New World, Old World: Paolo Conte Does New York

The whole notion of world music is more than a little off.

Anglo-American music styles get specific names, and everybody else shares the

world as a consolation prize? Hardly fair, especially considering just how much

musical territory is covered by three excellent so-called world musicians who

are performing in town this coming month: the singer Cesaria Evora, from the

West African islands of Cape Verde (Town Hall, Oct. 23); the Italian troubadour

Paolo Conte (Kaye Playhouse, Oct. 28), and Richard Bona, the Cameroonian singer

and bassist (Iridium, Oct. 19-24), who now lives in the East Village.

I nominate Mr. Conte as my ambassador, a very perverse

ambassador, to this vexingly named genre. Singing in a Scotch-and-cigarette

growl with his sublime vaudeville jazz octet (think late-20’s Duke Ellington at

the Cotton Club), Mr. Conte flits from traditional American jazz to Argentine

tango to French cabaret. It’s a music of the (Western) world all right, but

it’s devoted to the proposition that the singer never has to venture out into

it.

Long revered by music heads who make it their business to

follow interesting work in Italy, Mr. Conte was introduced to the rest of us by

one of last year’s coolest albums, The

Best of Paolo Conte (Nonesuch). The translated booklet of lyrics allowed us

to read the album like a short-story collection about a man, not unlike Mr.

Conte in the externals, who can’t bring himself to leave his sleepy, dolorous

hometown. He’s a lounge lizard, a crocodile in one tune, who romances women to

keep the boredom at bay. (From “Boogie”: “Her pungent odor/ Beckoned him/ Like

an old-fashioned grocery,/ Its doors flung open/ To the spring outside.”) He

promises them an escape from provincial life, but he might as well be one of

Anton Chekhov’s spinster sisters for all his success in hitting the road. (In

the song “Genova per noi,” even Genoa, some 50 miles from the songwriter’s

real-life hometown of Asti, is suspiciously out of bounds.)

Mr. Conte’s achievement is to have created a xenophobic

world music where the pleasures of the unfamiliar (hell is other places) are

sacrificed for a reconstituted universe of old records: Ellington, Carlos

Gardel, Yves Montand. No arbitrary postmodernism here-the past is a different

country, held together by Mr. Conte’s gargly voice, his bluesy piano and his

quest (fictional, I think) for low pleasures.

Mr. Conte’s cabaret fatalism wouldn’t be of any use to

Richard Bona who, 31 years ago, was born into a small village in rural

Cameroon, closer to the pygmy bush than to the relative cosmopolitanism of the

main city of Douala. His maiden voyage on Columbia Records, Scenes From My Life , burns with the

talent and ambition of a young man who must break into a bigger world or burst.

Mr. Bona, the son of a singer and the grandson of a village

musician, is one of those musical naturals who apparently only has to hear an

instrument played to figure out how to play it himself. As a child, he built

his own balafon, a kind of indigenous xylophone, later to be replaced by a

homemade 12-string guitar whose strings he fashioned out of brake cables from

the village bike shop. At the age of 11, he moved to the city of Douala to

begin a career as a professional musician that would soon take off when one of

his employers, a French nightclub owner, introduced him to his vast jazz record

collection. Mr. Bona consumed the history of jazz and, by his late teens, quit

the world of his grandfather for Paris and then, four years ago, New York City.

Although Mr. Bona’s passport to instant acceptance within

the musical community was his instrumental chops (he could barely speak English

when he landed a yearlong gig as Harry Belafonte’s musical director), the first

thing that grabs you is his voice. Mr. Bona jumps registers with the same

unnerving facility that he exhibits as an instrumentalist, and his falsetto,

all vulnerable emotion, is a killer. The lilt of the tune “Eyala” off the new

album gives us a tantalizing glimpse into his old-village musical life (“If you

heard my mother, you would say, ‘Richard Bona sings like shit,'” he told me a

few weeks ago.). On “Muna Nyuwe,” his single foray into a Western classical

milieu, the string arrangement is rudimentary, but the vocal might make any

conservatory-trained countertenor nervous.

Instrumentally, things can get a little problematic. Unlike

a Salif Keita or a Youssou N’Dour, Mr. Bona isn’t forging an Afro-pop hybrid.

He is, for the most part, playing American jazz in the fusion image of his bass

idol Jaco Pastorius. I might have wished him another role model. That slick,

funky fusion just sounds to my ears like a played-out idiom, and all of Mr.

Bona’s exuberance and technical virtuosity can’t quite persuade me otherwise.

(On the other hand, he sends the guitar and bass trade magazines into an

adulatory frenzy.) However, my fusion problem doesn’t much interfere with my

enjoyment of Scenes From My Life ,

where Mr. Bona subordinates the smooth groove to his soaring vocals.

Singers from world-music world (that large place where they

don’t speak English) have a certain advantage over the home team. Since without

a lyric sheet we don’t have a clue as to what they’re singing, their words

return us to the music of language. Mr. Conte’s gruff Italian sounds salacious,

morally suspect, but in a good way. (Imagine Leonard Cohen in Italian.) Mr.

Bona’s sing-song Douala is as mysterious to us as the language of birds. (The

veil lifts, regrettably, on his one English song, “One Minute”-“One hour, one

minute, one

second, our heart is set to fly.”) And the firm, unvarnished contralto of Ms.

Evora is the voice of what the Portuguese call saudade -nostalgia suffused with melancholy. More specifically, she

owns that branch of saudade that came

into being on the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, a handful of islands

375 miles off the coast of Senegal.

Ms. Evora came to world-music stardom rather late in the

game-with the face of a wise turtle and the body of an unsprung couch. The Rough Guide to World Music tells us

that she is “a whiskey drinker, cigarette-puffing grandmother, married three

times, thrice deserted and now scornfully independent …” In other words, she’s

lived saudade , or in her Portuguese

Creole, sodade , not that it seemed to

advance her singing career much. She’d been singing in the bars and cafes of

the port city of Mindelo since she was a girl, but for a time in the 70’s she

even abandoned that modest career as the city was shriveled by economic hard

times and emigration. Then, in 1985, she recorded two songs for a European

anthology of Cape Verdean singers, which led to an association with a producer

who helped make her a world-music star in France. Her American career, launched

by two Nonesuch albums, Cesaria Evora

in 1995 and Cabo Verde in 1997, has

been marked by Grammy nominations and ferocious sales. Now that RCA Victor has

claimed her, her new Café Atlantico competes

on the shelves with Nonesuch reissues of her earlier European albums, Miss Perfumado , released last year, and Mar Azul , to come this March.

Commercial success on this scale is imponderable. Why Ms.

Evora and not some other excellent singer? (Madonna showing up at an early

Evora concert was thought to knock over an important domino.) What can be said

is that she sings with enormous purity and restraint, so much so that I can get

a bit restless at her concerts. But listening to Ms. Evora on CD, I retreat to

my own private Mindelo. Personality in the singer-songwriter sense almost seems

beside the point here. Ms. Evora is the voice of a highly literary folk-music

tradition (the morna style) that is

sadder and more profound than any one person could be. With Mr. Conte and Mr.

Bona, we get our own musical traditions coming back at us at odd angles. With

Ms. Evora, we are on some front stoop in Mindelo listening to an agitated

mother: “Now that you’re in trouble/ Pay for your own stupidity/ Because I am

afraid/ Of the courts” (“Tchintchirote” from Cabo Verde ), or a lover’s desperate lament, “Our life is a perpetual

love story./ When I suffer/ He dies of pain” (“Perseguida” from Café Atlantico ).

Truth be told, I like the new RCA album less than its

predecessors-someone saw fit to dress up some of the songs in orchestral and

Cuban colors-but that is to say I still like it quite a lot.