Another cutesy compilation concept from the Putumayo label overcomes predictability with some truly infectious songs.
For the last 10 years, Putumayo has been marketing world music as easy listening. Bright, flat, cartoony album covers and cutesy compilation concepts (Music From the Tea Lands and two volumes of Music From the Coffee Lands are also available) provide a hint at the sheer softness of a typical Putumayo world music CD. There's percussion in Putumayo's world, of course, but true rhythmic intensity is rare and dissonance completely extinct. Imagine an Africa that never heard of the electric guitar and you're probably not far off the mark.
Music From the Chocolate Lands, then, is a typical Putumayo world music CD. World music as easy listening: it's just a terrible idea in the first place, right? Well, right -- but beauty counts for a lot in easy listening, and Chocolate Lands is gorgeous. It feels strange to call its appeal seductive; the songs, especially the first five or six (or seven) announce their melodic and structural pleasures from the very first listen. (We're catchy! We're poppy! Love us!) But a seduction is what it is. The album's patient, sybaritic, mid-tempo groove -- yep, groove, even though there are few real beats to speak of -- unfolds itself gradually the more time you spend with it. And you'll want to spend time with it.
Opening track "Lisanga", by the trio Toto Bona Lokua (representing Cameroon, France by way of the Congo, and Martinique by way of France), is representative of Chocolate Land's easy rhythm. A couple of acoustic guitars play in sprightly harmony over a celebratory, multi-voice chorus. Percussion -- mostly mouth-based -- is both gentle and polyrhythmic without being too wrapped up in either. The bass line is simple. And the tune itself is filled with hooks, which is -- along with the groove -- the other great reason for this album's appeal: nearly every song is relentlessly catchy. Memorable melodies come at you in waves, from Ozomatli's tango-funk to Marcantonio's sly tropicalia to Think of One's fetching child-voice chorus on the breezy "Paletó".
Pinning down one style to any one song is difficult in most cases, because in most cases the groups represented on Music from the Chocolate Lands can't even be pinned down to one country of origin. Ozomatli are Mexicans living in East L.A., Toto Bona Lokua I already mentioned, and Think of One are a Belgian troupe who seem to be zealots for universalism (its members "embed themselves in different countries and create collaborations that fuse their Belgian roots with local styles", according to the liner notes). But in this era of rampant multiculti give-and-take (ten of the album's 12 songs are copyrighted 2000 or later), all this culture-mashing plays out as simply music as usual. You might not even notice that Western pop music forms predominate the songs here. Polyrhythms, if they're present at all, are pushed to the background in favor of melody; verse-chorus-verse structures abound. One could easily argue that Susheela Raman's "Sarasa" is watered-down Afro-Anglo-Indian funk-pop-soul masquerading as world music. True enough, I suppose, but what's the point of mounting a counterargument when the song is so pretty? The joy factor runs high all over this album, with nearly every song an instant pick-me-up. (I take serious exception only to Susana Baca's "Valentín", which I'd probably enjoy more if I could speak the language; the liner notes describe it as "sung from the point of view of a man who is about to fight with Valentín, and complains because his foe is using a stick".) The folks at Putumayo may be wimps, but Music from the Chocolate Lands achieves its declared mission regardless: it's "guaranteed to make you feel good!" And if I owned a double boiler, I could tell you how its recipe for flourless chocolate torte turns out.