We say: Coastal Colombia goes electronic and dancehall.
Bomba Estereo, who consist of singer Liliana Saumet, bassist Simón Mejía and guitarist Julian Salazar, take traditional musical influences from their Caribbean homeland like cumbia, champeta and dancehall and blend it with laptop beats and rock sensibility. The notion is to blend the traditional music of the Colombian coast with that of Africa, to take local music and move it up to another level.
The opening track here, "Bosque", sounds a bit like one of those cool electronic Tango tunes that were all the rage about a decade ago: cue dark-suited Frenchmen fiddling with laptops alongside old-time Argentine musicians. But that's a little misleading, as immediately after this things move decidedly more up-tempo with "Bailar Conmigo" and "El Alma y El Cuerpo", which set down a faster, more danceable groove before moving on to unashamed party anthems like "Pure Love" and "Caribbean Power". Not very cerebral maybe but good fun nevertheless.
In essence, Elegancia Tropical is Afro-Colombian music but not as we normally know it. The synthetic beats make for a modern electro sound that's clearly aimed at dance floors, the electronic element providing lightness to the sound—some might say thinness. To these ears it sounds a bit over-processed, as if the band is performing a long way away—the sort of thing that keeps you awake in your tent at a world music festival. Personally, I like Colombian coastal music left just as it is, unadulterated by too much modern technology, but that's just me. The debut album Blowup was a blowup hit when this sound was more novel, so we'll see how the sophomore effort is received.
La Cantiga del Fuego
We say: A Toledo soundtrack of Sephardic Spanish songs with a modern touch.
Ana Alcaide's adopted city of Toledo in Spain is central to this recording. For centuries Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions coexisted peacefully here until the unforgiving Reconquista saw to it that both Muslims and Jews were exiled from the Spanish homeland they had known for generations. Both peoples took something of the old country with them when they left for new territories overseas. Ana Alcaide's music documents and celebrates Spain's Jewish tradition and tells the Sephardic story through a variety of traditional and self-penned songs.
A biologist as well as a trained musician, Alcaide's post-graduate studies took her to Sweden where she came across the nyckelharpa, a traditional and somewhat archaic Swedish instrument. Already a skilled violinist, Alcaide learned to play the instrument busking on the streets of Toledo and, as her skills developed, adopted the instrument to her personal telling of the story of Toledo's Jews.
The title track "La Cantiga del Fuego (The Song of the Fire)" is a traditional Sephardic song that tells of a devastating fire in Thessaloniki, one of their cities of exile. "La Reina Ester" is another old Sephardic song sung in Ladino that describes historic events during the reign of Queen Esther in old Persia. Many of the other tracks are original compositions by Alcaide written in the same spirit of tradition.
Ana Alcaide's voice is melodious and strong throughout and at times the sound is markedly Middle Eastern, as you might expect with instrumentation that includes santur, Greek lyra, psaltery and oud as well as Alcaide's own nyckelharpa and violin. Elsewhere, there is a medieval feel to things. Neither should come as a surprise really considering this music's roots in medieval Muslim Spain. Although the result is gentle and evocative with a hint of romantic whimsy, any comparisons with the ethereal ear-floss that is Enya should be politely disregarded. Ana Alcaide is very much her own woman and this is a highly enjoyable and original collection.
The Fear and the Framing
We say: Disturbing and original—not an easy-listening toe-tapper in sight.
There's a Scandinavian connection here too but this could not be more different. Jessica Sligter is Dutch but her heart—musically speaking—belongs to Norway. Appropriately, this album was recorded in both countries, in Amsterdam and Oslo. Sligter, who used to perform under the pseudonym ‘JÆ', is a singer, composer and producer who has been engaged in a variety of musical projects over the years that have included free improvisation, noise, rock and alt-pop. It is not surprising then that The Fear and the Framing is hardly conventional singer-songwriter fare.
There's close focus on the lyrics in this collection, which verge on the disquieting in places, as does the music itself. After the relatively soothing opener, "Man Who Scares Me", with its wall of sound chorus and jazz trumpet licks, the listener is put to the test with the more challenging "If That Was Crooked, This Is Straight", an atonal instrumental track that seems to serve as a sort of emotional palette cleanser. Next, it's jackhammer drums to introduce "Fear" with its detached vocal set against deranged electric guitar and jarring harmonies that sound like a Bulgarian women's choir on acid. The dark, but almost pretty, "The Perfect Vessel" almost comes as a relief after all this. As does "Everly", which, if there were a hit single here, would be it. The closing track, "Fall, Here" is quite beautiful too in a cool, stark sort of way.
Sligter has a distinctive voice and a unique approach. Laurie Anderson, PJ Harvey and a less elfin Björk all spring to mind by way of comparison but a female Scott Walker probably comes closest (does "Scott Will Be Hierarch" refer to the reclusive singer—it's hard to tell?). Despite her tender years and girlish demeanor, Sligter seems to know where the bodies are buried.
The Fear and the Framing is undeniably disturbing in places, its stark verbal images juxtaposed against harsh, often minimalist, discord. The lyrical themes focus around anxiety, fear and emotional collapse, love—or lack of it—and sex. Appropriately, her voice although mellow is cool and aloof, and just a little scary. Sligter is a free spirit, musically speaking, of the kind that, for some reason, Norway is very good at providing a supportively framework for.
The Fear and the Framing justifies repeat listening although it hardly lifts the spirits. Inventive, original, intriguing and definitely worthy of quality ear-time, it is probably safe to say that this is not a good choice to spin at parties... but nor is Scott Walker.
Putamayo Presents World Yoga
We say: Strike a pose and chill out.
If yoga is your thing then you might enjoy this as background music for your asana workout. If it's not then maybe you'd choose this as a sort of chill-out compilation. Not surprisingly, it is very laid-back: most tracks feature acoustic guitars and suitably ambient soundscapes, and the word ‘Om' gets banded about quite a bit.
There are offerings here from all over the globe as you might expect from a label that specializes in world music compilations. Punching well above its weight for a tiny riverbank of a country, Gambia is well represented with two tracks by Sona Jobarteh. The melancholic sound of Armenia gets an outing with Ara Djinkan's "Offering" but more surprising are tracks from Wales, with "Cariad Cyntaf" by 9Bach, Sweden with Tiny Island's lovely "La Valse Petit", and Uganda with Geoffrey Oryema's "Makoambo". No yoga album would be complete without something from Tibet and so here we have Kelsang Cuchukie Tethong with "A Prayer to Dispel Sickness and Harms", which hardly sounds Tibetan at all, more Celtic wistful. Surprisingly there is nothing from India here, and not a sitar to be heard, although Deva Premal & Miten (from Germany/UK), with dreamy vocals and flutes, demonstrate a strong subcontinental influence, as does "Moon Magic (Chandra)" by Steve McNamara which features raga guitar and tabla.
The aim of World Yoga, I suppose, is to calm the listener and not to distract too much, so for obvious reasons there's nothing overly rhythmic here. It's a relaxing selection certainly, nothing to get too worked up about, but surely that is the point.
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.