Mali|Acoustic Brazil|Di Korpu Ku Alma

Mali has been called the Land of Gold, but it's also a land of golden music. The West African nation is touted in press releases as "the next Cuba," hinting at a Buena Vista Social Club-caliber renaissance, and as Mali proves, there's no denying that its output is as sonically intoxicating as Havana's these days. Home to widely divergent artists like Issa Bagayogo, Habib Koite, and Tinariwen, Mali's sound is a mix of modern, traditional, electric, and acoustic elements, often with a resonant, harmonic vibe uncannily similar to African-American blues. Traditional instruments like the balafon and ngoni work well with vocal harmonies and call-and-response chants, but it's all about the slow, rolling grooves -- awash in a sea of mellow polyphony -- that make the journey to Mali one you'll take again and again.

Changing the latitude but not necessarily the attitude, Acoustic Brazil keeps the tempos relaxed, focusing on singer-songwriters ranging from well known (Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso) to relatively unheard (Glaucia Nasser, Monica Salmaso). Yet while the songs are guitar-heavy and often minimal in their approach, they're also frequently quite poetic and romantic lyrically -- Portuguese is simply a beautiful-sounding language, rippling with melodic tone even when spoken. When sung, it's even better.

Somewhere between West Africa and South America, you'll find the island nation of Cape Verde. And while the Putumayo comps live up to the label's reputation for quality, Lura's Di Korpu Ku Alma is the absolute must-have stunner here. With a voice that handles cool ballads as easily as 400-degree rhythmic workouts (all the while oozing sensuality), the diminutive singer is a major discovery: Songs like "Batuku" smoothly fuse ethereal Latin music with percussive African underpinnings. Still, you can't lose with any of these discs, which make the perfect soundtracks to a summer spent beachcombing, grilling, and chilling.


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