Astor Piazzolla Remixed and Astor Piazzolla Unmixed (Milan Records) Click here and here to listen. If Cuban son was the crossover world-music success of the '90s, tango is the sound of the early '00s. An Astor Piazzolla remix album was inevitable, given the success of the two Verve Remixed CDs and (in Europe at least) of the Gotan Project's marriage of tango with dub-dominated electronica. Despite the odd disappointment—the usually refreshing Koop turns the heart-wrenching "Vuelvo al Sur" to pabulum—tracks like Nuspirit Helsinki's clear, cool "Verano Porteño" and Fantasista's futuristic reinterpretation of "Resurrección del Angel" confirm that "nuevo tango," with its reliable beat and built-in passion, is fertile ground for adventurous samplers. Ultimately, though, Piazzolla's originals (in every sense of the word) outshine the new fusions. Load both the remixed and raw versions onto the digital player of your choice, and in a side-by-side comparison, the classics will grab you by the throat while the remixes merely set the foot tapping. And in most cases, Piazzolla's bandoneón—tango's signature instrument—is lost or overwhelmed in the electronic mash-ups. (If you get the taste for remixed tango and are tired of waiting for the next Gotan Project release, check out Bajofondo Tango Club, unusual in the tango-fusion trend in that it actually originates in Argentina.)
Gaby Kerpel Carnabailito (Nonesuch) Click here to listen. Gaby Kerpel's biggest musical influence seems to be the circus: After growing up in Buenos Aires, he's spent most of the last 10 years composing for and traveling with the aerial/performance art troupe De La Guarda. Living with acrobats has influenced Kerpel's first CD—a trippy, often childlike theatrical production that combines traditional instruments from around the world; folk melodies; modern recording, sampling, and reassembly techniques; and a massive dose of wackiness. In less capable hands, Kerpel's creativity could have veered into self-conscious indulgence, but he's the kind of musician who can put a kiddy accordion, folk instruments, and a string quartet together with his constipated vocals and produce "Sé Que No Vas a Volver," a track that I challenge anyone to play through just once. Like everyone who's ever been labeled avant-garde, he sometimes goes too far: "Budapestation" consists of keyboard chords, floaty reeds, and slowed-down train station announcements, but at least it's mercifully short. Oh, and he yodels.
Terry Hall & Mushtaq The Hour of Two Lights (Astralwerks) Click here to listen. This album had all the ingredients for failure: an aging pop star, a political agenda, and a long list of guest musicians from around the world. Instead, Terry Hall—the formerly floppy-haired vocalist from late-'70s ska-ites the Specials—and Mushtaq, a veteran of political British multiculti band Fun-da-Mental, have cooked up a magnificent fusion. The guests include gypsy swingers Romany Rad, a Mongolian throat singer, a blind Algerian rapper, a 12-year-old Lebanese girl, and the clarinetist who played the Pink Panther theme song. The music never turns to mush, though—the hooky loops, East-meets-West melodies, and deft use of potentially cool-killing elements like child vocalists work together flawlessly. Best of all, the familiar presence of Hall's proudly pop singing style keeps it well clear of "Kumbaya" territory.
The Matthew Herbert Big Band Goodbye Swingtime (Accidental) Click here to listen. Matthew Herbert is a British musician with a manifesto—the "Personal Contract for the Composition of Music"—restricting the sounds and samples that can be used in his pieces. In Goodbye Swingtime, the former house producer and DJ has married big band jazz and anti-Iraq-war politics, and the result is stuffed with pretentious affectations: musicians ripping up right-wing newspapers, dropping phone books (to symbolize "the weight of humanity"), or fanning the pages of Noam Chomsky's Rogue States. There's even a reading list printed (in a headache-inducingly tiny font) on the CD itself. Still, the music is glorious—beautifully arranged, played (by a tight group of session players), and sung (by six guest vocalists, including Herbert's longtime collaborator Dani Sciliano). The album is melodic, stimulating, and completely immersive. Do we need to know what URL is being typed and what Web pages are being printed behind Mara Carlyle's affecting vocals in "The Three W's"? No, but I'm happier knowing those clicks and beeps aren't just random noises.
Fanfare Ciocarlia Iag Bari (Piranha) Click here to listen. As a kid listening to my dad practice the tuba (the world's loneliest instrument), I'd never have believed my favorite album of 2003 would be a brass-band recording. (Iag Bari was released by German label Piranha back in 2001, but the import version, complete with a bonus video track, only recently made its way into Seattle record stores.) Fanfare Ciocarlia, a 12-piece band of gypsies from a tiny village in eastern Romania, are remarkable for their up-tempo staccato style—up to a dizzying 200 beats per minute—and complex rhythms. Building up their chops at marathon wedding celebrations, they blend gypsy, Turkish, Spanish, and Jewish musical styles into a joyous, astonishingly danceable fusion that is still undeniably traditional. (Piranha assures listeners there's no sheet music to be found on the band's tour bus.)
Festival in the Desert (World Village)
Click here to listen. Last year, Tartit, a group composed of Tuareg (Kel Tamashek) nomads from Mali, toured the United States; at every stop they re-created a traditional desert performance space, erecting makeshift tent walls onstage and sitting on carpets. All that was missing was the sand. In January 2003, they played much closer to home at the Third Festival in the Desert at Essakene, Mali, half a day's 4x4 ride from Timbuktu, performing an amazing song that to Western ears sounds like a series of coughs, gasps, ululations, and chatter. Malian performers—including former armed Tuareg rebels Tinariwen, blues guitar legend Ali Farka Touré, and the nation's great diva Oumou Sangaré—provide the album's highlights, but French group Lo'Jo's collaboration with Malian singer Django is haunting, and old rocker Robert Plant's blues jam seems right at home.
Ursula Rucker Silver or Lead (!K7) Click here to listen. Ursula Rucker's second solo album establishes her as a performer with matchless taste in collaborators. Best-known for the sobering closing tracks she supplied to the Roots' first three studio albums, Rucker is not a rapper, but rather a poet whose delivery meshes beautifully with music. At times—when she takes on the legacy of slavery or man's inhumanity to woman, for example—the scope of her verses is too broad, and her work can seem overly didactic. But when she focuses on personal stories, as in "Return to Innocence Lost," a recounting of the messed-up life and violent death of her oldest brother, her poet's eye for telling detail can be heartbreaking. When the arrangements work—as in Little Louie Vega's Afro-Latin production "Release," Jazzanova's "This," and especially "Time," a collaboration with 4Hero—it's as if the political poets of the 1970s have finally found contemporary musical expression. She's the second coming of Gil Scott-Heron, albeit without his barbed humor.