The Rough Guide to Voodoo
We say: A stew of individually tasty flavors, but not a satisfying meal.
The diaspora of voodoo (more correctly "vodou" in Haiti, the country it is most associated with) is a fascinating story: From present-day Benin it spread with slavery through the Caribbean and New Orleans — with the attendant tourist trinkets today — and then into Hollywood to be transformed into spooky movies and vacuously teen-spook HBO shows like "True Blood". This 12 song account disappointingly contains no field recordings but rather favors the trickle-down into contemporary recording studios.
No one would deny Dr. John being on such a collection, but he's here with his sophisticated salute to the famous Nawlins voodoo priestess Marie Laveau rather than one of his more earthy "Gris-Gris" songs. So from the opener — the Creole Choir of Cuba on the close harmony "Guide Nibo" — you should set aside expectations of seriously scary voodoo clichés for a more polished exploration courtesy of Trinidadian singer Lord Nelson (a remix of his famous drum-driven "Shango"), the sophisticated horns of the Gangbe Brass Band from Benin, the Brazilian shuffles of guitarist Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moreas . . . Yes, there is slightly disturbing and hypnotic percussion behind some songs (notably the persuasive "Cantos Iyesa" by the late Lazaro Ros from Cuba) and it would be hard heart not moved by Toto Bissanthe's lament for Haitian children murdered during the Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) regime.
So a decent rough guide — which comes with an excellent bonus disc of songs by Haitian vodou priest/singer Erol Josue — but more a starting point than a wrap-up.
Alma de Cantaora
We say: Spanish songstress in yet another persuasive, but different, incarnation.
Formerly fronting her band Amparanoia, this politicized post-punk folk-rock singer enjoys critical and popular acclaim for her committed performances, original songs which draw on poetry as much as socio-political matters, and for music which gets its passport stamped between Barcelona and Cuba. For this, her second solo album, she further turns down her former furious energy but also pushes up the deeper passion in songs — English translations in the booklet — which address the universal feminine songstress (the title track), sensual gestures, and old flames (songs by her collaborator, the Cuban composer Mane Ferret) and embrace the breadth of life's emotions.
This positive vibration throughout is enhanced by colleagues, who include guitarist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino of Calexico on the swoon'n'twang of "Muchacho" (they appeared on her previous "Tucson-Habana" album), the American outsider-genius Howe Gelb, Spanish hip-hop singer Ari Puello (on the supple and slinky "La flor de la Palabra/The Flower of the Word") and others who slip right into the ambience.
Some may prefer her earlier and more volatile incarnation, but there's no denying the depth, maturity and vocal characteristics which come through here in these gently gripping songs. Highly recommended.
We say: A fine voice out of Africa aiming for, and squarely hitting, the middle ground.
This 16 song collection draws from previous, but perhaps rarely heard, albums by Namibian Elemotho Mosimane who sings in his native Setswana (and other local languages) and English. He lived in Norway for two years (missing the climate of his homeland as he sings on "Bright Sun") and mines a vein of classy if sometimes sentimental MOR folk-pop, which he, rightly, describes as "African-fusion."
This winner of the RFI-France 24 Discoveries last year — over more than 500 other contenders — has an undeniably strong and flexible voice, and songs which ride bouncy rhythms or get into pan-political ideas ("The System is a Joke", "A Dose of Reality" which opens with a spoken word sample from Native American activist/singer John Trudell). But you rarely feel he's extending the parameters of his polite, chosen idiom. Certainly there are standouts (the gentle but urgent "Sweet", the joyous "Better Days" right at the end) but mostly this slips into background listening. Pleasant.
Pura Vida Conspiracy
We say: Duck! Thrash-trash punk politics that hits like a pool ball in a sock.
The world's best known Gypsy-punk post-Clash band from New York here stakes a powerful claim to being . . . umm, the world's best known Gypsy-punk post-Clash from New York? Like Mano Negra in a street fight with the Boston-Irish Dropkick Murphys, here Gogol Bordello haul in reggae riddums, some Latin-esque maneuvers (singer Eugene Hutz has lived in Brazil for many years), sea shanty-like rock ("The Other Side of the Rainbow"), Doc Martin head-kickin' beats and what might happen if Nick Cave and Joe Strummer wrote angry stuff for the Pogues.
Given their background in faux-Gypsy culture, you're allowed to be cynical about all this (but Strummer was a British diplomat's son, remember). However on the rowdy evidence here — arguably their most concisely punchy album and the one least desperately trying for Gypsy-cred, if such a thing exists — you might just pull up a bottle of spirits and a shot glass to concede they've delivered an enjoyably rowdy party-party album. Lyrically stupid in places, of course. But that comes with the turf. Play loud and be a punk-Gypsy for the night. They do, night after night. Your hangover doubtless follows.
Graham Reid is a New Zealand—based writer whose first book Postcards from Elsewhere won the 2006 Whitcoulls Travel Book of the Year Award in New Zealand. His newer collection The Idiot Boy Who Flew won the Whitcoulls Reader Choice award and is available through www.amazon.com. He also hosts his own music/travel/arts website www.elsewhere.co.nz .