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A Look At Pop Around The Globe, From Operatic Creole Harmonies to Riot-Grrl-Inspired French Rappers

by Carol Cooper

The end of the year brings a flurry of world music albums with commercial intentions ranging from the archival to the optimistically opportunistic. Some, like the Creole Choir of Cuba's Tande-La or Vlada Tomova's Balkan Tales, accompany tours by the outfits that made them; others are heavily branded theme compilations -- brain candy for collegiate introverts, mood music for bars and boutiques.

The Afro-Semitic Experience seems determined to do to the synagogue what Jolson and Gershwin once did to Broadway. Bassist David Chevan and keyboardist Warren Byrd have been collaborating with traditional cantor Jack Mendelson and his White Plains congregation for years, and Further Definitions of the Days of Awe (Reckless DC Music) documents three concerts from 2010 that demonstrate their combined approach to the Jewish High Holy Days. The cantor's ability to improvise around a mode or a feeling allows the band to segue from Latin to gospel to klezmer rhythms. But despite earnest attempts to lay funky backbeats behind the first two cuts, this album doesn't really catch fire until the downtempo "Mitzratzeh B'rachamim" -- which is incidentally also the first song featuring vocals by Jack's son, Daniel. And although Dad steals back lost thunder on bluesy Gershwin-esque numbers like "Shomer Yisrael" and "Tiviyenu," here the prayers of atonement and praise generally work better over cool jazz than hot.

Similarly obsessed with blending the political, the personal and the spiritual is 27-year-old Keny Arkana, a French rapper whose underground fandom is so devoted that its members have been using You Tube to create and translate promotional clips of her songs faster than she can make her own. Arkana's seventh album is imminent, and her sixth, L'Esquisse, 2 (The Sketch, #2), came out in May. Imagine Chuck D, Bob Marley and Joan of Arc rolled into one and you come close to the sound and sensibility of this Marseilles resident, who formed her first rap crew at 14. On irresistibly kinetic singles like "Mother Earth Cannot Be Sold," "Wake Up!," and "Civil Disobedience," she rages against governmental fear-mongering, racism, globalization, and sexism. Her beats are sometimes as raucous as early Bomb Squad productions, sometimes as lyrical as Wyclef on acoustic guitar. But just when you've got Arkana pegged as a militant Marxist she'll shift to Rasta speak or riot-grrl rhetoric, urging the "children of earth" to "turn off their TVs and exit their front doors" to struggle for social freedom in the streets. Keny fights ignorance and injustice with the weapons of a Sufi, not a soldier. Whether cheerleading the revolution on "V pour Verites" or confiding more personal discontent in "Odyssée d'une Incomprise," Arkana leaps across the language divide with such undeniable power it should make even English speakers recognize her as The Most Important Emcee in the West.

Putumayo's African Beat collects contemporary party riffs from African pop stars. Senegal's Lëk Sén eschews the more traditional mbalax sound to create "Rebel Blues", a catchy blues number anchored by fluid electric guitar and closing chords from a Hammond B3. Freddy Massamba attempts a Congolese version of P-Funk with "Zonza," while Nigerian rapper 9Ice reworks the hooky melody from TLC's "No Scrubs" for his "Alapomeji Anthem." Other artists from the Congo and the Ivory Coast update soukous-flavored club singles with quirky textures borrowed from European electronica. Playful combinations that erase regional and stylistic boundaries abound, as when Les Barons use rhythm lines from juju-music under Afrobeat horns during "Lagos Sound System."

Similar mix-and-match production strategies run through the label's Latin Beat sampler, although the sly sophistication of these 11 tracks owes much to the global popularity of Manu Chao and his many tours. Cuba and Colombia rightfully dominate this showcase of evolving Afro-Hispanic creativity; Colombia is second only to Cuba in its support of Afro-Caribbean swing, while Cuba has only ever been eclipsed by Brazil in the size and diversity of its musical innovations. (Even the Yankee/Mexican combo Charanga Cakewalk gets onto this compilation performing a Colombian cumbia!) The doo-wop samba "Chocolate," sung by the Profetas, and a dubby bolero from a New Zealand outfit called Sola Rosa are the most unique songs here, but Calle 66 and Sarazino both get points for a delightfully psychedelic use of distortion.

Descendants of Haitians who survived a second enslavement in Cuba after 18th-century slave revolts in Haiti resulted in French plantation owners leaving home and encamping there make up the 17-year-old Creole Choir of Cuba. These ten university-trained musicians sing a capella about the historical hardships of Haitian life in Haitian creole, Spanish and French. But the operatic pacing, phrasing, and harmonies of this group will remind you more of Carmen or Porgy and Bess than the folk origins of either rhumba or compas. In fact, each of the 12 songs on Tande-La ("Listen") are conceptualized as mini-plays, brought to the stage as a kind of psychological catharsis or exorcism. The soaring female vocals of "Maroule" have a Gregorian texture, and the opening male solo on "La Mal De Travay" is heartbreakingly lovely.

But the Creole Choir album is not the only new cross-cultural release that takes cues from the conservatory. Balkan Tales -- a project conceived by Brooklyn-based vocalist Vlada Tomova -- revolves primarily around Bulgarian folk music popularized by women, with minor detours into Kurdish, Greek and Russian material. After many research trips through the region, Tomova invited 16 acoustic instrumentalists (including specialists on oud, bansuri and accordion) to a New York studio to bring Tomova's 21st-century take on her ancestors' form of expression to life.

You'll hear nothing raw or rustic in her vocals, not even during "Women's Dance" when she adds handclaps and exuberant yelps that imply vigorous movement. Her delicate moans and descant runs will remind many of Flora Purim, especially during slower numbers like "Kara Deniz" and "Nevechernyaya." In each seamless, confident arrangement you can hear Tomova's Berklee School of Music training as well as the disciplined intimacy you'd expect from a chamber ensemble.

On record, each instrument is perfectly miked and balanced, and every improvisation rehearsed and anticipated. Such control and elegance may be hard to replicate live, so don't hold it against them when they play Symphony Space on October 23. But what makes this album a pop performance rather than a formal exercise in transposing folk melodies into orchestral settings is the sensual swing and emotional intensity. This group accompanies Tomova with effortless sensuality and the knowledge that you need not sacrifice precision to express passion.

Published in: Village Voice, October 5, 2011