Hitting replay on Mandela's life, times

Special to The Times

Various artists

"Mandela" (Palm World Voices)

IN an observation on the relative power of art versus politics, 17th century Scottish patriot Andrew Fletcher wrote, "If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation."

Nelson Mandela probably didn't have that specific thought in mind during his long progression from activist to political prisoner to Nobel Peace Prize winner to president of South Africa. The problems of apartheid were too extreme to be solved by mere balladry. But music nonetheless played a vital role, as a soundtrack and as a source of inspirational motivation in his country's long, slow path to freedom.

Mandela has said, "Artists reach areas far beyond the reach of politicians. Art, especially entertainment and music, is understood by everybody, and it lifts the spirits and the morale of those who hear it."

"Mandela" is the latest release in Palm World Voices' elegant world music series, timed to coincide with Mandela's 88th birthday July 18. Like previous releases ("Vedic Path," "Africa"), it combines audio and visual media with program notes and background material in a colorful boxed set. Included are a DVD of the Jonathan Demme/Jo Menell-produced documentary "Mandela," nominated for a 1996 Academy Award; a CD of the film's original soundtrack with an extraordinarily diverse collection of music by Vusi Mahlasela, Hugh Masekela, Johnny Clegg, Brenda Fassie and many others; a 48-page book recounting the details of Mandela's remarkable life; and a poster map, designed by National Geographic, highlighting significant events in South African history.

Each element is intriguing enough to stand on its own. The DVD documentary is utterly gripping, with Mandela's heartfelt, on-camera narrative tying together compelling newsreel footage and atmospheric views of significant areas of South Africa. The CD reaches across decades, embracing -- in addition to the artists mentioned above -- the swinging music of such '50s instrumental ensembles as the African Jazz Pioneers, the Havana Swingsters and the Jazz Dazzlers; the smooth harmonies of the Skylarks (sounding like an adept version of the Modernaires); the call-and-response choral singing of the African National Congress Choir; and the contemporary grooves of the Kalahari Surfers.

As a complete package, "Mandela" achieves Palm World's estimable goal of producing collections that position important world music within its full cultural milieu -- in this case, a moving overview of the subtle interaction between music and the shifting currents of cultural and political change.


'Desert bluesman' gives one last spin

Ali Farka Toure

"Savane" (Nonesuch)

TOURe'S final album is a winner. Recorded as part of a three-CD project, it's the final work that the Malian blues great made before his death in March from bone cancer. Toure has always served as a stunning example of the primal linkage between African music and the blues. Here, bringing back elements that developed in the Western Hemisphere, combining them with African rhythmic patterns and instrumental timbres and adding offbeat sounds -- Pee Wee Ellis' saxophone, Little George Sueref's harmonica, Bassekou Kouyate's n'goni (spike lute) -- he has climaxed a remarkable career with a classic performance.

Toure sings, in Malian dialects and in French, about subjects that embrace traditional tales as well as the ecological concerns of the title track. His vocals and his guitar playing are expressed with an engaging sense of assurance that each note, each word, has a reason for being that reaches far beyond virtuosity or technique. The result is a collection of mesmerizing, beyond-language tunes. Toure's final outing is a gift of life. He never made a better album.


A biography in bossa nova

Antonio Carlos Jobim

"The Unknown" (DRG)

"A Labor of Love" would be a more illuminating title for this entertaining CD, described by Jobim as the album he most enjoyed making. In fact, the title is actually misleading in that the CD includes almost all of his best-known songs as well as less-familiar material. Recorded in 1987, when Jobim was celebrating his 60th birthday, it was produced in a temporary studio set up in the piano room of his home, featuring Jobim singing numbers such as "Chega de Saudade" (in what is identified here as the first version in his voice), "Desafinado" and "Aguas de Marco." He receives the musical accompaniment and companionship of his wife, Ana, his children, Paulinho and Elizabeth, and longtime friends, including Jacques and Paula Morelenbaum and Simone and Danilo Caymmi.

The results are extraordinary -- musically insightful renderings of "Wave," "A Felicidade," "Garota de Ipanema" (The Girl From Ipanema), "Inutil Paisagem" and "Samba de Uma Nota So" (One Note Samba) -- often with Jobim's piano harmonies enhancing and expanding the familiar tunes in totally unexpected fashion. In many respects, the tracks are definitive renderings of how Jobim wanted these classic bossa nova songs to sound.


Transcending troubled times

Various artists

"The Rough Guide to the Music of Iran" (World Music Network/ Rough Guides)

THE Middle East is in flames, as it so often has been over the centuries, but the richness of its music persists. This extremely diverse collection -- typical of the Rough Guide's many comprehensive musical surveys -- is a fascinating view of the many-layered contemporary sounds of a 5,000-year-old culture.

The selections reach to include the music of the Kamkars of Iranian Kurdistan and the sophisticated Armenian musical interplay between tar player Hossein Alizadeh and duduk master Djivan Gasparyan. Abdolnaghi Afsharnia's breathy solo ney flute offers marked contrast to the classical sounds of the Dastan Ensemble and a gripping performance by Haj Ghorban Soleimani, an 85-year-old folk bakhshi (bard) from Aliabad, near Turkmenistan. Finally, familiar to Southland audiences because of several local performances, is the passionate classical singing of Mohammad Reza Shajarian with the stirring duo of Alizadeh and kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor (who tour as the Masters of Persian Music).

A pair of contemporary tracks -- by Barad (a group that combines lyrics by Rumi with contemporary rock sounds) and the three-vocalist Arian Band -- underscore the continuing creative vitality that persists in Iran, regardless of the shifting currents of politics and war.

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