Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lee "Scratch" Perry: news from post-apocalyptic Jamaica

Lee "Scratch" Perry
The End of an American Dream

Comes off as Karaoke night in a futuristic post-apocalyptic Jamaican rest home, where some guy on stage babbles endlessly about poo poo and doo doo, interspersed with animal impressions, and an occasional shout out to Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey, while machine gunfire and riots go on in the background. Maybe it's the CD buyers trying to get a refund. - Louis "Itch" Gibson

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

KlezRoym - Italy's klezmer connection

Vinticinqueaprile: Live in Fossoli
LaFrontiera (

The Italian band KlezRoym must be recognized as one of the top Jewish music ensembles in the world. This live CD captures them at Fossoli, near Modena, at a commemorative concert for the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation from Nazi-Fascism. Fossoli served the Nazis as a concentration camp, through which thousands of Jews and political opponents of Nazism would be deported on their way to the German and Polish camps. Primo Levi was one of those individuals kept at Fossoli, before being sent to Auschwitz.

KlezRoym's concert performance here reflects the gravitas of the locale, as the band journeys through their extensive repertoire. The group does not really launch into the kind of exuberant klezmer that one might expect; rather, there is something of a chamber-jazz elegance about their approach that would not be out-of-place on the European art-jazz label ECM. Even so, I hate to utilize the adjective 'sparing' to describe the arrangements of songs such as "Ershter Vals," which sweeps along as if following a painter's brush. This is the approach that KlezRoym utilizes so well: the brass instruments swell with emotion (as on the short "Cerimonia nuziale"), and each silence and blast speaks volumes. Further, one of the most beautiful aspects of KlezRoym's music is the voice of Eva Coen, which seems to swallow and encapsulate the whole of KlezRoym's endeavors. Coen is inside these songs, as is Riccardo Manzi, whose voice acts as the perfect counterpart to Eva Coen's. Manzi's turn on "Papir Is Doch Weiss" shows how his own sweet voice can be tinged with just the right kind of roughness, veering into sadness.

KlezRoym do quicken the pace of the concert, as on the swinging "Yankele nel ghetto" which serves as a prelude here to the truly wild "Danza immobile," where Eva Coen's voice and Andrea Pandolfo's trumpet follow each other around before Coen drops away, wordlessly vocalizing as the band sensuously stretches themselves out. The tune "Oi Tate" is also more aggressive, while "New York Sirba" evinces more of the careful KlezRoym arranging, building to its ecstatic climax. The Fossoli concert ends with the Italian partisan song "Bella ciao," where KlezRoym are joined by the horns of la Filarmonica della Citta di Carpi and an enthusiastic audience clapping in time; a clear statement of the continued resistance to the madness of fascism. KlezRoym have produced a wonderful documentation of their career thus far, but by any estimation this is an essential live recording of an important band at the height of their powers. - Lee Blackstone

Listen to "Ershter Vals"

CD available from cdRoots

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Linking the world thru "The Tube"

Linking the world through sound and vision:
Marty Lipp turns on the tube

When I was growing up, you would never be caught dead listening to your parents' albums, but at least their music was recorded on the same medium as ours. Since then, the CD pushed out the LP and now the young'uns go for the new initials on the block - MP3 ­ at least for now.

Being an old, cranky techno-boob is no fun, but I am getting better. My latest foray ­ a bit late, but us oldsters move slow ­ is watching streaming videos a la YouTube. One night I started typing in the names of my favorite bands from around the world and was rewarded with a mix of live performances and art-directed music videos. I even caught Los Lobos playing an old Mexican tune on Sesame Street.

For those who complain about wanting to hear something new, try some of the best bands in the world: the medieval-metal of Sweden's Hedningarna (choreographed with a type of bellydancing on "Veli"); the agit-prop of Asian Dub Foundation, the art-school men of the people, Café Tacuba of Mexico ("Ingrata"); or the sophisticated updating of folk instruments by Galicia's Berrogüetto ("Xente"). Or check out Manu Chao's "Rainin' in Paradize," a faux-naif anti-war rocker animated with child-like drawings.

Hazmat Modine in Russia

As a forum for videos and music from around the world, YouTube is simply remarkable. Suddenly, some old concert from state-sponsored television in the former Soviet bloc is there, as if plucked from the ether.

One downside to skipping around YouTube is that the quality of the videos are wildly erratic. Another is that since you don't know what you don't know, you are essentially stumbling around in the dark.

There are, however, others who are handpicking videos for audiences. Link TV, which is on channel 375 on Direct TV and 9410 on The Dish Network, includes music videos with its mix of news and cultural programming from around the world. Recently, the nonprofit broadcaster, whose motto is "Television Without Borders," relaunched its website, offering streaming world-music videos. LinkTV also curated videos for National Geographic's new world-music web pages.

At Link TV there are 30-minute blocks with themes such as hip-hop, dance and performances. There are over 250 individual videos posted, with more going up regularly, searchable by region or genre. Hip-hop from around the world includes the poignant, compelling "Soobax" by K'Naan, a Somalian living in Canada, and songs from one of my favorite bands, the Barcelona-based collective called Ojos de Brujo who have some beautifully done videos illustrating their affecting mix of hip-hop, flamenco and other genres.

Michal Shapiro, LinkTV's assistant director of music programming, said the goal is to present high-quality videos ­ whether it's a performance clip that "captures the moment well" or a visualization that "enriches the song." Though you still watch a relatively small box, LinkTV's higher-quality videos are well-suited for quieter music, such as the exquisite Madredeus or the lambent "Corazón Loco" by Cuban pianist Bebo Valdez and flamenco singer El Cigala.

"There are some extraordinary collaborations that go on between artists and directors," said Steven Lawrence, LinkTV's director of music and cultural programming.

"We don't care if it costs a lot," said Shapiro. "The creativity factor is what we're looking for." On the other hand, she noted, that if a song itself is great and the video is of horrible quality, they do not air it. "That's the kind of thing that breaks our heart."

"Most people in the U.S.," said Lawrence, see a world that seems "constantly in crisis" because newscasts are usually dominated by wars and other catastrophes. The world music videos, he said, show how other countries are facing their challenges, but also show the "celebration of life going on."

"Not as concerned with ratings," said Lawrence. "We're concerned with our mission: connecting Americans to the world."

This is the time of year when everyone suggests things for you to buy. Here's some treats for yourself ­ no purchase necessary. - Marty Lipp

Link TV:

A few of the editor's choices on YouTube

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Piccola Bottega Baltazar present a Disc of Miracles

Piccola Bottega Baltazar
Il disco dei Miracoli (The Disc of Miracles)
Azzurra Music, Italy

Piccola Bottega Baltazar present their 2007 recording, a song cycle about miracles. Inspired by "I miracoli di Val Morel," a book and paintings by Dino Buzzati, this disc of miracles records the everyday fantastic, the banal bizarre and the craziness of the routine.

Musically, it's a bit different from their previous work. They have moved away from jazz, toward singer/songwriter sensibilities with a touch of lounge and Mediterranean café music. The instruments used by the band are guitar, mandolin, harmonica, piano, bandoneon and glockenspiel, bass and drums, augmented by guest violinists, a cellist and a flute player. Particular mention should be given to the well-thought arrangements of the songs, which create layers of meaning and music that create a fuller sound on much of the recording.

The lyrics continue to be an integral part of the magic of this band. In a real homage to the original work, they work as one with the artwork, such as the cover picturing St. Rita, the saint of the Impossible, who according to the legends of the Northeast of Italy, once forbidden to enter a monastery (for there was a tint of suspicion hovering over her head regarding the weird death of her husband) was miraculously flown over the walls during the night. That and other tall tales form the backbone of the record. It would be nice if they could find the time to upload the translations of their songs to their already impressive website.

Lyrically, every song is unique. Musically, "Il Colombre," "Stregato da un sorriso" and "Gli amanti di via morel" seem to work the best for me. It's quite funny because two out of three are instrumentals which seem to add to the sentimental depth of the work.

The song that closes the record is their crowning achievement, musically and lyrically. "Fantasmi a Nordeast" (Phantoms of the Northeast), a tale of everyday miracles that best encapsulates this work: "On the trench, the signs from the tires of the mountain bike/locusts and the whirr of the A4/in your eyes myths and at your feet/the dog doesn't even bark."

PBB have continued to move forward, not veering too much off their path, but certainly finding new pastures. This is another exciting release from a fine band that here offers warm music for winter nights. - Nondas Kitsos

Artists' web site and audio samples:

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The great Belize artist Andy Palacio

Belizean Musician Andy Palacio Passes Away

January 19, 2008 - Andy Palacio, an iconic musician and cultural activist in his native Belize and impassioned spokesperson for the Garifuna people of Central America, died today.

Palacio, 47, was a national hero in Belize for his popular music and advocacy of Garifuna language and culture. Belize is in the midst of a heated election, but the local news was entirely dominated by Palacio's health crisis.

The reaction has also been strong around the world. Until the recent turn of events, the past year had been one of tremendous accomplishment for Palacio as his album Wátina, which was released at the beginning of 2007, had become one of the most critically acclaimed recordings of the year in any genre. Perhaps the most unanimously revered world music album in recent memory, Wátina appeared on dozens of Best of the Year lists in major media outlets around the globe and was roundly praised in glowing terms.

In 2007, Palacio was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace and won the prestigious WOMEX Award. Wátina was also nominated for the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards. At home in Belize, the international success of Wátina has sparked a revival of Garifuna music, as young musicians have become inspired by Palacio's example. Even in the days since Palacio's health crisis began, the accolades have continued to pour in for his work.

That Palacio has been struck down at a moment of such international acclaim only increases the sense of shock and tragedy felt at his sudden and untimely death.

Andy Palacio will be honored with an official state funeral. A massive tribute concert is planned in Belize City on Friday, January 25th.

RootsWorld will have a more extensive article about Andy in an upcoming issue

African music classics revisited in two great new CD sets

Authenticité: The Syliphone Years, Guinea's Orchestres Nationaux and Federaux, 1965-1980

Bokoor Beats: Vintage Afrobeat, Afro-Rock and Highlife from Ghana

Malian desert blues, Nigerian Afro-Beat, South African mbqanga and kwaito, Senegal's mbalax, Congolese rumba and soukous - these and a few other African styles have established niches in the global music marketplace. Two recently issued compilations bring welcome exposure to the somewhat lesser known sounds of Guinea and Ghana.

The two-CD set Authenticité: The Syliphone Years, Guinea's Orchestres Nationaux and Federaux, 1965-1980 (compiled by Paul Hayward and Graeme Counsel), presents 28 selections by the government-supported national and federal bands that emerged after Guinea achieved independence from France in 1958.

The new government of President Sekou Touré made cultural policy a centerpiece of its nation-building efforts. Artists, and particularly musicians, were encouraged to create works that were modern but based in African tradition, hence the policy's name - authenticité.

Under the policy, each of Guinea's 34 regions was represented by artistic troupes comprising an orchestra, a traditional ensemble, a choir, and a theater group. There were regional orchestras (orchestres federaux) and national orchestras (orchestres nationaux). The Syliphone label was home to most of the new Guinean ensembles, but non-Guinean artists, including South Africa's Miriam Makeba, also recorded for the Conakry-based company.

Government subsidies paid for the orchestras' instruments but bureaucrats also exerted influence over what they played, encouraging them to sing about nationalism and anti-imperialism.

Although authenticité was intended to assert newly independent Guinea's cultural identity, the policy often produced propaganda since musicians were expected to praise Sekou Touré and his one-party state. But the emphasis on African cultural roots also meant that the regional and national orchestras could draw inspiration from traditional sources, such as griot narratives. "Soundiata," by Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, the opening track of Authenticité, is an epic griot song in praise of Soundiata Keita, who founded the Malian empire 800 years ago.

Bembeya Jazz, founded in 1961 as a national orchestra and still active today, is Guinea's best-known band; they're represented by four tracks here, with "Bembeya" a standout. A song of self-praise in which Bembeya touts its prowess as Guinea's top dance band, it runs through several tempo changes, beginning with a slow opening section featuring unison vocals by the two lead singers, Demba Canara and Salifou Kaba. Guitarist Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate, a leading light of African music, takes two solos, each one a beauty - the first coming as the band eases into a Cuban-style section also featuring horns.

Cuba's influence, immense in African music, is also felt in "Karan-gbegne" by another leading national orchestra, the Horoya Band.

Though Bembeya, Keletigui et ses Tambourinis and Horoya are the leading orchestras, Authenticité also gives deserved exposure to some less prominent but worthy aggregations. The Super Boiro Band, led by trumpeter Mamadou Niaissa, is represented by the terrific "Mariama," which moves from a stately introduction to an up-tempo section featuring guitarist Karan Mady. "Festival," by Le Simandou de Beyla, is a mostly instrumental track that gives generous solo space to the band's fine saxophonist, trumpeter and guitarist.

Listen to "Mariama"

Despite the common view of African music as percussive, the guitar really is the lead instrument in so many of the continent's styles, including Guinea's. There are great axmen aplenty on Authenticité, but I particularly enjoy Sekou "Le Docteur" Diabate - not the Bembeya guitarist of the same name -- whose fuzztone heroics make "Samba," by Pivi et les Balladins, such an exciting ride.

Diabate also is remarkable on the Manding love song, "Diaraby," from Balla et ses Balladins, which actually is the same band as Pivi's. Balla Onivogui was the original bandleader, but he fell afoul of a Guinean bureaucrat who demoted him in favor of trombonist Pivi Moriba. This bit of government intervention angered President Touré, who insisted that Onivogui be re-instated and that the band return to its original name. But regardless of who's chef d'orchestre, the Balladins, blessed by Diabate's galvanizing presence, were a great band.

For African music aficionados, Authenticité is a must, but a caveat is in order. The tracks were transferred and mastered from the original vinyl, and as the CD notes acknowledge, "sound quality varies according to source." What this means is that although the music is often excellent, listeners have to put up with sound that is frequently tinny, and at times painfully trebly and hollow-sounding.

The twelve tracks that comprise Bokoor Beats document a sea change in Ghanaian popular music, the early 1970s movement away from large dance orchestras to smaller bands that specialized in Hendrix- and Santana-inspired rock, funk a la James Brown, and the Afro-beat of Fela Kuti. Bokoor - which means "coolness" -- was the name of a band and a recording studio. The band was formed in 1971 by Ghanaian guitarist Robert Beckley and John Collins, an expatriate Englishman; the studio, located outside the capital city of Accra, was founded by Collins in 1982.

Collins' biography makes him perhaps the most influential non-African in African music since his compatriot, the ethnomusicologist and producer Hugh Tracey. He's certainly got to be the most hardworking. Collins, who arrived in Ghana in 1952, has been not only a musician, bandleader and record producer, but also a journalist, author, academic, and broadcaster, as well as a documentary film consultant. During the 1970s, he helped found the Ghana Musicians Union and was a member of its executive committee.

The first Bokoor Band folded after only a year; Collins re-formed it in 1975. During the intervening years the evidently tireless Brit played guitar, harmonica, and percussion with many Ghanaian, and Nigerian, artists, including the Jaguar Jokers, Francis Kenya, E.T. Mensah, and the great soul rebel Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Between its rebirth and its demise in 1979, the Bokoor Band featured an ever-changing lineup of a dozen or so musicians.

On Bokoor Beats, Collins presents some of his favorite recordings from his early years on the Ghanaian music scene. Eight of the 12 tracks are by his band; the remaining ones are late 1980s-early 1990s selections by Blekete and The Big Beats ("Egbe Enyo"), the Mangwana Stars ("Atiadele"), T.O Jazz ("Onam Bebi Basa") and the Oyikwan Internationals ("Anoma Franoas").

Of the Bokoor Band's contributions, the Afro-Beat tracks - "Maya Gari," "Yeah Yeah Ku Yeah," and "Onukpa Shwarpo" -- make the strongest impression. Collins and his band mates thoroughly assimilated the hard-driving, Africanized hybrid of funk and jazz that Fela Kuti pioneered in the 1970s.

A couple of highlife tracks - "Now Comes Another Day" and "Been To"- exemplify the style's sing-songy, cheery quality. (In the latter, the band dedicates "this cheerful tune to you.") Both are slight, yet totally charming. "Money in Bed" and "Trouble Man" (not Marvin Gaye's but an original by Collins and Kpani Gasper Tettey Addy) add soukous to the mix, but percussion dominates instead of the guitar-driven Congolese sound.

Perhaps the most surprising element on the Bokoor Band tracks is John Collins' wailing, chattering harmonica, played in a 60s folk-rock rather than blues-based style. It's fun for a while, but Collins overdoes it. The "less is more" axiom fully applies here.

Bokoor Beats generally doesn't match the sophistication and inventiveness of the best performances on Authenticité. The music's simpler, more rough-hewn, and definitely more raucous. But like the Guineans, the Bokoor Band and the other Collins-produced groups on the compilation exude the self-confidence and joy of African artistry newly liberated from the brutal and arrogant Euro-supremacy of colonialism. - George De Stefano

Available from cdRoots
Bokoor Beats

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Transsylvanians' "Fe les Egesz"

Fe les Egesz
Westpark (

The sixth album for Berlin-based players of "Hungarian speed-folk" the Transsylvanians, Fe les Egesz ("Half and Whole") is a double-disc affair. As such, Fe les Egesz addresses the problems and decisions that many bands who work within the folk-rock genre are prone to: when do you pump up the volume, and when do you give yourself over to your quieter side? Over the course of their career, the Transsylvanians have played a bracing combination of extraordinarily fast folk-punkrock, which is showcased on the first CD of this set; the quieter, reflective Transsylvanians take over the second. All singing is done in Hungarian (and no English lyric translations are provided). The group's members have remained fairly constant, with the energetic violin player Tiborcz Andras being the guiding light and arranger of the band's material. Fe les Egesz finds the Transsylvanians welcoming in their new female singer Nagy Isabel (also on contrabass), replacing former female singer and double-bass player Szilvana. Nagy is featured consistently over both sets, and her voice is really forceful; she is more than capable of reaching the upper register of the songs, and often in a sweeter manner than her predecessor.

Strangely enough, I did not find the first disc ("for stagedivers") as memorable as the second ("for slowfolkers"). In my estimation, the band's 1999 (Jo!) and 2000 (Denever) CDs are their masterworks, with the enthusiasm of their fast songs proving to be devastating. Here, the tunes - while certainly amped up - seem to be a bit too polished; perhaps something was lost in the production? Nonetheless, the twenty minute closing track of CD 1, "Istvan es Koppany," veers crazily between tempos, makes a stab at musical theater (at one point including a bit of liturgy!), but comes off as something new (I'll suggest the term 'prog-punk').

The second CD is just wonderful, and where the real magic happens. As in the past, the band interprets Bartok ("Roman tancok", and "Tulipan" on CD 1) with great success; I would not mind seeing an entire CD of re-assembled Bartok by the Transsylvanians. There is also a Rimski-Korsakow tune, "Hindu song from 'Sadko'," beautifully rendered. Plus, we are treated to two versions (the second in English) of the infamous 'Hungarian suicide song' "Gloomy Sunday," by Seress Rezso: there are many stories of people's bodies being found with the sheetmusic to this song by their side! András Tiborcz' own "A Tisza," with a beautiful keyboard line from Andreas Hirche, is a clear highlight, the dynamics building effortlessly in the Transsylvanian's enchanting style. - Lee Blackstone

Listen to "Gloomy Sunday"

The band's web site:

CD available from cdRoots