various artists,
Blues Around the World
(Putumayo, 2006)

The blues is still blue in any language. And when the music is right, you don't need to understand the words to feel that bone-deep, torn-soul kind of pain.

Putumayo takes the blues -- a uniquely American form of music -- and follows it around the world to see where it's gone. It's gone far, obviously, and the music on this universal collection will cut to your heart whether the lyrics are in English, Portuguese, Catalan or Taiwanese.

The Unseen Guest -- a band formed by Irish musician Declan Murray and Indian musician Amith Narayan -- begins the proceedings with the stirring "Listen My Son," which strides across the first track with somber power as it marries mandolin and tabla behind memorable vocal harmonies. Blues Etilicos of Brazil crosses language barriers with "Canceriano Sem Lar" -- and the title's translation alone tells you how this one feels: "I am a Cancer Without a Home." Ouch. Montserrat "Big Mama" Pratdesaba puts her smoky voice to work in Catalan with Victor Uris's Mallorcan harmonica on "No Way Out."

Other stand-out tracks include "Back Around," which pairs American singer Bonnie Raitt with Habib Koite of Mali, and the spirit-lifting "Don't Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down" by New Yorkers Eric Bibb, Rory Block and Maria Muldaur. "I Got a Feeling" glances back at the roots of the blues as singer/pianist Otis Spann works a jam with Muddy Waters and James Cotton. My personal favorite here is the closing track, the pain-soaked "Catfish Blues," by Taj Mahal Meets the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar. Taj Mahal, born Henry St. Clair Fredericks Jr., adapts the classic Delta blues song to the musicians and localities of the Zanzibar spice islands, and the result just weeps.

Blues Around the World is for the blues devotee as much as it is for the complete blues novice. The music here is entirely accessible and expertly performed, and the world in its wake is one small blues planet.

review by
Tom Knapp

6 March 2010

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