A Mediterranean Odyssey
Le Grande Bleue
Ancient cultures of the Mediterranean believed that outside the Straits of Gibraltar was nothing but coldness, darkness and chaos. The Phoenicians even called the straits the Pillars of Melkarth, after their lord of the underworld. The Mediterranean -- which means "the middle of the earth," was the length and breadth of these civilizations' balmy world.
Although the 17 countries sitting around the tranquil sea differ greatly, they have been traversed by many of the same empire-builders and itinerants. Long before the world was a mouse click away, wanderers such as Gypsies, Moors and Jews cross-pollinated the Mediterranean cultures. These albums demonstrate that the countries surrounding The Inner Sea have more in common than just warm weather.
Putumayo's collection focuses on the north side of the Mediterranean: Spain, France, Italy, Greece. The presence of the Arab countries, however, is felt throughout. Though Luis Delgado is from Madrid, for example, he plays the oud and features other Arabic instruments. The Marseilles-based group Barrio Chino has several members from North African lineage, which is reflected in their eclectic sound.
The disc slides effortlessly from country to country because the songs, if not the countries themselves, have a similar sensibility. The mostly acoustic songs are soulful, but surprisingly accessible, with clear, contemporary productions and tight, pop-song formats. But they are not so pop as to be bland or in danger of making it onto MTV's rotation.
The collection begins with Catalan rumba, the flamenco-related genre that the Gipsy Kings commercialized for world consumption, and ends with the heartfelt updated rembetika of Grecian star George Dalaras.
While Dalaras is a well-established performer, the compilers have also included songs by talented groups that are less widely known. Calic, for example, is an ensemble dedicated to keeping alive the musical traditions of its native Sardinia. This thoroughly enjoyable collection shows there is still more to be discovered in the well-trodden Mediterranean region.
In a sense, the group Le Grande Bleue from Montpelier, France, does the same thing as the Putumayo collection -- linking Mediterranean cultures -- but it does so all by itself. Though the campy, loosely knit concept of their latest album is a Grand Tour around the Mediterranean, the musicianship is obviously taken seriously.
Most of the tracks are instrumentals and have a jazz flavor, but they incorporate musical elements from all points around the Mediterranean. The album has a retro feel, but the cross-cultural mix is distinctly modern. At times, it's as if some local Arab musicians wandered into Rick's Cafe and worked out some charts with Sam and the other jazzmen.
The Mediterranean waters on this album are a darker blue; slower and less pop-y than the Putumayo collection. The occasional tongue-in-cheek humor doesn't stop this from being an engaging and serious listen. The music wouldn't be out of place in an old gilded luxury liner lounge, but it could just as easily set a lights-down-low ambiance in contemporary living rooms. - Marty Lipp