Sound Check

Together for more than 20 years, Beach and the Brothers have focused on Middle Eastern music, and Eye on the World, their latest release, covers Persian, Arabic and Turkish folk tunes with a 19th-century Scottish song thrown in for luck.

Of course, the Brothers don't really need luck. Michael Shrieve, an original member of Santana, produced Eye on the World, and Beach, the group's leader, has done his homework. The result is a combination of traditional instrumentation and superb musicianship. Beach handles the tar (a frame drum), mizmar/ghaita (a double reed oboe) and buya-buya drum, while Tarik Banzi works the oud (a lute) and bouzouki (an eight-string Greek guitar). Shrieve adds secondary drums and percussion.

The CD opens with "Mastoom Mastoom," a Persian folk tune, and the ancient love song invites dancing, with Mel Kubik's strong soprano sax working against a percussion driven backdrop. The Brothers twice use taxims -- traditional Arabic song setups or segues -- to ease into tunes, first with "Lamma Bada" (literally "when he appeared"), a classic Arabic instrumental, and then with the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards rock standard, "Paint It Black."

While a Middle Eastern enthusiast, in his heart Beach is basically a rocker, and covering the Rolling Stones isn't beyond his reach. As unexpected as "Paint It Black" might be, it's well done, with the clarino (an earlier version of the modern clarinet) taking the melody. Some of the other highlights are "Gole Sangiem" (Farsi for "Flower of Stone"), a delicate, dreamy ballad, led by Beach's solemn mizmar, and "Backbeat," based on a popular Arabic/Turkish drum solo called the hegalah. "Backbeat" is infectious, and highlights the African influences on Turkish rhythms.

If there's a weak point on Eye on the World, it's "Dere Dere," a Turkish folk song. The 9/8 Karsilma rhythm is a developed taste that isn't as pleasing as the rest of the CD. Still, along with excellent music, Beach brings some interesting questions to the World Music table. This could, after all, be construed as a bit of appropriation, a white-bread American covering other people's culture. Are we back to Pat Boone cashing in on Little Richard's tunes here?

The question plagues Beach at every interview, and he answers with a now standard, "See us live." And while there have been some World Music wannabes, Beach and the Brothers of Baladi aren't among them. Beach and the Brothers, who are most often met with support by the people whose traditions and music they replicate, are genuine in their love of Middle Eastern sounds, and faithful in their execution of same. (*****)

Zairois Papa Wemba, an institution in his homeland of Zaire, leads the Afro-pop movement, blending modern African music with Western pop. Emotion, his latest release on Real World Record, may see him achieving crossover success.

It's something Wemba wants; he covets an international audience. Touring with Peter Gabriel, moving to Paris, working in London and Japan at every chance, he has for some time been unashamedly chasing the "Mr. World Music" title. Emotion might get it for him.

Wemba has been a force in African pop since the late '60s, when he helped found the group, Zaiko Langa Langa. That band modernized Zairean music, adding Western blues and rock to soukous, a form of traditional dance music. The blend became known as Rumba Rock, and with it Wemba found the world stage. In 1977, he moved on to front his own band, Viva La Musica, a dance group heavily influenced by Afro-Cuban music.

For Emotion, Wemba enlisted producer Stephen Hague, who worked with the Pet Shop Boys and Erasure. Hague insured that Wemba's vocals took center stage on each tune, turning down the driving African percussion just a notch. Though Wemba sings in his native Lingala, he's mindful enough of the international market to throw in a sprinkling of English. Emotion takes every advantage of Wemba's versatility, covering pop, R&B, soukous and Afro-Cuban roots, with no mistakes along the way. "Show Me the Way," a spirited dance number, is the CD's most pop-oriented tune. Like most of Wemba's music, it's flavored by funky soukous grooves.

"Sad Song," a cover of the Otis Redding hit, has Juliet Roberts (who had "I Want You" on the U.S. dance charts last year) soaring on the shared vocals, with Wemba taking a rare secondary role. With "Image" Wemba is back in the spotlight he wants, swinging with a lush percussion backdrop, while "Epelo" is syncopated voicing over a very Cuban dance beat. Wemba makes a point of trying to move beyond categories, even one as broad as World Music. And that, in itself, may be an indication of what World Music really is. Wemba prefers to call himself an international force. And it's true. Not real humble, maybe, but true. (****1/2) -- Olivia Torre

***** Circles the globe
**** Crosses a continent
*** Into another country
** Barely over the state line
* Out of gas at the end of the block

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