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POP MUSIC : The Caribbean--Beyond Reggae and Salsa

Like African music, music from the Caribbean has often been considered a single, homogeneous mass. But increasing exposure and acceptance is making the distinctions between different styles and regions more apparent.

A Caribbean cruise beyond the boundaries of reggae and salsa is the subject of this edition of On The Offbeat, a periodic review of roots, ethnic and non-mainstream music from around the world. Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent).

*** JUAN LUIS GUERRA/4.40 “Bachata Rosa” Karen import

** 1/2 MILLY, JOCELYN Y LOS VECINOS “7+1 Equals Vecinos” MP

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Merengue is a hyper-kinetic, horn-driven style and these two Dominican artists take different approaches to the up-tempo sound. Guerra, whom many are touting as the next Spanish-language singer to break into the pop mainstream, opts for a wider musical palette to fashion a pan-Caribbean sound on the Grammy-winning “Bachata Rosa.” Guerra mixes merengue, romantic ballads and mid-tempo bachata rhythms into punchy, well-crafted arrangements.

Milly and company stick closer to the merengue norm with staccato horn lines snapping at the heels of the racehorse tempos. There’s a bit of bubble-gum flavor to the frenzy here, but Milly is an exceptional singer with a big voice that can belt out a typical merengue or a reggae/rock-influenced change of place like “Viejo Luis.”

** 1/2 SHADOW “Columbus Lied” Shanachie

** 1/2 BLACK STALIN “Roots Rock Soca” Rounder

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Shadow needs to brush up on his history--the title track is the first time you may have ever heard of Columbus being chased by Apaches. The singer-songwriter lays claim to standard soca territory here--mid-tempo melodies built on danceable grooves, strong horn lines playing off Shadow’s vocals and lyrics mixed between party down and political themes. Nothing breathtaking but solid.

Black Stalin’s name won’t win any political correctness points these days, but attacking the political order is central to his music. This collection of post-1979 material reflects his standard theme of Caribbean unity. Stalin’s limited vocals put greater emphasis on the lyrics, but he delivers--particularly on “Wait Dorothy Wait,” where he cleverly answers requests for a “smutty” song by explaining why he won’t write one.

* 1/2 BURNING FLAMES “Dig” Mango

This band from Antigua had a huge Caribbean hit with “Workey Workey” two years ago but its American debut falls short. The synth horn lines actually sound organic rather than a substitute prompted by economics but the material and zouk-tinged arrangements are slight, apart from “If You Get What You Want.” Even “Workey Workey” doesn’t work.

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*** VARIOUS ARTISTS “Huaynos & Huaylas” GlobeStyle import

OK, so Peru isn’t exactly a Caribbean country--the music here is far from the ethereal, Andean flute sound often associated with the South American nation. Beginning in the late ‘50s, “Huaynos & Huaylas” chronicles three decades of recordings in two styles spawned by the transition from rural to urban life in Peru.

It’s music for dancing highlighted by several great singers--especially Picaflor de Los Andes--over an unwieldy but intriguing amalgam of violins, saxophones and harps. The upper register battles can get grating but not enough to diminish a fascinating record with informative liner notes.

*** 1/2 KIP HANRAHAN./VARIOUS ARTISTS “Conjure: Cab Calloway Stands In for the Moon” American Clave import

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The Caribbean (or maybe the whole Afro-Cuban) tradition forms the conceptual basis for producer Kip Hanrahan’s second collection under the Conjure banner. Hanrahan mixes top musicians from several spheres--New Orleans R&B;, soul, experimental jazz, Latin--with lyrics from the writings of author Ishmael Reed. The result: just your basic, everyday

oky-bluesy-swinging-funky-literate-jazzy-tight-improvised-crafted-ensemble thing. In short, a model for intelligent, creative pop music.


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