Tell No Lies
Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara
We say: Rock guitar, Algerian Blues, Gambian instruments—stir vigorously
Take a British rocker who as spent time playing with Algerian Taureg blues bands and then put him together with a Gambian who plays the riti—a Gambian, one-string spike fiddle—and the kologo, a kind of banjo. The result is something that is not quite Tinawaren or Malouma, but an evolution of that Saharan sound. It's familiar on several levels, but exotic enough to feel completely fresh.
The rocker is Robert Plant's guitarist. No, not the famous one from the 70s, but current one Justin Adams. As the son of a diplomat who lived and traveled in the Middle East and North Africa, Adams grew up with exotic sounds and continues to seek them out today. The African is Juldeh Camera, whose father was a musician and healer. He handles most of the lead vocals, with African voices and percussionists joining in on many songs. Rock and blues guitar—with a Saharan flair—meet the more traditional call-and-response music of Gambia and the result is something both accessible and unique.
The results are seldom predictable or monotonous. A song like Fulaini Coochi Man" will start off like a typical guitar-based blues song, then the riti kicks in and transports us to a different continent. Madam Mariana" is a driving, riff-based crowd-pleaser in the spirit of Amadou and Miriam, but grittier. Some of the slower jams like Gainako could have stood to be edited down to a shorter length, but when the music sounds so heartfelt, it's easy to understand why they kept it rolling.
It is fitting that this releases coincides with the 20th anniversary of its label, Peter Gabriel's Real World Records. Two decades ago the public was just discovering the sounds of Africa. Now we have collaborations like Tell No Lies that go beyond the "nice" and "coffee table releases" Adams said he was trying to avoid. This album will likely win lots of awards and be playing in backpacker cafes of the world in a year or two. Get it now and groove on something that can appeal to the masses without sacrificing creativity or passion.
Putumayo Presents: Italia
We say: as satisfying as a jug of Chianti at 1950s prices
Acoustic music from Italy—what's that going to sound like? I had no preconceptions before I popped in this CD, except that maybe I'd get some accordion now and then. There is some accordioan now and then, but this varied collection showcases a diverse mix of artists that also brings in a little British folk, a little lounge music, a little Tango, and a little Gypsy music. The collection is meant to emulate "the jazz-influenced songs that were the soundtracks of cafés and bars in Rome, Milan, and other Italian cities in the 1950s."
This sounds a lot like the description of Putumayo's 2005 release Italian Café, but there's no recycling of songs and this is actually a more solid collection. The mostly acoustic arrangements really allow you to focus on the song and the individual instruments and in all cases it's clear that these are talented and confident artists on the Italian music scene. While Gianmaria Testa (the "Italian Leonard Cohen") and Allesandro Mannarino may not be household names outside Italy—or even outside their home city even—but these artists and the nine others on Italia each bring a unique flavor to a collection that doesn't have a dud song in it.
Naturally the songs are all in Italian, but as is normal with Putumayo releases, there are good liner notes in three languages that give the background of the artist and some information about what the song is about. Pull out a proscuitto and mozzarella platter, open a bottle of Chianti, and enjoy some music very different than what you'll hear in your local checkerboard-tablecloth restaurant.
El Hijo de Obatala
We say: The rough streets of Guatemala City, New Orleans, Oakland, and Havana—on one album.
Watch music video shows in Central America and it's easy to see that American hip-hop has had a huge influence on the Latino music coming out of that part of the world. At the same time, it's seldom a straight imitation and the musical soup known as reggaeton has become a genre unto itself. You hear it blasting out of radios from the top of Mexico on down to Colombia and over to the Caribbean, with Spanish and English trading places in the spotlight.
Santero fits right into this new world order of Latino music. Hailing from Guatemala, but spending much of his childhood in the U.S., he took in everything that came into his ears and spit it back out as a DJ and then artist. El Hijo de Obatala can't be put into any kind of neat box. It's a hip-hop album, an R&B album, a reggaeton album, and many times with a salsa cherry on top. This schizophrenic 'Hood-meets-Havana journey across the continents can make for some jarring transitions, but after a few listens it seems as natural as the melting pot of cultures so prevalent in Miami or L.A.
The unifier here, referenced in the title, is the Lukumí "speaking to the spirits" tradition of Cuba, where Santero studied dance and learned more than he bargained for from the Santeria. Each song, even the straight-ahead R&B songs with an English chorus, make use of batá drumming. Heavy-hitter producers Greg Landau and One Drop Scott took to the mixing boards to give it all a contemporary urban sound. If you hate rap and reggaeton you probably won't dig this, but if you like urban music that's not the same ole same old, this is a refreshing new voice on the scene.
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.