ASTER AWEKE was born in the central mountains of Ethiopia and raised in the capital, Addis Ababa, but in recent years she has become the leading entertainer of the large Ethiopian community here in Washington. Singing in her native Amharic and sending notes quivering through East Africa's melismatic microtones, Aweke was lionized throughout the worldwide Ethiopian diaspora, even though she was unknown to the rest of this city.
Aweke (who performs at Kilimanjaro Nov. 17) is just one of many third-world singers trying to cross the language barrier and reach European and American audiences on the strength of the essential personality and musicality embedded in their voices. If the first wave of world-beat acts was mostly dance bands, it looks like the second wave is going to be singers.
Aster Aweke "Aster" (Columbia). One of Aweke's tapes fell into the hands of two British producers, who came here to record this album of Ethiopian standards in Amharic. As the band translates the songs to horns, piano, guitar, bass and drums, the connection between East African folk forms and the North American rhythm & blues of Aretha Franklin and Anita Baker seems uncanny. Western ears will need some time to adjust to her ornamental trilling, but Aweke's control and clarity are unmistakable from the start. If one follows along with the English translations of these new-love and lost-love songs, it's just as clear that she's a very open-hearted romantic singer.
Najma "Atish" (Shanachie). Najma Akhtar is a Muslim woman from India working in London who has adapted the traditional Urdu love songs called ghazals to British pop instruments. Classical Indian tablas and violins coexist with electric bass and keyboards, and Najma purrs the note-bending Indian melodies with a graceful suppleness that George Harrison never quite mastered. The seven numbers include two traditional tunes, four Najma originals in the ghazal style and a version of Linda Ronstadt's "Faithless Love," in which Najma's Asian melisma sounds like a pedal steel guitar.
Abed Azrie "Amorates" (Elektra Nonesuch). Born in Syria and now living in Paris, Azrie has been setting Arabic poetry to his own updatings of Arabic music since 1970. Against a dreamy backdrop of synthesizers, reeds and hand drums, Azrie sings the highly literary lyrics in a deep, droning voice. The words -- written by revolutionary Palestinian poets, Lebanese surrealists and ninth-century Muslim mystics -- use succinct imagery to describe everything from romantic desire and anti-colonial rage to apocalyptic visions. The final three songs on this live album come from Azrie's famous 1977 adaptation of Babylon's 4,000-year-old "Epic of Gilgamesh."
Margareth Menezes "Elegibo" (Mango). When David Byrne toured behind his Latinized album "Rei Momo" last year, he brought along Brazilian star Menezes as his opening act and duet partner. The interest stirred by her terrific performances on that tour have led to this U.S. debut album, which includes two songs produced by Byrne. Singing the heavily Africanized music of her native Bahia region, Menezes's siren voice strikes just the right balance between the dizzying rhythms and seductive melodies of samba, reggae, afoxe, carnival marches and North American soul. Singing in Portugese, Yoruba, French and even some English, Menezes draws on some of the best young songwriters and producers in Brazil with highly accessible results.
Tom Ze "The Best of Tom Ze" (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.). Byrne also sponsored the release of this anthology by another Bahian singer. Ze emerged as part of the tropicalismo movement with fellow singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, but he soon left behind that seductive musical social consciousness for a more jagged, experimental music with more elliptical, provocative lyrics. In other words, he is the first of Byrne's Brazilian discoveries to actually sound like the early Talking Heads. The 15 songs on this anthology come from Ze's 1973-79 albums, and the stubbornly subversive reworkings of the samba is more likely to remind you of a weeknight at the 9:30 club than the carnival in Rio.
Stella Chiweshe "Ambuya?" (Shanachie). Also known as the kalimba, sanza or thumb piano, the mbira has been at the heart of indigenous Zimbabwean music for centuries. Rarely do women play the mbira in public, but Chiweshe has broken those taboos to release more than 20 singles and to tour Europe with fellow countryman Thomas Mapfumo. On this, her U.S. debut album, she supplements her regular vocal and percussion ensemble, the Earthquakes, with the electric bass and trap drums of Three Mustaphas Three. Chiweshe thumbs out the traditional rippling melodies of the mbira (which sounds like a cross between a steel drum and a marimba) and then elaborates the effect by singing similarly rippling lines in her light, charming voice. If you like the mesmerizing guitar arpeggios of soukous, you'll appreciate hearing their roots in this mbira music.
Sona Diabate "Girls of Guinea" (Shanachie). There are probably more West African griot musicians named Diabate than there are American blues musicians named Johnson. Sona is the daughter of a famous Guinean griot Jali Fode Diabate, and Sona's sister Sayon and her brother Sekou both contribute to Sona's debut album. Featuring three singers, two guitarists and no one else, the album boasts an authentic leanness. Unfortunately, Sona isn't commanding enough as a singer or a songwriter to carry the load, and the album pales next to superior griot recordings by Jali Musa Jawara, Dembo Konte, Baaba Maal and Toumani Diabate.