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Sound Check

What has a kora, a couple of bajo sextos, some drones and driving fiddles?
World Music, of course. But only if you believe what you hear from lazy clerks at music stores.

As a musical category, World Music has been around some eight years now. The term was originally used as a marketing tool in an effort to increase the visibility of ethnic and international artists in Europe. In the United States, it quickly became a catchall for almost anything not in English. It's an "Us v. Them" attitude that pits the U.S. against six continents' (Mexico weighing in as the North American representative) worth of varied and adventurous genres.

Since most U.S. record stores don't even differentiate salsa from soca on the shelves, fans of World Music are likely to find African religious chants and Mexican mariachis dumped in with Japanese flutes in one very cramped section. That doesn't really work.

Still, the economic reality is that even today's music mega-stores can't set up different sections for every country and style out there. And given that, the term World Music seems to be the next best thing.

Even if you exclude the huge Latin scene and traditional ethnic music that's aimed at native audiences, World Music is still perversely large. But it's worth the effort to sift through the ever growing number of releases vying for the World Music audience; there are treasures to be found there.

Among the best of the new World Music releases comes from Vieux Diop, a Senegal-born vocalist and kora player. His eponymous CD on Triloka Records features nine tracks representative of the diversity of West African music; among them are two songs that are centuries old.

One of these, "Jali," a traditional tune from the ninth century, praises the oral historians, or Jali, of West Africa. Part of a once rigid caste system, the Jali are epic storytellers. Diop's version of the song, with lyrics in both Bambara and Wolof, is enchanting, and features his work on the kora (an instrument with 21 strings attached to a huge decorated gourd that looks a bit like a guitar).

Another high point is "Sutu Kun," a 12th-century tune with lyrics in Mandingo. "Sutu Kun" is soft and lush; not so "Banana," a Diop original that's heavily influenced by American pop. Upbeat, danceable and sung in English, "Banana" has Diop enticing a girlfriend gone bad back into his arms. The song features easy, swinging rhythms that all but disguise its complex musical layering, layering that Diop uses throughout the CD's nine tracks.

Brian Keane, who co-wrote "Banana" with Diop, also lent a hand arranging all the other tunes. His contribution shows that World Music can be a combination of influences; it doesn't have to be a "pure" ethnic work to be fascinating. Vieux Diop makes that more than clear. (*****)

Sheila Chandra also shows that World Music doesn't have to be some sort of aural anthropology. As American music absorbs influences from elsewhere, the "elsewhere" absorbs influences as well. Chandra was on the Asian rock scene for several years with the group Monsoon, and a look at her development can be found on Roots and Wings, a collection of songs that were recorded between 1982 and 1989 in India (two tracks) and England (the remaining ten tracks).

Recently rereleased by Caroline Records, Roots and Wings features Chandra's harmonic drones and Indian percussion. It's a rare look at the progression of an artist over time. Roots and Wings was Chandra's first project after a four-and-a-half-year sabbatical; the artist dropped out of the music business when she was 20 and burned out by the Asian rock whirlwind. Roots was an announcement that she was back on the scene.

Chandra, who uses traditional instrumentation such as shehnai (an Indian oboe), tabla (hand drums) and ghatam (a clay pot drum), produces some very untraditional music. Writing with producer Steve Coe, she mixes techno flavors with drones and a variety of cultural styles.

Her and Coe's "The Struggle" is a blast of techno, relentless and fast paced. The CD also offers a different mix of the tune under the title of "The Struggle/The Dream." Backed here by The Ganges Orchestra, the "Dream" version draws on Chandra's angelic vocals and even includes some Celtic overtones, even as it manages to keep the techno in the details.

The CD's title tune, "Roots and Wings" is also presented in two versions, the original Madras mix, recorded in 1986 and again showing Chandra's techno tendencies, and a traditional mix recorded in 1989 that showcases the performer's abilities with something softer.

The wordless "One" recalls Chandra's native chants while moving beyond them, stacking style on style. And "Mecca" is the CD's best example of Chandra's Arabic ornamentation and distinctive drones.

But "Lament of McCrimmon/Song of the Banshee," is decidedly Celtic, drawing on a single vocal line with haunting instrumentation and echoes. "Lament" is the only Celtic tune on Roots and Wings, although Chandra has also released a couple of British folk/ Indian fusion albums that were heralded by fans of that genre. (****)

A different form of fusion can be found in the group Brothers of the Baladi, which features as one of its members Michael Beach, a rarity on the World Beat scene -- a white, nonethnic American with a viable product.

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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