In Search of the Lost Riddim
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
High Art Soundtrack
Smoke Signals Soundtrack
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.
Providing a brief break in the monotony, literate folkie Dar Williams turns in the flat country-pop number "Road Buddy," sounding all too much like a second-rate Sheryl Crow impersonator. Jim Boyd also contributes a handful of tracks, which combine the sort of overproduced acoustic guitars and overwrought vocals that drove many an anti-folk militant screaming from college coffeehouses.
The High Art soundtrack fares a bit better. Featuring music from underground art-rock evolutionaries Shudder to Think, with the groups Reservoir and JeepJazz Project supplying a song each, its music can survive (though not always thrive) without the visuals. This instrumental (save one track) collection has a drugged-out, spacey appeal that's reminiscent of Vangelis's Blade Runner score: Its trip-hoppy grooves skitter about, while loops segue into worldly beats. JeepJazz Project's spaghetti-western trip-hop -- with harmonica, tremoloed guitars and ka-chinking beats -- truly stands out on "She Might Be Waking Up," with Craig Wiedron's falsetto breaking up the sleepy atmospherics nicely. Mostly, though, the music on High Art -- and the even blander Smoke Signals -- is best reserved for house-cleaning sessions and late-evening toke time. (Smoke Signals, * 1/2; High Art, **) -- David Simutis
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Aces Back to Back
Though his personal idiosyncrasies, extroverted stage patter and colorful life story are discussed almost as much as his music, saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk's musical legacy cannot be underestimated. Actually, it's somewhat limited to call him a saxophonist, since he mastered dozens of wind instruments within his lifetime -- all the more impressive considering that not only was Kirk blind; he constructed several instruments so he could play them with one hand, after a stroke paralyzed half of his body.
And yet, many a stuffy jazz scholar during the '60s and '70s viewed him as a novelty act. Recent opinion has been kinder, however, celebrating Kirk as an amazing improviser equally comfortable playing bop, blues and swing.
The four albums compiled for Aces Back to Back -- available here for the first time on CD -- are both a good introduction to Kirk and a necessity for longtime fans who want to replace their scratchy vinyl. Left and Right is the most traditional in approach, highlighted by the buoyant romp "Hot Cha" and the smooth "Lady's Blues." Experimentalists should prefer the live Rahsaan Rahsaan, which includes the whimsical "Baby, Let Me Shake Your Tree" and the epic "Seeker," on which Kirk embarks on a technical journey as stunning as it is urgent, his fingers flying with mercurial dexterity.
The third LP of the collection, Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle might well be the most ambitious (Kirk was deep into black nationalism by then); its 21-minute "Saxophone Concerto" is arguably one of his greatest works. Finally, Other Folks Music finds Kirk more at peace, with the fluid "Simone" and an excellent version of the standard "That's All."
Kirk said time and again that he often had visions, the most famous of which had him playing three horns at once. That image effectively began his career in music, and it's that sideshow act of stuffing metal to mouth that many still recall. Aces Back to Back makes yet another step in shifting the emphasis to his music, where it belongs. (****)
-- Bob Ruggiero
Big Backyard Beat Show
Second albums are a dicey proposition for most bands. You seemingly have your whole life to work up to your first release and -- if you're lucky enough to get a second chance -- about a year to follow it up. Fortunately, Nashville's BR5-49 (the name comes from a recurring Junior Samples skit on Hee Haw) are just hitting their stride with their sophomore effort, Big Backyard Beat Show.
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The quintet, with its decidedly retro-country sound, is credited with singlehandedly revitalizing Music City's downtown scene through their now legendary gigs at a bar and bootery called Robert's Western Wear. This time out, they come close to capturing the sweaty essence of their incendiary live performances with a laudable combination of classy originals and choice cover material from the songbooks of folks like Buck Owens and Billy Joe Shaver.
Nine of the 14 tracks on Big Backyard Beat Show are band compositions, showing an unexpected confidence that carries through to the performances as well -- surely the reaction of a band that grew up on stage and is only now feeling comfortable in the studio. But the most impressive part here is the range of styles addressed: There's the hot-groovin' "Seven Nights to Rock," the Tex-Mex-flavored "Goodbye, Maria" (featuring Santiago Jimenez Jr. on accordion), the western-swing-influenced "You Flew the Coop," the rockabilly bop "Out of Habit", the burning truckers' anthem "18 Wheels and a Crowbar." Most Nashville outfits lack the chops and the soul to pull off such a dizzying plethora of sounds, but BR5-49 makes it seem as simple as cutting the grass. (***)
-- Jim Caligiuri