Various Artists: I Heard It on NPR - One World Many Voices
An interesting assortment of hits and misses from public radio.
Like Natalie Imbruglia after a week on Torquemada's rack, I'm torn. The nasty English cynic in me wants to rip NPR a new one for being so resolutely middle class in a country that pretends to be classless, for effectively excluding the blue collar and redneck majority who would benefit most from a little public radio, and for catering instead to the sort of loathsome lost, smug souls who buy their music in Williams-Sonoma along with their monogrammed beverage buckets and hundred dollar wine openers.
But then again, there really are some top tunes on this CD.
Almost despite itself, One World Many Voices takes us on an intriguing and satisfying musical journey through North Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and East Europe. The only question is, why bother with the white Yankee chicks?
Eva Cassidy might be the ultimate Pottery Barn musical accessory. She may even be a singing Sylvia Plath for the Allie McBeal generation. But in this company, even her technically competent take on "People Get Ready" renders her every bit as irrelevant as Rosanne Cash and Patti Smith. Cash's cover of Laura Nyro's "Save the Country" is just plain dreary, and so she gets off lightly compared to Smith, whose own original song "Jubilee" simply reinforces the lesson that she should never have been allowed back into a recording studio after 1978.
I lack the words, or at least the technical terminology, to describe the best of the music here. But the wonderful, indecipherable pop (for want of a better word) of Algerian singer Souad Massi, the truly soulful Tuareg blues (again there is no better word) of Tinariwen, and the effortless, languid beauty of Emeline Michel, the Queen of Haitian Song, should be heard by anyone who loves music.
Leaving the white chicks out, there are fascinating stories behind all these songs. Here's just one: The Brazilian, Caetano Veloso, was one of seven children. Originally a bossanova singer, in the '60s he became a major contributor to the development of tropicalismo, a fusion of Brazilian pop, rock'n'roll, and art rock layered with protest and politics. The ruling Brazilian military regime was less than impressed. Veloso's songs were censored and banned. With his musical collaborator, Gilberto Gil, the musician was even jailed for "anti-government activity". Post-tropicalismo, Veloso's work has embraced both international music and the all-but-forgotten sounds of his homeland. His "13 de Maio" comes from his 2000 album Noites do Norte and celebrates the 1888 abolition of slavery in Northern Brazil. How can you resist?
Other largely disposable offerings come from the Melodians, a perfectly acceptable rocksteady act from the late '60s who I still cannot forgive for Boney M, and Sweet Honey in the Rock whose spiritual harmonies have never seemed so much like overbearing caterwhauling as they do in the company of the excellent Mexican singer Lila Downs and Mariam "Mama Africa" Makeba. The veteran South African singer's "Jikele Emaweni" starts off like an out-take from the Lion King and then suddenly veers off towards something you might hear on one of the better John Wayne movie soundtracks; if only the Duke could have countenanced a contribution sung in Zulu by a woman who, already living in exile from the Apartheid regime, was deported from the USA for marrying a prominent Black Panther. Stories? NPR's got 'em.
Elsewhere, the East European contingent is perhaps the most surprising. The Ukranian protest hip hop of GreenJolly is a kick in the pants for the East, West, and Third Coasts of America. "Razom Nas Bahato" shares some melodic themes with Russian pop goddesses t.A.T.u, and spits political slogans straight from the street into the face of Ukranian Prime Minister and election rigger Viktor Yanukovych. Meanwhile, the Warsaw Village Band offers perhaps the best punk dance song I have heard since Fat of the Land. The Warsaw Village Band probably has more in common with Chumbawumba than either the Prodigy or the Incredible String Band, but its "Cranes" rocks like an oedipal pronoun built on pounding Polish folk traditions and arcane instruments, while the compelling vocals hurtle across the flayed strings like a choir on amphetamines. Really, really good amphetamines. Apparently, this singing style is bialy glos (white voice), a much more than merely acceptable variant on the yodel. I want to hear more. And I don't care if I never hear Patti Smith or Eva Cassidy again.