Putumayo World Music // 2004 // 65 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 1st, 2004
You just can't stop it, the world keeps goin' round!
The song says, "It's a small world after all." But in reality, this planet is more vast and detailed than we can even begin to imagine. Sure, it may seem as if, around every corner, we meet some person with six or fewer degrees of separation from ourselves, keeping personal vision narrow and human focus insular. The truth is, we isolate ourselves in order to keep things in perspective, to keep the issues that surround us from subsuming and engulfing us. We want to steer clear of that which we don't understand, and relegate as unimportant those cultures or climes that confuse or threaten us. As a result, we miss out on the great wealth of tradition and inherent art inside the global village.
Now, no one can accuse label Putumayo World Music of not being open to the rest of the world. If you listen to the video presentation of the company's "story" (one of the extra features on the new music video collection DVD Travel the World with Putumayo), you'll witness an organization that has gone out of its way over the last 12 years to introduce the pop and rock world to the music made by the rest of the planet. Traveling the globe, releasing dozens of CD compilations, gathering artists under its own label, and even producing a weekly world music radio show, Putumayo wants to change the perception that the only great sounds come from English-speaking countries. Travel the World is Round One in a proposed series of anthologies.
Of course, Putumayo is limited by one singular aspect: they are a company looking to promote their own product, and as such, they only focus on those acts in their current lineup. Also, since this is part of an overall omnibus collection, we have a further narrowing of the cultures represented. Perhaps the only way to address the diversity of musical, visual, and individual styles presented here is to go through each song separately and focus on the sights, the sounds and the singularity of the performances:
* "Mambo Yo Yo"
* Artists: Richardo Lemvo and Makina Loca
In a trend that will carry through the vast majority of the music, we have a Latin/Caribbean-flavored jam meshed with simple sing-song words to create a dance floor fury without much meaning. The beat is intense and the local color is alive and well, as our singers move through the ghettos and cities of the Congo. Very intriguing.
* "Mama Africa"
* Artist: Chico Cesar
A true eccentric and a fascinating performer, the video starts out with Chico's enormous extended family discussing their famous relative. Then the madman himself arrives, as ornately clothed and colorful as his kin. As they hop and skip, a raucous Brazilian shuffle follows them though a small village in a true celebration of community.
* "Pas O Panori"
* Artists: Vera Bila and Kale
Vera, a veritable mountain of a woman, sings a traditional Czech folk tune, jazzed up with a sassy rhythm. As she wanders through the village, we see the incredibly evocative faces of her fellow Gypsy brethren. It's refreshing to see a female performer whose talent is the main focus, not her age or beauty. And her presence is powerful.
* "Santa Maria (Del Buen Ayre)"
* Artists: Gotan Project
In one of the more unsuccessful showcases here, an over-stylized, jump-cutting monochrome image of people doing the tango is plastered over an indistinct song filled with some of the famous dance's dramatics, but almost none of its flair or passion. It's dull and dreary.
* Artists: Tukuleur
Perhaps the most "Western"-friendly track, the Toto anthem "Africa" is fused to a true tribal beat, with our duo performing a "traditional" rap/sing call-and-response over the top. Beautiful footage, exciting dancing, and an overall feeling of joy encompass this almost mainstream music.
* Artists: Toure Kunda
Under an irresistible salsa beat, two men sing to each other about how much they love...each other? While the lyric here is obviously aimed at a fetching young lady, the video elements suggest another "hidden" level or expression in this song that is simultaneously seductive and a little strange.
* "Bog a' Lochain"
* Artist: Mary Jane Lamond
Amid a very lush forest setting, and using deep saturation of color to create an ethereal atmosphere, Ms. Lamond has the best backdrop here. Sadly, it's for one of the dullest pieces of music. This "funked up" version of a traditional Celtic song just doesn't work at all. The music is all technology and no heart, and the attitude is one of disrespect, not reverie.
* "Ke Cu Minino Na Tchora"
* Artists: Bidinte
Over a lilting, haunting shuffle, the sad story of teenage soldiers and war is brilliantly illustrated with the use of dissolves and double exposure. Like a lullaby to genocide, this subtle statement is the reason world music should be exported to nations outside their own direct influence.
* Artist: Oliver Mtukudzi
Here is a perfect combination of song, image, and performer. There is an air of mystery about Mtukudzi, a sadness that seems to come directly from his soul. With his plaintive wail and allegorical narrative about Africa's youth being "uneducated" by Western ideal, this is a stellar performance and a very compelling music video. One of the best in the set.
* "Filhos da Precisao"
Artist: Rita Ribeiro
Singing a song about the worshiping of children and wearing a hairstyle far too young for her older features, Ms. Ribeiro resembles a deranged school teacher trying to recapture her youth. The music is nothing spectacular and the nursery rhyme mentality of the lyrics really fails to make its point.
* Artists: Kotoja
Kind of like a strange Nigerian beer ad, all that's missing is a "party animal" of some sort and various glasses of the cold stuff to cement the commercial concept. The song is a simple bump-and-boogie bass line cheer, something that will leave your head as quickly as it came into it.
* "Nari Nari"
* Artists: Hisham Abbas with Jayashree
Like the best of Bollywood captured on the small screen, this rousing musical extravaganza has fantastic locations (the Taj, a enigmatic formation containing a singular gigantic boulder), plenty of traditional costuming (as well as bows to Western wear), and a gloriously complex musical accompaniment. The usual ear-piercing singing of the typical Indian female vocalist is missing here, and the song is very fun and frisky.
There are also a couple of live clips that should be discussed:
* "Hear Me Lord"
* Artist: Oliver Mtukudzi
In another exceptional performance, Mr. Mtukudzi really expresses the pain and torment of the speaker in the song, crying out to God for some sign of hope. Very moving and very well executed by the musicians.
* Artists: Habib Koite
In a real players' tour-de-force, this multi-faceted and instrumental band allows all of its members -- from guitarist to xylophonists -- to contribute to the genial groove going on.
Overall, the music here tends to sound the same, at least from a rhythmic standpoint. The over-employment of the salsa / mambo / meringue ideal renders the ethnic elements indistinct, as you wonder why people from Africa would make music that would make Tito Puente happy. Still, the performers all sell the sincerity very well, with the true superstars of this set (Oliver Mtukudzi, Hisham Abbas, Jayashree, Vera Bila, Chico Cesar) really shining though. Still, it would have been nice to see a broader representation, with more Eastern European, South American, and Middle Eastern music. As a small sampler of what Putumayo has been up to since its inception, this DVD overview is entertaining and enlightening. But it could have been much more inclusive.
On the technical side, the DVD looks great, with a mix of media (video, digital, analog, film) matched with equally diverse presentations (full screen, non-anamorphic letterbox) to really spice up the selection. Overall, the videos look very good, with a couple ("Ndakuvara," "Bog a'Lachain," "Nari Nari") befitting cinematic works of art. On the sound side, Putumayo makes sure that their Dolby Digital Stereo presentation of each song is crisp, clear, and filled with aural color. Along with the bonus concert footage discussed before, we get the corporate video explaining Putumayo's mission, plus a complete biography of each artist, with interesting personal information and insight into the songs. Still, one can't help being a little underwhelmed by what is offered in this collection. In the case of some performers, the song does not do them justice. In other instances, we sense we are seeing the best work this artist has ever done, and a review of their entire canon would present a "truer" portrait of their total talent.
Travel the World with Putumayo is a fascinating and frustrating DVD collection. It does indeed offer us a glimpse into a culture and community of music we rarely get to see. But the view is almost insufficient to make its point. World Music is a varied and adventurous realm. Let's hope that Putumayo is equally daring next time around.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Putumayo World Music
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 65 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Biographies of All Featured Artists
* Video: The Putumayo Story
* Live Bonus Concert Footage