Perceptive Travel World Music Reviews
September/October 2008 - By Laurence Mitchell

In this issue: Songs from a lonely drifter, a great collection of West African hip-hop, collections from the Congo and Romania, and a fresh take on Latino music from Buena Vibra Sound System.



Grass is Singing
Lonely Drifter Karen
We say: Surreally romantic songs of European whimsy.

Lonely Drifter Karen is the musical persona of Austrian singer Tanja Frinta who has joined up with Mallorcan multi–instrumentalist Marc Melià Sobrevias and Italian percussionist Giorgio Fausto Menossi to produce music that is firmly European but difficult to categorize.

Frinta, who has travelled from her native Vienna by way of Göteburg, Sweden to Barcelona, where she currently resides, is the singer and main songwriter, while Sobrevias is responsible for the arrangements. An Austrian teamed with a Mallorcan and Italian, living in Barcelona—how can this fail to be world music? Well, it is world music…probably, but not as we usually know it. This music is hard to compartmentalize: part cabaret, part Euro–folk—you could dance to it but you would probably be doing a slow waltz.

The musical reference points are wide and varied—French chanson, Mittel–European theatre, Kurt Weill, Lhasa de Sela, Swedish cinema, show tunes, children's nursery songs and gonzo opera chorus. With the exception of the odd Spanish chorus, the lyrics are in English throughout. Quirky themes of gypsies, trains, circuses, romantic drifters, lovers' trysts, and sighing angel emerge and occasionally resurface among the 13 tracks. The songs have a childish, dreamlike quality about them but are sufficiently bittersweet in tone to stay the right side of cloying. Frinta has the voice of a wistful waif that you suspect might eventually become irritating but, thankfully, fails to do so. Imagine a young but world–weary Doris Day producing a covers album of Tom Waits' more romantic canon and you are halfway there—well, maybe a quarter–way.

The songs are strangely compelling, sometimes quite beautiful and often a little sad. The elegiac two–chord strum of "Giselle", for example, evokes a sense of loss and longing far beyond the word on the page. Grass is Singing is gloriously un–Rock n' Roll. Rather, it is original music with a timeless quality that, bearing barely a trace of modern pop influence, represents a considerable achievement for ones so young. Highly recommended.






Many Lessons
Bantu, Docta, Sister Fa & More
We say: West African hip–hop with a spiritual message.

The title says it all: Hip–hop—Islam—West Africa. Many Lessons is a brilliantly complied collection of West African hip–hop by young artistes that hail mostly from Senegal, but also Mali, Nigeria, Guinea and Morocco. Instead of the formulaic misogynistic boasting and gun–toting braggadocio practiced by many American rappers, what we have here is music that sends an altogether different message. Lyrics praise spiritual practice, religious tolerance and righteous behavior, and sometimes veer into social criticism. Or at least, this is what we are told—most of the lyrics are in Wolof.

Despite the seriousness of the message, there is absolutely nothing po–faced about these recordings, which are undeniably fun throughout. Even without any understanding of the songs' meaning there is a muscular musicality to this work that goes beyond the usual confines of standard hip–hop. With funky beats and sweetly sung choruses, this is roots music with a twist that owes as much to traditional West African harmony as it does to American hip–hop. Afrobeat, Dancehall reggae, ragga and even gospel also influence the mix. Like the increasingly well–known Daara J, the closest thing West Africa has to international hip–hop artists, the energy and enthusiasm on display here is dazzling.






In the 7th moon, the chief turned into a swimming fish and ate the head of his enemy by magic
Kasai Allstars
We say: Electrical storm from the heart of Africa.

With an album title that reads like a magical–realist short story this CD is the third release in Crammed Discs' Congotronics series and should be recognisable territory for those familiar with the previous recordings. Like the earlier Congotronics releases this is electric, raw and primal. With earthy rhythms that make the ground shake and melody lines that hover and swoop like circling hawks, it is easy to see why earlier Belgian colonists banned the erotic dancing associated with this sort of music and labelled it "satanic."

Kasai Allstars are a musical collective that incorporate five groups and 25 musicians from five different ethnic groups in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Allstars utilize more sophisticated instrumentation and vocals than other Congotronics artists like Konono no.1 and complimenting the junkyard percussion and distorted electric thumb pianos are electric guitars that add beautifully sonorous riffs to the glorious cacophony of sinuous polyrhythms and call and response vocals.

All seven of the long tracks on this CD are as driving and insistent as a runaway train threatening to career off the tracks. The pace and relentlessness is such that it can occasionally become exhausting and you just need it to stop. Repetitive, sensual and downright cathartic, this is electrically supercharged tribal dance music. Marvellous stuff.






Romanian Gypsy Music
Taraful Ciuleandra featuring Maria Buza
We say: Music for wild gypsy weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs.

This Romanian taraf (musical collective) is similar in many ways to the better–known Taraf de Haidouks except that here the musicians are fronted by a female singer and lack the convivial rough edges of Johnny Depps' favorite combo.

With virtuoso instrumental playing that includes tripping violin, rippling cimbalom and dexterous double bass in addition to clarinet and accordion, the music sometimes gives the impression of being performed on horseback. However, in relative terms, this is a fairly polite rendering of Romanian gypsy music and singer Maria Buza, who moonlights as an actress, sounds just a little too self–conscious at times despite having a rich and expressive voice.

The group perform a fairly typical Romanian gypsy repertoire, such as the crowd–pleaser "Ciocarlia" with its high–twittering birdsong impersonations on the violin. A minor quibble, which is more the fault of the musical genre than that of the performers, is that, despite the odd slow song, the track selection can occasionally seem a little lacking in variety of style and pace. Nevertheless, this is well performed throughout and professionally executed.






The Buena Vibra Sound System
Sidestepper
We say: Stripped down electric salsa with African spice.

Exploring old and new material, this is the latest CD from the Colombian collective founded by British DJ and musician Richard Blair. This collection is wider ranging than their earlier releases and takes in musical styles from all over Colombia as well as throwing a few exotic influences into the mix. There are also a couple of remixes of well–known tracks, such as "Hoy Tenemos" by The Boyz from Brazil (who ended up becoming the Gotan Project).

The tracks on this CD blend club beats with rhythms and folk styles that range from Colombian salsa and cumbia to Afro–beat, rap, hip–hop and Jamaican ragga. The musical intent of Buena Vibra Sound System is to bridge the gap between a live band and a DJ sound system and the product is Latin dance music that combines big city electronica with pared–down village roots in equal parts—the sort of thing best experienced at 2am in a sweaty club filled with beautiful women and dangerous–looking men. There's nothing overly cerebral here but that is hardly the point. Notwithstanding electronic beats and other contemporary touches, this remains Latin dance music, pure and simple—the aim is for involuntary booty–movement and with this it succeeds in trumps.






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. An enthusiastic amateur musician, he has been a fan of "World Music" since long before the term was coined. He is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia, Belgrade and Kyrgyzstan and a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. His website can be seen at www.laurencemitchell.com.

Also in this Issue

Grass is Singing

Buy Grass is Singing online here:
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Fishpond (Australia)

Grass is Singing









Many Lessons

Buy Many Lessons online here:
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In the 7th moon

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Fishpond (Australia)

In the 7th moon








Romanian Gypsy Music

Buy Romanian Gypsy Music online here:
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Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Romanian Gypsy Music



Download 25 FREE songs at eMusic.com!


Download MP3s from Amazon



Sidestepper

Buy The Buena Vibra Sound System online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

The Buena Vibra Sound System