Cha Cha Cha
Abelardo Barroso with Orquestra Sensación
We say: A rebooted vintage Cuban golden voice from the 1950s.
This is the real deal: old-style Cuban music from the 1950s. Abelardo Barroso was born in poverty in Havana in 1905 and started singing in the 1920s when he quickly became known as "El Caruso de Cuba." The missing link before the Buena Vista Social Club generation—Barroso died in 1972. These remixed recordings come from the period 1955-7 when, after being reduced to playing for tips outside nightclubs, he made a final comeback as vocalist with Orquesta Sensación. Vocal cord problems eventually got the better of his golden voice and the last time Barroso sang was in 1968, a few years before his death from emphysema.
Cha Cha Cha has a deliciously warm retro sound and all the musical elements—flutes, percussion, violins—that characterize big band Cuban music of the period. Purists should note that few of the tracks could be strictly defined as Cha Cha Cha but that's no hardship. It's hard to pick out a favorite, but the rumba "La Reina Guancuano" stands out for its unashamed Africanness and percussion-heavy Santería slant, while "Tiene Sabor," with its call-and-response and pizzicato groove, is pretty irresistible too. There's also a nice guajiro, "El Guajiro de Cunagua," with great angular piano-thumping, and a pleasing version of the classic "El Manisero," which, dating from the late 1920s and being the first Cuban/Latin million-seller, could be said to be the first ever "world music" hit. The song has been recorded at least 160 times and Barroso's mellifluous version is a worthy addition of the canon.
The only complaint is the shortness of the tracks, which are all around the three-minute mark, but these recordings would have been originally been released on 78 rpm vinyl so total playing time would have been tightly constrained. Nevertheless, there's much to admire: a golden voice from the 1950s, remixed for the 21st century, this is exactly the sort of thing that Buena Vista Social Club members would have been listening to when they were aspiring young musicians strolling Havana's Malecón.
Yule Analog Vol. 1
We say: I and I are dreaming of a dub Christmas.
Is this a Christmas album for those who don't like Christmas albums? Yule Analog Vol. 1 is a collection of popular Yuletide tunes performed in dub reggae style by Brooklyn-based band Super Hi-Fi, whose usual remit also extends to New Orleans-style brass, jazz and Afro-Beat.
Yule Analog Vol. 1 has all the ingredients of classic dub—analog tape delays, multiple trombones, low-down bass, and minimalist guitar scratching. While it may not be the thing for died-in-the-wool elderly relatives, it's certainly great fun, especially for those who favor a more ironic take on the musical tropes of the Christmas season. Most of the tunes here are very familiar, although the dub approach means they tend to be tackled with the musical equivalent of lateral thinking. Oddly enough, what would normally be my least favorite tune here— "Little Drummer Boy," once immortalized, if that is the right word, by a certain D. Bowie and B. Crosby—actually works better than most as a dub version. A lengthy freak-out guitar solo renders it all the more endearing.
Maybe Yule Analog Vol. 1 may never beat Bing in popularity stakes but at least it is fresh. But, with only 33 minutes of playing time, and three tracks repeated with different "versions", it might be argued that it is a bit Scrooge-like in terms of value for money. Still, there's no harm leaving this spinning on repeat while you get down the serious business of yuletide excess. It would be good to hear it playing in malls too: it might just make Christmas shopping a little more bearable.
We say: Lyrical Indian poetry with Saharan grooves and just a hint of jazz.
On her latest album Sanata: Stillness Indian-born Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia determinedly melds classical Indian rhythms with deep Saharan grooves. Maybe it shouldn't work—there's little obvious shared common ground between the two forms—but somehow the fusion seems quite effortless and organic. This blend is helped enormously by the guitar work of Pakistani-American husband Rez Abbasi, who channels fluid Tinariwen-style trance guitar interspersed with the odd jazz lick. The Tuareg groove is nothing new to Ahluwalia as she collaborated with Tinariwen and their sometime producer Justin Adams on her previous release Aam Zameen: Common Ground. Clearly a little Saharan magic has rubbed off.
"Hayat," with its Saharan twang guitar, is a powerful opener that sets the scene, musically speaking, for the rest of the album. "Jaane Na," which follows, is lighter in feel, with a more obvious jazz influence and propulsive organ from Kiran Thakrar, who doubles on harmonium throughout. The title track "Sanata" is slower, with a camel-loping Saharan feel and bluesy guitar that could almost be Tinariwen if it wasn't for the pinging tabla and Indian vocal. "Hum Dono" is a stripped down duet between Ahluwalia's voice and Rich Brown's bass that does a pretty good impersonation of a Moroccan gimri, while the hypnotic "Jhoom" has a drinking theme ("Sway in rhythm, o drinker, sway"), which echoes one of the popular motifs of Pakistani qawwali. Naturally enough, the song is not really about wine. The set ends with a cover of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's "Lament," which boasts a superb Bill Frisell-style guitar solo.
There's much to be said for the artistic freedom of a diaspora. As Ahluwalia concedes, such an unfettered collaboration of Indian and Pakistani musicians would probably not be easy to organize on the subcontinent itself. There again, it is also unlikely that the Saharan fusion elements would have emerged had this collection been formulated in New Delhi rather than in New York.
We say: Diverse offerings from a very musical island.
Madagascar is a huge island, more a subcontinent than a country. It is a very musical island too, with a wide variety of styles reflecting the different regions of this diverse nation. This compilation of Madagascan music is a sprightly affair, with a lot of the songs here in fast 6/8 time, a favorite of dancers whatever part of the island they hail from.
Some of the featured artists like Rossy and Jaojoby are reasonably well known outside their home country, otherwise they are mostly an unknown quantity but they are all pretty good and there's plenty of regional variety. "Talia" by Hazolahy is taken at a frenetic pace, apparently the norm for Mangaliba music from the south-east coast. Jaojoby's "Soaiko, Somaino," the next track, is entirely different: weaving electric guitars and spirited vocals that, musically speaking, are not a million miles from Congolese soukous. Not surprisingly, given the island's geographical proximity, there's a fair amount that sounds quite South African too, especially groups like Oladad whose "Maintsokely," with its bass vocals and Zulu Jive vibe, brings to mind the Mahotella Queens.
Overall the musicianship is exemplary, and guitarists in particular are a cause for celebration — listen to the fast lyrical picking of Dedake on "Manekiteky," a fine example of the tsapiky music from Toliara region of the south-west. There's some superb accordion playing too, another Madagascan specialty.
Running for a little over an hour and a quarter, Feedback Madagascar has more than twice the playing time of Yule Analog Vol. 1 (see above)… and about twenty times more notes! With 50% of proceeds going to reforestation and community projects, and 50% to the artists concerned, what's not to like?
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.