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Mandela
Original Soundtrack
(Island)

This 26-track collection from the documentary of the same name blows its own horn too loudly by claiming to represent "the essential music of South Africa." Its best moments, though, shed intriguing light on the development of the country's music. From the Manhattan Brothers' upbeat, urbane, vocal-group stylings on the 1954 cut "Vuka Vuka" (an advisory to "get up and fight") to the inspiring Miriam Makeba performances with the Skylarks, the archival cuts that make up half this album illuminate interesting connections to fans of later South African pop and choral music. But the disc falters on the more recent offerings.

Most annoying is the overblown obviousness of the opening and closing big-statement numbers "Father of Our Nation" (a collaboration between Cape Town belter Jennifer Jones and Hugh Masekela) and "Black President" (a 1993 single by Brenda Fassie). And the snippets of score that link some cuts do little to advance the record's motion. (Indeed, one 42-second bit is acknowledged as an "exclusive" -- meaning it isn't to be heard in the documentary.) The presence of the Specials' "Free Nelson Mandela" also serves as a reminder that the song's anthemic power comes more from its propulsive groove than its standard-issue outrage. It's always nice to hear it, though.

Still, the feeling throughout Mandela is that a bet or two has been hedged. Hardly anything here suggests the rough side of the country's sounds: Where, for instance, is the Howlin' Wolf-like roar of Mahlathini? Regardless, dabblers looking for a mere surprise or two could do worse than this.

-- Rickey Wright

Nora Nora
Electric Lady
(Sony Tropical)

The Peruvian hostage crisis might have been better served had authorities abandoned paramilitary maneuvers for the polyrhythms of Nora Nora. Salsa aficionados and Tupac Amaru rebels alike may recognize Nora Nora, formerly Nora Shoji, from her previous engagements as frontwoman of Orquesta de la Luz, the world's first (commercially viable) Japanese salsa band. Electric Lady marks Nora Nora's solo debut. This collection, with its English title, Spanish lyrics, and improvised Japanese exclamations, is as international as any salsa production is going to get.

The opening number, "Nora Sola," is a scorcher. Nothing bashful here, folks: "Se acabo lo que se daba/Llego Nora a la batalla" ("What once was is over/Nora has arrived at the battle"). Produced by her colleague Sergio George, who worked the boards during her Luz days, Electric's seven other tracks maintain a stylistic consistency. George, who arranged the entire album and co-wrote two cuts, favors his salsa spiced with R&B. Nowhere is this proclivity more evident than in "Loco Por Mi" and the closing bars of "ADonde Iras?" Here, sassy choral arrangements infuse the pieces with a funky edge of misbehavior.

Lyrically, Electric Lady offers the typical range of salsa subjects. There is the Latin bravado of "Nora Sola," followed by a variety of romantic pieces that celebrate the subject of love whether on the wing, unrequited, or newly emerging. What is most distinctive in this collection is George's unorthodox approach to arrangement -- he favors structurally complex pieces that change rhythms throughout. No doubt this is his way to compensate for Nora Nora's difficulty in attacking the vocal improvisations that Spanish-speaking legends take for granted. What is lost, along with those bursts of vocal improvisation, is all of that baroque brass filigree, the hallmark of today's salsa giants.

The real question is whether Latins will accept this exuberant import. If so, Nora Nora may well be on her way to salsa-diva stardom. Much hinges on whether she can learn to navigate the linguistic high jinks of the montuno improvs or whether her producers can find the creative solutions (as George has managed here) that work on this critical salsa proving ground. The challenge -- esta batalla -- promises to bring new things and new blood to a medium whose contemporary mutations have often been caught in a stranglehold of conformity and too finely creased productions.

-- Victor Cruz-Lugo

Jesse Johnson
Bare My Naked Soul
(Dinosaur Entertainment)

With one foot in the heavy-metal bars of his Illinois youth and the other in the slamming funk-rock he helped create with his old band the Time, guitarist Jesse Johnson has been responsible for some of the finest genre-jumbling music of the last couple of decades. But where his three criminally overlooked solo albums of the mid-to-late Eighties were extensions of his dance-driven work with the Time ("Jungle Love," "The Bird"), Bare My Naked Soul -- his first album in nearly ten years -- is a full-blown, post-Hendrix explosion of atomic blues and hard-rock wail. Building songs riff by riff and singing them in a groaning, Sly-style voice, Johnson has assembled something of a minor masterpiece here, from the swaggering statement of purpose in the title cut to the aching heartbreak of "You Don't Love Me the Same," a Dobro-laden weeper that helps define the breadth and scope of Johnson's astonishing range. (Dinosaur Entertainment, 2115 Magazine St., New Orleans, LA 70130)

-- John Floyd

Brigid Boden
Brigid Boden
(A&M)

Techno jig? Celt-hop? Irish ire? God knows what to call this stuff, but damn is it fine. Brigid Boden's debut is a deft synthesis of traditional Irish-folk instrumentation, hip-hop beats, reggae merriment, and spacey dance remixing. It's an ineffable combo pack: The mournful purity of the melodies plays niftily against the ass-wagging clamor of the beat, and Boden's leprechaun voice floats atop the whole shebang with dreamy grace.

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