Global Beat Fusion: Algeria Rocks, Togo Rolls

For better or worse, Algerian singer Rachid Taha has done his best to maintain a rebellious image that exhibits itself in his music with hard rock guitars and heavy drum beats. Spending most of his life in Paris, he led a double life in the '70s working in a heating appliance factory while spinning Arabic pop songs mashed with modern rock classics and German electro futurists, all of which later led to his covering of the Clash's "Rock the Casbah." These varied temperaments reached an apex in his giant albums Made in Medina and Diwân. Of late, he seems more subdued, and his latest, Bonjour (Knitting Factory) is no different. It did not surprise me to learn that he's working with a new producer, as this album is so different than prior releases--for one, the album's cover features a clean shaven Taha surrounded by pink and green, quite a departure for a man accustomed to three-day scruff, cowboy hats, and leather. Fortunately, though, when I say different, I do not mean worse. This album sacrifices none of Taha's charm. Guitars still dominate, and the unmistakable mandolute adds an Arabic swing to a sharp assault of drum beats. It's not bad seeing the man cleaned up a bit--last time I saw him live, alcohol had claimed every facet of the man's soul. So far every Taha album I own has taken a few listens to find the groove. Yet when I do, I spend many hours lost in the complex textures that surround the man's gruff voice. And never am I disappointed.

Migrating from Cuba to Canada proved to be fortuitous for Alex Cuba. The move was for marriage, yet rooting in British Columbia has paid off quite well for the vocalist/guitarist, considering he's been nominated for his third Juno award for his latest self-titled album. He's won the first two, which is not surprising, given the unbelievable beauty of songs like "Si Pero No" from Agua Del Pozo. Released on his own Caracol Records, Alex Cuba is a much more upbeat affair. The Afro'd soul singer injects plenty of funk and soul in this record's thirteen songs, even if the subject matter of his songs have not changed much: heart racing for love, being wounded by love, traveling for love. Brother has Marvin aspirations, and while his is a generally a more pop produced effort, there is nothing lost in making the comparison. Cuba can sing and play that six-string, with no hint of overindulgent aspirations and plenty of moments of laid back, smoothed out joy. When he does slow things down, like on "Ella" (to me, this album's "Si Pero No"), you remember just how good a songwriter this man is. Not that the other songs don't remind you of that; it's just that you'll always be remembered for hitting those sweet spots, and Cuba's mark is true.

There's a photo of Elikeh singer/guitarist Massama Dogo on the inset of his band's recent album, Adje! Adje!, that immediately captures your attention. The man is standing during performance, guitar strapped around his shoulder, whistle in mouth, eyes wide through glasses staring out into the crowd beyond. It is a determined and fixed stare, one necessary to navigate through the political world of Washington DC. Yes, music obviously has its politics, but Dogo also refers back to his homeland for influence, the tiny West African Togolese Republic, a 22,000-square-mile enclave wedged between Benin and Ghana with a population of 6.7 million. Yes, shades of Ghana's music, not to mention a little Nigerian Afrobeat are included in this worthwhile ten-song outing, but make no mistake: it is a guitar-driven effort. No surprise, given that Dogo once lead a guitar ensemble in his home country. Don't think it's all rock; the soft strums on "Djalele" allow Dogo's rough, informal vocal style to shine. This is first and foremost a poetic effort, one that the man has injected plenty of feeling into. But yes, when he allows his guitar to rip atop the danceable, saxophone-led rhythm of the title track, you know where this band stands. More than Afrobeat, Elikeh reminds me more of the great guitar-driven Senegalese dance bands that Orchestra Baobab exemplifies. Infusing an upbeat local style, agbadja, underneath the hard pulse of "Novi Nne" and "Get Ready," as well as singing in four languages (Ewe, Mina, French, English), Dogo has assembled a worthy cast of musicians for this fine release, one I can only imagine as intense and determined as the photograph that represents the future he stares out into.

You have to think twice before pronouncing the Los Angeles-based vallenato Very Be Careful's name. That's part of the five-piece orchestra's charm. I'll admit, I too thought it was a cumbia project when I first slipped Escape Room (Barbès) into my iMac, though perhaps believed that I'd popped in a 33 at 78. Computers don't work that way, however--Very Be Careful plays the lesser-known cousin of that popular Colombian style. Similar instrumentation, led by an accordion, grounded by the guacharaca and a cowbell (as well as punctuated by the caja vallenata drum), but slower, more drawn out, which is exactly what lead singer and bassist Arturo Guzman goes for. His voice is not exactly polished, but then again nothing on this eleven-song gem is. The assertions of his drifting bass remind me not just of cumbia, but also tejano and merengue, keeping things moving in what could be considered meandering; the bass notes root the accordion, while the percussion adds the danceable swing. Very Be Careful has a terrible time defining itself, and in a city like Los Angeles, it's easy to understand why. I've been enjoying this album, though it is difficult to assess reasons for that. I'm not surprised to read that live reviews keep referring to alcohol, for the similarities in tone and approach on all these songs is so close, but the fun had in making each one is apparent. Glasses toasted high, spilled gin and sweaty Cowboy hats, boots and sneakers trying to keep time to a time that is not of American origin. These five Californians live in a world by and of themselves. A fun one to imagine and, at times like this, to step inside.