By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
MARKET-SAVVY RECORD geeks have always known that it's almost always a mistake to judge an album by its cover. Though few would argue that you can't infer quite a bit from one. Take the catalog of the New York-based world-music label, Putumayo. You know how closed-minded people dismiss noise music with arguments like "Hell, my kid plays better than that"? Well, your kid probably draws better than the embarrassing cartoon depictions of a multiculti fantasy land festooned on the label's CD covers. And if the artwork isn't enough, vague, gauzy, New Age album titles like One World and Women of Spirit are enough to make Maya Angelou cringe.
For a long time, this caused many discerning world-music fans to keep their distance as well. But while Putumayo's icky feel-good packaging is still a major turnoff, and the albums themselves still carry a faint folkie stench, recently the company's output has improved tremendously. The change was most noticeable with two 1998 issues: Galo Negro, by Sam Mangwana (the former protégé of late Zairean soukous singer-guitarist Luamba Franco), and a searing album of Cuban standards performed by a cast of top-flight Central African, Peruvian, and Cuban musicians, Afro-Latino.
The label's newest and best compilation, Cairo to Casablanca, is as good as any album of North African pop available in this country. Putumayo's folkie proclivities are well-served here. Rather than pushing North Africa's most propulsive strain--the booze- and sex-crazed Algerian disco called rai--Cairo is reflective and relaxed. Throughout, even the most pomo-sounding material is rooted in traditional sources. Jamsheid Sharifi and Hassan Hakmoun's "Through the Veil," a traditional gnawa--or "Muslim brotherhood"--song sounds like a slippery trip-hop excursion. Idir's "Zwit Rwit" opens with feverish acoustic bombast (cf. "Pinball Wizard"2) before a pretty thumb-piano tiptoes in and sprinkles ambient fairy dust on the harsh soundscape. The real find here is the classy Afro-Cuban jazz of Algeria's Maurice El Mediouni, whose salsoul stylings are quite popular in the region.
Ultimately, Cairo to Casablanca is the rare kind of diasporic pop record--an album that succeeds despite the distance between its organic cultural roots and the suspect marketing philosophy of the statesiders selling it. Now if the people at Putumayo could just get rid of that art director...