João Afonso
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João Afonso
Resistencia Records, Spain

cd cover João Afonso is a major player in the incredibly vibrant Portuguese new folk music scene. He brings a powerful lyricism to his singing, which is reminiscent in some ways of the Nueva Cancion of Chile. Afonso combines his lyricism with an outstanding inventiveness in his arrangements, using a variety of sources to provide the perfect structural framework for his songs. In Zanzibar Afonso borrows heavily from African sources (to excellent effect). However Afonso avoids cheap chinoiserie, and by no means is this an ersatz African project. His borrowings are strictly on his own terms, and make sense in the context of the songs he has written for this title.

If there is one fault, it is that his music borders on the overly sentimental, although he generally pulls it all back together with his rigorous understanding of structure. For instance, in "Noves fora (uma historia por contar)" the singing and violoncello passages tend towards the overly dulcet, but the dissonance introduced by José Manual David's wind passages temper this sweetness, giving the song enough of an edge to engage the listener. David (of Gaiteiros de Lisboa fame), contributes his slightly off-center horn work to another track, which makes this reviewer hope for a full-album collaboration between Afonso and the Gaiteiros. Other notable musical guests on Zanzibar include the phenomenal marimba player Kimi D'Jebate and the avant-folk free reed ensemble Danças Ocultas.

When Afonso is at his best, as he is on most of the tracks on Zanzibar, his almost sentimental sense of melody combines with his strong sense of harmony, his interesting rhythms and his strong arrangements to create a sound that is dreamy, yet focused, and extremely memorable. João Afonso knows how to write a good song as well as how to sell it. Track 11, "Sem abrigo (nas cidades de ninguém)" with its stripped-down accompaniment is a great example of Afonso's skill as a song-writer.

Zanzibar is an enhanced CD, with multimedia aspects and biographical information (in Portuguese) of Afonso. These features are amusing, and worth poking through once or twice. Eventually artists will figure out what to do with the potential of the enhanced CD, but so far these experiments have been fairly timid. The enhanced CD features are not going to sell a single copy of the record, but they are slightly interesting and certainly do not detract from an outstanding album.

Overall, Zanzibar is an excellent showcase for one of Portugal's most interesting new folksingers. It navigates the often difficult waters between accessibility and subtle complexity. While Afonso may have drifted farther from Portuguese musical sources than some purists would like, he has shown that he is a continually important presence in Portuguese music. Zanzibar confirms his relevance and ability to deliver outstanding songs. - Erik Keilholtz

This CD is available at cdRoots

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