We're thinking global today but sometimes acting local with some of the world-embracing music newly out as CDs and download options.
IT'S ALL RELATIVE: Mergers of hip-hop and reggae artists are nothing new. Rare, though, are such collaborations as thorough and rewarding as the fusion of American rap star Nas (Nasir Jones) and Jamaican singer-songwriter/ producer Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley on "Distant Relatives" (Universal Republic, A-), a warmly musical and provocative affair with an intriguing theme, and verging on universal appeal.
The opening, "As We Enter," finds the two literally trading lines, a good omen. The rest of the set remains pretty evenhanded and complementary in terms of performance, with Nas' punctuated poetry in sharp sync with Marley's reggae and Afro-pop-attuned rhythms. I'd argue, though, that Marley's dominant contribution of melodies and production makes this more his triumph.
The Jamaican talent occasionally slips into a heavy patois but mostly keeps the dialogue clean and clear, the scoring anthemic and accessible. Strings and organ warm several tunes, while haunting backup singers often lend a township feel.
What makes "Distant Relatives" of Nas and Marley? It's their common origins in (and appreciation of) Africa, we hear, along with their bitter, forced exit as slaves and ongoing struggle for retribution and equality.
One of the most dramatic evocations is "Dispear," a verging-on-symphonic piece wherein Marley honors the rebellious tribal chief Shaka Zulu and reggae protest forefather Burning Spear, while Nas brings it home with complaints about the current state of oppression, declaring, "Who are the masters/ They are the Gangsters/They are the bankers."
On "Land of Promise," sampling the late Dennis Brown, Marley promotes the idea of investing in the motherland, imagining African towns achieving the prosperity of other world capitals: "Chicago inna Chad . . . Philadelphia in Sudan."
Props, too, for introducing audiences to the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam on "Patience," and the Somalian singer/rapper K'Naan on the lush finale, "Africa Must Wake Up."
On occasion, the front guys do seem to be working at cross purposes. "Strong Will Continue" is mostly a terrific rallying cry, until Nas somehow twists it into a small-minded complaint about his marital status and finances.
They're definitely on the same page, though, on the jazz guitar-, organ- and horn-flecked "Count Your Blessings," with Nas comparing the birth and bright future of his son with that of Bob Marley's talented offspring.
THE PENNSYLVANIA WORLD MUSIC CONNECTION: I was frankly put off by the initial pitch on Poconos resident Jon Gold - that he's a scientist and college professor by day, creator of Brazilian music by night. But after reading about his long stint living and teaching in Rio and giving his "Brazil Confidential" (Zoho, A-) a serious listen or three, I've come to genuinely admire his skill as a samba-lovin' composer, pianist and band leader.
Gold has done a masterful job evoking the richly melodic and melancholy nature of this tropical jazz-pop. Having a cast of mostly South American cohorts certainly helps make it real. And his originals sound that way, especially when fluttery flutes, woodwinds and fiddles come up front to charm the ears.
Only the sax- and guitar-centric "Teresinha" overtly suggests America's most famous embrace of U.S.-Brazilian collaboration - Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto.
Pittsburgh has an enclave of Brazilian musical talents too, it turns out, with the haunting singer Kenia proving a shining example on her new album, "Kenia Celebrates Dorival Caymmi" (Mooka Records, B). The transplant's understated approach is typical of the samba genre, though Kenia is no pushover, sharing this music of her childhood with plentiful heart, humor and soul, an excellent backing team and financial support from the Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour. Good show.
Philadelphia sax legend Odean Pope leads a notable trip to foreign lands on "Odean's List" (www.inandout-records.com, A-) with the track "Phrygian Love Theme." It's a nine-minute global spin from South American Carnival to his own night in Tunisia. Equally exhilarating are the frisky boppers "Blues for Eight" and "Collections" and the sweet, sax-led ballad "Say It Over and Over Again," which compares favorably to classics like "My Romance."
Pope's horn-heavy band also features the brass beltings of James Carter, Walter Blanding, David Weiss and Terrell Stafford; a rhythm section of Jeff "Tain" Watts and Lee Smith; and the sublime George Burton on piano. The set was recorded in bright fashion in the Jazz at Lincoln Center studios of Sirius/XM Radio.
MORE GLOBE-HOPPING: Fans of "A Prairie Home Companion" and Ken Burns' various Americana documentaries know the name and sound of composer-fiddler-mandolinist Peter Ostroushko.
Virtually an instrumental genre unto himself, Peter manages to merge Appalachian folk airs (originally imported from the British Isles) with the grandeur of European classical music in a style that's blissful but never sappy. On the new album "When the Last Morning Glory Blooms" (Red House, A-), he also slips in some old world Italian flavor when his mandolin dances on "The B and B Waltz" and "Marjorie's Waltz." If I was running a country bed-and-breakfast, I'd have this welcoming music playing in the parlor!
What inspires a blues singer/songwriter to blow on an Australian didgeridoo as well as a harmonica? Moving at a young age to the Land Down Under and coming to empathize with the culture and cause of the native aborigines sure done the deed for the artist known as Harper.
Start with the funky, rocking title track of his "Stand Together" (Blind Pig, B), and you'll hear it all come together in fresh and surprisingly unified fashion.