Global Beat Fusion: Brooklyn Rhythm to Cajun Soul

By his own account, Charles Bradley has worked across America as a cook, handyman, shoe shiner, hospital attendant and candy factory worker. I could imagine him matter-of-factly crooning Otis Redding while frying up omelets or packing kit-kats. A fellow worker listens and says, "Hey Chuck, you've got a mighty fine voice. You should do something with that." Bradley, abashed, replies, "Yeah, maybe I'll just do that."

I don't peg him as shy -- especially given the way he bounces around on stage, sweat cascading from his brow, lips erect and mighty as he punches audiences with soulful knuckles and hearty soliloquies. At 62, his debut is sponsored by the same Brooklyn tastemakers who helped make Sharon Jones a household name. His debut, No Time For Dreaming (Dunham Records), follows a similar trajectory of vintage-sounding funk and soul that's as modern as it is throwback. While Bradley's not breaking new ground on the lyrical front, his melodies are tight enough to forgive the recycled messages. Whoever tires of hearing about love lost and (sometimes) reclaimed has misplaced a deep and necessary component of the human spirit. Props to Charles Bradley for helping us to find those invisible organs.

I wouldn't have guessed the Jewish Cantorial tradition would be categorized alongside other music modernizations. Granted, I know little of the genre, outside of sitting with my fiancé's family at services. I must admit, however, I have loved what I've heard.

Inspired by studies of this vocally charged genre, Brooklyn-based guitarist/vocalist Jeremiah Lockwood formed the Sway Machinery to reinterpret this sound with a modern beat. Already moonlighting with my favorite Eastern European-influenced band, Balkan Beat Box, Lockwood invited members of Antibalas and Arcade Fire along for the ride. The journey led them to the Malian desert, where on its second release, Sway has fashioned a groundbreaking take on Tuareg music. Championed nearly a decade ago by desert rockers Tinariwen, the sound has spread its wings and lifted numerous artists to international fame, including Toumast, Etran Finatawa, Bombino, Terakraft and, most recently, female vocalist Khaira Arby, whose Timbuktu Tarab made many Top 10 lists in 2010.

One of my favorite sounds on the planet -- Tinariwen's recent collaborations with Carlos Santana and Indian vocalist Kiran Ahlwualia, covering Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, are great examples of how malleable the music is--any "fusion" attempt would fall flat. Nothing of the sort on The House Of Friendly Ghosts Vol. 1 (JDub, Feb 8). Featuring Khaira Arby on most tracks, this record documents the first part of their pilgrimage. WIth African greats like Vieux Farka Toure and Djelimady Tounkara joining in, the blending of African rhythms, Daptone-style ruggedness and stupendous playing on this 15-track album kicks off the new decade with a cross-cultural collaboration that, for all parties involved, feels perfectly at home.

A few days after Globalfest, the premier international music showcasing event in America, I received an email from a friend with a four-track EP by the Boston-based Debo Band. From the first notes of "Musicawi Silt," I was hooked. Thinking it was an Afrobeat project, and a very good one, when the second song of Flamingoh (Pink Bird Dawn) EP, "Belomi Benna," dropped, I was taken to an entirely different place. Afrobeat isn't my only obsession; Ethiopian jazz is another.

Give me a Mulatu Astatqé jam any day. Well Debo did, in their own language, which interestingly makes a crossroads of Addis Ababa and Lagos on this live set. Being that the EP was passed along from a close friend who books the Conga Room in LA, I don't have liner notes; I'm not sure who sings what song, and the band's website does not make that information evident. But whoever of the four singers on their Myspace page -- Bruck, Asnakech, Amanuel and Anteneh -- is responsible for the three remaining tracks deserves equal accolades.

From what I gather, Debo Band is making the transition from Massachusetts local bar scene to a national platform. If this set is any indication of its potential, the band is well on its way. You can (and should) download the EP for just $4 at their Bandcamp site.

While Debo Band is exploring African folk styles, accordionist/vocalist Steve Riley has been reminding Americans of our own folk tradition, albeit one that is Cajun flavored. The Lousiana native formed Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys in 1988; over its 23-year career, the band has released 10 records and been nominated for a Grammy.

I've loved this band since first hearing them a decade ago, and its new self-released record, Grand Isle (Feb 22), is as good as any I own. After a long career with Rounder Records, the band hired producer CC Addock to create what he calls "a Cajun iPod on shuffle." Brilliant. And true. Invoking ska on the analog "C'est l'heure pour changer," the Playboys keep things heated for the thumping "Pierre." First and foremost, this is a dance record. The obvious undertones of socially perceptive Louisianans are the continual barrage of disasters, both manmade and earth-made, that have ravaged the area. The politics of this music has always been part of the creative process. While jazz and marching band music is usually referenced first when exploring this region, the depths of the Bayou are owned by this Creole champion, who may have just made his finest record in 23 long and worthwhile years.