Thursday, November 17, 2011

Marley Tribute on Putumayo

Quirky Marley Tribute
Putumayo Music recently took a step away from its customary formula of regional and stylistic compilation albums to give us a tribute to the music of one man, the great reggae progenitor Bob Marley. Few people have made the kind of lasting, universal impact that Bob Marley has made with his music. In his short 36 years, Marley managed not only to introduce hundreds of millions to reggae but also spread powerful messages of peace, love, human rights and acceptance. It’s no surprise that almost 30 years after his death, one can travel to any part of the globe and witness his far-reaching musical legacy. A number of the twelve tracks were recorded specifically for this disc. But it opens strongly with something that already existed: Three Plus’s convincing “Jahwaiian” fusion version of “Is This Love.” And it remains in Hawaii for singer Robi Kahakalau’s cool, smooth take on the seldom heard “Do It Twice.”
The California band Rebelution delivers “Natural Mystic” with an authentic beat and an evocative, echo sound but, sadly, accompanied by seemingly uninspired vocals. And thin-voiced French-Canadian singer Caracol disappoints on “Could You Be Loved”—maybe it’s a style I just don’t get, but she sounds to me like a half-baked Nelly Furtado. More surprisingly, Céu also comes off strangely listless in “Concrete Jungle.” I guess you’ve either got Rasta in your blood or you don’t; it’s something that is often mimicked but not easily replicated. The Canadian band Northern Lights, on the other hand, perform a completely non-reggae version of “Waiting in Vain”, transforming it into a refreshing, acoustic folk track that listeners would have no idea was written by Marley if it was presented by itself.
Freshlyground before their World Cupperformance
Things pick up with Rocky Dawuni’s West African/island fusion sounds, and even more so when the South African Freshlyground bangs out their bright, driving Afro-fusion version of the anthem “Africa Unite,” really making the song their own, demonstrating their signature mix of African folk, kwela and jazz. And ultimately, the disc turns out to be a pretty good demonstration of how different styles can be bent and blended to adapt Marley’s hypnotic, singable, danceable songs, which are so closely identified with his own voice and sensibility. Northern Lights applies a dense American folk feel to “Waiting in Vain,” Julie Crochetière’s languid, sexy “Mellow Mood” has a vaguely European flair, and Funkadesi’s tricky rhythms and Indian/island stew form a unique style, though it didn’t totally grab me here.
The CD closes with two solid tracks. “No Woman No Cry,” from the collective called Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, a group of refugees displaced to Guinea during the Sierra Leone civil war. The group genuinely displays the heart of Marley’s “we’re all one” message. And the one-time ensemble Playing for Change is a truly international collective that unites stars like Keb’ Mo’ and Manu Chao with street musicians from all over the world. Their “One Love” makes for a beautiful good-night, a “We Are the World” without the showboating and hype. Good feelings all around. That’s the spirit of this uneven but overall quite worthwhile disc.
     All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Cafecito Story

A Cafecito Story

     Julia Alvarez may not be a household name but her works are definitely recognizable. Among other things, she wrote the novels “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” and “In the Time of the Butterflies”. Yes, that Julia Alvarez. She is actually the authoress of ten novels, five books of poetry, a children’s book, and a book of collected essays. She is considered one of the most significant Latina writers, having achieved critical and commercial success on an international level. Born in New York of Dominican parents, she spent her early childhood on that island, returning to the U.S. at the age of ten. She is known for works that examine cultural expectations of women in both the U.S. and the Dominican Republic. I see her as successfully bridging the two cultures, rather than awkwardly straddling them. 

     I recently came upon a copy of Julia’s novella “A Cafecito Story”, an English/Spanish bilingual edition. My Spanish is passable but I’ve found books in this format to be very helpful to me in that the two languages are printed side by side for easy reference. I’ve also found it hard to find books printed in this format and I wish there were more.
     I read the story through strictly in English the first time, then went back and read it slowly in both languages more or less simultaneously, a “joint reading”. It is the story about a middle-aged man named Joe, the Midwestern son of a farmer in a mundane life who, just after a divorce, decides to vacation in the Dominican Republic. He tracks out on his own and discovers independent, organic coffee farmers surrounded and sandwiched in by corporate, industrial growers. Throwing caution to the wind, Joe abandons his teaching position and purchases a parcel of land. By pooling their resources, the collective is able to remain organic and even successfully enter into side ventures, further their educations and rejuvenate the cycle of Nature. It’s a sweet, human success story, with birdsongs used analogously throughout the story. 

     The Afterward is written by Julia’s husband, Bill Eichner, a former teacher, and they are both quick to explain that although they are also participating in a coffee collective in Dominica, this story is not autobiographical. OK, maybe a little: successful writers write about what they know. The message I got from this book is the importance of participating in a community, sharing your expertise and energy, and giving back to the community. 
     If I have a knock on the production, it is the occasional overuse of Spanish on the English side of the book. Some of the “leaps” into Spanish I find presumptuous and I think it should remain strictly English on one side and only Spanish on the other or you run the risk of losing readers.
     There are some wonderful woodcuts decorating the pages, created by Belkis Ramirez, a well known Dominican artist. It adds to the flavor of participation of the book. I’d love to see more like it. 
     All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Green Dreams

Macho Eco-Tourism Made Easy
     Travelling outside the normal parameters in Central America requires a sense of adventure and a lot of ego. Stephen Benz has a healthy dose of both, as he demonstrates in his travel journal “Green Dreams”, a Lonely Planet publication. The book actually open with him in Peru in the late Eighties, following the political strife there and eventually taking a canoe journey into the Amazon, where he gets a taste of his new career. As an independent journalist with a sense of wanderlust, Benz initially was looking for political hotspots for a paying byline. He discovered that he not only got into that game a little too late, but that he also did not have the nerve for the tension and indiscriminant violence. What he did have was the desire, the ability and enough of the swashbuckling braggadocio to rub elbows with established journalists at all the local ex-pat watering holes. When the talk of a biosphere in Honduras and ecotourism cropped up, Benz showed interest while others balked: after all, green tourism was untested, no body was shooting at each other there, and it was in the Caribbean Mosquitia zone, a godforsaken area, in the collective opinion of the seasoned veterans.
     But Stephen’s curiosity was piqued, so he researched as much as he could of that area (very little) and quickly took the plunge, relying largely on introductions by friends of friends, and soon found himself in the small village of Brus on the Caribbean coast, whose only other gringo citizens were a missionary couple, a retired doctor and at times a pilot. The rest of the people spoke Meskita, a dialect of indigenous, Spanish and English combined. And no one had heard of the biosphere. He had been an exchange student in Costa Rica so his next venture was to San Jose, where he struck paydirt. Ecotourism was catching on here and Benz jumped onboard. Benz does a good job observing the changes he’s seen the country go through since he visited twelve years earlier, musing on the contradiction in terms between ecology and tourism. He is a witty writer with a perceiving eye.
     The journalist’s next stop was Guatemala City, to follow the Ruta Maya northeast into the Yucatan Peninsula. After a stopover in Tikal, he met with several young, educated Mayans who were part of the group dedicated to empowering Mayas and their traditions. It is a powerful section of the book. Oddly, Benz only visits a few of the more popular Mayan ruins: Tikal, Palenque and Copan, preferring to go into Maya hamlets off the beaten path. It was enlightening but I felt it strayed from the concept of seeing how ecotourism was working in the area: there was no tourism in the pueblos he visited. Still, Benz makes a lot of valid observations and the book is certainly worth the read.
     Green Dreams is Stephen’s second book about Central America, his first being “Guatemalan Journey” written after living in that country for two years. He currently teaches in Atlanta and has apparently discovered his softer side, becoming a hiway poet with his new publication, “U.S. 77”.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Grngos in Paradise

Gringos in Paradise
(And Singing Its Praises)

     Most of my music reviews for The Howler have been about Central American musicians and their music. But Guanacaste has become home to many people from outside the area and some of the people are musicians and some of these musicians have recorded songs about their experiences here. So, this column will be dedicated to my five favorite “local” gringo musicians. (Note: the Leatherbacks don’t count because they are a group. Sorry, that’s the rule.)

     For the past fifteen years, David Roberts has been dividing his time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Playa Tamarindo. He recently released “Tamarindo Sunset” on his own Moonlight Records label. David considers the songs to be “musical postcards”, snapshots of his of his Guanacstecan experience. He is backed by a full band on the disc, playing up-tempo, rock/blues, with lots of local references and a good feeling to it.

     During the twelve year span that he lived in the area, Bob Benjamin compiled and released his solo album, “Do You Know?” a country-bluesy collection of songs where Sr. Benjamin also employed the use of his local musician friends to give the album a fuller sound. Bob used to perform solo all over the area. He created a void when he moved away about a year ago.

     Maicol Leroy has lived in the area for almost twenty years. His new album, “San Juanillo” is a collection of twelve songs, eight of them penned by Maicol and written in Spanish. The album was recorded in an “open” studio that incorporated natural sounds: everything from monkey and frogs, chickens and roosters, to surf, wind and rainfall. It’s a unique, very listenable effort.

     Brian Dale splits his time between Canada and Costa Rica. When he’s here, he plays solo all around the Tamarindo area and gives a very personable presentation every night. For his album “peace/love/waves/song” he also utilized musician friends to give the songs a full, studio sound. Live or recorded, he has a sweet, recognizable voice and style. His infectious personality vibrates throughout every performance.

     Saving the undisputed best for last, Jesse Bishop hales from Texas but has lived in Langosta for nearly two decades. He has recorded two solid solo albums, “The Road to Tamarindo” and “Gringo in Paradise” along with a live collaboration CD with Fabienne Balzli, “Beauty and the Beast”, a great vehicle for her singing and his guitar work. He also plays in the rock trio The Banana Kings and plays solo around town all the time as well. He’s got a sense of humor, great stage presence and absolutely tears it up on guitar. I think he deserves a mention in the Lonely Planet travel Guide: “while you’re in Tamarindo, be sure to check out a Jesse Bishop concert”. He’s that good.

     Yes, there are other musicians in and about the area who have similar resumes; these are just my personal Top Five, the standouts among a league of very talented musicians who now call Tamarindo home. All comments concerning this article are gladly welcome.