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Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, Fes Morocco Volume II

Sounds True (

The purpose of the Fez Festival is to release the ancient spiritual wisdom so painfully needed in today's world.

So say the liner notes on this marvelous album of rich and intricate sacred songs of the people of the Middle East, Andalusia, Morocco and the East. This 2-CD set includes an astounding variety of music - Jewish Sephardic songs, Sufi Songs of Central Asia, Medieval Muslim works, Javanese Gamelan orchestra, Moroccan nomadic storytelling, and Andalusian Flamenco. Most of the music is from the Muslim tradition, but significant entries from the Jewish, Christian, and Hindu world honor the title of the festival.

For those already familiar with sacred music, there are many familiar artists. The production is flawless. The sound quality is excellent on every cut, even though much of the festival was live and held outside. For those newly interested in the music of the Middle East, this will serve as a marvelous introduction. The instrumentation is acoustic on a wide variety of ouds, tars, violins, drums and percussion, usually underscoring the melody carried by the singer.

Sacred music has a special purpose. It is the music of people whose lives are lived according to the rhythm of daily prayers and religious celebrations. Quite often it is very structured because it has to fit in with a particular religious ritual. But sacred music can also be lively music used to dance before God. Or it can be the flowing ad-lib of a musician enveloped in a song of worship. All of these are included on this second recording of the annual Fes Festival.

Hamdullilah (HOM doo lee luh) is Arabic for "Hallelujah!" The exclamation comes from hearing so many cultures gathered to share their sacred music in peace. After at least 25 centuries of religious strife, maybe the time has finally come for all to praise their God as they choose, and honor those who do so differently. The lesson is driven home by Children of Abraham, a youth ensemble who unite Jewish, Muslim and Christian choirs behind the voices of Franšoise Atlan from France and A´cha Redouane from Morocco. They are focused on the music and singing as one, unaffected by the bitter past, and, as children do, look forward to a bright future with their new friends. - Brian Grosjean

Los Mocosos
Mocos Locos
Aztlan (

Los Mocosos present a seamless blend of Latin ska, rockero swing and Spanglish hip-hop that cut its musical teeth on the polyglot streets of San Francisco. The band's tight, bright invocations of Willie Bobo, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Carlos Santana and Cal Tjader reflect the unimpeachable pedigree of veterans from RatDog, Santana and Tower of Power. But the percussive, dance groove of Los Mocosos ratchets up the streetwise politics of such fellow-travelers as War, Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalape˝o Band, the "Zoot Suit" soundtrack of Daniel Valdez and "Born in East LA," Cheech Marin's wicked Springsteen lampoon. California's anti-immigration demagoguery and its English-only ballot initiative are clearly out of touch.

As for vexed cultural encounters, and for what it's worth, the reader may recall Robert Rodriguez's border-town cult classic, "El Mariachi," and the gringo pesado called "El Moco" (the nasal slime). But this is moco of a different order. Perfectly, inscrutably, the album notes leave Los Mocosos in a deliberate ironic shroud. The cognoscenti already know. The cover shot features the blurred image of a zoot-suiter reflected in the chromed door of a very custom automobile against a backdrop of vintage low riders. The only other image is a vaporous back-lit violet portrait in which the musicians' faces are indiscernible.

Now that you have the picture, what about the music? An irreverently inventive, collective intelligence is plainly at work from the first beat of the band's leitmotif, "Somos los Mocosos," to the pop-culture meta-commentary of "Lonely Bull" ("Badges? We don't need no stinking badges."), the incongruous James Bond theme, "Thunderball," the blaring brass throb, guitar slash and Darth Vader hip-hop vocals of "Soul Mocosos" and the ska-tinged Latin chestnut, "Volver, Volver" (reprised in the closing remix by DJ Choko), along with the self-referential "(I want to be the) King of Ska" and "Latinos with Soul" (muy Santana).

Ultimately, the irrepressible humanity of this release demands live engagement with a cultural reality that a putatively "white" America naively wishes to will away. Consider the unapologetic "Brown and Proud," over which the tenacious spirit of Papa James Brown hovers, and the infectious beat, menacing horns and taunting refrain of "Wetback" (a kind of Latino "Dancing in the Streets" and hemispheric call to cultural arms). This recording announces the arrival of a new generation of West Coast rockeros and their partisans, whose crossbred vitality, confined to the margins, defies easy cultural domestication. "Mocos Locos" issues an expressive challenge to a society inexorably bound to recognize, respect and even embrace the actual diversity of its hybrid cultural formation. - Michael Stone

Bio Ritmo
Rumba Baby Rumba!
Triloka (

In these postmodern, post-categorical times, Bio Ritmo ("Biorhythm") offers an idiosyncratic brand of cultural fusion rooted in a compelling, percussive Cuban sabor. Led by Havana native RenÚ Herrera, Bio Ritmo - a hard-touring, eight-man combo from the unlikely Caribbean port of Richmond, Virginia - serves up a musically tight, eminently danceable, bilingual blend of Cuban rumba, salsa, bolero and swing sensibility.

Squirrel Nut Zippers fans may recognize Bio Ritmo, who have toured with SNZ and appear on the Zippers' recent release, Sold Out. Hence the uninitiated might think "swing" on first hearing, but Bio Ritmo will come as a revelation to disciples of such mainstream swing icons as the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Ray Condo, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. But unlike these, Bio Ritmo eschews the big-band trap set. Instead, its three drummers play a range of Latin percussion instruments to anchor the band's uniquely fluid style. Rumba Baby Rumba, Bio Ritmo's third release and first crossover effort since its 1991 inception, covers the waterfront with bona fide chops and tongue-in-cheek pop-cultural savvy.

The crisp clave, bright horn section and pulsing piano of "Yo Soy la Rumba" signal Bio Ritmo's Cuban pedigree, before it slips into "Call Me Up (644-7215)," the band's Latin-lounge reforging of Tommy Tutone's 1982 hit, "867-5309 (Jenny)." The retro-oriented will hear something new in the band's double-time read of "Tequila," while "Un Carnaval en la Habana" is a suggestive nod to the infectious comparsa rhythms of Cuban carnival. And with a nod across the Atlantic, the album closes with a Bio Ritmo signature interpretation of Mozart's "Night Music," timbales to the fore. - Michael Stone

Paolo Giaro, Krishna Bhatt & Debiprasad Gosh
Dancing In The Light Of The Full Moon
Amiata Records (

Italian guitarist/composer Giaro is joined by two well known Indian players and several other accomplished Italian students of Indian music on this striking recording. "Dancing In The Light Of The Full Moon" is a perfectly plausible direction for Indian music, as it takes the almost exclusively modal world of the classical style formulated for ecstatic release and retrofits it with composed melodies, key changes and steady timekeeping suited for entertainment and milder intoxication. Beyond the seductive spell this record casts by way of sound programming and the large resonant recording space that gives airy, depth and body to the instruments (as though the players were situated in a temple or ashram), very good performances await the critical ear. Giaro proves his worthiness to traffic in the Indian world with agile pitch bending and blizzards of notes on his acoustic and digital guitars. On the 13 minute title cut he displays real feeling for the glissando-steeped realm yet one would never confuse what he does with imitation. The compositions are at times heavily arranged and the pulse regular, but there is plenty of improvisational skill displayed by all involved. The tracks are all at least seven minutes and every minute is worked for: no new age slouching here. All around, a sign that the times are changing, as talented artists come together from anywhere to find what they have in common. A gorgeous mood setter with chops to boot served up by an analog master. Bring on more of this. - Steve Taylor

Sam McGee
Grand Dad of the Country Guitar Pickers
Arhoolie (

As an aspiring young finger-picking guitarist, I wandered through a wide variety of instructional books seeking the answer. In almost every book, I came across a piece called "Buckdancer's Choice" by a fellow from Tennessee called Sam McGee. This was McGee's best known composition (if only because of its inclusion in so many instruction books!), and it was my first exposure to the repertoire of this guitar innovator.

Sam McGee was born a few years before the turn of the last century. He spent many years playing with Uncle Dave Macon, who was credited for convincing McGee to stop shoeing mules and take up the life of a wandering musician in 1918. McGee made his first records in 1926, and became one of the early "hot" country guitar pickers. At the time of his death in 1975, McGee had been playing a regular gig every Saturday night on the Grand Ole Opry.

This release was originally recorded by Mike Seeger in 1969 and 1970, and it provides a good cross-section of McGee's repertoire: showstoppers like "Sam McGee Stomp," songs ("Penitentiary Blues"), fiddle tunes ("Black Mountain Rag") and guitar renditions of spiritual pieces, such as the old hymn "How Great Thou Art." McGee also plays the banjo with the same country swagger that he has on the guitar, as heard on the rollicking "Pig Ankle Rag." And he was a fine singer to boot.

McGee is notable not just because he was the first to expand the country guitar repertoire in some important directions, but because of his obvious skill as a player. He was also able to sometimes step outside of the very conventions which he helped to establish -- listen to the unusual rhythm in the solos on "Railroad Blues" or the mournful precision on "Wayfaring Stranger."

"Grand Dad of the Country Guitar Pickers" stands as an archive of a pioneering American guitar player, but it makes for fine contemporary listening as well. We can see the trail that McGee blazed and that others like Doc Watson and Norman Blake followed and expanded. This is the roots of country music. It just makes you shudder to try and figure out how "Country" ended up where it is today, given its remarkable heritage! - Ivan Emke

Stefan Grossman & Duck Baker
Northern Skies, Southern Blues

Stefan Grossman and Duck Baker are two contemporary legends in the world of finger-picking guitar. Both have recorded widely in the past, but this is their first full-length duo release. Both men emerged during the early heyday of finger-picking guitar, when a group of young folks recorded fresh old music on record labels with names like Blue Goose, Kicking Mule and Takoma. Grossman's albums on the Kicking Mule label in the 1970s were hailed as both archives of past styles and instructional landmarks. Baker, whose influences ranged from old country, blues and ragtime to contemporary jazz, was Grossman's Mule label mate.

The past 20 years have not dulled the crispness of their playing. On this release, they go over some of their favorite material, like "Shake Sugaree," "Nobody's Business" and "Diddie Wa Diddie." Both also write material in the style of old players such as Big Bill Broonzy, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Blake and Rev. Gary Davis, and some of these efforts are included as well.

Baker and Grossman snap and sparkle their way through 14 tracks of gospel, blues, ragtime and jazz. The arrangements are solid, but there is some room left for improvisation, illustrating the different approaches to soloing which the two gentlemen take. Both men are now probably as well known for their instructional materials as for their performances. If you've only met them as teachers, now is your chance to hear what all of those countless hours stretching your fingers and popping your joints can produce. - Ivan Emke

Yas-Kaz & JirÝ Pavlica/Hradistan
Lotos (Plzenskß 113, 15000 Praha 5, Czech Republic)

Interesting fusions abound these days and this is certainly one of the more curious. Yas-Kaz is the legendary Japanese percussion artist/composer and JirÝ Pavlica is the classically trained violinist/composer and musical director of the acoustic dance band Hradistan from the east Czech Republic. Traditional fans of either may be disappointed but the open minded and progressive will pause over this tapestry of incongruent thread. If either of these two very talented parties have anything in common it is in the performance of dance music, though very different kinds. Hradistan specializes in folk traditions of Moravia such as gypsy dance tunes with their florid clarinet and violin playing but can also recreate the old tonalities and vocal polyphonies of renaissance music. Yas-Kaz has scored and performed numerous ethereal and organically ornamented atmospheres for ritualistic theatre dance projects and helped to design exotic strains of jazz.

Compositionally, Sunrise is equally divided between the writing of Yas-Kaz and Pavlica which is stitched together as a whole in alternating selections. It employs over 25 acoustic instruments augmented modestly with some sampling from Mr. Kaz. The far-fetched idea of two such distant and unrelated rhythmic and timbral forces comes together most daringly and beautifully in the 10-minute long pastiche entitled "The Dream". There are moments in this one exemplary selection that conjure up images of buddhist temples, rural Czechoslovakia and points in between; a sort of surreal train ride through eurasian space and time. Its evident that Pavlica's sensitivity for the human in music and sound are complimented by Yas-Kaz's faculty for the transcendent and elemental. This makes for some unlikely fruit that only begins to suggest the possibilities of what happens when non-contiguous cultures and their artists dream together. - Steve Taylor

Bill Laswell/Sacred System
Nagual Site
Wicklow Records (

Since the late 70s Bill Laswell has become identified with tireless experimentation in hybridizing/ reframing rock music and unconventional productions of ethnographic recordings. Nagual Site serves up both of these main recording interests while simultaneously displaying the rhythmic range typical of Laswell's spicy tastes these days. Sacred System is a loose amalgamation of artists/associates, a sort of spiritually-charged Material for the 90s, and on this, the third album under the name, they expand to a roster of sixteen.

The opener is a straight reading of Qawwali singer Gulam Mohamed Khan's melismatic fervor accompanied by tabla, tamboura and harmonium where some faintly prismatic/iridescent shadow hovers after the performers. Like the Hooked Light Rays project of 1996, the first, fifth and seventh tracks display this very subtle sonic subversion of what are essentially classical recitals. In between we find a rock-riffed 10-minute funk session featuring Sussan Deyhim, whose siren voice has been described by writer Glenn Hammett as the sound of opium smoke, organist Bernie Worrell, saxophonists Dave Liebman, Byard Lancaster and others. The solos tingle and titillate while bass, drums and tabla are dovetailed into delicious non-stop syncopation.

Track three, with its rapid-fire drum 'n bass cut with Zakir Hussain's electrifying,beautifully recorded tabla playing, atmospheric horn charts and organ, is the most energizing of the set. The usual Laswell dub effects are held in great restraint here, in startling contrast to the previous Sacred System album (Chapter Two), which dosed listeners with a dense whirl of hallucinogenic haloes seemingly surrounding every sound made such that the outlines of performance broke down constantly. Nagual Site gets down to business with a lot of pure playing and minimum of after-the-fact knob twiddling. This is a virtual resume of Laswell's real-time aspirations all on one disc, presented with phenomenally warm and accurate sound. Sleeve art is by James Koehnline and Ira Cohen. - Steve Taylor

Music of The World (

Wouldn't it be grand to invoke the name of someone you know and love, and bring forth their power, comfort, or healing? That's the idea behind the music on this wonderful album from Music of the World. The music of thirteen artists from around the world are collected together to show the range of feelings in their invocations of the divine. Cornel Pewewardy's "Kiowa Hymn" seem to summon a common spirit with the Asian Indian kriti played by K. Subramaniam and Trichy Sankaran. The rhythms of the Campanas and Qhapaq Negros of Peru bring forth something special in their people as does the Zimbabwean mbira played on the "Welcoming Song" (my personal favorite). And I found the Iranian poetry put to music by Jalal Zolfonun in "Hud Hud" ("Songbird") particularly pleasing to the ear and the spirit:

"We descended again at our King's door
and happily we spread open our wings
The eyes of demons and angels witnessed our glory
Hud Hud of the soul has returned to King Saleman"

I was moved by this album and found it well thought out and able to summon a calm in me that stayed with me all day, even if the musical continent kept shifting with each new track. (Beware: The back cover's artists and songs do not match up, but the twenty page booklet and photos more than make up for it.) I would recommend this sampler highly to anyone with an ear for music from the spirit. - Brian Grosjean

Michael Atherton
Ankh: The Sound of Ancient Egypt
Celestial Harmonies (

Specially composed and recorded reconstruction for the Australian Museum in Sydney based on museum examples of instruments along with iconographic and literary evidence. The attempt to create what no one has heard or ever scored is a challenge all its own in music, partly requiring scholarship, quality instrument replicas and matching technical ability, but largely inspired conjecture and deduction. Atherton has all of these qualities, and assembles this sober but entertaining set with human voices, hand percussion and primitive string instruments like the 3-string long-lute, boat-shaped 7-string harp and trigon (triangular 12-string harp) plus an assortment of bells, flutes, Egyptian trumpet and more. The often sparse "recitals" sound like they anticipate more organized music, relying heavily on a rustic tonality and unconventional improvisatory skill. Eighteen tracks are organized into four 15-minute suites beginning with a brief vocal song or poetry recitation.

The overall mood is contemplative but may be interrupted by more visceral moments of wind instrument fanfare or uptempo frame drumming. The presentation offers a rich array of convincing musical instruments, clear articulation with shimmering harmonic shadows, imaginative competence on the instruments played, and the elusive museum-dust-dissolving intangible sometimes called baraka. The sound quality and recording space have here greatly enhanced the haunting, ritual character of the. Beautifully packaged with non-glossy papyrus-toned recycled paper. Recommended for the audio-cultured. - Steve Taylor

The Fly-Rite Boys
Big Sandy Presents the Fly-Rite Boys

It isn't easy being green, but it's ever harder to cut a mostly instrumental western swing, hillbilly boogie, and rockabilly album - especially for a band that normally plays with a great singer/frontman like Big Sandy. These five guys (Wally Hersom, acoustic bass; Lee Geffriess, steel guitar; Carl "Sonny" Leyland, piano; Bobby Trimble, drums; and Ashley Kingsman, lead guitar) are a clear channel AM radio super station of swing, picked up at midnight on ghost vacuum tube hi-fi's.

The Fly-Rite Boys demonstrate their licks on a whole cluster of musical types related to western swing. Big Sandy Presents the Fly-Rite Boys gets underway with "Straight-8 Boogie," a smooth, 50 mph ride in a two door '40 Buick, fueled with a nice, clean-burning blend of hillbilly boogie and western swing. "Rosetta" is an easygoing western swing standard with Carl Leyland on vocals. There's jazz of various stripes - from the understated boogie-flavored "Mary's Mood," to the piano-powered flying bebop of "Wizard's Dust." Of course, there's cowboy jazz: "Laguna Sunset" is a spacious pastel canvas that allows Lee Geffriess and Ashley Kingman (steel guitar and electric guitar, respectively) to show the colors on their acoustic pallets. Everybody in the band gets a chance at hot licks in the disc's finale, the upbeat boogie "Minor Struggle." For fans of this music this disc is a must. - Dwight Thurston

Long John Baldry
Right to Sing the Blues
Stony Plain / Canada

Consciously or not, Englishman Long John Baldry has compiled a set of songs that go a long way toward being an anthology of blues styles. His salty-assed, gravelly voice shows itself to be a surprisingly varied instrument, his phrasing is always right on. He also has that important ingredient in blues singing - authority. You just know this man has paid his dues. There's a 24-minute bonus track interview that sheds light on some blues history and shows Baldry to be personable and articulate. There's not a bad track here. The killer track is a bug-eyed, tongue-twisting, over the top take of the traditional country blues "Whoa Back Buck." Bonnie Dobson's "Morning Dew" rocks solidly. Baldry is wonderfully facile in the jazzy "Midnight in Berlin," by Stony Plain labelmate Rita Chiarelli. - Dwight Thurston

Mississippi John Hurt
Rounder (

The fourteen tracks on Legend were recorded at an informal, late-night recording session about 1963-64, hard on the heels of Hurt's "discovery" at age 71. There are plenty of good recordings available of John Hurt's special brand of country blues. This new one is one of the best - easy going and informal, like Hurt's music. What it occasionally lacks in technical quality, this recording makes up in intimacy and naturalness. This is music that works a side of the blues that's light-hearted, joyful, and at ease with life. Hurt had a gentle, expressive voice and a quiet, intricate finger picking style that worked its magic primarily with its rhythm, not with dynamics or flashy technique. - Dwight Thurston

Akira Satake
Cooler Heads Prevail
Alula Records (

What to make of an album with plenty of uilleann pipes, koto, kora, oud, ney, bandoneon, every piece of percussion under the sun, etc. etc.? I should mention that this is a five string banjo album featuring the playing and compositions Akira Satake, a Japanese born resident of New York City. He is a great player who is able to seamlessly infuse each tune with elements of folk, jazz, and "world musics." Here the familiar is made exotic and the inscrutable made accessible. There is an underpinning of bluegrass and Japanese sensibilities but Satake ranges the globe for inspiration. Check this one out. - Stacy Phillips

Tish Hinojosa
The Best of Sandia: Watermelon 1991-1992

The Best of Sandia (Spanish for watermelon) is a collection of songs from Hinojosa's years with that label - containing tracks from her first live album Aquella Noche, her Christmas Memorabilia Navidena, and the label's reissue of her debut recording Taos to Tennessee, and four previously unreleased tracks. From Aquella Noche there are ballads, sambas, and a cumbia - all sung in Spanish. Tracks from Taos to Tennessee are in English and are pure country, making it easy to imagine Hinojosa a sort of female Ian Tyson, right down to her choice of covering Irving Berlin's "Always." The songs from her Christmas recording are all in English. What all these tracks have in common is the bell-like purity of Hinojosa's voice, the rigorous purity and simplicity of her music, before major label deals dictated more popularly "accessible" arrangements. - Dwight Thurston

Conjunto Michoacan
Con Mas Piquetes
EGO (phone: 209-685-0621)

I'm accustomed to hearing the primary instrumental melody part in musica Norteña carried by accordion, and associate scratchy fiddle with more folkloric styles of central Mexico. Conjunto Michoacan confutes expectations by deploying scratchy, percussive, yet melodic fiddle in lively Norteña. They also sting with tight two-part harmony vocals and seriously irreverent attitude on "Con Mas Piquetes" (a pun, an insect bite, as well as a small band of musicians in more idiomatic usage). It's hard to believe that these three guys, accompanied by the drummer evident from the recording, are producing all this music. They must be a phenomenon live.

In keeping with the playful atmosphere of "Con Mas Piquetes," many of the tracks are interrupted, sometimes jarringly, by cartoonish sound effects. The opening cut, the quick polka "Margarita, Margarita," starts with the sound of a train, the fiddle melodically congruent with the expected accordion, but adding a completely different, and welcome, energy and spice. The stuttery waltz "El Aguaje" features precision harmony vocals and the juxtaposed sound effects of a sighing woman and braying donkey. The expected cat cries punctuate "Andres y el Gato," another quick two-step, but the occasional burst of automatic weapon fire also appears. Nice kitty.

Whether the cartoon interludes intrigue or annoy you, the exuberant good spirits, fine harmony vocals, and lively violin of "Con Mas Piquetes" will sting your Norteña bone. - Jim Foley

Various Artists
Where Have all the Flowers Gone:
The Songs of Pete Seeger
(2 CD set)
Appleseed (

An ambitious project here, with some very fine renditions of songs by and associated with this great social activist, performer, and songwriter. It is, however, marred by very poor choices of opening tracks on each disc - the overblown, saccharine arrangement of "Where Have all the Flowers Gone" by Tommy Sands and others on Disc 1, and the absurdly inappropriate whimpering treatment of "We Shall Overcome" by Bruce Springsteen that opens Disc 2. After the initial turnoff of "Flowers," Disc 1 livens up with an appropriately sensuous reggae take of "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" by Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. John Gorka's quiet, spacious, sustained voice is perfect for "The Water is Wide." Bruce Cockburn and Ani Difranco are disappointing, the former doing a walk-through of "Turn, Turn, Turn," the latter a take of "My Name is Lisa Kalvelage" in which her voice is too submerged in the mix to do much of anything. Richie Havens' take on "Of Time and Rivers Flowing" brings to this song Havens' powerful, spiritually driven call to activism. Sweet Honey in the Rock delivers a trademark, fugal, big-voiced "Step by Step," one of this collection's high points. Billy Bragg's inner-driven, dirge-like seriousness, and Eliza Carthy's characteristic double stopped fiddling give "My Father's Mansions" a hair raising, Blakean effect. Former Kingston Trio member John Stewart brings his stirring vocal powerhouse to bear on "Old Riley." - Dwight Thurston

Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Kerouac's Last Dream
Appleseed (

I believe Jack Elliott's long, legendary career is much better represented on other recordings than by this collection. "Pretty Boy Floyd" opens this set of songs recorded in 1980 in a studio/wine cellar in a medieval German abbey. Way beyond the limits of rhythmic coherence, it's a bad choice for first track, and a poor choice for even being included on the CD. There are some OK tracks here, but there's just not much that's particularly striking. If you want to hear some of Jack Elliott's best, from each end of his career, you'd do much better with the 1995 Red House South Coast, or the 1974 Vanguard Essential Ramblin' Jack Elliott. An extended take of Elliott's easy going talking blues "912 Greens" is very nice; Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" and "I Threw it all Away" show once again that Elliott is one of Dylan's best interpreters. The rest is just so-so, fine for an informal musical evening, but not what most of us expect to plunk down 15 bucks for. - Dwight Thurston

Sabah Habas Mustapha & The Jugala All Stars
Jalan Kopo
Omnium (

Former 3 Mustaphas 3 bass player/vocalist travels to Bandung, the capital city of West Java to record an intriguing assortment of hybridized rock & pop forms. The standard rhythm section is augmented by programmed beatbox while Indonesian musical instruments dominate throughout, including: suling (native bamboo flute), the delicate zither-like kecapi, the khendang and ketipun (double-headed barrel-shape drums), karinding (bamboo mouth harp), Sundanese violin and yet others. The standard rock instrumentation drives the music, including electric & acoustic guitars and organ, but the Sundanese musicians steal the soloing spotlight. There is a gregarious feeling of equanimity; an evenly divided menu of western pop and eastern folk ideas, even the languages sung share equal billing over the 8 tunes included. While the playing is professional overall and wholy in service of the songs, the beatbox element will either chafe at the listener in the absence of a real drummer or delight as a crucial element of a satisfying foray into an innovative variant of world music electronica. Either way, there's no denying the quantifiably hummable tunes and sprite, infectious rhythms. - Steve Taylor

Joel Mabus
Rhyme Schemes
Fossil (

It's challenging to imagine a follow-up recording more different from Mabus' "Western Passage," a collection of luminous acoustic guitar instrumentals. On "Rhyme Schemes," the wise guy in Mabus manages to upstage even his mastery of fiddle, banjo, and guitar.

"Bubba's 3 B's (Barbecue, Banjos & Beer)" offers waltzing advice for acceptance in bluegrass and old-timey circles, and is appropriately followed by "Sugar Bush Square Dance," a lively banjo solo with ragtime aspects. Bring your own beer. The ominous "The Druggist" exemplifies the easy confidence of Mabus' dramatic, humorous, friendly vocal delivery, as well as his lyrical gifts ("those crystal packing Druids / cannot abate the fluids ..."); the quick refrain is a sort of extended tongue-twister. Similarly, this one is followed by an instrumental, "Mosquito Coast," supersonic flatpicking with a flamenco edge. On "Mister Lucky" Mabus abandons instrumentation, but not music, entirely in an a cappella circular tale of curious and complex fortune. It's difficult to decide whether to be more impressed by Mabus' expressive vocals or alternately fingerpicked and flatpicked guitar gymnastics in the ragtime blues of "What 'My Doin' Wrong." There's even a poem, "The Fiddler's Reply."

"Rhyme Schemes" is a tour de force of contemporary folk performance, tradition for tomorrow - Jim Foley

Peeni Waali
The Return of Peeni Waali
Mensch Music, Switzerland

It's the second album from this loose confederation of European and Jamaican musicians, and a fine follow-up to their 1991 debut. Led by a fellow known only as Fizze (and once a member of the eccentric "prog" band Debile Menthol), it gathers the likes of Lee Scratch Perry, Taj Mahal, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dennis Bovell, and literally a couple dozen others into an indescribable mix of ska, reggae, dub, blues, Swiss zithers, jazz, flamenco, rai and who-the-hell-knows what else. The musical palette is broader than on their first album, and the weird juxtapositions are handled with complete confidence. It's silly, crazy, utterly unpredictable -- it grooves, and it's thoroughly refreshing. If you fondly remember 3 Mustaphas 3, track this one down! - Brent Wilcox
(Mensch Music, Oberau 27, CH-9476 Weite, Switzerland.)

Rueben Rada
Big World

Mixed bag. The first few tracks are the kind of toss-off pop that is so common on the "world-jazz-fusion" market. But as the CD rambles on, you suddenly hear it seeping back into consciousness, as the synths give way to rootsy moves and more solid horns, all supported by some great percussive grooves that cut through the fat of the arrangements and occasionally made some brilliant roots music. Make no mistake, a lot of this album goes down as easy as a Barry White cocktail, but tracks like "Candombe Para Gardel," "Somalia," and even the more lush "Candombe Pa'l Fatto" show what a great percussionist Rada is, and how good this music can be when it's anchored in real music and sheds its pop skin. - CF

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal and The Hula Blues Band
Private Music / Windham Hill

No, it's not Taj Mahal's Hawaiian music album; it's all blues and shuffling, but it's not bad. This is Taj Mahal in a relaxed mode, easygoing, almost live... something we haven't heard in a while from this master of the easy-country blues. He's joined by a fine pack of local musicians and they cut this record some serious slack, as in "slack key," that familiar Hawaiian guitar style, blending it into Taj's R&B grooves with effortless aplomb. There's only one genuinely island tune here, and it is Carlos Andrade singing "No Ma Mamo," a breezy message for "the younger generations" about life in the Pacific. The whole thing is a wonderful trip for Taj Mahal fans, and a pleasant ride for just about everyone else, too. - CF

Olu Dara
In the World: From Natchez to New York

image Many, many years ago there was this guy named after an Indian monument who fused the urban blues with a gritty rural folk music, a dash of Caribbean rhythm, some proto-African funk and created a couple of stunning albums in his multi-decade career. There haven't been many others like him since.

Olu Dara is NOT Taj Mahal. But the sensibilities that brought him to this record are similar. Born in Natchez, Mississippi, slow baked in New York City, Olu Dara has created a cityscape that includes immigrant Gambian vegetable vendors, Duke Ellington club dandies, displaced country blues street singers, downtown beboppers, Broadway showstoppers and uptown hip-hoppers. There's no pegging this man down, this singer with the gritty hometown voice, the raspy cornet, the musical milieu that seems to include art music and raw, indefinable folk as equal partners.

This is no concept album. Each song is a separate story, a vignette with a unique character (and characters) and flavor. There's the Harlem blues of "Bubber (If Only)" with its muted trumpet and a great moaning guest vocal by Mayanna Lee. "Okra," the opener of the album, blends a funky down home picking attitude with a Highlife guitar groove. He sums it up in "Shopping." "I bought my mind and soul on the river.... my heart in Nashville, Tennessee... my legs on the ocean... my eyes in Brooklyn on Herkimer Street..." Field hollers here, cool jazz there; this album never stops searching the streets for a new groove.

"In The World" is a success because it is so in and of the world, determined to chart its own course, paying tribute to its roots but never becoming locked into any one idea of genre. This is melting pot music, NY, 1998. - CF

Kimson Plaut Ubatuba LPC Music (

Having played in the bands of both Brazilian and Latin stars, this well-respected keyboardist has put together his own disc of immaculately played Brazilian jazz. Ubatuba is as balmy and pretty as one would imagine the tropical Brazilian beach it is named after. Though this is not a major label release, Plaut still has many guest luminaries, including Paquito D'Rivera, Leny Andrade, Romero Lubambo and Johnny Almendra. In addition, the songs are rounded out with top-notch session players from the New York area.

The result is a collection of medium-length jazz tunes that are infused with the sweet sway of Brazilian rhythms --samba, choro, afoxe, baiao. After years lying in the shadow of others, Plaut takes a sure step into the spotlight. He proves himself to be an exemplary composer and arranger, creating an album that's amiable enough for casual listening, but sophisticated enough for a more serious listen too. - Marty Lipp

Oruç Guvenç & Tumata
Rivers of One
Interworld (

I will not attempt any detailed explanation of the theory of this recorded, which is designed to have "specific effects on the physical and spiritual aspects of the human being." But all the philosophy aside, this is a well played and interesting album of acoustic music from the Sufi tradition, played on strings (oud, rebab and saz), flutes (ney), frame drum (bendir) and a semi-rhythmic use of water being poured between two bowls, with occasional vocals. The rast makam played here in three extended variations has a waltz like quality to both the rhythm and the tempo, a lilting, drifting quality that's quite pleasing. There are no pyrotechnics, no dazzling displays of virtuosity, and at times, it seems, there is an almost informal atmosphere being created here. - CF

Moss 'Comes Silk
Humming Bird (

This recording is not for the sonically challenged or the melodically dependant. Opeye is a "free music" ensemble, that one step beyond free jazz where nothing is predicable and all is predicated on fate and desire. Using their extensive knowledge of central and South American music and instruments and a long if passing acquaintance with traditional jazz, they throw it all together with horns, percussion, marimbas and a kitchen sink of acoustic noise production devices. They call it "avant-shamamic trance-jazz," a phrase as indescribable and elusive as the music they produce. - CF

Reptile Palace Orchestra
Hwy X
Omnium []

What do research professors and ethnomusicologists do on their weekends off? They form a band, of course. There are a great many ethno-fusion bands out there lurking in local communities, this one from Madison, Wisconsin. Often the genre mixing gets in the way of band identity. RPO best falls into that category of "Balkan wedding band top 40." It's music for the hippie-twirler dance scene. However, RPO transcends the usual pigeonholing with a sound that is uniquely their own.

On their third release, Hwy X, Reptile Palace executes 14-tracks of listening pleasure, ranging from Turkish tunes from Udi Hrant Kenkulian and Baris Manco, to traditional Greek and Macedonian wedding dances. Only "Can't Wait," a greasy-little love ballad, seems to be misplaced in this collection. Their version of Hendrix's "Little Wing" is too cool for criticism. The earthy vocals of Anna Purnell provides a rich texture that is engaging from the start. Then we're treated to layers of clarinets, violins, cellos and guitars madly scampering about in some sort of wild Balkan cacophony. My favorite track on here is "The Revenant," written by Michael Hurley. RPO has reworked it into a spaghetti-Western, Ennio Morricone schtick that really works.

RPO currently serves the folk-dancing needs of the Milwaukee-Madison-Minneapolis communities in the Midwest (USA). Their latest release on Omnium should allow them to expand their borders beyond these local pubs. But no summer tours are planned. --Wayne Whitwam

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