Sound Check

On El Son de Cuba, eight bands contribute two tracks each, enough to lend some continuity to a remarkably varied batch of sounds. Though it may be tough to discern the threads that link them, the tunes have a lot in common -- the machinations of the claves, maracas and bongos, the plucked inventions on guitar and tres, the close harmonies and impassioned solos. And ultimately, the point is to dance. (*****)

Far more basic, almost raw, Cuban rumba is a direct descendant of West African traditional drumming and singing. That's all you get on La Rumba de Cuba. As claves or other banged sticks mark the time, the leader exhorts the masses with a fiery incantation, the rest of the band responding in kind as various bass and conga drums blend together until all hell breaks loose. Without a melody to anchor the voice, the vocals are all the more amazing in their faultless precision. But then, the fairly raunchy subject matterof most rumbas is enough to keep anyone in key. (****)

In a lighter vein, La Charanga de Cuba reflects the stringier European influences that moved some strains of traditional son off the streets and into upscale environments. More an instrumental format than a distinct style, charanga has flute, piano, bass and a much mellower percussion section mark as its foundation. The precursor to mambo and cha cha cha, the music is surprisingly broad in scope, as the 11 bands on the disc prove. Still, every track is positively lounge. (****)

The languid cousin of the mambo, cha cha cha is actually a small slice of a traditional danzon. Inventor Enrique Jorrin noticed that dancers waited for a certain repetitive phrase in his tunes, and he built an entire genre around it. The first-ever recorded version of cha cha cha, "La EngeĖadora," appears on El Cha Cha Cha de Cuba, as do a pair of gems by the perfectly named Orquesta Sublime. Not a general audience item. (***)

Unfortunately, the liner notes on all four discs offer only a list of song titles and artists and a capsule history of the music: there are no dates, bios or the like. A few names and song titles ring familiar enough to make it clear that these aren't B sides or wannabes, though that's not really necessary: a quick listen does that well enough. And with the discs clocking in at more than 60 minutes apiece, the lack of documentation isn't fatal.

Also suffering from a paucity of background information is Viva Espana: Nuevo Flamenco Vol. 1 on the Miramar label. But this compilation would stand tall even if the insert were completely blank. Flamenco music is historically very stylized and choreographed, the simple power of frenetically strummed guitar and clacking palmas magnified by the feet of an omnipresent dancer or three who stamp a pounding rhythm as a singer wails a love song or lament. The new flamenco bands represented on Viva Espana substitute Latin percussion for the dancers and add electric instruments and all manner of rhythmic angles to the mix. From the clean acoustic vision of Ricao to the fully plugged sound of Jaleo, these bands rock the gamut. (*****)

The Middle East and Africa are also providing some notable international sounds. Ever since Israeli diva Ofra Haza broke new ground with her piercing updates of traditional songs from her South Yemeni homeland, her footsteps have remained unfollowed. Now comes Yosefa, also Israeli, also with South Yemeni as well as Moroccan roots. On Hemisphere's Yosefa: The Desert Speaks, the singer applies modern production values to ancient sounds of the Middle East and North Africa. The music is as stark and uncompromising as the desert itself, but with a magnetic, veiled sensuality. Softened by western influences and spiced with the unexpected (a reggae dance-hall stanza here, an Indian sitar there), Yosefa's version becomes universally palatable. (****)

Similarly rooted but taking liberties that border on the extreme, Aisha Kandisha's band Jarring Effects moves Moroccan music to another plane. Named for the most dangerous and formidable jinniya in Moroccan folklore, the group is driven by studio wizard Patrick Jabbar El Shaheed, who draws considerable inspiration from the hip-hop world. On Shabeesation (Rykodisc), Shaheed and cohorts lay a pulsing bed of Arabic percussion and strings, into which they throw whatever sampled bits strike them -- street sounds of Marrakech, snippets of Berber music, a knife slapping someone's neck, rap, gunshots. The result is a trance-inducing techno-folk brain injection -- Moroccan acid house. (****)

Considerably more subtle but no less daring, Brooklyn-born fiddler Eileen Ivers takes Irish music a step beyond on her second Green Linnet solo disc, Wild Blue. Perhaps the most incendiary fiddler on either side of the Atlantic, Ivers will smash any lingering doubts about the ability of women instrumentalists to hold a candle to the boys. She's got a blowtorch. More than her dexterous fills and trills, what really thrills is Ivers' mind. She takes an Irish standard, "Rights of Man," and backed by drums, guitar and organ, turns it into an eerie, swinging piece without ever losing touch with the original. She transforms new pieces into venerable standards. Like amphetamines for the hyperactive, she soothes the soul while generating fireworks. Wild Blue isn't so much genre-bending as a personal statement, because where Ivers is treading, none can follow. (*****) -- Bob Burtman

***** Enlightened anarchy
**** Two-party democracy
*** Benevolent monarchy
** Oligarchy
* Dictatorship

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