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(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/23/2014)
The rise in popularity of world music starting in the 1980s has inspired a lot of artists over the years to mix culturally disparate musicians and influences. Often such collaborations arise out of geographical proximity. Paris has been a musical melting pot for many African musicians who would hang out with Western players and create a lot of interesting musical hybrids. Peter Gabriel was noted for hosting musical get-togethers for artists from around the globe in his studio in England. Some interesting recordings arose from that, notably the Big Blue Ball album.
Given contemporary technology, another way to put musicians from different cultures together is to do it virtually, having them perform in their home locales and assembling those into recording without the need to be in the same room or indeed continent. One could argue that an in-person collaboration is required to have the kind of interaction that makes for that great music where the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
But skillfully done, a virtual collaboration can give rise to an enjoyable cross-cultural pastiche, and that is what producer Mark Johnson has done on what is now the third in the Playing for Change: Music Around the World series, which has just been released.
Johnson is nothing if not ambitious in his peripatetic efforts on these recordings. He journeys to the home countries of scores of musicians and records them, adding their parts to a song, using portable recording equipment and a laptop computer running multi track recording software. These are also videotaped and early in the project it was decided that the performances would generally be recorded outdoors in a picturesque location, often in the middle of a public square with people around. This latest album involves 178 musicians recorded in 31 countries, almost none whom had previously met. Later some of the more frequent collaborators were assembled into a live band that is on tour of the US. But the technique is to start with a song -- and most of the material on this album is either familiar or traditional -- and keep adding players, usually giving key musicians featured solos. They add and perform their parts listening to the previous contributions on headphones, as musicians do in the studio for overdubbing, but in this case it's in locations like a beaches, city streets, wooded areas and the like. The background sounds are not allowed to intrude, though. The musicians on the album include Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, folk and blues singer Taj Mahal, members of Los Lobos, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, reggae luminary Toots Hibbert, plus musicians from Cuba, Senegal, Japan, Serbia, Argentina, Brazil, and many others.
There was a no doubt a good deal of editing -- all those disparate players all adding their parts could quickly get out of hand and turn into a big mess, but for the most part, the result is just about right, balancing between a big bunch of people jamming on a song and focused coherence.
Like previous CDs the series, Playing for Change 3, features a fair amount of reggae and soul-derived music, covering songs from each of those genres, but this one features more folk songs and some traditional spirituals. There are also a couple of originals on the album, including one written for the occasion by Keith Richards, and one by some of the regular members of what has become the Playing for Change Band, including producer Johnson.
This album is fairly short in terms of material, 34 minutes and 8 songs, but it does cover a lot of ground and is well-done.
It opens with one of its folk songs, the Mexican classic La Bamba, which is launched by two of the members of Los Lobos. Most of the added players are from the Americas, including Mexico, Argentina and Colombia, but there are musicians from Congo, Mali and Serbia in there in there as well. It helps that this is one of those ideal sing-along songs. <<>>
Keith Richards' featured original song is Words of Wonder which is given a reggae beat, though there are players from Congo, Portugal, Italy, and Zimbabwe among others. <<>> Sherieta Lewis from Jamaica and Titi Tsira from South African are the featured guest vocalists. <<>>
That segues into Bob Marley's classic Get Up Stand Up, continuing the reggae groove, which features mostly the same personnel. <<>>
The reggae continues with Reggae Got Soul by Toots and the Maytals. Toots Hibbert himself starts out his song on this recording, before an appearance by Taj Mahal. Another influential Jamaican musician, Ernest Ranglin appears on guitar. <<>>
The direction shifts to a traditional spiritual, Down by the Riverside, which features a vocal by New Orleans street performer Grandpa Elliot who previously recorded his own album for the Playing for Change label. Keb' Mo' does a verse, before a Serbian group makes an appearance <<>> The Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans wraps it up. It's one of the highlights of the album. <<>>
In the same Gospel mode is an original song called A Better Place. Dutch vocalist Clarence Bekker, who is a regular in the Playing for Change live band, is joined by vocal soloists from Senegal, Egypt and Thailand, as well as the USA. <<>>
The CD continues with familiar territory on the Playing for Change albums, a soul classic. In this case it's Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Dutch, South African and American vocalists are featured. The drummer is James Gadson who played on quite a few Motown classics, including records by Marvin Gaye. <<>> The American vocalist who gets a solo is Sara Bareilles. <<>>
The album ends with its lengthiest piece, the Cuban folk song Guantanamera. This track was produced by Jackson Browne and involved all native Cuban musicians but many were recorded in disparate locations around the world. The performance really captures the essence of the classic Cuban sound. <<>>
Playing for Change 3: Songs Around the World by many various disparate artists continues the global virtual collaborations produced by Mark Johnson, and on this album co-producer Enzo Buono. Interestingly, like the previous ones, TV maven Norman Lear served an executive producer of the album. The music is engaging and the cross-cultural influences tastefully handled. Despite the fact that almost nobody was in the same room as each other, there is an infectious spirit of collaboration that is quite readily felt. People sounded as if they were having fun, despite singing into a microphone on a street somewhere listening on headphones.
Like the previous volumes in the series, this album comes with a DVD, and although I personally have little use for music videos, this one is very well done, with skillful editing showing each of the players in their location when their featured parts are heard. The videos were shot as the tracks were actually being recorded, so it's not a typical dumb music video.
It's getting to be a small world with previously disparate artists working together more frequently. While I still enjoy hearing such cross-cultural collaborations that arise from musicians actually working together, jamming and bouncing ideas off each other in person, Playing for Change 3 makes for enjoyable listening and combinations that might otherwise be very difficult to pull off.
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