The 2005 documentary, Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars, followed a number of refugees from Freetown into Guinea due to civil war in their homeland. A band was formed while living in a refugee camp, and upon returning to Sierra Leone this musical project became symbolic to the wider world of the internal strife occurring in Africa. Besides its obvious humanitarian pull, the film was excellent, for which we must credit the incredible music being created--the resulting album, Living Like a Refugee, was an ingenious blend of African melodies set in a reggae-influenced soundscape, not to mention acoustic-driven folklore.
The band's recording budget (or, at the very least, their technological prowess) was definitely raised for their follow-up, Rise & Shine, out on Cumbancha on March 23. Their reggae inspiration swirls strongly, "Jah Mercy" and "Jah Come Down" being obvious indicators. The addition of keyboards and clean, sharp percussion add more depth to their delectable melodies, and the opening rhythm of "Muloma" and the tribal "Oruwiebie" promise that the band never severs their pure African roots. On their debut, the charm was in the intimacy; here, it is simply great songwriting with incredible production. None of their message--unity, cultural celebration, spiritual salvation--is lost, and so much is gained. (Free download of "Living Stone" available on the Cumbancha website.)
While these all-stars are busy upgrading their sound, Los Angeles DJ/producer David Starfire is updating entire cultures. His Six Degrees Records debut, Bollyhood Bass, is an intricate blending of Asian instrumentation in the context of bass-heavy beats and dubstep. While his previous EP, Bombay Beatz, hinted at greatness, here the man achieves it in one fell swoop. Greatness is achieved in repetition, and Starfire indeed has a lust for repetitious beats. The key: they're beats you can easily hang with for five, six minutes, and his undeniable swagger of instrumentation between those beats is exceptional. Good electronica relies on both serious low-end and bottom as well as interesting sway. This he accomplishes with tablas on "Shimla," with a killer vocal on "Mystic Whomp," and with a finely tuned guitar and beatbox on "Shout it Out." (The melody on that track is solid; the rap needs work.)
Hands down "the" track is "Shakti," which takes a vintage sounding Bollywood (Bollyhood) vocal and builds it from the ground up with the most spacious, lush rhythmic structure on the album. Plenty of synthesized sounds keep it modern and ready for dance clubs without it sounding too produced. Starfire only lags at the album's end, with a whimsical cover of "Hey Jude." (His Beatles fetish should remain as a fan--his remix of "Come Together," offered free on his website, is also lagging. He should check out J. Period's mixtape of the Roots to see what to properly do with that track.)
Starfire also makes an appearance--two, in fact--on Nu Asian Soundz, the latest release from ethnotechno.com, which for a decade has been the premier online radio source for all things evolved in, well, nu Asian soundz. Compiler dimmSummer kicks it off with a basement banger, "Rubstep," then invites a host of friends to join in: Starfire, with vocal and instrumental versions of "Tumbi Blaster"; two great cuts by the local production team Goonda, "Fearless" and "21CFX" (which features a stellar vocal performance by MC Zulu); and Chicago's Radiohiro, who holds it down strong with the philosophically phrased "I Am That I Am." Dubstep again reigns, with strong hints of reggae (what modern music hasn't Jamaica influenced?), most immediately on Liquid Stranger's heavy groove, "Hexed & Perplexed." (Another great title: Nuphlo's timely "Homeland Insecurity.") Stranger is no stranger to evolutionary sounds: 2009's The Intergalactic Slapstick breaks plenty of new ground in dubtronica. Find that on Canada's Interchill, and keep finding everything else on EthnoTechno.
DimmSummer is not the only one digging up ground in Indian sounds. NYC composer and sitar player Neel Murgai was recently spotted on David Letterman backing up a hyper Wyclef Jean and Cyndi Lauper on their, well, interesting marketing ploy, "Slumdog Millionaire." (No dig to Murgai, who is always solid.) The sitar player was going under the name Mission to Mars before forming his own ensemble. The quartet's self-titled debut, The Neel Murgai Ensemble, is about to drop on Innova, which features an intriguing blend of instrumentation. The artfully composed sounds of the sitar and tabla, some vocals, along with viola, cello, and daf, comprise the album's eight songs. While the opening "Charukeshi Monday" is innately traditional, "Brooklyn Ki Bhairavi" is a gorgeous mixing of those aforementioned instruments in a very innovative context (though it too is based on the popular rag Bhairavi.) All of Murgai's songs are in someway influenced by pre-existing compositions, though not only Indian: "Coi Umeed" is an Eastern European gypsy song that he first heard while watching the incredible documentary, Latcho Drom. True, even gypsy song can be traced back to India, but we all have our history. Murgai is introducing his to bright new vistas.