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Great Listening from Central America and Mexico

Reviews by Michael-Leonard Creditor

Paranda: Africa in Central America
Various Artists (Compilation)
Stonetree Records (

Here’s a concept for a recording: take 8 musicians, spanning 3 generations, all of whom are connected by the love of Paranda (a music that first emerged in the 19th century among former slaves in what is now Honduras).

Four of the musicians are old Paraderos (the oldest was 94 at the time the recording was made) and four are young emerging artists, whose interest in Paranda parallels young blues guitarists in our country. Put them together with a bunch of family and friends, some instruments of percussion (including wooden blocks and turtle shell), a Pepsi bottle and 15 Paranda songs. What comes out is a fine CD that traces, explores, and helps preserve yet another form of music that’s in danger of disappearing.

Though all the music on the disc is guitar-based, each of the old Parenderos has his own style: Paul Nabor’s guitar is smooth and easy, backed by a chorus; Jursino Cayetano uses Flamenco-like hand-claps as counterpoint to his guitar; Junie Aranda employs a slack-string "fuzz tone" guitar, and the heaviest amount of percussion of the group.

The music itself has a function similar to Caribbean Calypso: story-telling and carrying news. The rhythms and feeling of Paranda are also quite akin to Calypso. This is especially heard on the opening selection, "I Am Moving On." Paul Nabor’s easy, swinging guitar style almost mocks the song lyric, which deals with a man about to die.

All the songs on this album are ballads: telling of everyday events as well as special happenings. All the songs on the album, save one, are upbeat in attitude and tempo. The only exception is the song by the two youngest of the musicians, 27-year-old Aurelio Martinez and Andy Palacio, the most well-known contemporary musician of the group.

Rather than "love songs," there are songs of male-female relationships. In "Tumari Tibarimi," a man goes to ask a woman for her daughter’s hand. The mother turns him down saying his family does not have a good reputation. But, the man knows that she is having an affair with her own son-in-law, so who is she to talk. Jursino Cayetano sings "Fádiri" wherein a man asks the priest how much it costs to be married. When told, he says it’s too much; therefore, it’s the priest’s fault he cannot wed.

Although some of the tracks were recorded in two villages, the sound quality is good throughout. More important, the party atmosphere of the sessions still comes across clearly in the music. With the main musicians trading lead and backup duties for each other on different cuts, it’s almost like a song-swap, or "hootenanny." The booklet is quite complete, with transliteration as well as translation of all the lyrics, and the story of how the CD came to be.

There is no overt mention of Africa in the songs -- until the final song, "Africa," which is Aurelio Martinez’s fervent affirmation, "I will go to Africa! I will go to see our past." There is not a trace of sadness in the song; it perfectly expresses and affirms the connection that the Garifuna absolutely know: though I have never been there, "Who can tell me that I am not African."

Tree of Life
Lila Downs
Narada World (

I’m not familiar with Lila Downs; never heard of her before. But, just by listening to her CD, Tree of Life, I know about her. I know that she is a Mexicana of mixed heritage. Her mother and grandmother were Mixtec; no mention is made of her other heritage (it isn’t germane to the content of this CD).

And, I know that Downs apparently has spent some time in the world of Modern Mexico before returning to Oaxaca to explore the legacy of her birth. What we have here is a record that mixes the two worlds, traditional and modern, in many ways: song-writing, instrumentation and vocalization, and mostly in sheer feeling. The entire album is crafted with care and obvious love for her newly reclaimed culture.

Of the 13 tracks, two each are sung in Zapoteca and Mixtec tongues; one is in Náhuatl (noted as the linguistic descendant of the Aztecs) and the rest are sung in Spanish. The accompaniment on all the songs is spare and efficient; it is the songs themselves that are the showcase here.

Traditional instrumentation includes various drums and seed-pods, flutes (including ocarinas) and the sweet flowing guitar work of Angel Chacón, which is featured throughout the collection. Added to these are saxophone and harmonica (each on two separate selections) and a snare-and-cymbal accompaniment on "Stone Seed." This dramatic song, composed by Downs, is really the theme song for the album. Beginning as a free-metered a capella, "Stone Seed" tells of Downs’ return to the land and culture of her ancestors. The song becomes a waltz-time, and slowly builds in intensity, ending with a grito that proclaims, "I have gained my lost pride."

Other selections of note include "La Iguana" and "Three Flint," which are the most "Mexican sounding" songs on the album, and the native sounding "Arbol, Cerro Negro" and "Moon, From the Buried Umbilical Cord." This is the song Downs wrote for her maternal grandmother, whose act she credits with causing her return to the land of her birth. "Alma," sung in Zapoteca, is almost like a Brazilian love song (the language sounds remarkably akin to Portuguese) and allows Chacón to demonstrate his guitar technique with an Andalusian sound. Downs’ breathy vocalizing also is reminiscent of Brazilian woman vocalists.

Lila Downs’ has a rich contralto, which is very comfortable in the lower registers, but falters on the highs. This is not, however, a great detriment to the overall sound of Tree of Life; as noted before, it is the cultural message of the songs themselves that makes this collection valuable. For someone planning a trip to southern Mexico -- especially if you plan on spending time among the indigenous peoples -- listening to Tree of Life ought to put you in the mood.

I Could Read The Sky
(original music from the film)
Iarla O’Lionáird (and guest artists)
Realworld Records (

This is currently my favorite CD. It’s modern, it’s traditional, it’s weird, and hauntingly beautiful.

It is the soundtrack of I Could Read The Sky, a film about an old man’s memories of his hard life as a migrant laborer, an un-educated rural Irishman in the cruel, foreign city of London. It’s a story of intense loneliness, mind-numbing isolation, pure sadness and loss. It’s an industrialized-world version of the same migrant-worker story that is played out in many other lands: Africa, Mexico, Turkey….

The music is written exclusively in minor keys and modes, and serves to underscore the downtrodden and dreamlike nature of the film. As with most movie soundtracks, there are some pieces on I Could Read The Sky that aren’t meant to stand alone as songs. But, even those sound intriguing enough that I really want to see the film.

The music for I Could Read The Sky was produced by, and features the evocative vocals of Iarla (say EAR-la) O’Lionáird, who is also part of Afro-Celt Sound System. Five of the selections are traditional Celtic songs; nine were written by Lionáird. He seems to keep these two sides quite separate: the Celtic cuts are very traditional, the original tracks are … very original. And this is the riveting beauty of the album: Lionáird weaves disorienting measure patterns, rhythmic, repetitive percussion programs, and skillful synth-sounds all together with affecting, evocative vocals to produce music of extraordinary power. The lyrical beauty of Gaelic folk poetry is woven through the songs to further evoke the melancholy mood of the film story. And always, there are the hypnotic, haunting vocals by Lionáird and, on two selections, Sinéad O’Connor.

Two exceptional selections in particular stand out: "Iron and Gold" features lyrics in Gaelic with a modern-sounding vocal, strong bass-line and percussion. Lionáird’s arrangement of a Traditional Irish lament, "I’m Stretched On Your Grave" uses poignant accompaniment and slow tempo to convey the heartbreaking sadness and longing for a lost love. The one song on which Lionáird does alter the pure traditional sound is "Roísín Dubh." And even this is done with subtlety and taste. Sinéad O’Connor lends her voice to the free-metered ballad which she sings in Gaelic, with an overdubbed whisper in English.

Also, I must mention the rough and moving spoken vocal on "Fingers to the Marrow" which is, "a curse on the work that strips [my] fingers to the marrow." And also has this telling lyric: "My vision magnifies horizons; sometimes, I read the sky."

Lionáird has able assistance from musicians such as Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahil, Noel Hill in the traditional Celtic music. On the modern pieces, Ron Aslan contributes extensive programming and keyboards.

I Could Read The Sky isn’t an upper, but it is riveting music, excellently done. It has something for Celtic music fans and something for world fusion music fans. So, make a pot o’ tea, light a fire, and spend a winter’s afternoon with Iarla and his friends.

A Native American Odyssey
Various Artists (Compilation)
Putumayo World Music ( Travelers who want their listening as adventurous as they are won’t want to miss this one. This time, those creative minds at Putumayo have sought to cover the entire Western Hemisphere, presenting Native music of all the American Indians.

Cuts 1 thru 6 are of North American Natives. From there we enter Mexico, with two very different selections, though both are from the Zapotec tradition, and sung in that language. Oaxaca, where both these artists live, is only about 200 miles from Guatemala. This proximity is reflected in the guitar and requinto-based "Ni’bixi Dxi Zina" (The Tantrum) by Félix Jiménez Alvarez and Binni Gula’za, the trio he formed to preserve music in the Zapotec language.

A slow, heavily-syncopated _ rhythm forms the structure of this love song. One can easily visualize the colorful, swirling skirts of couples dancing traditional Oaxacan or Guatamalan figures to the melody.On the other hand, "La Tortuga" (The Turtle) is a fusion of modern syntho-sounds with an ancient Zapoteca wedding dance. Sung in a haunting, beautiful contralto by Jaramar Sosa, the song was an accompaniment to ancient fertility rituals, symbolized by harvesting of turtle eggs.

Sadly, this activity is now illegal due to the fall-off in the animal population; there is no place for such songs now except in collections like this one.Our odyssey now takes us right to the Andes, with three selections. First, a traditional piece featuring the well-known zampoñas and charanga combination of the Peruvian group Los Incas.

Ever since El Condor Pasa, their breakthrough hit of 1963, Los Incas have given the world soulful music that successfully combines the roots of pre-Columbian culture with our modern-day world. Another band from Peru, Expresión, closes the collection with an intriguing instrumental called "Ollantay." Only 94 seconds long, the tune uses what seems to be a slack-string tuning of charangas to produce a high, haunting sound that still has a happy feeling to it.

A hop over to Bolivia brings us to a love-song called "Chayantenita" by the ex-pat group Bolivia Manta. Using a syncopated rhythm to suggest drunken longing, it is an interesting counterpoint to the more well-known music of Los Incas.

Two songs from the Amazon River area of Brazil are included in this odyssey. Marlui Miranda, a musicologist from São Paulo, gives us "Araruna," based on a traditional song of the Parakan tribe and accompanied by guitar and piano. A flowing, lyrical morning song, it was sung when going to work.

On the other hand, "Vale do Javari" is a plea for self-determination in the contemporary tradition of political protest songs. The spoken vocal tells the story of this modern "valley of tears," where the Brazilian government forcibly re-settled several different tribes, regardless of the fact that they had different languages and cultures, and that some were traditional enemies.

"Nothing is worth all the tears shed in this valley. The blood of the tribes has paid for this land, so when will the violence stop?"Finally, I want to stress how much thought, research and time goes into the excellent booklets that Putumayo puts in their paper CD cases. This one, in particular, deserves kudos for its marvelous pronunciation guide for all the Native tongues on the CD. And that’s no mean feat.


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Tags: storySection: Happenings
Location: Central America, Mexico, North America
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