Putumayo Presents: Turkish Groove
We say: Pass the raki, it's time to belly dance!
In much of the world, pop music on the radio is a bland imitation of whatever more original popular music it is copying. It sounds like watered-down British rock, watered-down American R&B, or Europop that's even less interesting than the real thing. Turkey truly has its own pop music though, and it's a real homegrown affair. Coming from a spot of geography that straddles Asia and Europe, touching the Middle East and close to the Balkans, Armenia, and Greece, this is music that never sounds trite or derivative. And it really does groove—perfectly suited to hips that seem to be connected differently than those in the West. If anyone outside of Turkey could understand what these sexy people were singing about, the singers would surely be international stars.
Capturing "the best" of a genre like this has got to be daunting, but apparently the head of A&R at Putumayo combed through stacks of CDs over a long period in Istanbul to find a good cross-section of Turkish pop. Many of the tracks are from veterans of the scene, such as Tarkam, Sertab and Mustafa Sandal, but a few are lesser-known ones who deserve more recognition. Unlike some of Putumayo's country collections though, where the net is cast too wide, these songs all flow together and compliment each other—there's not a dud in the bunch. If you're looking for lively and heartfelt music that will make you move, but something exotic enough to transport you across the world, Turkish Groove is a sampling that will make you hungry for more (just save room for some baklava).
Bajofondo Tango Club
We say: Why does that accordion player keep taking a smoke break?
Bajafondo Tango Club's self-titled debut album was a revelation when it came out a few years back. Its fresh combination of traditional tango elements and modern electronic production made it a chill-out classic in hip clubs and restaurants on several continents. Since then, several other prominent groups have also become international staples and a whole "nuevo tango electronica" section is at the front of every music store in Buenos Aires.
Apparently Bajofondo Tango Club got tired of the competition though and decided to push the envelope in order to stand out from the pack. Their piano-playing man behind the curtain, Luciano Supervielle, has also gotten a big head: the title of the album is his last name. (Kind of like Massive Attack calling an album "Del Naja," or Deep Forest calling an album "Mouquet.")
After a promising start on the first three tracks, the disc keeps drifting away from Argentina and Uruguay, trying to mix in rap and heavy techno beats in pursuit of new angles. Unfortunately, that lumps them in with a zillion other groups who have more to say when they are using the whole globe as their aural spice rack. This doesn't mean it's a bad album, just a lot harder to warm up to than the first one. If you want a little taste of Argentina with your club music, this will work fine and it does get better after repeated listens. But if you want a main course with more than a little tango flavor, there are better options. Get the debut album instead, or either of the albums from rival Gotan Project.
Putumayo Presents: Reggae Playground
We say: Sorry kids, that Raffi CD has got to go.
When you become a parent, it's incredibly hard to stay cool. The first thing that gets sacrificed is your sense of style in the home, next is your refined taste in music. Before you know what happened, your living room is filled with bright plastic toys and you are putting up with Barney, Raffi, and other affronts to your stereo and TV. Thankfully there are a few musical gems in the market among the drek, including interesting kiddie work from They Might Be Giants and Dan Zanes. But wouldn't it be nice to expand the little tykes' horizons a bit with some international music, to start them out early on the path to musical enlightenment?
Putumayo is right there with you, serving up a reggae album that is meant to please the kids without making the parents cringe. There are tracks from around the world, with bouncy reggae jaunts from lands stretching from Jamaica to Indonesia. It's a perfectly listenable album and a ray of sunshine for those deluged with Disney and PBS Kids offshoots.
The real test comes, however, when you play it for the little ones. In this case, results were mixed. "Mouse in the House," from Hawaii's Marty Dread, was a big hit. The Burning Souls doing "Here Comes the Sun" went over well. But the songs in French were bombs and my daughter summed it up as only a child can when she said during a Toots and the Maytals song, "A lot of this sounds like grown-up music." Maybe Musical Youth's "Pass the Dutchie" is too pro-spliff for a kids' album, but a few more tracks with young voices at the mic would have helped. We're still looking for that perfect world music album that will make the tykes as happy as the parents when it's time for a car trip compromise.
La Ghriba: La Kahena Remixed
Cheb i Sabbah
We say: There are probably some songs hidden in here somewhere...
I always open remix CDs with trepidation. If the original versions were good, how is a remix going to make them better? In many cases (Bibel Gilberto and Public Enemy come to mind), the remixes seem to have sucked much of the soul out of what the artist laid down in the studio originally.
Cheb i Sabbah is a respected veteran of international electronica, mixing his Algerian and Indian heritage with influence from the many top-tier musicians and singers he has assembled through the years. The vision he usually brings to a project isn't quite there on this one, though, and at times it feels like a meandering mess. The 11 studio wizards who remixed tracks are literally all over the map. I love a good international mash-up as much as the next guy, but it is a bit disconcerting to keep going from Punjab to North Africa to England and back, with a side trip to Japan stuck in for fun. Put the CD on random mode and it feels even more disjointed.
In the end though, a few of the remixes are the stuff of alchemy, which is perhaps the real point. Maybe it should be a signal that we have firmly landed in the age of the download. Grab the track you heard in the exotic dance club last night from an online service, do a quick sample to see if any others grab you, then on to the next single of the day. The idea of "an album" is probably something the 54 year-old Sabbah has already wistfully given up on. The long tail has arrived and it's every song for itself...
This month's music reviews were written by editor 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 Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and is co-author of Hip-Hop, Inc.: Success Strategies of the Rap Moguls.