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Sometimes the best plan is no plan at all. That was the philosophy behind a new recording that blends West African rhythms, vocal harmonies, pop and jazz. The musicians are Lokua Kanza, Richard Bona and Gerald Toto. They might not be household names here, but they are highly sought-after musicians who've collaborated with the likes of Harry Belafonte, Natalie Merchant and Pat Metheny. For this CD, they did something almost unheard of in today's world of superproduced recordings: They improvised. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR reporting:

The CD is called "Toto Bona Lokua" after the musicians' names. They could have called it "Caribbean Cameroon Congo" after their respective roots. It was a French lawyer and former record company executive named Laurent Bizot, who had the idea to bring them into a studio, mainly to see what would happen when they sang together.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. GERALD TOTO, Mr. RICHARD BONA, Mr. LOKUA KANZA: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. LAURENT BIZOT (Record Producer): Each one separately, they were doing some incredible things with their voices. But I was pretty sure that the three were compatible, so I propose them to do a kind of project, a bit like inspired by like Bobby McFerrin, nearly all a cappella, with overdubbing technique. And they took the idea. They say, `OK. It's cool.' And they went much further than what I expected.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. TOTO, Mr. BONA, Mr. KANZA: (Singing in foreign language)

BLAIR: This song was Lokua Kanza's idea. Kanza says usual studio sessions are all business with a fixed agenda and the knowledge that a record label is waiting for something that will sell. But for this, Laurent Bizot specifically asked them to be spontaneous. Kanza says that was like a breath of fresh air but also a little scary.

Mr. LOKUA KANZA (Musician): When Laurent told me about that project, he say, `Look, don't try to think too much. We give you a possibility to do what you want to do. You have the studio. Just--guy, be yourself.' And I say, `My God, what we can do.'

BLAIR: What they did was take turns. On each song, one would be the leader and the other two the side men. All three musicians came to the studio with some ideas, perhaps a melody line or a rhythm. They'd play it for the other two and suggest parts for them. For one of Richard Bona's songs he started with just a guitar riff he'd come up with a long time ago but never used.

(Soundbite of Bona playing guitar)

BLAIR: The song he calls "Kwalelo" is sung in what seem to be a few different languages.

(Soundbite of "Kwalelo")

Mr. TOTO, Mr. BONA, Mr. KANZA: (Singing in foreign languages)

BLAIR: Richard Bona says they improvised the most on the lyrics. With only five days to record, there was no risk of overworking the material.

Mr. RICHARD BONA (Musician): Yeah, it's all improvisation because we didn't have time to write lyrics. That's why the record sound great, too, you know. I like it that way.

BLAIR: Sometimes they just sang whatever sounded good in the moment. In fact, "Kwalelo" doesn't mean anything at all. Bona says they know some listeners might think the word has some deep meaning in some exotic African dialect.

Mr. BONA: Yeah, we did that on purpose. I'm like, `Those Yankee. They will never know what we talking about.'

(Soundbite of "Kwalelo")

Mr. TOTO, Mr. BONA, Mr. KANZA: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. DON HECKMAN (Los Angeles Times): I don't know of lyrics really mean anything, necessarily. If you have the right melody, sometimes it'll grab you.

BLAIR: Don Heckman reviews world music for Los Angeles Times. For him, the emotional impact of the songs transcends language. He credits the producer of "Toto Bona Lokua " Laurent Bizot, for knowing when to get out of the way and just let the musicians do what they want.

Mr. HECKMAN: When you think about some of the vocal harmonies that are present on this album and how they work those out, who was going to sing lead, who wasn't going to sing lead, how thick the harmonies could be, how much they would challenge the lead to sing a high note, that's part of the spontaneity that you get from not having everything written down and from simply trying to see how much you can challenge each other.

BLAIR: The CD also includes one solo by each musician. In the spirit of Bobby McFerrin, French Caribbean singer Gerald Toto accompanies himself.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. GERALD TOTO (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

BLAIR: This was the first time Gerald Toto, Lokua Kanza and Richard Bona had ever recorded together. And even though they have different styles and preferences, they understood each other's ideas. African rhythms are at the core of most popular music--jazz, blues, rock and reggae. With Bona from Cameroon and Kanza from the Congo, Gerald Toto hears his own history as a French Caribbean in their playing.

Mr. TOTO: I share the roots of this culture. That's fantastic. You, me, every people pass away, but the music stay, you know. And when I hear that kind of music, I can hear a million people, you know.

BLAIR: And yet, there are only three. The new CD is called "Toto Bona Lokua." Producer Laurent Bizot isn't sure he'll record them together again because he says magic like that doesn't usually happen twice.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. TOTO, Mr. BONA, Mr. KANZA: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: The sweet sounds of "Toto Bona Lokua" can be sampled at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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