Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
Aside from Bob Dylan’s VOLUME 5 OF THE BOOTLEG SERIES and Van Morrison’s sterling and visionary work on DOWN THE ROAD, 2002 saw a dearth of worth-while new music hitting the retail bins. However, 2003 has reversed this course, and many fine CDS have been released by both major labels and tiny independents alike.
Putumayo World Music is a shining example of the alternatives that exist beyond the Rock/Jazz sound that America has grown up on. The Putumayo World Music label (featured prominently on many radio stations throughout the country), offers adventurous listeners the opportunity to expand their consciousness, exposing both old and young record buyers to the rich musical histories of Africa, Latin American and Europe.
Putumayo is unique in that it strives to recreate communities among the scattered cold torn landscapes of America, binding segregated worlds together, uniting the hungry and the forsaken and the blind through the invisible beauty of music. One brief sampling of this material reveals an original vision that has stepped past the “profits first” bottom line and reconnected us with the true idea of art.
LATIN PLAYGROUND. A collection of Latin American songs aimed at exposing children to the history of Latin music. Featuring selections by Omara Portuondo, Flaco Jimenez and Carmen Gonzalez. This wonderfully diverse record is part of Putumayo’s WORLD PLAYGROUND series that introduces children to music from the four corners of the world. The album boasts impassioned singing in a wide array of styles that will appeal to the young and old alike.
CONGO TO CUBA. A sampling of Cuban music and Cuban-influenced African music. These two areas of the world are linked by similar rhythms, the cultures deeply rooted in personal expression through the ritual of dance; CONGO TO CUBA allows us to experience the connection first-hand. Featuring Chico Alvarez, Monte Adentro, Laba Sosseh among others.
VHUNZE MOTO. Oliver Mtukudzi. This new record by Mtukudzi brings the music of Zimbabwe to America. This legendary South African musician captivates his listeners here, bridging the gulf between the continents with his soft cool supple melodies and piercing vocals. A five star performance.
ITALIAN ODYSSEY. Featuring contemporary folk music from both the Southern and Northern regions of Italy. This music has risen from an underground community and is slowly making its way across Europe to the United States. Vibrant, rich with social awareness, ITALIAN ODYSSEY calls to mind a 20-year-old Bob Dylan strolling the snow-crusted streets of New York’s Lower East Side at dawn.
REGGAE AROUND THE WORLD. A compilation that presents Reggae music from different parts of the world, including Brazil, Jamaica, South Africa and Nigeria. This wild explosion of rhythm documents the far-reaching influence Reggae has had on countless generations. Artists include Lucky Dube, Zeca Baleiro, Peter Rowan and Rocky Dawuni.
As “light” as 2002 was in the music world, 2003 promises to be just that rich. CDs to take note of include:
HAREM. Sarah Brightman. Angel Records. June 2003. This sexy and sensual new collection from Sarah Brightman is based upon a musical fantasy inspired by the Middle East. Not only is this album important in the context of what is happening on a global level (given the recent U.S. led war on Iraq), but it also features players from around the world, including orchestral musicians from Prague and Cairo. Says Brightman about her new record: “With Harem I wanted to do something with a Middle Eastern percussive feel. I am fascinated by the desert, by the space, the peace and spirituality, all those fantastic Technicolor images from The Arabian Nights and Lawrence Of Arabia….I like a big cinematic feel with music and these sounds and inspirations gave me a framework with alot of space to create within.”
Best cuts include the title track, and the mesmerizing “What You Never Know.” Also notable is “The Journey Home,” written by Indian film composer A.R. Rahman. Inventive and musically flawless. An inspired recording.
TROUBLE NO MORE. John Mellencamp. Columbia Records. June 2003. This marks the 21st record of Mellencamp’s career, and is one of the singer-songwriter’s best efforts to date. The record’s origins of inspiration lie in Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Leadbelly, as Mellencamp departs from his straight ahead rock and roll style and immerses himself in the blues, paying homage to the songs that are responsible for his evolution as an artist: “You think you know about the history of music, of folk and blues,” Mellencamp said about the album, “but it was so much more than I had expected; it goes much deeper than you can imagine.”
Even though this record is one of Mellencamp’s most understated and fully realized, it has still garnered the wrath of many critics, mainly because of the inclusion of the song “To Washington” — a ballad written in 1902 and made popular by Charlie Poole and The North Carolina Ramblers (adaptations were later released by the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie). Some interpret this piece as “anti-war,” and Mellencamp has been criticized and unduly labeled as “un-American” since he chose to release this cover during the United States’ recent war with Iraq. However, “To Washington” (along with “Diamond Joe” and Memphis Minnie’s “Joliet Bound”) is a true stand-out cut, demonstrating Mellencamp’s wide range as a vocalist. Aside from the singing and the power of the lyrics, Trouble features some fine playing, including note-worthy performances by Mike Wanchic on guitar and Dane Clark on drums.
Ignore the critics and the fool-hearty jingoism over-taking our media and buy this record. From the first echoes of the first cut, “Trouble No More” tells the story of American music through some of the finest folk-blues pieces of the last 100 years. This one’s a must for any serious fan.