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World Music

World Music reviewed with a discerning ear.

Bongo Maffin, Bongolution

Bongo Maffin have been popular in Africa for years. Now this seminal Kwaito (from an Afrikaans word meaning "really hot house music") band have been given a chance to make it in the States with Bongolution, their first US release.

Well, all I can say is listen to it. This multi-layered music is mind-blowing. The mix of hip-hop, jazz, and reggae--with some electronic help--is wonderful and entirely successful.

Most of the songs are not in English, but don't let that turn you off. The language (usually chanted) is music in itself. "Laduma Izulu" is a prime example.

Turn yourself on to South Africa's pop music through Bongo Maffin's Bongolution.

High Tide Steel Drum Band, High Tide Steel Drum Band

I've long been interested in the music of the steel drum. It brings up a feeling I can't quite explain, but I'll say it's something akin to joy. Just the sound of it makes all my cares drip away.

This is a wonderful example of really good steel drum playing. I popped this in my CD player and just went away. The singing is a little weak at times, but it does not break the mood. And any band brave enough to put covers of both "Marianne" and "Louie Louie" on the same album is okay in my book. Once I went on a cruise to Bermuda, and when I came back, I kept this in the CD player hoping to recapture the spirit of the Caribbean bands I had heard on the island. It wasn't exact but it was good enough for me.

So, if you like the playing of the steel drum and don't care that the High Tide Steel Drum Band are from Maryland instead of the Caribbean, then dive in. It's High Tide!

India, "Welcome to My Empire" (promotional single)

"Welcome to My Empire" is the theme from the John Leguizamo film Empire: Two Worlds Collide, as sung by chanteuse India. On this single are both the English and Spanish versions and India carries off both with equal passion and aplomb. They're pleasant enough Latin-flavored listening--there's nothing painful about it. But, in the end, it's only a pop song, and from a movie soundtrack at that. There's just nothing here that screams "classic" (or "classico," for that matter). India may have a career later on but this insn't going to open that door for her, except coincidentally.

The instrumental version is surprisingly complex. It gives the listener a chance to appreciate the many layers involved in the recording, but it just doesn't stand on its own--as India's voice carries the melody. The music here: piano, horns, percussion, guitars, timbales--they're all just accompaniment, although as the song progresses, things do get pretty interesting.

An interesting choice for track four is the "Call Out Hook," which is, presumably, the piece of music to be played before a spoken announcement. But maybe this is common for promotional singles like this. All in all, I wouldn't necessarily recommend this particular single to anyone, but I'll be on the lookout for more work from India in the future.

Original Cast Recording, ReOrientalism: The Near East Lives Next Door

Inspired by the writings of Dr. Edward Said -- specifically his seminal work, Orientalism -- Suheir Hammad and Alan Shavarsh Bardezbanian has created a live multimedia presentation that attempts to educate and entertain. Said daughter Najla Said plays a role in speaking her father's words while various musical and poetic accompaniments--under the direction of James Bau Graves--bring to mind the true meaning of the subtitle, "The Near East Lives Next Door," as the program circumvents the various stereotypes and sets straight misconceptions about Middle Easterners in this time of difficulty where a person is either "Aladdin or a terrorist" (to quote Graves's liner notes).

Meaningfully, the show is presented by Americans of Eastern descent, filtering Said's ideas through performers who have grown up "eating burgers, dancing to hip hop, and watching television" and who have to deal every day with their mixed identities in this post-9/11 society. I found ReOrientalism an eye-opening experience, particularly when Najla begins pointing out what should be the obvious with lines like "They think they are smarter than us, but it is our alphabet they use, our numbers, our math." And when Hammad begins her passionate poetry over a mixture of hip-hop and Eastern beats.

The program is presently touring the country, so see it if you can and you'll look at the "officially-sanctioned enemy" in a new way. Unfortunately, as of this writing, this CD is only available at performances. So if you live in a large city in the Northeast, be sure to let ReOrientalism reorient you to the right way of seeing. In addition, you'll be party to a marvelous display of music of various maqams. Either way, you're in for a mind-changing experience.

Salsa Celtica, El Agua de la Vida

I'm not sure who came up with the idea of coming Irish and Latin music, but I've got to congratulate them for filling what was undoubtedly a gap in the world music market. Salsa Celtica's El Agua de la Vida is a little heavy on the Salsa (Spanish is the prevalent language) and a little light on the Celtica, but the combination works. The opener, "Cumbia Celtica" introduces the music mix well, with mostly a Latin flavor with the addition of a banjo. "El Sol de la Noche" continues the tradition.

The appearance of bagpipes on "Guajira sin Sol" was a shock, I must admit, but once I got used to the sound, it blended well with the melodic intent. The title track is the best at mixing the two genres; it has the Celtic violin folded over the Latin guitar and percussion. A low point was the "Ave Maria de Escocia Medley," but just skip it in favor of the highly danceable "Maestro." Finally, Salsa Celtica's version of "Auld Lang Syne" should find its way to every New Year's Eve rotation, starting slow, but turning into a rousing rendition of the Guy Lombardo classic.

People looking for pure Celtic are going to be sorely disappointed by El Agua de la Vida, but anyone who likes fiesta music--and don't mind a taste of the Emerald Isle on the side--are going to find something to share with friends.

  • ...more to come...