Sound Check

The surge of interest in world music over the past several years has resulted in a wealth of tasty options in even the most generic of chain record stores. While not long ago King Sunny Ade, Fela and an anthology or two filled most African sections, discriminating shoppers can now sample the latest mbaqanga hits from Zimbabwe, Nigerian juju chart-toppers or rai classics from Algeria.

Unfortunately, the international section still tends to be cordoned off from the homegrown music, a symbolic barrier that reflects the general disinterest of U.S. listeners in sounds with a foreign accent. In most corners of the globe, however, world beat isn't just an exotic genre. As though spurred by some planetary free-trade agreement, music of all description has been flowing to the most remote cultural outposts and back again. A traditional flamenco band goes tropical; a Moroccan producer samples the street sounds of Marrakesh and mixes them with techno-weirdness in a psychedelic desert stew. And though modern technology has accelerated the process, it's always been this way. Ever on the prowl for new ideas, musicians incorporate fresh sounds into the local mix. The crowd goes wild, and styles evolve.

In Planet Squeezebox, a remarkable three-CD set, Ellipsis Arts has chronicled the spread of one particular instrument, the accordion, to the farthest reaches of the globe. Once associated in America with stodgy polka bands and little else, the accordion has been making a comeback stateside. That's old news overseas, where the instrument in all its forms has been integrated into even the most unlikely contexts.

What makes the accordion a perfect study is that its time and place of birth (May 1829, in Vienna, Austria) are fixed. Charting its migration is a matter of basic research rather than guesswork, and the 56-page book that accompanies Planet Squeezebox capsulizes the accordion's history in a series of fascinating blurbs: how it moved quickly from its home on the Danube to Paris, then Germany and Italy before traveling with emigrants, sailors and missionaries to the New World and elsewhere; how Hohner mass-produced the instrument for export and kicked off a worldwide accordion explosion at the turn of the century; and how it jumped ethnic boundaries and usurped traditional instruments. The accordion was so readily embraced because of some attractive and inherent qualities: it's portable, it can take the lead or add zest in a backup role and, most important, it's loud as hell and can be heard above the din of wild partying.

Not that a universal boogie is what it's all about -- Planet Squeezebox includes virtuoso examples of jazz and even classical accordion (a Debussy piece performed by Houstonians Willard Palmer and Bill Hughes). Most accordion music, however, connects directly with the motor centers of the brain, and Planet Squeezebox offers a steady stream of soul-stirring dance tunes both mainstream and esoteric: good-rocking zydeco, Irish jigs and reels, a Bulgarian horo, forre from the streets of northeastern Brazil and, yes, the ubiquitous polka, though the selections from such bands as Texas' twisted Brave Combo will convert even the most jaded cynic.

Geographic diversity isn't the only reason repetition isn't an issue with accordion-based music. The accordion itself isn't a single item, but a class of instrument, with numerous variants, each with its own range, tone, scale and bass configurations. South Africans prefer the "squashbox," small, retuned German or Italian concertinas; zydeco players opt for the more blues-oriented piano accordion; if you tango in Argentina, it may well be to the strains of the throbby, resonant bandoneon. In Planet Squeezebox you can read all about it.

And though some might think three CDs of accordion music a stretch, so much great squeezebox music exists that compiler/producer Michael Shapiro had nothing but cream to skim. We meet Tex-Mex genius Esteban Jordan, whose technical brilliance and active imagination earned him the moniker "the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion." Jazz great Alice Hall, so skilled an improviser she could play entire tunes backward to amuse her audiences, makes an appearance, as does Basque stylist Kepa Junkera, who adds a modernized trikitixa original that's paralleled by Finnish revivalist Maria Kalaniemi, whose original polska speaks with a distinctive Baltic lilt. Fifty-two tracks, 52 masters, 52 jaw-droppers. (*****)

In addition to Planet Squeezebox's potent dose of illumination, a diverse flurry of topnotch new releases on various labels showcase artists who are breaking new ground while remaining firmly rooted in tradition. Among the best are a quartet of sparklers on Milan Latino: El Son de Cuba, La Rumba de Cuba, La Charanga de Cuba and El Cha Cha Cha de Cuba. Style broker for the world, Cuba has influenced the sounds of almost as many nations as God. Its rich musical scene is the most fluid and dynamic of any on the globe, importing, digesting and exporting influences at the speed of light.

In Cuba, son is the music from which, as with blues in the States, most everything else springs. A virtual representation of the island's melting-pot identity, son has been around since the late 1800s, and though it has morphed tremendously over the years, its core remains rock solid -- intense, swirling percussive rhythms overlaid with melodic textures of strings and, more recently, horns.

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