New Reviews: December 6, 2004

Reviews by Tom Orr

Monica Salmaso
(World Village 468035, 2004)

As lavish and layered as Brazilian music can be, Monica Salmaso tends to keep it simple. Her choice of songs reflects deeply upon Brazil’s African traditions and folkloric wisdom as well as modern political and cultural concerns, though on much of this disc her velvety voice is accompanied by little more than piano, acoustic guitar and percussion. In spite of this, the music is alive and electrifying. Compositions by greats like Tom Ze, Chico Buarque and Dorival Caymmi are interpreted, quite nicely so. Salmaso’s lovely crystalline tones effortlessly grace arrangements where both rhythmic bounce and pensive starkness are utilized to good effect, capturing the poetic essence of songs like “Estrela de Oxum” and “Sinhazinha (Despertar),” making them her own but also sharing them intimately. This music won’t get the party started, but it’ll be great to cool things down in the wee hours afterward.

Marcel Khalife
(Nagam Records NR 1015 CD, 2004)

Though not the only contemporary master of the Arabic lute known as the oud, Lebanese-born Marcel Khalife sure does take the instrument in directions that are both enticing and adventurous. Heading up a quartet that also includes acoustic bass, piano and percussion, Khalife can wield the oud with the same finesse as a classical musician, the tricky turns of a jazz man or the eloquence of a musical poet. This CD celebrates varying degrees of each, along with the duality of Islamic and Christian cultures in his native land and the underlying belief in music as a guiding hand toward peace and understanding. Khalife and his players are an astonishingly versatile bunch, moving easily from solo to group passages, navigating freeflowing grooves in and out of Arabic modalities and coming up with some trailblazing sounds. (You might think you don’t want to hear an oud jamming alongside a vibraphone, for example, but it sounds great here.) Sometimes celebratory, sometimes solemn, sometimes as pensive as chamber music, Caress will, true to the title, rub you all the right ways.

Various Artists
South Pacific Islands
(Putumayo PUT 231-2, 2004)

There are 25,000 islands in the South Pacific. Through prehistoric migrations as well as more recent colonization and territorial claims (not to mention sheer vastness), the region has a cultural diversity that’s equally large in scope. It would be easy to associate the music of the South Pacific with any number of exotic stereotypes, and it is to this compilation’s credit that if you played it for someone without showing them the cover, they’d likely be hard-pressed to tell you its geographic origins. Four of the 11 tracks are by New Zealand-based band Te Vaka, whose music would seem to represent the best combination of traditional and contemporary. Their selections are solid and catchy, but the remainder makes the grade, too. New Caledonia’s Ok! Ryos shine with percolating rhythms and harmonies that might put you in mind of Zimbabwean or South African music, Papua New Guinea is given a good showing with a choppy acoustic toe-tapper by O-Shen and Telek’s more introspective style and Matato’a conveys the enigmatic grandness of Easter Island in their guitar-and-percussion driven style. Though by the end of the disc I wished it were longer with more artists represented, the music had really gotten under my skin. It’s equal parts sunny and serious, and world music lovers in general will find it quite worth their while.

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Mediterranean Café Music
(World Music Network RGNET 1143 CD, 2004)

I would gladly frequent any café that regularly played music of this sort. The Mediterranean Sea is where Europe, North Africa and the Middle East converge, making it not only a body of water around which wars have led to the rising and falling of empires, but one where cultural influences have crossed this way and that over the centuries. The 16 cuts on this cd are from almost as many countries, some showing more overlapping of musical genres then others. But whether showcasing specific styles like Greek rebetika and Algerian rai or showcasing how, say, Arabic and flamenco strains mix it up in the music of Javier Ruibal or Barrio Chino, everything here sizzles. Yasmin Levy’s Sephardic sound invokes mystical longing as does the Berber flair of Jil Jilala, musically underrepresented places like Albania and Corsica get their due thanks to Eda Zari and I Campagnoli respectively and the whole album stirs your desire to investigate further. And isn’t that what a great compilation is all about?

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.