Women Singers Break Through Cultural Constraints on CD, Radio

'Divine Divas" is far from the only music compilation showcasing international female singers, but it is singular in purpose while being enthralling as musical entertainment.

Brooke Wentz, producer of the new three-CD set, has chosen songs by 37 female vocalists from every continent who are involved with defining their feminine identities through their art. More specifically, more than a third of the performers are bicultural, meaning their art reflects a constant engagement with living in two cultures.

"Great music comes out of bi-culturalism," notes Ellen Kushner, host of the weekly "Sound and Spirit," a radio series seamlessly linking the quest for spiritual meaning with world music. Produced by WGBH Radio in Boston and aired nationally on public radio, her forthcoming program on "Bi-Cultural Women," which airs March 3 through 10 (check local listings), highlights one of the stars of "Divine Divas," Tish Hinojosa.

"Some artists choose a single allegiance, either to the mainstream culture or a ghettoized culture, but that kind of a choice doesn't give us the art of a Tish Hinojosa," Ms. Kushner remarks.

Hinojosa is a captivating Mexican-American singer who sings in Spanish and English, often within a single song stanza. Like a number of international female vocalists, she gains musical inspiration from her maternal roots. Hinojosa's mother was a renowned singer in her Mexican village. Hinojosa's "Let Me Weep" is a sweetly moving tribute to her mother's talent, which was never commercially or professionally recognized during her life; it is an example of the bicultural daughter's art embodying the unlived dreams of her tradition-bound mother.

Also worth considering is Claudia Gomez, whose stirring song "Tierradentro" (Inland) opens this three-hour collection. After learning the music of her native Colombia from her mother, she moved to London as a young woman interested in formalizing musical training; she now lives and performs in California's Bay Area. Her lyrics, laden with nature imagery and psychological confession, are set to an accompaniment reflecting a synthesis of South American folk music with American blues and jazz flavors.

Sharon Burch, of German and Navajo ancestry, offers "The Rain Song," a folk tune in which the Navajo people, Mother Earth, and even crickets plead for rain to end a drought. The song was inspired by the Navajo songs Burch heard in childhood.

While these vocalists work from deep folk roots, other singers collected here comfortably break through cultural boundaries with a contemporary pop-music style. La India (Lindabel Cabellero) was born in Puerto Rico, raised in New York City, and started her singing career as a powerful dance-club singer involved with electronic pop. In recent years, she has shifted into salsa, a style close to her Caribbean roots, and her "Dejate Amar" positively roars with Latin rhythmic vitality.

Najma is a British-born singer who synthesizes traditional Indian vocal styles, reflecting her ethnic heritage, with Western pop and jazz. She's well represented by "Jheel Mai Chand," a mystical religious poem dramatically carried by the singer's undulating tone and supported by Indian percussion, keening violin, and lush synthesizer chords.

Even a quick listen to the musical riches collected in "Divine Divas" offers a stimulating vision of how women singers are working to break through old constraints - social, economic, artistic, cultural - and finding a key to their complex identities in song.

Purchasers of this CD set will also contribute to efforts to offer women around the world new options. Part of the proceeds will go to UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, supporting programs in the developing world for economic development and equality.

Even without that charitable plus, this would be an outstanding purchase for anyone wishing a world-music sampler reflecting stunning cross-cultural riches.

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