Rodrigo & Gabriel
We say: Guitar heroes meet some salsa kings (and throw in an oud).
This Mexican duo is an unlikely international sensation and should give faith to musicians everywhere that perseverance pays off. Rodrigo Sánchez (lead guitar) and Gabriela Quintero (rhythm guitar) tired of the heavy metal band scene, moved to Dublin, and started playing in clubs. Through touring and TV appearances, their debut album became a bona fide hit album and they became a fixture on the music festivals circuit.
Their new release, Area 52, is something old, something new. The old part is that many of the tracks are reworked songs from previous albums. The new part is that they're joined by a band for the first time. The band part came about when recording in Havana with C.U.B.A., a 13-piece Cuban orchestra. Not content with that, they added guest musicians Anoushka Shankar on sitar and Le Trio Joubran on oud for a few tracks.
The results are all over the map and musicians will have a heyday playing "spot the influence." A little Satriani here, a little Tito Puente there, a bit of Jean-Luc Ponty, Robert Fripp, and Carlos Santana in other spots. There are a few nods to flamenco, too of course, as on "Juan Loco." On these, the C.U.B.A. backing makes for an interesting mind-twisting timeline: Gypsy-influenced Old Spain meets African-influenced New Spain, in songs written by a rock-influenced duo from the largest city in the Americas. This stew doesn't really sound like anything else out there, especially when the sitar and oud come into play on "Ixtapa."
Guitar heroes may be put off by what they see as distractions covering up the fretwork. But the addition of a band makes many of these tunes much more fun and will make Rodrigo y Gabriela more accessible to casual listeners who may have otherwise been put off by the guitar histrionics on their own. Next stop, vocals?
We say: A true Rastafarian reggae album from an Ethiopian duo on their own Exodus.
We've all waited decades for a reggae album as good as the master himself routinely put out—the ones you still hear blasting out from seemingly every backpacker stop in the world. We may finally have it, but it's not from Jamaica. This terrific and consistent collection is from a duo that now lives in Belgium of all places, but don't worry, they've got plenty of cred. They hail from the spiritual home of Rastafarians: Ethiopia. Like the late Mr. Marley, these guys aren't afraid to mix politics and religion with their music. The album starts off with a powerful right-left-right series of punches with "Meditiation," "Food," and "It's Too Late." The first is spiritual, the second two the kind of political tirades that used to be common in the original days of reggae.
Meditation continues without going soft, discussing the state of Mother Africa, prostitution, "politrickcians," and following the light to Jah. As with the classics from Marley, Tosh, Aswad, or Steel Pulse though, this is still communal music fit for an outdoor party or the beach. (If contemporary Christian music were this good, I might actually listen to it without wincing, lyrics be damned.) It's all reggae in the traditional sense: the guitar beats on 2 and 4, the snare drum rimshot, the horn section accents, and the lazy bass beat meant for a hot tropical day. There's a little dub here and there, an slight attempt at a pop radio song with "Get Together," but overall this is the real deal, without a clunker on the whole 14-track collection. I can't recall the last time I've liked this many songs on a single reggae album, even counting compilations. These guys have been at it for years, but with this solid collection of songs and a Caribbean producer at the helm, they should soon be getting much wider acclaim. If you're a roots reggae fan, don't hesitate to add this to your collection.
We say: Because one album paying tribute to Amazonian 60s surf music wasn't enough.
I reviewed the debut Sonido Amazonico album from this group back in 2008 when it came out and confessed that I just plain didn't get it. Several years and one album later, I still don't. I like the whole idea of this band: a mixture of nationalities (French, American, Venezuelan and Mexican) playing cumbia and 60s surf music inspired by what originally came out of the Peruvian Amazon. Plus the name roughly translates to "free beer." Add in fun album covers and it's an appealing package. But I have to admit when it comes to the music itself, after a couple songs I'm done.
Chicha Libre plays a very specific, stuck-in-time kind of music. I'm all for throwback nostalgia---I love Pink Martini and Squirrel Nut Zippers---but apparently cheesy surf music is not my thing. Maybe it's yours, so here's an idea of what to expect: vintage synthesizers, 60s-style surf guitar with lots of reverb, mellotron, a mix of percussion, and vocals in Spanish with a bit of English. It's a little bit Brazil, a little bit Peru, a little bit Colombia, with a heaping helping of California 50 years ago.
This music is so niche that they turned to Kickstarter to raise the money to fund the making of this second album. Still, they've managed to perform in a dozen countries around the world at festivals and have had their music appear on The Simpsons and Weeds. If nothing else, Chicha music is certainly different than anything else you encounter. Follow the links to the right and give it a listen. You'll know pretty quickly whether this psychedelic surf party music is your thing or not.
Editor Tim Leffel is a former music biz marketer who became a travel writer and author of four books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations and Travel Writing 2.0. See his last batch of world music reviews here.