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Audio files: World music

By Times staff
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002

A slew of wonderful world music has recently hit stores, everything from West African drumming to French electronica. Is it a small world after all? When we share our exciting sounds with one another, it feels like it is.

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OLATUNJI, DRUMS OF PASSION (COLUMBIA/LEGACY): Way back in 1959 Nigerian drummer Michael Babatunde Olatunji recorded the landmark Drums of Passion, considered the first recorded album of "world music." Olatunji, to whom John Coltrane paid homage on the beautiful, mystical sax-and-drums masterpiece Tunji, inspired, among others, the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart with his dynamic, passionate, polyrhythmic skin pounding. Listen to Drums of Passion and be thrilled by how much is going on. Olatunji's hands must have been all over the place, his heart furiously pounding. You can say all of this, with drums?

Of course you can.

Primal, and yet so elegant, the original Drums of Passion contained eight cuts, but this reissue adds the delicious Menu Di Ye Jewe (Who Is This). Olatunji, now 75, went on to form Planet Drum, a percussion supergroup with Hart, and perform at high-profile events all over the globe. The seeds of his spectacular career were sown right here. B-plus

-- GINA VIVINETTO, Times pop music critic

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VARIOUS ARTISTS, MUSIC FROM THE NONESUCH EXPLORER SERIES: AFRICA (NONESUCH): Lovers of world music will rejoice as Nonesuch reissues the complete Explorer Series, originally released on vinyl between 1967 and 1984. The series was a turning point for world music because it allowed music scholars for the first time to go to the site with high-tech equipment and record indigenous music on a mass scale.

Ninety-two recordings were made, and this Africa installment is a wonderful anthology of some of the recordings made in that continent. Africa includes the zesty sounds of the Tanzania marimba and Ghana's gorgeous calabash xylophone. You'll hear pretty ceremonial dance songs. Chants of the shona people. Get to know the sounds of the sanza, the little "thumb piano" instrument popular in Burundi, and those talking drums . . . and, and . . .

The sounds are wonderous and infinite. Africa contains as much light and dark, tension and mischief, beauty and agony, as its namesake land. B-plus

-- G.V.

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VARIOUS ARTISTS, MALI MUSIC (ASTRALWERKS): Mali Music will make purists go bonkers. It's an experimental project that fuses the traditional sounds of Mali with the twiddling of some Western and non-Western musicians, most prominently Damon Albarn of the hugely popular British band Blur (and the cartoon pop act Gorillaz). Mali Music is Albarn's project and, before you go slogging him, appreciate that Albarn likes these Mali sounds as much as you do. He traveled to Mali two years ago to jam with anyone he could find, from street musicians to the land's most popular stars. Albarn came home, sifted through hours of tapes, edited, and began noodling with the sounds, adding beats and twinkly things, passionately and reverently.

Having said that, it's odd to hear the croaks and gurgles and chirps of indigenous Mali frogs and birds combined with modern electronica. The strings recorded in Mali are slinky and beautiful, but are they given their due when combined with a techno pastiche? Note that Albarn's instrument of choice here is a battered old melodica, not electric guitar. The guy is sincere.

Of course, the cons are plentiful: This is traditional music Westernized and watered down, the purists will say. The pros? Come on, curmudgeon, Albarn's providing a platform for some Mali homies to showcase their dazzling ability. Will guitarist Afel Bocoum and kora player Toumani Diabate ever be heard again by so many eager, curious young ears? B-.

-- G.V.

* * *

VARIOUS ARTISTS, CUISINE NON-STOP (LUAKA BOP): Serge Gainsbourg and French pop music are practically synonymous. But former Talking Head leader David Byrne and his record label Luaka Bop went to lengths to expose the world to France's current rock 'n' roll pulse with 13 energetic tracks on Cuisine Non-Stop, his introduction to the French nouvelle generation. Byrne's point: Gainsbourg is passe.

An eclectic pastiche, Cuisine Non-Stop bursts with cultural influences that attest to France's musical diversity, from pure Gallic pop, a la Gainsbourg, on Testes Raides' excellent, string looped Un P'tit Air, to the exotic Arabic beats and folksy gypsy numbers. Lo'Jo's accordion-riddled call-and-response ditty Baji Larabat deliciously pulsates, leaping out of the stereo, breathing. Arthur H. sings like a French Tom Waits, his husky voice buttressed by arrhythmic bongos and frequent horn blasts. Java's lounge-friendly trip-hop on Au Banquet Des Chasseurs sumptuously simmers, its licentious chorus nestling among staccato piano and breathy female voices. B-plus

-- BRIAN ORLOFF, Times correspondent

* * *

VARIOUS ARTISTS, THE ONLY BLIP HOP RECORD YOU WILL EVER NEED (LUAKA BOP): Another gem from the Luaka Bop label claims to have seen the future of music. Teeny-boppers, brace yourselves. Byrne postulates that blip-hop, or minimal symphonies of electronic music, is the wave of the future. An international collection, The Only Blip Hop Record You Will Ever Need boasts a lineup of technocrats whose electronic wizardry is both bedazzling and vexing. Many songs are replete with computer tinkering, motorized whirls and make for gorgeous, thoughtful pieces. Sometimes, though, the repetition wears thin, despite innovative techniques.

Byrne's right about one thing though: Musicians on Blip Hop are not tethered to distinct cultural identities. Aside from being the only blip hop disc you'll ever need, this lovely album is a must-have for any collection. B.

-- B.O.

* * *

RUBEN BLADES, MUNDO (COLUMBIA RECORDS): Ruben Blades (who's performing tonight at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) plays authentic Latin-influenced music, not the ersatz pop-flavored Latin beats that frequent radio and MTV. Mundo, his latest album, finds Blades dabbling with sounds from other nations with varying results. The album doesn't feel eclectic but unfocused, meandering, not soaring through Blades' attempts at diversity.

Blades succeeds in fusing Caribbean and reggae flavors with traditional, brassy orchestrations. Estampa, the album's opening track, is awash with textured drums, rhythmic and wonderful. A flavorful cover of the traditional Irish anthem Danny Boy gains much from Blades' Spanish translation; even the Celtic backdrop melds seamlessly with the accented drumming. Overall, though, Blades' talent resonates most when he's playing true Latin music; then he sounds poised and natural. B-.

-- B.O.

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