Perceptive Travel World Music Reviews
June 2015 - By Laurence Mitchell

In this issue: Lebanese electronica, the king of Zimbabwe protest music, pan-Latin fusion, and...Finnish tango!





The Best of Soapkills
Soapkills

We say: A retrospective look at a cult Lebanese duo.

Founded in the late 1990s by Yasmine Hamdan and Zeid Hamdan (not related but both from Beirut), Soapkills based their music on Arabic classical and folk traditions alongside electronica, dub and trip-hop. Recording three self-released albums between 2001 and 2005 the duo's output became part of the soundtrack to the cautiously optimistic youth scene in troubled post-war Lebanon. This retrospective collection combines songs from all three of their albums plus a couple of previously unreleased tracks. Hats off to Crammed Discs for not letting this music — previously little known in the West — pass us by.

The trip-hop influence is apparent from the outset, both with the opener "Leh Zaaeln" and sparse following track "Yahoo!" that conjure up a mood of urban alienation in the manner of British Bristol bands like Massive Attack and Portishead. But Soapkills are not simply style copyists and their music can sometimes come across as light and poppy, or even whimsical, as on "Herzan" with its reggae styling and breathy vocal. Elsewhere, the previously unreleased "Cheftak (Paris Version)" is gently compulsive with its bleating rhythm and tinkling keyboard, while "Tango" is more traditional, referencing old time Arab music whilst receiving a thoroughly modern treatment with bass and snare against sampled strings.

There's variety aplenty: the instrumental "Marco Slow" makes use of what sounds like a traditional oud; "Aranis & Kouuloo Ndif" begins as a slow languorous ballad before going all hip-hop for a while. "Galbi," which, if my rusty Arabic serves correctly, translates as "My Heart," is another ballad with a trip-hop feel that features sparse Arab strings supplementing a claustrophobic electronic heartbeat. I could probably live without the vocoder vocal on "Manni 2elak" but that's just a minor personal gripe.






Lion Songs
Thomas Mapfumo

We say: The essential soundtrack of the Zimbabwean struggle.

Thomas Mapfumo — The Lion of Zimbabwe — has been making music since the early 1970s. Always fearlessly outspoken, he was a thorn in the side of the British colonial regime before latterly becoming a vocal critic of the corrupt presidency of Robert Mugabe that still presides today. This lengthy compilation serves as an audio companion to a book — Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe (Duke University Press) — by the musician Banning Eyre, who has assembled this collection of songs interspersed with snatches of commentary by Mapfumo himself.

Mapfumo's musical style is the modern equivalent of traditional mbira music of Zimbabwe's Shona people. Repetitive, fast, and almost trance-like, with riffing guitars, this music has not shifted far from its African roots despite its use of electric instruments. Some of the earlier tracks here like "Ngoma Yarira (The Drums Are Sounding)" and "Pfumvu Pa Ruzevha (Hardship in the Reserves)" are fine examples of the war-era music that Mapfumo put out to inspire the guerrilla fighters in the Zimbabwean bush. Later work, like "Shumba (The Lion)," pauses to celebrate Zimbabwe's independence in1980 before going on to condemn Mugabe's flawed regime with the unambiguous "Corruption" of 1987, which is sung in English.

Politics aside, this is stirring stuff, and even without understanding a word of the politically orientated lyrics, the revolutionary message of the songs comes across loud and clear. Just listen to the passion and urgency of "Nyoka Musango (Snake in the Forest)" to get the idea.






Dark Wings of the Night
Tango-Orkesteri Unto

We say: Accomplished, if lyric-heavy, Finnish tango.

This six-piece band, which takes its name from the composer Unto Mononen, hails from that alternative home of tango music… Finland. It may come as a surprise but tango has long been popular in this northern corner of Europe. Perhaps it is something to do with the promise of blue Argentine skies in the midst of a Scandinavian winter but Finland's love of tango is so deep-rooted that the country even has its own annual tango festival — Tangomarkkinat — that attracts up to 100,000 fans each year.

Tango-Orkesteri Unto has been performing tango for almost two decades now, recording and touring extensively at home and abroad. Clearly very capable musicians, they offer a slightly lighter and less melodramatic version of the Argentine genre — definitely more Helsinki than Buenos Aires but impressive nevertheless.

Singing songs performed in the nation's own fiendishly difficult language, Finnish, the rich warm voice of lead singer Pirjo Aittomäki is to the fore throughout, augmented by a complex intertwining backing of violin, double bass, guitar, piano, and accordion. Unlike more traditional tango, there's little in the way of instrumental breaks here, and so some of the longer, multiple-versed songs like "Hyljätty" might tend to go on a little too long for some non-Finnish speaking listeners, which, let's face it, means most of us. Language rarely presents a problem in world music but where the music serves the lyric rather than the other way round, as is the case here, it can be difficult to hold concentration for the entire duration of a disk. At least the accompanying booklet gives a summary in English of each of the songs.






Elixir
Ola Fresca

We say: Latin music mash-up from the streets of Brooklyn.

On Elixir, the latest offering from Ola Fresca, the Brooklyn-based band led by singer, songwriter and producer Jose Conde, the aim is to fuse the various factions of contemporary Latin music. Ambitious perhaps, but Conde does such a good job of combining Cuban son and rumba with Cuban-American and Puerto Rican salsa that the result seems pretty seamless.

As might be expected this is music for dancing, pure and simple. So don't expect anything that departs too far from the usual Latin music tropes. The song titles tell it all really: "Mulata," La Mano del Rumbero," "El Niño de la Clave" — you get the picture. Aficionados of Latin styles might be able to detect subtle shifts in style from salsa to son to timba and so on but I don't think it matters if, like me, you cannot always discern this. I doubt if salsa purists would object too strongly either. Whatever the combination of styles, the result is undoubtedly something that has originated in New York. Well recorded, with a bright live sound and clean, unfussy production by Andy Taub, Elixir is best enjoyed for simply what it is: a lively dance record with plenty of scope for hip-shaking and waist-winding.






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.

See the last round of music reviews from Laurence Mitchell.



Also in this issue:

The Best of Soapkills

Buy The Best of Soapkills online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK



Lion Songs

Buy Lion Songs online here:
Amazon US





Dark Wings of the Night

Buy Dark Wings of the Night online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK



Elixir

Buy Elixir online here:
Amazon US
Amazon UK



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