellar set of songs
When tabla player and producer Karsh Kale released his debut album Realize in 2001, Indian sounds were still a bit exotic to most western ears, so his mix of east and west was enough to grab attention just by being well done. It was a landmark album that stood the test of time, however, and he put on furious live shows touring around his second album Liberation , showing that he and his band weren't just creating magic in the studio.
On this third release he seems to be concentrating more on song structures rather than just a mash-up of sounds. (Though he does oblige with "Drive," all electronic beats and swells behind classical Indian sitar.) It's not hard to imagine some of these tracks becoming radio hits, especially Kale's singing debut on "City Lights" and the track "Dancing at Sunset," which will almost surely wind up in a car commercial one of these days.
"Free Fall" is perhaps the most playful track Kale has ever laid down. It's his version of a Europop club hit, but with a healthy dose of left-field Indian flute sounds and Hindi lyrics in the background to offset the driving English-language vocals from Crystal Method's Trixie Reiss.
"Beautiful" really is, with the female Bollywood-type singer (singing in Urdu) balanced out with a lower-range, sultry chanteuse singing in English. The spectrum returns in "Innocence and Power," this time with regular band member Vishal Vaid lending his male ghazal style singing to counterpoint vocals by American singer Dierdre Dubois. "Hole in the Wall" returns some percussion to the mix, with Kale's tabla playing bouncing off electronic drumbeats and some spaghetti-western style guitar picking.
Anyone who isn't a hip-hop fan should probably skip track one of this album, at least until after the rest of the album has played through a few times. In a strange bit of sequencing, the album starts off with "Manifest," an aggressive track featuring MC Napoleon rapping about blasting with M-16s. It's an anti-war rant, yes, rather than a street thug trying to impress us with his gangsta cred, but it's a jarring start for an album that on the whole is decidedly more melodic than past efforts.
Kale says this is New York music as much as anything, since he only has to travel a few subway stops to hear music from most anywhere in the world, all of it bouncing off each other and creating new forms. The label's official release explains the album title as follows: "With Western pop having reached into every inhabited part of the globe, it'll be no surprise if the language of music morphs into a kind of international, Broken English." If this is how it will sound, that's a nice evolution to look forward to.
Je Pense à Toi: Best Of
Amadou and Mariam
We say: The best of the best from perennial favorites
On a very long (but very nice) flight on South African Airways, I was fortunate enough to find Amadou and Miriam's album Dimanche a Bamako on the well-chosen entertainment menu and probably ended up listening to it four times between the tip to the bottom of Africa and back. That album employed the popular Manu Chao as producer and got a lot of attention worldwide after being nominated for a Grammy.
This married couple from Mali has been making music together since 1980, however, three years after they met at the Institute for the Young Blind. So while this greatest hits album was overshadowed by the newer recording when it came out near the end of last year, it spans a longer time period (1998 to 2002) and serves as a less producer-influenced introduction to their work. Both members contribute vocals, while Amadou writes most of the songs and plays a mean guitar. They are backed by a live-sounding band that must be nothing short of blistering in concert, with trombones, a thumping bass guitar, vielle violin, and djembe drum thrown in the mix. When they are really in a groove, as on "Nangaraba," "Fantani," and "Djagnèba", only the stiffest stuffed shirt could listen without at least a head bobbing. When the pace slows down, the music is hauntingly beautiful, as in the opening title track and "Mouna."
Like the rest of the music on this page, it's not without its foreign influence. In this case, many music fans will hear more than a little bit of Memphis and New Orleans shining through--the language of party music is universal. Most of the songs are in French, however, which made me remember why a physical CD is often better than a download: my high school French could use some help in the form of a lyric sheet. With songs like these, however, they could be singing about a trip to fill up a water bucket and it would still sound uplifting. You can buy this album feeling confident that every track is a winner. This is West African pop music at its finest, and a solid addition to any budding world music collection.
We say: Three cross-cultural generations put together a masterpiece
At the risk of sounding like a gushing teenager, this album is a remarkable and groundbreaking collaboration. In a perfect world this would be a top-10 album in every country of the world. Sometimes it's in English, sometimes it's in Portuguese, but it contains a wealth of songs that could grab someone who speaks Inuit or Mandarin and make them forget what they were doing.
Sergio Mendes was huge in the early 1960's, when most people reading this were probably in diapers or not even born. His influence was far-reaching, however, and it still resonates. If you have heard bossa nova music in any form, you have probably heard Sergio. Even if you've been culturally sheltered, you will still probably hear something familiar in these songs. Like the title of the album, they are timeless. This is no posthumous remix, however. Sergio Mendes plays piano on the tracks, while Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas gets credit for producing and bringing in the heavy hitters.
What makes this album so impressive, however, is how the Black Eyed Peas, Q-Tip of Tribe Called Quest, India Irie, and others have made the songs unquestionably contemporary without destroying any of their soul. On a track like "Bananiera," you would think it would be hard to even improve on the original, much less add anything that would make it any better. On this one and most of the others, however, the revamped version updates a great song and makes it not only more modern, but more gripping. The guest appearances are A-list: Stevie Wonder, Justin Timberlake, John Legend, Erykah Badu, the Roots, and more--but they never upstage the great material they've been given and nobody gets in they way of the groove.
The fast songs may be 40 years old, but the new versions are well-suited for the modern dance floor. We can only imagine the smile on Sergio's face as he sees the same songs that inspired hippie era women in miniskirts to dance around on flower-shaped platforms now inspiring hip-hop chicks to bust a move in urban clubs that are hopping until dawn.
Is this Brazilian Music? American music? African music? No, it's world music, in the true sense of the phrase.
Hear an NPR interview with Sergio, Will.I.Am., and Stevie Wonder.
Bombay Dub Orchestra
Bombay Dub Orchestra
We say: Cross-cultural chill-out music for 3 a.m.
Back in the latter decades of the past millenium, there was this thing called new age music. It was usually played by earnest and meditative souls brandishing an acoustic guitar or piano, but now and then it was electronic. As technology has become better, this music for relaxation is now likely to show up on the mellowest end of the electronica spectrum, coursing through speakers of yoga studios and hip restaurants. Bombay Dub Orchestra is obviously proud to be mellow, with a CD that makes no apologies about being downtempo and soothing. This is no noodling whiz kid in a studio however: there's a real orchestra providing real musicianship when the strings swell. As a result it may be aural wallpaper, but it least it's wallpaper with interesting patterns and depth to hold your attention.
U.K. producer Garry Hughes and string arranger/composer Andrew T. Mackay enlisted a 28-piece Indian string section (12 violins, 8 violas and 8 cellos) to provide authentic heft and grounding to the electronic meanderings. They then went back and recorded the best of Bombay's Indian classical musicians, adding sitar, sarangi, tabla, bansuri, and some vocals. In the past, Hughes has worked with the likes of Bjork, Art of Noise, and Sly & Robbie, while classically-trained Mackay has done a lot of film soundtracks. There's definitely some Eno-influenced "music for films" aesthetic to the project--a soundtrack to a movie yet to be made. (Why do directors hire people to create hastily-done movie soundtracks when there's already great material like this lying around?)
This is not the easiest music to classify, however. "An exotic Tangerine Dream" perhaps, or "Dead Can Dance sails down to India." Bombay Dub Orchestra seems a bit more bent on sensual pleasure than their predesessors though. This is music that is meant to be played in places where people are sitting close together, having intimate conversations. Plus any band that calls a track "Berber of Seville" can't be accused of taking themselves too seriously.
The CD comes with an extra "Dub" disc, but don't expect dancehall reggae dubs or 120 bpm dance frenzies. Just remixed versions that change the soundscape. Either disc will work fine for winding-down partygoers who want to hear something different as they are easing into dawn.
This month's music reviews were written by Tim Leffel, who 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 The World's Cheapest Destinations and is co-author of Hip-Hop, Inc.: Success Strategies of the Rap Moguls.
All of this month's featured albums are available at eMusic.com.