03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Global Beat Fusion: From Africa to Brazil, By Way of Colombia

Bebel Gilberto slipped into the American imagination with Tanto Tempo in 2000 and has refused to leave. The efforts that followed -- Bebel Gilberto and Momento -- felt like extensions of that North American debut; beautiful in their own right, and never without taste, yet safely embedded within the same paradigm. It's not surprising, given that she is the musical and genetic progeny of two great Brazilian singers. I wouldn't say that All In One, her Verve debut, points in a completely new direction, but it certainly surprises.

Her music has always reached for the romantic in her listeners, a nuance continual in the global understanding of Brazilian sounds. This is quite a paradox considering the social and economic strife inherent in many of the country's urban areas. From the Brazilian musicians I've talked to over the years, it seems that the music is not only an "escape," which is what bossa nova has come to represent in certain circumstances; it is also a social and artistic balm that glues people together. This is a worldwide truism in music; it's just that certain artists really grab hold of their creative faculties, pushing past the bounds of the everyday into a dream-like state -- the visionary, the daydreamer. There is really no other way of describing Giblerto's sound, crediting equally her producers as her voice.

The expectable Bebel tracks are present: airy odes like "Far From the Sea" and "Port Antonio." She tackles her father's domain with cuts like "Bim Bom" and "Chica Chica Boom Chic," songs that take you back forty years, before Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil slid electric guitars and political messages into the music. Things get more interesting when she tackles two giants and succeeds on both: Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder. Flipping "Sun Is Shining" into Portuguese and back into English was a smart move, adding a layer of sensuality to the bass-heavy mid-tempo track. Bob is sacred territory to many; previous accolades have meant death to a singer. Bebel handles it perfectly. Ditto "The Real Thing," with guest producer Mark Ronson and a musical performance by Brooklyn soul outfit the Menahan Street Band, who Jay-Z previously borrowed from and spit over. Stevie himself would certainly bounce along, if he'd stop his silly efforts with Rod Stewart and move on.

Over a year ago I was turned onto another Brazilian singer, Vanessa da Mata, by way of a track she wrote with Ben Harper, "Boa Sorte/Good Luck." Since then this song has been an obsession of mine. When Sony finally decided to release the album, Sim, in America, I was thrilled. After trying her hand at modeling and professional basketball (woman is tall), she wrote hits for Brazilian royalty: Veloso, Daniela Mercury, Chico Cesar, Maria Bethania. She backed up other artists until striking out on her own in 2002.

Sim does something rather common these days: infect samba and bossa nova with reggae. The result can be a disaster or a blessing, depending on, as previously noted in regards to Bebel Gilberto, the vocalist and the producer. Like Gilberto, da Mata nails it. The laid-back skank of "Vermelho" leaves one in a meditative trance. Her balladry, as on "Amado," is heartbreaking. Every aspect of this album is spot on, save one: for the US release, probably at the request of Sony, three English versions of songs, including "Boa Sorte" (Harper always sung in English; da Mata, on the original, in Portuguese), were redone for the "market." I'm not sure when (or if) labels will stop forcing translations they think will "sell" onto artists. The sooner they come to that realization, the better. The songs are not bad, they just pale in comparison to the originals, and can be seen for what they are: a marketing move, not a musical one. When da Mata reaches the audience she deserves, she can leave the dumbing down to the dummies, for that she is not.

While these two women are relative newcomers to the musical world, we find two classics reemerging. Cape Verdean legend Cesaria Evora returns with Nha Sentimento (Lusafrica). One thing that's constant in Evora's career is the stability of her albums -- always dependable, yet often linear. A good linear, mind you, but straight through nonetheless. Perhaps heading to the African mainland helped her forge something new. Recording in Cairo, the Egyptian flutes and strings on "Sentimento" add a new tone underneath Evora's saudade. Fathy Salama helped Evora with a few arrangements, harking back to his days conducting the Cairo Orchestra. His work adds a fanciful sway underneath the endearing strains of guitar and percussion. Another beautiful moment in Evora's illustrious career.

What Evora is to Cape Verde, Toto La Momposina is to Colombia. The styles couldn't be further apart. I remember Evora performing, stopping mid-song to light a cigarette and sit on a chair, smoking and gazing out into the crowd, a drink of brandy or rum in her hand, a queen and rightfully so. La Momposina is a firecracker. She runs out to stage a cappella and stops the hearts of everyone. Her musicians appear, she weaves between them, half hyper child, half humble diva, fully engaging. Everyone in the room sits dumbstruck, enamored, in love with woman and music.

The bump of the bass on her latest, La Bodega (Astar Artes), is the most pleasant aspect of a cultural music whose flutes usually dominate. Colombian folk can be piercing, to put it mildly. Rhythmic as hell, but the melodies drown that out. Not here. The guitar strumming is brilliant, percussion perfectly mixed, and her vocals, inspired. This album has juice, plenty of it, and she's high on octane throughout, a true shamanista whose medicine is music. La Momposina invites all the aspects of her country -- good, bad, otherwise -- and makes a party of them, not without knowledge, not without understanding. She sees it all; she just chooses to dance in spite of tragedy, a beautiful message to people of all places and times.