We say: Who knew oppressed nomads could sound this joyous?
Last year the Algerian blues band Tinawaren got rave reviews around the globe (including from our publication) for their album Aman Iman/Water is Life. From a few dunes and an oasis away come the Tuareg nomads known as Toumast. I have a feeling this one will make a lot of top-10 lists as well.
The Tuareg people belong to the vast desert region stretching across the modern day lines in the sand known as Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Victims of arbitrary borders, droughts, and repressive governments, they became Africa's version of the Gypsies, wandering to where they could find work and never feeling like those places were their home. (The band's name means "identity" and the album's title means "unemployed.")
Like the Roma of Europe though, this seems to have made them exuberant and exciting musicians. Seldom have songs about struggle and fighting sounded this joyous. Heck, "Kik Ayittma" ("Hey My Brothers") is going on my next party mix, even if it is filled with words like "misery," "misfortune," and "dishonoured." The lyrics are translated in the CD booklet—yet another reason why digital downloads lose something—but if you don't read them you'll probably find yourself dancing, moved by the driving beat.
The instrumentation is generally sparse, with bass, guitar, and loads of percussion. Occasionally they mix it up though, bringing in some string instruments, a djembe, a darbouka, or a high trilling voice note that immediately makes you think of North Africa. Sometimes hypnotic, sometimes plaintive, but usually throwing down a mean groove, Toumast's Ishumar is an instant world music classic.
We say: Modern film music for villains on the run.
It's hard to find a wide audience for Arabic-sounding music in a post-9/11 world, so Jef Stott has a tough slog ahead of him. While electronica mixed with Hindi music sounds like giddy fun and the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan can end up in some great reggae dubs, there's only so much happiness that can come out of mixing in source music from the Middle East, at least to an outsider's ears.
I tried listening to this CD for days with an open mind, but I would continually find myself daydreaming about scenes from the TV series 24. You can almost picture the script instructions. Act 2, Scene 1: Villain 1 opens the warehouse door to see two men building explosives. Cue up the song 'Faqir' from Jef Stott."
Fair or not, it's hard to listen to such brooding and dramatic-sounding tracks without feeling a sense of impending doom around the corner. It doesn't help that only one song out of 10 is in a major key—and it's the last one. By the time the Turkish-sounding track "Aegean Dub" comes on, it's too late to turn your mood around. Saracen is an interesting, well-crafted album and the title track is downright danceable. But I think I'd rather hear it in a movie theater than on my stereo—with the good guys winning in the end of course.
Putumayo Presents: African Party
We say: The world's original party music is alive and well.
It's hard to find a bad collection of upbeat African music since the continent offers such a rich collection of great grooves. Since Putumayo does a better job than most of getting great artists to sign on, African Party is a solid collection with no wrong notes.
As Putumayo has ratcheted up their release schedule, I've gotten kind of lost in the categories. What's the difference in a "Groove," a "Party," and a "Lounge"? Can't we have a party in a lounge? Doesn't party music usually have a groove?
In this case the Party seems to happen with a minimum of electronica, lots of vocals, and driving percussion. The songs come from only seven countries though, which seems kind of odd in a continent of 53. Two are from Guinea and two are from Zimbabwe. (Who did Senegal piss off to get excluded?) Even a box set wouldn't do Africa justice. But what matters in the end is whether the CD collectively makes good party music and it passes that test easily. It's hard to keep still listening to this collection and it's a fitting 15th-year anniversary release for the label since one artist, Kotoja, was the one that inspired founder Dan Storper to start the label.
If you want to get an entertaining taste of African music or are looking for a crowd-pleasing CD for a friend, you can't go wrong with African Party.
We say: Brooklyn band, Peruvian Amazon, 60's surf music. Why?
Have you ever felt a desire to listen to late-60's surf music as performed by Peruvians in the Amazonian jungle, but you just couldn't lay your hands on a copy of the records? Apparently the Brooklyn outfit Chicha Libre thinks there are more than five people in the world that fit that description (besides themselves), so here we have the full-length CD ¡Sonida Amazonica!
The back story is that 40 years ago a bunch of musicians in the Amazon started doing their own version of American surf music (as in The Ventures) and dubbed it "chicha." That word also happens to be the one for homemade corn beer, so the title of the band could have a second meaning: "free beer."
"I can't imagine an occasion when I'd ever want to listen to this again," said one person I played this for and that kind of sums it up. "The Hungry Song" is great fun whether you understand Spanish or not and it's kind of neat to hear someone use a guitar whammy bar without distortion, but then what? I obviously don't get it. Because apart from nostalgia, it's hard to imagine why an album filled with reverb guitars, cheesy Electravox organ, and occasional silly vocals will get heavy play on anyone's MP3 player. Kudos to Chicha Libre for playing music nobody else is playing, but sometimes there's a reason...
Dances of Resistance
We say: Speaking of nostalgia...
As I listened to Babylon Circus, I returned to thoughts of happy days at the university, pumping the keg at a party and listening to ska music from the likes of English Beat, Madness, and the Specials. Ah, fun times—from what I remember.
Apparently the 10-piece French band Babylon Circus misses those days too, even if they weren't all around when the music was at its popular peak. They've got the horns, the biting lyrics, and the frenetic bouncy music down pat. The band has been described by some as the French version of Gogol Bordello, but it seems to me this is due more to their reputedly crazy live shows than for any musical relation to Gypsy punk. Hey, any band that thinks Damascus and Moscow are good tour stops has to have a good live show!
In the tradition of The Clash and Bob Marley, Babylon Circus serves up socially conscious lyrics (in both English and French) wrapped in an irresistable music package. My one big gripe: the 13-minute "hidden track" that starts with 9 minutes of silence. Don't waste our time—or 18 megabytes of our computer/MP3 player space!
But put these guys on a summer festival stage and even the most overheated and drunk attendees will want to stand up and start bouncing around. Sure, it's retro and much of it has been done before. But if they come through my town on tour, I'm so there, even if I do have to buy my beer from a concession stand instead of pumping it from a keg in a plastic tub.
Tim Leffel is editor of Perceptive Travel and author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World's Cheapest Destinations. His newest book, co–written with Rob Sangster, is Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America