Aratan N Azawad
We say: Get on your camel and join the caravan
Just like buses, you wait years for one Malian Tuareg rock band to appear from the Sahara region and then suddenly several come along in close succession. Those familiar with the work of militant Tuareg rockers Tinirawen will probably know what to expect: John Lee Hooker-style electric guitars, throaty choruses and a lop-sided boogie groove. Terakaft translates as "caravan" in Tamasheq the Tuareg language. This is an apt choice as the music contained in Aratan n Azawad paints a vivid musical portrait of sand dunes, parched wind and processions of camels plodding across Saharan desert wastes.
Any similarity to Tinariwen is no accident as Terakaft was originally formed in 2001 by two members of the original Tinariwen line up, and two of the musicians here also performed on that band's last album Imidiwan. There's a broader range of styles at work on Aratan N Azawad though, with subtle influences from North and West Africa to compliment the hypnotic desert groove. The opening title track, which translates as "Children of the Azawad," is gently acoustic and has vocals that sound as if they might belong to the other side of the Sahara in Morocco or Algeria rather than in Mali. In contrast, the next track, Ahod, is a return to the familiar electric sway that seems to typify Tuareg music. All the other elements are present too: call and response vocals and bluesy guitar shuffling along at a loping camels' gait — you can almost feel the sand in your teeth.
This is no great departure from the foundations laid down by Tinirawen several years ago, just a little less gritty perhaps — a bit less rock, a little more roll. It's a formula that still ain't broke, so why bother to fix it?
We say: Pan-Balkan dub all the way from Austria
A few seconds into Melaha, the first track on this CD, you become aware that La Cherga draw their influences widely — from dub reggae, Balkan brass band music and even punk and hip-hop. Sufi Dub, the second track, advances the Balkan vibe with an echo-laden dervish refrain. By the third track, Resolve and Evolve, you really start to get the picture, as staccato brass, skanking bass and shuffling guitar frame a feisty vocal that demands that the listener "stop wasting precious words and time" and "never stop questioning why." This is dance music with a message.
La Cherga was founded by producer Nevenko Bucan, and with singer and lyricist Adisa Zvekic and guitarist Muamer "Muki" Gazibegovic from Bosnia, horn players recruited from Macedonia, and a Croatian MC, the band is a pan-Balkan enterprise. While the band's spiritual home would appear to be Sarajevo, for reasons unknown, La Cherga base themselves in Graz, Austria.
It's impressive just how successfully dub bass and Balkan brass can work together to sound so organic and unforced. Tracks like Votka dot kom, which features Croatian MC Killo Killo telling a tale of immigrant life, are relatively straightforward Balkan dub. Elsewhere, the music can seem darker, at one moment lyrical, the next almost metallic thrash, which on tunes like One creates an unsettling mix that brings to mind the work of Tricky. Despite the odd lapse into Bosnian, most of the singing is in English, with Adisa Zvekic voicing lyrics that are intelligent, questioning, and defiant. On my first listen, I was troubled by who Zvekic reminded me of, then it dawned on me — Neneh Cherry, who made some great records back in the late 1980s.
It is dub that is at the heart of Revolve though. If you imagine Balkan Roma wedding music and dub reggae serendipitously coming together on a hot sultry night in a Jamaican dancehall then you will not be too wide of the mark.
Balkan Brass Battle
Fancare Ciocarlia/Boban and Marko Markovic
We say: It's Balkan brass showdown time
Here's a bargain — two for the price of one — with both of the world's premier Balkan brass bands represented on a single CD. Fanfare Ciocarlia hail from northeast Romania and Boban and Marko Markovic from southern Serbia. While they may not be that close geographically, the two bands are undoubtedly musical neighbors. If you have ever heard anything previously by either of these groups then you'll have a good idea of what to expect: frantically fast at times, lyrical at others, there's never a dull moment, although you would not want them living next door, practicing while you're trying to sleep.
Given the natural competitiveness of the Balkan brass scene, and the friendly rivalry that exists, there is an extra bit of musical frisson to be heard here as the two bands slug it out. There are a few fairly run-of-the-mill Balkan tunes but by no means is all the material standard fare — there's John Barry's James Bond Theme for a start, and also Duke Ellington's Caravan (twice! — both bands give their own take on it; I prefer Boban and Marko's more Balkan-flavored interpretation). There's also, eccentrically, a take on Gummy Bear from the McDonalds Kids menu. But that is the beauty of the Roma repertoire: nothing is sacred.
Apparently, the whole album was recorded during a sleepless 48 hours in a Transylvanian hotel next to Count Dracula's castle. Imagine innocently booking a room there at the same time ; depending on your outlook you'd either have the time of your life or you would want your money back!
Although it might be best enjoyed in small doses, it is hard not to admire the enthusiasm of music like this. Balkan Brass Battle pins back your ears back and make you smile with its joyously manic, life-affirming spirit. As they say in Serbia — Hopla!
We say: Palestinian funk fusion
Shusmo is a five-piece "alt-Arab" band led by Palestinian New Yorker Tareq Abboushi that fuses two distinct traditions: classic Arab maqam and Latin-tinged jazz-funk. "Shusmo" roughly translates as "watcha-ma-call-it" in Arabic (or maybe, "watcha-maqam-it") and this seems fitting for a musical hybrid that cannot easily be pigeon-holed into any particular category.
Abboushi has feet firmly planted in both Western and Arab traditions: growing up in Ramallah his ears were exposed to the likes of traditional Arabic music and popular singers like Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum as well as the Western classical music played by his mother, a piano teacher. Moving to the United States, he studied jazz piano at New Jersey's William Patterson University but since graduating has all but abandoned the piano as an instrument, preferring instead to concentrate on the buzuq — a long-necked lute — which better serves his Palestinian roots.
Shusmo's instrumental lineup consists of Abboushi's buzuq, electric or double bass, clarinet and Arab and Latin percussion. As well as the obvious Arab-funk hybrids here like Long Nakreez, the opening track, there are also Turkish, Kurdish and Latin influences. There are no vocals on Mumtastic apart from very late on in proceedings when they appear briefly on Dal'ona, the final track. However, despite a lack of vocals there's still a political edge: given the daily problems facing Abboushi's homeland, a song simply titled The Wall manages to say plenty without any requirement for words.
Mumtastic is refreshingly lacking in studio production, having a live feel that allows plenty of space for each performer to stretch out and show their skills. It seems clear from this recording that Shusmo are essentially a working band more interested in performing than hanging around in studios. Undoubtedly festival crowd pleasers, this enjoyable collection gives a good impressive of what to expect live.
Laurence Mitchell is a British travel writer and photographer with a special interest in transition zones, cultural frontiers and forgotten places that are firmly off the beaten track. He is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia, Belgrade and Kyrgyzstan, Slow Norfolk & Suffolk and a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. His website can be seen at www.laurencemitchell.com and his blog at eastofelveden.wordpress.com.
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