World music in the spotlight

New CD releases highlight turning points in Caribbean, Middle Eastern, African, and NuYorican music.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

VARIOUS ARTISTS: HEAR GLOBALLY – A CUMBANCHA COLLECTION (Cumbancha, $5.98)

Record label samplers are often a wise investment, offering a crash course in musical worldliness for spare change, and this is superior fare. Highlights include The Idan Raichel Project, an intrepid band boldly fusing Israeli and Arabic instrumentation and vocal styles, and Ska Cubano, a wacky and irresistible blend of Cuban pop music and Jamaican ska. Edgar Jacob, formerly employed by Putumayo to assemble mellifluous world music compilations, created the Cumbancha label to present musicians at a turning point in their careers when they're just starting to flirt with global commercial acceptance while still wishing to please the hometown folks.

MARIA TERESA: ERA UMA VEZ UM JARDIM (Le Chant du Monde, $18.99)

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Fado is Portugal's 20th-century contribution to what is globally understood as torch songs drenched in a blues sensibility, a kind of Portuguese sung poetry not originally intended for export. Fado's stars have been largely women vocalists performing in Lisbon, making few concessions to listeners in New York or Madrid. So there's a great deal of sheer nerve in this Fado release by a gifted French vocalist born to Portuguese parents in that she tackles songs of the Portuguese diaspora (Brazil and Angola). While her voice lacks the passion of Mariza, today's Fado queen, there's a light buoyancy in her vocals, set against restrained acoustic guitar, suggesting an emergent talent with chutzpah and panache to spare.

QUEEN IFRICA: MONTEGO BAY (VP Records, $11.99)

Listen up, reggae fans who have been frantically waiting for the next Bob Marley to rejuvenate Jamaica's quintessential musical style. What a shock that the newest contender for the reggae superstar crown happens to be a young woman. Second only to rap in misogyny, reggae has tolerated a handful of women vocalists either in Marley's shadow (Judy Mowatt, Rita Marley) or as purveyors of musical porn (Lady Saw). But Queen Ifrica (aka Ventrice Morgan) is a multitalented singer, songwriter, and rapper tackling the really tough topics most Afro-Caribbean artists dodge. Shredding reggae's misogyny, she attacks the sexual molestation of young girls and boys, the machismo of phony Rastafarians and exploitative tourists – and escapes the trap of fixated moralizer by performing a few lush love tunes you wouldn't mind Aretha recording.

RAIL BAND: BELLE EPOQUE, VOL. 3 – DIOBA (Sterns Africa, $18.98)

The Rail Band was a Mali-based dance band that had its heyday between 1970 and 1983, best remembered for catapulting their once shy vocalist Salif Keita into superstar status. This two-disk set not only contains a wailing Keita at exactly that turning point in his career when he was fully developed, but also presents the band's fiery polyrhythmic electric guitar and bass figures soaring over bubbly percussion.

TITO PUENTE AND HIS ORCHESTRA: DANCE MANIA – LEGACY EDITION (Sony Legacy, $19.98)

The word "NuYorican," meaning the interlinking identities of New Yorker and Puerto Rican, was invented heaven knows when. Here's my theory as to how the word entered our American vernacular. There was a block party somewhere in New York's Spanish Harlem in the late 1950s. Everyone needed the most varied mix of music to dance the mambo and cha cha to – but the scattered jazz fans, not necessarily dancers, needed their musical nirvana too. Someone set speakers outside their door and stacked two vinyl albums on their turntable. The dancers became ecstatic at the sounds of Tito Puente's percussion solos. The jazz fans dug the brass arrangements and brief trumpet improvisations. The "Rosetta Stone" of Latin music recordings forged a new word and sound that's fresher than ever in this glowingly remastered, two-disk set.

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