Ear-splitting ululations to DJ Cheb i Sabbah for delivering majorly on the motion Coldcut made in 1987, when the British DJ duo sampled Yemenite diva Ofra Haza’s “Im Nin’alu” for their now classic remix of Erik B and Rakim’s “Paid in Full.” La Kahena is Sabbah’s richly detailed, historically resonant, and deeply satisfying synthesis of North African female vocal traditions with big digital magic. The title invokes the legendary Jewish warrior who successfully repulsed the first, if not the second, Arab attack on her Berber homeland; map your own contemporary connections.
A Berber Jew of Algerian origin himself, Sabbah begins his ethnotechno epic with the rich, raunchy voice of Algerian rai singer Cheba Zahouania and concludes it with gorgeous Andalusian wedding songs featuring the young Moroccan singer Nadia. In between he focuses on Morocco, where most of this equally mournful and jubilant affair was recorded. Violence and destiny walk hand in bloody hand in the saturnine psychedelia of a two-song track sung by another wonderful Algerian, Khadija Othmani. Bill Laswell, among dozens of guest musicians, Pro Toolsmiths, and programmers, adds lilting dub bass lines that lend the album a sweet, sticky unity. But women ultimately give La Kahena its beauty and focus—among them Michal Cohen, whose name echoes Kahena’s, and whose new version of “Im Nin (If the Doors Are Locked)” raises the bar on the 50 gates of wisdom once again.
Apart from the boozy lament “Oh, Mother,” it’s strictly a man’s world on the Shukar Collective’s Urban Gypsy. The “Collective” part of the show consists in updating Romanian trio Napoleon, Classic, and Tomango’s spirited
ursari (bear tamer) chants, songs, and shouts with asymmetric electronic beats I suspect will wear out long before the source material. Tomango’s voice in particular is a thing of gravelly splendor reminiscent of Louis Armstrong’s smokiest rasps. Compared to the raw spoons-and-barrel percussion heard on last year’s Bear Tamers Music, Shukar’s new sound bounces off the walls like the Three Stooges poking one another in the ear holes to the beat of raucous dance music given a rough, punky twist. Gypsy‘s many terrific moments include dubby delight “Gipsy Blooz,” “Hahaha” ‘s impressive beatbox spew and Dre-inspired foreboding, and “Lautarium,” a nomad’s march to nowhere. Urban Gypsy replaces the historical sprawl of La Kahena with a series of aural snapshots capturing unsettling ursine moments. They may have ditched the real bear, but the circus is still in town.