Even as the mainstream media continues what parents in the suburbs are probably considering a useless love affair with hip-hop culture, it's incredible to see the dissonance between what the art form used to be and what it has become. In the last two decades, one of the only musical genres to fare worse in the process of transforming from what mainstream media dubbed a subculture into a paradise for the materially obsessed has been soul music.
What is and what is not soul can't be qualified any better than what is or isn't hip-hop. You know it when you hear it, which sounds like a cliché. But in a radio market that only promises to get smaller, concert circuits and tours that are headed in the same direction, it's certain that you haven't heard real soul in at least a few years. And as R&B continues its bump and grind towards hyper-sexualized muzak with the likes of Ashanti and other lackluster personalities, I'd venture to bet you haven't heard a lot of that that's quality, either.
But if Global Soulis any indication, world soul is more understated and sweet if slightly less refined in the way of composition. Putumayo compilations tend to elicit a shrug from serious music buyers. While the colorful packaging certainly catches the eye, listening to a select number of popular singers from around the world chosen by an eccentric company is a lot like drinking blue mountain coffee at Starbucks in a fancy cup and considering the experience authentic.
Music snobbery aside, Global Soul proves the rest of the world is better at reinventing R&B and soul than America. This collection of 13 songs featuring artists from Germany to Tanzania, takes on the challenge that Les Nubians did with their debut in Princesses Nubiennes (1999) -- to become international ambassadors of R&B, with grace and variety.
There are some missteps, most of them forgivable, but overall, this compilation is worth enduring despite cluttered songs. "Caramel", by Doc Gyneco, is a perfect example of a good beat gone wrong. As the French crooner delivers his rap over a silky sample, the whole thing reeks of corny. While the emotional weight is evident in the voices of these performers, the blend of eccentricity over "Americanized" music with unimaginative delivery can be a disastrous one. The same is true of "J'attendrai" by Melgroove and "Beyond the Ocean" from South Korea's Tasha are both sweet songs that skim the surface of pop-infused lovey-dovey poetics. The latter includes a rapper and a half Korean, half-English chorus that gives one pause, although it's a formula that a number of artists on the compilation make use of.
Somewhere in the groovy middle there is "Zeze" by Tanzania's TID who is quite successful at singing and rapping on the same song without sounding like a poor attempt at an R. Kelly remix. In a collaboration between 1 Giant Leap, Speech, Neneh Cherry, and Native American group Ulali, "Braided Hair" exhales beauty à la Arrested Development type inspiration.
On the other hand, when these global stars shine, they shine brilliantly. Perhaps the best example of when global music is itself without aspiring to American R&B mores is Joy Denalane's "Hochste Zeit", a jazzy excursion into grassroots soul and time-traveling R&B groove. Fernanda Abreu, described as the "grand dame of Brazilian funk and soul", shines with the funky "Eu Quero Sol (I Want Sun)" with pretty lyrics like: "I want a place in the sun / A place by the sea / To tell you, to talk to you / That despite the heat and the sweat / Of this beach you are arriving / Arriving to be / I go to follow, I go to walk, I go to think / Of everything that I have lived and dreamed". Cameroon's Kaissa delivers "Nika Pata Lambo (Such a Thing)" with the elegance of Les Nubians and the conviction of post-Miseducation Lauryn Hill. The combination of her vocal prowess and a hauntingly sweet instrumental provides a template that any global artist interested in penetrating the American market should subscribe to. Speaking of that, the trans-Atlantic collaboration of the French soul singer, China, with a bass guitar strummed by Me'Shell Ndegeochello yields one of the funkier songs on this mix.
While soul isn't what it used to be in America or elsewhere, Global Soul proves there's still room for creativity in soul and R&B without appealing to listeners' primal instincts. Instead, many of these songs extend themselves to that space in the gut, where soul music is supposed to touch us anyway.