various artists,
A Putumayo World Christmas
(Putumayo World Music, 2000)

Putumayo compilations have never disappointed me yet, and A Putumayo World Christmas is no exception! The title is no exaggeration; the songs do come from all over the world -- from Norway to Hawaii, with a strong Latin component. The songs range from standard carols given different interpretations to songs traditional in other cultures but new to me.

The album starts out with two songs from a Celtic perspective. "Nadal de Luintra," from Berrogüetto, is a traditional song from northern Celtic Spain, blending Spanish and Celtic sounds in the way traditional to that area, and intriguing; the Celtic music I'd previously heard from this area was much more traditionally Celtic, and I loved the blend here. Steve Schuch & the Night Heron Consort take a more updated Celtic approach with "Here We Come A-Wassailing," blending Celtic with American folk music approaches and instrumentation in a delightful way.

The next three songs are from the Latin New World. "Noite Para Festejar," by Ivan Lins, is a new song based on the Brazilian lundu rhythm (a samba precursor). It's a mellow and warm piece, with a subtle sensuality imparted by the rhythm. "Aguinaldo Jibaro," from Puerto Rico, is a traditional song there, and Pepe Castillo's version blends superb guitar in a Spanish style using the cuatro (a 10-string Puerto Rican guitar) with background percussion using another native instrument. "Diciembre" is from Columbia, and Los Embajadores Vallenatos perform a vallenato with a Christmas theme. It's a traditional dance style, with an accordion over guitar and Afro-Columbian percussion.

While "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" isn't one of my favorite carols, I do love what some artists have done with it. Loreena McKennitt has done an amazing Middle Eastern version, and on this album the Banks Soundtech Steel Orchestra from Barbados performs it on steel drums, enhanced with a descending descant and a bass to anchor the higher sound of the drums, to great effect.

It would hardly be a world Christmas CD without a reggae song, and Jamaica's Ini Kimoze sings "All I Want for Christmas (is to be a little bit more conscious)," a roots-style dance number with an admirable message for the season.

Chouteira's "O Cometido" returns us to Celtic Spain, at least in part; it adds some South American elements to the mix in this original song relating the Christmas story to modern times. I wish a translation had been included, since I can understand only bits of Spanish.

The next two songs are from the U.S.A., though very different parts. Michael Doucet's version of "We Three Kings" is an updated Cajun piece, the verses done in a slow and almost pensive style with the choruses moving into a lively dance rhythm. After that we move to Hawaii, with George Kuo's "Fireside Ki hoalu," a solo slack-key tour de force inspired by the dancing flames in a Christmas fireplace.

For the final song the album jumps to Norway. "Kling No Klokka" from Åsne Valland Nordli is a traditional Norwegian folk song in which some of the elements common to Scandinavian and Celtic traditional music can be heard. It's a haunting melody, enhanced by a beautifully simple accompaniment.

The folks at Putumayo have done a superb job of drawing all these exceptionally diverse styles and songs into a smoothly paced and flowing whole. There's not a jarring transition on the whole CD -- even if you set it to automatic replay, the final Norwegian piece blends nicely into the first song from Celtic Spain. The excellent liner notes tell us about the countries and Christmas and musical traditions from which the songs have come. There's a discography, too, so one can easily find the CDs from which the songs are taken.

This album would be a wonderful addition to anyone's library of Christmas music, combining as it does exciting version of standard tunes and interesting new ones from all over the world. The pieces from warmer regions make a nice contrast to the winter imagery of so many traditional carols. I like this album a lot, and recommend it highly.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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