With a factionalized world community desperately in search of common ground, it seems almost quixotic to refer to music's capacity to leap easily across national borders and cultural divides. But the one message that is ever present in the flow of albums representing sounds and rhythms from every part of the globe is the astonishing sense of commonality coursing through the music.
Jazz musicians have long enjoyed sitting in with players from other cultures, communicating through their music without understanding a word of each other's language. Piper Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains has described similar experiences and followed them up with a series of recordings blending his ensemble's Celtic sounds with music from China, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.
So it seems appropriate at this dramatic international juncture to take a look at some recent world music albums, affirming the links among the world's peoples. And after the recent expression of female power for peace via the worldwide readings from Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," it seems equally appropriate to focus on a group of the globe's finest female artists.
"Costa Negra" (World Village)
Libertad is one of Latin America's best-known performers, with more than 32 albums released in the past three decades. But she has never made a collection quite like her debut U.S. release, which employs Cesaria Evora's producer Jose Da Silva in an exploration of the African roots of the Costa Negra, on the northern coast of her native Peru. Libertad's voice is an extraordinarily dramatic instrument, far more flexible in style and manner than that of the better-known Peruvian singer Susana Baca. The breadth of her interpretations in this collection -- including a duet with Evora in an intense, percussion-rich version of the classic bolero "Historia de un Amor" -- is stunning, the product of a mature and gifted musical talent.
Cameroon's Mbassi is part of a generation of young African singer-songwriters emphasizing intimate storytelling. With her roots ever present as musical subtext, Mbassi's sweet-sounding, ear-caressing voice and her gift for melody make for an appealing combination, surrounded by well-crafted accompaniments roving from classical strings to improvised jazz. But the translations of her lyrics from her native Duala tongue add more thoughtful qualities to her songs -- reflections on the difficulties of life in Africa, the complexities and joys of womanhood and, above all, the constancy of her spiritual faith.
"Speak No Evil" (Narada)
Perhaps more than any other vocalist, Purim has defined the nearly half-century-long love affair between jazz and Brazilian music. Her partnership with percussionist Airto Moreira has produced a flow of fascinating albums dating back to their vital presence in Return to Forever. "Speak No Evil" is a stunning Purim-Moreira sampler in which her fluid voice, lovely sound and personable style are applied to everything from standards (a bossa nova rendering of "You Go to My Head") and jazz classics (Wayne Shorter's title track) to Airto's touching "Primeira Estrela" and Egberto Gismonti's surging "O Sonho."
"Distant Shore" (Shanachie)
Casey's soprano is best known from her recordings and performances with the Celtic band Solas. In her third solo effort, she reaches out from the traditional repertoire to include songs by folk-rock's Billy Bragg and bluegrass' Tim O'Brien. But it is Casey's voice, as pure and clear as the crystal from County Waterford, where she was born, that brings an eclectic set of Celtic-related music to life.
"But One Day ... " (Decca/Universal)
Lemper's highly idiosyncratic style is rooted in more than a century of stylized European cabaret artists. Typically, it includes her mannered renderings of songs by Kurt Weill ("September Song," "Speak Low"), Jacques Brel ("Ne Me Quitte Pas"), Astor Piazzolla ("Buenos Aires") and Hanns Eisler ("The Ballad of Marie Sanders") as well as some well-crafted originals. In almost every case, it is the dark side that appeals to Lemper, in terms of style and content, but there is no denying the compelling qualities of her readings.
"Vivid" (Mondo Melodia)
Najma Akhtar's late-'80s recording "Qareeb" was one of the more visible manifestations of the Indian pop movement known as bhangra. Her transformation of the style, which flowed from traditional Punjabi folk, added the sinuous melodies and nasal-sounding vocal style of the light classical ghazal form combined with high-decibel synthesizers and hypnotic dance grooves. Najma prefers to describe her current effort as "Indian Gothic," but its most captivating qualities trace to the keening passion of her voice and the irresistible throb of the Indian rhythms.
"Yol Bolsin" (Real World)
In Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, 25-year-old Nazarkhan is a pop star. In this debut album for Western ears, she sings and plays the doutar (a two-stringed lute) in warm, lush settings provided by French-Algerian producer Hector Zazou. Some of the more piquant aspects of the Middle Eastern modes underlying many of the songs are lost. But Nazarkhan's voice, like Mbassi's, makes every track an alluring experience.