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Review: Sweet World Music Escapism

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I have never, until now, bothered to analyze my fondness for the world music genre, though at times I have equated it with a love of foreign languages, a dislike for most popular songs once I know the words, a degree of pretentiousness, and an odd affection for the accordion.

My mother is a scholar and teacher of languages, so artifacts and noises from Spanish and French speaking countries were part of the background of my childhood. But my real love affair with world music began with the Gipsy Kings, who were making very trendy dinner music while I was in college, right about at the same time I discovered great single malt Scotch and tolerable wine. Of the three, I could afford to enjoy the Gipsy Kings on a regular basis; cassette tapes didn’t wear out nearly as quickly as a bottle emptied.

As my tastes (thanks to the music) and my waistline (thanks to the single-malt Scotch and wine) broadened, I discovered that for world music, compilations best fitted my uninformed and impoverished passions – I didn’t have to spend a fortune to sample a variety of performers, whether they were classic or contemporary flamenco players from Spain or Celtic balladeers.

Finally, examining closely my relationship with world music through the compilation, I realize that at its core, my pleasure in the genre is the pleasure of escape, of fantasy and of play. It is, beyond its variable individual artistic merits, music that transports, and it does so all the better when it is presented in a well-balanced compilation. A well-chosen compilation can set an aural stage in a way that a CD by a single artist rarely does. I close my eyes, sip, and I am in Spain, or Peru, or New Orleans, or the Yucatan. There’s music playing on a radio somewhere, drifting maybe between the wide-flung wooden shutters of a second story window in a peeling pastel building tucked between a colonial era church and a massive palm tree. I take another sip and I can smell lime and cumin and blooming morning-glories.

In the early 1990s, Putumayo World Music grew out of the Putumayo Clothing Company, and began selling compilations aimed at being “upbeat and melodic.” The company motto is “guaranteed to make you feel good,” and I’ve found most of the releases live up to that promise.

The two newest Putumayo CDs, Italian Café and North African Groove, are no exception.

North African Groove is the easiest to like upon first listen. It’s rhythmic, orange, and dusty with a sweet heat that drives each song. There are many moments where one senses a Latin feel, as though standing at a crossroads where the Arabic world and the Spanish meet. There are also French influences, and French lyrics, and performances by a Cuban-Algerian group, a Moroccan, an Egyptian and a Tunisian.

I enjoyed my first listen to Italian Café less, but I have listened to the album far more than North African Groove in the intervening weeks since they both arrived.

My first thought, as it began to play during dinner one night, was, “Yikes, this must be what the music would have sounded inside Dean Martin’s head if someone slipped him some heavy hallucinogens.”

The disconnect was mine, though, and not the album’s. I soon realized that while my perception of Italian café music was shaped by Italian-American crooners like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, this music was the real thing, not a surrealist imitation. Or perhaps more accurately, a real thing, or many real things, since the compilation features classic music from the 1950s and ’60s, breaking out after the repressive musical environment of World War II Italy, as well as contemporary Italian music that still bears fruit characteristic of these exuberant roots.

While the background vocals on many of the Italian Café songs will sound theme-park corny to jaded modern ears (the introduction to Quartetto Cetra’s Un Bacio a Mezzanotte is nicely representative example), the lead singers are without exception wonderful; slightly scratchy, smoky voices, gruff and low and full of cool passion (check out Giorgio Conte’s Gnè Gnè). Those voices wind in and out of prominent bass guitar lines like fat snakes.

So despite my initial puzzlement, Italian Café, packed with oddities and musical lagniappes, has turned out to be my favorite for just sitting and listening to. Add to the compilation a warm, summer evening with Kristen on the back porch, the heat from the afternoon sun still baking up from the boards and a breeze rolling up off the river, a cool bottle of Pinto Grigio, bejewled with condensation, and I think the escape will be almost complete. Not quite Italy, but a heck of a lot more manageable than a transatlantic flight, especially when I have to be back for work in the morning.

Both CDs have liner notes in multiple languages. Song samples are available to listen to at www.putumayo.com. Portions of profits from the CDs are donated to charities.

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About Ernesto Burden

  • “musical lagniappes” — a lovely turn of phrase. Thanks for this review!

  • Thanks so much! Glad to see there’s someone else interested enough in this type of music to spend a few minutes with the review. And glad to there’s someone else who digs the word lagniappe! Always makes me think of New Orleans…