Putumayo Presents: Acoustic Arabia
We say: Wrong land mass, but nice tunes...
If the word "acoustic" makes you think of folk singers strumming nylon-stringed guitars, this album will put you right off that notion. With a dash of gypsy music, a cup of Saharan blues, and a teaspoon of Nubian funk, this is an acoustic CD that is often downright dancable.
Now if only someone would take some money out of the Putumayo petty cash fund to buy a world map. Despite the "Arabia" in the title, there is nothing here from the land of Mecca or anywhere close. "Acoustic North Africa" would have been far more accurate: the tracks here mostly hail from the region stretching from Egypt to Morocco, with one Lebanese song seeming out of place.
Still, the language is usually Arabic, so technically it's correct. In contrast to much of the angry or melancholy music we hear in that language, there is track 3, "Azara Alhai." Although it's from Sudan, it would fit perfectly into a happy beach scene in any movie. But of course there is some of the requisite Arabic mourning here, minor-key music dripping with tears. Algeria's Souad Massi sings that "It is wrong to make me suffer. But that's life. Bitter and sweet."
As with most Putumayo releases, the immigrant experience plays a large part. Mousta Largo is a Belgian born to Moroccan parents. Maurice El Médioni is a Jew who fled Algeria for France in the early 60s and Los Orientales is a French-Algerian conglomeration. Tiris is a group of Sahrawi musicians who fled their homeland when it was annexed by Morocco. The music is mobile and sense of place is fluid-mostly nowhere near Arabia-but this is and enjoyable and exotic collection performed on instruments that don't need to be plugged in
Niña de Fuego
We say: Naked African sings Spanish torch songs.
Jazzy Spanish singer Buika (dropping the first name "Concha"), is from an African family and was born in Mallorca. She has a voice that really does make her a "girl of fire" and this noteworthy third album goes down like a fine glass of Rioja. Producer Javier Limón plays a big part in this push for global stardom, co-writing several songs.
"Culpa Mia" employs Flamenco claps with Cuban piano and horn riffs, while "Mentirosa" leaves Europe for the Caribbean altogether. "No Habra Nadie en el mundo" picks up the pace to properly express the anger of the lyrics. Overall though, most tracks are mournful jazz-based songs with a strong Spanish flavor, plaintive vocals over emotive piano backing, drums played with brushes, and muted trumpet solos. The album would work well for a classy cocktail lounge or a nice dinner party.
She once had a gig impersonating Tina Turner in a Las Vegas club act. Now that she's able to perform her own gripping music, in a live theater or club show, Buika would be mesmerizing.
We say: If Bjork were born in Mongolia...
I've probably listened to this album a dozen times and am still not sure what to make of it. These days, when most everything sounds recycled, that's enough in itself to make a collection commendable.
Sa Dingding may have a name that even my young daughter couldn't help laughing over, but her music is ambitious, wide-reaching, and near impossible to categorize. Just when you think you have her pegged as an electronica artist, she jfjf. As you lull into the sounds of what could be a soundtrack for the next Chinese movie blockbuster, she switches gears and sings a song with lyrics in Tibetan or one from a Sanskrit scripture.
She grew up on the steppes of Mongolia and then moved to China as a student, traveling widely and hearing music from different ethnic groups. The melody of "Lagu Lagu" is based on something Sa Dingding heard in the Yunnan province of China, a song that had been passed down from 18th-century Christian missionaries. On other tracks the influences come from multiple fronts, but all have a grounding in traditional Asian music, not just bad imitations of Western pop.
This is not the kind of album that fits easily into any social structure: it's music to listen to, to savor, and to use when you want to transport your mind to faraway places you can only imagine.
Bombay Dub Orchestra
We say: Indian chill-out music beefs up its substance
When I reviewed the first Bombay Dub Orchestra album two years ago I called it "cross-cultural chill-out music for 3 a.m." While the general sentiment still holds, 3 Cities seems meatier and more confident. While the first album felt like pleasant film music with a lack of drama, this one gives the impression that the duo directing the cast really has something unique to say.
Recorded in Mumbai, Chennai, and London, the composers/producers Garry Hughes and Andrew T. Mackay have once again recruited top talent in each city to bring their vision to life. Over 75 musicians contributed to the project: this is not some basement mash-up project done with samples and a software program. There is plenty of electronica, yes, but what really gives it all heft is real orchestral scores, real hands hitting tablas, and real fingers on flutes and sitars.
This sophomore album also has vocals on most tracks, from traditional Indian Raags to Bollywood-sounding ditties to sultry siren songs over dramatic beats. This is chill-out music with a heart: pleasant background music yes, but with enough heft and sense of place to make it rise above the rest.
Tim Leffel spent many years trying to make bad bands famous on behalf of RCA Records but is now editor of Perceptive Travel. He is author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World's Cheapest Destinations. His newest book, co–written with Rob Sangster, is Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America