World Music Round-Up

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The Independent Culture

IT'S ALWAYS a perilous moment when musicians from exotic traditions get scooped up by the big labels. Will their art be ironed out flat? Not when they have the integrity of the Portuguese singer Misia or of Cesaria Evora, the boss-eyed, barefoot diva from Cape Verde. But this tension is reflected in their new albums: the accompaniments are less raw now, and prettied-up with pianos and violins. Both singers are saved by the fact that they are still consummate artists.

IT'S ALWAYS a perilous moment when musicians from exotic traditions get scooped up by the big labels. Will their art be ironed out flat? Not when they have the integrity of the Portuguese singer Misia or of Cesaria Evora, the boss-eyed, barefoot diva from Cape Verde. But this tension is reflected in their new albums: the accompaniments are less raw now, and prettied-up with pianos and violins. Both singers are saved by the fact that they are still consummate artists.

While Misia sings fado, Cesaria sings morna, and these song-styles have more in common than a shared language: both deal with lost dreams, and both ride on the delicate plangency of the six-stringed Portuguese guitar. Misia's Paixoes Diagonais (Erato) are exquisitely wrought - if pungently morbid - experiments with the traditional fado form: hers is an intensely solitary voice (to be heard at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 6 October). Cesaria, by contrast, is conviviality incarnate: to listen to Cafe Atlantico (New Note) is to bathe in her irrepressible warmth.

The Rustavi male-voice choir from Tbilisi are well used to the international limelight. Their concession to Western musical tastes was a harmonic cleaning- up which they have now mercifully renounced: the wedding and drinking songs on Chakrulo (Beaux) are infused with that glorious Georgian "flatness" which results from the rugged intervals and intricate melismas of their pentatonic scale.

Fame is not a problem which the middle-aged singers on Italie: Voix de femmes (Discovery) are ever likely to encounter. They include a trio of belters from Cremona, a pair of wild caterwaulers from the Abruzzi, and some cabaret singers of great refinement who bring a whiff of the Milan clubs where they sang in their heyday. Many of the songs on this record go back to the 18th century, and the prevailing style has a reedy quality which becomes oddly addictive.

But if it's addiction you're after, listen to Djivan Gasparyan's Heavenly Duduk (World Network). It's easy to see why the Kronos Quartet were so keen to join forces with this mesmerising soloist from the slopes of Mount Ararat. The Armenian duduk is a primitive variant on the Western clarinet, but infinitely more beguiling: what Gasparyan does with it, assisted by a singer plus a second duduk in a medley of hymns and secular songs, seems to stop time in its tracks.

On Dalai Beldiri (BMG), the Yat-Kha throat-singers - nomadic performers from the Central Asian republic of Tuva - deal in overtones. They may use amplified guitar backing, but the real instrumentation lies inside their own airways - from the tip of the tongue to the deepest recesses of the chest.

Meanwhile, with poignant timing, Music from Albania (Rounder) reminds us that guns aren't the only weapons wielded by this embattled nation's inhabitants: they're also a whizz on bagpipes, clarinets and flutes. Collected in 1993, these fascinating tracks reflect the music of the Tosks, Labs and Gegs - all minorities who, under Enver Hoxha, had been forbidden to flaunt their identity. But polyphonic singing is Albania's musical bedrock, as several tracks powerfully prove. While the lowest voice acts as a "bourdon" - so hard, as one singer says, that not even a bullet could pierce it - the upper male voices flit about like birds, regularly coming to a halt of such abruptness that the tension is ratcheted up.

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