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Island Sounds: Music from Islands Around the World

Reviews by Michael-Leonard Creditor

"Islands"
Various Artists (Compilation)
Putumayo World Music

There is something about living on an island surrounded by water that has a calming and moderating influence -- on life, on the spirit, and on the music. All 10 selections on this CD show this influence; even the ones that are rather political in nature are moderate in tone. Four are Caribbean, and two each are from Pacific islands, Cape Verde Islands, and Madagascar.

 

Belonging to Portugal for more than 500 years, the Cape Verde Islands lie 700 miles West of Dakar, Senegal and have a varied, if not well-known, history, importing musical motifs from Africa as well as Europe.

Thanks to the growing international renown of Fantcha and her great mentor Cesaria Evora, the melancholy Cape Verdean morna is becoming more well-known around the world. On this album, we also have an example of the Caribbean-inflected dance rhythm called coladiera. "Dança Ma Mi Criola," by Tito Paris, sounds like a Cuban son, and has a horn section, too.

Halfway around the globe, a cadre of contemporary musicians are keeping alive the language and rhythms of Polynesia by combining the traditional with the modern.

Tahitians Bobby & Angelo give us "E Iti Taurua," a swinging, mellow song mixed with hand drums and strummed guitars. Hawaii’s Hapa contributes the instrumental "Olinda Road," a blend of slack-key tuning and American folk-style picking that is guaranteed to make you smile.

Hop again back to the huge island nation of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean off the East coast of Africa. Here we find the politically active group Tarika writing and singing songs promoting healing from the repressive French colonization, begun 100 years before.

"Sonegaly" is, at once, a reaching-out to the Senegalese people, and a call for equality. The slowly swinging sound gives a purely musical dimension to the song, while the words promote social change. On the other hand, "Mbo Hahita Avao" ("One of These Days, I’ll Find It") uses African syncopation and an eclectic mix of instruments (from accordion to bamboo zither) to lighten the load of marital difficulty in song.

The music of zouk has put the island of Martinique on the musical map, but Jean-Marc Monnerville (who uses the musical moniker Kali) employs sophisticated Latin rhythms suffused with the worldliness of lyrics sung in French or Creole. His "Me Ki Sa Oule" is a mild-tempo mambo, and sounds quite similar to the Cape Verdean Tito Paris.

Puerto Rico and Cuba are represented on Islands by a bomba and the bolero "Viente Años." Both are done in traditional styles by groups well known in their respective lands, and are excellent versions of their styles.

Finally, we have what may be the theme song of the CD: from the island of Tortola, Quito Rymer sings his own composition, the reggae-styled "Mix Up World." Rymer comments on some of the iniquities of the day, but always with the easy, swinging reggae one-drop rhythm mollifying the message of the lyrics with that ever-present island spirit.

 

"Caribe! Caribe!"
Various Artists (Compilation)
Putumayo World Music

Continuing the "mellow sounds of island music" approach, all but one of the 10 selections on this compilation hail from some of the islands of the Caribbean. There is one reggae tune from Jamaica, and two examples of the pan-Caribbean soca made famous on every Caribbean cruise ship and resort by Arrow. But, in all the other cuts on this album, we get to explore some of the lesser-known islands.

Beginning in the extreme south, and practically within sight of Venezuela, the tiny islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao (known in the travel industry as the "ABC Islands") have been greatly molded by all the many nations that have influenced the region in the past 500 years. Even the local language, Papiamento, seems to have evolved from such disparate sources as Portuguese, Dutch and French as well as from original African tongues.

The "A" and "C" are represented here by one song each. "Promo Bia," by E.Q.O. (say "echo") sounds like a marvelous amalgam of Brazilian and Cuban: the rhythm is heavily salsa-influenced, while the language has major overtones of Portuguese.

The smooth vocalizing of Ramphys Tromp is offset by good percussion and a well-programmed synth/horn section. The rumba rhythm is also evident on "Bai Drecha Bo Bin," from the same island that gave the world blue liqueur. The nice rhythm and good percussion are spoiled however by that fake-sounding keyboard/synth sound.

Geographically separate from the main body of islands in the West Indies, Barbados is also the only English-speaking island in a sea of French. The band Krosfyah uses an easy soca tempo — more moderate than the more famous Arrow, without losing any of the great dance feeling of that genre.

Hopping a hundred miles north to the French island of Martinique, we have three songs. First, the sophisticated sound of Chris Combette, who uses his voice in that same breathy way as so many Brazilian singers of both genders. His "La Nati" opens with the sound of the African mbira, unusual in Caribbean music, and proceeds into a French mambo.

Kali (Jean-Marc Monnerville) returns to the native sound of the beguine — along with some one-drop reggae guitar, and timbales — to present the intriguing combination of socially-conscious words and attitude, along with great syncopation in the lyrical line. Then, Claude Vamur, drummer for the great band Kassav, shows how to update that primitive rhythm without loosing any of the original feeling for the dance from which it came.

As we continue north, island-hopping along that great dotted comma of the Antilles, we next stop in the tiny British Virgin Island of Anguilla, home of Carl Hodge, who is the leader of the band Osha. Their brand of party music is quite infectious from first beat to last.

Finally, we have arrived at the large islands of the Greater Antilles. From Haiti, Beethova Obas wraps his soft voice gently around "Lina." The sound is as much a French cabaret song as a Haitian merengue, with a spoken intro that soon segues into a jazzy, sensuous syncopation. Don Carlos, of the great reggae band Black Uhuru, contributes a reggae one-drop that moves in a good moderate tempo straight to the top.

One song on the CD is not from an island. It is by the most popular musician in Belize, Andy Palacio. A faster-tempo paranda, with a nice addition of soprano saxophone, "Nabi" is a good contrast with Palacio’s slow, sad song on the "Paranda" album (reviewed here last month).

 

"D"
Tarika
Xenophile

OK, first things first: D stands for the word "dihy" which means "dance" in the Malagasy language, and is pronounced just like the letter "D", hence the title of the album. Got all that? This then, is a CD of 14 mostly up-tempo, jumpin’ sophisticated contemporary tunes from the island nation of Madagascar.

It seems that back in the 1970s, there was quite a record scene over there. A veritable "golden age" of dance singles — all on 7-inch 45 rpm vinyl discs — were recorded and played all over the island nation. Pioneering musical groups, from many of Madagascar’s 18 different tribes, used their traditional dances as basis for these now-classic records.

The artists, group of two women and three men, are well known in their homeland for political activism, expressed in their music. Their previous CD, "Son Egal", was a number 1 hit on European World Music charts. Released in 1997, "Son Egal" called for a healing of French colonization, and the 50-year old wounds left over from the use of Senegalese forces by the French to put down a popular uprising.

After the great and disturbing effect of "Son Egal", Tarika wanted their next project to be something simply more fun, and so the concept for "D" was born. Half the selections on "D" are remakes of these classic dance songs, half are newly written by members of Tarika in the same mold as the originals. All are sung in the Malagasy tongue, with two selections also sung partly in French. It’s as if Paul Simon (for example) would make a tribute album to those "American Bandstand" dance songs of the late 50s-early 60s, re-doing "LocoMotion" or "Mash Potato Time". Hey, that’s not a bad idea.

  • The Classics:

"Tatan’I Bina" is a family story with traditional lyrics in a 6-over-1dance rhythm.

"Bonne Année" (Happy New Year) is sung partially in French. Using a high-pitched, drunken-sounding mellodion, it is a pure dance song.

"Malagasy Anie Ianao," on the other hand, is a song to Malagasys who have emigrated to other lands. The 6/8 rhythm probably shows a European influence and is great to dance to.

"Samy Mandeha, Samy Mitady" is another great dance tune in a 6-over-2 rhythm. A lesson-song, it teaches that each person goes on his chosen path in life.

"Cocorico" is a paean to rural Madagascar and the ever-present rooster. The most Western of all the songs on the CD, featuring a 1,4,5 chord progression.

  • The Tributes by Tarika:

"Retany." A light and lilting song, featuring the marovany, a kind of harp. The repeated lyrics allow one to simply concentrate on the dance.

"Mihetsika." A fast, insistent dance grove. The title means "To Move", and it sure does.

"Ditra" features the instrumentation of mellodion and violin. A gentle up-tempo song that chides the foolishness of a husband with bad habits.

"Ilahikolo" is the only slow dance on the CD. Penned by Hanitra, Tarika’s leader, it is a song to Madagascar’s ancestors, who have had to endure great emotional and economic deprivation. The 3-part harmonies are reminiscent of South Africa, but are still totally their own.

"Fety" means "Fete" or "party", and that’s just what it is. Written by three members of Tarika, the song says that any reason for a party is a good one.

"Revany" is another 6-over-2 rhythm great for dancing. And still, it is a political statement affirming that Madagascar will rise above all troubles, and will not be corrupted by them. It is a fitting final song for an album that successfully combines serious themes with the pure joy of dance.


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