It didn't surprise me seeing Jahdan Blakkamoore popping up on former Soulive vocalist Toussaint's first album, Black Gold (I Grade). While the two men's styles are stylistically different--Toussaint's Gregory Isaacs to Blakkamoore's Don Carlos--there exists a kinship between them, predominantly in their honest, soul-seeking lyrics. Beautiful voices both, their minds merge on the upbeat horn-drizzled "Rise and Fall." It is only one great cut on an album of many. Toussaint reminds me of Luciano's non-VP Records albums: midtempo, sensual, excellent production, solid bass grooves punctuated with horns and a killer rhythm section. The man can write a ballad ("Hello My Beautiful," "Black Gold") without being clichéd, as well as hype a crowd ("Roots in a Modern Time," "Conquering Cocaine"). Toussaint is at his best right in the middle, with an irie classic like "Sunshine in the Morning," relying both on the exceptional production and his heartfelt, bold vocals.
One term you will not hear often is "Hebrew Qawwali." In fact, in today's political climate, the idea of a Jewish-based Pakistani music seems blasphemous, if not socially unacceptable. That's only to people who like to do things like oppose Muslim community centers in Manhattan, however. Shye Ben-Tzur was always an open-minded singer, and after attending a classical Indian concert some years back and eventually discovering qawwali, he was hooked. I'm not going to lie: I'm a huge qawwali fan, and when this album came across my desk, it seemed suspect. I'm also a big fan of being wrong, however, as Shoshan (Earthsync) proved me to be. Produced by one of my current favorite labels, these 12 songs mix things like qawwali and saxophones, which I would have imagined to be an instant train wreck, in gorgeous ways. Ben-Tzur has such a nice balance of styles that this really is a unique album. That a harmonium and flamenco guitar work together was proven with Faiz Ali Faiz and Miguel Poveda's excellent double-album, Qawwali Flamenco; Ben-Tzur verifies the fact. In a country in need of more religious understanding like America, this charming devotional recording should be in high demand.
Iranian singer Galeet Dardashti is the third generation of musicians to explore the classical Persian and Jewish songbook (not to mention first woman), and her debut, Naming, is a heart-stopping effort. An educator as well as performer--she recently attained a Ph.D. in anthropology focused on Israel's Misrahi and Arab music--hers is a voice that could easily raise the spirits of an audience. Born to a cantorial father, Dardashti has an operatic voice, which is gorgeously backed up by magnificent violin, dulcimer and darbuka exhibitions. The largeness of a sound displayed in "Hagar/Sarah" reminds one of efforts by Sussan Deyhim and Azam Ali, while the soft thump of "Sheba," a song of reconciliation (and leg shaving) by a famous queen, will make you fall hard in love with this deserving newcomer.
My passion for Middle Eastern music is matched by a fascination with Tuareg music. Like many others, I was pulled into the sound with Mali's Tinariwen, a band that opened the gates for numerous electric guitar playing musicians who worship Hendrix from the Sahara Desert to walk through. The recent Rough Guide to Desert Blues (World Music Network) makes a perfect introduction to this phenomenal scene, with tracks by the more guitar-driven Tinarwien, Terakraft and Tamikrest, not to mention the rootsier, percussive acts like Tartit and Etran Finatawa. Amadou and Mariam make their way onto the compilation, as does the late Ali Farka Toure and Bassekou Kouyate, whose most recent album, I Speak Fula, was picked up by Seattle's Sub Pop Records. If environments create sound, the African desert is the hottest place to be right now.