The rest of the world
OK, I'm not one of those sore losers who has spent the last week pretending to make plans for global relocation. (I imagine it's hard to find good breakfast tacos in France, and Italians can't sing country music.) But I do think it would be nice to help the rest of the world hate us slightly less than they do right now. In that spirit, let's buy some of their music!
Africa: Kora player Mory Kanté isn't as well known here as his contemporary Salif Keita, but in 1988 he was the first African artist to sell a million records. On his new Sabou (Riverboat), Kanté - who found fame with a funky, electrified take on traditional tunes - returns to his acoustic griot roots for a beautiful group of songs about the problems facing his continent.
The Mediterranean: Africa and Europe share more than a big chunk of water - musical traditions have paddled across the sea back and forth, mutating into any number of sensual hybrids. The Rough Guide to Mediterranean Café Music (World Music Network) collects some of the high points, covering traditional music and radio pop in countries from France to Egypt. For more depth and stylistic focus, there's The Rough Guide to Rebétika, which collects old and new examples in a single Greek tradition. (One which, according to the liner notes, is "the music of the Greek underworld.") Or the new live disc from Spain's Radio Tarifa, Fiebre (Nonesuch), which celebrates the group's 10th anniversary. The title ("fever") is completely appropriate for a disc full of impassioned Flamenco freakouts and uncontained audience participation.
As with Flamenco, the roots and branches of Jewish music stretch around the world. John Zorn's Tzadik Records acknowledges this by grouping an ongoing series of releases under the "Radical Jewish Culture" banner. Three recent titles demonstrate the label's diversity: Basya Schechter, vocalist of Pharoah's Daughter, goes instrumental on Queen's Dominion, where ancient instruments like the oud and santur are used to make very contemporary music; Berlin's Paul Brody explores the past and future of klezmer on Beyond Babylon, adding banjo and electronics to the bouncing beats and crazy wails that characterize a form that began as the world's coolest wedding music; Greg Wall starts with Jewish mysticism and transmutes it into free jazz on Later Prophets, which boasts some recognizable melodies ("'Zekiel Saw the Wheel," for instance, which pops up in the American Gospel canon) but takes them to strange, atmospheric places.
Speaking of transmutation, Björk's new disc Medúlla (Elektra) is full of it, both in technique (an almost entirely vocal record, it bumps and throbs with beats that sound digital but really emerged from human throats) and in tradition (the songwriter transforms American poetry and Icelandic classical music into something distinctly her own).
Brazil: The recording industry has been good to this South American wonderland lately, or maybe it's the other way around. Universal's ongoing Pure Brazil series continues to issue thematic (though sometimes scattered) compilations, Rough Guide offers esoterica like their Rough Guide to Brazilian Hip-Hop, and hipster DJs like Gilles Peterson put together collections like Gilles Peterson in Brazil (Ether Records), a fantastically groovy set that splits vintage and new stuff into two CDs.
There may be enough great Brazilian artists to fill a hundred comps, but fortunately labels are also importing individual albums: Jorge Ben Jor is an old-timer (he was part of the Tropicalia movement in the '60s), but his new Reactivus Amor Est (Universal) shows he hasn't run out of steam; vocalist Paula Morelenbaum pays tribute to another veteran, the late poet Vinicius de Moraes, on Berimbaum (Universal), where she sings songs he wrote or co-wrote; and the Brazilian/American hybrid Mosquitoes, lauded in this column not long ago, returns with the lovable Sunshine Barato (Bar/None), less poppy and more mood-setting than their self-titled debut. Brazilophiles take note: Mosquitoes will bring their cute bossa pop to Austin this weekend with a show at Antone's on Saturday; Houston's Modulator will open, and more info can be had at www.antones.net.
Finally, for that foreign country directly South of Texas: Austin-based producer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Ramos updates a myriad of Mexican and Latin styles on Lotería de la Cumbia Lounge, which is credited to Charanga Cakewalk, a band in which Ramos plays almost all the instruments. A "lounge" is a good image for this eclectic and groove-filled disc, which would rather smolder and shuffle than force you out on the dance floor.
Staying in Mexico's shadow but jumping back in time, Arhoolie's comp The Roots of the Narcocorrido collects traditional tunes from the 19th century through the '30s and '40s that lay the foundation for the "narcocorrido," the ballads whose protagonists are drug traffickers. The tales here center on smugglers like Heraclio Bernal, who blurred the line between banditry and revolution.
Oops - how did that happen? I start off writing a "we are the world" response to the election and end with the word "revolution." Please disregard, Herr Ashcroft. •
By John DeFore