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Tuesday Reviewsday: Lila Downs, Omar Souleyman and Chuck Berry's final album

Syrian born recording artist Omar Souleyman
Syrian born recording artist Omar Souleyman

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Tuesday means it's time for Tuesday Reviewsday, our weekly new music segment. This week music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez in the studio with releases from around the world.

Here are his picks:

Chuck Berry

Album: “Chuck”

Some of the guitar parts on the new Chuck Berry album, “Chuck,” are played by people other than Chuck Berry — Tom Morello and Gary Clark Jr. among them. And sometimes you can’t tell exactly who is playing. That’s okay. Berry’s monumental presence and influence is so deeply encoded into the DNA of rock ’n’ roll guitar, that when anyone is playing this stuff, it is Chuck Berry.


That DNA part is literally true on a lot of this album, released just months after Berry died in March at age 90, his first of new recordings since 1979 — 38 years! Some of the time when you hear those licks, it’s from the hands of his son, Chuck Berry Jr. And on two songs, his grandson Chuck Berry III chimes in. But this is no mere tribute, nor is it just a valedictory turn. “Chuck” is a worthy cap to the six-plus decades of delights from one of the key architects of rock.

There’s no need for us to go back over the history here — either the singular, essential achievements or the sometimes troubling elements in his personal life. But in the material on this album, Berry himself made pointed, and often playful, references to the past. “Lady B. Goode,” obviously, is a play on his landmark “Johnny B. Goode.” “Jamaica Moon” is a geographic revision of his “Havana Moon,” one of the most distinctive songs in his classic catalog.

But most profound and moving are the moments in which he reaches back before even his early success, reminiscing on or drawing from his youth. It’s explicit in the joyful “Big Boys,” with Morello on guitar and Nathaniel Rateliff on vocals, the singer in his advanced years still fully embodying himself as a boy who just wants to be in the middle of the party. A video, posthumously produced and billed as Berry’s first music video, captures that elated feeling in full. In some of the album’s best songs, though, Berry’s enduring debt to and affection for the music that reached his ears in his St. Louis youth is fully on display — the sounds of Tin Pan Alley, jump blues, early country, western swing and the pop crooners of the 1920s-‘30s-‘40s among the streams here.

There’s a sweetness throughout, and where Berry was often seen as guarded and combative, an open heart marks “Chuck,” no more openly than in “Wonderful Woman,” a love song to Themetta “Toddy” Berry, his wife of 68 years, and “Darlin’,” heartfelt perspective from his advanced years addressed to daughter Ingrid Berry-Clay, who also sings and plays harmonica on the album.

And, as always, his turns of phrase have the ability to charm and delight. It’s not for nothing that Bob Dylan called him the Shakespeare of rock. No one has ever been better at getting such a vivid scene in a single line, few have reached his heights in the pure musicality of alliterative wordplay. And in that, here as in his best, are some profound perspectives. The album, tellingly, ends with “Eyes of a Man,” a spoken-blues “Ozymandias,” in which he sees the monuments of men crumble to dust, seemingly his own works included. But, he sings, the temples built by a woman “in her own child’s heart and soul” endure eternally. Presumably, in these poignant last words, he included what he built in rock ’n’ roll among the things that will fade. But he also had to know that it will be around for a long time, every time someone plays one of his licks.

Lila Downs

Album: “Salón, Lágrimas y Deseo”

Lila Downs’ last album, a year and a half ago, was “Balas y Chocolate,”  bullets and chocolate. This time it’s “Salón Lágrimas y Deseo,” tears and desire. The last one looked at her native Mexico today, the oft-times tragic hardships and the enduring hope.

And where the last one had a mix of rural expanse and urban grit, this, as the “Salón” part of the title indicates, is more about the dancehall or, intimately, a parlor setting, as she draws on the rhythms and sounds of the cumbia, danzón, Cuban son, among others. To some extent it’s a look to the past, with seven of the songs associated with classic Latin American composers and performers. Among them is a soaring version of revered Agustín Lara’s 1940s-vintage bolero, “Palabras de Mujer” (“Woman’s Words”), a steamy testament of yearning, given new meaning as sung by a woman, particularly a woman of great strength. José Alfredo Jiménez’s mid-20th century ranchera “Uno Mundo Raro” (“A Strange World”) also portrays that landscape of longing from two sides, Downs in torchy duet with Spanish flamenco singer Diego el Cigala.


But Downs, as we’ve come to expect over a rich, wide-ranging career, draws on that past for strength and inspiration as she looks to the present and future, including other duets with Argentine rocker Andres Colamaro, Baja California pop star Carla Morrison, the lively Banda Tierra Mojada from Oaxaca (Downs’ birthplace). The first single, “Peligrosa” (“Dangerous”), written by Downs and partner Paul Cohen, crosses ranchera balladry with somber ‘50s pop for a statement of courage, an anthemic pep-talk as she rises above sorrow and heartbreak to stand tall. (The song is here in two versions, one Downs solo, the other also featuring Chilean singer-songwriter Mon Laferte.)

On that same note, “Envidia” (“Envy”), a duet with Argentine rocker Andres Calamaro, takes a tough stance, first seemingly against a disrespectful, oppressive ex-lover, and then on behalf of disrespected, oppressed cultural heritages, summed in a fierce chorus: “Tú me tienes mucha envidia, proque soy todas las cosas que tú quieres para ti” —  “You are very jealous of me, because I am all things that you want for yourself.” And she’s shedding no tears there.

Omar Souleyman

Album: “To Syria, With Love”

Omar Souleyman, now in his 50s, continues to be one of the more interesting stories in world music. He’s gone from successful wedding singer in his Syrian homeland to unlikely sensation on the festival and club circuit, from Glastonbury to Coachella to even the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize concert. It’s easy to hear the appeal, his heavily rhythmic electronic variations on the pan-Arabia dabke dance style, the staple of weddings and other celebrations, is hard to resist. And it’s easy to see it too, he in his keffiyeh, robe and sunglasses, pacing the stage and clapping in time with the beats, chanting Arabic poetry over the frenzied electronic music crafted by his musical partner Hasan Alo. For many outside of the Middle East, it’s nothing if not exotic.

Over time he’s added elements from Kurdish and Turkish music, and increasingly the compatible aesthetics of the EDM scene he’d encountered. His last album, “Bahdeni Nami,” featured work with Four Tet and Gilles Peterson.


Two years later, those sounds seem fully integrated into, and balanced with, the dabke pulse.

The pulse of the emotions has also changed some. As the situation in Syria worsened into war (sending him into exile in 2011), he brought politics into his words, complementing the standard common tales of love and heartbreak, not that most of the people bopping to the sounds would know that.

For “To Syria, With Love,” the romance kind of love is still there (“Girl oh girl, you’re a professional thief, you stole my heart away,” go the translated lyrics of “Ya Bnayya” — “Girl”) but added to this is the greater love and heartache for home, where conditions have deteriorated, and suffering has increased, dramatically. With words co-written with another regular partner, Shawa Al Ahmad, Souleyman laments his distance from Syria and the death and horror happening there. Once again, of course, not knowing the meaning of the words, the meaning might be lost in the largely frantic beats. But knowing at least the sense of them, the music takes on a cathartic, pained and perhaps angered tone.

The one exception, where the sorrow is evident from the sound alone, is “Mawai,” a slow, somber, even mournful piece. “My soul is wounded… the pain is oh so deep.” And the album ends on a note of despair, in “Chobi,” its English title being given as “Missing Al-Jazira” — that being the region of his home town. “Our wounds are too many, and every wound calls out: I am missing Al-Jazira.” So if you’re bopping to the beats, maybe you can have that in mind too.