Perceptive Travel World Music Reviews
February 2011 - By Tim Leffel

In this issue: A rollicking live album that bows to Fela Kuti, Spanglish Cuban-American rock, and Mali meets Havana.

Chopteeth Live
Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band

We say: The original jam band concept—non-stop African funk

So let's get it out of the way off the bat that these guys are American, not African. From staid Washington, D.C. even. They lay down such infectious grooves, however, that you've got to let their place of birth slide. The Chopteeth members have gone well past Fela Kuti 101 and have the musical equivalent of masters' degrees in percussion-driven African funk. They live up to the "big band" part of the name as well, with an ensemble of 12 people on stage at one time: the usual rhythm section, some extra percussion, and the kind of horn section that hits you with a blast of sound.

A few different spots in Africa make and appearance here, including Ghana, the Congo, and Senegal, but few of the audience members who go ga-ga over this band will recognize the specific heritage—or care. Many of the orginal songs were obscure to start with, found by band member collectors while searching through dusty record bins. The enthusiam shines through on every track and becomes infectious, however, even after a nine-minute jam like "J.J.D." or "Question Jam Answer." (Amazingly though, vocalist Michael Shereikis knows these songs so well he can sing them with ease in whatever language they were recorded in.)

What really puts this band above so many other afro-beat enthusiasts, however, is the killer horn section. Think Tower of Power backing Rufus and Chaka Khan in their heyday, or James Brown's J.B.'s band really kicking it hard on his early 1970s classics. Add in some driving percussion that never quits and this is one sweaty, infectious, no-holds-barred live album that will make many listeners want to plan a road trip to wherever Chopteeth is playing next.

We say: Musical waves moving back and forth across an ocean

Anyone who gets worked up about the bastardization of world music in the form of mash-ups and modernizing are ignoring history: some of the most celebrated types of "pure" world music are already a mish-mash of styles. Take Cuban music. As with pretty much any well-known music from Latin America or the Caribbean, it wouldn't be where it is without influence from Africa. But later that influence went the other way too, with many musicians from Mali studying in Cuba under a government grant program in the 1970s and bringing what they learned back home.

AfroCubism is a celebration of the link between Cuba and the African continent, especially Mali. It features Toumani Diabaté from Mali, a group of other musicians (some family members) from his country, and several Cubans joining Eliades Ochoa. The instruments are a mixture too: familiar ones like guitar and marimba join kora, ngoni, and balafon.

This is mostly a subdued, pleasant album that won't offend anyone at a dinner party. The musicians are experimenting (the classic "Guantamanera" is hardly recognizable), but seemingly trying hard to create lasting works of art. The title and cover images going with the AfroCubism theme create an air of scholarly importance, though thankfully the musical styles are both too playful for the combination to get too bogged down.

The collection is divided between songs orginally from Cuba and originally from Mali, with the included digital booklet coming with the dowloaded version giving English translations and a track-by-track explanation. While some songs work better than others, overall this is an intriguing look into cross-cultural musical currents.

Diablo Mambo
The Cuban Cowboys
We say: Splanglish surf punk

Here's another mostly American band pulling riffs from elsewhere, but since the Cuban Cowboys have more in common with the Beat Farmers or Del Fuegos than Ibrahim Ferrar, that's just fine. This might as well be called "The Spanlish Project" anyway: I can't recall any album that so thoroughly mixes Spanish and English willy-nilly on every song. Here are a few lines from "Bajo la Luna:

Entre dia y noche hay un gran amor
Between day and night, there is a great love
Cuando sube la luna, cuando baja el sol
When the moon rises, when the sun goes down
This ain't no lunar disco, this ain't no mess around
When the Moon come up, the Sun go

Bajo, bajo la Luna, Under the Moon alright
All the lobos shout together
To keep the Sun awake at night

Early reviews have compared The Cuban Cowboys to at least two dozen other bands, which shows you how hard they are to really pin down. There's a bit of surf-rock, some punk influence, and mambo rhythms, all tied up with a heavy dose of Latino bravado. Leader Jorge Navarro cites both Dwight Yoakam and Iggy Pop as influences—along with Arsenio Rodriguez—so this is not a song collection that follows a straight path.

Lyrically and musically, Diablo Mambo captures the immigrant experience, the mixing of cultures and ideas that occurs when a family moves from one place to another, holding onto the past, but adapting to a new life. It's Cuban, it's American, it's the new Latinoamerica.

Editor Tim Leffel is a former music biz marketer who became a blogger, travel writer, and author of four books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations and Travel Writing 2.0.

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