Artists of the Year

I didn't know how much I needed those things until I heard Mundo, the masterpiece among the multifaceted accomplishments of Rubén Blades. The 54-year-old musician-actor-political activist has won four Grammys, been nominated for two Emmys, founded the Papa Egora party, and finished third in the 1994 campaign for president in his native Panama. As a singer-songwriter with Willie Colón in 1978, he composed "Pedro Navaja," which became the best-selling salsa tune in history.

But Mundo (or World) is something else again; a well-timed, nearly perfectly conceived and executed statement of global music fellowship. Afro-Cuban bata drums and other polyrhythmic percussion nestle alongside ethereal Irish pipes, buoyant Latin American clave, and sinuous Middle Eastern rhythms. Singing in Spanish, Blades declares, on "Estampa," "The planet does not belong to a group of people/It is created for all of us to walk on it." Later, on "Parao," he sings, "I never mortgaged my soul!/Bury me standing up/I live my life standing up/And paid the price...."

At the Pantages Theatre this fall, Blades filled the stage with dozens of musicians, and spoke to the audience between songs. "You know, it wouldn't be a bad idea to learn another language," he told the crowd, first in English, then in Spanish, one of the few occasions when he didn't deftly conflate the two tongues. The set list allowed the spotlight to fall on his many guests, including the Brazilian vocal quartet Boca Livre and the Irish piper Eric Rigler. There were panoramic excerpts from Mundo and rollicking salsa numbers that had fans waving Panamanian and Puerto Rican flags, while swivel-hipped dancers bobbed, swung, and hugged each other in the aisles. The best revenge.

Scott Wright

Britt Robson is a senior editor at City Pages.

 

Orchestra Baobab
PETER S. SCHOLTES

How differently would orchestra Baobab be received if they looked like the White Stripes and spoke enough English to ask directions to P. Diddy's afterparty? I pose the question to measure my own prejudices as well as anyone else's, for it's easy to get caught up in a quaint band's reunion, or mistake the jubilation of old guys feeling great for the transcendence of old guys being great. There was a little from column A and column B in this year's revival of the only Senegalese rumba band that really mattered. When tenor-sax minimalist Issa Cissokho strutted for dancing college kids at Baobab's July concert on Northrop Plaza, the joy of discovery seemed to radiate from both sides. (Anyone who saw the Suburbs, the E Street Band, or Andrew Hill for the first time this year will know what I mean.)

Baobab offered that rare thing in 2002: a new sound. Though it was really an old sound you'd never heard before. Having peaked in the 1970s and retired in the 1980s, the musicians reunited last year at the prodding of World Circuit impresario Nick Gold, who asked Youssou N'Dour to play the Ry Cooder role. The resulting Specialist in All Styles (World Circuit/Nonesuch) is a more assured version of Baobab's classic polyglot: Havana-on-the-Savannah hypno-grooves spiked by the spooky surf runs of guitarist Barthélémy Attisso.

No band cool enough for MTV could have dreamed up this music--a product of a passé pan-African optimism that mingled across ethnic, religious, and national lines. N'Dour's militantly Wolof mbalax long ago made Baobab's cosmopolitan cocktail outré even in Dakar. So when N'Dour joins Cuban "Uncle" Ibrahim Ferrer to sing with Wolof vocalist Rudy Gomis on Specialist, it's a tribute to the old African social club's open-door policy. The tune also happens to be Gomis's anthem of respect for residents of the Casamance region, who have been embroiled in civil war since the song appeared on 1982's Pirates Choice. The passé, in other words, turns out to have been prophetic.

Elsewhere on Specialist, Wolof praise-singer N'Dioga Dieng dusts off his old call for peaceful reconciliation between generations, "Bul ma Miin." But then that wish may have already been fulfilled by Dakar hip-hoppers Positive Black Soul, who covered the galloping song amid drum-machine clacks and DMX-like shouts on the recent Africa Raps. Maybe Baobab will make P. Diddy's afterparty after all.

Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer at City Pages.

 

Earth
T.D. MISCHKE

It's been featured in recent months in an art exhibit in Washington, D.C., though it also continues to be featured right outside the kitchen window. As art, it intersects with the lives of us all, whether we appreciate the aesthetics or not. It's Earth.

Right now, at the Library of Congress, more than three dozen extraordinary photographs of this planet appear as abstract works of genius. The graceful swirling shapes of mountains, deserts, clouds, and fjords have been flashed down to the planet from satellites 440 miles deep in space. These photos were intended for the use of the U.S. Geological Survey, to keep tabs on crops and minerals. But their striking beauty stopped scientists in their tracks and an exhibit was planned. From 400,000 satellite images, 41 were chosen based on artistic appeal. Appeal some can still find at a distance of 25 feet.

It's arguable that more than anything presented to the human eye over the eons, it is earth itself that has remained the most breathtaking. Astounding in scope, depth, shape, intensity, and variety, it's the one indisputable masterpiece.

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