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.
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 Engeadora," 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
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.