[22 June 2009]
As my city of Brooklyn slowly warms up—given the rains we’ve had the last two months it feels, as one friend put it, like we’ve “entered the tropics”—a number of solid releases have been crossing my desk, representing a handful of the best international artists going. During some seasons, picking out six winners is a chore and challenge; this time around, it was tough deciding what not to include. Here are a manageable six albums destined to make the soundtrack of your summer.
The first I have been anticipating since her self-titled debut dropped on Six Degrees Records in 2007. The Brazilian singer CéU received a nice boost when Starbucks cut a deal and put her voice inside every store across the country. Being the first international artist in the Hear Music label distribution chain, the decision could not have been better: CéU’s reggae-infused take on samba, bossa nova, and jazz, along with other assorted South American instrumentation, has quickly and deservedly spread her name.
While taking on Jorge Ben in a tribute to her recently born daughter with “Rosa Menina Rosa”, and turning down the bass and up the cavaquinho on “Vira Lata”, the best songs occur last on Vagarosa. “Sonambulo”, which was recently released on the Cangote EP, features a quick-witted guitar line surrounded by a solid hip-hop beat and winsome melodica. Even more surprising is the Os Mutantes-era “Espaconave”, CéU taking on the psychedelic ‘60s, complete with bird sounds and Nyabhingi-esque congas. The rollicking beat opens into a multi-tiered vocal chant, hypnotic keyboard line, and fuzzy electric guitars. A brilliant closing for an album that deserves the same adjective.
Before leaving Six Degrees, we need to journey with them, as well as producer Yossi Fine, to Mali, where guitarist/vocalist Vieux Farka Touré recently recorded his sophomore outing, Fondo. On these 11 songs he may still be paying a musical tribute to his father, Ali Farka, but he has also left the past behind. Unlike his debut, where he leaned on his father (the last thing he recorded before his death), and longtime family friend Toumani Diabate, Touré owns this sound. And what an awakening it is.
Credit Fine for allowing the young man’s voice and guitar playing, already more than able, to shine. He keeps the bass, his instrument of choice, tasteful yet in the background, pulling the occasional reggae trick from his deep bag, and helps Touré capture the integrity and depth of African blues. While upbeat songs like “Sarama” and “Chérie Lé” chug along, the real winners occur when he steps up solo: the exquisite, lonesome strains of “Souba Souba”, as well as “Slow Jam” and “Paradise”.
You can hear Africa in the title track of Nickodemus’s Sun People, by way of the uplifting vocals of Ismael Kouyate (who returns for the album’s closer, “N’Dini”). Choosing to represent “sun people” the world over, Nicko journeys to Romania, India, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and Brooklyn. His city of choice also belongs to Brian J, lead singer of the Pimps of Joytime, who contributes to the anthemic “The Love Feeling”, a 120-bpm cruiser destined to keep dance floors rocking year round.
Carrying microphones with him on tours, he was able to capture a few members of the inimitable Taraf De Haidouks, who turn up on the ingeniously titled “Brookarest”. More Balkan beats arise when the New York Gypsy All-Stars throw down on “2 Sips and Magic”, a proverbial headnod to the love of drink and performance—magic indeed. The Real Live Show returns from their outing on Nicko’s Endangered Species, on “Sun Children”, a cheerful homage to our brightest star. Richard Shepherd, formerly of Radio Mundial, flips the script by paying tribute to the rain on the Latin boogie “La Lluvia”. Brazil’s Liliana Araujo, India’s Falu, and Manchester-based toaster Kwasi Asante round out an impressive list of characters.
Nickodemus appears on the latest effort by the quizzical 5 Points Records, which seems to put out one record every two years. Fortunately this is a good one: ten remixes of Turkish flautist Omar Faruk Tekbilek. Dubbed Rare Elements, it is one of the more surprisingly coherent remix efforts of the past few years. For some reason the producer opened with a horrible Tommie Sunshine take on “Yalel”, featuring a beat that sounds like it came packaged on Ableton. It improves drastically when Cheb I Sabbah steps up on the dark “Shashkin”, and keeps moving forward as Amon Tobin and Junior Sanchez keep things deep.
Nickodemus is joined by label mate and friend Zeb, whose lifelong knowledge of oud playing and gypsy music helps turn the Sufi-based “Whirling” into a floor-stomper. While having Joe Claussell’s name on the record is good for PR, his remix is unexceptional, though not altogether a lost cause. Better is newcomer Jordan Lieb, who makes “Laz” the absolute champion of Rare Elements: a heavy bass jam on the house tip that’s promises to circulate for some time.
Zeb returns to his other love, reggae, for a Latin-fueled take on “Ruperta” on Cumbancha’s renditions of Peruvian band Novalima, Coba Coba Remixed. The source material is rich with percussion and vocals, making it a great choice to retune for the floors. Some do better than others: Zeb is solid, and Da Lata create a happy dance floor hit on “Tumbala”. The always-dependable Faze Action does a nice job on “Yo Voy”, although their decision to make it a disco smash, with a weird progressive bass line, is questionable. The bottom end leads the charge, as it should, making Faze Action one to drop into the mix. Also notable is Boozoo Bajou’s soft, melodic version of “Africa Landó”.
Never least, Venezuelan space aliens Los Amigos Invisibles finally rectify some label issues with Luaka Bop to drop Commercial on Nacional Records.
This band has always been about the live show. They have been able to translate that feel onto record—no small feat. This album is no different. It sounds like their previous three, which is not a bad thing; repetition works for some bands, and given their dynamic, they make the cut. They make throw-your-hand-up and dance music, something soaked into these 50-minutes. Outside of the off moment—their attempt at rock en espanol, “Merengue Killer”, probably stems from their sense of humor; fortunately it is only a minute and change long—they remain on for the duration. This band is about funk and groove, and with tracks like “Vivire Para Ti” and “Oyeme Nana”, they fully deliver the goods.