New Reviews: July 24, 2003

Reviews by Tom Orr

Bembeya Jazz
World Village/Harmonia Mundi

Look at the cover of this latest album from Bembeya Jazz, and it's pretty easy to tell which guys in the photo have been with the band since they first formed in the early '60s. But once you slap the disc into your cd player, the freshness and vitality of the music will make you realize that the age of some of the members is of no consequence whatever. Let us be thankful that Bembeya Jazz stuck it out through hard economic times and changing musical tastes in their native Guinea. This is, after all, a band that was built to last. They were nationalized (certified) by no less an authority than Sekou Toure, the first president of Guinea after it became an independent nation. With independence achieved, the music of Bembeya Jazz fueled the celebratory mood with their swinging Afropop sound and energetic stage shows. Eventually the aforementioned lean years ensued and the group drifted apart without ever truly breaking up. When they decided to reconvene in the late '90s, they had not recorded together for over a decade. Now, with this smashingly good CD, their resurgence is complete. The songs are mostly updated versions of standards from the band's repertoire over the years, straddling a combination of classic feel and contemporary muscle that is irresistible. Musically, there are elements of highlife, rumba, soukous (mainly through the sparkling lead guitar work of original axe man Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate) and bluesy Guinean folkloric traditions at work, but the sound of Bembeya Jazz is all their own. Unexpected delights like Hawaiian steel guitar give the snug drums-and-percussion grooves maximum sweetness as multiple rhythm guitars, lead and harmony voices and horns attack right and tight. Modern African music doesn't get much better than this. Passionate vocals, glorious instrumental work and relentlessly catchy rhythms are abundant throughout this disc that's guaranteed to please.

The Rough Guide to Highlife
Various Artists
World Music Network

The early 20th century origins of West African highlife music are many and varied. Somehow, elements of military and civilian brass bands, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, European ballroom sophistication, ragtime, informal waterfront jam sessions and the increasing availability and popularity of guitars came together and created what became the region's most wildly popular dance music. Highlife bands throughout (mainly) Ghana and Nigeria varied in size and scope, but the sound became identifiable via prominent horn sections and guitar interplay atop lively rhythms that kept dancers on the floor for hours. Summing up highlife in a single CD can't be done, but this compilation's selection of gems (including many rare tracks) is a rippingly good look at mostly vintage highlife. Some of the most popular masters (E.T. Mensah, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, Orlando Julius) are represented, but the less familiar names make just as impressive a showing. There's plenty of good, quirky guitar riffing, lively horns and (particularly on Joe Mensah's lengthy "Boscoe") intricate percussion. The disc ends on a sour note with George Darko's banal "Hilife Time," but everything else is tops. The popularity of highlife has waned greatly in recent years, but who knows? With compilations as good as this, a resurgence may be just around the corner.

The Rough Guide to the Music of Turkey
Various Artists
World Music Network

The sprawling mosque pictured on the cover of this CD is a good visual representation of the beauty and artistry of Turkish music. The disc's subtitle includes the phrase "gypsy, bellydance and beyond." Well, put the emphasis on "beyond," because there's a lot going on here. Once the center of the vast Ottoman Empire and now a geographic and cultural link between Europe and Asia, Turkey today is a nation whose music is rooted in folk traditions, the stately classical music of the sultans, Sufi Muslim mysticism, Arabic pop and yes, the sounds of the Rom (Gypsy) people. Much Turkish music is characterized by instruments in the string (oud, baglama), wind (ney, surna) and percussion (darbuka, bendir) families, and many of the songs here are laden with their lush, lilting sounds. The styles range from highly structured to loosely jazzy, as both vocal and instrumental expertise are allowed to shine. There's not a weak track to be heard, but particular highlights from this very rich musical excursion include the sensual strains of Sibel Can, Grup Yorum's eloquent protest music, dazzling multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek (arguably the most familiar name here) and the deeply spiritual Whirling Dervish sounds that close the set. This Rough Guide to Turkey is anything but a turkey.

Tom Orr is a Southern California-based freelance writer, actor, percussionist, 9 to 5-er, husband, daddy, and aspiring deep thinker. He acquires more music than he has time to listen to, and feels the only solution is to acquire even more.