The Pop Heard 'Round the World

Venturing into the unknown is one of the prime appeals of exploring world music. Stumbling across a new sound that hits home or uncovering the connections between styles created thousands of miles apart are effective antidotes for those times when Western pop seems unbearably stale and repetitious.

But inevitably there comes a time when international pop can lose its freshness. There are only so many different African styles to discover, only so many Caribbean hybrids to listen to, only so many ways Islamic and Western elements can intertwine. What happens when you reach that point?

Records with that capacity to spring a bolt-from-the-blue surprise are the focus of this edition of On the Off Beat, a periodic review of roots, ethnic and non-mainstream pop from around the globe.


"Ali Farka Toure." Mango

Musicologists have been talking about the African roots of blues for decades, but you can hear it on the first American album by the guitarist from West Africa. "Amandrai" could be a John Lee Hooker boogie, and Toure, who sings in a variety of Malian tribal dialects, even tosses "Baby, please don't go" in English into his love song "Kadi, Kadi."

Apart from the slow, meditative "Singya," Toure concentrates on measured, mid-tempo tunes that showcase his throaty vocals and rich guitar tone with minimal percussion accompaniment. The deliberate pace is the chief drawback of an enjoyable album that should appeal to folk fans more than the dance set.


"Hit Parade du Sega, Vol 5." Jackman (French import).

Sega is the pop style of the Seychelles Islands, in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, but it's reggae that dominates this compilation album. Not pure Jamaican roots reggae--touches of ska and other Caribbean styles pop up in these skeletal arrangements, which are usually driven by a slithering lead guitar. Those outside elements haven't been fully absorbed, but sega's rhythmic thrust is assured and the songwriting strong enough to survive a middle-of-the-road strain. The best cuts come from Yoyo--"Coco Mamzelle" features galloping drums and vocals recalling Salif Keita; "Fai, Fai, Fai" could be early Toots & the Maytals ska, and "Faire Moi Gouter" plays spirited vocals off carnival-flavored music.


"MUP: Reggae From Around the World." RAS

"MUP" spotlights reggae's international slant by collecting 13 tracks from a smattering of minor-name artists--Jamaica's Peter Broggs, Alpha Blondy and Ziggy Marley's Ethiopian backing band Dallol--and unknowns from around the world. Surprisingly, the Jamaican style that seems to have caught on the most around the world is the buoyant, up-tempo drive of ska.

New Zealand's Maori band Aotearoa takes a rock-flavored South Pacific slant on ska, while Sweden's Reggae Team crosses a tough "rockers" riff with the loping feel of early Madness. But the most heartening aspect of "MUP" is the variety now displayed under the reggae banner--from Dallol's sophisticated attack and the disarmingly light vocals of Israel's Avi Matos to the lush arrangement by Italy's Different Stylee and triumphal hooks from the U.S.S.R.'s Kino.


"Voodoo." Columbia

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band could star in a sci-fi movie called "Attack of the Deadly Killer Riffs." The eight-piece horns and percussion unit specializes in rich, contrapuntal riffing--watch out when saxophonists Kevin Harris and Roger Lewis lock together down low--over New Orleans parade rhythms and the astonishingly agile sousaphone bass lines of Kirk Joseph. It's a rare and accessible combination--a group viewed as a jazz band but with a focus on up-tempo ensemble playing that heats up dance floors. "Voodoo" is the group's third album but first for a major label, and the performances are a bit stiff. "Gemini Rising" strikes some sparks, but once the serviceable guest shots by Dr. John, Dizzy Gillespie and Branford Marsalis are over, the band closes strongly with Stevie Wonder's "Don't Drive Drunk," "Santa Cruz" and the venerable blues "Black Drawers."


"Claude's Late Morning." Grama-vision

Drummer/composer Previte is one of New York's improvisational crew who moves in both the jazz and rock communities and employs a mix-and-match compositional approach. The all-instrumental "Claude's Late Morning," recorded live with little overdubbing, isn't wholly successful, but it's rarely uninteresting. "One Bowl" best shows off Previte's atmospheric side; other highlights include Ray Anderson's trombone hook to "Look Both Ways" and the sharp interplay of Wayne Horvitz's organ and Bill Frisell's electric guitar on "Sometimes You Need an Airport."


"The Insect Musicians." Musique Brut (English import)

Insect musicians? Revell may have created the ultimate in organic high-tech music by spending two years collecting insect sounds around the world and then electronically sampling them and running them through a keyboard. Will the pieces on this album establish the death's head hawkmoth, bog bush cricket or rufous grasshopper as the next big thing in pop? Not likely, since Revell plays it close to the vest with fairly straightforward keyboard noodling until the adapted Japanese theme of "Variations on the Sakura" finally injects the kind of unique textures you'd hope for. The second side picks up as Revell more fully utilizes the potential of his unlikely performers to invoke a mysterious aura. This is an intriguing novelty, but not a real shocker.

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