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Baaba Maal
Nomad Soul
Palm Pictures

Ernest Ranglin
In Search of the Lost Riddim
Palm Pictures

Baaba Maal and his 12-piece band, Daande Lanol (Voice of the People), have been a major concert attraction in Europe and West Africa since the mid-1980s. In the last few years, as a result of a heavy touring schedule and the crossover success of albums like 1994's Firin' in Fouta, Maal's profile on the world music scene has increased significantly.Maal has long emphasized his desire to make African music more accessible to the international market. And while there is more English on the new Nomad Soul than on previous releases, his strength remains his ability to seek out the African elements in other cultures and complement them with the Senegalese folk songs he collected as a youth wandering through the bush and singing for his supper. "Africans Unite," Maal's duet with reggae superstar Luciano, for example, combines a roots-reggae beat with a subtle reggae-like rhythm from the Casamance region of Senegal. "Yiriaro (Percussion Storm)," with its relentless kick drum and Maal's extravagant vocals, sounds like an African house anthem. On "Lam Lam," Nomad Soul's vocal centerpiece, Maal gives an extravagant performance over a backing track he improvised with Brian Eno and avant-garde trumpeter Jon Hassell.

In the end, Nomad Soul is the Dark Continent's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's a work that properly sums up the current state of African pop, while exploring the many wonderful directions it may take tomorrow.

Maal also plays an integral part on In Search of the Lost Riddim, the latest from Ernest Ranglin, one of the session heavies who helped create ska, the music that put Jamaica on the musical map. Here, Ranglin collaborates with Maal and members of his Daande Lanol band for one of the most satisfying albums of his long career.

Ranglin started playing guitar in the hotel bands of the '50s, covering American show tunes, Cuban dance music and the hits of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton. In the early 1960s, he joined the house band at Coxone Dodd's Federal Records. Soon thereafter, by mixing the mento beat of Jamaican folk music with the slow New Orleans shuffle he heard on American R&B sides, Ranglin laid the foundations for ska, which slowly transmuted into blue beat, rock steady and eventually reggae. Between leading his own band -- which played a laid-back brand of Caribbean jazz, accented by its leader's Charlie Christian-like solos -- Ranglin contributed licks to the Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon," Molly Small's "My Boy Lollipop" (the first worldwide reggae hit) and tracks by Bob Marley, Johnny Nash and Jimmy Cliff, to name a few. In the late '70s, Ranglin returned to jazz as a member of pianist Monty Alexander's trio, and lately is back to heading his own band.

Past Ranglin solo efforts have been spotty, often blanding out with the kind of lite jazz that moves units but doesn't offer the listener anything truly challenging. Lost Riddim, however, ups the ante considerably by enlisting the aid of Maal and his band. The rhythm tracks are tough and gritty, full of crisp tamas (the small, high-pitched, Senegalese version of the talking drum) and deep bass tones. And when Maal's vocals kick in on tracks like "Minuit," "Haayo" and "Midagny," the music takes off. Instrumentally, his battle with the tama player on "Cherie" and the interplay between his guitar and the kora on "Nuh True" prove that even his mellow approach can be incendiary in the right setting. (Nomad Soul, ***; In Search of the Lost Riddim, ****)

-- j. poet

Various Artists
High Art Soundtrack
Reel Sounds

Various Artists
Smoke Signals Soundtrack
TVT Soundtrax

There was a time when soundtracks were designed specifically to enhance a film's impact. Such is the premise behind these two proper scores for a pair of recent critically acclaimed art-house flicks. As opposed to the current "inspired by the film" trend of soundtrack assembly, which has dominated the charts this summer, these two albums play to the genuine personality of the movies they represent -- but they also underscore the weaknesses of such a loyal approach.

Smoke Signals, the film, plays out its buddy-movie premise against the backdrop of the Native American quandary in contemporary U.S. culture. That being the case, the music on its soundtrack draws on traditional Indian music as a source. High Art, on the other hand, drifts up and down in intensity, its textures meant to mirror the heady rush of heroin and love -- the two main themes of the movie. For the record, neither is necessarily something you'd want to listen to in your car, for risk of dozing off.

Smoke Signals is mostly the work of composer B.C. Smith -- whose writing credits include the Keanu Reeves vanity project Dogstar -- and its main function seems to be that of sonic wallpaper. Mildly annoying, in a new age bookstore kind of way (thanks, no doubt, to the preponderance of flutes and rain sticks), the album's vibe hinges on an intangible rhythmic chanting that ebbs and flows throughout its 27 tracks. And since it was designed to accentuate what's going on in the film, its intensity rarely moves from the background.

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