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(Hear Records 32055 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/8/2011)
World music has been enjoying limited but steady popularity in the US for about a quarter century. And from time to time, there are big album productions that bring together a lot of musical guests -- something that seems to be happening more frequently recently. This week we have one that is both -- an interesting world music recording with a large cast of characters. It's called Playing for Change 2: Music Around the World.
This is hardly the first time for such cross-cultural mixtures. Paul Simon's ground-breaking Graceland album helped to introduce American audiences to South African sounds though its fusing of indigenous music with Simon's own songs and influences, and featured guest cameos from both South African performers and people like Linda Ronstadt. Peter Gabriel is another advocate for musical cross-pollenization who has enough star power to provide a built-in audience for such pursuits. His Big Blue Ball CD from 2008 was an ambitious project that brought together numerous players who were invited to come to his studios in England and hang out, jam and record. More recently, Béla Fleck released another ambitious project called Throw Down Your Heart, in which he collaborated with local artists in a kind of grand tour of Africa.
Playing For Change 2 produced by one Mark Johnson, is perhaps even more ambitious. As one can deduce from the name of the project it's a sequel. Johnson and company released the first Playing for Change CD in 2009 after doing a musical collaboration with a number of street musicians, a South African choir and a Native American drum group on the song Stand By Me. It became a hit on YouTube, and then was covered by Bill Moyers on PBS-TV. A full album was done with a similarly diverse cast.
Now two years later, Johnson is out with Playing for Change 2: Songs Around the World, and it is even more ambitious.
Interestingly, this CD is very much the result of technology. It used to be that if you wanted a big production like that, one would fly a bunch of musicians into a studio somewhere to record and collaborate. That is what Peter Gabriel did. Béla Fleck essentially did field recordings in Africa, and generally recorded most of the material live, with Fleck playing along. The Playing for Change albums rely on laptop multitrack technology to create virtual bands of musicians from all over the world who likely never met. Johnson and company brought along a portable recording setup with some good microphones, a laptop and a video camera and made stops in Mali, Congo, Jamaica, Brazil, Colombia, India, France, Cape Verde, New Orleans and quite a few other locales, set up in almost all cases, outdoors and had the musicians overdub parts on tracks, adding their own contributions, sometimes subtle, sometimes significant. Often the lead vocal of a tune will start with one musician recorded on one country and then the next verse would be someone else from somewhere else entirely. The liner notes say that over 150 musicians from 25 countries appeared. The material includes some familiar pop songs, including two from Bob Marley, one each from the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, plus some more obscure material and a couple of original tunes.
After, no doubt, months of editing and whittling down, the result is a CD-and-DVD set that is both entertaining and musically interesting. There are certainly a lot of diverse sounds and influences that come flying at one, but the result is remarkably tasteful. Despite the assemblage of all the parts from around the world from the different performers, the end product is commendably smooth and organic. Such a diverse and ambitious project could easily have become an articstic train-wreck or at least a kind of musical Tower of Babel, but it works surprisingly well.
Among the names Americans are likely to recognize on PFC2 are Keb' Mo', Taj Mahal, Stephen Marley, and Baaba Maal, who has collaborated with Peter Gabriel.
The CD opens with one of the Bob Marley songs, Three Little Birds, which is typical of the cross-cultural amalgam that the project represents. Vocalists include Baaba Maal and Keb' Mo'. And there's everything from Keb' Mo's slide guitar to Indian tabla, to Brazilian percussion, to a Jamaican drummer, all recorded outdoors in their respective home countries. <<>>
Perhaps the most striking cover tune on the album is the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter. The lead singers include Roselyn Williams and Sherieta Lewis from Jamaica and Taj Mahal from the USA. <<>>
One track that is centered in single country is a piece called La Tierra del Olvido, or "Land of the Forgotten," featuring over 80 musicians from Colombia. Like much of the album, there is an undertone of using the cultural diversity in the cause of peace. The long-running internal war in Columbia is the inspiration for this danceable track. <<>>
One of the original songs created for the album is Music Is My Ammunition, also on the subject of music bringing people together. The song was co-written by the Congolese co-lead vocalist Mermans Kenkosenki, with vocal contributions from Stephen Marley, Roselyn Williams and Sherieta Lewis from Jamaica, and a Japanese percussionist. <<>>
The other Bob Marley tune on the CD is Redemption Song, which combines Bob Marley's son Stephen with a Japanese shamisen string instrument. <<>> There's even a sequence from Bob Marley himself recorded from a live European concert that was woven into the track. <<>>
There is one instrumental piece. It's descriptively called Groove in G. According to producer Mark Johnson, it started out the shade of a mango tree in Mali with the group Tinariwen, described as a "desert blues band." The group improvised the basic part, and musicians from all over were added including Indian and Brazilian percussion, flamenco guitar from Spain, harmonica from the USA, among others. <<>>
The most intimate track on the CD is Minuit by Baaba Maal from Senegal. While there is some Brazilian percussion, the piece is meant to capture the simplicity and warmth of West African folk music, and it succeeds well. <<>>
The album ends with something I suppose is fairly obligatory for project like this, a well-known song with a message, in this case John Lennon's Imagine. There are lots of musicians from around the world, including Clarence Bekker from the Netherlands and New Orleans street musician Grandpa Elliott doing vocals. But this version is done pretty straight, and except for a few instrumental colors, it doesn't have much different to offer musically, compared to the interesting rhythmic and approaches elsewhere. <<>>
Playing for Change 2: Songs Around the World is one of the better of the world music diverse amalgams to appear recently. The first one in the series, produced by Mark Johnson, had its notable moments. But this one is quite successful and certainly ambitious in all the contributions from 150 musicians from around the world, recorded outdoors in their home countries, and then assembled into an impressively coherent mix.
The physical recording comes with a DVD of all the songs, that was very tastefully and skillfully edited, cutting between the parts played by the various musicians in their diverse locations. There's also a short documentary about the Playing for Change foundation and the music schools they are setting up in South Africa, Mali, Nepal, Rwanda and Ghana. The project was supported by TV producer Norman Lear.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." I'm impressed by how well all the extremely diverse elements recorded all over the world fit together. The mix captures the flavor of the many ethnic instruments. The dynamic range could have been a little better -- the percussion sounds and musical timbres of the diverse instruments would have had more immediacy without the usual heavy-handed compression used on most CDs these days.
Music is one art form that can really bridge cultures, something that is demonstrated increasingly these days. I suppose it's pie in the sky to expect such cross-cultural bridges to contribute to world peace. But it's worth the hope, and irrespective of that, Playing for Change 2 does make for great listening.
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