Beat samplers

Fusing world traditions digitally

So Seattle has finally honored its finest musical export, James "Jimi" Marshall Hendrix, in fitting style with the new Experience Music Project. The number of people alleged to have played alongside Hendrix in some context in the '60s is comparable to the number of houses that supposedly accommodated George Washington in his day, though some Hendrix collaborators, e.g., Richard Thompson, are appropriately modest about it. The late Indian sitar player and fusion aficionado Ananda Shankar could truthfully tell the world that he had jammed with Jimi, indeed this connection reputedly helped him secure a contract with Warner Bros. Records 30 years ago. Shankar's final album, Walking On (Real World), was recorded shortly before his untimely death last year at the age of 56. Credited to the Ananda Shankar Experience and State of Bengal, it is in fact a joint project with DJ, musician and producer Sam Zaman (aka State of Bengal), who wrote half of the tracks. Shankar — son of famed dancer Uday Shankar and nephew of Ravi Shankar — was a pioneer of East/West fusion, his early '70s covers of Rolling Stones and Doors songs earning him minor cult status. His classic "Streets of Calcutta" is here in live form. State of Bengal is perhaps best known for work with Bjork, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Massive Attack.

Walking On was conceived before its protagonists had even met, then it was rehearsed, toured and finally captured on tape in Real World's Birmingham studio all inside of two months. Zaman's pulsing bass and unique blend of Indian and breakbeat/hip-hop colors the frantic sitar, veena, flute and tabla driven sessions. Some of the results are fresh and exciting, while others sounds like period '70s action film music.

What do Kurdish, Algerian and Indian music have in common, apart from being hypnotic and exotic by Western standards? The answer may be lurking on The Third Planet (World Class/Hearts of Space), the American debut by an Italian-based multi-ethnic outfit of the same name (a reference to the earth's position within our solar system). It's another release that crosses national boundaries while convincingly incorporating modern elements, this time electronica, dub, house and even funk.

With the alternating voices of Iraq's Nazar and Algeria's Smail Kouider Aissa, backed by saaz (long-necked lute), keyboards and the sumptuous tabla (and occasional vocals) of India's Rashmi V. Bhatt, The Third Planet may be all over the map musically, but the album sure hits home on tracks like the rai-styled "Sulumani" and the Carnatic "Raghupati." Florence's Maurizio Dami provides sympathetic keyboards and programming throughout, he also co-wrote all of the material.

Unfortunately, neither title translations nor lyrics are provided, so we are left guessing as to what the song "Dylan E'jerbaaran" might be about. Three of the 12 items presented here, listed as "bonus tracks from Kurdistani," are by a different (earlier?) incarnation of the band, including the impressive "Baghdad Rai."

Urban Cuban (Higher Octave World) by the sprawling band P18 is a cross-cultural project that was many years in the making. Masterminded by Tom Darnal (formerly of La Mano Negra), who lives in Paris' 18th Arrondissement (hence the band name), the album was pieced together in a French studio from recordings made on numerous trips to Havana, and features over 30 musicians, singers and DJs. It's an over-the-top urban jungle celebration of familiar sounding Cuban trumpets, percussion and voice, layered with samples of reggae, funk, hip-hop and house. Curiously, this non-stop party closes with a reflective "Tour de Monde," written by Darnel's father in the late 1950s.

The Charlie Watts and Jim Keltner Project (CyberOctave/ Higher Octave) at first glance looks like a tribute to a clutch of famous jazz drummers, with track titles ranging from "Shelly Manne" and "Art Blakey" to "Tony Williams" and "Max Roach." But it's far more adventurous than that suggests, and actually has none of the big band trappings of earlier Watts solo releases.

During breaks in the L.A. sessions for the Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon album in 1997, Watts and Keltner (who is also on that Stones album) fooled around in another studio, eventually cutting nine extended and unnamed items which, two years later, were overdubbed and edited down by co-producer Phillipe Chauveau in Paris. The result is a wild trip into uncharted percussive waters with decided electronica and world beat overtones, and a delightfully unpredictable album from two veteran rock and roll drummers.

It all started with Keltner inviting Watts to play along to Keltner's sampled sequences. During this period, the two caught many jazz greats in action at various L.A. clubs, including Billy Higgins, Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones. Tony Williams died just before they started recording. Listening to the tracks much later in the Paris studio, Watts realized that on each track he has inadvertently echoed a particular drummer in some way, hence the track titles listed here.

Taking advantage of the available Moroccan and Algerian musicians in Paris, "Kenny Clark" is supplemented with oud, tar and violin, and "Airto" is given a definite samba flavor, with great piano from co-author Emmanuel Sourdeix. The 12-minute closing "Elvin Suite" is the most laid-back and jazzy of the numbers, while evoking a wonderful African mood with tinkling marimba and sublime wordless vocals from Blondie Chaplin.

Rolling Stones completists please note: the Glimmer Twins do make fleeting - albeit separate - appearances here, Mick on keyboards and Keith on guitar. It's not only not rock 'n' roll, but I like it.

For more World Beat information and archives, visit John Falstaff's website at www.pd.org/~jcf.