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Global Beat Fusion: Seu Jorge, Salsa and Ghanian Afrobeat

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The Seu Jorge I met in midtown Manhattan five years ago was much different than the Knockout Ned I envisioned. Same wiry body, though this Seu had a thick, bushy goatee, locks starting to sprout in all directions from his head, and a much quieter demeanor. Being that my Portuguese is lacking, to say the least, I could still tell via the translator that the artist created with a deep humility. His international breakthrough, Cru, had just dropped, with "Bem Querer" in constant rotation on my computer. Most of the acoustic-heavy recording was gentle, though I knew the man had other sides--the way he held down the hood in City of God, for one.

Tracing the samba king's catalog back, you understand why the man's name is household in Brazil. Tracks like "Carolina" helped define the evolution of his national song. Post-Cru, he went on a rampage, most notably with The Life Aquatic soundtrack, in which his renditions of David Bowie standards were the best things about that quirky flick. Cat has serious range, with sober confidence to match. Exploring his new project, Almaz, with Pupillo and Lucio Maia of Brazil's imaginative Nação Zumbi and City of God composer Antonio Pinto, has been a highlight of 2010. The simply titled Seu Jorge and Almaz (Stone's Throw) is a work of unthinkable beauty and depth. The band's iconic covers of Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" and a completely jaw-dropping take on Roy Ayers' "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" are some of the best material from any country this year. The latter is Jorge's first single, though no video exists yet (song below). You have to give it up to Roy for penning the song, but we have a Lou Reed/Cowboy Junkies situation on our hands: innovator trumps originator.

I spun "Heaven" to death after getting the Ghana Soundz compilation years ago, a recurring theme in my life concerning Ebo Taylor. When Ghana Soundz 2 dropped, it was "Atwer Abroba" and "Mondo Soul Funky" receiving constant attention. Taylor is a legendary figure in Ghana, beginning with his big band work in the '50s. His exposure to the world beyond Africa commenced unexpectedly with some crate-digging efforts by a few specialty labels, leading to his tribute record, Love and Death (Strut), to Nigeria's Black President, his old friend and former schoolmate, Fela Kuti. So while Usher lifts a riff from Taylor for a track with Ludacris, we have eight new Afrobeat-oriented cuts by Taylor that's as sweet and soulful as his earlier works. Taylor re-cut hits such as "Victory" and "Love and Death," though the bulk of material is brand new. The rhythm section and horn playing, provided by the Dutch band Afrobeat Academy, is poignant and passionate, but the focus remains on Taylor's unmatched guitar and silky vocals. The man is known for Highlife, but on Love and Death he makes Afrobeat his birthright.

Looking over the playlist of Strut's new compilation, Salsa Explosion: The New York Salsa Revolution 1970-1979, nothing jumped out at me--these tracks are all well known. Such is the case digging through the Fania collection from that era. That does nothing to change the fact that this is primetime Latin dance music, and putting it together on this exceptional collection is in no way a bad thing. Antibalas's cover of "Che Che Cole" thrust the Afrobeaters into a new genre subspecies; the origin of their Willie Colón headnod opens this 15-track compilation. Colón closes the disc collaborating with Héctor Lavoe on the horn-drenched, lazy beat of "Todo Tiene Su Final." In-between is the finest of that age: Joe Cuba, Tito Puente, Ray Baretto, Mongo Santamaria, Celia Cruz...you get the point. And if not, pick up this recording, because it's something you need to get. This is the music that helped to define an entire population in post-civil rights New York City, and remains some of the hottest music this country has ever created.