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
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
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.