Conde Nast Traveler

Miami Goes Cuckoo for Cucu Diamantes

by John Oseid

As if you ever needed an excuse to head to Miami. Well, just in case, you'll have the perfect pretext tomorrow when a handful of groovy international artists pops into town for the Heineken Transatlantic Festival. The three-week extravaganza culminates on April 25 with maybe the oddest, and coolest, double bill I've ever heard of: The acclaimed, berobed-and-turbaned Tuareg band Tinariwen from Mali and vampy Cuban firecracker Cucu Diamantes.

Longtime front woman for the funky Latin urban collective Yerba Buena, CuCu just released her debut solo album Cuculand. She owned downtown New York at her recent launch party at the Bowery Ballroom, a carnivalesque affair complete with contortionists, a midget emcee, and a bold brass section.

In the above video--it's a movie, really--for the song "Mas Fuerte," you'll recognize the scrunched visage of the great Nuyorican character actor Luis Guzmán, who plays a bartender in CuCu's cabaret world. A melodica adds a touch of dolor to her tale of unrequited love. At the video's end she segues into dizzying rhymes from her song "Alguien." On the album itself, Yotuel from the seminal Cuban hip-hop ensemble Orishas joins her in the song, in which she lets fly plenty of "mamis," "papis," and sexy "ay que rrrrrrricooooooooos." Try this at high velocity at your next karaoke party:

Como quieres que te quiera si el que quiero que me quiera no me
quiere como el que quiero que me quiera

You can't pin CuCu down, either stylistically--she squeezes everything from ska, tango, cumbia, boleros, flamenco, and samba into her act--or literally, as her towering gams stretch all over the stage. CuCu live is a hoot. CuCu in Miami will be crazy fun.

More music:
* Produced by the non-profit Rhythm Foundation, the Heineken Transatlantic Festival will take place at the North Beach Bandshell on Collins Avenue. Plenty of free DJed pre- and after-parties are on the lineup at the News Lounge
* Other top performers at the festival will include Latin rock guitarist Javier García, Brazilian musician Curumin, and the Colombian duo Aterciopelados (who appeared with CuCu in the Amnesty video we brought you in December)
* Check out more Boom Box, an unabashed gusto for music of the world


Italian Dynamo Jovanotti

Photo: Giovanni Stefano Ghidini

by John Oseid

So, you're finally taking that trip to Italy this summer. It's time to join the cognoscenti who adore the brilliant singer/songwriter Jovanotti, whose cracker of a year back home included his smash album Safari and sold-out 2008 tour. The socially and politically engaged pop star puts on a nonstop, madcap stage performance.

Jovanotti's U.S. debut was the social event of the year for NYC's natty ex-patriot Italian community. Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street (the old Village Gate jazz club space) was jam-packed, the crowd jumped up and down and sang along to every song like they'd been fiending for a fix of his eclectic elements of ska and reggae, funk and muscular rock riffs, rap . . . and bits of tango.

The Roman-born Tuscan is hardly a newcomer; in 20 years he's gone from DJ to rapper to world music sampler. His latest album Safari is a mature, mostly mellow and pensive work. That's the musical polymath Ben Harper you hear playing a Weissenborn lap steel guitar on the hit single "Fango" (Mud). The video for the song was shot on film at Iguazú Falls; fans of directors Herzog and Malick will recognize the homage.

You could use Jovanotti's flowing lyrics to teach your Italian class. In English, the refrain to Fango might be prosaic: "I know I'm not alone even when I am alone." But it's phonetically wicked in Italian and just lovely:

Io lo so che non sono solo
Anche quando sono solo

Once you become a Jovanotti acolyte like me, you'll proselytize your friends and forget you'd never heard of him before . . . till now.

Jovanotti performing at New York's Highline Ballroom the night before I caught him at Poisson Rouge.
Photo: Anthony Salamone

More music:
* Jovanotti's videos are pure theater. He plays jester on "Mezzogiornio" and does a slow dance with earth movers in "Come Musica". Here's version 2 of his hit "Fango"
* If you read Italian, you'll enjoy Jovanotti's chronicles of his recent artistic adventure in New York on his Web site.
* Check out "Mani Liberi" with American hip-hop fusion Michael Franti
* Boom Box: An unabashed gusto for music of the world


Jazz Grooves from Paris to the Cape

by John Oseid

On a breezy summer night in the hip Moroccan coastal town of Essaouira a few years ago, the soaring voice of a griot star kept me enthralled through the wee hours. Sitting cross-legged on an outdoor stage, Dimi Mint Abba showcased her percussive Mauritanian music at the Festival Gnaoua. Her ensemble's nomadic folk drums, strings, and hand clapping had the whole audience hooked.

If you happen to be in Paris this weekend, you can witness Dimi jam with the veteran American jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette at the new Quai Branly museum. Their three-night set launches a series (March 20-28) designed for jazz artists "to get back in touch with their African origins." Two shows of Ethiopian jazz, which I love, will be followed by pianist Randy Weston's innovations with Moroccan Gnawa musicians.

After Paris, head far south for the insanely huge Cape Town Jazz Fest on April 3-4. American stars like singer Dianne Reeves, saxophonist Maceo Parker and alt-hip hop star Mos Def are among the forty artists. South Africa is a jazz hotbed, of course. We know that trumpeter Hugh Masekela is a legend. But who of us (in the States, at least) have heard of veteran jazz and opera singer Sibongile Khumalo? I've just discovered a fine young Joburg-based quartet from Mozambique named 340ml who will be bringing its trip-hop fusion to the fest.

And the artist I'm really dying to see? In 1957 Miriam Makeba invited a 16-year-old Sowetan named Abigail Kubeka to join her township group, Skylarks, and Ms. Kubeka is still going strong with that gorgeous sound of their youth. The wow factor as she sings "Yini Madoda" in the documentary clip above will have you packing right away for the trip.

More music:
* Dimi Mint Abba sings in Mauritania at the Festival Musiques Nomades
* "Thando's Groove" is a recent cut by Sibongile Khumalo
* For a quick taste of 340ml's eclectic sound, watch them perform "Shotgun"
* Boom Box: An unabashed gusto for music of the world


Mariza, Platinum Queen of Fado

by John Oseid

In New York's West Village some years ago, I heard platinum-coiffed Mariza give a recital in the cozy Portuguese restaurant Alfama. Never mind that I didn't know the name Alfama from alfalfa, nor that I had never heard of the elegant fado singer. Years later, though, as I spent evening after evening in the fado clubs of Lisbon's hilly old Alfama district, I realized that she was fast becoming the star of her country's signature mournful music.

The lithe Mozambican-born fadista (fah-deeshta) has just embarked on a staggering 47-city tour of the States. I had the fortune of catching her recent show at Town Hall, where--how apropos--she unveiled a new song entitled "Alfama." While she extolled her love for Lisbon in the slow, wrenching "Minh' Alma" (My Soul), a few fans waved a huge Portuguese flag like it was a soccer match. Such is a fado devotee's level of love.

Continue reading "Mariza, Platinum Queen of Fado" »


Twenty Years of Afropop Worldwide

Afropop dancers were feeling the funk last night.

by John Oseid

Last night I found myself standing next to Harry Belafonte and his wife Pamela at Tavern on the Green, all of us thrilled by the Afro jazz-funk moves of the cast of the Off-Broadway hit Fela!. Okay, hangin' with Harry and marveling at Bill T. Jones's choreography isn't a typical night on my social calendar. I was there for Afropop Worldwide's 20th anniversary party, at which the music organization feted both Mr. Belafonte and the Beninese singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo for their contributions to African diaspora music.

If you, like me, were weaned on an aural diet more Boston, Kansas, and Chicago than Dakar, Nairobi, and Kinshasa, then you were blown away when Georges Collinet brought you the top African performers on Afropop Worldwide's late-night radio show 20 years ago. The dapper Cameroonian host's lightly-inflected French accent is so radio perfect, you'd be gripped just to hear him read the Fruit Loops nutrition label. (I was last night after a simple "hello.") Now you can listen to him on PRI sharing the latest sounds from Africa.

And after you're hooked, give back to Afropop, right here.

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Fine Cut Cubans: Omara Portuondo's New Album Pays Homage to Her Native Country

Portuondo takes a rare time out.

by John Oseid

The Buena Vista Social Club is the gift that keeps on giving. It has been over a decade since Ry Cooder recorded with the crew, turning a handful of forgotten Cuban musicians into international octogenarian heartthrobs. Now come two new BVSC-related projects that make for the ultimate stimulus package.

The only female in the BVSC collective, chanteuse Omara Portuondo presents her favorite songs in the serene new album Gracias. She includes a few tunes composed by Cuba's beloved Pablo Milanés, a principal member of the post-revolution Nueva Trova movement. Milanés joins her in singing the lovely "Ámame como soy" (Love me as I am). Her old friend Chucho Valdés (whom I brought you last month) adds his singular piano touch, and her young granddaughter joins her for a sweet nursery rhyme, backed by the simple clacking of claves.

But Gracias is not strictly a nostalgia tour. Portuondo brings on a handful of my favorite performers for new songs, as well.

Continue reading "Fine Cut Cubans: Omara Portuondo's New Album Pays Homage to Her Native Country" »


Carnival: Flavor It Socalicious

by John Oseid

Kevin Lyttle's Web site declares he is "best known for his worldwide hit with the interpellative soca ballad 'Turn Me On.'" I haven't the faintest idea what that means, but I do know that listening to the Vincentian singer's blend of soca, R&B and dancehall is a great way to get into the Carnival mood as we approach the most adrenaline-rushed week on the world social calendar. 

Unless you spent the summer of '04 in a bunker, you've heard the biggest crossover hit from the West Indies ever so many times. Lyttle's self-titled album features no fewer than three remixes of "Turn Me On." The video above to his latest single "Fyah" starts out with an East Indian "riddim" commonly used in Caribbean music and segues into dancers showing off their wicked West Indian moves.

Continue reading "Carnival: Flavor It Socalicious" »


New York Flamenco Festival

by John Oseid

Everybody talks about a Plan B for life these days; I've decided that mine is to become a Flamencologist. This week, I learned about the dozens of complex and fascinating palos, the different forms that make up flamenco, and now bulerías and soleás, fandangos and siguiriyas are stomping around in my head.

Now's your chance to get on board. Tomorrow through February 22, the World Music Institute will sponsor the ninth annual New York Flamenco Festival. Not since Romany heartthrob dancer Joaquín Cortés was palling around with the likes of Madonna, Naomi, and Elle a few years ago have so many flamenco stars been in town. (Here are dates for other cities, including London.)

On February 21, the great flamenco innovator Enrique Morente's daughter will command Carnegie Hall. You know the gorgeous Estrella Morente's voice as the one behind Penélope Cruz in the Pedro Almodóvar hit Volver. If the above video of Estrella performing her song "Zambra" doesn't make an instant fan out of you, I'll eat my castanets.

Other festival highlights include the Antonio Gades Company performing Carmen on February 19 at the New York City Center, followed by the First Family of dance, Los Farruco, on February 21-22. Here is wonderful vintage footage of the patriarch El Farruco, and here the younger generation lets loose at a juerga, or party, filmed for a TV show. Don't try the table dance at home.

More music after the jump.

Continue reading "New York Flamenco Festival" »


Denmark's Tina Dico: We're Not in ABBAland Anymore

by John Oseid

Your knowledge of Danish musicians begins and ends with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, doesn't it? Mine did until the gorgeous Jutland native Tina Dico schooled me on what her generation of Scandinavian singer-songwriters are up to. (I love me some ABBA, but Dico's English lyrical dexterity took me a good long way beyond "Dancing Queen.") The songs on her beautifully packaged triple EP set, A Beginning, A Detour, An Open Ending, are filled with the anguish, consternation, and joy of love. She is at once enigmatic and confessional, reticent and unabashed. She knows when to punch up her lovely alto in the right places, and she delivers a mature reckoning with life.

Continue reading "Denmark's Tina Dico: We're Not in ABBAland Anymore" »


Sicilian Rocker Carmen Consoli

by John Oseid

Regrets? Musically speaking, I've had a few. For some time, I've been hearing about the young Sicilian rocker Carmen Consoli, who's developing a passionate audience in the Americas. When the singer-guitarist toured here last fall I was AWOL. Bummer. But reading about the island's young generation of movers and shakers in Ondine Cohane's January feature story, Not Your Grandfather's Sicily, got me curious about Consoli, as well as traditional Sicilian music.

A native of the eastern city of Catania, the bellissima singer and songwriter Consoli is one of the most popular talents in the whole country. In the above clip, she performs her wistful song "L'ultimo bacio" (The Last Kiss) live at the ancient Greek Teatro di Taormina. Preceded by an Arabic-influenced flute solo, she and her red dress don't enter the stage until the three-minute mark. But be patient--her performance, backed by an enormous orchestra, will leave you wanting more. Bell. Issi. Mo!

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I Got Raabed: Max Raabe Steals Back the Night

by John Oseid

If the zeitgeist of our age is irony, how perfect that urbane German crooner Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester have revived the world-weary, tongue-in-cheek cabaret hits of the Weimar era. On a recent bitter cold evening, I traveled to upper Fifth Avenue and nestled into the Neue Galerie's intimate Viennese-style Café Sabarsky. The tuxedoed baritone, accompanied by pianist Christoph Israel, punctuated his sly expressions and exaggerated rolling Rs with dry wit: "Music has always been closely tied to destiny and personal tragedy. Who cares, as long as you're not involved." Over the course of the show, Raabe shifted seamlessly into falsetto--and the two of them can whistle like nobody's business. It took four curtain calls before the audience let the duo retire for the night.

Forty-six-year-old Raabe doesn't put on some sort of parody act. His waltzes, rumbas, tangos, and fox-trots are the real thing. Now you can discover him, too, on the new two-CD set Heute Nacht Oder Nie (Tonight or Never), recorded with his full 13-member Palast Orchester during their live 2007 Carnegie Hall performance. Was, Du sprichts kein Deutsch? Doesn't matter, the album is filled with zany rhyming tunes. "Mein Gorilla hat 'ne Villa im Zoo" is a hoot even if you can't quite suss out that your gorilla has a villa in the zoo. Plus, his repertoire features plenty of English standards like "Singin' in the Rain" and "Cheek to Cheek."

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Top Rahman: Slumdog Millionaire Composer Scores Big

by John Oseid

What a thrill the other night to see the low-budget Slumdog Millionaire surprise the world and trash its muscular competition at the Golden Globes. But when composer A.R. Rahman picked up the Best Score award for his film sound track, it came as no shock to Bollywood aficionados. The baby-faced former jingle writer is (to borrow a Sanskrit word) a juggernaut, having scored more than 100 movies and sold more than 100 million records in his career.

Westerners may know Rahman from the Cate Blanchett film Elizabeth: The Golden Age and the London/Broadway stage hit Bombay Dreams. For the uninitiated, the Slumdog score is not just an intro to the Indian playback singer phenomenon, it's also a fun album featuring regular Rahman collaborators.

In the ultimate East-West mash-up, Slumdog throws in classical snippets, electronica, and a bit of disco. The film's fans will recognize the heart-pounding percussion in the first cut "O . . . Saya" from the movie's early chase scene that takes place in Bombay's Dharavi slum. It opens with a quick guitar lick that has a U2 feel to it, while the singular vocal stylings of British-Sri Lankan sensation M.I.A. drop in halfway through. The results are haunting.

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Tropic Thunder: The Panama Jazz Festival

by John Oseid

Should you be in the vicinity of Panama City next week (anywhere between Canada and Chile, basically), drop into the Panama Jazz Festival. The sixth annual event series runs January 12 through 17 and I promise you: It is going to jam.

Has there been a more celebrated saxophonist working over the last 50 years than Wayne Shorter? The legendary Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis alum brings his quartet, while Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés leads his own quintet. Let the video above whet your appetite: The virtuoso Valdés reunites with his 90-year-old father Bebo, who just happens to be one of Cuba's greatest pre-Revolutionary pianists, to play Ernesto Lecuona's gorgeous classic "La Comparsa."

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Looking Forward to the 80s

by John Oseid

We're meant to look forward on New Year's Day. Well, I'm ringing in '09 with a medley of 80s movie hits. Trust me, I harbor no nostalgia for the Brat Pack era, but then, I'm not really looking back at all.

Marc Collin, the brains behind the French music collective Nouvelle Vague, brought together top young female vocalists from around the world for Hollywood, Mon Amour. The new album reinvents those 80s blockbuster songbooks by completely melting away the cheese from a synthesized decade.

In the hands of former Morcheeba singer Skye, Giorgio Moroder and Blondie's "Call Me" (used in American Gigolo 1980) turns into an acoustic number whose banjo and howling wolf interludes give it a quirky bayou feel. Her understated version of "A View to a Kill" (the theme from A View to a Kill 1985) is, excuse me, way better than Duran Duran's, and it puts romance back into the song. Above, the lush video to her 2006 European hit "Love Show" was shot in Jamaica. I'm heading to the record store shortly to find more of her work.

The rest of Hollywood, Mon Amour's tracks are super smooth (but not in an "easy listening" kind of way). The singers render 80s New Wave and rock hits into sixties, chanson-y numbers. Familiar amped-up tunes become simple but sumptuous melodies sprinkled with jazz, folk, bossa nova, and even a dash of tango. The album has its own MySpace page with links to all the artists.  More highlights after the break.

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I'm Dreaming of a Coconut Christmas

A new neighborhood for caroling.
Photo: Eyebyte, Alamy Images for

by John Oseid

This year I'm enjoying Christmas in the islands. Okay, I'm in Brooklyn staring at my ice-bedecked balcony, but the soundtrack to my Christmas is Caribbean. I hope it's not the eggnog talking, but I'm intoxicated by an unusual and charming Trinidadian music called parang. Who knew the English-speaking island's traditional Christmas carols are sung in Spanish?

The quaint numbers, "Palomita Blanca" (White Dove) and "Que Venga" (Come, My Love), on the CD Trinidad Parang Christmas Celebration hardly suggest we're in a country known for soca bacchanals and steel pan drumming. The flutes and guitars on the fast-paced, eight-minute "El Que Siembra su Maiz" (He Who Sows the Corn) puts you right into a reverie of the Cuban countryside. When you hear "Vamos a Tomar un Trago" by the way, you will want to do just that--take a drink.

Continue reading "I'm Dreaming of a Coconut Christmas" »


Shouting Out for Amnesty

by John Oseid

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Article 1 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights is as noble and absolute a proclamation as there is. But how many of us are familiar with it? Now's your chance to brush up on your human rights awareness.

To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the declaration's signing, top musicians from around the world gathered (digitally) in the U.N. General Assembly to implore that the struggle for rights continue. The thrilling result is the above video to the anthem "The Price of Silence." Think of the project as "We Are the World" for the new century, except this time the star performers actually come from around the world.

Proceeds from the song go to Amnesty International; you can contribute by buying it off iTunes. The video was produced by alternative media LinkTV, which has lyrics and artist profiles on its Web site.

After actor Laurence Fishburne delivers a stately intro, Stephen Marley and Natalie Merchant get the show started. My favorite Mexican pop star Julieta Venegas chimes in with Andrea Ecehverri of the Colombian alternative rock duo Aterciopelados. "The Price of Silence" is, in fact, a reworking of "Canción Protesta," off their 2006 album Oye.

Lately, I've been hearing a lot about the Zimbabwean-American songwriter Chiwoniso. After hearing her sing a few strong verses in Shona for "The Price of Silence," I'm eager to explore her music more. Exiled Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo sings a prayer, while others add Arabic and Urdu touches. One-time exiled South African elder statesman and jazz trumpet star Hugh Masekela (and former husband of Miriam Makeba) lends his 69-year-old voice to a little rap:

If you're not jealous of your freedom
You're going to find yourself in serfdom
If you're not jealous of your liberty
You're going to find yourself in slavery,
Fight for your rights!

Throw in some verses by Natacha Atlas and Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal--more to come from him in a future post--and you've got a collaboration that is stirring and timely. Oh, and it's got a really danceable groove.

More music:
* The acclaimed, socially active Colombian duo Aterciopelados' brand-new album Río is getting major praise. Here's the psychedelic video to the title track, a prayer for the salvation of the dirty Bogotá River.
* If you're feeling nostalgic, here's Bob, Billy, Bruce, Tina, Huey, Lionel et al, giving their all for "We Are the World."
* Boom Box: An unabashed gusto for music of the world.
* Make a Difference: Resources for caring travelers.


Top Five Tune-Makers

2008 is coming to a close, and the Daily Traveler is looking back at our favorite posts with glee. Check out our top five from a year in Boom Box with John Oseid:

* Julieta Venegas: A Waifish Mexican Rocker You've Never Heard Of
* Tcheka's New Spin on the Cape Verde Sound
* Carla Bruni: First Lady of Chords
* Wyclef Jean: Haiti's Swagger Man
* "Mama Africa" and the Soweto Gospel Choir

What are your favorites, dear readers? And what would you like to see our Boom Box rock out next year? Let us know your thoughts.


Rio Rocks Brooklyn at the Red Hot + Rio 2 Benefit Show

by John Oseid

Last week I witnessed a bunch of rambunctious Brazilians tear up Brooklyn. Nobody called the cops; it was a musical melée confined to BAM, downtown Brooklyn's great Beaux Arts theater-turned-progressive art house. By the middle of the Red Hot + Rio 2 show, beach balls were flying around the hall and musicians and fans alike were cramming the aisles. Fire codes were broken, for sure.

Red Hot + Rio 2: The Next Generation of Samba Soul lived up to its billing. New Yorkers were treated to a handful of young Brazilian artists they've had few chances to hear before. The show was a follow-up to the hugely successful Red, Hot + Rio, an acclaimed 1996 album and series of AIDS benefit performances built around Tom Jobim's bossa nova tunes. This year's crew performed mostly seventies soulful samba/funk/rock classics by Jorge Ben Jor and the late Tim Maia. Proceeds from the show go toward the New York-based BrazilFoundation, which works on health issues and community and cultural development in Brazil. Check out the site for how to make a contribution.

Continue reading "Rio Rocks Brooklyn at the Red Hot + Rio 2 Benefit Show" »


Sample Sale: A Night in Music

by John Oseid

There once was a time when you might have plunked down a Jackson or two for a mega-sized music compilation only to discover it was filled with warmed-over tunes by minor artists. Thankfully, those days are mostly behind us music junkies. To wit, the producers of the new series A Night in Music selected their songs with curatorial eyes (or ears, as the case may be). The ten CDs, covering France, Italy, Spain, and seven Latin American nations, are crammed with prime cuts from epic artists. And as a bonus, the series' Web site features handy travel links and full-length samples from each nation.

I chose to start with A Night in Colombia and the 15 tracks are so terrific I haven't even gotten to the next dics. For the first time I'm hearing original recordings of the country's rural genres that mix Afro, indigenous, and European influences and have made Colombia's Caribbean region one of the Western Hemisphere's great music hotbeds. The best-known genres, vallenato and especially cumbia, have now spread far and wide thanks to a new generation of homegrown stars like Shakira and multi-Grammy winner Juanes, who work traditional sounds into their pop and rock hits.

Above is a scratchy black-and-white clip of Emiliano Zuleta playing his trusty accordion and singing "La Gota Fria" (The Cold Drop), a hit he composed in 1929. By contrast, here's an early 1990s video of Carlos Vives performing a kick-ass version of the song that helped turn him from a telenovela star into a rock giant. Julio Iglesias and Gloria Estefan have covered the song as well.

Continue reading "Sample Sale: A Night in Music" »


Boots, Buckles & Spurs: 50 All-Time Great Cowboy Songs

by John Oseid

If you're a die-hard city slicker like me, you wouldn't know a rodeo from a rugby match. But I'm slowly getting there. Some years ago, I really took to early-century country music. So, I recently found myself letting out a few whoopi-ty-aye-ohs listening for hours to Sony BMG's new Boots, Buckles & Spurs. The fifty songs in the handsome three-CD set were selected to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the National Finals Rodeo held in Las Vegas December 4-13. You might throw your hat in the ring--the NFR puts over $5 million in purse money on the line.

Disc One starts off right where it should with Gene Autry crooning his 1930s standard "Back in the Saddle Again." The Jessi Colter tune, "My Cowboy's Last Ride," was my introduction to the top seventies female Outlaw singer. The last cut is a Johnny Cash song off his little-known 1979 album Silver. The Man in Black was such a genius that even an obscure song like "Bull
Rider" eclipses the best work of his contemporaries.

Continue reading "Boots, Buckles & Spurs: 50 All-Time Great Cowboy Songs" »


Señor Coconut: Funky Latin-Electro Fun

by John Oseid

Given his goofball name, you'd expect to find Señor Coconut & his Orchestra pitching schlocky music on late night TV. ("But wait, there's more. Get two Señor Coconut CDs...") Sure, the band's new album Around the World has all the deliberate camp of a novelty act, but it's also an utterly original work of serious fun, a riot of famous pop tunes mashed-up in Latin big band, mambo, and merengue styles.

This holiday season I see myself twirling around the tree, 'nog in hand, to a cha-cha-cha version of the German 80s hit "Da, Da, Da." It's camp with street cred: Stephan Remmler of the group Trio, who originally sang "Da, Da, Da," provides vocals, and in the song's quirky video above, Señor Coconut frolics with Japanese erotic performance artists Romantica.

Marimbas, upright bass, and trombones turn the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" and Prince's "Kiss" into Latin classics. There's a merengue version of the 80s hit "White Horse," while Tom Jobim's legendary bossa nova "Corcovado" sounds like it got filtered through Cuba (and then through one of those Vocoder voice synthesizers). The title track is borrowed from the French electronic duo Daft Punk.

So, who in the world is Señor Coconut anyway? Mr. Coconut's life itself is a mash-up. He's actually a Frankfurt DJ named Uwe Schmidt, a.k.a. Atom Heart, who now lives and produces his cult-ish Latin wackiness in Santiago, Chile. So, put out your tiki mugs, grab your maracas, and start shaking your pompis. Just keep your hands off the lamp shades!

More music:
* Señor Coconut made his name in 2000 with "El Baile Alemán" (The German Dance). The album, an awesome Latin reworking of the seminal German electronic group Kraftwerk, has just been reissued.
* Señor Coconut's label, Nacional Records, is becoming a force in Latin alternative music.
* Boom Box:An unabashed gusto for music of the world


"Mama Africa" and the Soweto Gospel Choir

The Soweto Gospel Choir raises the roof.
Photo: Oliver Neubert

by John Oseid

The world lost a monumental figure last week when legendary South African singer and anti-Apartheid hero Miriam Makeba passed away on stage in Italy. How fitting, it was reported, that she was singing her signature exile hit "Pata Pata." Harry Belafonte recounted on NPR just how remarkable a personage the 76-year-old "Mama Africa" was. Perhaps few people besides Nelson Mandela could claim the hearts of the entire continent as she did.

Thoughts of Ms. Makeba inspired me to check out a DVD I had recently stumbled across at Virgin Records. The 26-member Soweto Gospel Choir's live concert in Johannesburg's Nelson Mandela Theatre turned out to be so compelling that I found myself watching it three mornings in a row while I sipped my coffee. The office was just going to have to wait.

Continue reading ""Mama Africa" and the Soweto Gospel Choir" »


Natacha Atlas Charts New Ground in Arabic Music

Natacha Atlas
The Ana Hina album cover.

by John Oseid

I once endured a bitterly cold Manchurian winter with the help of classic Arabic songs. After teaching English all day to my Chinese charges in the mid eighties, I unwound night after night by listening to cassette tapes my young neighbors--who happened to be Palestinian students--shared with me. The rich melodies from warmer climes kept me sane until spring arrived.

The plaintive strains in Natacha Atlas's new Arabic album Ana Hina (I Am Here) have rekindled my love for Arabic harmonies. In the nineties, the sultry Anglo-Egyptian singer built her reputation on electronic beats with the world fusion collective Transglobal Underground. In recent years, she's been going back to her roots, this time reworking golden age Arabic music from the forties through the seventies.

Ana Hina is a lesson in Arabic traditions, from Atlas's melismatic voice to the riq tambourine and darbouka the album features prominently. "Ya Laure Hobouki" and "Le Teetab Alayi" were signature ballads for Lebanon's beloved singer Fairuz, composed by the famed Rahbani Brothers. The title track--Atlas's own composition--mixes accordion with the ancient ney flute.

Atlas takes her tributes in new directions, too. "El Asil" was popularized by the Egyptian heartthrob crooner Abdel Halim Hafez, but she modernized the tune with vamping horns and piano. Elsewhere, she throws in bits of tango and on "La Vida Callada," a Spanish song set to a poem taken from Frida Kahlo's diary, she collaborates with Barcelonan vocalist and oud player Clara Sanabras. Atlas aptly describes "Hayati Inta" as a "Berber-flavored number&reinvented&as the Doors meet Mingus." Somehow a version of Nina Simone's famous "Black Is the Color" fits in perfectly, too. It all makes me long for cold Manchurian nights.

More music:
* If you hurry, you can catch Natacha Atlas live before she begins a European tour. Tonight, she performs at the San Francisco Jazz Festival in the Herbst Theatre (the UN Charter was signed there in 1945).
* She'll be at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles on November 9.
* You'll see me in the crowd on November 11 at BB King on New York's 42nd Street.
* Boom Box: An unabashed gusto for music of the world


Mali on the Move

Wyclef Jean
Techno Issa strikes a pose.
Photo: Six Degrees Records

by John Oseid

My head is swaying like a bobble-head dog's and my feet are tapping like I have a bad case of restless leg syndrome. I pull out my headphones, open my eyes, and realize that I am sitting on a packed subway car. Uh, awkward. I blame my chagrin on Issa Bagayogo and his thrilling new album Mali Koura. Bagayogo may play a traditional six-stringed harp called a kamele n'goni, but they don't call him "Techno Issa" for nothing back home in Mali--his latest release is jammed with funky Western and African flavors.

I've had Mali on my mind since James Truman wrote "Where the Music Lives" for the November issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Mali produces high-quality music at the rate Michigan used to pump out cars and James captured beautifully the world of griot story-tellers/singers and the astonishing diversity of Malian sounds.

Bagayogo's label Six Degrees is offering a free download of his opening tune "Sebero" on its Web site. Log on now and you'll thank me. The rest of the album is filled with electronica beats hovering behind his bass voice and strings. Horns and flutes on "Filaw" and "Tcheni Tchekman" add jazzy inflections, while the piano and guitar on "Dunu Kan" put you right in a swinging nightclub. I could swear the dulcet female voice on "Poyo" and the balafon (gourd xylophone)-enhanced "Ahe Sira Bila" were calling to me.

The back story to Bagayogo's success is that he went through years of tough times before arriving on the world's top stages like the Kennedy Center. Not bad for a one-time bus driver with a drug problem. Expect to hear from Techno-Issa for years.

Continue reading "Mali on the Move" »


Wyclef Jean: Haiti's Swagger Man

Wyclef Jean
"Clef" rocks out to promote the
Sundance channel's Iconoclasts series.

Photo: Bill Davilla/Star Tracks

by John Oseid

I wandered over to Restaurant Row in Midtown Manhattan recently, but this time pre-theater dinner wasn't on my agenda. Music star Wyclef Jean's state-of-the-art recording studio Platinum Sound happens to be on the block, and I popped in to talk to "Clef" about Yéle, his development foundation in Haiti. (You can read the Forum interview in this month's issue of Condé Nast Traveler.)

Long before Clef turned to social activism, the Fugees co-founder gained fame as one of the most original musicians and producers of his generation. When he's not banging out global hits like "Hips Don't Lie" with Shakira, his production skills are in great demand among music stars from the Middle East to Bollywood.

I asked Clef what Haitian music he recommends and he named two hip-hop artists, Jimmy O and Black Alex, whom he's grooming for his own production company Sak Pasé Records. Clef is a soft-spoken person, but I like his swagger; the man knows how to promote. It's this quiet swagger that likely enables him to persuade stars like Matt Damon, Brad, and Angelina to visit his foundation in beleaguered Haiti.

I could go on and on about Clef's own recent album, Carnival II (Memoirs of an Immigrant). It's a masterful amalgam of styles and stars: He's joined by Mary J. Blige, Norah Jones, Shakira, and many more. "Fast Car" with Paul Simon is a lovely ballad. "Touch Your Button Carnival Jam" is a 13-minute spin around carnival music styles from Brazil to Trinidad that will have you jumping around the house. "Sweetest Girl" with Akon and Lil Wayne and "Slowdown" with T.I. are bona fide hits.

While you're on the Clef bender, pick up his 1997 Carnival album. Here's the fine video to the beautiful ballad "Gone Till November" to whet your appetite. Bob Dylan makes a cameo.

Continue reading "Wyclef Jean: Haiti's Swagger Man" »

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The editors at Conde Nast Traveler answer questions and share travel secrets, tips, and dispatches

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