Mano Negra Illegal
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Various Artists
Mano Negra Illegal
Big Mama/AlterMetak (www.musikmetak.com)

cd cover I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of this Basque-produced collection of covers of the songs of Mano Negra, a seminal French thrash-Latin combo from the late eighties and early nineties. As those familiar with Mano Negra's output might well expect, the prominent musical style here is ska, but the selections on Mano Negra Illegal vary along a wide continuum of related genres, from rock-steady and reggae to Studio One jazzy ska, all well conceived, some outstanding. Some of the best of these twenty tracks diverge into uncharted territory, at least uncharted by Mano Negra. Most of the artists are French - I will only note different artist origins.

First, the ska variations. Marcel & Son Orchestre's "Noche de Accion" is quick and thrashy ska with a Mexican undertone, especially in the tight high male duet vocal. Rude Boy System interprets "It's My Heart" as gently swinging jazzy ska with a crooning male vocal, good fun. Les Caméléons perform quite standard punk ska on the infectiously intuitive "Soledad," loud guitar and brass, attractive vocals, with a crisp circus-like brass break in center. On "Machine Gun," Montréal's Grim Skunk dishes up reggae distinguished by rolling drums and wistful vocals. Freedom for King Kong chooses "King Kong Five" as funky techno bounce with goofily menacing growled vocals suggestive of Jamaican toasting and denizens of monster island. Turning from the ridiculous to the sublime, Le Maximum Kouette recites "Out of Time Man" as smooth, swinging reggae fronted by a coy, pretty female vocal.

Next, the adventures. Flor del Fango's standout version of "Sidi 'h' Bibi" starts with flamenco guitar and clapping, adds glottal Algerian-sounding male lead vocals with dense choral backing, features solos on violin and guitar, and finally accelerates into maniacal thrash at the end. Colombia's Yuri Buenaventura delivers a full-bodied, brass-heavy salsa version of "Mala Vida." M'Panada's medley of "Salga la Luna/El Jako" begins with a laid-back rock-steady beat and interestingly gritty male vocal, then speeds into salsa with clarinet and Santana-like guitar solos. Le Fils de Teuhpu also opts for a medley, "Patchuko Hop/El Sur," a quick Mexican two-step featuring brass and banjo and high-spirited group vocal surrounding a slow dramatic recitation. By far the find of this collection is Les Ogres de Barback's rendition of "La Ventura," a rapid gyroscope of Gypsy Balkans brass and accordion, male and female vocals, suggesting a marriage of Squirrel Nut Zippers and Beshodrom.

Notes are offered in Basque and Spanish. There's never a dull moment on Mano Negra Illegal, a homage that will click even with those unfamiliar with Mano Negra. - Jim Foley

CD and audio samples available at cdRoots


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