Of course, the 21st century could produce even crappier music. But let's give the new millennium a break and try not to be cynical. After all, that would be so 20th century. If recent years are any indication, one mini-trend in the new century will be the embrace of traditional ethnic music by people who ironically enough want to modernize it. World music is proving to be fertile ground for musicians who use it to grow their own unique hybrids.
Denmark's Sorten Muld (which means 'Black Earth') has reconstructed Nordic folk tunes into techno and house music. The concept might seem odd, but the result is electronic music with emotional resonance. A lot of that is due to Ulla Bendixen, whose vocal timbre ranges from billowy, fragile whispers to primeval-sounding wails. The group's predominant sound is electronic, which is not surprising from a trio whose job titles are listed as 'sound designer' and 'architect.' The album, which won two Danish Grammys, is dark and moody, sometimes reminiscent of the noir-ish pop of Roxy Music. Guest musicians add flavors from all over, including a Swedish nyckelharpa keyed fiddle, an Irish bodhran drum and a turntable-scratching DJ.
Each track has a fundamental, sustained rhythm, but only a few have the warp-drive to qualify as dancefloor fodder. One standout, 'Ravnen,' begins with a lone Jew's harp, but quickly kicks in with an infectious, pumping dance beat and a B-52's-like crying chorus. Despite the band's Danish passports, its music sounds like it could be in a strobe-lit dance club anywhere in the world.
Though Zap Mama began as a five-woman a cappella group, it is now the sole province of Marie Daulne, who was born in the Congo, lives in Brussels and has obviously been listening to a lot of American music. Extending the line of her last album, Daulne continues to leaven soul and hip-hop with an African playfulness.
Daulne seems to have been musically mis-educated much like Lauryn Hill, sending out a slow-rolling funk that is instilled with a social message. Also like Hill, she genre-hops from soul to drum-and-bass to rap. Daulne gently urges us to slow down and remember what is important, our loved ones. Her English lyrics are evocative, if sometimes a bit oblique, as when she sings to a self-deprecating lover: 'You are my own zero.' The album's sound is an ethereal tumble of synthesizers and other instruments, anchored by muscular, percussive beats. The center of this swirling sonic mix is Daulne's chameleon voice -- going from little-girl innocence to sultry soul diva.
Hip-hop has burst from American inner cities to influence the cultures that influenced it. Zap Mama sends back the message that the sound of hip-hop will be reverberating throughout the world in the next century. - Marty Lipp
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