(self-produced, 2000)

One form of guarana is an Amazonian seed which acts as a mild stimulant similar to caffeine. I can see why this group chose its name as their own -- their music is engaging, and both soothing and stimulating. It's very much in the worldbeat tradition, reminding me of some of Mickey Hart's Planet Drum pieces. The focus is on percussion here, and incorporates African and Caribbean elements while retaining an overall South American sound.

"Encontres" is the centerpiece of this album, with its musical journey from the tropical forest to the city. It begins with birdcalls, and gradually adds percussion, then human voices as it continues and changes. While very long, it's never boring.

The length of "Encontres" is balanced by several short pieces lasting about a minute each. The sounds are intriguing, and I wish "Ca" and "Xis" (the opening and closing tracks), and "Xi" had transformed into a longer piece as Guarana did with the steel drum "Lacrima Escrita," whose sound and themes were echoed in the following "La Manada." The dialogue here between the steel drum and what sounded like bagpipes was fascinating.

Some of the tracks are recorded live, although the only way to tell is by the applause and cheering at the ends and beginnings; the sound quality is uniformly excellent. "Mako Maalo" is among these, and I love its quiet beginning, which sounds something like a voice, and something like a flute. The vocals here have a definite African or Caribbean call-and-response rhythm, and remind me of some of Zap Mama's work but with male vocalists. "En Cueros" has the same flute, or similar instrument, in a dialogue with the drums.

"Calma Chicka" is one of my favorites. Its deeper drums and their rolling rhythms are similar to some of the pieces on Planet Drum in overall qualities, but not in detail. "Guarana" begins with an almost Asian flute, and adds the steel drum, complicated polyrhythms, and call-and-response vocals -- in its breadth of sounds all melding together, it's well-chosen as their namesake song.

"Taman Taman" combines polyrhythmic percussion with the flute in "Mako Maalo," setting both off nicely. "Cou Cou" has a drum dialogue that I've listened to over and over -- I can almost see the drummers challenges and responses. And "Un Momento Despues" begins with the sound of surf (probably simulated), gradually moving into the music but always there behind it.

The liner notes go into excellent detail about the musicians and instruments in each song, which unfortunately doesn't help me much since I don't read Spanish. I wish I did; I'm sure it would enhance my enjoyment of the songs to understand the titles, although it's not necessary when the sound is as rich and layered as Guarana's. I'm also missing out on the occasional comments in the notes, which I'm told are beautifully worded and poetic.

People who like worldbeat, and especially Mickey Hart's Planet Drum work, will like this CD a lot, as will those familiar with the traditional South American musical forms which appear as much in the structures as the sounds themselves, to my ear. It's an excellent album, and I hope Guarana has the success they deserve!

[ by Amanda Fisher ]