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Caribbean Sound Covers a Wide Territory

September 05, 1993|DON SNOWDEN | Don Snowden is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Like African music, the variety of pop styles from the Caribbean becomes clearer as the number of readily available releases from the region increases.

Music from the English-speaking soca belt around Trinidad, a pair of sophisticated Parisian efforts by expatriates from Guadeloupe-Martinique, and two generations of Haitian heavyweights highlight this edition of On the Offbeat, a look at pop, roots and ethnic music styles from around the globe. Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

* * * * Boukman Eksperyans, "Kalfou Danjere (Dangerous Crossroads)," Mango.

* * * Coupe Cloue, "Maximum Compas From Haiti," Earthworks.

"Kalfou Danjere" topped the Billboard world-music charts for several weeks, and the nine-piece Haitian ensemble's second album is simply superb. From the surprising acoustic guitar opening of "Bay Bondye Giwa" to the driving, almost Santana-like title track, the music is so striking and varied that it races by in no time--and you're ready to hit the start button again.

The focus shifts smoothly between rich vocal harmonies, light electric guitar lines and percussion textures grounded in vodou rhythms. The lyrics also draw on vodou imagery, and these calls for unity celebrating Haiti's African heritage have landed Boukman Eksperyans in political hot water at home.

Coupe Cloue also landed there, two generations before Boukman, but for sexual double-entendres that scandalized the elite and delighted the masses. Only two of 10 songs on "Maximum Compas" were written by Cloue--the rest are by vocalist Assad Francouer--but the relaxed rhythms and spare, clean guitar melodies coalesce into a prototypal tropical lilt.

* * 1/2 Kassav, "Tekit Izi," Sony/ Tristar.

* * 1/2 Volt-Face, "La Brousse," Sonodisc import.

These releases answer any lingering questions about why stellar bassist Georges Decimus left Kassav to form Volt-Face. Kassav has stayed with its pat hand of intricate, wide-screen arrangements on its second U.S. release. But without Decimus' muscular gut punch, its middle-of-the-road slant is more pronounced--only "Ansel Zouk" captures the triumphant rhythmic sweep of Kassav at its best.

Decimus clearly wants to bring zouk into the modern dance sphere with Volt-Face, but his new group could stand some of Kassav's lightness and swing. "La Brousse" combines his music--dominated by keyboards, brawny bass lines and choppy rhythms--with lyrics from several vocalists (three songs are in English) to fashion moody musings on life and love.

* * * Eddy Grant, "Paintings of the Soul," Ice.

* * 1/2 Super Blue, "Bacchanal Time," Ice.

* * * Various artists, "Calypso Carnival, 1936-1941," Rounder.

Grant hasn't deviated from his savvy, song-oriented blend of pop, rock and Caribbean elements in 25 years. There's no blockbuster a la "Electric Avenue" here, but the "Welcome to La Tigre," "Kidada," and "The Youth Tom Tom" sequence packs a potent punch. Grant's superior craftsmanship and Afro-Caribbean unity lyrics make "Painting" his most satisfying album in recent memory.

Grant's Ice label is now being distributed by reggae specialists RAS, but Super Blue is a straight soca group. "Bacchanal Time" hits the style's peaks and valleys--the title track and "Get Something and Wave" are great Carnival-style rave-ups, but the uniformly hot tempos get tiresome, and a really bad version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" doesn't help.

Soca evolved from calypso, and the Rounder collection captures early calypsonians in their prime, with good liner notes explaining the inside meanings of each song.

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