Lucid Culture


CD Review: The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge

Sometimes the Rough Guide albums have funny titles (how about the Rough Guide to Blues Revival, released in…2009?!?) For those of you who are wondering what on earth this one could be, good news, it’s not really a lounge album at all. Rather, the Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge is a compilation of some of the most interesting, cutting-edge, genre-blurring Middle Eastern flavored music from around the globe, along with some gorgeously familiar traditional sounds. As with the other Rough Guides over the past year, this one is a twofer including an excellent bonus cd by Algerian gypsy-rai songwriter Akim El Sikameya and his band.

If you’re a fan of this kind of stuff, the compilation will stretch your ears. The huge Lebanese hit Al Guineya by Ghazi Abdel Baki that opens it sounds like Leonard Cohen in Arabic, a tango with balmy sax, tasteful fingerpicked minor-key acoustic guitar and Abdel Baki’s sepulchral vocals. Hymn of the Sea by Palestinian chanteuse Rim Banna is slinky trip-hop with accordion and upright bass, evocative of a Stevie Wonder hit from the 70s. Lebanese oud virtuoso and longtime Marcel Khalife sideman Charbel Rouhana contributes Ladyfingers, a violin-and-oud instrumental like the Gipsy Kings. Arabic chanteuse Soumaya Baalbaki is represented by a beautiful habibi jazz song, followed by Emad Ashour’s solo cello taqsim, bracing, intense and in a maqam (scale) that’s not stereotypically Arabic.

Ishtar, of Alabina fame has a characteristically gypsy-inflected levantine dance-pop tune, contrasting mightily with trumpet innovator Amir ElSaffar’s almost bop-jazz instrumental and its boisterous conversation between his quartertone trumpet and a low-register ney flute. Mohamed Sawwah offers a murky piano-and-vocal ballad; there’s also Middle Eastern inflected Cuban son by Hanine y Son Cubano, an Iraquicized oud version of Johnny Guitar by the late oud legend Munir Bashir; the haunting, lush Jordanian harmonies of Dozan; a tersely fiery bouzouki solo by Mohamed Houssein, and Azzddine with Bill Laswell doing a gypsy melody as Morroccan trip-hop with spacey vocoder vocals!

The Akim El Sikameya cd is worth owning by itself and makes a nice bonus. The obvious comparison is Manu Chao, El Sikameya drawing on the native Algerian trip-hop rhythm with frequent gypsy guitar or accordion accents and more modern touches like oud played through a chorus box on the first track, and downtempo, loungey electric piano on another. They start one song out with what’s essentially Egyptian reggae, quickly morphing into a brisk gypsy dance; the later part of the album features some absolutely chilling, beautiful violin work. Another strong effort from the Rough Guide folks, who have really been on a roll lately and should definitely be on your radar if you’re a world music fan.


March 17, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Marta Topferova – Trova

Czech-born, New York-based chanteuse/songwriter Marta Topferova has carved herself out a niche as a first-class avatar of latin music. Her new cd Trova (a Cuban style, though she explores considerably more terrain here) is quite a change from the pensive melancholy that runs throughout much of her previous work. It’s a mix of oldschool latin styles with a Caribbean tinge, like something out of San Juan, 1955, recorded with her band at an old farmhouse outside Prague fresh off a European tour. The album features Topferova on guitar and cuatro along with big band leader Pedro Giraudo on bass, Aaron Halva on tres and accordion, Roland Satterwhite on violin and Neil Ochoa on percussion. It’s got a quiet joy that simmers and bubbles over once in awhile for extra flavor. Frequently, the star of the show here is Satterwhite (formerly with Jenifer Jackson and also Howard Fishman), whose imaginative, casually intense phrasing adds an unexpectedly biting edge to some of the quieter material. As is typical throughout the cd, its unexpected moments are subtle but compelling, as in the case of the infectious opening bomba, Juligan, a nocturnal street scene whose central character, a bum, turns out to be something completely different. And yet the same.

She follows that with an effervescent, percussion-driven dance tune, a stately, delicately pensive tango and a symbolically charged midtempo number rich with chordal jangle and gorgeous acoustic textures. Largo el Camino (The Long Road) winds along on a catchy, swaying four-bar hook and a couple of nice introspective tres solos, the latter closing the song on an optimistic note.

Descarga de la Esperanza (The Hope Jam) is hypnotic, like the Dead gone latin and acoustic. Madrugada (Dawn) is a pretty, sad waltz with a buoyant Satterwhite solo, one of those kind of songs that, thirty years ago, would have had record executives scheming over the prospect of a crossover international hit. Topferova saves her grittiest vocal for the tricky Argentinean changes of Entre a Mi Pago Sin Golpear (Come On Over and Don’t Knock), Satterwhite’s jovial fiddle adding contrast.

The cd winds up with the vividly lyrical La Amapola, inspired by a poppy native to Czech Republic, showcasing Topferova’s seemingly effortless ability to shift between styles; the dusky las Luciernagas (Fireflies) and an old bolero cover usually sung by a male vocalist. Topferova puts her own spin on it, a woman in an arranged marriage displaying quiet defiance. This album has the same kind of rustic quality that spurred the Bachata Roja Legends’ surprise crossover success and could just as easily resonate with anglo as well as latin audiences. Not bad for Czech expat for whom Spanish was a second language. She’s at Barbes on Jan 22 at 10.

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Omara Portuondo – Gracias

Still going strong at 78, the iconic Buena Vista Social Club singer offers a heartfelt “thanks” here a la Keith Richards’ “glad to be here/glad to be anywhere.”  This new cd mixes vintage Cuban style romantic ballads and laments with a decidedly tropical feel, produced with taste and restraint by Brazilian 7-string guitarist Swami Jr., who also plays throughout. While Omara Portuondo didn’t write anything on the cd, she doesn’t have to look far to find a legion of A-list players lined up and ready to work with her, a global cast including percussionist Trilok Gurtu, Israeli-American jazz bassist Avishai Cohen and pianist Roberto Fonseca.


The cd opens with Adios Felicidad (Goodbye Happiness), imbued with a frequently characteristic, stoic, restrained beauty. The Sunny bossa number O Que Sera (a Flor de Terra), a duet with Brazil’s Chico Buarque, gets just enough beautifully minimalist salsa piano and congas to give it sway and bounce. The big, dramatic, piano ballad Vuela Pena (Fly Away, Pain) shows Portuondo’s voice undiminished as she reaches for a big crescendo, evoking a “terrible pain that poisons” and “turns a princess into the oldest queen.” Then she brings the drama up even higher on Cuento Para un Nino (Childrens’ Story), a hopeful ballad for future generations that impressively manages to avoid being cloying. The coy Amama Como Soy (Take Me As I Am), a tribute to her late, lamented contemporary Elena Burke is a swaying dance number again spiced with piano and congas. Rabo de Nube (Break in the Clouds) reverts to a hopeful, tropicalia feel with pensive bowed bass, followed in the same vein by the title track, a duet with Uruguayan candombe crooner Jorge Drexler.


Pretty much everything here has considerable, frequently minimalistic beauty. The album’s one misstep is a schmaltzy a-capella duet between Portuono and her granddaughter: by and large, unless you’re Lou Reed and you’re making the Berlin album, musicians should keep their brood away from the mic til they’re old enough to realize how cheesy it is to record them before they’re grown. Otherwise, if there’s any other criticism of this cd, it’s that it’s so tasteful and so impeccably done that a fan of this kind of music might well hear a conga break where Cohen takes a subtle little run up the scale, or might imagine a blazing horn chart in place of those synthesized strings. But those are matters of style: at 78, Portuondo is entitled to do whatever she wants. And if Obama makes good on his hint that the US might soon normalize relations with Cuba, it would be great to see her here. Til then, great to see her anywhere. 

December 10, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment