March 30, 2017

Music Review: David Broza - The Set List

Cover The Set List David Broza.jpgAfter 40 years of performing music David Broza has a problem. It's really difficult searching through the amount of material he's produced to come up with a set list for any given tour. Titling his new greatest hit package The Set List, being released March 31 2017, is therefore rather appropriate. One could only assume this collection would contain the songs, and or performances, he would like to include in all of his shows.

For those who don't know Broza is an institution in his home country of Israel. However a good part of his early life was spent in Spain and England with his family and these influences show up in his music, especially the former. You can't help but hear the Flamenco influences in his guitar playing. It also won't be much of a surprise to know one of his most recent recordings was a collection of songs from Andalusia dating back to the days prior to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.

Unfortunately for Broza this greatest hits collection could never be a set list. For there are performances included in here which would be very difficult to reproduce ever again. Take for example the live recording of the song he first became famous for "Yihye Tov" (Things Will Be Better). While it was written in 1977 during the peace talks between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, and has become an anthem of the Israeli peace movement, the version he has chosen for this release was recorded live at the biblical fortress of Masada in 2007 with special guests Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin.

Broza is obviously held in high esteem by his fellow musicians around the world. Even though they had only met twice, and that on stage, after his death the late American country iconoclast Townes Van Zandt bequeathed Broza two shoe boxes of lyrics. Ten years later Broza released Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt and has included the title song from that album on this release.

The second indication of the respect he's held in comes from the tracks included from the 2013 release East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem. Produced by Steve Earle and recorded over eight days in a Palestinian recording studio in East Jerusalem, Broza brought together musicians from both sides of the Jewish Palestinian divide to create this record of covers and original material. (As an aside a great documentary of the same name on the making of the album is currently showing on Netflix - a quick search of the service, no matter what country you're in, should bring it up)

The three songs included from those sessions on this disc include "One to Three", a powerful indictment of the war mentality that exists in Israel; "Ramallah/Tel Aviv", an homage to two of the largest cities in Palestine and Israel respectively sung by Broza and Palestinian singer Mira Awad; and the title song "East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem" sung with Haiti's Wyclef Jean. Each of these songs represents another effort on his part to build hope for a better future for the two people of his country.

Whether the lyrics are in Hebrew, English, or Spanish Broza's songs are wonderful to listen to. Even if you don't understand the words the music itself is a wondrous mix of the Middle East, Spain, and points further afield. On this collection you'll hear everything from Oud players to Steve Earle's mandolin accompanying songs.

The Set List may never be performed in concert, but it offers a great retrospective of an amazing musician's career. If you've never heard Broza before this is a great opportunity to get to know the music and the man. If you're already a fan, this is a chance to at least listen to what he would consider his ideal concert.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: David Broza - The Set List)

April 24, 2016

Music Review: Fanfare Ciocarlia - Onwards To Mars

Cover Onward To Mars Fanfare Ciocarlia.jpgFanfare Ciocarlia, Romania's premiere Romany brass band, are set to release their latest album on the Asphalt Tango label. Onward To Mars is due to hit North America April 15 2016. Its not only another example of the band's musical prowess, it also continues to show off their continued evolution musically.

Fanfare first became known to North American audiences through their amazing rendition of Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild", included in the soundtrack of the movie Borat. Their exuberant and flamboyant style of play, combined with each member's virtuosity, has garnered them praise everywhere. What is most impressive about the band is how they break any and all stereotypes people might have about brass music.

While they can wail away with the best of them and blow the roof off a concert hall, as this new release proves they also can play with incredible subtlety and finesse. On this album they've decided to continue the exploration of different musical styles they began with their previous release, The Devil's Tale. While that disc was something of a tribute to the jazzier side of Romany music, this one hearkens back more to the music they would play at festivals and weddings for a non Romany audience.

So we hear horas and another traditional Romanian music, but with, as the band's former leader, the late Ioan Ivancea, said "our very special gypsy touch, i.e. more warmth, more colour, and more shine". With seven of the disc's fourteen tracks composed by label mate Koby Israelite specifically to reflect this type of music we hear a new side to the band.

There is still the breathless pace, like watching a horse gallop across a field, and the incredible energy we've come to expect from the band. However, there are also nuances and intricacies to the music we've not heard before. They are also experimenting with some different types of music - the second song on the CD, "Mista Lobaloba", sounds like a collision between there usual sound and a the horn section of a Mariachi band.
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Than there's what I consider the most memorable track - their cover of Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You with guest vocalist Iulian Canaf. Without a single guitar anywhere to be heard they've turned this into a down and dirty blues tune which wouldn't be out of place in any juke joint. It doesn't hurt that Canaf's vocals could sear the paint off the side of a house. This is a show stopper.

If you've never heard Fanfare Ciocarlia you don't know what you've been missing. Hailing from Zece Pra˘ jini (meaning ten fields) a small village in rural Romania their families have lived in since feudal times, they continue to redefine brass band music. They're touring the US for the rest of April, you can find specific dates and locations at Asphalt Tangos' tour page. If they show up in your neighbourhood get yourself to the venue - hearing them on record is one thing - seeing them in person is like travelling to another planet.

(Article first published at as Music Review; Fanfare Ciocarlia - Onwards To Mars)

November 29, 2015

Music Review: Tinariwen - Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf

Tinariwen.jpgGiven the recent events in both Paris and Mali there's something very timely about the release of Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf from the Tamashek band Tinariwen on the Anti- label.

Forced into exile from their home in Northern Mali by extremists targeting of musicians in 2013, the band recorded their last studio album, Emmaar, in California. This Paris concert on December 13 2014 was the final stop on their world tour of over a 130 performances. Given Mali was a former French colony, and the band is fluent in French, this was as close to a home coming as they'll have for a while.

The title of the album, Oukis N'Asuf, to take away, forget, or get over heartache and longing, is only fitting for a band in exile - especially a band like this whose music is so tied in with their culture and their native desert environment. Making this title even more poignant is the fact they were joined on stage for this concert by one of the matriarchs of Tamashek music and culture, Lalla Badi. Not only is Badi a singer of traditional tinde, a type of song named for the drum used to accompany it and sung by women, she provided the band with a home base when they were just starting out.

Fittingly the recording opens with a song featuring Badi, "Tinde Tinariwen". Traditionally these songs were performed by women accompanied only by percussion - both drums and hand claps. Here the band's electric bass lays down the initial rhythm and is joined by a chorus of male voices. This is joined by youyous, cries and handclaps, and then, rising over top as rough and ancient sounding as the desert itself, Badi's voice soars into song. For over seven minutes the steady sound of the bass, drum, handclaps and male voices maintain their mesmerizing backdrop as she chants/sings her words.

In this opening we hear the inspiration for Tinariwen's style of desert blues - the steady, almost trance-inducing rhythms overlaid by biting electric guitar and lyrics alternatively sung and chanted. While Badi only joins them twice more during the course of the CD, on tracks six,"Tinde Part 1" and the 12th and final track, "Tinde Final Tinariwen", her influence is felt throughout the whole album.

As Tinariwen are not your not typical rock and roll band, this is not your typical live album from a concert tour promoting a new release. The set list isn't stacked to feature new material, rather the concert feels more like a celebration honouring their music and their culture. From the opening notes there's an intimacy you feel even on the recording which you don't often associate with the modern concert experience.

While the music and the performances are tight and professional as befits a band of their experience and and talent, there's also a spontaneity to the performance which makes it feel as if we've wandered into an impromptu jam session. With founding members - Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni and Alhassane Ag Touhami - having played together since the 1980s, and the newer members, - Eyadou Ay Leche, Elaga Ag Hamid and Said Ag Ayad - having grown up listening to them before joining in the 90s, the band operates as a seamless unit.

Tinariwen have long been repositories of Tamashek culture and their people's ambassadors to the rest of the world. On this night in Paris, the combination of their music and the traditional sounds of Badi, not only showed how capable they are of playing both roles, it also made it an electrifying and captivating experience at the same time. Tinariwen are living proof traditions don't have to be hide bound or museum pieces. They can evolve and grow to meet the challenges of new times. Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf is an album of great music by an exciting band and as good a concert disc as any you'll ever hear.

(Article originally published at as Music Review Tinariwen - Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf)

October 14, 2015

Interview: Xavier Rudd -A Musician of Heart, Soul and Thought

Australian musician Xavier Rudd has been singing and performing for more than a decade now. Best known as a kind of one man band, appearing on stage surrounded by an array of yidakis (digeridoos), a guitar across his lap and his feet pounding out the rhythm with a stomp box, his latest album, Nanna, released in May of 2015, saw him working will a full band, The United Nations, for the first time.

While there have always been hints of reggae in his music, Nanna, saw him embrace the genre whole heartedly to great effect. While he's never been shy about throwing his heart and soul into his music before, it seems reggae has given him the means to take everything to a higher level. Anyone who has been listening to his music for any length of time will quickly realize how this album was a natural progression in his musical evolution.
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Currently Rudd is on his second tour of the United States and Canada with United Nations and I was able to catch up with him on the phone on October 12 2015. Considering how some of his material deals with the mistreatment of indigenous people, especially the Aboriginals of his native Australia, the irony of talking to him on what's called Columbus Day in the US (Thanksgiving in Canada) wasn't lost on me.

This is the third time I've talked to Rudd over the course of his career, and each time I've come away impressed by how open and sincere he is. There are plenty of musicians and actors who after they've made it big throw their names behind causes, but those whose output is a organic extension of their beliefs are few and far between. With Rudd you quickly realize the music and the beliefs are one. There's no disconnection between who he is and what he sings about. Even better is how well this translates into music that moves both your heart and feet.

The time constraints of the journalistic interview don't allow for much more than scratching the surface, but hopefully this little introduction to Rudd will encourage you to both check out his recordings and go see him in during his current tour.

How has the transition been from basically a one man show to a band? What have the differences been?

I guess musically the biggest difference was I got use to taking up real estate by myself on stage and in the music; making sound as fat as I could. I had to learn to keep my parts thin but creative - to give enough room for everyone else. The playing in the band, and all the members, such a powerful and interesting experience, something I've always wanted - and this was something, special. The connection to the others while playing was great. It may not last for a long time, probably just this album, but I've felt really honoured to play with these people.

What is it about reggae that appeals to you so much?

I've been always liked it, the bass, the vibrations, and the expressions of unity and all love. I love where it puts people and how brings people together. It's also a good platform for expressing various thoughts and ideas. I've brought people from different cultures together, from all over the world, for this band - our ancestors decided to have a cup of tea together - that music was the right platform for this meeting.

When you're bringing that kind of story, the story of struggle and rising up and displacement in modern culture - bringing that discussion to a musical forum - reggae is a good base for that - a good easy base. It's like being able to talk to grandma because she's soft and easy, while you can't talk so much to grandpa because he's hard and stern.

Where do you draw the inspiration for your songs from?

Life in general, spirit. I never sit down and try to write a song, they just come through me. They'll come through thick and fast and almost write themselves sometimes. I don't write them down, the ones that stay with me are the ones that stay with me and become songs. The same thing with the lyrics. They are usually attached to part of something on my personal journey - or spirit.

Why are the themes of respect for indigenous peoples expressed in your songs so important to you?

Honestly, I think it's because my great grandmother disappeared. No one knows what happened to her- she vanished - we don't know what that story was. It's a big black hole in my father's family. I genuinely feel there's been an old woman with me since I was a little boy. Her spirit rests somewhere inside me.

I went to Canberra (capital city of Australia) to a register of Aboriginal people and I put her name into a computer. The only listing I could find was for a woman who was murdered in 1951, the killer was never found. I don't know if that was her or not. A lot of aboriginal people just disappeared like that.

I think a lot of my music comes from that space. My understanding of Australian society and the oppression of a people.

At this point I mentioned to him how the day before our interview I had come across an article about one of the iconic photos of the civil rights movements in the US from the 1960s, John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving the Black Panther salute upon accepting their medals at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The picture shows a third man as well, a white man, silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia.

It turns out he supported and encouraged them, and joined them in wearing a Olympic Project for Human Rights patch on his uniform. As a result he was shunned by the Australian government when he returned home, and in spite of owning the Australian record for the 200 sprint to this day, he was erased from their history books and never allowed to compete again. It wasn't until 2012, six years after his death in 2006, the Australian Parliament apologized to his family. In 2006 Carlos and Smith travelled to Australia to be pall bearers at his funeral.

Rudd wasn't familiar with the photo, nor did he know who Norman was, but he thanked me for the information. All of which led us to the next question about West Australia and its current treatment of the Aboriginal population

Is the grab for indigenous homelands still going on? Have the people been evicted?

It's still going on, it's all about natural resources. Western Australia - is one of the last great wildernesses areas of the planet - we were able to band together and stop one of the biggest gas operations a while back - but under that same land there's everything you can think of resource wise. The Western Australia (state) government, I got in trouble for saying in a Canadian paper they're corrupt, so let's just say they're dodgy government, is all about resources - all about land grabbing. They've been using political moves to trick or convince aboriginal people to give them their land for development. People were moved forcibly from their homelands, with comments made to the press about rampant alcoholism and abandoned home to make it seem necessary.
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How do you deal with what seems like so much antipathy towards the changes your music expresses? You sing about people coming together and all the time politicians are playing up fear and hatred to win elections

I don't really care. (We laughed) My interests are deeper thing that. My interests are in creation, our earth is a lot stronger and greater than we give her credit for. Politicians and what we do are small little grains of sand in creation. Sure I get frustrated and upset by what's going on around but doing something like sitting with a tree, keeping connected to the planet, helps remind me of what's important.

There was a time when we were energetically connected to the land in order to survive. In a lot of people's minds that seems like a fantasy, but it's what reminds us of our place in existence. If everyday one or two humans connect to the earth and remember this, there's always hope. She will take care of us if we let her, the planet is a big thing - its much bigger than you can hope.

You know I was in San Francisco and was in Golden Gate Park and the Blue Angels were doing an air show. They were doing their fly pass and it was really loud. They were doing their acrobatics, and they're really good, and all these people were standing and watching them. But I couldn't help thinking these things cost I don't know how many millions of dollars and were the types of planes which dropped bombs on people.

They flew through in formation and then flew out again, and while people were waiting for them to come back a flock of birds flew through in perfect formation - one of them dived down to scoop up a fish. I remember thinking, no matter how expensive those planes are, none of them can do that - dive down and pick up a fish. Nobody else seemed to notice the birds.

So I saw Surfer Dude a few years ago, and was surprised to hear your music in it. How did that come about?

Matt (Matthew McConaughey) contacted me and asked if I would do some music for the film. I chose some songs from various places, but to be honest I sort of lost interest in the project. There was this music producer who added stuff to my songs which hadn't been there to begin with and I ended up never even seeing the movie. It was an experience.

(Me:The best part of the movie was Willie Nelson as a goat farmer) I never got to meet Willie, but I do like Matt and Woody (Woody Harrelson who was also in the movie).

And that was all we had time for. We had talked briefly about me having seen Peter Tosh in 1980 and the Toronto reggae scene of the late 70s and 80s and touched on a few other areas of mutual interest, but that was about it. Xavier Rudd is one of the most genuine people I've spoken to, and he believes what he says with his heart and soul. However, in neither his music nor his words do you ever get the feeling he's preaching or trying to convert you. This is just who he is.

Information on the rest of his North American tour can be found at the tours page of his web site, but he's currently making his way up the North American West Coast. He' almost done in the States (Austin, Dallas, Taos, Denver, Park City, Portland and Seattle October 14-21 respectively).

Then he hits Canada going West to East with two shows in Vancouver (October 22 +23rd) and two in the British Columbia interior (Duncan (24th) and Nelson (26th). Then he's on to Calgary (27th), Edmonton (29th) in Alberta, Saskatoon Saskatchewan on the 30th and finishes with the Prairies in Winnipeg Manitoba on the 31st. November sees him in Sherbrooke Quebec on the 3rd, St. Casimir on the 4th and Montreal on the 5th. The 6th and the 7th sees him in Toronto and Ottawa respectively than back to Quebec again to finnish off in Quebec City.

If you have the chance go and see him you won't regret it. The music is great and it will be an experience you won't forget.

(Article originally published at as Music Interview: Xavier Rudd - A Musician of Heart, Soul and Thought)

March 18, 2015

Music Review: Xavier Rudd & The United Nations - Nanna

Nanna by Xavier Rudd and The United Nations, released on March 17 2015 in North and South America on the Nettwerk Label, is the latest release from Australia's multi-instrumentalist Rudd. However, unlike previous albums this CD sees him accompanied by a full band for the first time. While he's occasionally been joined by a drummer and bassist in the studio or on the road, he's been best known as a kind of one man band; playing drums with his feet, lap guitar and yidaki (indigenous Australian instrument often wrongly called didgeridoo). So the multi-national nine piece band joining him now is quite a change of pace.

What hasn't changed is Rudd's ability to create message oriented songs where the music is just as important as the lyrics without detracting from the ideas he's trying to express. At various points in his career Rudd has shown an affinity for reggae music, including a wonderful cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" on his second release Solace. So it shouldn't shock anyone that he's taken the opportunity of working with The United Nations to make what is primarily a reggae album. For those familiar with his previous discs, the themes of living in harmony with nature and respect for indigenous peoples and their beliefs expressed on this release shouldn't be a surprise either. He has never shied away from singing about what he's passionate about, however, this album takes it to a whole new level.
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In fact some people might be a little off put by the message he's expressing. It runs pretty much counter to almost everything you read or hear in the media today. Instead of propagating commercialism or expressing a political agenda, his songs are advocating finding a better way to live. On the disc's 10th track, "Warrior", he sings, "If she could take him by the hand/and together they could change the world/abolish greed from every man/and spread their medicine throughout the world/and every sun would rise and fall/and restore complete balance on the earth/a brand new chance for one and all".

His songs aren't just about saving the planet, they're also about personal growth, and learning how to live with yourself or with others. Both the first single from the release, "Come People" (track four) and "Struggle" (track 11) express this on various levels. In the latter he says, "One two three four,/positively close the door./Five six seven eight/spread your light radiate./ I'm moving slowly/positive diligent/what other people think of you/is none of your business."

Some of you are probably squirming in your seats after reading those two quotes. What kind of new age clap trap is this guy spouting? However, step back a second, and think about what's going on in the world these days. Governments in North America and Australia are continuing their practices of expropriating land granted to their respective indigenous populations in order to exploit them for natural resources. In the process the land is being rendered unusable because of pollution and the disruption of ecosystems.

People are killing each other all over the world because of religion and the desire to impose their point view on everybody else. As a species we are rapidly descending into a place where the world is divided into those who oppose us and those who are with us. So, just maybe, a voice which pleas for understanding and unity, no matter how he says it, deserves to be listened to without judgement or cynicism.

The other thing you have to consider is the sincerity of the person behind the message. Rudd has never shied away from his indigenous spiritual roots (he's of mixed Aboriginal and European decent). The songs on this release are simply the most open he's ever been in expressing them. However, he's not saying they are the only way of being, he's just asking us to not to ignore what we can learn from people who have a close spiritual connection to the planet. As he says on the CD's fifth track, "Sacred", "I believe we are one and we are sacred", stressing his belief there is common ground between all people if we're only willing to look for it.

Something which listeners in North America and Europe may not be familiar with are the references to indigenous Australian spirituality. Even some of the language used in songs is unique to its people - in fact the language sung in the disc's title song, "Nanna", Jandai, is considered extinct. Which is ironic considering the lullaby was written and sung by Georgia Corowa, one of United Nation's vocalists.
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Adding the disc's Australian flavour is the fact the majority of the band are from either Australia or some its neighbouring islands in the South Pacific. Aside from Rudd and Corowa, Chris Lane, flute, Peter Hunt, trumpet, Alicia Mellor, vocals and Uncle Eddie Elias, keyboards are all from Australia, with the latter two having connections with Papua New Guinea as well. Percussionist/ drummer Bobby Alu is from Samoa originally, while Tio Lerothodi Moloantoa on bass is South African and Yeshe Reiners, world percussion and ngoni (African stringed instrument) was born in Germany. Each of them bring their own musical experiences and backgrounds to the album, and this combination is what distinguishes it from your typical reggae recording.

For while the unmistakeable reggae backbeat and syncopation can be heard in most of the songs, Rudd and company do a fine job of adding new flavours to an old recipe. Some of the songs have more of a calypso swing to them, while others aren't going to be easily defined as any one particular genre. The end result is a beautiful polyphonic mix of sound which seems to provide the perfect vehicle for Rudd's lyrics.

The message on Nanna by Xavier Rudd and The United Nations is not going to be everyone's taste. Some might think it too idealistic or too radical. However, in a world full of radical problems, radical solutions which don't advocate violence or hatred shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Whatever you might think of this disc, musically or lyrically, they're can be no denying the passion and belief permeating it. This is a great album of wonderful music and thought provoking lyrics. If you come to it with an open mind, it might just change your heart.

(Article first published at as Music Review: Xavier Rudd and The United Nations - Nanna - New Release From Australia's Eco Warrior)

July 9, 2014

Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel - Back To Front: Live In London

Most of the time popular culture looks to the past it's for purposes of reliving past glories or for wallowing in nostalgia. Very few of us have the courage and the strength to look back at where we've come from with a critical eye. Even fewer have the ability, or the desire, to tamper with past successes. Usually when a performer reaches into his or her back catalogue for a show or a recording they end up recreating the original material as exactly as possible. It's safe, easy and is guaranteed to generate ticket and recording sales.

One of those who has always displayed a willingness and ability to deviate from this practice is Peter Gabriel. Starting with his first release in 1977, Peter Gabriel 1, his solo career now spans four decades. His contributions to popular culture haven't been limited to his own material either. Through his Real World label and his involvement with the founding of the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Festival in 1980 he was responsible for bringing music from cultures other than our own into the mainstream. However, it wasn't until the release of his album So in 1986 he achieved widespread commercial success.

In 1986/87 Gabriel and his band, Tony Levin on bass, David Rhodes guitar, Manu Katche drums and David Sancious keyboards and guitar, toured the world to promote the release. Twenty-five years after that tour ended, 2012, Gabriel reunited the original band in order to revisit the original performances while creating a new experience for his audiences. In October of 2013 the tour pulled into London England's O2 concert hall where the performances were filmed. The result is a new release from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Back To Front Live In London.
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Available in multiple formats, including a deluxe two Blu-ray two CD set complete with a hard bound book of pictures and liner notes, the single disc Blu-ray recording I watched shows Gabriel not only knows how to please his audience, but is still not afraid to push the creative envelope to its limits. Not only does he not simply play older material the way it was originally performed, he continues to be one of one of the most innovative users of the stage and lighting techniques available to popular performers. Even better is he's one of the few who have always understood how to create the perfect balance between the music and the visual in order to create something which is more than just a concert for his audience to experience.

As the camera leads us onto the stage, showing us Gabriel's perspective on proceedings as he moves into position at his piano to open the show, we're give the first example of how this performance will differ from other events of its kind. He does not enter to a blacked out house and stage, all the lights in the arena are on. Instead of breaking into song he begins by telling the audience exactly what he plans on doing for them over the course of the night; an acoustic set as an introduction, an electric set and then play them So in its entirety.

Maintaining the immediacy created by this rather informal beginning, he and the band perform the entire acoustic set with the house lights up. One of the highlights for me from this opening set was an acoustic version of "Shock The Monkey". Always a powerful song, somehow striping it down to the bare bones sound of acoustic guitar, bass, drums and piano not only didn't diminish its impact, but made you more aware of the song's potency. The gaps left in the song from the lack of electric instruments were like poignant pauses in a conversation which say more than words ever can.

However, no matter how powerful the opening numbers might have been, you could feel the excitement level rise in the arena the moment the house lights went down and the band picked up electric instruments. While the house lights must have been gradually dimming over the course of the last song of the acoustic set, the moment when the band was all of a sudden bathed in white light and the audience was in darkness was still so dramatic the thrill that ran through the crowd could be felt right through the television screen. It was not only a beautiful piece of staging, it was a great piece of filming, as it captured for us at home the experience of being at the concert like few other concert films I've ever witnessed.
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I have to confess, and this is testimony to the skill of both Gabriel and the film's director Hamish Hamilton, that from this point on my critical faculties deserted me and I allowed myself to be carried away by the concert and the experience. While I've seen quite a number of concert films, and a few by Gabriel in the past, this is the first one I've seen where the connection between performer and audience is so strong that even sitting in my living room on a rainy afternoon I lost all track of time and space and became totally absorbed.

For those used to some of Gabriel's more elaborately staged performances, this one might initially seem more prosaic then previous ones as the band is simply lined up facing the audience. However, as the show progresses he begins to make use of the empty space down stage as he and the two female vocalists accompanying him, Jennie Abrahamson (she does amazing work on "Don't Give Up", "This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)" and "In Your Eyes") and Linnea Olsson (who also plays cello) move forward to execute some beautiful choreography during "This Is The Picture" and "Don't Give Up".

While maybe these moments can't equal the spectacle of him singing while hanging upside down as he's done in prior shows, for those who saw last year's release, Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987, capturing the original tour promoting So, you will recognize certain staging techniques and equipment. I don't want to give anything away, but I will say he uses the same equipment he did in 1987, but updates it by incorporating the new video technology at his disposal.

In the interview with Gabriel and lighting designer and Rob Sinclair included in the Blu-ray version of the concert, the two men discuss both how they incorporated the old set pieces and how they created the overall concept for the show. Unlike many of these interviews, this one not only gives you details about how they created what you see on stage, but the reasoning behind their ideas and the process they used in creating the event. Not only was it carefully executed, the planning behind it was meticulous and inspired. Oh, and while not exactly special features, I love the fact that during the film's credits, various backstage members of the crew introduce themselves and what they did to make the show possible. Gabriel is still one of the few who takes time at the end of the show to stand up in front of his audience to publicly thank the men and women who do this work. Including them so visibly in the credits is another sign of his appreciation for their work. How many other pop music stars do you know who would acknowledge the guy who drives the bus?

From the sheer pop energy fun of "Solesbury Hill" to the potency of "Biko" (which he still closes his show with all these years later by telling the audience "What happens next is, as always, up to you") Gabriel has created a catalogue of music few other modern popular music creators can match for its artistry and intelligence. Even more remarkable than the commercial success he was able to achieve with his album So is the fact that 25 years after its release the music is not only just as powerful now as it was then, and that Gabriel is still finding ways to present it which keep it fresh for both him and his audience. Back To Front Live In London might contain material close to forty years old, but it feels far more alive than most of what you hear being released today.

(Article originally published at as Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel Back To Front: Live In London)

March 30, 2014

Music Review: Hafez Nazeri Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project

Ever since the first of their three West Meets East collaborations was released in 1966 many other musicians from both East and West have attempted to follow in the footsteps of violinist Yehudi Menuhin and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar's attempt to find common ground between the two musical traditions. While there's no question the results have always been intriguing none of them have found a way to merge the two with any real success. Usually the results have been the superimposing of one over the other with either switching to conform to the harmonics and rhythmic patterns of the other.

If one were to think of it in terms of linguistics, it would be the equivalent of trying to merge Farsi or Hindi with English or German and creating a language with enough elements in common speakers of the original languages would be able to understand the new tongue. This is what classical Persian composer, Iranian Hafez Nazeri has attempted to accomplish with his latest composition, Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project. Released on the Sony Masterworks label, and touring concert halls in North America throughout March and April 2014, Nazeri has used the poetry of the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Jalal as-Din Muhammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi in the West, as his inspiration for the music and the themes it expresses.

While the choice of a medieval Persian mystic's poetry might seem an odd one to serve as a bridge between Western and Eastern classical traditions it's important to remember some of the most awe inspiring classical music in European history have been spiritual works. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bach and many others all wrote pieces glorifying spiritual love in much the same vein as Rumi's poetry. If you think, well one is Muslim while the others are Christian, the following Rumi quote included in the liner notes show you the poet didn't make that distinction, so maybe we shouldn't: "We dance behind veils/Muslim, Christian, Jew are the masks we wear/in truth, we are not here/This is our shadow dance."
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However, even with the establishment of thematic common ground Nazeri still had to find a way of blending the musics of two cultures with vastly different histories and means of expression. Aside from undertaking an extensive study of European classical music, he also took the extraordinary step of modifying a traditional Persian stringed instrument, the setar, to work as the bridge between the two forms. Working with Iranian luthiers, and 40 prototypes later, he added two strings to the lute like instrument to increase its range and allow it to play both polyphonic sounds and harmonies, two integral elements of Western classical music lacking in its Persian counterpart. He named the new instrument after another great 13th century poet, the man he was named for, Hafez.

The setar has always been a key element in Persian music with its distinctive sound being central to most classical pieces. The modifications Nazeri introduced to the instrument have done nothing to change the way it sounds, but has expanded its abilities. Instead of being a solo instrument, it can now played in concert with others and be part of a larger ensemble. In the case of this piece that consists of cello, violin, viola, tabla, udu drum, frame drums (hand held drums), choir and solo voice.

Untold is divided up into four chapters with each of the chapters, "Creation", "Existence", "Untold" and "Eternal Return" representing a different aspect of the spiritual history of life on both a cosmic and human level. According to Nazeri's liner notes the first and second chapter deal with first the creation of the universe and life respectively. The third chapter deals with the steps humans take on the road to spiritual enlightenment while the fourth is about the possibility of exploring new horizons and finding the means to combine traditions in order to create a "new consciousness, a new experience of self-identity, a new whole that is larger than the sum of the parts." (Hafez Nazeri)

As to the music itself, I don't have sufficient knowledge of Persian classical music to comment on how successful Nazeri has been in bringing about its union with its European counterpart except in the broadest of generalities. What I did notice and appreciate was how he has managed to keep both their unique voices alive instead of allowing one to drown out the other. Take for example the use of the string section, (cello, violin and viola) when accompanying the work of both Nazeri and his father, the world renowned Iranian tenor Sharam Nazeri, as solo vocalists. Instead of their voices being alone in carrying the melody with the instruments providing a rhythmic counterpoint, they, and the hafez, play either harmony or melodic support.
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Improvisation around specific themes has always played a major role in the music of South East Asia. We are probably most familiar with this as it is practiced in the classical music of India where the sitar plays ragas which are improvisations based on a set of previously determined notes in a specific scale. (That's a very simplistic way of describing what is an incredibly complicated process that can take years to master) Allowing the Western stringed instruments to improvise in the midpoint of Chapter Two, "Existence", is a daring move which preserves the form of its Asian heritage while utilizing the sounds of instruments familiar to Western ears.

In the classical music we're most familiar with percussion hardly ever plays more than a supporting role. Except in very specific instances we hardly ever notice kettle drums and similar instruments amidst the massed strings, brass and woodwind instruments of an orchestral or chamber piece. The same can not be said for Eastern music where instruments like the tabla play a prominent role. Normally a tabla player works within certain pre-existing parameters to provide the rhythmic accompaniment for either voice or instrument. However, in this piece the tabla plays a mixture of melody and rhythm with added textures being supplied by both the cello and the hafez resulting in a collage of sounds both beautiful and astounding.

However, technical details like those described above fade into the background as one listens to the results created by Nazeri and his fellow musicians. The true mark of his success is how quickly you forget about the different styles and instruments and how easily you're captivated by the music. From Sharam Nazeri's stirring voice in the second and fourth chapters, the intricate and beautiful instrumental magic provided by all the musicians, to the choral accompaniment at various points throughout, Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project is a constant source of awe and wonder.

There's no way of knowing how it will resonate with specific individuals on a spiritual level, but emotionally is a different matter. You'd have to have ice in your veins and a heart of stone not to be moved while listening to this music. Without a doubt this is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've heard in a long time. Hopefully this marks the beginning of a brand new musical tradition, one with the ability to move audiences no matter what their religion, cultural or ethnic background.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Hafez Nazeri - Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project)

March 22, 2014

Music Review: IR 29.1: New Generation Dub

One of the biggest crimes committed by the music industry has been their ability to co-opt, dilute and turn even the most radical of genres into something safe for mass consumption. Disco, punk and rap have all been taken and watered down so they would sell in Peoria. Even worse is how the industry corrupts these forms, turning them inside out, so instead of preaching against the injustices which brought the genres into existence, they become something promoting the very things causing the inequities railed against. While disco was turned into mindless dance music for social climbers and punk became new wave and all about dressing well, what was done to rap/dub music was by far the most horrendous.

Rap/dub, the art of free association spoken word poetry/singing being recited over somebody mixing sounds on a couple of turntables, was born out of necessity. It was a cheap and easy way to make music and to relate information to large numbers of people. Individuals, Afrika Bambaataa and groups, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, took existing recorded music, LPs in the early days, and by manipulating the vinyl and mixing the sound of two turn tables together, would create rhythms and beats for songs, like "The Message", that spoke of modern African American frustration with the poverty, crime and drug use they saw around them.

So, its heartening to know there are those in the world who still see the potential for rap/dub music as an instrument for change and education. As I mentioned in my review of IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub elsewhere on this site, the grass roots organization The Fire This Time (TFTT), has established the record label, IR (Indigenous Resistance) produce rap/dub music which speaks to the plight of indigenous people all over the world. In order to facilitate the making of this music they have established a freedub page where musicians, poets and songwriters can upload and download mp3s for the sole purpose of creating new songs. Thus musicians from the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific can exchange ideas with people across the North America and create material which speaks to the plight of indigenous people everywhere.
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Their latest release, IR 29.1: New Generation Dub available for purchase as a download through Bandcamp not only is a great example of how this system works, it also shows there is more to this genre of music than most of us think. There are only four music tracks on the release, its being promoted as the first of two parts, hence the title 29.1, but they're plenty to give you both an introduction to the type of music they create and the ideas and hopes they are trying to propagate.

The second track on the release, "IR Dravidian: Earth & Life: Dr. Das Ambient Mix", is not only a great example of how their international community of artists work together to create songs, but shows you how hip hop/dub/rap can be so much more than what we hear on commercial radio. This track had been originally recorded as "Dravidian Spirit" by DJ Soundar of Asian Dub Foundation but has been remixed for this recording by Jamaican musician Dr. Das. Not having heard the original I can't comment on the impact the changes have made to the song. However I can tell you its a powerful mix of language and music which not only communicates an intellectual message but creates a strong spiritual and emotional foundation for the ideas expressed.

The Dravidian of the title are the Indigenous people of South India who have been gradually marginalized by the majority Brahmin-Aryan peoples for thousands of years according to DJ Soundar. Their culture dates back at least 6,000 years and the percussion rhythms you hear on this track are Dravidian. A quick trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Jamaica for keyboards and percussion, then down to Bogota Colombia for the sound of children reading a passage of the Tried & True: Revelations Of A Rebellious Youth by dub Jamaican writer Dutty Bookman. Finally there's a quick side trip up to North America for the words of Native American poet/activist/musician John Trudell which were recorded by Bookman for this mix.
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What's wonderful about this mix is how well all the seemingly disparate sounds, languages and ideas are blended together to create a unified message. Built around the core of Trudell's words about the nature of power, how people are being misled into believing money and the political vote are the true sources of power when they are merely manifestations of greed and exploitation ("We are connected to the real power source which is life and earth") the music is both ethereal and grounded enough so its message is emotionally and intellectually real.

Unlike most politically oriented music which tends towards the polemic, the music on IR 29.1: New Generation Dub doesn't ignore its media's role in conveying the message. The tracks on this recording work on multiple levels, reflecting the artists' concerns with conveying both a political message to the world at large and a reminder to their indigenous audience to never forget who they are and where they came from. The spiritual messages found in these songs aren't meant to make non-indigenous people feel better about themselves and their exploitation of the world like the ones found in New Age bookstores. Instead they're a means of reinforcing the cultural identity of those who have been the victim of systemic cultural genocide.

If you're like me, and the sound of rap/hip hop blaring from some car's souped up sound system is usually enough to hope the vehicle will blow up on the downbeat, these tracks are a revelation. They show that dub music can be more than just mindless noise and used as a viable tool for self-expression. With contributors from literally every corner of the world, this truly international collaboration gives voice to the concerns of indigenous people all over the globe while allowing each distinct culture to shine through.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review IR 29.1: New Generation Dub)

March 13, 2014

Music Review: Tinariwen - Emmaar

In the early 1960s the creation of artificial borders in the trackless wastes of the Sahara desert might have been cause for celebration among the inhabitants of the newly created countries. However, the throwing off of colonial masters in Niger, Mali, Algeria, Morocco and others, also resulted in turmoil for the nomadic people who had called the region home for close to a thousand years. Attempts at fighting to retain their lands resulted in them being forcibly removed from their territories and sent into exile. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib was a young child when he and his extended family were forced to pack up their goods and lives and leave their homes.

Like many others of his generation Alhabib witnessed the death of family members, his grandfather, as they made their way to who knew what. So it's no surprise he and other young Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) men ended up in Libya receiving military training. In the 1980s these expatriates were the nucleus behind the revolts in Mali attempting to reclaim their traditional lands. However they weren't just receiving military training in Libya, they were also being exposed to music from all over the world. It was in the training camps Alhabib first starting learning how to play guitar and met the men he would eventually form the band who would have since become synonymous with the music of the Kel Tamashek, Tinariwen.
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Putting down their weapons and picking up musical instruments hasn't stopped the members of Tinariwen from continuing their fight for their people. It's simply meant a change of tactics. Initially their intent was to create songs and music celebrating their culture and their traditional lives. While this might sound innocuous enough, they along with other "guitar bands" were soon being targeted by the same governments they had fought against. In the 1990s many musicians were forced to flee both Niger and Mali because of threats against their lives by the armed forces of the two countries. However this didn't stop Tinariwen from continuing to make music and eventually making their way onto the world's stages to spread their tribal inspired desert blues around the world.

When terrorist groups usurped the Kel Tamashek uprising in Northern Mali - one of the nomadic people's traditional homelands - and imposed their own version of Islam upon the area's population, including banning all music, in early 2013, Tinariwen were once again forced into exile. Which meant their latest release, Emmaar (Deluxe Edition) available in North America on the Anti label, was not recorded in their home desert, but Joshua Tree California. Even there reminders of the troubles at home couldn't have been far from their minds as band member Abdallah Ag Lamida was unable to make the trip having been kidnapped by the terrorists. (He has since been released)

Previously when I've reviewed albums by Tinariwen and other bands from the Sahara region I've received a hard copy which has contained translations of the song's lyrics. The digital download I received this time didn't contain any liner notes, so I'm flying blind when it comes to understanding what the band is saying. While that might be a problem with some other bands, when it comes to Tinariwen, the music is as integral to their message as the lyrics.

What's interesting to note about this album is how they have continued the process of evolving their sound which had begun on their previous release, Tassili, by incorporating new sounds into their mix. The number of guest musicians has increased to include the talents of Fats Kaplan, who plays fiddle on "Imdiwanin Ahi Tifhamamone" and pedal steel on the opening track "Toumast Tincha", current Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer (also on the opening track) percussionist Amar Chaoui on six tracks, guest guitarist Matt Sweeny on the song "Emajer" and poet/musician/ Saul Williams providing a spoken word English language introduction to the album's opening track.
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However, for fans of Tinariwen's particular brand of desert blues featuring hypnotic percussion overlaid by the interplay of droning guitars and sparse vocals, there's no need to worry they have done anything as crass as give in to commercial considerations or been so called corrupted by being in America. What they have done is augment their sound with these additional players to give it more depth and a wider range of expression. Listen and watch the video below of "Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim" and you'll hear how little they've strayed from their original roots.

Utilizing these Western musicians is not an attempt to make their sound more accessible to a wider market, this is the band which won the Grammy for best "World Album" in 2012 after all so they don't need to attract a new audience. What it does do is broaden the scope of their musical palate. This allows them to create even more vivid musical pictures of the desert landscape they call home. For while the lyrics are still sparse and sung in Tamashek, after all the songs are for their own people not us, the music evokes the landscape of their homeland. The new musical elements, such as pedal steel guitar and fiddle, which add a certain South Western American feel to some songs, only serve to make the picture more complete.

Tinariwen have been part of the struggle for preserving their people's traditional homelands and culture since the days of armed rebellion in the 1980s. Picking up musical instruments in exchange for the guns of their youth as an attempt to encourage their own people to take pride in their traditions and culture has turned them into cultural ambassadors for the Kel Tamashek on stages around the world. Yet in spite of the international attention, no matter which part of the world they are forced to record their music, or who joins them, their sound remains firmly rooted in the shifting sands of the Sahara desert.

Considering Tinariwen's refusal to to give up in the face of odds most of us would consider insurmountable, is it any wonder the armies of Islam gave their ancestors the name Tuareg - rebels against Islam - when they first invaded North Africa over a thousand years ago? It's this indomitable spirit pervading their music that gives it the presence which makes them one of the most compelling bands playing anywhere. No matter who they choose to accompany them when recording or performing, their music and spirit continue to shine through as an example for the rest of the world. Starting March 14 2014 Tinariwen is beginning a tour of the American South, South West, Mid West and West Coast. If you get the opportunity check them out - you won't regret it.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Music of the Sahara: Tinariwen's new album Emmaar)

February 24, 2014

Music Review: Aziza Brahim -Soutak

At first glance the Sahara Desert of North West Africa seems like one of the most inhospitable places on the face of the earth. Movies, and other Western media, usually show us images of trackless wastes, endless miles of sand dunes dotted with the occasional oasis and scrubby plants. However, this supposed barren land has been home to various nomadic people for centuries. When the Arab and Ottoman armies started to move into Africa and establish their North African kingdoms, they found the tribesman already firmly established. While there were occasional alliances between the new kingdoms in Algeria and Morocco, the Caliphs and Emirs were wise enough not to attempt to impose their rule on the nomads.

Even the European colonial rulers had the initial good sense to leave well enough alone. It wasn't until the French and Spanish, the controllers of North Africa, discovered the wealth of natural resources buried beneath the desert they began to interfere. While the Kel Tamashek, (Tuareg) of Mali and Niger have been receiving most of the world's attention recently because of the attempted takeover of Northern Mali by fundamentalist terror groups with their very narrow definition of Islam, they aren't the only nomadic people who have seen their land and culture stolen out from under them in the past eighty years. The area now known as Morocco had been once been home to the Sahrawi people. Like their Berber relatives to the south they have been forced out of their traditional territories and into refugee camps and exile in Algeria through the new government's policies.

While the number of refugees living in the four camps in the northern Algeria is unclear (estimates range from the 40,000 claimed by the Moroccans to the 150,000 claimed by the Polisario Front the Sahrawi governing body) the fact remains they are people without a home whose plight has been ignored by most of the world. Unlike the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) who have been very successful in exporting their culture, and by extension their circumstances, to the rest of the world through music, the Sahrawi representation on the world stage has been minimal. One voice who has been trying hardest to make herself heard has been Aziza Brahim. While a child of the refugee camps, she now calls Barcelona Spain home, and its there she recorded her new album, Soutak (translated as "Your Voice"), for Glitterbeat Records.
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The title is very appropriate as the songs on the disc attempt to give voice to not only the plight of her own people, but people in refugee camps all over the world. While she sings in Spanish, the booklet accompanying the disc comes with both English and Arabic translations of the lyrics, so both the people for whom the songs are meant and people in other parts of the world can understand their meaning. In an introductory statement for the CD she says, "the album contains songs about worries - intimate and collective - that take on universal dimensions". To that end she made the decision to incorporate both the musical traditions of her own people and those of other cultures in order to create a more inclusive sound.

Right from the opening track, "Gidem Izik" (Camp of Dignity) you can hear the results of this amalgamation. The solo guitar accompanying her has what can only be called a distinctive Spanish feel and sound to it. There's nothing really overt you can put your finger on, but elements of Flamenco and other styles classically associated with Spanish music come through. Underpinning everything are percussion and electric bass. Anyone who has listened to any of the music of the Kel Tamashek of Northern Mali from the last decade or so will be familiar with the rhythm - the steady, trance inducing beat which drives music forward in an effortless fashion.

While with the Kel Tamashek the rhythm provides the undercurrent for the steady drone of their version of electric blues, Brahim has used it as the foundation upon which she builds her more complex vocal melodies. Although she has something of the same declarative style of singing - she is telling stories after all - her vocals show the influence of other cultures and styles. Whereas most of the music from the nomadic tribes of the Sahara region I've heard in the past the lyrics are almost chanted in time with the pulse of the beat, Brahim allows her voice to reflect the emotional content of her lyrics and uses the rhythm as the forge upon which she creates her own sound.

Reading through the English translations of her lyrics it quickly becomes obvious she has been true to her word about creating songs which not only speak of her own people, but also echo the plight of those in similar situations around the world. Track three, "Espejismos" (Mirages) is one of the most moving examples of this. In language that borders on the poetic she describes the effects of war and strife upon the land in a way which not only brings it to life, but evokes the suffering of those who have to continue living there. "Damn the seeds of graves/that beat among the stones of your homeland/that grow/nourished by rage,/sacrificing the worth of the crop/and its fruit."
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However, her songs aren't just about desolation and horror, they are also about the potential for oppressed people to speak out and be heard. In the CD's sixth and title track, "Soutak" (Your Voice) Brahim says "I want to hear your voice/and the sweet words/that have lived within me/ever since those days." Within each person who has lived a life dominated by outside forces resides a voice which hopes for something better. Having been born in a refugee camp, and experienced what it's like to have her homeland stolen, she's in a position to say to others your story is my story and our voices are the same. She doesn't make any assumptions about other's experiences, but assures them their voices are as important as anyone else's, including hers.

Aziza Brahim has created a CD of heartrending beauty which speaks to the plight of refugees everywhere without descending into the mire of politics. Instead of pointing fingers or blaming anybody, she has focused on the results of the world ignoring oppressed people everywhere. While this impressive in itself, Soutak is also an example of the simple and elegant way in which musical traditions can be combined and blended to create a sound which doesn't compromise or insult anyone's culture. There aren't many people who speak for the voiceless among us, but here is one record which does so with intelligence and integrity.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Aziza Brahim - Soutak)

February 22, 2014

Music Review: Adrian Raso And Fanfare Ciocarlia - Devil's Tale

When the Ottoman Empire invaded Eastern Europe they brought more than just their armies with them. Even today evidence of their occupation can still be found. Muslim communities in Serbia are only the most obvious reminder of their one time rule as traces of their cultural influence can still also be seen in other, more subtle forms, including musical influences. The invading Turkish armies were accompanied by military brass bands, a type of music previously unknown in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In spite of the general antipathy towards all things Muslim in the region, for some reason this one particular aspect of the culture became part of the region's musical makeup and today the Guca Trumpet Festival in Serbia is one of the biggest brass festivals in the world.

In the north-eastern region of Romania in a small isolated Romany village, Zece Prajini, population around 80, the tradition of the brass band has continued unchecked since the days of the Ottoman Empire even as it died out across the rest of country. From these humble beginnings the village band, Fanfare Ciocarlia, (translated as Lark's Song) has stormed onto stages and movie screens around the world. (They are the brass band playing Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" in the move Borat) They have won countless world music awards for their amazing amalgamation of Romany and brass band music. Their fast and furious approach leaves one breathless and reeling, but they're more than just loud and brassy. They have the innate musical intelligence to be able to adapt their playing to almost any style and genre of music.
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This versatility is on full display on the new release from German label Asphalt Tango, Devil's Tale, a collaboration with Canadian guitarist Adrian Raso. In the past Raso has released albums of music ranging from Gypsy Swing to rockabilly and collaborated with everybody from Sheila E. to Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats, but as far as I know this is the first time he has sat down to record, or play even, with a brass band.

While I was very familiar Fanfare's previous work, I'd never heard anything by Raso before this disc. However, I did have some understanding of the style of music he plays. For while he's apparently an incredibly versatile performer, he appears to lean towards the more sophisticated Latin and Gypsy Swing influenced styles of jazz guitar work. Knowing how intricate and subtle those types of music can be, and also knowing how Fanfare's preferred approach was anything but either of those, I wondered how the heck their two seemingly widely divergent performance styles could meld successfully.

Which just goes to show how much I had underestimated Fanfare Ciocarlia's musical ability and their capability to adapt. All it takes is hearing the first notes of the disc's opening track to realize the band has entered into this partnership whole heartedly. Sure all their familiar energy is present, but now they have channeled it into musical nuance instead of blasting us out of our seats. For not only have they found common ground with Raso, but they have moved further afield musically than I would have thought possible.
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"Urn St.Tavern", the disc's opening track, is a wonderful example of how this union of styles resulted in something completely unexpected. I'm not exactly sure how to describe it, except that it would fit into the sound track of any number of Robert Rodriguez's more macabre movies. There's a slightly eerie overtone to Raso's guitar work which sends shivers up your spine while Fanfare's horns provide an ominous backdrop against which any sort of weird and creepy activity could take place. Who knows what the patrons of "Urn St.Tavern" get up to when dark comes creeping in over the mountains? Nothing any stranger would want to experience on their own, that much is for sure. (Obviously I wasn't the only one who made this connection as can be seen on the amazing video for the song)

As the disc progresses the jaw dropping work of both members of the collaborative team continues. The fourth track, "C'est La Vie" is a wonderful example of French/Romany swing music. Not only do Fanfare play with the relaxed assurance required to make this song bop and move with ease and grace, it's also a chance to hear what makes Raso such a special guitar player. Not only do his fingers fly over the fret board on his leads he manages to impart a kind of emotional joie de vivre into his playing. It's fast, loose and as full of life as the streets of the Left Bank of Paris where some new excitement is always lurking around the next corner.

The solo exchanges between the guitar and clarinet on this song resonate with not only the sounds of Paris, but Eastern Europe as well. You can hear the echoes of both Romany music and its close relative Klezmar come through as the clarinet swings its plaintive sound in cheerful defiance against the oppressive background that gave birth to both types of music. Simply listening to them perform lifts the heart and the spirit, and makes you appreciate how much music can lift you out of the muck and mire of a hard life.
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It's only fitting the final song on the disc is named "Django" in honour of the great Django Reinhardt, basically the inventor of the jazz style now called Gypsy Swing. However, the song's title can have a double meaning as the word Django translates from the Romany as "I awake". While Raso's guitar playing on this song harkens back to Reinhardt's style of jazz, the counterpoint provided by the brass is like a wake up call. While they're playing many of the same motifs Raso plays on his guitar, they put an extra punch into them which makes them leap out of your speakers. While some times jazz guitar can fade into the background if you don't pay careful attention, Fanfare's horns keep you awake and aware all the time. Whether they are providing the bass underpinning to the guitar leads with tubas and baritones, or snapping out leads on trumpets, they make sure our feet are always awake and moving to the music.

At first sight it would appear a brass band from a remote village in North Eastern Romania would have little in common with a guitar player from a small city in South Western Ontario, Canada. However, Adrian Raso from Guelph Ontario and Fanfare Ciocarlia from Zece Prajini have proven with their release, Devil's Tale, music knows no geographic, or any other, types of boundaries. Music is a universal language might sound like a cliche, but in the case of these two musical forces, not only was it literally true as neither spoke the other's tongue, but artistically as well. Each listened and heard what the other had to say and then responded in kind with results that are as spectacular as they are fun. On their own both Fanfare Ciocarlia and Adrian Raso are musicians to be reckoned with, together they are musical synergy of perfect storm proportions. Stand in the whirlwind and be swept off your feet by the result - you'll feel like you're finally awake.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia - Devil's Tale)

January 21, 2014

Music Review: David Broza - East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem

There are some subjects I know not to talk to most people about, because they probably won't like what I have to say on the matter. Always having been slightly left of most anarchists I'm supposed to hold to certain opinions in order to not let the side down. Yet, I've always been of the opinion that being an anarchist means you can have whatever opinion you want and not have to toe any party line. Still that doesn't prevent most people I know from coming over all strange when I won't condemn Israel out of hand or give my unconditional support for the Palestinian cause. My problem is that I can see both sides of the argument and refuse to say either side is completely right or wrong.

Of course being of Jewish heritage probably does have some influence over how I feel about the issue. I can't help it, but if you've studied the history of Jews in the Christian world you'll know until the formation of Israel it was one of never being sure when your welcome in any country would all of a sudden run out. However, the fact the political leadership of Israel are enacting policies which have created conditions similar to those Jews suffered under prior to the creation of the state for other people is reprehensible. How can a country which was founded on the premise of equality for all and providing a safe haven for those who desired it do so on the backs of others? The situation as it now stands is so fraught with difficulty it's hard to hold out any hope for peaceful co-existence between the two people of the region.

However, every so often rays of hope do pierce the clouds looming over the region. One of the most recent is the latest recording from the Israeli musician David Broza. For East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, being released on S-Curve Records January 14 2014, was not only recorded in a Palestinian owned recording studio, Broza recorded with a multinational and multilingual group of musicians including both Israelis and Palestinians. A mix of original material and covers, the album was created as a means of showing the world that it doesn't matter what politicians say or do - there are still people on both sides of the divide who haven't given up hope of region's two people living together peacefully.
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Broza is a gifted guitar player and singer, and both talents are on full display in this recording. One thing interesting to note is this record marks the first time he has written songs in English, instead of his native Hebrew. He has recorded in English before, but in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience he has taken the risk of writing his original songs for this disc in English. He figured, rightly, if he wants an international audience to take notice of his message he needed to record it in an accessible language. In the same vain he brought in American recording artist Steve Earle to act as producer for the release in order to ensure he had a better chance of connecting with a wider audience. Appropriately enough, considering the album's content, he also covers Earle's song "Jerusalem", accompanied by Earle on mandolin and harmonica.

With lines like "That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem", one could say the song is part hope for a better future and part wishful thinking - especially considering the current state of affairs in Israel. However, hope and wishful thinking aren't things to be condemned or put down when people attempt to put them into practical application. In the 1970s Nick Lowe wrote the song "(What's so Funny 'bout) Peace Love & Understanding" as a response to the backlash against the pacifism of the 1960s. Starting with Elvis Costello's recording of it in 1979 on his Armed Forces album, musicians have been utilizing this song to remind us not to give up on hope. "I ask myself/Is all hope lost?/Is there only, pain and hatred, and misery?/And each time I feel like this inside/There's one thing I wanna know:/What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding?/What's so funny 'bout peace love & understand?"

Broza sings this song as a declaration of intent and as a challenge to those who would dismiss those who have given up on seeing peace in the region. He not only sings this, he also shows us an example of how Palestinian and Israeli can work together in harmony if given the chance. On this song, and on his cover of Yusaf Islam's (Cat Stevens) "Where Do The Children Play", he's accompanied by the Jerusalem Youth Chorus whose membership is made up of both Jewish and Palestinian youth. They are by no means a professional choir, but what they might lack in quality they make up for with their passion and obvious belief in what they are doing. Considering they have only recently celebrated their first anniversary their performance is as remarkable as the example they are showing to the world.

While there are other covers on the album, including a wonderful version of Roger Walter's "Mother", which are equally remarkable, it's the songs Broza has written himself, or collaborated on with others which still are the most powerful. Who he has chosen to collaborate with in this process is actually almost as important as the songs themselves. American/Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean co-wrote and performs on the cover track, "East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem". Whose chorus of "East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem/Shalom, Salam" reminds us how similar the word for peace is in Arabic and Hebrew. While Jean's participation and performance are impressive, the truly amazing collaborations are the multilingual ones Broza has chosen to write and perform with Palestinian musicians.

"Key to the Memory" features lyrics by Broza set to music composed by Palestinian musician Said Murad, who also plays both on the song, while the lyrics are translated into Arabic by Mira Awad who sings on both this tune and another of his originals "Ramallah - Tel-Aviv". Like many of the songs on the disc these two songs feature a line up of musicians from both sides of East/West divide in Jerusalem. However, when it comes to multinational and multilingual collaborations the disc's closing tune, "PEACE Ain't nothing but a word" is the winner hands down. Broza and Earle wrote the English lyrics, Muhammad Mugrabi and Fadi Awad supplied the Arabic and Shaanan Steet the Hebrew - with the latter three also performing their own lyrics - while Earle wrote the music. Part rap, part traditional song, the lyrics are sung and rapped in all three languages.
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As the title implies peace in of itself doesn't really mean that much. What so great about peace if you're not free? "Peace ain't nothin' but a word/Unspoken and unheard/If I can't be free/Ain't any frame of mind/That I'm never gonna find/Gonna save me!" Broza and his collaborators understand peace in Israel is far more complicated than simply getting people to stop killing each other. There has to be mutual recognition and respect for each people's right to exist and be who they are. You can be a slave and live in peace, but what kind of peace is that?

Of all the songs on the disc, this one impressed me the most for its willingness to face up to the hard realities existing in the region. It proves Broza isn't just engaging in wishful thinking or is blind to the social political realities of his homeland. In the album's opening track, "One to Three". he sings "I was born into this reality/I was brought up with a war/That doesn't mean I must accept it/Don't wanna fight no more/Young people from all over/Stray off and cross the lines/It's a dialogue that we're seeking/And we're running out of time". He knows the reality, he's lived it all his life. However, he also knows the only way things can change is if people talk for real about the situation instead of merely mouthing platitudes or decrying what happens.

Any real peace between Israel and Palestine will only be accomplished by the people talking to each other and learning how to overcome their fears and distrust. Projects like Broza's East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem which bring together people from both sides of the divide, Jewish West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem, are only one small baby step in the right direction. However, its not only an example of what can be done by people when they put their minds to it, it's also an album of truly wonderful music. Hope comes in many packages, but this is one of the best you'll ever hear.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: David Broza - East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem)

November 16, 2013

Music Review: Tartit With Imharhan - Live From The Sahara

When the annual Festival Au Desert in Northern Mali was cancelled in 2013 due to the territory's occupation by terrorist organizations intent on imposing a very narrow definition of Islamic rule, organizers of the Festival were determined, if the world couldn't come to them, to bring the music of the Festival to the world. Formed in 2001 the Festival takes place during the traditional Tuareg (or Kel Tamasheq as they call themselves) annual gatherings called Takoubelt in Kidal or Temakannit in Timbuktu. Initially a celebration of Malian and Kel Tamasheq music and culture it has since expanded to include performers from around the world. The modern festival was created to help promote the arts and culture of the region and commemorate the 1996 peace treaty between the Kel Tamasheq people and the Malian government which ended nearly 30 years of sporadic rebellions.

For more then a thousand years the nomadic Kel Tamasheq have either been caravan leaders or herds-people crisscrossing the Sahara desert from Algeria in the north to Niger in the south. The end of colonial rule in the early 1960s, while meaning independence for some, saw the Kel Tamasheq begin losing access to their traditional territories and, as a result, their way of life was threatened. Since then, the expansion of cities and the encroachment of environment destroying uranium mining into the desert has made their situation more and more precarious. While armed uprisings and peace treaties between them and various governments in the region have occasionally bought them some breathing room, they have also been targeted for reprisals and attacks when governments decide to ignore the terms of the peace treaties when they become inconvenient.

After the rebellions of the early 1990s many of the rebels put down their weapons and picked up musical instruments instead. Through music they hoped to provide the means of keeping their culture alive by telling the traditional tales of the people through song and singing about the beauty of desert life. They also hoped to be able to raise awareness in the world beyond the Sahara of their situation. While many of the bands adopted modern instruments to play songs about traditional themes, primarily electric guitars, and were heavily influenced by the blues based music of American and British pop, some have retained more of the traditional elements of Kel Tamashek music.
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Normally the latter aren't heard as much in North America. However, thanks to the efforts of Chris Nolen, an American volunteer member of the Festival's board of directors and his newly formed Clermont Music label we now have a chance to hear performances like the one given by Tartit With Imharhan at the last Festival Au Desert on the CD Live From The Sahara.

Tartit are a group of five women who both follow and defy traditions for woman's music among their people. For while they employ the instruments normally used by women, the Tinde (a hand drum) and the Imzad (a violin) they also play the Tehardent, a stringed guitar like instrument, normally only played by men. For this concert, recorded live at the Festival Au Desert 2012, they were joined on stage by Imharhan, a band who have adopted the more conventional instruments of pop music. The first six songs on the disc are Tartit performing on their own. People familiar with the music of other groups from this region will notice some very sizeable differences in both their sound and the overall feeling of the music. The sound is rawer and far more, for lack of a better word, tribal, than the guitar oriented bands. Voice and percussion are what we notice the most, and the vocals are more along the lines of chanting then actual singing.

Naturally they sing in their own language, but the liner notes for the disc provide a description of the song's content, so we can at least appreciate what they are singing about. For instance in track one, "Dehebo" a man describes his love for a woman through the many things he loves about his people. In the Kel Tamasheq culture the women traditionally are considered the preservers of the culture and responsible for ensuring future generations learn the laws and responsibilities of what it means to be one of the people. In this song they use the conventions of a love song to tell their listeners what they think are the most important characteristics of their nation.

The third song, "Abacabok", is actually the first of two parts, its continued in track seven. It is dedicated to their great grandfather, a Sufi mystic, who had retreated from society to devote his life to his faith. In this song they talk about how their religion needs people like him. The description included says, thanks to this piece he returns to society. Now obviously they're not trying to bring the dead back to life, but they are invoking his spirit to remind people of the beauty of faith and Islam is not the religion of violence and oppression some have tried to turn it into.

It's for the second part of "Abacabok" Imharhan join Tartit on stage. All of a sudden a song played with the sparse accompaniment of percussion and non-amplified string instruments has its sound swelled by the inclusion of electric guitars and male voices. What was once a history lesson now becomes something which sounds like they are challenging their people to live up to the example set by the great-grandfather named in the song.
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It is perhaps fitting the final song on the disc, track nine Aicha Talammomt, is a solo performance by the male led Imharhan. For this is a song about the women of their people. Its lyrics describe them as the image of beauty, nobility and the source of all quality in the their culture. It continues saying a people without culture are a people without a face. While the face of the Kel Tamasheq the majority of world sees has been of the men, the men are the first to admit it's the women who have been holding their people together through fifty years of strife. They are the ones who have suffered the most because of the wars and droughts the Sahara region has endured during this time.

Playing this song during what has been a traditional gathering time for all the Kel Tamasheq is Imharhan's way of reminding their people of the importance of women to their culture. It also serves to warn of the danger their entire people face when the women are threatened or unable to live their lives in the way they should. With it being played on modern instruments, the band is not only reaching out to people of their own generation, they are talking to younger people as well in an attempt to keep these traditions alive. Unlike a lot of Western pop music, people don't just listen to the music and ignore the words of a song. Coming from a long history of griots - singers who can recount tribal and family histories - they are used to hearing and absorbing what's sung to them. So when a band like Imharhan sing, their audience will enjoy dancing to their music, but they will also listen to their words and remember them.

One thing you will notice is the quality of this recording isn't the greatest, even as live concerts go. However, you have to understand this concert was recorded outside in the Sahara desert under less than ideal conditions. Although the conflict in Northern Mali didn't start until a month after the Festival Au Desert 2012 was over, there were already worries about terrorist attacks and safety issues they hadn't had to deal with in previous years. This was on top of the normal logistical problems of holding a concert at least a two hour drive outside of Timbuktu in the desert. It's remarkable there's a record of any kind from this festival.

When the armies of Islam came down into North Africa nearly a thousand years ago the fiercest resistance they met was from the tribes of Berber descended nomads. They named them Tuareg - rebels against Islam - in reference to both their abilities as fighters and their determination to hold onto their own culture. A thousand years later they are still demonstrating those same traits. They may have changed their approach, using music instead of weapons, but they continue to fight for their survival even as the forces arrayed against them seem to increase all the time. Live From The Sahara, featuring the music of Tartit and Imhahan, is a great example of how the battle is being fought.

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Music Review: Tartit With Imharhan - Live From The Sahara)

October 1, 2013

Music Review: Tamikrest - Chatma

The early 1960s saw the end of colonial rule for many countries in West Africa and the Sahara Desert region in particular. While the independence of Mali, Niger, Algeria and other countries in the region had come after long, hard struggles on the parts of some of their people and were cause for celebration, there were those whose futures were thrown into turmoil because of it. The creation of these countries saw arbitrary lines drawn in the sand creating boundaries between the nations where none had existed previously. While this might have defined the new nations' geographical territory, it resulted in the carving up of a homeland which had existed far longer then any of them.

The Sahara Desert had been home to nomadic people of Berber descent for generations. Caravan leaders and herdsmen who plied the trade routes from Algeria to Niger moving goods and animals as the seasons dictated, their livelihood depended on freedom of movement. With the imposition of artificial borders in the shifting sands they suddenly found travel restricted and their way of life threatened. When an uprising in Niger attempting to protect their traditions failed in 1963 they were forced to flee for fear of government reprisals. Thus began the diaspora of the Kel Tamashek people, known to the rest of the world as Touareg.

The generation born durning this period became the rebels of the future. Many of them fought to secure their traditional rights through the use of arms in the 1990s, but some also realized they needed to find another way of letting the world know about their situation. As a result a number of these rebels laid down their guns and picked up musical instruments. Not only did they sing about their circumstances, they also sang about what it meant to be Kel Tamashek and why the desert was so important to them as a people. It was their hope future generations would be inspired by their message and not abandon their culture.
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Well, the generation who were children during the 1990s are now coming of age and it looks like they were listening, if the music of the group Tamikrest is anything to go by. They have just released their third album, Chatma, on the German based Glitterhouse Records, and look to be carrying on the work started by their predecessors, groups like Tinariwen. Ousmane Ag Mossa, leader of Tamikrest is quoted in an interview as saying, "[I]t's Tinariwen who created the path. But the way I see it, if younger bands don't come through, then Touareg music will eventually die. They created the path and now it's up to us to walk down it and create the future".

The title of the new disc reflects the band's dedication to their people's tradition. The word chatma means sisters and according to the band is extremely important in Touareg society. Its history dates back to cave etchings and has been used since in everything from historical records to the modern sounds of the "la guitare" groups of today. The word denotes the place occupied by women in their culture. For women are the guardians of their history, culture and the people as a whole. They not only are responsible for the education of the children and the home (Touareg tents belong to the women) they are also the poets who bring heroes to life, tell the stories of the people, recount the beauties of the desert and maintain achek - the code of honour which unites their people. In the booklet accompanying the disc the band explains the history of the word and why they dedicated the album to the women of their people, and all women in general. They understand women are always the primary victims of any conflict, and yet still manage to ensure both the survival of their children and their culture.

The first song on the disc, "Tisnant an Chatma" ("The Suffering of My Sisters") shows how, while the band is primarily concerned with the conditions faced by their own people, they understand women around the world suffer. "We women will march as long as women have not recovered their freedom on this earth/We will march in Azawad". Here they are talking about standing up for the rights of all women, while at the same time invoking Touareg nationalism by utilizing the name used for their traditional territories in Northern Mali: Azawad. (The band sings in Tamashek, and their lyrics have been first translated into French and then the French has been translated into English) For me the final lines of the song are the most telling, as they show a very good understanding of the realities of the world, "The Sisters are waiting for their freedom/Which is hindered by the discord in their brother's breasts/And which prevents agreement."
Of course they also talk about the situation of their own people. While filtering the lyrics through two layers of translation probably dilutes some of the words' original impact and meaning, the emotion and passion still comes through when you listen to the band sing while reading the translations. "Pain" ("Takma"), the eighth song on the disc, is a perfect example of this. "I suffer from a pain that inhabits my heart and my soul,/It is the same suffering that my brothers are experiencing/Freedom is my soul's ultimate goal,/In my land, The Desert, where my sisters live." The language sounds somewhat awkward when read off the page, but when you listen to them sing this song, using the English to help guide you, it helps you appreciate the depth of their passion.

Those of you familiar with the first generation of Touareg bands' style of music will be in for some surprises when listening to Tamikrest. For instead of slavishly imitating those who came before them, they have built on the existing foundation. While they've retained a lot of the traditional rhythmic patterns of their people, and the guitar still drives their sound, they've also incorporated other musical styles into their sound. So you'll hear the occasional reggae backbeat crop up in one song and notice a more straight-ahead rock and roll sound in another. Like their lyrics, their music reflects their recognition of the wide world around them.

The Touareg know they can't live in the splendid isolation their ancestors enjoyed; the world won't let them. However, they are trying to carve a path which recognizes both the world around them and preserves who they are as a people. The first wave of Touareg bands were primarily concerned with saying, "We are here and this is who we are". Tamikrest, while continuing the fight to reaffirm their people's identity, have also recognized they are part of a larger battle, one indigenous people the world over are fighting to find a place in the world while preserving their heritage. This broadening of vision, combined with their own musical style, makes Tamikrest not only exciting to listen to, it also bodes well for the state of the Touareg people. By refusing to let themselves be trapped in the past while at the same time being stedfast in the defence of their heritage, they can only increase their chances of finding a way to flourish in the world today. The music of Tamikrest is a giant step in that direction.

(Article first published at Blogcritics as Music Review: Tamikrest - Chatma)

September 25, 2013

Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987

I used to go to a lot of concerts when I was younger, and by that I mean a teenager and into my early twenties. The concerts were events, a shared experience you had with a group of people who were all there for the same reason. There was something about seeing the music live which made the experience more vital and inspiring than listening to it on record. I don't know if I've changed and concerts are still the same, but I won't go to one anymore unless I'm sure they will be in a controlled environment where people's focus will be on the stage. For under any other circumstances it seems like the audience is far more concerned with their portable devices or talking than paying attention to the person or band performing. These types of conditions make it almost impossible to enjoy a live concert the way I once did.

All of which makes me incredibly grateful for recent advances made in audio/visual technology. Now not only can I watch a performer I really appreciate without putting up with a lot of bullshit from people around me, the sound and visual quality are such they're probably better than what you'd find at most venues anyway. Even more exciting is the fact this same technology is allowing artists to revisit recordings of older concerts and remaster them digitally so we at home can experience them in ways we weren't able to before. Not only is this enjoyable, it also gives you a new appreciation for the group or individual's talent. This was brought home to me by the recent release of the Blu-ray/DVD package from Peter Gabriel Live In Athens 1987 on the Eagle Rock Entertainment label.

Instead of the usual dual format package where they send you the same item on both Blu-ray and DVD, this set is two distinct discs. The Blu-ray is the concert footage culled from three shows Gabriel gave over three nights in Athens of 1987 and the DVD, called Play, is made up of videos of Gabriel's songs from the last 25 years re-edited and mastered for 5.1 surround sound. While Gabriel selected which videos would be included in this collection, the majority of the re-mastering was done by Daniel Lanois.
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Gabriel took a much more hands on approach when it came to the concert footage. Originally the footage shot in Athens had been included in a movie called P.O.V.. Produced by Martin Scorsese the original film was more of a documentary about the 1987 tour as the concert footage intercut with film Gabriel had shot of life on the road off and back stage. For this HD remastering he went back to the original three days worth of film shot during the concerts and put together just over two hours worth of a concert movie. The film also includes the previously unreleased performance by the great Senegalese artist Youssou N'dour and his band Le Super Etoile de Dakar, who opened for and performed with Gabriel during the tour.

In 1987 Gabriel was probably at the pinnacle of his popularity and was touring to promote his most popular album to date, So, which remains the biggest selling album of his solo career. The three days of concerts in Athens marked the end of what was a world tour, so he, the band and the technical people had had plenty of time to work out all the kinks. While you might expect them to have been tired and maybe going through the motions somewhat after having been on the road for so long, nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe they had an extra adrenaline boost because these were the final nights of the tour, or perhaps they played every gig on the tour with this level of intensity, but this show is an emotionally charged phenomenon sizzling with energy from N'dour's opening note to Gabriel's final encore.

If you never had the chance to see N'dour and his band when they were in their prime their five song set will be a revelation. His set is a wonderful example of the way African popular music at the time combined popular music from other cultures with their own to create a spirited and exciting sound. Of course seeing them is twice as exciting as hearing them as they incorporate dance and playacting into their performance. The combination of N'dour's soaring soprano voice and the polyrhythmic sound of his band made for a performance that was not only a celebration of music but the joy of being alive as well.

However, this is Gabriel's show, From the moment he and the band, Tony Levin (bass) David Rhodes (guitar) Manu Katche (drums) and David Sancious (keyboards) open the show with "This is the Picture/Excellent Birds" (a song written with Laurie Anderson) you feel like you've entered into an exciting new world of sound, light and dance. For this isn't your ordinary rock concert with guys standing in a row playing. Nor is it the overblown effects some bands use to hide the inadequacy of their material. Instead what you have is a carefully choreographed and orchestrated show down to the smallest of hand gestures.

Gabriel uses his stage lightening not just for mood. It is almost a dance partner as he uses shadow, colour and light to help him weave the various stories he's telling or to accent a song's emotional content. His concerts run the gamut of taking us into the shadows where our darkest secrets lie (He introduces "Shock The Monkey" as a song about jealousy) to hope, "Games Without Frontiers" his anthem for peace and the joy of life's simple pleasures, "Solsbury Hill". On the latter the stage is bathed in clean white light and Gabriel, Levin and Rhodes almost skip around the immense stage in exuberant, yet simply choreographed, movements.
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However, it was on the song "Mercy Street" where he put both technology and choreography to their most daring usage. Not only did the lights play a part in the movement of the song. the lighting equipment itself became part of an elaborate dance with Gabriel. A portion of his lighting equipment was on a series of mobile crane like arms which could be raised, lowered, contracted and extended seemingly effortlessly. During "Mercy Street" these structures swung over the stage and then pressed down in what looked like attempts to crush Gabriel as he cowered under them. At times he would thrust the lights away from him and they would swing back up into the sky, only to come plunging back down again as he tried to stand. Not only was it an impressive display of coordinating the technical aspect of a show with the performance, it shows the depth of Gabriel's stage craft and his willingness to push the envelope of invention in all directions.

Never the less, all the technical wizardry and all the kinetic energy in the world would still be an empty shell if there wasn't a heart beating inside of, and an intellect controlling, it. In this case it's the heart and mind of one of the most passionate and intelligent performers in popular music. While those moments when Gabriel is in motion are without doubt very exciting, it's when he's still he's his most powerful. In 1987 South Africa was still under white minority rule and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Apartheid and all the crimes committed against humanity caused by it was still a fact of life and the name Steven Biko was still emblematic for the mistreatment of Black Africans everywhere in South Africa. Biko was a school teacher and non-violent protester against apartheid who died in police custody September 12 1977 at the age of 30.

Gabriel wrote the song "Biko" in 1980 in commemoration of the man and what he believed in. The lyrics are simple and to the point, describing how he was found dead in his prison cell, and then repeating his name over and over again as part of a chant played over the sound of keyboard synthesized bagpipes and simple drum. Usually Gabriel stands stalk still in the centre of the stage to sing this song, and on this tour he closed all his shows with it, with his only movement raising his fist straight in the air. In Athens he was joined on stage by Youssou N'dour and members of his band for the chant. There is such power in this man and in this moment, that I defy anyone with a heart to listen to this song, especially this version, without shedding at least one tear. Although Biko's plight might be in the past, the song resonates with such power listening to it being performed today, 26 years later, not only reminds us of past horrors, but the fact people are still being kept in conditions similar to those which led to Biko's death today.

Peter Gabriel is the consummate performer. Not only does he understand how to marry technology and art like few others, he doesn't need technology to make his music great. He only uses it to enhance the experience for those watching not to make up for any deficiencies in his work. Live In Athens 1987 is a perfect example of this in action. Both the Blu-ray of the concert and the collected videos on the DVD are all the proof anyone will ever need. This is a case of technology finally catching up to an artist's vision rather than the other way round.

(Article originally published at as Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987)

September 17, 2013

Music Review: Khaira Arby - Timbuktu Tarab

It's interesting how in a time of crises there can sometimes be an unexpected silver lining. The March 2012 takeover of Northern Mali by terrorist groups intent on creating a fascist religious state based on their perverted version of Islam saw an attempt by the invaders to outlaw music. In a country like Mali where music is one of their most prized natural resources this was not just an attack on people's social life, it was tantamount to cultural genocide. Many of the various ethnic groups, both Berber and African, rely heavily on music for preserving their traditions and heritage. If the attempt to kill music had been successful people would have been cut off from their histories and thousands of years worth of culture would have been obliterated.

While Malians of all types were forced to flee, it has been reported over 400,000 refugees from Northern Mali sought shelter in neighbouring countries and the southern regions of Mali, musicians were specifically targeted by the invaders. Houses were raided, instruments and equipment destroyed and lives threatened. The annual Festival au Desert, ironically started to celebrate peace in the region, which attracts musicians and audiences from all over the world to Timbuktu in Northern Mali in a celebration of music and cultural exchange, was cancelled due to the danger of travel and worries of fundamentalist attacks on both international and local artists.

However, even before the cessation of hostilities in Northern Mali was finalized, the musicians of Mali were showing their commitment to both their art and their country. The past six or seven months has seen the release of a number of recordings by various members of the community which have not only celebrated the role of music in their society, but have been replete with messages of tolerance and respect for diversity. Even more exciting is the effort being made by those outside the country to increase awareness of the region's music beyond its borders. While the Kel Tamashek bands like Tinariwen and various other individuals are known outside the country, there remains thousands of equally talented groups and individuals waiting to be discovered. Khaira Arby has long been acclaimed as the Nightingale of Northern Mali, but probably very few outside her native country have ever heard of her. A new release, Timbuktu Tarab, on the independent American based Clermont Music label, will give audiences in North America the opportunity to discover this amazing talent.
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When listening to Ms. Arby's music those familiar with the various styles from the region will almost immediately notice how she incorporates many of them into her sound. The trance electric guitar of the Kel Tamashek (commonly known as the Touareg), the traditional instruments of the African people (the ngoni and traditional violin) and the blues of the great Ali Farke Toure- her cousin and the person she credits as her biggest influence. The other thing you'll notice is she doesn't sing in just one language. As a mixed blood Berber and Sonrhai she draws upon both cultural traditions for not only her music, but her lyrics as well.

A praise song about the bravery, the values and the grandeur of the Kel Tamashek, "Sourgou" is sung in both their Tamashek language and the language of the Sonrhai. However, she not only sings in local dialects, she also sings in what many consider the language of Islam, Arabic. Interestingly enough the two songs on the disc she sings in this language are "Salou", a prayer to Allah, and "Tarab", basically a prayer for Mali. In it she pleads for unity and patience among all the peoples of the country and cites the name of a warrior hero from neighbouring Mauritian as inspiration for them to keep on fighting for their future.

Now I don't speak any of the languages she sings in, but the good people behind this disc's release have offered capsule summaries of each song's content and subject matter so we can at least know what she's singing about. While it won't help you understand the lyrics, it will give you some insight into Ms. Arby's significance to the region and how she attempts to reach as many people as possible. It will also give you an indication of her fearlessness and compassion as she'll sing about topics you don't often hear mentioned in songs from Africa.

"Fereine" is a song condemning the practice of female excision (the female version of circumcision or as its medically known Female Genital Mutilation) which is still commonly practiced through out the world. For a female singer to bring this up in song takes an incredible amount of bravery as its not something normally talked about let alone sung about publicly. But this isn't the only social issue she addresses. In "Youba" she addresses the conditions facing those working in salt mines. The song talks about how they return from the mines hungry, thirsty and exhausted and the general hardships facing the miners.
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While other musicians from the region might sing about conditions facing their own people, or sing songs which pass on their cultural traditions, few who I've come across up to now address the broader social and cultural issues facing Malians as a whole. Ms. Arby is able to look past individual tribal aspirations and realize that for the country to succeed as a whole everybody has to respect each other and work together. She understands how the various people of the region take pride in their history and culture and the need for them to be respected and honoured, but she also believes there is room for all of them under the umbrella of Mali.

As I said earlier musically Ms. Arby's music draws upon the various traditions of the region. However, like others she's been influenced by Western pop music as well. Blues and rock and roll from America are the biggest influences one can hear in her music. However, it's her voice which will stay with you the most. Not only is she able to communicate the depth of her feelings for whatever subject she is singing about, she has amazing vocal control. How many vocalists do you know who are equally comfortable singing up tempo rock and roll, gospel, folk and jazz? If you can imagine a mixture of Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Annie Lenox you'll have an indication of her vocal prowess.

The past year and a half has seen the country of Mali go through some of the most brutal fighting imaginable and its people deal with truly horrible conditions. With nearly half a million people made refugees and the continued threat of terrorist attacks from the groups who staged the uprising, it may take years for the country to completely recover. However, the attempt to stamp out music in Northern Mali not only failed, but has resulted in what looks to be a renewed effort to bring the artists of the region to the rest of the world. This is giving us the opportunity to hear wonderful artists like Khaira Arby. She's one of the great singers of her country and an amazing talent. For anyone with an appreciation for great vocals and great music, this is a record not to be missed.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Khaira Arby - Timbuktu Tarab)

August 3, 2013

Music Review: Jocelyn Pook - Unknown Things

It was early in the 1980s I first heard compositions incorporating found recordings of the human voice. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts by David Byrne and Brian Eno used everything from outtakes of a radio call in show to a recording of an exorcism played back at different speeds and put through a variety of effects to create a collection of odd and highly affecting music. They weren't the only musicians working in this field at the time and while I've come across a few other examples of this type of work since, not many have impressed me as much as that first recording.

Until I heard the re-release of Jocelyn Pook's Untold Things on Real World Gold, an imprint of Real World Records, I had pretty much given up on hearing anything in this style that would be as moving and inspiring as My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. In fact the pieces on this recording are far more than just manipulated vocal samples set to music. Each of the 13 tracks here are complete compositions where the vocals, whether found or recorded live, are only one of the instruments Pook employs to create her multi textured and intricate pieces of music instead of being the focal point.

In most forms of music where vocals are employed they are usually what the song or piece is built around. From your standard pop song to opera to choral pieces the music serves to accent the story or themes the vocals are expressing. Whether an electric guitar solo or a full orchestra the music provides an emotional context for the lyrics. The challenge for a composer looking to employ the voice in a different capacity is to find ways to overcome his or her audiences' expectations when it comes to the role of vocals in a piece of music. The majority of us are conditioned by experience to separate the voice from accompaniment to discern the lyrics being sung.
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When a composer inserts found vocal tracks from cultures and languages other than their own they redefine the role of the voice in the composition. Once they realize the lyrics are being sung in a language they don't understand the listener will lose the impetus to distinguish between voice and instruments. While this is one method Pook employs in this collection of pieces it's not the only technique she uses to make voice part of her sound pallet. On some tracks lyrics are reversed while on others she has made up languages for her vocalists to employ.

Pook is a classically trained musician and composer with experience in creating music for ballet, theatre and film; most famously the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. So these pieces aren't the slapdash creation of somebody just fooling around with a mixing board and tape loops. Each one is carefully constructed and arranged and works on both an emotional and intellectual level. For, while the various sounds might stir certain feelings within her audience their careful juxtaposition will also ensure they pause to consider what is causing the emotional reaction.

The opening track of the disc, "Dionysus", is named for the Greek god most often associated with unbridled emotions and generally letting loose. However as well as being the god of wine, he was also honoured with annual theatre festivals in ancient Athens. While some of these plays would have been ribald comedies the more serious tragedies with their moral lessons would have been staged as well. Still, the majority of listeners would associate Dionysus with his wilder aspect and be surprised by the subdued nature of the piece. With its close to ethereal vocals (Melanie Pappenheim) sung over muted strings (Jackie Norrie, Sally Herbert, Kelly McCusker violin, Pook viola and keyboards, Caroline Lavelle cello and Jub bass) and keyboards it makes one think perhaps there is more to this god than we first thought.

Emotionally the piece evokes a kind of wistfulness in the listener created by the note of yearning we hear in the combination of voice and instruments. However, if we stop and think about what we know about the god in question, instead of being carried away by the emotion suggested by the music we pause and wonder what it has to do with the song's subject. Why does a song about the most earthy of gods resound with echoes of loneliness? Pook is urging us to consider there might be more to Dionysus than we've been led to believe by popular interpretations.
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Previously when I've heard compositions which employ found vocal tracks it's been relatively easy to distinguish between them and the original music. That's not always the case with Pook's work. When you listen to track ten, "Calls, Cries And Clamours", you'll have a hard time telling the vocal sample from "Boat Song" sung by Hoang Oanh from the original material Pook created with vocalist Pappenheim. While in this instance the vocals are prominent in the mix, like all the other tracks on the disc they are simply one more instrument. Even better is the fact we don't even have the distraction of hearing something obviously "foreign" in the mix, and we can simply sit back and let the music wash over us and think about the implications of the title.

The three words of the title all refer to three types of sound. While the first two specifically refer to vocal sounds the third implies noise of a generally loud and confused nature. While the song isn't what you'd call loud by any means, it does create the impression of a number of different sounds being listened to at once. It's as if you were eavesdropping on a variety of conversations being carried on in different languages. What you're listening to may not be loud, but it's certainly confusing because you can't understand anything of what's being said. Even if you could speak one of the languages, the confusion of hearing more than one at a time would make comprehension next to impossible.

Yet in spite of this there is also a certain harmony and beauty to the way the different sounds being made by the voices and musical instruments come together. It's a very simple lesson in how diversity does not necessarily mean disharmony. Language is used to communicate ideas no matter if its French, English or Arabic. On the surface they sound different, but if we stop trying to discern meaning in what's being said we begin to hear how they harmonize.

The music on Unknown Things is both beautiful to listen to and fascinating to think about. Composer Jocelyn Pook has taken elements of Western composition and mixed it with both found vocal tracks and her own linguistic inventions to make intriguing and inventive pieces of music. While the songs all have an obvious emotional appeal they are intriguing and interesting enough to trigger an intellectual response as well. There are very few composers capable of doing both at once, and on its own this would make checking her work out worth your while, but the music is also a pleasure to listen to, which makes it twice as valuable.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Jocelyn Pook - Unknown Things)

July 24, 2013

Music Review: Etran Finatawa - The Sahara Sessions

The country of Niger in West Africa sits at the crossroads of age old caravan routes connecting the north of Africa with the south. While its economic importance has long since faded, it's now one of the three poorest countries in the world, the country's history of being a convergence point for the Arab and Berber peoples of the north and the Sub-Saharan people of the south makes it one of the most culturally diverse nations in the region with 11 distinct ethnic groups calling it home. Anyone familiar with the region will know the nomadic Tuareg are one of the people living there and of their conflict with the Niger government over the loss of their traditional territory.

The Tuareg aren't the only nomadic people who try to eke out an existence in this harsh environment. Living side by side with the Tuareg in the desert are the Wodaabe, tending their herds and trying to raise what crops they can. While in the past there might have been clashes over land and water, today the two people share common cause in trying to preserve their way of life. In 2004 musicians from each came together to form the band Etran Finatawa which translates literally into English as "the stars of tradition". While the band's numbers swell to as many as 10 people on occasion the core touring and recording group consists of three Wodaabe and two Tuareg. The band combines the musical traditions of both people and sings in both the Kel Tamashek language of the Tuareg and the Fulfulde of the Wodaabe.

As is the case with Tuareg bands in other regions one of the major focuses of Etran Finatawa is to try and help preserve the traditions of their people. To that end many of the songs they create deal with their history and their cultures. For their latest release, The Sahara Sessions on Riverboat Records, part of the World Music Network, the band eschewed the studio to record in their desert homeland. Sitting under a lean too like tent made from animal skins and sticks, surrounded by recording equipment and looking out into the desert the band recorded all 18 tracks on the album under conditions much the same as those their people have lived in for centuries.
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With the distinctive Tuareg style guitar weaving through every song listeners may well notice similarities with the work of other bands from the region. However, they will also hear some differences. The style and the sound of the percussion played on both Tuareg and Wodaabe drums gives these songs something of a different flavour. One of the drums, the azakalabo - a calabash suspended in water - has a much deeper and resonate sound than most hand drums. Unlike a bass drum it doesn't drive the music, rather it seems to give those songs its utilized on a kind of depth. The sound it produces almost surrounds the other instruments in a kind of three dimensional cocoon and helps the rhythm permeate deeper into the bones of the music.

You'll also notice a sizeable difference in sound when the vocals switch between Alhousseini Mohamed Anivolla of the Tuareg and Bammo Agonia of the Wodaabe. This is especially obvious on the tracks 5 ("An Mataf Germanawen") and 6 ("Eldam") where the former is sung by Anivolla and the latter by Agonia. Anivolla's voice moves along in the lower registers keeping time with the steady rhythm of his guitar and the beat of the drums. As with other Tuareg music there is an almost trance like quality to the song and the voice is a big part of creating the soothing nature of its sound. However, there's also an underlying sense of urgency to his voice which ensures people will listen to what he's saying at the same time they're being eased into moving to the music. The music and the voice combine to pull you into the song and then fill you with both the sound and the message.

Agonia's voice on the other hand lives at the higher end of the scale and has a distinct nasal quality to it. At first it's quite jarring in contrast to Anivolla's mellow sound, but Agonia has a power you can't ignore. Although he's not singing loud his voice is pitched to carry over almost any ambient noise the desert has to offer. You can almost imagine him singing at the head of a caravan snaking across the desert and his voice being the line holding the string of people and animals together. There's something so compelling about his voice you hang on his every syllable in spite of not understanding what he's saying.
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According to the liner notes the band set up camp just outside the town of Korey Gourou in Niger and had a constant stream of visitors stoping by to check out what they were doing. Not only did the band welcome the visitors, they also figured out ways of including them in the recording process. The guests ranged from a group of curious children whom the band spent an afternoon rehearsing in the hand clapping percussion of traditional songs before recording with them. Then there was the night a Tuareg percussionist showed up on his motorcycle with his drum and his playing can be heard on three tracks.

At one point the band was joined by a local Tuareg griot - an oral historian who sings histories instead of telling them - and he joined them in an improvisation of which "Wa Oyan A Wa Imouss I Bastila", track 4, is a short excerpt. The song's lyrics focus on the importance of the Tuareg culture and how it must be kept alive through singing and by ensuring the spread of music and the arts. While this song refers specifically to only one of the two peoples represented on the disc, the message could just as easily refer to either of them. As the years pass it becomes harder and harder for both the Tuareg and the Wodaabe to continue their traditional ways of life.

While the troubles in Mali in 2012 and 2013 (a Tuareg rebellion taken over by Islamic fundamentalists resulted in the banning of all music and the outlawing of any deviation from their interpretation of Islam which would have spelt the end of not only the Tuareg culture but many others) didn't directly effect Niger, it reinforced the precariousness position of the nomadic culture. The music of Etran Finatawa is an attempt to not only remind their own peoples of the importance of their traditional way of life, but as an example of what can be accomplished when they join forces to speak up for themselves.

Not being able to speak the language means we might no be able to understand the specifics of the messages behind the songs, but we can appreciate the the music for its sound and the passion inspiring it. When art is inspired by belief it can reach across the barriers of language and culture to touch our hearts. This album is no exception as each of these songs has a power that has to be heard to be believed.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Etran Finatawa - The Sahara Sessions)

July 21, 2013

Music Review: Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada

Long before there was a world music category I used to go to a record store in Toronto Ontario Canada called Sam The Record Man. It was a large ramshackle and rambling three story building which took up most of a corner lot on the major drag. The main floor of the building was taken up with popular music in the front and classical music in the back. Walking in off the street was like walking into bedlam, with different music playing out of a variety of speakers and posters advertising everybody from Elvis to the latest chart toppers. Just past the cash register was an old wooden stair case leading to the upper floors. Ascending you entered a quieter world where they stored both jazz and blues and a catch all section called folk.

In those days folk meant everything from Joni Mitchell to the massed pipes of The Blackwatch playing Scottish folk tunes on bagpipes. It was in this section you could also find music from almost every country on earth, everything from the traditional music of obscure island countries in the South Pacific to Inuit throat singers. Most of the records in this section were courtesy of people who travelled the world making what are known as field recordings. Using portable equipment they would set up shop literally anywhere, from somebody's living room to the fields where people were singing as they worked. What these recordings may have lacked in quality was more than compensated for by their authenticity.

The American music anthropologist Alan Lomax travelled all over the world making field recordings, with a strong focus on North and South America. In 1962 he made a trip to the Caribbean which included the outermost western island of Grenada. It was here he made the recordings of the fisherman and sailors who worked the boats plying the waters off the island now being released as the digital recording Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada by Global Juke Box Records.
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The fourteen tracks you'll hear on this recording don't sound anything like the nice clean gentrified stuff being passed off as sea chanteys in so-called pirate movies gracing the cinemas these days. In fact they're not going to sound much like any recordings you've heard anyone do of this type of music before. The closest thing to it might have been some of Harry Belafonte's calypso versions of old work songs, but those were cleaned up and made pretty for popular audiences. The first thing you'll notice on hearing these songs is you're not going to understand more than one word in 10 of what they sing. For even though you'll recognize the language they're singing as English, their island patois is so strong it's almost impossible to discern individual words.

The next thing you'll notice is the songs are chanted more than sung and while there are a group of men singing, they aren't singing as a group. Instead most of the songs take the form of what's known as call and response. One man, probably the crew chief or the person setting the stroke for men rowing a boat, will call out a line, and the rest of the men will either echo the line back or call out a response to the line as if answering a question. On occasion you'll hear the responding voices call out a variety of answers at once and it might sound confusing to our ears. However, no matter what is being said, or how many different things are being chanted in return, it's always done to the same rhythm as the initial call out.

Some of the songs have titles you might be familiar with, "Blow The Man Down" for instance, and that's not surprising. For these songs are versions of tunes which came from New England and Great Britain. The people of Grenada would have either learned them from sailors putting into port at the island or because they had ancestors who had been slaves on those boats. Wherever the songs came from though, they made them their own by adapting them to the music of the islands. So on occasion you'll hear traces of calypso, soca and even older West African rhythms under familiar sounding lyrics.
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On the majority of the tracks you're going to hear one voice more than others. The man's name is Charlie Bristol and his is the voice leading the others in the call and response. Like everyone else involved Bristol is obviously not a trained vocalist, but he has the type of voice which commands you pay attention. You listen to him calling out the cadences and you almost feel compelled to respond yourself. Even sitting at home you can visualize his crew and him at their oars and his voice easily being heard over whatever sounds the sea or the weather could send in opposition against him.

Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada is a fascinating collection of songs which gives the listener a glimpse into a way of life possibly dating back to early colonial times. While some of the track's may have familiar titles the way in which they are sung makes them unique. This is an introduction to a culture few of us have ever experienced and a style of music not heard as often as it once was. Even though the songs were recorded on what to us is primitive equipment the sound is remarkably clear and clean. As a historical record this is invaluable, but its true value lies in the enjoyment to be found in listening to these men sing. They might have sung these songs in order to ease the tedium of what must have been hard labour, but you'd never know it by the way they sound.

Article originally published at as Music Review: Various Artists - Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada)

July 18, 2013

Music Review: Various Performers - The Rough Guide To Flamenco

There's a story which says flamenco music has its origins in the 1500s when the Iberian peninsula was being reclaimed by the armies of Spain from the Ottoman Empire. Muslims weren't the only ones fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition who followed the armies hunting down heretics and infidels. Jews and gypsies who had lived relatively peaceful lives under Islamic rule were also being forced to either convert to the one true faith or die. It's said a group of Sephardic Jews and gypsies managed to elude the Inquisition for some time by hiding in caves surrounding the city of Catalonia. During this time they shared much with each other, including their music, and out of this exchange of musical ideas was born flamenco.

While the majority of those hidden in the caves were eventually caught, some escaped and took with them the ideas and sounds they had learned. Stories like these, while romantic, are hard to verify. However, a new release from the Rough Guide Label, part of the World Music Network, The Rough Guide To Flamenco offers at least the suggestion theres some truth to this story. One of the artists included on the disc is a Sephardic Jew singing a flamenco tune in the Ladino language of her people from the time of the Ottoman Empire in Spain.

Israeli born Yasmin Levy is only one of 13 different flamenco performers included on the disc. While each of them come from the same tradition of music, their songs are as distinctly individual as they are. From the family groups who continue the traditions of their Andalusian fore bearers to the modern groups who combine elements of pop, hip hop, Balkan, Latin and even the music of India with the familiar staccato rhythms of the genre, listening to this disc will show you flamenco is much more than you thought it was.
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The first four tracks on the disc, "Buleria Menor" by Son De La Frontera, "Por La Mar Chica Del Puerto" by Mayte Martin, "Cielo Azul" by Lenacay and "El Faro by Jorge Pardo and Agustin Carbonell (El Bola), take the listener from a Cuban flamenco mix, through traditional Andalusian to modern club beats and finally an exploration of jazz and flamenco. However, no matter if it's the club stylings of Lenacay or the soulful voice of Martin, at the heart of each song resides a passion and intensity you'd be hard pressed to find in any other music. Each of them seem to be built like a coiled spring which could explode at any moment, yet never does. The secret power of flamenco is the emotion it hints at roiling just beneath the surface. Like a hidden undertow beneath the seemingly calm surface of an ocean which could suck you under in a matter of seconds.

Yet at the same time, in spite of the passion and rawness inherent to the form, the music is also incredibly elegant. It suggests a certain amount of poise and formality no matter how it's presented. Perhaps it's the tightly woven rhythms of the music and the importance they play in each song which creates this impression. As we listen to the steady tattoo maintained by the strumming of guitars, accented by hand claps (and in some cases boot heels) and percussion accompanying the majority of the songs, one can't help but imagine the rigid pride and dignity of those performing. It's the kind of pride in who you are which creates an air of formality seemingly out of nothing. It's easy to picture individual performers in your mind's eye holding themselves straight and proud as they create this incredible sound. They might not be wearing fancy or elegant clothes, but there's nothing classier than hearing music which speaks of a people's history.

However, the elegance also comes through in how the music is performed. One of the best examples of this is the solo guitar of Carlos Pinana playing "Tarantilla". A third generation flamenco musician Pinana is a classically trained guitarist. His work combines the raw passion of flamenco with the smoothness and agility of his classical training. For just over four minutes his fingers strum, pluck and fly over his guitar's fretboard. One moment he's carefully picking out notes as if they were delicate flowers plucked from a vine and the next he's exploding into the fantastic flourishes which are the signature of flamenco. It's a remarkable display of virtuosity and artistry.
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Of course for sheer passion and pride you can't beat the contribution of Carmelilla Montoya. Performing since the age of seven she is both a singer and a dancer. Her contribution to the disc, "Carmelilla", is probably the epitome of what most of us think of when we hear the word flamenco. Her voice is raw emotion and she sings like her every word comes directly from her soul. Accompanied by guitars and hand claps, and what appears to be the sound of dancers stamping their feet as they move to the music, one moment her voice sinks into the earth's depths and the next its soaring among the clouds alongside the birds.

Just in case you fail to appreciate how diverse modern flamenco has become, the people at Rough Guide have also included a bonus CD by the Argentinian band Al Toque Flamenco, Buena Estrella. They combine flamenco music with their own country's tango to bring an extra bit of spice to what is already quite a flamboyant genre. Somehow or other they manage to bring this mixture off without it seeming like its too much or they're trying too hard to be different. In fact the combination of the two brings out the best in both genres and makes for lively listening.

The Rough Guide To Flamenco provides a great introduction to the genre for those unfamiliar with the music. It will also be interesting for those who have any preconceived notions of what flamenco sounds like as it shows the variety of ways in which the music is being performed today. While the traditional music continues to thrive, there are also those who are keeping the genre from stagnating by experimenting with form and style. Not every track might be to everyone's taste, but you'll be surprised at just how many different ways there are to play flamenco music. However, no matter how you play it, there's still something wild and untamed about flamenco which will get your heart beating and your pulse racing.

(Article first published at as Music Review: Various Performers - The Rough Guide To Flamenco)

April 29, 2013

Music Review: Various Artists - Live From Festival au Desert Timbuktu

Near the end of February 2013 I wrote an article outlining the situation in Northern Mali and how the ongoing armed conflict had forced the cancellation of the annual Festival au Desert. This music and cultural festival has been held since 2001 in one of two places in Northern Mali to commemorate the peace treaty negotiated between the Tuareg tribesman of the region and the Malian government. The dates its held on in January of each year also coincide with the traditional gathering of the various tribal groups of Tuareg whose territory stretches North into Algeria and to Niger in the south. For such a scattered and nomadic people these annual gatherings were an opportunity to resolve any differences that might have come up during the year between tribal groups and to make plans for the coming year.

The modern version of the festival started off as a celebration of African culture, specifically the people of the Sahara Desert region but also surrounding countries as well. Since 2003 it has gradually expanded to include acts from other parts of the world with major pop stars like Robert Plant and Bono taking part. With the rest of the world not being able to come to the festival this year organizers have been working out various means of bringing the festival to the world. They are attempting to book various acts to tour both North America and Europe during the summer and fall of 2013 for special Festival in Exile concerts. Already shows are planed as part of Chicago Illinois's fall music festival season and across the sea in Norway during November.

In an attempt to give people an idea of the type of music they can expect at these concerts the festival is releasing the CD Live From Festival au Desert, Timbuktu April 30 2013 on the Clermont Music label. Recorded during the festival in 2012, the disc gives listeners an example of the incredible diversity of music and musical styles on offer at the festival. From artists who are well known throughout the world like Bassekou Koutaye master of the ngoni, members of the renowned Tuareg band Tinariwen playing with the Indo Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia, (Tinariwen also backed up this guy named Bono at 2012's festival, but he didn't make it onto the recording) to groups playing traditional chants from Mali.
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While the title of the disc includes the word Timbuktu, the festival wasn't actually held in the city, its just merely the point of entry for those wishing to attend. Instead it was held a couple of hours drive out in the dessert from the city. Pictures of the festival site show a stage set up in the bottom of a naturally occurring bowl in amongst the sand dunes and scrub brush of the Sahara. Camels and land rovers dote the surrounding area as do tents of various sizes and construction. Modern nylon tents are nestled in beside the traditional felt and goat skin constructions of the nomadic Tuareg.

While you won't find the micro-brewery beer tents or the booths selling licensed memorabilia which dot the landscape at most modern music festivals you can watch camel races and appreciate the splendour of the multi-coloured clothes worn by men and women alike. You might also be tempted to adopt the turban/veil assembly worn by so many of the Tuareg men in order to keep the worst of the sun's heat off your head and gusting sand out of you mouth and nose. Away from the stage you may also take in performances in the various tribal encampments and listen to the ululating voices of women's groups or endless guitar jams.

However, everybody comes to see the performers who are gracing the stage and this disc contains a sampling of 18 tracks culled from all the music played over the course of the weekend. It starts with a simple welcoming speech in French - a hangover from colonial days maybe, but still the common tongue among the different people attending and performing. Even in the welcoming speech you might notice the sound is a bit rough. The recording was taken directly from the sound board and was limited to only two tracks. As a result there are times when the sound either distorts or is fuzzy as the equipment was simply not up to the task of containing the energy and enthusiasm of the performers.
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While some might find the iffy quality of the sound hard to take or even be put off by it, consider the conditions under which the recording was made. The concert takes place in the desert where electricity is limited which in turns limits the amount of equipment you're able to use. The priority would have been ensuring the crowd on hand was able to hear the music and the fact anyone even thought to hook up recording equipment to the two out puts available is amazing. Anyway, the sound may be rough. but it captures the feeling of being one of those lucky people crammed down near the front of the stage or sitting further back on a desert evening listening to the music.

You may never have heard of Baba Djire, Efes, or Orchestre du Takamba, the songs they perform or even understand what the songs are about. What you will understand while listening to this disc is what an amazing experience it is to be out in the middle of the Sahara Desert with the stars overhead and the sand around you listening to music. In this video trailer put out by the festival promoting the disc and the festival itself you'll find background information that not only summarizes the history of the event but the situation in Mali earlier in the year which forced organizers to cancel this year's event. Most of all it will provide you with the images from the festival which will supply the fuel your imagination needs to picture yourself standing in front of the stage with people from all over the world listening to some incredible music.

Like the festival itself Live From Festival au Desert, Timbuktu is filled with the raw passion of music being performed by artists who are not only musicians by profession but by vocation as well. They don't play out of any desire for celebrity or recognition, but because the music is their way of expressing who they are and what they believe in. You don't have to understand the lyrics to appreciate the sound of pure unadulterated passion. While the sound quality may not be up to the standards you're used to, the music is far superior to most of what you'll hear at more so called professional events. This is as close as you can get to being at Festival au Desert without actually travelling to the Sahara desert.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Photo of Festival Chris Nolen

April 9, 2013

Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere

When I was younger the mere site of an accordion would be enough to send me running. It was the instrument of Lawrence Welk and the worst sort of music imaginable. As my musical horizons broadened I learned this instrument, once the butt of so many jokes and derisive comments, had been unfairly maligned. Once you've heard zydeco and klezmer music you gain new respect for the accordion. However, nothing I'd heard before prepared me for what Koby Israelite does with it on his new release, Blues From Elsewhere, on Asphalt Tango Records.

While the disc has been out in Europe since March, its just being released in North America on Tuesday April 9 2013. The 16 tracks take you on a musical trip around the world as Israelite and his accomplices in musical adventurism blend genres and cultures in as extravagant display of virtuosity as I've ever heard. From North America to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and down to South East Asia probably the only continent missed out is Australia. Along the way you'll hear almost every instrument you can think of, with Israelite playing most of them. Yaron Stavi plays electric and acoustic bass on every track save seven ("Subterranean Homesick Blues"), 10 ("Rural Ghost") and 16("Kashmir"), while other guests join in on a couple of songs. Tigran Alexksanyan plays duduk and clarinet on "Lemi Evke", track 12, and "Kashmir", Ofir Gal adds electric guitar to "Lemi Evke" and John Telfer plays tenor saxophone on "Just Cliches", track 15.

While Israelite also contributes vocals, he has enlisted the aid of two highly contrasting, but equally powerful female vocalists for three of the songs. One of the highlights of the recording has to be his version of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" featuring Annique on lead vocals. It starts off sounding like it might be a klezmer version of the song as Annique sings the opening verse to accordion accompaniment in the sort of slow and almost mournful manner klezmer sometimes takes. Then, with a suddenness almost heart stopping, it rips into overdrive with Annique belting out the lyrics overtop screaming electric guitar to only have it drop back into her and the accordion again.
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On paper that might sound weird but believe me it's bloody amazing. You can check out the video for the song and it will give you a fairly good idea of how well it works. The video also gives you a good idea of Israelite's sense of humour. Dylan put out a short film for the song way back when and it featured him holding up pieces of cardboard with the lyrics to the song. Israelite uses a computer tablet to do the same thing, although its not necessarily displaying the lyrics, but random words which may or may not have anything to do with the song.

While Annique handles what could be called the Western vocal duties on the disc, she's also featured on the intriguingly titled second track, "Why Don't You Take My Brain And Sell It To The Night?", Mor Karbasi's vocals on "Lemi Evke" take us to the other side of the world. While Karbasi is famous for singing in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews in Moorish Spain, here she sings in Hebrew in what is described in the liner notes as Jewish blues. While it doesn't sound like any blues song you've heard before, there's no denying the weight of sorrow conveyed by Karbasi's voice. At one point she has overdubbed her own harmonies and sends her voice soaring up into the heavens overtop of her lead and you feel chills up your spine.

It's at this point that Israelite shows his genius for arrangements. For as Karbasi's voice is keening up in the higher registers he adds a clarinet to the mix. As you listen to what is apparently Karbasi's voice rising higher and higher on the scale you all of sudden realize she's no longer singing the harmony but the clarinet has taken it over and is carrying the notes even higher. The transition from voice to instrument is so subtle and beautifully done they could be interchangeable.
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While the two women guest vocalists stand out vividly the consistent star of the show is still Israelite. From the opening tribute to Johnny Cash, "Johnny Has No Cash No More", a burst of Cash sounding licks on accordion turned into just under two minutes of fun, to "Peckham Rai", a heady mixture of Western and Arabic pop music bridging the two worlds effortlessly, he shows he can play almost any instrument he lays his hands on. Even more important though is how he redefines the whole idea of world music.

According to genre classifications world music is sort of a catch all for any music, folk to pop, not readily identifiable as North American or British. Instead of partitioning music by ethnicity Israelite finds the common ground between cultures and weaves them together. His music is anarchy made real as it knows no borders or boundaries and ignores all laws and conventions. With the accordion leading the way he shows how a love of music can bring disparate cultures together without them having to surrender either their identities or having any one assume dominance.

Anybody who was fed a diet of Lawrence Welk will find it hard to think of the accordion as either revolutionary or an instrument of change. After listening to Blues From Elsewhere not only will you radically reevaluate your opinion of the accordion, but rethink the whole notion of world music. While others might dabble with music from other cultures to give their own music some additional flavour, Israelite immerses himself in all music equally. He knows it's our differences which make us unique and are a source of pride. His music not only celebrates those differences but also shows their potential to co-exist in harmony. It might just be for a few minutes in a song - but that's a start. We just need more people to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere on Blogcritics.)

April 2, 2013

Music Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba - Jama ko

It is sometimes said music gives voice to the concerns of a people. While this may not be as true in North American popular music as it once was in countries with a history of an oral tradition music is a key element in the telling of the people's stories. In West Africa griots are historians, storytellers, poets and musicians rolled into one. However, not only do they learn and recount the history of their tribe and its important people, they are also expected to be able to create songs about the state of the of the world around them in the present day.

While not all popular musicians in the region are griots, its a hereditary post passed from father to son involving years of study and preparation, it doesn't stop them from sharing many of the same attributes. So when the Tuareg uprising in Northern Mali turned into something that was far more insidious with repercussions effecting the entire country, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone if a response shows up on an album of popular music.

Bassekou Kouyate was in the recording studio in the capital city of Mali, Bamako, when the military overthrew the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Toure in March 2012. With tensions mounting between the various ethnic groups in the country due to fear and anger and the very real danger real danger of reprisals and crackdowns on musicians, Kouyate wrote and recorded Jama ko, now available in North America on Out here records.
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With Islamic extremists in the North rounding up musicians and destroying and confiscating musical equipment and the Malian army's history of targeting musicians who make waves, making the record was an act of extraordinary courage. Yet not only did Kouyate make this record, he recorded songs meant to inspire hope and defiance among the people of Mali. The disc's title song, "Jama ko", translates literally as "a big gathering of people", and is a celebration of the country's diversity. It is a call for unity and tolerance and encourages people, no matter who they are, to come together, enjoy life and celebrate the true spirit of Mali.

While the country's population is more than 90% Muslim, Kouyate explains in a statement about the disc, their version of Islam has nothing in common with the strict imposition of Sharia law the forces in the North were trying to force upon people. Music has not only played a role in the recounting of their histories, it has also been a major part of their worship as praise songs for the prophet Mohammad have been written and sung for hundreds of years. He concludes with the simple yet telling statement. "If the Islamists stop people music-making they will rip the heart out of Mali".

Well in spite of frequent power outages, a curfew and fuel shortages Kouyate makes some fine music on Jama ko. He plays the West African string instrument known as the ngoni. This is basically a hollowed out gourd covered by a piece of raw-hide, usually goat skin, with a piece of doweling stuck in one end strung with anywhere from 4 to 7 strings depending on the tone the player wishes to create. The strings are plucked in the same manner someone would pluck a banjo, an instrument which in all probability was inspired by the ngoni. However it has a much more flexible sound than its modern descendant. In the hands of an accomplished player like Kouyate, for all its simplicity of construction, a ngoni can produce leads as ornate as any guitar.

Aside from being accompanied by his two sons Madou and Moustafa and fellow ngoni player Sissoko, special guest vocalists are dotted through out the recording. Two of the songs aside from the title track which relate directly to the situation in Mali at the time the recording was made are "Sinaly", featuring Kasse Mady Diabate on lead vocals and "Kele magni". The first song is about Sialy Diarra a king of the Bamara people who was famous for resisting an attempt in the 19th century of the imposition of Sharia law. While to audiences outside of Mali the significance of this might be lost, those within the country would be familiar with the history and be inspired by its message of standing up for their own culture.
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On this song we also hear how Kouyate has absorbed a variety of musical influences from around the world as there is a decided "Latin" feel to the track in spite of its very Afrocentric subject matter. Sacko and Arby are from Timbuktu in Northern Mali in the heart of the area where the uprising was taking place. In fact Timbuktu was captured by the rebel forces at about the time the recording was made, "Kele magni", which is a direct call for peace in the country, features a beautiful duet between the two guest vocalists. As the two singers would obviously be persecuted for being musicians if they had returned home while Timbuktu was occupied, the song and its message become all the more powerful.

One of the more compelling pieces on the disc is the track "Wagadou", It's one of those occasions where not being able to speak the language of those singing doesn't make a bit of difference to the emotional impact of a song. The rather pensive and moody atmosphere Kouyate manages to create with just his ngoni and some keyboards added in the mixing process by producer Howard Bilerman offers us a glimpse at Kouyate's diversity as a musician and his willingness to experiment with sound.

Among the special guests to appear on this recording the one who will be most familiar to North American audiences is the great Taj Mahal. He and Kouyate perform a great blues duet on the track "Poye 2", in French.They trade leads back and forth on guitar and ngoni and exchange duties on lead vocals. The mix of African French and what sounds like Mahal's creole French is wonderful and their instrumental duets are a brilliant melding of the old world with the new. If you ever needed proof of the old saying music knows no language and doesn't recognize borders, this song is it.

It's not often we think of the act of recording music in terms of bravery. In the case of the latest disc from Kouyate and his fellow musicians their recording was both an act of defiance in the face of those who would ban music and an act of celebration honouring their traditions and their culture. What's even more amazing is even in the best of circumstances this would be an excellent collection of music featuring great musicians. Considering the conditions under which it was recorded it's astounding the disc was ever made, let alone is of such a high quality both artistically and technically. It takes a real devotion and love for your art to overcome these kinds of obstacles and produce work of such quality. Listen to this album and hear what love sounds like.

(Article first published as Music Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - Jama Ko on Blogcritics.)

March 5, 2013

Music Review: Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances

Field recordings are usually made with portable recording equipment in less than what anybody would consider ideal conditions with the result being less than perfect recordings as far as sound quality is concerned. However, since the earliest days of recording music they have been invaluable tools for preserving the music of cultures all over the world. Music anthropologists in the 19th century used wax cylinders to record everything from Native American singers to Appalachian folk music.

Field recordings of African American blues and gospel music were often most white people's introductions to both genres. Even today field recordings are playing an invaluable role in ensuring older artists' music is recorded and not forgotten. The Music Maker Relief Foundation has used field recordings to help bring the music of Southern blues artists who otherwise might have been forgotten into homes and concert halls around the world. However field recordings aren't limited to North American music. The Centre for Traditional Music and Dance's archive of recordings is a treasure chest of music from around the world. One of their most interesting collections of recordings were those done in the Balkans during the 1960s and 1970s by Martin Koenig.

His Balkan Arts Centre (the forerunner of the Centre for Traditional Music and Dance) was formed to help keep the music and culture of that region alive. Koenig's original recordings were made into LPs and 45s which he used to teach the folk dances of the region. However, they were never made available to the public. Now that's all changing. A box of the original vinyl records was found in the Centre and have now been restored. They are being released as a 13 part series of special edition vinyl EPs by Evergreene Music with the first release being Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances.
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Now don't worry if you don't have a turn table as every EP comes with a code which not only allows you to download the four tracks from the recording but also gives you access to liner notes, photos and additional audio files including a recording of an interview with Koeing. In the interview he talks about his experiences recording the music in communist Eastern Europe and why it was important then, and remains important today, these recordings exist.

Like most field recordings made prior to the digital age the sound quality of the four tracks aren't the greatest. However there are other compensations. This is music we would have no record of if these recordings hadn't been made. Folk music which encouraged nationalistic feelings, or celebrated ethnic differences, were strongly discouraged under communist rule in Eastern Europe. An entire generation grew up without knowing the traditional music of their culture. Recordings like these are the only way they have of learning anything about the music and the dances of their people.

Listening to the four cuts, "Zborinka", "Ruka", "Chukanoto" and "Dobrolushko Horo", the first thing you might notice is the similarities between this music and what we call "Gypsy" music. They both have a kind of wild abandonment to them and a heavy reliance on what sound to be stringed instruments. This only makes sense as Bulgarian folk music would have many of the same influences as other musics from the region. Like their neighbours in Romania, Bosnia and Greece, Bulgaria was at one point part of the Turkish ruled Ottoman Empire. You can hear this influence in rather high pitched skirling noise produced by the combination of a type of bagpipe and the violin.

The next thing you'll probably notice is the lack of anything like a bass line providing an underpinning for the song. Unlike the majority of the music we listen to which is built around a very distinctive beat there doesn't appear to be any one instrument responsible for maintaining the song's rhythm. However by listening closely you do hear the sound of a drum buried very deep in the mix. Whether that's intentional or a result of deficiencies in the recording process is unclear.
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However, even without the drum, you'll notice each of the songs has a pattern. Out of what appears to be a sort of free for all, with all the instruments playing leads at the same time, gradually evolves something we can discern as a carefully constructed song with a noticeable rhythm. The secret is to listen to the song as a whole, not the individual instruments, and then you'll be able to hear the song's pulse. This is the engine which propels the dancers who would move to the music.

It might be hard for us to remember this is dance music as it no way matches our idea of how it should sound. Even those of us familiar with other Eastern European music will feel somewhat lost as it doesn't have the definite beat of Polish Polkas or the Cossack music of Russia. No this is far wilder. Evoking the wind swept hills and crags where the shepherds who created it tend their flocks.

In fact it's hard to imagine this music ever being recorded in a proper studio setting. It sounds like it needs to be played out in the open air with its skirling notes being allowed to escape into the sky and the mountains. It's made to be played in the village square or on a hillside around an open fire not in the sterile environment of the recording studio. Thus we discover the real value of field recordings. They not only capture music, they capture the music and its environment like no other recordings can.

The four recordings on Bulgarian Folk Dances aren't, by any stretch of the imagination, high quality. However, they are exciting, exhilarating and a timely reminder that music used to be played for the sheer joy of making it and the chance it gave us to celebrate living. Listening to the music it's fun to try and imagine the kind of dancing it encouraged and the people who danced to it. How often have you been able to say that about anything you've heard recorded recently.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances on Blogcritics.)

February 22, 2013

Festival au Desert 2013 Cancelled Due To Uprising In Northern Mali

Almost since I began reviewing music seven years ago I've been receiving press releases inviting me to attend the annual Festival au Desert. This year instead of my annual invitation I received a release announcing the festival's cancellation due to the ongoing war in Northern Mali. However, the press release did announce they would be holding events in exile. Since the world can't come to North Africa this year they will attempt to bring North Africa to the world.

The situation in Northern Mali is confused right now, to say the least. In an effort to understand the situation better and find out more about what's happening with the Festival I contacted Chris Nolan who is the Festival's North American associate. For those who might not be familiar with the Festival perhaps a little background information is in order. The first Festival au Desert was held in 2001. However its origins lie in an annual Tuareg festival, known as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temakannit in Timbuktu, held at this time of the year. The Tuareg are a widely scattered nomadic people united by a common language, Tamashek whose traditional territory stretches from the Algerian Sahara in the north to Niger in the south. These were times when people could gather in one place to exchange information and resolve any difference that had arisen between tribes during the previous year. While in the past the meeting place had changed locations from year to year, it was decided to create a permanent location for the modern version of the festival. The current location is in Essakane, two hours north of Timbuktu, making it accessible to both locals and international attendees.

Initially the festival was limited to musicians from the region, dancing, camel races and other traditional activities. It has since been opened up to musicians from all over the world. For three days 30 or so groups representing a variety of musical traditions perform for audiences who come from all over the world. It is now not only a celebration of Tuareg culture, but all the cultures of the region and a cultural exchange between the area and the rest of the world. The current dates of the festival were chosen specifically to commemorate "La Flamee de la Paix" (The Flame of Peace). This was a ceremony which took place in 1996 to mark the end of the last Tuareg uprising and involved the burning of over 3000 firearms which were then transformed into a permanent monument. At the time it was hoped the treaty signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg would mean peace for the region and see real improvement in the living conditions among the Tuareg.

Ironically, and sadly, this year's festival has been cancelled because once again violence has returned to the region. The echo of the last notes from 2012's festival had barely died away when a new rebellion sprang up. The Malian government had failed to live up to its obligations under the treaty and there had been sporadic outbreaks of revolt since 2009. This time though it was a full scale and well organized uprising. However, unlike previous Tuareg revolts it soon became apparent this one was radically different. Previously they had been about preserving their land and culture, this time there was a new and rather nasty undertone.
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For more specific information about what has been going on since last January I turned to a series of articles written by Andy Morgan which have been published in various newspapers and gathered together at his web site Andy Morgan Writes. Morgan had been manager of the Tuareg band Tinariwen and helped them make the transition from a regional band to the international presence they are today. Morgan has lived and worked among the Tuareg enough to be able to offer a perspective few others can. One of the most important things he says we have to keep in mind is there is no one voice speaking for the Tuareg. Geography and the nomadic way of life ensure they are scattered over the entire Western Sahara. In each region tribal groups have their own leadership and govern themselves as autonomous units. Therefore those in Mali speak for the people of Mali and no one else. Complicating the current situation even more is the sharp division among those claiming to speak for the Tuareg of Northern Mali.

First there is the traditional chief of the Ifoghas tribe who are the hereditary leaders of the Tuareg in the North. While the chief himself is a traditional Tuareg, his son and heir, Alghabass Ag Intalla, is a recent convert to a fundamentalist form of Islam. He is head of a group calling itself Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) whose goal is the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Tuareg territory of North of Mali - known as Azawad. Until recently he and his group were allied with the even more radical Islamic group Ansar ud Dine, headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, another Tuareg convert to radical Islam. It was his group who were responsible for the implementation of Shira law in the region. They also have direct links to and are funded by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Al Qaida's funds for their operations in North Mali came from smuggling operations (drugs, arms, cigarettes and people) and money laundering. All activities which would appear to be in contravention of Shira law, but as we've seen elsewhere, when it comes to raising money politicians tend to turn a blind eye to its origins. Iyad Ag Ghali's ambitions weren't just limited to the creation of an Islamic state in North Mali, he wanted all of Mali brought under Shira law. However, he had no claim to the leadership of the Tuareg. When he demanded to be made leader of what was meant to be a Tuareg uprising, he was refused and broke away from the body who most represent the Tuareg's interests, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Ag Ghali and Ansar ud Dine were able to take over the rebellion as they were the only group with funding. He was able to offer young unemployed Tuareg men money and equipment. As in other poverty stricken areas of the world there's nothing like financial security to bring people flocking to your cause. Philosophy and political ideals fall by the wayside when in competition with cash in hand. The depth of Ghali's followers beliefs can be measured in how quickly they abandoned him when the French troops arrived. It was one of the reasons armed resistance to the combined French, Chadian and Malian armies collapsed so quickly.

However, since hostilities began last year they were able to cause enough damage in the territories they controlled (they had captured Timbuktu and had begun to move South towards the Malian capital) to ensure a massive exodus of refugees from the area. At the same time the imposition of Shira law saw the banning of all music and to forced all musicians, Tuareg and others, into hiding and exile.

While Ansar ud Dine and their Al Qaida backers have disappeared into the mountains and the desert the question of who is leading or speaking for the Tuareg in North Mali still remains unclear. For while Alghabass Ag Intalla and his MIA can lay claim to being heir apparent to the hereditary chief, his father, who is still chief, is said to be opposed to his vision of an Islamic state. Intalla and the MIA have retreated to the Northern Mali city of Kidal where they have been joined by the ruling council of the MNLA. As of early February they were preparing to open negotiations with the French in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, just because the Al Qaida backed forces have fled the battlefield, it doesn't mean they aren't around. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere they have merely faded into the background awaiting another opportunity. As long as the French troops remain on the ground they will continue to be dormant, but who knows what will happen after they leave. The only way of combating them is to ensure the conditions that led to their being able to recruit among the disaffected of the region are resolved. This means there has to be some resolution come to concerning the demands of the Tuareg people of the area.
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In an interview Andy Morgan conducted with Ag Intalla by phone near the beginning of February it was clear the MIA are still pushing for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in North Mali. However, as the majority of Tuareg would not be happy living under even his "kinder gentler" version of Shira law, he says some music will be tolerated as long as its not obscene, it's doubtful his vision will become a reality. He's currently doing his best to distance himself from his earlier position of supporting Ansar ud Dine and backing away from advocating violence. However he also says in the interview if you don't want to live in an Islamic Republic, live somewhere else. That's not going to play very well with either the Malian government, the French or the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the conflict and want to come home.

When all this is combined with a military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Malian government in March of 2012 and how the conflict has revived old tribal conflicts between the various people's living in the region, the fate of this year's Festival au Desert was in doubt from early on. According to Nolan organizers had hoped they might be able to move the location of the festival into the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso where a number of musicians had gone into exile. The idea was to caravan performers from Mali and the surrounding area to a place which was still accessible to international visitors but safe from the conflict. With the strictures against music and musicians in place that would have meant some difficulties in logistics, but it would have been possible. However when the French and Chadian armies showed up and hostilities intensified the idea had to be shelved. There was just no way they could have guaranteed anyone's safety under the new circumstances.

Aside from concerns of having to shepherd people through a war zone there was the risk of terrorist attacks. With both Al Qaida and Ansar ud Dine followers taking to the hills and desert there was no way to track their movements. Considering the recent hostage taking crises in Algeria and Al Qaida's penchant for fundraising through kidnappings, the risk involved with gathering musicians and foreign tourists in one spot was just too great. Even turning the festival grounds into an armed camp, which would have put a damper on proceedings, wouldn't be a guarantee against a rocket attack.

So, this year the festival will be held in exile at locations scattered around the world. As of now there are events scheduled to take place in Chicago in September and then in Scandinavia in November. Festival organizers are also in the process of arranging for three other performances in North America during July and August, two in the US and one in Canada. Those plans still need to be finalized but as the season advances keep an ear out for announcements about dates, locations and performers.

Of primary concern to anyone who has been following events in Mali has been the fate of musicians under the Shira law imposed by Ansar ud Dine. When I asked Chris Nolan about this he said the majority of musicians are probably better off than other refugees as they do have some financial resources at their disposal. While it's true they had to leave their homes, and any equipment left behind was confiscated or destroyed, they would not be suffering the same level of deprivation as most displaced people. He also reminded me some of the people living in the refugee camps had been there since the uprisings of the 1990s, too afraid to go home for fear of reprisals from the Malian army.

However, he also added we shouldn't underestimate the impact the imposition of Shira law had on the region. Aside from the role music plays socially - he posed the question imagine what your life would be like if all of a sudden all music was banned - this an area where history and cultural identity is kept alive orally through music. Griots, who Nolan likened to European bards, are the keepers of a tribe's history and stories. Through song and music they teach new generations about their history and culture. In recent years Tuareg bands, like Tinariwen, have been employing the same techniques to help ensure the continuation of their culture's traditions and to instil in their listeners a sense of pride in themselves.

According to Nolan the banning of music was an act of cultural genocide with the aim of suppressing the traditions of the indigenous peoples of the region. Once you begin to understand the implications of such a ban, it really makes you wonder how the leaders of any of the groups working towards an Islamic homeland would think they would have the support of either the Tuareg or any of the people native to the region.
Festival Stage Alice Mutasa
However, as Nolan said, and Andy Morgan confirms in his writings, it's what happens after the fighting stops which is really important. If the status-quo is maintained and nothing is done to address the rights of Tuareg people in the area and their justified fears of retaliation from the Malian army, unrest in one form or another will continue. It seems obvious to me what needs to happen. International pressure has to be brought to bear on Mali - and the other countries in Tuareg territory - forcing them to honour the treaties they signed with the Tuareg. These agreements have done everything from guaranteeing them land, rights and economic opportunities in exchange for surrendering parts of their territory. In what will sound like a familiar story to Native North Americans these treaties seem to exist only to be ignored or broken.

Some sort of international monitoring by neutral observers must be put in place to ensure all parties live up to the conditions of any new treaties negotiated, or the terms of the old ones are being implemented, If these types of guarantees are in place it might be enough to convince people it's safe to return to the region and generate hope for a better future. If people can be given evidence their lives will improve then just maybe the next criminal who comes around flashing guns and money won't be able to turn their heads with his blandishments. There might still be terror attacks in the future, but they won't have the sympathy or support of local people.

The cancellation of Festival au Desert this year is more than just another music festival not taking place.This festival was a symbol of how co-operation between cultures and the meeting of traditional ways of life and the modern world are possible and a benefit to all involved. It was also a symbol of pride and hope for the Tuareg. It was a chance for them and their African neighbours to celebrate their cultures with the rest of the world. For Western pop stars it was a reminder of the power of music and what it was that drew them to it in the first place. "It's one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time...It reminded me of why I sang in the first place." said Robert Plant in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in March 2003. However, as Chris Nolan and Andy Morgan remind us, the cancellation is also emblematic of the problems which have plagued the entire region for the last half century.

Since 1960 the Tuareg have seen the gradual erosion of their way of life. While their land remains some of the most inhospitable on the earth, its also rich in natural resources. In Niger Uranium mining has not only displaced people but poisoned precious watering holes and upset the balance of nature in one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet. Even the supposed economic benefits promised have failed to materialize as any profits from the operation leave the country without any spinoff for the local community. The same story is repeated across the Sahara as the Tuareg have been tossed aside in the hopes they will be fade away until the world forgets about them.

The first Arab armies, nearly a thousand years ago, named them Tuareg, rebels - rebels against Islam - in honour of how fiercely they defended themselves and their territory. Their pride in self and as a people which fed that initial resistance remains and continues to propel their efforts to survive. While musicians of other backgrounds were affected by the implementation of Shira law and it has been more than just Tuareg people displaced by the war, they are still the region's flashpoint. This most recent uprising might have been co-opted by those with ulterior agendas, but its origins have the same root cause of all the uprisings for the last 50 years. The Tuareg won't be cast aside or forgotten, and the sooner Mali and other countries face up to that reality the sooner there will be real peace in the region.

Festival au Desert 2013 has been forced into exile. Like the people and music it celebrates its been forced from its home by the very violence whose end it was meant to be commemorating. Hopefully 2014 will see Mali heading in a new direction, one which guarantees all its peoples their rights and freedoms. Most of all I hope next year to receive an email press release inviting me to cover the Festival au Desert at its home near Timbuktu and music will once again ring out across the desert.

(Article first published as Festival au Désert 2013 Cancelled Due to Uprising in Northern Mali on Blogcritics.)

(Festival photos by Alice Mutasa

December 31, 2012

My Ten Favourite Recordings of 2012

I don't have any idea the number of press releases I received over the course of the past year announcing yet another CD of music being released by someone. Conservatively I'd say they would have to numbered well into the thousands. Based on those numbers for me to claim I can select the ten best releases of 2012 borders on being ridiculous. However, out of the releases I released I offer you the ten I liked the most. These are the discs which have ended up on my I-pod and I will be listening to them for years to come. Hopefully you'll be encouraged to check them out and find out why I thought they were special.

Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - The Songs Of William Blake When most people refer to Americana or roots music they tend to forget about two important musical traditions. Redbone and her band created an album which blends the Native, African and Anglo/Irish/Scot American roots of North American music with the words of poet William Blake. The result are wonderfully vivid versions of Blake's work. With Redbone's splendid voice leading a masterful group of musicians you'll not only gain a new appreciation for the poems but broaden your definition of roots music.

Patti Smith - Patti Smith Live At Montreux 2005 As far as I'm concerned any release by Patti Smith is a special occasion. A DVD of her in concert is something to really celebrate, especially when its as well filmed and recorded as this one. Her regular band is augmented by the inclusion of lead guitarist and old friend, Tom Verlaine and they play a selection of tunes from her whole career to date. A live recording also is the chance to see her and the band step outside the box with improvised solos you won't find on studio recordings. Listening to Smith is great, being able to her watch her perform live is even better.

Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind The fact the Ben Folds Five are a trio should tell you something about the band even before you first listen to them. Intelligent, witty and an ability to create finely crafted pop songs make this unlikely group of pop musicians not only fun to listen to, but interesting as well. Lyrics which make you think combined with music that veers between power pop and torch songs - sometimes in the same tune - aren't what I've come to expect from most bands these days. However, that's the beauty of this band - they defy expectations with panache.

Jason Collet - Reckon If there were any justice in the world of pop music everybody would have heard of Jason Collet. Funny, irreverent and emotionally honest he tackles both topical and personal subjects in ways everyone could take a lesson from. He manages to show how the former impacts individuals and turns the latter into statements with universal appeal. If you've never heard him before do yourself a favour and pick up this disc. Your won't regret it.

Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years Sure Strummer has been dead for a decade now, but as this digital download of fifty plus songs culled from live concerts, unreleased tracks and the three studio albums he released with The Mescaleros shows, his music remains as vital today as it ever was. While more musically sophisticated than his recordings with The Clash, this music retains an edge which allows him to cut through the shit and get to the heart of a subject. For all you Strummer fans out there, and those who missed out on the Mescaleros' years, this collection is a must have.

Mark Knopfler - Privateering There are some guys still playing who you wish would just do us all a favour and retire already. Knopfler isn't one of them. This collection of songs proves he's still a master when it comes to song writing and guitar playing. His ability to write about a variety of subjects with sensitivity and intelligence is if anything even stronger then ever and his guitar playing remains some of the most subtle and beguiling in the buisness. As comfortable as a favourite sweater, but much more exciting, this is music you'll listen to for a long time to come.

Public Image Limited - This Is PIL It's been forty plus years since John Lyndon (aka Johnny Rotten) first set people's teeth on edge with his in your face image and iconoclastic music. He might not dress to shock anymore, but his music is still as unstintingly acerbic and challenging as it ever was. With this latest album from PIL he and the band show they are still musically interesting and fiercely independent. A great reminder of pop music's ability to unsettle and question the status quo with intelligence and wit.

Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Grifter's Hymnal One of the great Texas outlaw musicians is back with another disc of gritty and real songs. Part autobiographical and part mythological his latest disc is an irreverent but heartfelt look at music and life. You won't hear any of Hubbard's music on your local country radio station, or any other radio station for that matter, mainly because he has a disturbing habit of speaking his mind. Honest, gruff and firmly rooted in reality its the best music to come out of Texas in years.

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil After raising over a million dollars through her Kickstarter campaign to produce, promote and tour this album Palmer was thrust into the role of standard bearer for independent music producers. Almost lost amidst all the fuss was the excellence of the resulting album. While she made her name as a quirky and intelligent solo artist, this disc sees her step into the role of front person for a rock and roll band without missing a beat. More musically sophisticated than any of her previous releases, lyrically she's still as insightful and thought provoking as ever. While she's an adherent of the school of rock and roll as theatre, substance never takes a back seat to style. One of today's most exciting and dynamic performers has finally taken centre stage and pop music will never be the same again.

Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird Somehow or other Rudd manages to produce record after record of topical material without ever sounding preachy or self-aggrandizing. He makes no apologies for singing about the exploitation of the environment and how it endangers life on the planet. Playing a combination of traditional and modern instruments his music is the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics. Simple and powerful his songs work on us both intellectually and emotionally without resorting to manipulation or guilt. He sings about facts, dreams and hope - asking us to join him and others in changing the way things are currently done. A brilliant musician and gifted songwriter he'll have you rethinking the way you look at the world.

Article first published as My Ten Favourite Recordings Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

October 19, 2012

Music Review: VulgarGard - King Of Crooks

The other night I watched the DVD of the movie Moulin Rouge! for the first time in about a decade. While I enjoyed the movie as much as I did the first time I watched it, one scene in particular stood out, a tango performed to the old Police tune "Roxanne". In particular I was fascinated by the actor singing, a man named Jacek Koman. Upon further investigation I discovered he was an expatriate Pole living in Australia working as an actor. Even more interesting was the discovery he's the lead singer of the band called VulgarGrad. After being blown away by a couple of videos of the band performing on YouTube I wanted to hear more.

While they don't have a physical CD available in North America, you can download it through iTunes or order a hard copy of King Of Crooks through Indie (there's no direct link to the album, so you have to use the site's search engine to find the listing). They also have a seven inch single, in yellow vinyl called Limonchiki which can be ordered from the German label Off Label Records or downloaded through Bandcamp. This might seem like a lot of trouble to go to in order to get a recording by some obscure band from Australia. However, once you hear them, I'm sure you'll agree they're worth the effort.
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VulgarGrad play adaptations of music that springs from the Russian criminal culture, specifically the thieves songs (blatnye pesni) performed by, for, and about criminals in the prisons, gulags and seedy bars of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Drawing upon the work of performers dating back to the 1920s, including one of Stalin's favourite singers, and contemporary Russian groups who incorporate the blatnyak style and content into their music, VulgarGrad create songs firmly rooted in tradition but which are updated for audiences who don't speak Russian. While still sung in the original language, musically the songs have an appeal that makes their lyrics' vocabulary irrelevant. It is not only almost impossible to prevent yourself from dancing to their music, there is something about Koman's delivery of the lyrics and the band's playing that makes them irresistible.

Koman has one of those voices which definitely sound lived in. It scrapes over his vocal chords like a rasp, but instead of sounding harsh and abusive to the ear it catches our attention and holds us riveted. Not only does his voice have character he also has masterful control over inflection. It's amazing what he is able to suggest by the slightest change in intonation or emphasis. Drawing upon his training as an actor he creates characters appropriate for the songs. Thieves come in all shapes and sizes and Koman doesn't just sing about one, he sings for many of them. Watch him in the video below as he struts across the stage like a bantam rooster, and know the pride and cockiness of a thief who has just scored. Yet on other songs he is equally convincing when dealing with other, less boastful, subjects.

Of course there is something about the music that lends itself to sounding boastful. Maybe its the heavy syncopation of the beat or the way the melody swirls, but listening to it you can easily visualize two thieves trying to top each other with their outrageous stories. Anybody who has heard what most of us would refer to as Cossack music, the stuff which inspires dancers to perform incredibly high kicks from squatting positions, will know something of what I'm trying to describe. Imagine a mix of jewish Klezmar, Romany violin and Dixieland jazz performed to what sounds like a cross between a Tango and a slow Polka beat and you'll have a good idea of what they sound like.

While that may sound incredibly complicated in the hands of the musicians in VulgarGrad it sounds like second nature. Aside from Koman on vocals the band consists of Andrew Tanner (contrabass balalika), Renato VaCirca (drums), Ros Jones (trombone), Adam Pierzchalski (trumpet), Nara Demasson (guitar) and Phil McLeod (piano and accordion). According to their web site they've been together since late 2004, and are a sort of on again off again arrangement depending on member's availability and schedules. With Koman working in both Poland and Australia the band's rehearsal and performance schedule is obviously limited. However listening to their most recent effort, the single Limonchiki, this doesn't seem to have affected their quality. They still play with a type of reckless abandonment which can only be successfully carried off by the tightest of bands.
Of course one can hear traditional Eastern European style folk music fairly easily these days. From Ukrainian folk dance troupes to any number of excellent Romany or Klezmar bands there are plenty of examples of this type of music being performed by groups based in North America. So why should you make the effort to check out some obscure band from Australia? One good reason is they're not slaves to tradition. Sure their music is steeped in the spirit of the thieves songs and the folk traditions they sprung from, but at the same time they add elements of jazz and pop music which give the songs an extra punch.

In most of these types of bands the horn section is primarily concerned with emphasizing the rhythm. Very rarely are you going to hear a trumpet or trombone solo in a traditional folk band. That's not the case here as both Jones and Pierzchalski take their turns playing leads. What's really impressive is how nothing they, or any member of the band for that matter, does sounds out of place. What could descend into a chaotic mashup in the hands of less proficient musicians achieves the perfect balance of sounding like anarchy while actually being tightly arranged. They not only play the music of society's outsiders, but they manage to imbibe it with outsider spirit by adding their own elements to a traditional sound.

VulgarGrad are not your typical folk group playing "ethnic" music. Their sources of inspiration aren't quaint costumes and homespun melodies. It's the sound of an empty shot glass of vodka being slammed on a table, whispered deals in a back room, prison doors locking and the raucous laughter of all night bars. Their music comes from a world of sly winks, knives in the back and whore house bands. It's down and dirty and some of the best fun you'll have listening to music. Just don't your back on it.

(Article first published as Music Review: VulgarGrad - King Of Crooks on Blogcritics)

October 12, 2012

Music Review: Terakaft - Kel Tamasheq

Where ever you find indigenous peoples you find they are known by the name their conquerors gave them. From North America where we refer to nations by the names we gave them instead of how they refer to themselves in their own language, to the Northern Sahara where the people are known by the name given them by the armies of Islam - rebel against Islam - Touareg. (The written language of these people was originally symbols which do not correspond directly with the letters of our alphabet. So they are written out in the various languages of those who have come into contact with them to sound correctly. So Touareg can be spelt Tuareg and Tamasheq can be spelt Tamashek.) That of course isn't the name they have for themselves, they call themselves Kel Tamasheq - those who speak Tamasheq.

So when the group Terakaft called their latest CD, Kel Tamasheq, released on the World Village label October 9 2012, you know they don't do it lightly. The title is a bold statement of self identification and the CD is an assertion of who they are as a people. With recent uprisings in Northern Mali being blamed on a force supposedly made up a combination of Tamasheq rebels and Islamic fundamentalists it's important the world is reminded who the Tamasheq really are and what they've been fighting for since the 1960s. As musicians like Terakaft and others have served as cultural historians for their people since the 1980s, they are the best prepared to act as cultural ambassadors to the rest of the world.
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They have assumed this role in the past, but upon reading the translations of the lyrics that come with this CD there's a sense of urgency absent on previous recordings. While earlier CDs have focused on extolling the virtues of the nomadic life or lamenting the loss of traditional territories, Kel Tamasheq talks specifically about the reasons their people have rebelled in the past. It's as if the band is asking the rest of the world compare what they felt was worth dying for in the past to what's happening in Northern Mali right now and to see the differences. While maybe they'll regret not pointing out the bleeding obvious, as in, hey what fundamentalist would have anything to do with a people Muslims still call rebels against Islam, taking the high ground by stressing their own positives rather than calling attention to another's negatives has always been a hall mark of Terakaft's material.

Thus the majority of the songs on the disc have lyrics which extoll one or more aspects of life among the Kel Tamasheq. However there are the occasional references to the nature of rebellion that seem to be questioning the validity of the recent uprisings in Northern Mali. In "Imad Halan" ("The Volunteers") the band sings, "I am stunned at your involvement/Which does not support those who work./If this is the revolution you want to provoke/I can see it coming from afar". While here they are expressing their shock that any of their people would be involved with an uprising involves outsiders which doesn't help their own people in "Bas Tela Takaraket" ("There Are No More Morals") they offer a more direct commentary on the revolt. "Our culture has escaped us/Those who were warriors before, armed with sabres/Those from whom we have inherited our ancestors/We continue in their path/We will not submit/Nor will we make an alliance with the enemy".

Here they are expressing their worry over the loss of their culture as demonstrated by people picking up weapons for the wrong reasons. Previous generations, those who fought to preserve the culture, are the ones that should be emulated. The last line, "Nor will we make an alliance with the enemy" serves notice they know the people supposedly fighting in the name of the Kel Tamasheq in Northern Mali are doing nothing of the sort. It goes against everything previous generations of warriors fought for to join with those whose goals don't include restoring the rights of their people. The title of the song suggests fighting for any other reason is wrong and is a sign people have forgotten key elements of their culture.

Of all the songs on the disc the title track, "Kel Tamasheq", is the one which exemplifies the band's attempts remind their own people to let the world know who they are. "Kel Tamasheq, you must know/It is the time to proclaim to the world/And to no longer be hidden/The one you love purely and sincerely/Whether it is in life or death/No matter the connection, separation will come/In this world or the next." The first three lines are fairly straight forward - it's time to stand up and let the world know we exist. However, the last four lines seem a bit of a puzzle at a first glance as they don't appear to have anything to do with opening. At first I thought there might be a problem with the translation (the lyrics are translated from Tamasheq into French and then French into English). Yet if you look at other songs on the disc you'll see how this type of abrupt change is common and a number are written in the same sort of elliptical and allegorical manner.
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Thinking about what little I know of the Kel Tamasheq culture and their oral traditions of story telling and what I also know about traditions in Islamic poetry, where personal expressions of love are used to express one's love of god or country, these lines make a little more sense. What I came up with was their love of their land and way of life will endure even unto death. One way or another this love will let them be distinguished from everyone else, even if it's only after they are dead. Unfortunately I'm not steeped enough in the legends of these people to be able to delve any deeper. But it does fit into what I know of their fierce love of independence and their long struggles to preserve their traditional way of life. We will be free, even if it's only after we die

One thing you will notice about the band's songs is how the lyrics are usually only one or two statements in length. These are sung to the accompaniment of music that is almost trance like in its nature. A hypnotic drum beat underscores everything and acoustic guitar and bass emphasize the rhythm over which they are sung/chanted. Electric guitar adds both another layer to the beat, as well as rising out of it for short bursts of lead work. These are like flashes of lightening cutting across a desert sky creating stark silhouettes making specific objects stand out from the rest of the landscape. While the guitar offers one kind of punctuation to the songs Naida and Yamina Nid El Mourid's background vocalizations bring the sound of the desert to life.

While some of their vocal harmonies to Liya Ag Abil's (guitar vocals), Sanou Ag Ahmen's (guitar, bass and vocials) and Abdalah Ag Ahmed's (guitar,bass and vocals) leads are what were used to, they also periodically interject the high pitched sound women traditionally make to send men off, or to welcome them home, from any type of trip and from battle. Raw and emotional, the sound seems to emit somewhere deep in their souls. and can make you break out in goose bumps. The overall result is an amazing combination of the traditional and modern. However, even the modern element of electric guitar is played in such a manner as to accent the traditional rhythms of the music as it accents the percussion.

Some of the members of Terakaft had first hand experience with fighting for the independence of their people before they put down their guns and picked up guitars to continue the fight in a different way. Their songs remind their own people about their culture and traditions and attempt to educate the world at large about them as well. It's a role that has recently taken on new importance as it's become vital to ensure Kel Tamasheq are not lumped in with those who are using their people's name in an attempt to give credibility to the recent armed rebellion in Northern Mali. By telling the world this is what we believe in and what we have fought for in the past Terakaft makes it very clear this was not a Kel Tamasheq rebellion. Let's just hope the world listens.

Article first published as Music Review: Terakaft - Kel Tamasheq on Blogcritics)

September 18, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916-1929

At one point the Turkish Ottoman Empire stretched from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and on into Northern Africa. While it had long ago lost its toe hold in Western Europe in Spain, the rest of the Empire lasted until the end of WW l. Allied with the Germans during that conflict they not only found themselves on the losing side in the war, great swathes of the territory they had previously occupied were lost during the war. By 1918 it had shrunk back to pretty much present day Turkey's boarders. Needless to say these defeats were the cause of fairly intense internal strife and political upheaval in the time following the war. As a result large numbers of Turks of all backgrounds; Christians, Muslims and Jews, sought refuge in other countries and a great many settled in the United States, specifically New York City.

There they joined the already sizeable group of ethnic Armenians who had fled persecution in the Empire. The rounding up and arresting of Armenians in Turkey has never been officially recognized by even present day Turkish governments, but it is thought close to a million ethnic Armenians died between 1915 and 1923 during mass forced marches from their homes in Turkey to Syria. However, a number managed to escape the roundups and immigrated to the United States. No matter what their ethnic background one thing all of these refugees had in common was their love for the culture and music of their homeland.
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In the liner notes to the triple CD set To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, now available as a digital download from the Tompkins Square Label, it's explained how during the period covered by the disc there was a great outpouring recording and performing of this music. While the onset of the depression brought an end to this, and countless other activities, the recordings made during these 13 years were by musicians of all stripes. From those whose careers had included being members of the court of the last Sultan to performers of Jewish, Greek and Armenian folk music.

Instead of dividing the three discs up by ethnicity the compilers of this collection have found a much more interesting and novel approach. Each of the discs contains music fitting a specific theme that the producers have identified as the three major reasons for the music's creation in the first place. So disc one is subtitled "Naughty Girl - Dances & Joys", the spirited music played by the refugee musicians in order to forget their troubles; disc two, "I Wish I Never Came: Nostalgia, Yearning & Pride" for the songs they played when they were missing what they left behind; and three "Notes From Home: US Releases For Ottoman Emigres", are songs taken from recordings made in the Ottoman Empire and imported to the United States.

As a result this compilation is able to give listeners an incredibly accurate view of the diversity of sound that was being made by the refugees in New York City during this period. For on each disc you'll find Islamic, Armenian, Greek and Jewish music rubbing shoulders with each other as they offer up their interpretations of the theme in question. Since many of the recordings were originally recorded at 78rpm, and some even are from wax cylinders made in the 19th century, their quality ranges all over the place. However there's something about being able to actually hear the needle moving over the surface of an LP that actually augments rather than detracts from the sound. For along with the slightly tinny quality, which isn't unique to these recordings but something I've noticed all songs remastered from this time period seem to have in common, the surface noises which come through help to set a mood of time and place.

Obviously most of us are going to know little or nothing about the types of music represented on these discs or the musicians playing the individual songs. Thankfully along with the three disc set you can also download a PDF of the original booklet that accompanied the hard copy. Not only does it provide the historical context necessary for the listener to understand its significance in the history of American music, almost every song is accompanied by a blurb giving the history of the performer and the song. Some of the many fascinating characters you'll be introduced to on this set include Abudul Hal Hilmi (born 1857 died April 1912) who is still considered one of the greats in Arab classical music. "Ya Binit, Ya Bidha" (pt.1) is half of a nine minute composition in which he improvised on a single line of text from an Arabic folk song.

As the recording was made in 1909 the quality is not very good. However, in spite of the muddy sound you can still tell there was something remarkable about this man and his vocal abilities. Contemporary descriptions of his performances have described him as transporting his audiences. Music historian Ahmad Al-Jundi is quoted in the booklet describing Hilmi's voice; "When he starts, with the first breath, he initiates in you a sense of a enchantment and ecstasy". Unfortunately he also made heavy use of drugs (hashish, opium and cocaine) and alcohol in order to access the feelings necessary to create that type of reaction among his audiences and died after an excessive night of partying. While he never recorded in America, this track was taken from a Lebanese recording imported into the US, there were others, equally fascinating characters, recording in the States.
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Garbis Bakirgian had been a court musician playing classical Turkish music for the Sultan in his native Constantinople (Istanbul). He travelled extensively throughout the empire and lived in Alexandria, Cairo and Jerusalem before moving to the States in the early 1920s at the urging of musician friends. When none of the major labels proved interested in recording Turkish music he founded his own label, Stamboul records, and released seven albums. While he may not have had the same sort of ecstatic impact on his listeners as Hilmi, his career lasted well into the the 1950s. He even recorded a session with Atlantic Records in 1948, founded by fellow Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun, but it was never released.

While I've mentioned two male vocalists the material covered on this three disc set is by no means limited to men or vocals. Unfortunately the instrumental pieces are the ones which are the least well preserved and the hardest to listen to. One of the reasons is the pitch the instruments were played in originally was very high and the distortion caused by the disintegration of quality over the years has not been kind. The result is a sound which might have been delicate when first recorded is now so high pitched as to be uncomfortable on the ears. However, there are enough pieces where the sound has survived relatively intact to give you a good indication of the talent of those involved in these recordings.

Aside from the music the last three tracks on disc three are recordings by Ian Nagoski the person primarily responsible for its existence. Not only did he compile the collection, he also did the research and the sound restoration. On these tracks he provides you with more details about the history of Ottoman music in America in general and elaborates on the background set out in the booklet. Think of them as being like the bonus features on a DVD - a sort of making of and behind the scenes look at the CD.

It's amazing to think there was this an entire subculture of music being recorded and played in New York City in the early part of the 20th century. While most of us were aware of the diversity of immigration to North America, I don't think I had any idea there was such a thriving community of Turkish immigrants. Depending on the timing of their arrival in the US a good many of them had left the country under duress because of the roundup, deportation and murder of Armenians that occurred during and after WW l. However it wasn't just Armenians who left the Ottoman Empire, and many were renowned musicians. So here in the new world it was as if they had turned back the clock to a time when Christians, Muslims and Jews were able to find common ground through music in the Ottoman Empire. These recordings provide listeners with a sampling of the music they all played and loved no matter what their background. While they may not be of the finest quality they still make for fascinating listening.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916 -1929 on Blogcritics)

September 13, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -Songs For Desert Refugees

Life in the sub-Saharan desert is hard at the best of times. The Kel-Tamasheq nomads have been traversing the area between Mali and Niger, moving their herds from water hole to water hole, since before the coming of Islam to Northern Africa. It is said among them their ancestors chose such a harsh land to live in because nobody else would want it and they'd be left alone. However, history has shown no land is too inhospitable for those greedy for territory. First it was the Arab nations spreading the word of Islam taking their land and giving them a new name, Touareg, (literally those who rebel against Islam). Even when they eventually accepted the new religion, they adapted it to suit their own traditions and made it their own.

It wasn't until the coming of the Europeans who divided the territory with artificial and arbitrary lines in the sand their lives started to be changed for the worse. The legacy of colonialism was the Kel Tamasheq found themselves cut off from their former migratory paths through the desert and the grazing lands needed for their herds. Those living in Niger were expected to stay in Niger and not wander over the shifting sands into Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso as they once did. At various times since 1960 they have attempted to reassert their claims to the territories taken from them. A variety of treaties have been negotiated either through rebellion or diplomacy that were supposed to guarantee them territory and rights, but successive governments in Niger and other countries have gone back on their words. The discovery of uranium under the Sahara has only made matters worse as not only did it result in their further displacement, but the process of mining has steadily destroyed the environment.

While the rebellions have not always been successful, and have resulted in reprisals against the people at times, they have always been attempts to improve their lot. So the uprisings in Northern Mali in the early part of 2012 which have forced over 200,000 people to leave their homes doesn't fit the same pattern as previous Tamasheq revolts. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist troops are also involved with the fighting is even more suspicious, as the Tamasheq would not be interested in simply exchanging one group of people telling them how to live their lives for another. However, perhaps most telling, is the release of a new compilation disc, Songs For Desert Refugees on Glitterhouse Records as an effort to raise funds for those displaced by the fighting.
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In the past Tamasheq musicians have been key figures in advocating and fighting for the rights of their people. Some of them took part in the armed rebellions of the 1980s before putting down their guns and picking up guitars. Governments in the area have gone out of their way to target them for harassment and even assassination in the past, and most have spent time exiled from their home countries. Yet, during this most recent uprising instead of using their music to spread the word or to remind people to take pride in who they are, they are lending their talents to an effort to assist those being harmed by the fighting. Artists of the stature of Tinariwen,Terkaft, Etran Finatawa and Bombino, all who have been advocates for their people, have donated either previously unreleased material or new versions of older songs to this disc.

Even better is the fact that those who have compiled this recording have included some lesser known artists, ones whom I haven't heard before. Not only is it great to hear other artists from the region their inclusion gives listeners an indication of just how much diversity there is among the Kel Tamsheq groups of the region. For although they are commonly referred to as the guitar players, that does not mean the Kel Tamasheq sound is limited to the electric blues/rock guitar that has become the trademark of those well known in the West. While the offerings from Tinariwen, "Amous Idraout Assouf d'Alwa" (a previously unreleased track) and Bombino, an extended live version of his "Tigrawahi Tikma" give pride of place to the electric guitar, there are others who are more traditional in their approach.

Amanar de Kidal (Amanar of Kidal in Mali) took their name from the Tamasheq word for the constellation Orion in memory of those times the band would rehearse through the night until the stars were high in the sky above them. While the guitar is still the lead instrument in their contribution to the disc, "Tenere", it doesn't dominate in the same way it does in other groups. Instead we are treated to massed voices, flutes and a steady rhythm carrying us forward. The rhythm is not one we're used to as it induces an almost swaying motion, as if you were being gently rocked in the high saddle of a camel. Like many other Tamasheq groups Amanar also features female vocalists in the band. Here they supply a spine tingling vocal undulation as part of the harmonies for the song as well as more conventional backing vocals.

The final cut on the disc is from the band Tartit made up of five women and four men. The women provide the lead vocals and rhythmic patterns for this song while the men accompany them. At first the vocals sound rather simplistic, but listen closely and you realize there are something like five different vocal patterns happening at once. Occasionally one of the women break free from the hypnotic trance like sound to issue an undulation that rises up like a sudden wind. "Tihou Beyatne" is unlike any other song on the disc and is probably the one closest to the traditional music of the people. Here again you also see indications of why their Arabic name of Tuareg stuck as not only do the women lead the band, they go unveiled while the men keep their faces covered.
While Tartit may be the closest to the traditional sound of the Kel Tamasheq all of the bands, no matter how electric or how much they've been influenced by Western popular music, retain solid connections to their desert roots. The majority sing in the Tamasheq language and thematically their songs are designed to remind their listeners to be proud of their culture. More importantly they use their music to teach the younger generation displaced from their desert life who they are and why the desert is important to the Tamasheq people. Musically, even artists like Bombino, whose band uses a full drum kit and is probably most like a Western pop group, retain the traditional rhythmic elements that distinguish all the bands' music. No matter how much their guitars wail, the drum still carries the echoes of thousands of years in the desert.

Like indigenous people the world over the Kel Tamasheq have seen their traditional territories taken away from them due to the encroachment of outside influences. The safety provided by living in one of the harshest environments in the world has disappeared. No where is safe any longer from civilization's greed for resources. The discovery of uranium in their traditional territories in Niger was a death knell for a way of life that had been carried out by those living there for a thousand years. The insurrections in Mali by Islamic fundamentalists earlier this year made an awful situation even worse with the displacement of over 200,000 Tamasheq and others living there.

All profits made from the sale of Songs For Desert Refugees are being split between two Non Government Organizations (NGOS) who are dedicated to assisting the Tamasheq people. Tamoudre works directly with those nomads still trying to work the land in the war torn areas by assisting them in any way possible to make their livelihoods more secure. Etar, has the more long term goal of helping to preserve, protect and disseminate the Tamasheq culture, both for the people themselves and to educate the rest of the world about them. They are currently raising money to build a culture centre in one of the regions in Mali hardest hit by the recent uprisings.

The Kel Tamasheq are a proud people who have fought long and hard for their right to be left alone and live their lives in the same way their ancestors did for generations. Music has played a key role in this fight for survival by keeping traditions alive and helping the people to retain a sense of pride in who they are. This disc represents a slightly more tangible way of helping their people as the bands involved have donated their songs and time in the hopes they will be able to raise some money to bring relief to those of their people who have once again find themselves caught up in a situation not of their making but which is causing them to suffer. Won't you help?

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Songs For Desert Refugees on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2012

Music Review: Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird

As a reviewer or critic you're supposed to provide some sort of objective opinion on whatever it is you're writing about. You look at a group or person's work within the context of the genre they work in and ask yourself how they stack up against others like them. After a few years of doing this you get so it becomes almost rote. However the difficulty comes when you come across somebody who won't let you be objective. You start gushing all over the page about how damn amazing somebody is and nobody is going take your review seriously, it will dismissed as the ravings of some fan. Well, even music critics can be fans. I know that sounds like a stretch to some of you. It's cool to think critics hate music and only exist to run down your favourites or to say nasty things about people you like. Well I can be as nasty as the next person - ask me how I feel about the music industry in general or some of the so called celebrities/singers who somehow are referred to as artists and watch me go - but I also genuinely love music.

Normally I find a way to list the reasons I like someone's work without crossing over the line so the review becomes a fan letter. However, for some reason when it comes to Xavier Rudd all I can ever come up with is "holly shit this guy is fucking awesome". While that's a lot shorter than my reviews tend to run, and according to some that's a positive, it doesn't really tell you much about him, his music or why I think he's so great. The problem is Rudd is one of the few musical artists around these days who I react to on a purely emotional level. I've been listening to a downloaded copy of his latest release, Spirit Bird coming out on Side One Dummy records June 5 2012, for about a week now and I still haven't been able to figure out how to put into words the effect the CD has on me.

I could tell you that Rudd is an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist who plays slide guitar, regular guitar, percussion, drums and the indigenous Australian instrument the yidakis (referred to as didgeridoo by Europeans). Not only does he play all these instruments, but when he appears in concert he is set up so he can be playing as many as possible as once. Pictures of him on stage show him siting in the centre of of a construct literally bristling with instruments - a row of yidakis in the front, top hat snares off to each side, stomp box and bass drum pedals at his feet and assorted percussion scattered around within easy reach. Then he begins to sing.
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His vocal range is equally impressive as he ranges from a forceful alto right up to almost falsetto on occasion. Yet, unlike others, when he forges up into the higher altitudes of his scale the quality of his vocal expression doesn't change. In fact it seems to have the opposite effect. Most people have enough difficulty obtaining the high notes they are satisfied merely with reaching them and usually end up sacrificing expression in the attempt. With Rudd the higher he goes the more he seems to be opening himself up emotionally and spiritually for his audience. It's like his connection to the heart and soul of what he is singing intensifies with the further up the scale he goes. In some cases when people reach into the higher ranges it starts to become uncomfortable to the ear and the sound makes you wince. Somehow Rudd seems to bypass the ear and heads directly to your heart the further up the scale he climbs.

In the past there has been a decided reggae influence to Rudd's music and traces of that can still be heard on Spirit Bird. However, over the course of his career as he's evolved from being the accompaniment for surfers and late night beach parties (Not only were some of his songs featured in the movie Surfer Dude he wrote parts of the movie's score) with an environmental conscience to singing about having a spiritual bond with the planet and the compassion required to create it. While every song on Spirit Bird is related to this subject in some manner or another, not once does it feel like he's preaching to his listeners or even telling them this is how they should live. Instead he give us his vision of the potential for a better world.

From songs like the almost completely instrumental "Lioness Eye" which opens the disc and captures something of the beauty and power of nature in its wild abandonment to the haunting simplicity of the disc's first single, "Follow The Sun", and its description of the life cycle, he does his best to show us the beauty and wonder that surrounds us every day. The closest he comes to being political is the brief mention he makes of Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd, the environmental protection group who exposes illegal whaling and other maritime piracy being carried out in the name of cosmetics and fake natural health care products, in the song "Creating A Dream" which closes the disc.

In some ways this song lies at the heart of the whole album. It's simple chorus of "Please, patience please, patience please, I'm creating a dream, Please, patience please, patience please I'm creating a dream", follows lists of things he asks us to imagine ("Imagine industry just had to obey') that would make the world a better place. The lists don't just deal with issues either, he also includes "Imagine the heart could just shed its skin" and other lyrics which talk about the human condition and freeing ourselves from the need for confrontation and over thinking everything. Simply reading quotes from the song you might be tempted to dismiss it as over simplified utopian idealism, but you have to hear his voice to fully appreciate it.
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He knows he's wishing for the impossible, that these things can't be accomplished just by wishing, which is why he asks for our patience. He's taking a moment to dream about a better world and expressing the vision that sustains him in the face of the overwhelming opposition, and in some ways even worse, the apathy, that most feel towards and about change. If you don't have a dream than you have nothing to shoot for, and if you're going to dream you might as well dream huge.

The press release sent out for Spirit Bird talks about its hard hitting environmental message. I think that misrepresents the nature of the recording. It makes it sound like its a collection of uncompromising politically motivated tunes when nothing could be further from the truth. This is merely a guy using every tool at his disposal to pour out his hopes and visions for a better world. His songs aren't ringing denunciations of anybody's lifestyle or of corporate greed destroying the earth. He's not preaching to the converted to make them feel good about themselves or trying to make anybody feel guilty because they drive a car. Instead, without any false sentimentality or whinging, he opens his heart to listeners to let them hear and see his vision of the potential we all share for creating a different world.

So, there you go, I tried. But that's the best I can do and I don't know if I was able to capture what it is about Rudd's music and songs that work such magic on me. My wife says he's one of the few artists today who has the ability to crack her wide open, to break through the shell we all wear to protect us against having too much hope or from having our dreams crushed one too many times. It's not like he waves a magic wand or anything. He sings with compassion and love and it shines through in every song no matter what's its about or whether he's playing electric guitar and rocking out or creating instrumental magic with his yidakis. Listen to his music and find out for yourself. You might end up thinking I'm full of shit, or hopefully, you'll come away with the same feeling of contentment at finding somebody out there able to articulate those dreams for a better world you'd forgotten and had buried away in the deepest recesses of your soul.

(Article first published at as Music Review: Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird)

May 23, 2012

Television Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live

String quartets come in many shapes and sizes but you can normally predict what they're going to perform. Beethoven, Mozart perhaps even some Bach or other composer from the recognized classical canon. While there have been exceptions to this rule in the past, the most obvious being the Kronos Quartet doing their rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze", even they have worked from carefully scored and arranged material. The idea of a string quartet coming together to create their own works is almost unheard of; for those creations to be the result of improvisation unthinkable. The idea is so improbable that it would require those involved to be uniquely talented and blessed with the immense good fortune of having hundreds of seemingly disparate ideas come together in the face of almost impossible odds.

Those of you who have listened to the CD The Goat Rodeo Sessions featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Stuart Duncan on violin/banjo/mandolin, Edgar Meyer on bass and piano and Chris Thile on mandolin, guitar and violin will have already experienced the stars lining up in just the right manner to allow the improbable to occur. However it's one thing to do this in the safety of the recording studio where mistakes can be corrected though over dubs and the opportunity to do second and third takes, but it's another altogether performing the same music live. So pushing the envelope a little further they are taking their show live and thanks to the great folk at Public Broadcasting System (PBS) you'll be able to see them on Friday May 25 at 9:00pm (check local listings) in an hour long special The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live.

I don't think it will be spoiling anything for anyone by telling you watching them perform the music they created in the studio live makes you even more aware of their incredible accomplishment. Listening to the CD was awesome enough, but it's only seeing them perform most of these same pieces on stage that the enormity of their achievement is brought home. For now you see first hand not only the complexity of each person's part, but how incredibly difficult it must have been both creating and bringing them together to a make single entity. With Thile serving as de facto band leader/concert master/host the four opened the show with the piece I think epitomizes their efforts "Attaboy".
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This piece reflects the musical background of each performer and simultaneously shows the listeners both the difficulties they faced creating the music on the disc and the means they used to overcome those difficulties. Listening to it on CD one could hear how their diverse approaches to music blended to form something which was literally greater than the sum of its parts. However, watching them perform you are able to witness how they managed to accomplish this. The first thing you notice is the high level of communication going on silently in front of you. From the moment Thile counts them in to start the piece and sets the tempo on his mandolin there's never a moment when they aren't either listening or looking at each other for cues and, perhaps, encouragement. A nod here, eye contact there, and the tempo changes or somebody starts a solo or a solo ends and the rest join in. It's as fascinating an example of watching co-operative music in the making as you'll ever see.

As on the recording the four musicians are joined on stage occasionally by vocalist Aoife O'Donovan. She and Thile serve up beautiful vocal harmonies with lyrics specifically created for the recording sessions. On stage, as on CD, their voices add another layer of texture to the sound being created by the four instruments. In some ways they are like a calm in the middle of a storm as they seem to allow everyone from the audience to the performers a pause in which to breath between the thunder and lighting of the instrumental pieces. For there is an intensity to what the quartet are creating and performing on stage that listening uninterrupted might have been too overwhelming. Those couple of moments of calming influence allow us to appreciate the instrumental sections all the more.

Aside from the excitement of being able to see these four men in action, there are two other great reasons for watching them on television this week. First is seeing them react to playing in front of an audience. There's always an exchange of energy between performer and audience in a live situation that changes the dynamic of the music is some manner or other. When the audience began to clap the tempo - and when was the last time you saw that happen during a concert by a string quartet? - you could see the band react in delighted surprise. I don't think they had expected or anticipated audience participation and it appeared to push them to even greater levels of exertion, if possible. Each piece from then on seemed to soar a little higher and strive to reach a little further.
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The second, and just as important reason for watching, is to see the expressions on their faces while they are performing. Normally watching a string quartet in action is an exercise is studied formality. Everyone seems to be playing as if there lives depended on them looking intensely serious. Brows are furrowed and faces locked in intense stares of concentration. Well I don't think I saw one furrowed brow, let alone a serious face, on stage during the entire hour of this quartet's performance. From Thile's almost impish grin as he bends over his mandolin (Is it just me or does he reming anyone else of a young Jude Law?), the sly smiles on Duncan and Meyer's faces to Ma's spontaneous grins of delight as he listens and plays, there's not a straight face among them. These guys are so absolutely delighted to be where they are at that specific moment in time you can't help but feel privileged to be part of this performance even as an audience member.

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile created something special when they recorded the Goat Rodeo Sessions. Now they are bringing that something special to life on PBS stations around America on Friday May 25 2012 at 9:00 pm. If you aren't able to see it that night, or your local PBS station ends up not carrying it, don't despair, its being released on DVD as of May 29 2012. Whichever way you end up watching, believe me, this is an experience no music lover will want to miss.

(Article first published as TV Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live on Blogcritics)

April 10, 2012

Music Review: Kayhan Halhor & Ali Bahrami Fard - I Will Not Stand Alone

For most of us in the West classical music calls up visions of men in tuxedoes and women in long gowns playing highly formalized and rigidly controlled music. This is the last type of music we'd ever associate with any sort of improvisation with the musicians there to serve the wishes of the composer as interpreted by the conductor. Unless they're a soloist of very high standing they have little or no say in how the music sounds and what it expresses.

So it might come as a bit of shock to find out that the traditions surrounding classical music in other cultures actually encourage improvisation. For, while in countries like India there are certain formal patterns of structure adhered to, within the form there is plenty of room for the musician to interpret the music. As the performances of music is considered a personal spiritual journey, a means of expressing a connection to the gods, it can't help but change from individual to individual. India is not unique in having this kind of musical tradition, and considering the cross-pollination of culture between the two countries down through history, it's not surprising to find a similar tradition has existed in Iran since the twelfth century.

Persian classical music, like many others where there was originally nothing committed to paper, involves a long and involved training period for anybody wishing to perform it. First of all a student has to memorize a canonic repertoire known as radif (literally translated as order) comprised of over 200 model pieces of music known as gushehs. These gushehs are grouped together as progressions of modally related pieces into twelve distinct dastgah (systems). Once a musician has memorized not only all the gushehs individually and collectively in their respective dastgah, they are ready to begin creating. Unlike the West where we have specific pieces of music to perform, the radif is not something that is actually performed as an individual piece of music, but serves as the starting point for creative improvisation.

Of course listening to music the theory behind it usually flies out the window as you get swept up in the sounds and emotions being generated by the artist in question. Such is the case with I Will Not Stand Alone the latest release from Kayhan Kalhor on World Village Music in February 2012. The recording features Kalhor playing a variation on the traditional Middle Eastern four stringed bowed instrument, the kamancheh, called a shah kaman accompanied by Ali Bahrami Fard on a hammered dulcimer type instrument known as a bass santor. If you had any thoughts that the conditions described above for the creation and playing of music were restrictive they will be quickly dispelled as you listen to what these two men are able to generate between them.
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Looking at a picture of a kamancheh - the shah kaman has a slightly deeper tone then the original - you'll be amazed at the quality of sound Kalhor is able to create with what looks like a very simple instrument. With only four strings and a resonating chamber made out of a gourd covered by an animal skin you'd think its sound would be limited or at least thin. I don't know whether its the virtuosity of the player or a matter of appearances being deceiving, but on this recording it seems to have the ability to sound like most of the bowed four stringed instruments in an orchestra. From the heart stopping emotional clarity of a violin, the rich texture of the cello to the mid tones of the viola Kalhor not only covers almost the entire musical scale as we know it but its emotional equivalent as well.

Serving as a combination percussion and bass Fard's bass santor not only offers a rich counterpoint and underpinning to Kalhor's playing, he adds the additional element of being able to emphasize the rhythm through his use of the hammers required to play his instrument. Any expectations we might have as to its limitations based on our experiences of bass instruments in other compositions are quickly dispelled. For Fard does far more than merely play a simple bass line instead he plays a melodic accompaniment in the lower register that is every bit as involved as Kalhor's lead instrument.
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In the liner notes accompanying the recording Kalhor describes the eight pieces of music as having their origins during a period of unrest in Iran. He's unclear as to whether he's talking about the revolution which saw the overthrow of the Shah back in the 1970s or the more recent period of turbulence and its unsuccessful attempt to push for reforms. Whenever the period was, he describes it as one of the most difficult periods in his life, "where darkness and violence seemed to be taking over". Out of this period came the realization that music has the capability to open what he refers to as doors of hope and he made the choice to play his music for the people for this reason. The actual playing and recording of the music was a way for him to break out of the isolation he felt because of the unrest and connect with those around him - hence the title I Will Not Stand Alone

Listening to the music after reading these notes one can't help but be struck how well it captures the journey he took from darkness to light. The titles of individual pieces aren't what you'd call an accurate indication of their musical content, you'd think tunes called "The Laziest Summer Afternoon" or "Dancing Under The Walnut Tree" would be light hearted and carefree when the former sounds nothing at all like any idle summer day I've ever had and the latter bears no relation to dancing. Perhaps something was lost in their translation from the original Farsi, but I think he's commenting on the sense of disconnect he must have felt witnessing scenes of violence and trouble on beautiful summer days. Idyllic conditions have no bearing on how humans behave. It can be a beautiful day and people can still commit atrocities as easily as if there were a horrible storm taking place. The distance between the meaning conveyed by the title of the song and the story the music tells us captures that horrible irony better than anything I've heard before.

Everyone of these pieces has an emotional depth that far outstrips most music we're used to hearing, whether popular or classical. Kalhor has taken the basic skill set required to play Persian classical music and has built a collection of pieces that explore both the depths the human spirit can sink to and the heights it can ascend. You many have trouble believing this is the work of only two men playing given the multitude of sounds, tones and emotions they are able to express, but it is only Kalhor and Fard and their two instruments on each track. If you've never experienced non-European classical music this recording will be an eye opener for you. It will dispel any doubts you ever had of music's ability to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. The gulf between the Iranian and Western governments is huge these days. Listening to recordings like this one help to remind us the divide between the people of our respective cultures is far smaller than some would like us to think.

(Article first published as Music Review: Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard - I Will Not Stand Alone on Blogcritics)

October 8, 2011

Music Review: Jordi Savall & Various Artists - Hispania & Japan: Dialogues

It's hard to imagine two countries as different as Spain and Japan having enough in common musically for someone to create pieces combining elements of both cultures. Yet that's exactly what Jordi Savall, cellist, composer and one of Spain's foremost performers of Western early music utilizing period instruments, has done. (Early music defined as being either from the Medieval, Renaissance or Baroque periods - roughly from 500 AD to 1760 AD) In 2006 he released The Route Of The Orient which set out to recreate in music the voyages of Spanish Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier (Francisco Javier). Not only did Xavier, who lived from 1506-1553 travel the East with stops in Mozambique, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and China, he was the first European to ever visit Japan.

In his attempt to win converts to Christianity Xavier relied heavily upon music, setting his religion's texts to a country's native melodies in order to make them more accessible. In the original recording Savall gathered together musicians from the various countries the missionary had visited in order to recreate what these pieces could have sounded like. It was during the research and performances surrounding this recording he also met various Japanese musicians with whom he became friends. It was following the catastrophes that struck Japan last year he, along with musicians from Japan and Spain created Hispania & Japan: Dialogues, being released through Harmonium Mundi on the Alia Vox label October 11 2011, focusing on the specific pieces Xavier used in Japan.

Upon his arrival in Japan Xavier, and the Portuguese missionaries accompanying him, walked through the country singing Psalms. The Japanese people who flocked to see these strangers in their midst, were fascinated by their singing. In 1605 a publisher in Nagasaki printed Mauale ad Sacramenta a volume containing nineteen of those pieces. This is significant for not only being the beginning of Western music in Japan, it also provided Savall and his musicians with a template from which they built their recordings. In fact, while they have made use of a couple of other European and Japanese songs, "O Gloriosa Domina" (O Glorious Mistress), a Gregorian chant from that volume, provides the inspiration for more than half the music.
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Much as Xavier incorporated regional melodies, the Japanese musicians on this recording have improvised music for the song. However, instead of simply having them create new versions of it, Savall has given them far more room for interpretation. You won't hear somebody singing the psalm in different ways to various arrangements of Japanese instruments. Instead they have created pieces which attempt to capture the essence of the music. The opening piece is a beautiful example of this with Ichiro Seki, playing a type of Japanese bamboo flute known as a shakuhachi, creating a haunting piece of music which makes use of his instrument's ethereal qualities to establish the proper spiritual context for the music to come. Over the course of the first half of the recording Savall intersperses these improvisations with recordings of the song as it would have been performed in Europe during the sixteenth century. Ironically, at least to my ears, it's the Japanese interpretations which seem more capable of transcending the earthly realm and leading one's thoughts heavenwards.

This isn't a slight against the Spanish musicians or the music they play. I think it has more to do with the differences in the natural qualities of the instruments being played and the two cultures' approach to religion. Western religion, and by extension its music, has always felt more human centric than its Eastern counterparts. For while Christianity stresses personal salvation, many Eastern religions focus on spiritual enlightenment. By obeying a set of rules Christians hope to secure their place at God's side while Buddhists strive to become one with the universe. Listening to the Japanese musicians on this recording you can hear the difference between music praising individuals who control one's fate and that which celebrates the wonder of creation. Even here, where they are each working from the same material, the distinction is obvious. It doesn't mean one is better than the other, it's a matter of personal preference which of the two will stir your soul the most, yet there can be no denying there is something far more otherworldly about the Japanese music than the Christian hymns.
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Yet, in spite of the differences between the two traditions, musically and religiously, neither the juxtaposition or combining of the two is ever jarring or discordant. Unlike some forced marriages of West and East which ring more false notes than true, this work recognizes and celebrates the distinctive elements of each style instead of trying to meld them together. It's like listening to the same story in two different languages with each telling taking on all the flavours and characteristics of the tongue recounting it while the core elements remain the same. What you gradually realize as you listen to the pieces on this recording is how not only do the two compliment each other, they also complete each other. In fact, listening to the two types of music being played separately and then coming together in pieces towards the end of the CD, you begin to realize how the two together make up a whole by filling in gaps in the other you didn't even know existed before.

Hispania & Japan: Dialogues comes packaged with a book which supplies the details behind how the project came into existence, a breakdown of the musicians involved and the instruments being used and pictures taken during performances of the piece. Enclosing it all is a separate cover which is a reproduction of a piece of Japanese art depicting the landing and travels of St. Xavier in Japan. While the packaging and the music are equally beautiful, the fact that the money raised through its sales will be donated to aiding the relief efforts in Japan makes it even more precious.

The old saying of "Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet" may have been written by Rudjard Kipling in reference to India and the West, but its often been quoted by those wishing to stress the impossibility of us ever finding common ground with anybody East of Europe. However, Jordi Savall and the collection of Japanese and Spanish musicians he's gathered around him prove the lie in that statement over and over again with Hispania & Japan: Dialogues. For instead of looking at cultural differences as some sort of impenetrable barrier they have seen how they actually compliment each other to help form a more complete picture of the world we live in. So not only have they created some beautiful music, they offer a timely reminder that differences aren't something to worry about, they are something to celebrate. Instead of worrying about how others can be more like us, or we like them, isn't it better to see how all of us fit together as pieces in the puzzle making up a portrait of our world?

(Article first published as Music Review: Jordi Savall & Various Artists - Hispania & Japan: Dialogues on Blogcritics)

August 30, 2011

Music Review: Tinariwen - Tassili

Do you remember back to the days of your high school English literature classes learning about literary devices like foreshadowing and pathetic fallacy? The latter, imbuing events in nature or inanimate objects with human emotions to help create atmosphere and to intensify mood, was the one teachers always trotted out during the study of any of Shakespeare's plays. Unlike most of the modern writers we would study in high school he understood the power of natural imagery and how it could evoke reactions at a visceral level. Perhaps that was because in the era when he was writing nature still had far more of an impact on the day to day lives of people. Today, unless its a storm of some magnitude, like a hurricane or tornado, we can pretty much carry on blithely ignoring the elements. Oh rain and snow might inconvenience us slightly on occasion, but for most of us they don't dictate our food supply or our overall chances of survival.

While you'll still see the occasional reference to "angry storm clouds" popping up in writing, the use of pathetic fallacy appears to have waned with our continued disassociation with nature. The further we move away from the natural world, the less she becomes part of our frame of reference. For instance, when we refer to a place as being our home land we are referring to the space defined by lines drawn on a map and a name representing a social/political entity not the land itself. Your far more likely to read an urban landscape described using natural terms, the canyons of Manhattan, or man made articles being imbued with human emotions, the angry tooting of a car's horn, than references to natural events in order to create mood. No longer able to identify with nature, we look to what we are familiar with and designate it as a replacement.
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This was driven home to me recently while listening to, and reading the translations of their lyrics, the newest release from the Kel Tamashek (more commonly referred to by the name given them by conquering Arabs, Touareg, or rebel) band Tinariwen. Tassili, being released in North America on Anti Records Tuesday August 30 2011, wasn't recorded in a studio in the midst of some urban centre. Instead it was recorded in the Sahara dessert in southern Algeria. The band spent five weeks coming up with material and recording it inside a large tent offering only minimal protection from the elements. For while this is a band who experienced some international success after playing at music festivals all over the world, they have never lost sight of who they are and their reasons for making music.

While the romantic image of band members riding camels with an electric guitar slung over one shoulder and an automatic rifle is appealing, times have changed. True some of the founding band members participated in the uprisings in Niger and Mali while recording music on cassettes that broadcast the message of the rebellion; a rebellion and a message designed to promote and protect the rights of a nomadic people from the policies of repressive governments. With peace treaties now signed supposedly offering the Kel Tamashek guarantees, their situation remains fragile as years of drought and encroachment on traditional territories have wrecked havoc on their world. Perhaps it's because of this for this recording the band has relinquished their grips on electric guitars in favour of acoustic and utilized unamplified percussion in order to forge an even stronger connection to both their environment and their traditions. Now, just as much as during the rebellion if not more, their people need reminders of who they are and why the desert is an important part of their lives. They may no longer be carrying machine guns, but Tinariwen are still actively fighting to ensure the survival of their people. It's not just the subject matter of the songs communicating to the listeners now, it's the manner in which it is being presented. This is very much a case of the media being as much a part of the message as the message itself.

Those who have listened to Tinariwen will know of the almost trance like quality of their music. How it seduces and entices you to let your mind sink into an almost dream like state in an attempt to reproduce some of the sensations created by living in the dessert. One can almost imagine the vistas of sand spreading out in an endless tableau before you as you listen. The lyrics, in Tamashek, and sung/chanted primarily by front man Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, wash over the steady throb of the percussion and scratch of the electric guitars, occasionally interrupted by an outburst from one of the guitars. These burst of sound are like alarms reminding us to not to be hypnotized by the environment as while the sands may appear lifeless and barren they actually team with life and sudden changes.

On Tassili the band's new approach not only allows you to go deeper into the atmosphere they have always created, it conveys far more of the emotional and spiritual bond their people have with the desert. The intimacy of the acoustic instruments and the focus required to play and record on location has strengthened the ties their music has with the environment to the extent its influence is an almost palpable presence. You would think that this type of recording would be the least likely for the band to start introducing performers who come from other places into the mix. In fact one would almost expect the inclusion of North American guest on the album to be jarring interruptions that would take away from what they were seeking to create.
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However, that's not the case. I don't tend to read liner notes prior to listening to a CD as I want to create my own impressions of the music without being influenced by what anyone else has to say about a recording. On my first listening, even though the contributions of outsiders included vocals sung in English on the third track, "Tenere Taqhim Tossam", by Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV On The Radio and horns by New Orlean's Dirty Dozen Brass Band on the fourth track, "Ya Messinagh", they barely registered. I was so caught up in what the band had created, and the additions were so carefully worked into the mix, the contributions of the other musicians were merely another part of the whole experience Tinwariwen were creating. Even on listening a second and third time, knowing there were additional musicians involved and listening for them, it didn't make any difference.

It would be easy for a band in Tinwariwen's position, gaining international acclaim and being lionized by pop stars like Robert Plant and Carlos Santana, to drift away from who they are and lose their focus. However, instead of succumbing to any potential temptations to make their music more accessible to wider audiences they have moved in the opposite direction to return even closer to their roots. It's as if they have decided that after introducing us to their world, they are now prepared to take us another step deeper into it. On the other hand one always has to remember the circumstances under which they began playing music in the first place. They may have put down the rifles and the fighting might be over, for now, but the war is far from done.

As the world encroaches further and further into their traditional territories and more and more of the Kel Tamashek are being forced to leave the desert to live in cities, they are being disconnected from the life and traditions which gave them direction as a people. Tinwariwen, and other Kel Tamashek bands and musicians are continuing to do their best to ensure the survival of their people and their culture through their music. They know they can't keep the rest of the world at bay, hence the inclusion of those sympathetic to their music and cause on the album, but with this disc they are telling their audience, both Kel Tamashek and the rest of the world, we can still be who we once were no matter what the rest of the world throws at us. This beautiful and haunting recording is not a plea for help, rather it is a statement from a proud and dignified people proclaiming their right to live as they want to and celebrating who they are and the land they love.

(Band photo by Marie Planeille)

Article first published as Music Review: Tinariwen - Tassili on Blogcritics)

August 21, 2011

Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu & Sirin Pancaroglu -Resonating Universes

When you think about modern electronic compositions you normally expect the instruments employed by the performers to be something you'd plug in. Keyboards, guitars and anything else that's already electronically inclined. One of the last instruments you would probably associate with these types of works would be the harp. Whether one of the huge concert harps used with a symphony orchestra or one of the many different "folk" harps from cultures around the world, they seem to be the epitome of an acoustic instrument. Delicately plucked strings picking out a melody which makes one think of ancient folk songs, minstrels and bards would on the surface appear to have little in common with music generated by computer processors.

Yet its just such a juxtaposition of the old and the new that composer and performer Erdem Helvacioglu and harpist Sirin Pancaroglu have attempted on their CD Resonating Universes on the Sargasso label. A composition for concert harp, ceng (traditional Turkish harp), electric harp and electronics, Resonating Universes is not merely an attempt to redefine our expectations when it comes to the type of music a harp is capable of producing or to shock listeners. Rather its an exploration of sound and the process of composition itself.
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In composing the eight parts of the nearly hour long piece, Helvacioglu first recorded Pancaroglu playing the concert harp and assembled samples of the huge variety of sounds and textures the instrument is capable of creating. The process was then repeated with each of the other two instruments in order to create a library of as many sounds as possible reflecting the sonic world of the harp. Pancaroglu's contribution was not limited to sitting in a studio plucking strings randomly in order to make sounds, She created and defined the boundaries of the universe through her abilities with the instruments in question. While the final result heard on the disc came from Helvacioglu's manipulation of the sounds, it was she who was responsible for the context within which he would work. She was the one who knew what her instruments could create and how to respond to what had been already been recorded with complimentary music and sounds.

For those not familiar with Helvacioglu's method of composition you need to know he specializes in improvisational work. After laying down a core of music he will then proceed to build layer upon layer of sound with each layer building upon the previous one until a piece reaches its conclusion. Like an abstract painter somebody working in this manner has to know when to remove their brush from the canvass in order not to ruin the painting. What they leave out of the final composition is just as important as what they have included. Just as if you keep mixing colours together you end up with something that looks like mud, adding too many sounds to the original base can quickly cause a composition to cross the border from music to cacophony.
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Thankfully that's not the case here, for although Helvacioglu pushes the envelope as far as he can go, he never once steps over the edge into sludge. However, before sitting down to listen to this disc you are going to have to rid yourself of any expectations you have about harps and the music they create. This is not a collection of ethereal folk songs by any stretch of the imagination as Helvacioglu and Pancaroglu have taken the instrument to places it has never been before. I'm sure there are many out there who aren't going to be able to listen to this because of what they think a harp should sound like, but there were plenty of people who wouldn't look at a Jackson Pollack painting either because they didn't adhere to their definition of visual art. In fact, if you're not familiar with modern composition, prior to listening to this piece you're going to have to rid yourself of any preconceived notions concerning what makes something music.

As with any abstract form of expression each of us are going to react to these pieces in our own way. While we can admire the technical abilities that allow Helvacioglu and Pancaroglu to create the material objectively, the results are an entirely different matter. So, all I can give you is my impressions of what I listened to and hope they provide you with an idea of what the music is like and a guide to help you listen to it. However, I've no way of knowing if my interpretation has any bearing on what the two artists involved in its creation were intending. I looked to the composition's title, Resounding Universes as a guide and went from there.

Thinking of each phrase of harp music, even each note, as a possible universe based on their potential to inspire other sounds allows you to develop a kind of road map into each of the eight parts that make up the piece. Although we are presented with a finished product, the original harp buried beneath the layers upon layers of sounds and effects Helvacioglu has built up around it, keeping this in mind allows us to understand and appreciate the relationship that binds them together. It's like being able to experience all the possible ripples of dropping a pebble in water at once instead of watching it gradually develop. Instead of sitting and wondering what will happen when the butterfly flaps its wings in Japan, we hear cause and effect simultaneously.
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That's not necessarily a pretty sound, but the creation of a new universe is a messy affair. Heck the ongoing evolution of a planet like earth isn't the neatest thing, what with volcanoes erupting, earthquakes moving continents around and oceans overflowing their boundaries periodically. Yet there's something about the raw power that is awe inspiring and beautiful. Looking past the surface discordance of the pieces on this recording offers one the opportunity to experience that totality of creation in all its raw power, disharmony and beauty. When even something as traditionally gentle and unassuming as the harp has the potential for this type of power, what does that say about the process of creation in the natural world?

Resonating Universes is not something you're going to put on the CD player for light listening or as some sort backdrop for meditation. It's far too grounded in the rough and tumble of reality for either purpose. This is music that reflects the clash of powers occurring during the process of creation and that's as far from a relaxing experience as you can get. So for those of you looking to listen to some nice gentle harp music that will keep your senses dulled and help keep you asleep to the world around you, look somewhere else. However if you want to experience in some small way how one spark, no matter what the spark is, can set off the amazing chaos of creation, then this disc is for you. It's an experience you'll not soon forget.

(Photo of Sirin Pancaroglu - Baris Dervent)
(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu and Sirin Pancaroglu - Resonating Universes on Blogcritics)

July 30, 2011

Music Review: Mariachi El Bronx - Mariachi El Bronx II

It's easy to see how at first glance it would be hard to find any connection between punk rock and Mariachi music. With the former being all black leather, short cropped hair and three chord angry music and the latter being flamboyant costumes, intricate musical arrangements and romantic themes they appear to be world's apart. In fact the gap appears so wide between the two the idea of bridging it seems almost ridiculous. However, it's not without precedent for American popular musicians to either be influenced by Mariachi or to play Mariachi tunes themselves.

First there were all the Latin tinged pop songs of the early 1960s (ever hear of a song called "La Bamba" or a guy named Richie Valens?) and the show bands from the same era with their Bosa Novas, Rumbas, and other assorted Hispanic influenced dance tunes. Listen carefully to the old Phil Spector wall of sound songs from the 1960s and you'll hear castanets, bongos and other Spanish influenced percussion holding the songs together. For those looking for that influence in bands with a harder edge I'd like to point you in the direction of a guy named Carlos Santana or how about a band called Los Lobos? Then there was the Mink DeVille Band of the 1970s who drew heavily upon the sound of the Lower East Side of New York City for songs like "Spanish Stroll". When he went solo, Willy DeVille, the band's lead singer, went so far as to release a Mariachi version of the old Texas blues number made famous by Jimi Hendrix "Hey Joe".

One shouldn't be so surprised at the widespread influence of Spanish music - they were the first European power to establish colonies in the Americas after all. Remember, the lands which people are now so concerned about keeping Mexicans out of were territories stolen from the Spanish through conquest. Texas, New Mexico, California and others were all Spanish until they were invaded and conquered by America. African American blues and gospel and British folk music get so much of the credit for developing rock and roll, we tend to forget the third major influence on popular music in North America. So if any group of American musicians, be they punks or rappers, decide they want to sing Mariachi music, it's really not that much of a stretch. All that matters is how well they do it, and their intentions in performing it.
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All that being said, when I first heard about Mariachi El Bronx, punk band The Bronx's excursion into Latin music, I had my doubts about the whole idea. Mariachi music isn't the easiest music to play and requires band members to play instruments most musicians in Canada and the US aren't overly familiar with. While the basic six string guitar has proven a popular import from Spain (no, neither it or the banjo are American as the banjo came over with African slaves and the guitar with soldiers returning from the Spanish American wars at the end of the 19th century) others essential to the Mariachi sound aren't as well known. The huge oversized base guitar known as guitarron, the round backed vihuelas, five stringed guitars, and even folk harps with twenty-eight to forty strings.
However, after listening to their second recording in this incarnation, Mariachi El Bronx II, which will be released on the White Drugs label August 2 2011, I'm not only convinced of the sincerity of the band's effort, but was blown away by their ability to carry it off. Expanding their line up to include Vincent Hidalgo (son of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo) and the Beastie Boys' Alfredo Ortiz means they have sufficient musicians to meet the demands of the music's more complex arrangements and a Latino presence to ensure they keep faith with the music, and keep faith they do. What's so wonderful about this record becomes obvious right from the first song "48 Roses", their complete and utter sincerity when it comes to performing the music.This isn't some camp joke at the expense of the music, these guys are genuine in their attempts to not only play the music but to capture its heart and spirit as well.

Now I don't know enough about the technicalities of Mariachi music to critique the band on how well they are playing all the subtle nuances those more familiar with the genre would be aware of. However what I can tell you is they do a magnificent job of sounding like they know what they're doing musically. From the rhythms of the guitars and guitarron to the melodies played on trumpet and accordion, they have mastered the elements that make the music so instantly recognizable. The only thing the least bit disconcerting is how un-Hispanic the lead vocalist sounds in comparison to how Spanish the music sounds. Yet what's slightly jarring in the beginning ends up being reassuring. The fact that they are singing naturally, without affectation of any kind, is further proof of the band's sincerity.
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Whether the song is about a guy who is in trouble because he has four girlfriends, the opening "48 Roses", about hope in the face of hardship, "The Great Provider" (which has the wonderful line "faith isn't magic it's just keeping my foot in the door") or the guy pleading with the girl to give him a chance even if her family don't think he's good enough for her, "Norteno Lights", the music and lyrics work together beautifully. The feel and tempo of the music not only create a thematically appropriate atmosphere for what each song is about, it works with the lyrics to help tell the song's story. Instead of the swelling strings we're used to hearing in order to clue us in that the singer is in the grips of some really strong emotion, here they do everything from providing joyful counterpoint to a moment of happiness or work together with other instruments to create any number of emotional settings.

Unlike most pop songs which will tack on strings almost as an afterthought, Mariachi music is very carefully orchestrated and arranged. It's a sign of just how good a job Mariachi El Bronx have done that each of the tracks on their latest release are beautiful examples of the above. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it's like listening to a chamber music ensemble where one of the instruments is also a vocalist. Perhaps because there's less emphasis on horns and brass instruments than there is in jazz or show bands it reminds me more of classical music than anything else. But I also think its the way everything works together to create a whole in a way that I've only heard in classical music before. All of which means these guys have done a remarkable job in making the jump from playing punk rock to playing Mariachi music.

Mariachi El Bronx II is not just an album that's remarkably good for a group of punks, its a remarkably good album period. The music ranges from being infectious enough to drag you to your feet to start dancing to introspective enough to have you listening to a song's lyrics and nodding in recognition. On the band's web site they talk about how living in California you hear Mariachi music being played all the time which is definitely not the case up here in Canada. Thankfully the boys in Mariachi El Bronx have taken their fascination with the music and let it inspire them to start performing it, giving those of us not lucky enough to live near where Mariachi music is played the opportunity to hear it anyway. This is a great album of great music by a great band - what more could you ask for?

(Article first published as Music Review: Mariachi El Bronx - Mariachi El Bronx II on Blogcritics)

July 18, 2011

Tinariwen Denied Visas To Enter Canada

Well it hasn't taken Steven Harper's newly elected majority government in Canada very long to embarrass Canada internationally and send a chill through the Canadian artistic community at the same time. The Malian based, internationally renowned Kel Tamashek band Tinariwen has been denied visas to enter Canada in order to perform twice in the past couple of months. First they were turned down for a visa so they could perform as scheduled at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and then when they re-applied in Los Angeles in order to make it to the Vancouver Folk Festival they were turned down again. It's not as if this is the first time the band has travelled to Canada as they've been performing here on a regular basis since 2004.

So why have they all of a sudden been denied entry to Canada? It can't be because of security problems as they have had no problems with gaining admission to the United States for that part of their North American tour. In fact if you check out their touring schedule listed at their web site you'll see they're booked to play almost every major music festival in Europe and around the world this summer, except of course for Canada. When asked for comment as to why they denied the band their visa's this year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada refused to say anything except each application is assessed on its merits. According to the spokesperson quoted in the Globe and Mail on July 15/11, Johanne Nedeau, they consider the profile of the event, invitations from the Canadian hosts and whether letters of support were received.

Okay, so the first event they were turned down for was the Winnipeg Folk Festival which has been on going since 1974. According to figures released by Tourism Winnipeg in 2009 the folk festival creates 244 jobs, generates $25 million in economic activity and its impact on Manitoba's Gross Domestic Product is around $14 million. For those of you who don't know Canada that well, Manitoba, where Winnipeg is located, is not one of the richest provinces in Canada. It doesn't have the industry of Ontario, oil wells of Alberta or the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. It needs any little boost it can get and the Winnipeg Folk Festival with its annual attendance of over 70,000 per annum is not small potatoes.
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Artistically the festival has been attracting performers from across North America and around the world since it began. This year's festival was promising to be more of the same with acts like k.d Lang, Blue Rodeo, Lucinda Williams, Blackie and The Rodeo Kings and Little Feat from North America mixing with international performers like Omar Souleyman from North Africa, actor Tim Robbins and his Rogues Gallery Band and Toots and the Maytals from Jamaica. Not only do they hold there annual weekend concert series, the festival also runs year round programming to encourage and develop local talent and introduce young people to international music. I would think that qualifies them as a pretty high profile event both artistically and economically.

The Vancouver festival didn't get started until 1977, but it has more than made up for its late start by now. Being in a larger metropolitan centre hasn't hurt, and being on the West Coast of Canada also allows them access to bands in Asia that other festivals don't have. This year's acts include mainstream artists like Roseanne Cash, Josh Ritter and Gillian Welsh as well as international artists like Cassius Khan, Emmanuel Jal and Tinariwen - oops, not them, they weren't allowed into Canada that's right. The Vancouver festival is one of the major international folk gatherings each year. Bands and performers from around the world make sure to include it as part of their touring schedule. You wouldn't believe how many times I've requested information from publicists about whether their band was going to be performing in Canada only to find out they would only be showing up in Vancouver for the folk festival and nowhere else.

So I think we've established that both the Vancouver and Winnipeg Folk Festivals are significant events in the year's calendar, and we know Tinariwen was invited by each of the festivals to perform. As for the letters of support, upon finding out about the band being denied a visa for Winnipeg, two Canadian Members of Parliament wrote letters supporting their application for entry to perform in Vancouver. Yet somehow or other despite all the requirements for granting of a visa being met, Tinariwen still weren't allowed into Canada. One really has to wonder what was motivating the decision to refuse them entry.
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Tinariwen are fast becoming one of the biggest draws on the international music circuit. Support from main stream musicians like Robert Plant and others has given them a much higher profile than most international bands. Preventing the band from playing at these two folk festivals will definitely have an impact on their box offices as each event had scheduled them for a headlining concert - they were to have to been the opening night act in Vancouver. If one looks at the results from the last election, both British Columbia and Manitoba gave a healthy majority of their seats to the Conservative Party - so on the surface there doesn't appear to be any reason for political motivation. However, those most likely to attend and/or organize either one of these festivals are not the types who are liable to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada.

This is the same government who has already cancelled funding for a theatre festival because they did not agree with the content of a play performed in its previous season. Toronto's Summerworks Theatre Festival had its funding cancelled by the Department of Canadian Heritage because they staged a play the government didn't like. Only weeks before the festival is scheduled to begin they have been told its 2011 grant of around $48,000 was being pulled, an amount that represented 20% of the festivals budget. The message is clear, there's no such thing as arms length arts funding in Canada and if the government doesn't like you or your politics you can expect to be screwed over in one way or another.

Vancouver and Winnipeg's folk festival have paid the price for not representing Steven Harper's vision of Canada by having one of their biggest draws refused entry at the border. While cutting funding to artists is still the easiest way to silence them the government is also showing itself willing to find new and inventive ways of punishing those it can't touch through funding cuts. What kind of message is our government sending when it cuts funding to artists who express opinions different from their own and arbitrarily prevents others from crossing our borders? The one I'm hearing is if you don't agree with us we're going to make you suffer. In the long run it will be the people of Canada who suffer the most as we're gradually cut off from freedom of expression. Preventing Tinariwen from gaining admission to Canada is only the tip of the ice berg representing the beginning of what looks to be a big chill artistically in Canada. Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada have five years to do what they want, and it looks as if they're off to a flying start in reshaping the country in their image.

(Article first published as Tinariwen Denied Visas to Enter Canada on Blogcritics)

June 30, 2011

Music Review: - Loga Ramin Torkian - Mehraab

I find it appalling that we in the West are willing to tar an entire culture with the brush of recent history and in the process cut ourselves off from hundreds, if not more, years of beauty and intelligence. This is especially appalling when even the most casual perusal of history would tell us the size of the gulf separating our misinformed view from reality. The religious fascism practised in Iran and preached by their right wing allies these days is not only repulsive for the hatred it engenders, but for the corrupt and narrow view of Islam they present to the world. It's bad enough they inflict this on those who come under their sway and force as many as they are able to abide by their perversions, but even worse is how they have succeeded in convincing so many that theirs is the true face of Islam.

The culture that brought us the sublime beauty of Sufi poet Rumi, the wonder of Shaherazade's Tales Of 1001 Nights and scientific minds subtle enough to introduce to the world the concept of zero bears only a passing resemblance to the mind numbing totalitarianism being passed off as a religion in certain parts of the world today. However, as images and reporting of the latter are what dominate our media other views have fallen by the wayside. While one can walk through reminders of the glories of the Ottoman Empire in Spain and Northern Africa and revel to the assembled musicians in the market places of Algeria and Morocco, in North America opportunities for the non-Muslim to appreciate this side of Islam are almost non-existent.

Thankfully that situation is starting to change. While we may not be seeing examples of all the arts, the past few years have seen an increase in the number of CDs being released by Islamic musicians living in North America. With the fundamentalist claiming music is forbidden by their religion recording and performing music still isn't something being widely done by Muslim musicians, which makes those discs available all the more valuable. Composer and multi-instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian is one of the most active members of a small but thriving group of ex-patriot Iranian musicians living in North America. As a member of the bands Niyaz and Axiom Of Choice and the work he has done on his wife's, Azim Ali, solo recordings, he has shown his virtuosity on a multitude of traditional and newly created stringed instruments. Plucked, strummed or bowed it doesn't seem to matter as each instrument comes alive in his hands to generate sounds and textures unlike any you've probably heard before.
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While you've probably heard his music already without realizing it, he's composed music for movies such as Iron Man, Deception and Body Of Lies, he has only just now released his first solo recording, Mehraab, on the Electrofone Music label. Accompanied by classical Persian vocalist Kourosh Taghavi Torkian has created an album of music inspired by traditional Persian poetry and themes. The eight songs on the disc are not only an example of the nearly sublime beauty of this type of music, but a sampling of Torkian's amazing abilities as both a performer and a composer. For while he draws upon the history and cultural heritage of his native Iran for inspiration, they are the springboard he uses to launch forays into new areas of musical expression.

However, unlike those who seem to think that the simple application of electronics and utilizing dubbing techniques means they are being innovative, Torkian isn't interested in creating something for addled minded club attendees to trance out to at the end of a night of raving. He has created a series of eight complex and beautiful pieces of music in which the various instruments at his disposal, including Taghavi's spine tingling voice, interweave and overlap to form collages of sound that will take your breath away. Playing instruments specially built for him by luthier Jonathan Wilson including a bowed instrument called a Kamaan with six strings and movable frets and a guitar viol - basically a bowed electric guitar - which allow him to expand upon both the traditional tonal ranges of Western and Persian music, he pushes the music in directions most people wouldn't even think possible.
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At first it's difficult to distinguish the various instruments being played because of each piece's density. However as your ears grow accustomed to the different qualities each of them are capable of producing you begin to be able to pick out each individual strain and become more aware of each composition's complexity. So while initially the music might appear to share some elements in common with what is known as "trance", the reality is Torkian's music is far more sophisticated, with subtle changes in tone, sound and rhythm creating accents and crescendos you'd not find in music designed to send you to sleep. Of course when the glorious voiced Taghavi enters the mix, the dynamic changes again as the music works to support him as he sings in celebration of life and faith.

At least that's what I assume he's singing about, not being able to understand the lyrics, as his voice weaves in, out and around its accompaniment. Without being able to comprehend what's being sung, the natural temptation is to slip into a quiet reverie while listening, but the combination of Torkian's compositions and Taghavi's voice are more than enough to keep anyone's attention focused on trying to glean as much meaning as possible from what you're listening to. I don't know whether this music was divinely inspired or not, but its inherent beauty was of a kind that I've long associated with the work of composers and other artists inspired by a power greater than themselves.

Music has long been one of the means at humanity's disposal for expressing our belief in something greater than ourselves. If certain elements seeking to control Islam had their way, they would deny both their people and the world the opportunity to hear any type of music, no matter if it were divinely inspired or not. The combination of the attitudes expressed by those who espouse those views and those in the West willing to paint all Muslims with that brush have left the rest of us with a false impressions of the true nature of Islam. Thankfully there are musicians like Loga Ramin Torkian in the world who are doing their best to remind us there is more to their culture than is commonly represented. Music speaks to all of us on some level or another, and Torkian's music has a beauty that transcends the boundaries of language and culture.

(Article first published as Music Review: Loga Ramin Torkian - Mehraab on Blogcritics.)

Music Review: Terakaft - Aratan N Azawad

If one were to belief the more sensationalistic movies and books you'd end up thinking the deserts of the world were endless wastelands where no life could possibly exist. However, while it's true life in the desert is hard, it does exist, and people native to the world's deserts have managed to find ways of carving out an existence for themselves. From the Hopi of the American South West who grow crops of corn in tiered gardens on the side of mesas, the bush men of the Kalahari in South Africa who live as hunter gathers, to the nomadic Kel Tamasheq of the North Sahara who shepherd their flocks of goats and camels across some of the harshest landscape in the world, they've all found a way to live in their chosen environment.

Unfortunately, the modern world doesn't seem to make allowances for people who elect to live a life outside of what is considered normal. Where once the caravans of the Kel Tamasheq could wander freely from what is now Algeria in the north to their major southern camp of Agadez in what is now Niger, there are now borders to be negotiated and lands both fenced off and depleted by the mining and industry. However, the Kel Tamasheq have a long history of resisting incursions upon their territory and attacks on their way of life. The Arab armies attempting to spread Islam in the 1400s named them Tuareg, rebels, as even when defeated they refused to surrender who they were entirely to their conquerors. Instead they adopted the camels of their invaders and expanded their caravans to include trade as well as herds and adapted elements of the new religion to suit their own beliefs.

Known to some as the Indigo people for the distinctive deep purple colour of their robes, the Kel Tamasheq travelled the caravan routes of the Sahara without any major interruptions until well into the twentieth century. Even colonial expansion and two world wars did little to interfere with their centuries old traditions. They lived in some of the least forgiving and harshest climates this side of the Arctic and Antarctic Circles after all, and while it might have made for a hard life, it pretty much guaranteed little or no outside interference. After all, there wasn't anything in that wasteland to make the effort involved in controlling it worth while. All that changed with the end of colonial rule as the once broad expanse of their traditional territory was arbitrarily segmented by the borders of emerging nations, some of whom didn't appreciate the Kel Tamasheq's independence. The early 1960s saw the beginning of what would turn into close to forty years of sporadic fighting between Kel Tamasheq warriors and government forces from predominately Niger and Mali.
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Whole families were forced into exile from Niger in the early 1960s by government anti-Tuareg policies with the majority winding up in Libya. It was here, growing up removed from their traditional lifestyle, a dissatisfied generation of young Kel Tamasheq became the nucleus of those who picked up arms in the 1980s and 90s in an attempt to regain the territories and rights that had been taken away from them. It was also in Libya that some of these young men began to discover Western pop music and began blending it with their own traditions to create the distinctive sound which has become their hallmark. While the life of a musician has on occasion been no less risky than that of an armed rebel - the Niger government made possession of "Guitar Music" illegal and targeted its performers for assassination - it was seen as an ideal way of communicating with their people in order to keep their traditions alive and letting the world know about their struggle to survive.

Although only founded in 2001 the band Terakaft has roots that date back to the earliest days of the guitar revolution. Both current and former members of the band were involved with the founding, and retain close ties with, arguably the most famous Kel Tamasheq band, Tinariwen and its enigmatic leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. For its third release, Aratan N Azawad, on the World Village Music label June 14 2011, the band's line up includes Liya Ag Ablil (aka Diara), formally of Tinariwen, Abdallah Ag Ahmed and Sanou Ag Ahmed. The disc features a combination of material written by Diara and his late brother Inteyeden Ag Abil (another founder of Tinariwen) during the uprisings twenty years ago and those by the current line up, ensuring the recording retains the fire and spirit of rebellion that made the music so compelling in the first place while recognizing the need for moving into new territory.

Listening to Aratan N Azawad (Children Of The Azawad) without translation or liner notes due to a postal strike in Canada preventing me from obtaining a hard copy, I had anticipated having difficulties in finding the means of connecting with the music. While in most cases the lyrics are impressionistic and lose something in the translation (usually they are translated from the original Tamasheq into French and then into English) on previous discs by Terakaft and other Kel Tamasheq bands what's available has been enough to formulate an idea of what a song is about. However, the music on its own is so compelling it draws you into a world, like their desert homeland, which is both familiar and alien at the same time.

Online promotional material describes how the title track "Aratan N Azawad" insists Kel Tamasheq children study their language, history and culture, which is "written in the mountains", for there to be hope for the future. Even this snippet of information is revealing as it tells us how deeply they as a people are intertwined with their environment. Reading this you begin to understand a little of the passion which fuelled the rebellions of the past and continues to fuel today's music. The land they live on, the land they see being gradually taken away from them by encroaching cities, pollution and the exploitation of natural resources, is not just something to be used and exploited, but is part of the very fabric of their beings and culture. Separating them from their territory becomes the same as taking away their language and a sizeable chunk of their identity.
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If that sounds like I'm reading a lot into a little, wait until you hear the music accompanying songs like this one and others which stress Terakaft's vision of national unity for their people that has nothing to do with today's borders. "Akoz Imgharen", Four Patriarchs, advocates a council of elders representing the four corners of the Kel Tamasheq territories and reminds listeners how they were part of life in the Sahara long before any of the countries trying to control them existed. It's not just the past or other serious issues the music celebrates either. Listen to "Idya Idohena" and "Hegh Tenere" and you hear a band who understands music can be fun as well. While the former is a tribute to the midnight dance parties young people enjoy under the desert skies, the latter shows the band pushing their music in new directions as they incorporate bass and drum grooves which give the song a funkier sound then anything we've heard from the desert before.

However, as is only fitting as it leant its name to both the genre and those who played it, the guitar still takes pride of place in all their material. Both in propelling the rhythm and defining the passion behind the stories through soaring leads, the duo guitar work of Diara and Sanou are in the forefront of each and every track. While the blues based rock of Hendrix and others still predominates, other styles have now begun to flesh out the guitar sound including neighbouring West African pop music. While this provides a lighter tone to some of the material, it doesn't diminish the intensity of its overall effect, nor the trance like elements of the sound which made it so compelling to listeners in the first place. In fact it's one of the finer examples of a band expanding its sound without surrendering anything of what made it appealing in the first place.

Aratan N Azawad, the new album by Terakaft is a wonderful example of both the music of the Kel Tamasheq people of the Sahara desert region of North Africa and how traditional and modern music can combine to make something spectacular. Even without being able to understand the lyrics one can't help but be impressed by the passion and the intensity of the feelings that have gone into the creation of this work. Even if you were unaware of the history behind the music it would be breathtaking. As it is, knowing what we do about the Kel Tamasheq's fight to preserve their way of life in the face of nearly overwhelming odds, it's impossible to listen to this disc without being moved. This is music generated by a soul's powerful belief in something greater than itself and it shows. There's no other popular music that can compare to it.

(Photo Credit - Nadia Nid El Mourid)

(Article first published as Music Review: Terakaft - Aratan N Azawad on Blogcritics.)

June 14, 2011

Music Review: Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra Versus Fanfare Ciocarlia - Balkan Brass Battle

Ah, gypsy music! The wild violins, the flamenco style guitar, the hammered strings of the cimbalom, the deep rumble of a double bass and the careening clarinet accompanying a tortured voice singing of love, religion, troubles and other aspects of their marginalized lives. In spite of the fact there are Romany people living across a span of territory stretching from India to Spain in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, most people tend to latch onto this one, very romantic, notion of what their music should sound like. While its true there are bands where the violin is important, the music can not only be radically different depending upon which country those who play it reside in, even within a single country it can change from province to province and town to town.

For not only were the Romany a nomadic people who absorbed the musical influences of those whose territories they passed through, they were also survivors who learned quickly how to adopt the music of the local dominant culture so they could earn their keep as entertainers. While in some cases it has become difficult to tell whether the Romany have adopted local folk traditions or vice versa, in others the non Romany influence is obvious. When the Ottoman Empire of Turkey swept up the Danube River through Eastern Europe, until they were halted at the gates of Vienna from entering the West, they brought with them a sound that was new to European ears. While marching bands, military bands especially, are now commonplace, they were first introduced to Europe by the conquering Turkish armies. Throughout the territories they occupied they brought with them their love of brass bands and those wishing to perform for the new rulers quickly learned to play what would sell.
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Not only did the Romany people under the Ottoman Empire pick up brass music, they gradually developed their own distinct styles of performance which reflected both their own musical heritage and the regions of Europe they lived in. Although it's only been recently this style of music has made its way over to North America, it is easily as popular and well known as what we refer to as "traditional" Romany music elsewhere. The Guca Festival of brass bands in Serbia, featuring Romany bands from across Europe, is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year and routinely draws over two hundred bands who compete for the title of champion brass band of Europe. One of the most celebrated contestants was Serbian native son the Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra, who, after receiving unprecedented high marks from all the judges in all the categories at the 2001 festival, no longer competes but performs as a special guest every year. Needless to say they were shocked when whispers began reaching their ears of a band of part time musicians from a small town in Romania who were gaining international recognition and acclaim and being talked about in the same reverential tones usually reserved for them.

Fanfare Ciocarlia from the tiny village of Zece Prajini, Moldavia in north eastern Romania were one of the last brass bands in the country. With no tradition to draw upon, and almost no contact with the outside world during the communist era, they developed their own unique approach to the music. Barnstorming through Western Europe and even North America, they have wowed audiences everywhere they've been. Somehow, the two bands never crossed paths until a few years ago, although each had been asked about the other by fans. Until now the two bands have never shared a stage, let alone been in the recording studio together, so there has been no way for aficionados of the music to compare the two and perhaps decide which is the better.

All that has changed with the release of Balkan Brass Battle on the German Asphalt Tango Records label and a whirlwind tour of European cities under the same name. The CD features both solo and combined performances from the bands, four tracks of each, as they stage a semi-mock competition for the title of King of the Romany Brass Bands. For those of you, like me, whose only previous experience with brass bands has been limited to marching and military bands or those euphemistically referred to as stage bands (massed brass instruments playing pop tunes a la the James Last Band) the music of these two groups will be nothing like you've heard before. Sure the instruments are the same as those used by the other types of bands, but the music produced is something else all together.
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I'm not even going to attempt to pass judgement on which of these two bands deserve the title of King of Brass Bands, but I will say that after listening to both of them I'll never be able to sit through any other type of brass music recital. It's like the difference between listening to a Muzak rendition of Jimi Hendrix and listening to the real thing. Aside from the occasional solo performance from the best jazz players, I've never heard these instruments played with the energy, passion and soul as they are in the hands of both these bands. Of the two the Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra are probably the one which sounds most like bands you might have heard before. However that's only because trumpets play a larger role in their sound than they do in Fanfare Ciocarlia. Occasionally you'll hear something in their trumpet playing that might strike you as familiar, the high silver sound we've come to identify with Mexican/Spanish trumpet playing for instance. But that's only one moment in one song and you quickly realize they have more ways of coaxing sound out of trumpets than you'd have thought possible.

Any of you who have seen the movie Borat will have already been exposed to Fanfare Ciocarlia as they were the band covering "Born To Be Wild". While the novelty of listening to that played on brass instruments made it fun to listen to, you'll soon realize how much more there is to this band than this tune. First of all, while it might have seemed like they were playing fast and furious on that rendition, judging by what you hear on this disc the reality is they were only playing at about half their potential speed. Unlike other bands who play flat out, the thing you quickly understand about Fanfare Ciocarlia is they aren't rushing. No matter what speed they play at each note is distinct and clearly defined so that we feel and hear even the smallest nuances. Unlike their Serbian counterparts whose main weapon is the trumpet, Fanfare are led into battle by their woodwinds, clarinet primarily, which gives them a much more distinctly Eastern European sound. You can easily believe how at one time Romany musicians joined forces with Jewish Klezmer bands when you hear the almost plaintive sound of the clarinet dart like a small bird through the thunder of the brass rhythm section.

While individually each band is a force to be reckoned with, on the four songs where they combine forces you have to wonder how the studio walls stayed standing under the onslaught. It's not just because of the volume of sound they produce, but because of the intensity of their music. In fact its hard to believe that the CD you're listening to has managed to capture all that was created during the recording sessions. Listen to the sound of the band member's voices in between and before the tracks and the joy and excitement they express just from being involved in the process. You'll quickly become aware of the limitations of even our most sophisticated technology. There's no way in hell it could have captured what all those voices represent during the recording of the music. We are able to hear the music and a good deal of the passion that has gone into its creation, but we can't see the smiles on the musicians faces, the laughter in their hearts or the pride in their souls.

If you are lucky enough to be in Europe at some point over the course of the summer of 2011 and you have the opportunity to witness one of the Balkan Brass Battles that will be occurring in cities throughout the continent, don't pass it up. Judging by what has been captured on this CD it will be a concert experience unlike any you have had before or are likely to have ever again. The rest of us will just have to make do with this recording, and be grateful that it at least exists. For those who have never experienced the uninhibited ferocity of either Fanfare Ciocarlia or the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra this disc will be a revelation as to what a brass band is capable of producing. Even those who might be familiar with one or other of the two bands will be amazed at how they each push the other to new heights. After listening to Balkan Brass Battle you'll feel like you've never heard brass band music before as everything else will pale in comparison.

(Article first published as Music Review: Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra & Fanfare Ciocarlia - Balkan Brass Battle on Blogcritics.)

Music Review: La Cherga - Revolve

As borders have opened and computer technology has improved communications, the exchange of information between countries on opposite sides of the world has become commonplace. Gone are the days where the only music you could listen was what was available on the local radio or what you were able to pick up via short wave on clear nights. Now you can simply turn on your computer and the whole world is at your fingertips. Music and video from every country in the world can be heard and seen with just a click of the mouse while more and more sites have been set up to encourage collaborations between musicians thousands of miles apart who might never meet except through their exchanges of music. A bass player in Belgrade can contribute a rhythm track for a guitar player in New York and a drummer and keyboardist in Tokyo.

With the amount and variety of music people are now exposed to it should come as no surprise to discover that musical styles are no longer confined or defined by a person's geographic location. Still that doesn't stop it being somewhat disconcerting to hear the familiar pulse of a reggae beat being played underneath the commanding tones of the clear voiced Bosnian native Adisa Zvekic on the new disc from La Cherga, Revolve, being released in North America on the Asphalt Tango label June 14 2011. A new addition to the band for this recording, Zvekic joins with the other members in continuing their forays into fusing Eastern European, (other band members are from Croatia, Macedonia and Jamaica) Balkan with British and Jamaican style dub music.
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As odd sounding as that mix might first appear, after listening to the eleven tracks on this disc one is left thinking there is either less difference between musical styles than you might imagine, or La Cherga have found some secret formulae which allows them to mix seemingly disparate ingredients together harmoniously. It soon become obvious that the reality lies somewhere in the middle of those two thoughts. Right from the disc's opening track, "Melaha", we can't help but acknowledge how well the syncopated reggae beat works with the sounds of the Balkan style brass it accompanies on this tune. Bands like Britain UB40 had used a horn section to great affect in their pop/reggae tunes of the 1980s and there are echoes of that sound in this song. Yet the horns don't just accentuate the rhythm, they also provide a flavour to the song which separates it from being just another pop tune.

If you were at all taken aback by the opening tracks Balkan reggae, the second song, "Sufi Dub" will leave you reeling. One of the major flash points in the ethnic violence that cursed the countries of the former Yugoslavia, especially Zvekic's native Bosnia, were the attacks on the Muslim communities. "Sufi Dub" draws upon the mystic Islamic sect's philosophy of love for its lyrics, which are sung in both English and Bosnian, (Unfortunately neither the liner notes nor the press materials accompanying the disc detail which of the various Balkan languages the band used on individual songs) while musically it uses what sounds like traditional Eastern European and Middle Eastern instruments to lay down what is essentially a hip-hop beat. Then instead of electronically overdubbing the vocals and music and relying heavily on bass tracks to create the layers of sound we associate with "dub" music, both Zvekic and the musicians create the effect by echoing their own efforts manually.

The result, at least in this case, is a refreshing change from what often just sounds like somebody skipping a record on one note over and over again in time to the rhythm. Here it sounds like an organic extension of both vocal and instrumental lines, creating an emphasis that makes us pay more attention to what is being said. Far too few dub songs carry meaningful messages anymore, they've just become so much fodder for the dance floor, and most people are used to ignoring their lyrical content. By creating the dub style live in the studio, not only does La Cherga re-energize a format that has become overused and tired, they have shown that it can be used for any style of music.

As most of the band members came of age during the horror of the civil wars in the Balkans during the 1990s and the recriminations and war crimes trials that followed, they can't help but be aware of the impact a song named "Sufi Dub" would have in their various homelands. For while every nationality was on the receiving end of some sort of ethnic violence, the Muslim population were the only ones without a designated territory behind whose borders they could find a semblance of shelter. Serbians, Croatians, Macedonians and Bosnians all had their own countries they could flee to for shelter if necessary, but the Muslims were left with no choice but to face whatever might come. Thus the inclusion of this song, with its recognition of the peaceful aspect of Islam, is a slap in the face to those who preached hatred in the region.
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While there are none of the overtly political songs that other bands might have produced coming from similar circumstances, Revolve is in some ways one of the most intensely political albums you'll ever hear. For while the former Yugoslavia has divided itself along ethnic and nationalistic lines, La Cherga have steadfastly gone in the other direction and blurred the distinctions between the various people through their music. Maybe to people outside the Balkans this might not be obvious; most of us couldn't tell the difference between a tune from Macedonia and Serbia if our lives depended on it. However, for those who can, this disc will sever as a reminder of what has been lost by the segregation of the various people.

Above and beyond all other considerations remains the fact La Cherga are an immensely talented group of musicians who create music that is both interesting to listen to and fun to move to as well. They have taken both the infectious Eastern European and Balkan sounds which have provided the basis for so much great music and successfully combined it with the rhythms of a music whose beat could make even the dead want to dance, reggae. Lead vocalist Zvekic has the type of voice that immediately commands your attention no matter what language she is singing in. She not only has a great range, she is able to communicate through sound and intonation as much as she does with actual words. As a result even on songs where we may not understand the lyrics we've a fairly good idea what's going on.

While the fall out from the wars that followed the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia are still going on today with people still being arrested to face charges of crimes against humanity, La Cherga offers a ray of hope for the people of the region. They are a reminder that there is an alternative to the ultra-nationalism and ethnic isolation that has marked the Balkans in its recent history. Even if they only succeed in getting people onto the dance floor and moving to the music of those a previous generation took up arms against they will have done more to heal the wounds scarring the region than any tribunal or committee of reconciliation could ever hope to accomplish. Music might not be able to save the world, but in this case it offers people the chance to take a couple of steps in the right direction. This is a great band playing smart and danceable music whose very existence is a message of hope - what more could you ask for?

(Article first published as Music Review: La Cherga - Revolve on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2011

Music Review: Group Doueh - Zayna Jumma

After close to six years of reviewing music I don't whether it's less forgivable or more understandable that I would get trapped into assuming to know what to expect musically from a band based on the region of the world they come from. There's no use denying that after a while as a reviewer you come to expect to hear a particular sound from musicians based on where they live. However, it's also a disservice to any artist to automatically attempt to pigeon hole them for any reason. People changing, evolving, growing bored with an approach and looking for new ways in which to express themselves is the very nature of art. Therefore, just because a band is from an area of the world which has become known for a very distinct style of music is no reason to expect the same from them, no matter what they've recorded in the past.

Over the past decade or so the music of the Tuareg, or Kel Tamashek, people of the sub-Saharan desert region of North Africa has been heard more and more in Europe and North America. Its distinctive mixture of traditional rhythms and modern electric guitar has grabbed the attention of world music and popular music fans alike. Bands like Tinarwian and individuals like Bombino (Omara "Bombino" Moctar) have garnered international recognition with their performances and recordings and have done much to popularize the music. Born out of rebellion, most of the first generation of musicians had taken part in uprisings by the Kel Tamashek against the governments of Mali and Niger, as a means of inspiring their people to keep fighting for their rights and reminding them of their cultural traditions. the music has gone from being banned by regional governments to being in demand at international music festivals.
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While not as well known internationally, Group Doueh, a family band headed by father Salmou Bamaar on guitar, has been around since the early days of both the Kel Tamashek rebellions and the guitar driven music it spawned. Like others Bamaar lived with the knowledge that just be playing his music he was risking his life. Members of Bombino's original band were assassinated by the Niger government and at one time possession of any "guitar player" music was against the law. Its only been since the peace treaties of late 2009 that it has been safe for musicians from Niger to return from exile. Still, cassettes of their music was made and passed from hand to hand, listened to by the people, and made their way into the hands of interested outsiders.

Hisham Mayet from the Seattle based label Sublime Frequencies has been in and out of the sub-Saharan region filming and recording the music of various groups for years now. Primarily field recordings made on portable equipment the results are sometimes spotty, but their immediacy and ability to capture a moment are usually sufficient compensation for any deficiencies in quality. His latest recording of Group Doueh, Zayna Jumma, made on location in the group's home in Dakhla, West Sahara, and scheduled for a May 24 2011 release, is probably the best yet. Not only is it technically superior to any of the previous releases, it also captures the band as they are in the midst of making a musical transition. Bamaar has expanded his band to include his next two eldest sons and three additional vocalists. In the process he has also incorporated more pop influences as his one son, Hamdan plays a full drum kit and the other, El Waar, organ and keyboards.

However, while this album is definitely more rock and roll oriented than any of either their previous work or any recordings I've heard from bands from this region, it's still not, thank goodness, what you'd call a standard pop offering. First of all, how many bands can you name where one of the vocalist also is credited with playing Kass - tea glasses? Secondly, the female voices, lead vocals provided by Halima Jakani, Bamaar's wife, and background/harmonies by Tricha, Lamnaya and one uncredited vocalist are nothing like anything you've heard on the radio. Pitched to a point sometimes just slightly shy of shrill, they cut through the sound of the accompanying instruments like a knife blade. They are both the emphatic statement punctuating the background music and an extension of the rhythms driving the music forward. Part chant and part lyrics they rise and fall throughout the songs giving them shape much as the desert wind folds sand into dunes and troughs.

The eight songs on the disc (originally released as an LP so the song list is actually divided up into sides A and B) move back and forth between what we've come to expect from music from the region and the group's new forays into a more popular sound. "Zayna Jumma", the title and opening track, is along more traditional lines, with the lead instrument being the traditional four stringed tinidit. All of which makes the second and third songs on the disc, "Ishadlak Ya Khey" and "Zaya Koum", more surprising with their almost straight ahead rock and roll drums and guitar. Just when you think you've found your bearings, they bring you right back to their roots again with "Met Ha", featuring guest vocalist Bel Kheir, singing what sounds like a traditional styled song of the region.
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While it's a little jarring to go back and forth between the modern and the traditional like this, these first four tracks prepare you for the fifth where the band starts to combine the elements of both into one song. "Jagwar Doueh" is a stirring song featuring driving keyboards and drums supporting the vocals of Halima. While the sound is modern and electronic, the feel is still something wild that would never be recorded in our studios in North America or Europe. Over the last three tracks on the disc the band never quite goes as far into popular music again, but they also never completely go back to their traditional base either. In some ways "Aziza", "Ana lakweri" and "Wazan Doueh" are, for lack of a better word, the most typical of what we have come to assume music from sub-Saharan region will sound like, with the only differences being the inclusion of instruments, drum kit and keyboards, not normally associated with it.

The latest offering by Group Doueh, Zayna Jumma, is probably not the type of music most people familiar with other groups from the sub-Saharan region of Africa would expect to hear. It might not be to everyone's taste, and it might even disappoint some, however it is an exciting and challenging collection of music by a group of musicians not afraid to experiment and push themselves and their work in new directions. As far as I'm concerned that's something which should be encouraged at all times as it's the only way for music to continue to grow. Unfortunately, while the quality of this recording is still a big improvement over earlier field recordings done by Mayet, there is still lots of room for making it better. While Sublime Frequencies and Mayet have to be given credit for bringing bands like Group Doueh to the world's attention, we will only discover their real quality with proper recordings. I hope somebody is encouraged after hearing this disc to offer them that opportunity. Their music deserves it.

(Photo Credits: Hisham Mayet)
(Article first published as Music Review: Group Doueh - Zayna Jumma on Blogcritics.)

April 18, 2011

Music Review: Azam Ali -From Night To The Edge Of Day

Is there anything more romantic than the image of a mother holding her babe in her arms and crooning a lullaby? I'm sure to most of us the idea conjures up images of times long since gone by. Lovely scenes of women sitting by a flickering fire with her baby at her feet in its cradle as she gently sings it off to sleep. The idea that a woman nowadays would have the time to sing, or even know, cradle songs is seems impossible. In our highly sophisticated and fast speeding world it's more likely mothers would have a recorder programmed to play soothing music to help baby nod off then have time in her day to sit with the child and sing.

This isn't a criticism of anything, it's just a fact of life. Anyway, lullabies weren't necessarily the sentimental thing we think they were. The image projected above is a highly romanticized version of reality probably. Sure mothers in the past have sung their babies to sleep, but the songs haven't all been about passing maternal love through music or attempts to soothe children to sleep. In some traditions cradle songs were the beginnings of a child's education. It was with them they would begin the process of learning communication as these were the first words they would hear. The songs would also mark the start of their initiation into the culture of their people and their subject matter would cover everything from simple morality to basic awareness.

In our selfish world we see lullabies as a means for a woman to build a one on one connection to her child. While that is all very well and good, it also means the child's first impressions of life are that it is the centre of the universe, and that universe revolves around one figure only. It may seem inconsequential to some of you how or what is sung to a child in a cradle, but if their earliest impressions are the world exists to gratify them and say nothing about what their responsibilities to the world will be, what kind of person do you imagine them growing up to be?
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On her newest release, From Night To The Edge Of Day on Six Degrees Records, Azim Ali has set down versions of the cradle songs she sang for her son. In exile from her Iranian homeland she wanted to ensure he was steeped in the culture of her people and their religion. So she sang him a mixture of traditional lullabies and adapted songs that would not only teach him about who he was, but his place in their world. Not being blind to the schisms that have set Muslim against Muslim over the years she chose to sing more than just songs from her Persian heritage, and the songs collected on the disc have been deliberately chosen to reflect the ethnic diversity within Islam.

Unlike in the world at large this means that Kurdish songs rest peacefully next to those from Turkey and Iraq, Sunni and Shiite stand together and the lesser known people of Azerbaijan are just as important as everyone else. While the songs are sung in the languages appropriate to their country or culture of origin, Ali has provided translations of each song in the CD's accompanying booklet. While a quick glance might make it appear that the songs are fairly typical protestations of a mother's lover for a child - the usual make the child the centre of the universe thing - closer attention will see there are phrases scattered throughout them to begin to open a child's eyes to the world around it. "You will not be mine for long" sings the mother in the traditional Iranian song "Mehman" (The Guest), recognizing that a child is only temporarily a parent's possession and he or she should use this time wisely to sleep while they are still sheltered.

Probably the most poignant lyrics of any of the songs on the disc are to be found in the one written especially for Ali's child by Palestinian oud player and singer Naser Musa. "Faith", is a beautiful song of hope for a better world for the child to grow up in. This from the pen of a man who has lived as a refugee for the majority of his life is a small miracle in itself, that it comes from a region where hate is far more common than hope is almost beyond belief. What would the world be like if people everywhere could rise above themselves and their situations to wish for a world where "childhood will be restored to the smiles of youth which were deprived of compassion" for those who are inheriting the earth from us? If parents around the world could find it inside themselves to whisper words of this sort into their child's ears instead of passing along our own prejudices as is our habit wouldn't the chances of peace be greatly improved?
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Musically Ali and those accompanying her on this disc have created a lush combination of traditional Arabic music and modern technology. While the club scene has what it calls its trance music, after hearing the arrangements and playing on this disc, you realize it is a pale facsimile of what can be expressed with the genre. While any of the former I've heard seems designed to reduce people to a drone like status, unthinking and unemotional automatons blissed out on their electronic drug noise, this music enlivens the senses instead of numbing them. Like the Dervishes of old who would use dance and music to obtain a higher state of being that would allow them to open themselves up to the glories of the universe, the music created by Ali and co-producer (and husband) Loga Ramin Torkjan is designed to open the listener up not close them down.

Of course Ali's rich and expressive voice is the focal point, but all the instruments are distinguishable within the mix of sounds each song is composed of. Here trance music does not mean simply a drone of sound lulling you into submission, it is instruments working together to form a texture or atmosphere that opens your mind to the emotions and mood of each song. True the intent of a lullaby is to send an infant safely off into sleep, but while some would employ them simply to put a child to sleep, these songs are also shaping the nature of a child's dreams allowing him or her to have their first experience, in one way or another, of the world beyond themselves.

Azam Ali's collection of lullabies gathered from throughout the Islamic world is a reminder that parents the world over dream of a better world for their children. While the songs point out the differences between our cultures in some ways, the love a parent feels for a child isn't unique to any one people. What we do with that love and how we express it dictates how our children see the world and what they bring to it. If more parents were willing to offer the kind of messages found on this CD to their children, messages of love, hope and faith, don't you think they'd have a chance at a better life? Isn't that worth at least making the effort to ensure the messages we pass on to our children aren't the same ones we were given?

(Article first published as Music Review: Azam Ali - From Night to The Edge of Day on Blogcritics)

March 17, 2011

Music Review: A Hawk and a Hacksaw -Cervantine

A couple of my pet peeves are things I call cultural colonialism and cultural appropriation. In some ways they're close to being the same thing, in that it usually involves a person of one culture stealing from another for a variety of reasons. Quite a number of times it means a member of the dominant Western culture looking upon something from across the world, seeing it as exotic and then picking out the bits and pieces of it that amuse them without ever bothering to learn about the context they came from.

In some ways it's a lot like putting on a police officer's uniform because you like the way it looks and then walking the streets. You may look like a cop on the surface, but the reality is you nothing of what doing the job involves. Most of those who are cultural appropriators are guilty of something similar. They dress themselves up in the trappings of a culture without knowing what it really means. Whether it is the pop star who picks up the sitar because it sounds cool or the new age musician who tries to make themselves sound more "spiritual" by using Native American flutes in their compositions, it amounts to little more than thievery.

However, music is supposed to be a universal language is it not? We're always hearing stories of musicians from different backgrounds getting together and being able to find common ground through the instruments they play even if they can't speak each others language. There are also classical musicians who spend years studying and training in order to be able to play whatever music they chose, including pieces written by composers from other cultures and times. Their study have not only given them the technical ability to play a multitude of music and styles, but the means to understand the context they were written in. If a musician is willing to immerse themselves in a culture, or the music, then he or she will be able to play it, no matter what their own background.
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Which goes a long way in explaining how a band from New Mexico in the United States can play the music of the Balkans and Eastern Europe and sound like they were born to it. On their most recent release, Cervantine, on their own L&M Duplication label and distributed by Midheaven, A Hawk And A Hacksaw perform eight glorious songs which not only sound like they're being played by people from their originating regions, but people steeped in its musical traditions.

Starting in 2004 core members and founders, Jeremy Barnes (accordion and percussion) and Heather Trost (violin/viola) made a pilgrimage through Eastern Europe learning and experiencing the music of the Roma, Hungary and the Eastern European and Asian influences that have permeated both. For two years they were based out of Budapest, Hungary and toured Europe with some of that country's finest musicians. They have played on the streets of Amsterdam with Roma, a road outside of Jaffa, in Israel, for Palestinians and Hassidic Jews and in a small village in Romania, in a house with no running water, recorded with the famed Fanfare Ciocarlia (The band who play "Born To Be Wild" in Borat) However, in spite of the obvious influences these adventures have had on the band, they say they have no interest in simply recreating the music they've heard or in being some kind of ethnographic sampler.

All it takes is just listening to the opening track on the CD to hear they how well they live up their word. Sure "No Rest For The Wicked", a knock down, drag out, wicked, almost eight minute long instrumental piece, starts off sounding like your fairly typical Roma/Eastern European/Klezmar mix - which when you think about it isn't so typical to begin with - but they throw in this sudden break where the music slows to almost a stop, and when it picks up again the song has morphed into something different. In some ways it's almost as if they've taken the title of the song and translated it into musical action; the music might slow down, the beat might change, hell even the tune might not always sound the same, but there can be no rest for the wicked.

They've got a crazy sense of humour these folk who call themselves Hawk and a Hacksaw. But they also play music that shakes the earth. It's got a pull you can't help but respond to; something that reaches right inside and appeals to some part you might not even know exists and sets your blood to stirring. They've tapped into something that would be downright scary if it weren't so exhilarating, and then translated it into music. Perhaps it's because they are able to draw upon musical traditions from cultures normally in opposition to each other, like Turkey and Greece in "Mana Thelo Enan Andra", and create something beautiful out of a centuries long hatred, that we respond so readily to what they have to offer. On the other hand it could be just because they are such bloody wonderful musicians and they could play anything and make it a miracle of sound.
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While the majority of the emphasis is placed on the instruments, when their is need for a vocalist Stephanie Hladowski steps centre stage and is a match for anything her band mates throw at her. Her voice is filled with the raw passion of a violin scrapped raw by its bow but her control is such that she can turn it from a caress into a challenge in the blink of an eye. There is none of the awful refinement to her that you'll find in pop singers and their meaningless songs of adolescent romance, instead you'll hear the grief and joy of lives lived to their fullest echoing through her singing.

The instruments you'll hear played on this disc are as diverse as the countries represented by the music. Chris Hladowki's Greek bouzouki, Issa Mallug's Turkish dumbek and riq, Samuel Johnson's trumpet and flugelhorn, Mark Weaver's tuba and euphonium and Charles Papaya's bass drum and cymbal swirl, keen, pound, stomp, and soar in a kind of frenzy that occasionally borders on the chaotic, but which never actually loses control. Listening to them play is like watching the funnel cloud of a tornado and being amazed a thing of such uncontrolled power can hold its shape.

Listening to Cervantine you'll hear the sound of the Balkans, mixed with Klezmer, rhythms from Turkey and tinges of the Latino sound of the band's native New Mexico. While on the surface that sounds like it has the potential to be a discordant mess, Hawk and a Hacksaw somehow weave it all together to make incredible music. Anyone who ever doubted that the music of such diverse cultures could be brought together in harmony only needs listen to this band at work to become a believer. This is truly world music.

(Article first published as Music Review: A Hawk And A Hacksaw - Cervantine on Blogcritics)

March 10, 2011

Music Review: Bombino - Agadez

I've been sitting with a CD for a couple of weeks now, listening to it, thinking about it and sort of letting it percolate inside of me. It's not often I have the luxury of doing this with a recording that I've been asked to review, but the company sent this one out to me well in advance of its release date hoping I could give them some quotes to help promote the performer. All of which is very cool, but the problem is that I'm sitting here and I don't really know what to tell anybody who reads this about the music. It's not that I don't like it, because I do, I think the music and the performer are bloody amazing, and what he's doing with his music is important.

You see there's the rub, there's a lot of history that comes with this recording, not just of the person whose made the recording, but something like 1400 years of a people's, and a place's, history. Writing about the music on this CD without touching upon any of that would be ignoring at least half of what has gone into the music's creation. So, while people don't read a critique of a CD for a social/political history lesson, the specifics of this man, this music, these people and this land are as important to talk about as the music. As you'll see, in some ways, that's the point of the music in the first place.

The land is some of the harshest in the world, the Sahara desert, specifically the parts of it which fall within the boundaries of Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The people are the Kel Tamasheq, more commonly referred to by the name given them by the Arabs who invaded these lands, Tuareg, or rebels, for their refusal to accept Islam without a fight. Nomads and herdsmen, they have guided caravans from Algeria to Niger and raised their flocks throughout the Sahara for centuries. Steadfastly refusing any outside influence they have fought to remain independent against any and all who have tried to control them. The music has roots that can be traced back through the history of the people, to the electric guitars of modern rock icons Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, and the armed rebellions against the Niger and Malian governments during the 1980s by the Kel Tamasheq. For it was veterans of those uprisings who put down their machine guns, picked up guitars and changed the nature of their rebellion.
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Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose given name is Goumar Almoctar, was born in 1980 in a desert encampment adjacent to Agadez in western Niger. When the Niger government lashed out against Kel Tamasheq people living in their territory in retaliation for the rebellion in the 1980s, Bombino's family fled to stay with family in Algeria. In the early part of the 1990s his family returned to Agadez when it appeared there was a chance for a settlement of the conflict with the Niger government. While he had started learning guitar while in exile, upon his return to Agadez Bombino was taken under the wing of a more experienced musician. He was the youngest and smallest member of the band and they gave him his nickname, "Bombino", as a play on the Italian word, bambino, baby.

For as long as the peace lasted in the 1990s and into the new century Bombino's musical career grew steadily. However in 2007 the uprising began again and the Niger government began targeting "guitar players", naming them enemies of the state. When two of the musicians he played with were killed by the army, Bombino went back into exile again, this time to the west and Burkina Faso.

It was here, after a year of searching, he was tracked down by a documentary film maker named Ron Wyman who had heard a cassette of his music while making a movie about the Kel Tamasheq (Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion) Wyman was so impressed with Bombino's music that he took him back to America where they began to record Agadez, which will be released on April 19 2011 on the Cumbancha label. Then in 2010 the army in Niger overthrew the government and signed a peace treaty with the Kel Tamasheq rebels and exiles were able to return home. So Wyman and Bombino returned to Agadez where they completed recording the CD and finished the movie at the same time.

Like the first generation of musicians who play what they call "Ishoumar", a derivative of the French word for unemployed, chomeurs, and which is now synonymous with rebel music, Bombino's sound is a mixture of the modern and the traditional. Electric guitars overlay the steady beat of the drum to create an almost hypnotic effect which wraps the listener in a cocoon of sound. Periodically Bombino's guitar will take flight into a solo, weaving in and around the rhythm like an expression of his people's desire for freedom. Unlike far too many rock and roll guitar solos which always seem to interrupt a song, Bombino's feel like emotional extensions of the material. At times they capture his excitement and enthusiasm for the promise of the better future he obviously hopes lies in store for his people, and at others they express a yearning that can make the heart ache.
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In interviews quoted in the press materials accompanying the CD he talks about his relationship with the desert and how it serves as his inspiration and how, like for the rest of his people, its his home. While I can't understand the lyrics he sings, nor are translations included with the CD, reading the English translations of individual song titles, and listening to his guitar and his voice when he performs them, you begin to understand just how deeply these people and where they live are interconnected. Of the three traditional songs on the disc he has adapted, two, "Ahoulaguine Akaline" (I Greet My Country) and "Tenere" (The Desert My Home), by their titles alone, tell you all you need to know about the depth of that bond. Listening to them, and maybe this is because I've seen footage of the Sahara, I couldn't help but visualize the stark beauty of the land and experience the same feelings that pictures of it evoke.

During the uprisings the Niger government first banned the music of, then targeted the "guitar players" because their songs spread the message of the rebellion. They weren't calls to arms, rather they were reminders to the people to take pride in who they were and to hold onto their traditions. With so many of the Kel Tamsheq displaced into the cities because of drought and loss of their territories to uranium mining, those messages have become even more important as a means of helping them retain their identity and instil within them a sense of pride in who they are. Of his original material, two of Bombino's songs, "Tigrawahi Tikma" (Bring Us Together) and "Azamane" (Mr Brothers United), on this disc are obviously meant to encourage his people to stand firm against anything that would take away their freedom or force them to change how they live their lives.

The Kel Tamsheq have survived this long by being able to live in one of the harshest environments on the planet and by learning how to adapt to the changing realities of the world around them. While they have fought fiercely over the centuries to preserve their independence, they also know there are many different ways to fight and win a war. The music of Omara "Bombino" Moctar and the message his songs have for his people, are one of the strongest weapons they have in their arsenal right now. A passionate voice, a guitar that sings and the ability to communicate through sound alone will bring tears to your eye and a send a shiver running up and down your spine. Agadez is being released on April 19 2011, and it will take your breath away.

Photo of Bombino and band members Ibrahim and Kawissan by Ron Wyman.
(Article first published as Music Review: Bombino - Agadez on Blogcritics)

March 3, 2011

Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion

Open up Google Maps and check out Agadez in the Western part of Niger and the Sahara desert. If you switch over to the satellite view of the city and pull back far enough it disappears into the surrounding desert. It becomes just another shade of brown in what appears to be a never ending vista of tan. How did this city come to appear here in what is apparently the middle of nowhere? Is it just some recent thing that sprang up in response to human greed for something buried beneath the shifting sands? In actual fact the city was founded sometime before the 14th century and was officially designated a Sultanate in 1449. More importantly it is the capital of Air, one of the traditional Tuareg federations, and was one of key way stations along the caravan routes they followed carrying trade from Algerian ports on the Mediterranean Sea into the interior of Africa and back.

Descendants of the Berber tribes of North Africa they were named Tuareg, Arabic for rebels, for their initial resistance to adopting the Muslim faith, but refer to themselves as the Kel Tamsheq after their language. Even though they eventually adopted the religion and the camel herding nomadic lifestyle they now live of the colonizing Arabs, they have continued to resist any kind of external control over their lives to this day. From French colonial rule to having the way they practice their religion dictated to them by outsiders they have have struggled preserve their way of life and traditional territories. Since the withdrawal of French rule from the Sahara in the early 1960s the lands they used to move through freely have been divided up amongst Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Algeria. Since 1963, and the first uprising of the modern era, they have taken up arms to protect their rights in the 1980s, the 1990s and most recently in 2007.
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Much like elsewhere in the world the Kel Tamsheq discovered treaties have a way of being forgotten when governments change or when it is discovered the useless land they were given is rich in natural resources. It would come as no surprise to Native Americans to hear that when uranium was discovered in Niger all the treaties were thrown out the window. While the 1980s had seen the Kel Tamsheq fighting for their lands, the 1990s saw them fighting for survival as the Niger government began to target them for persecution. Libya and Algeria have both served as homes in exile for them in the past, and did again in the 90s. Among those whose families fled to Algeria at the time was Omara "Bombino" Moctar from Agadez. Twenty some years later, both Moctar and Agadez are the subject of a new documentary film, Agadez, The Music and the Rebellion, directed and produced by Ron Wyman and his Zero Gravity Films production company.

Since the 1980 uprisings more and more among the Kel Tamsheq have turned to music in order to both further their cause around the world and as a means of keeping their own culture alive for new generations who have been cut off from the traditional lifestyle of their parents. With the loss of their habitat to expanding populations and resource exploitation a generation faces the risk of being cut adrift from what it means to be a Kel Tamsheq as they come of age in the cities instead of the desert. According to Wyman's notes he had initially set out to make a film about the people and the city of Agadez. However the movie evolved into including the young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar (He was given the nickname Bombino by the older musicians who he first played with as a play on the Italian word for baby bambino) whose music they were introduced too via a cassette tape their guide played endlessly while driving them, and the role music was playing in furthering their cause.
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Sometimes changing horses in mid stream like this can result in either never making it across the river or at least getting soaking wet. However, in this case Wyman has done a magnificent job of integrating the two seemingly divergent directions his film could have taken. Primarily this is because he has the courage the recognize the strength of the bond between the music, the environment and the people to let them speak for themselves through the visuals supplied by his camera instead of relying only on talking heads to make the point. The movie's opening frames not only establish his intent to adhere to the credo of a "picture being worth a thousand words", they also prove out the adage by taking our breath away and letting us know we're entering into an environment far removed from anything most of us have ever experienced.

However, since images can be misunderstood by a viewer's preconceived notions of what is important in life based on their own circumstances, Wyman wisely ensures we are given the proper context to place them in. To us what looks like abject poverty and primitive living conditions - hauling water from wells, cooking over open fires and a noticeable lack of any of the amenities we consider bare essentials, are simply the realities of living in that environment. Through interviews with members of the Kel Tamsheq community of Agadez, well educated people who have experienced life outside of the desert and chosen to return home, we learn enough of the people's history and their philosophy of life to begin to understand what they consider important and why these "hardships" are a small price to pay for being able to live as they choose.

At one point one of those interviews tells the story of how at first the people cursed their parents for bringing them to such a harsh land where survival was so difficult. However they soon came to bless them, for nobody else wanted it and they could live as they wished. As with any other culture whose people are as in tune with their environment as the Kel Tamsheq, it's when they are removed from it problems arise. This is why they have fought so hard, and against increasingly impossible odds, for the right to live as they have always lived. However they are also realists and have come to understand they will never win through force of arms and the times require a different approach.
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The need to integrate their approach to life with living in the modern world is what has made the role of musicians like Bombino so important to the Kel Tamsheq. For not only are they able to carry their case to the world, they are also the means of communicating to the new generation what it means to be one of the Kel Tamsheq and why they should take pride in who they are. In telling the story of Bombino, Wyman shows us how music is the chain connecting the generations both through the way he learned to play and how he is continuing the work begun by his teachers. The music he plays combines the modern and traditional worlds his people move through both in the content of his lyrics and in the music itself.

The life of the Kel Tamsheq is not easy, but it is the life they have chosen to live and desire to keep on living in as much as the modern world will allow them to do so. In Agadez, The Music And The Rebellion Ron Wyman has done an excellent job of not only depicting their life without romanticizing or sentimentalizing it, but showing what they are doing to preserve it in the face of increasingly difficult odds. Follow his camera into one of the harshest environments on earth and meet the people who not only live there, but cherish the freedom it brings them. You will also meet the remarkable young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose story of exile and return is typical for his generation, but whose talent is unique. Like his people he has persevered in the face of persecution (two of the musicians he used to play with were killed by the Niger army when they targeted the musicians among the Kel Tamsheq in the 2007 uprising and he was in exile in Burkina Faso until 2010) and now uses what he does best to fight for them.

Named Tuareg, rebels, by the first wave of invaders who tried to dictate to them how to live, the Kel Tamsheq may have laid down their weapons but that doesn't mean they have given up their battle for independence. Ron Wyman's film is currently making the rounds of film festivals in North America and around the world telling their story. Hopefully it will find its way onto DVD soon. There are many people in the world who claim to speak for freedom and liberty, but few whose way of life epitomizes those ideals as much as the Kel Tamsheq. If for no other reason it will be a shame if this movie is not seen by as a wide an audience as possible. The good news is those wishing to hear the music of Bombino won't have to wait long as his CD, Agadez, is being released by the Cumbancha label on April 14h 2011.

Photo credits: Agadez Mosque By Moonlight Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak, Photo of Omara "Bombino" Moctar by Ron Wyman
(Article first published as Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion on Blogcritics.)

February 13, 2011

Music Review: Sanda - Gypsy In A Tree

I can still remember the first time I heard a recording of Lotte Lenya singing. It was the original cast recording of the first English production of the Kurt Weill, Bertol Brecht play The Threepenny Opera. While the rest of the cast sang their material with the glossy voices you expect in American musical theatre, Lenya's voice was as coarse as rough sand paper and a wonderful relief from the parade of characterless voices which had proceeded it. Brecht and Weill's biting piece of social commentary had been turned into a pretty piece of musical theatre with Lenya's performance being the only tie to its roots in the political theatre of Germany in the 1920s and 30s.

Brecht hadn't been interested in creating pieces of escapist entertainment, and strove to rid performances of the sentimental attachment the audiences made to the characters in a play. His theory of "alienation" was to constantly remind the audience they were watching actors on stage performing in a play so their intellect wouldn't be clouded by forming any sort of emotional attachment to the characters. He wanted performers with real and gritty singing voices; people who weren't your typical matinee idols playing the romantic hero to the young ingenue. While there was far more to his alienation technique than his preference in actors, its something to keep in mind when listening to Gypsy In A Tree, the new CD from Sanda Weigl (she is referred to by her first name only) on the Brooklyn NY Barbes Records label.
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For while Sanda was born in Romania her family moved to East Berlin in the early 1960s. As a child she had loved to watch the gypsy street musicians in her home of Bucharest, and quickly learned to sing the songs she heard them performing and had even been a child star on Romanian State television. In Berlin, her aunt, Helene Weigel, who was not only Brecht's widow but had taken over the running of his company The Berliner Ensemble, Sanda under her wing and introduced her to Brecht and Weill's style of musical theatre. From there she graduated to being the member of a rock band and also winning the Dresden International Song Festival when she was 17 with her rendition of a traditional Roma (Gypsy) tune "Recruit". In 1968, when the Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to put down the reform movement, she joined an underground student group to protest the invasion and East Germany's oppressive rule and was subsequently arrested, sentenced to three years of hard labour and then exiled as an enemy of the state to West Berlin.

In West Berlin Sanda returned to the theatre and her first love, the music of the Roma she had heard as a child. She began performing again with a band made up of musicians from the Tom Waits (music and lyrics) and William S Burroughs (book) musical The Black Rider which was originally staged in Germany. Encouraged by Black Rider's director, Robert Wilson, she and her husband emigrated to New York City to allow her to further her singing career. Since her arrival in New York City she has continued to perform and released her first disc in 2002, Gypsy Killer, and now, nine years latter, she has finally released her follow up. Ten of the eleven tracks on Gypsy In A Tree are traditional Roma songs which Sanda has adapted and arranged with the help of pianist Anthony Coleman and her current band, avant-garde jazz musicians Shoko Nagai (accordion, piano and Farfisa organ) Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Satoshi Takeishi (percussion).

While Sanda sings in Romanian (the booklet accompanying the CD provides copies of each song's lyrics in Romanian, English and German) the music builds off the traditional melodies to reflect the many cultures and countries both Sanda and the Roma have been influenced by and travelled through. So while the opening song on the disc, "Intr-o Ai La Poarta Mea" (One Day In Front Of My Fence) sounds like it could have been lifted directly from the stages of Brecht and Weill's 1920s Germany, the very next song, "Un Tigan Avea O Casa" (A Gypsy Had A House) shows definite signs of modern jazz influences.

However, no matter what musical style has been incorporated, Sanda's vocals are so mesmerizing they are the listeners primary focus. She has a range that would be the envy of any musical theatre performer and an expressiveness that conveys meaning even though we might not understand the words she's singing. Reading the English translations of the songs alone doesn't convey the depth of feeling behind the lyrics, and Sanda is able to imbue each of the songs with what is necessary to convey the layers beneath the surface.
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Take the song "Jandarmul" (Gendarme - Romanian Gypsy word for a member of the cavalry) where a horseman refuses to give a young Roma girl a lift as she trudges along barefoot in a muddy road. On the page it sounds like she merely wishes him misfortune when she asks, "Oh Lord, dear Lord, make the rains so heavy/ That all the land is flooded/The horse stumbles in the mud/And the roads are no more". Somehow, Sanda is able to express through the soldier's attitude towards the young girl the disdain the majority of Romanian society has for the Roma, and the fatalism this has bred in response. It's as if the young girl is saying, fine if the world is going to make it so hard to walk and not offer any assistance, it might as well do away with roads altogether. Yet there's also an air of defiance, as she also seems to be saying, no matter what the world does to us we will continue on our journeys.

In some ways the songs on this disc are the blues songs of the Roma. For a great many of them reflect the pain of the Roma along the lines of "Adu Calu' Sa Ma Duc" (Bring My Horse It's Time To Go) which features an exchange of farewells between lovers who are being forced to part because of circumstances. "Bring my horse it's time to go/ I must leave this place/Where luck wants no part of me/If luck were with me/I wouldn't be punished thus/Torn away from you/My heart is always weeping". Much like blues musicians sing about misfortunes and bad times in an attempt to take some of the sting out of a people's bad experiences, Sanda does the same with her material. While those lyrics are potentially maudlin, listening to the sound of her voice as she sings them, you experience something similar to what you feel when listening to a great blues singer sing about her man doing her wrong. It's not just about this one incident, nor is it about feeling sorry for yourself, these songs are a way of making sure you don't brood about the bad things in life by proclaiming them to the sky and not letting them rule you.

In the early part of the 20th century when Romanians would hire Roma musicians to play for family events like weddings and other celebrations, they were forced to keep out of sight of the guests to the extreme of having to sit in trees if they were performing outside. Gypsy In A Tree takes its title from that reprehensible practice, but while the songs on the disc might have lyrics which talk about the hardships the Roma have faced, and continue to face this day, Sanda's performance make them more than just laments. With an obvious empathy for the material and the people who created it, Sanda is able to convey the strength of spirit of a people who have not only survived this treatment for centuries, but have managed to create a strong and vibrant culture along the way.

While it may seem like an odd combination, a Romanian vocalist accompanied by three Japanese musicians, performing traditional Roma material, their approach has been the perfect combination of respect and experimentation to bring the songs to life. Of course the combination of great songs, great musicians and a spectacular vocalist is usually a winner, and that's the case here.

(Article first published as Music Review: Sanda - Gypsy In A Tree on Blogcritics.)

February 12, 2011

Music Review: Mamadou Diabate - Courage

If you look at old maps you'll notice Europe dominating the rest of the world. Not only is it in the centre of the map, it is also represented as being much larger than any of the surrounding continents. While the excuse could be made the maps were composed out of ignorance as they didn't know the locations or sizes of the other land masses at the time, there can be denying they also thought the world revolved around them, if not the whole universe. Remember it wasn't until after they burned Copernicus at the stake for espousing the view the world revolved around the sun, did that belief begin to take hold. So it's pretty easy to see how they could believe themselves to be the centre of the world.

Over the years, as more and more of the world was revealed through exploration, maps gradually became more accurate in their depiction of the world and countries' and continent's sizes in relation to each other, but our Euro-centric view of the world hasn't changed at the same speed. While we might recognize certain geo-political realities, when it comes to culture, we tend to diminish the creations of certain countries of the world as if they couldn't possibly have the traditions or history required to produce art of real quality. Aside from ignoring the fact these civilization existed long before Europe, it has resulted in the art produced in those regions being dismissed as "folk" art and not being appreciated appropriately.
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One of the most glaring examples of this is the way the music of the various African nations has been relegated to either the world music or folk categories down through the years without regard to what is being played. If the instruments aren't immediately recognizable as ones that look like they belong in a symphony, or the music being played doesn't fit into any of our preconceived notions of "what" it should sound like, the idea of it bearing any resemblance to what we call classical music is considered laughable by most people. The thing is, there are musicians and composers of all types scattered through out the length and breadth of Africa who, like their European counterparts, are playing music of incredible complexity and emotional depth passed down from generation to generation and which inspires the work of contemporary composers. All of which sounds remarkably similar to our definition of classical music.

It was while listening to the newest release, Courage on the World Village Music label, from Malian kora player and composer Mamadou Diabate these thoughts really took shape, I've been trying to put my finger on what bothers me so much about the practice of lumping all music from outside English speaking North America and Europe into one grouping, world music, no matter what type of music is produced. How can you put this man and what he creates into the same genre as, for example, the Tuareg musicians of the Northern Sahara and their electric tribal blues, let alone the same genre as the musicians of Southern India or Flamenco players from Andalusia in Spain? It makes as much sense as putting Jimi Hendrix and Mozart into the same musical category.
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This cultural snobbery has its roots in colonialism and European refusal to believe any "native" could be as sophisticated as them. While it is nowhere near as blatant as it once was the attitudes really haven't changed that much as I doubt very few people would believe the music Diabate composes on his twenty-one string Kora is every bit as intricate and sublime as the work of J.S Bach or other European classical composers. How could a man who plays an instrument which has its resonator made out of a calabash covered with cow skin, and whose only accompaniment is somebody playing a wooden xylophone (Lansan Fode Diabate - balafon), a small stringed instrument which looks like a stick stuck into a tube shaped drum with four strings (Abous Sissoko - ngoni), a percussion instrument made from a gourd (Adama Diarra - calabash) and a guy on acoustic bass (Noah Jarrett), be compared to one of the most revered European composers who lived?

Actually it was very easy. I was listening to the third of the eleven tracks on the CD, "Dafina", when it popped into my head how much this disc reminded me of a recording I had heard of Glen Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations. It was about the third or fourth time listening to the disc when I was struck by the similarity. It wasn't that track in particular which triggered the thought, it was more a cumulative effect of having listened to the music a few times and it no longer mattering what instruments were being used. Obviously Diabate's music doesn't sound much like a solo piano performance, (and he doesn't hum tunelessly along to his performance like Gould used to) rather it was the intricacy and arrangement of the notes - the patterns they formed - that put me in mind of the Bach.

I realize this is all very vague, but the best I can do is tell you is Diabate's music generated the same feelings the Bach did the first time I fully appreciated it and allowed it to carry me away. Each of the eleven tracks on the disc are a piece onto themselves and express individual themes or ideas. "Yaka Yaka", the opening track, is dedicated to the love he feels for his mother, while others are less personal and reflect the concerns he has with the state of the world. Track four, "Humanity" and the disc's closing track, "Bogna" (respect), were inspired by his understanding any hope we have of solving today's problems rests in us learning to treat each other with a heck of lot more respect and humanity than we do now. While we might not be able to "hear" the message in each track, their combined effect is to create a disc of amazing emotional power imbued with overwhelming sense of hope.
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Yet the title of the disc, Courage indicates Diabate does not cling to false hopes or suffers from any illusions about what is needed to overcome so many of our problems. Listening to his music you have the sense the courage he is referring to is the kind which allows you to stand up and admit you were wrong, the kind that allows you to forgive your enemy and look for the common ground you'll need to forge peace between you or the kind allowing you to respect other people's beliefs and not be scared of something because you don't understand it. Like Bach, Diabate's work has been inspired by something greater than his own personal feelings and objectives and he has responded by creating music every bit as technically sophisticated and emotionally uplifting as any composer you care to name. The Grammy he received in 2009 was for best Traditional World Album. I don't know if they have a Grammy for best Contemporary Composition, but if they do that's the category this disc should be considered under. This is a truly remarkable disc of music and deserves to be considered equal to anything written or recorded by any composer or symphony orchestra in the rest of the world.

(Article first published as Music Review: Mamadou Diabate - Courage on Blogcritics)

February 7, 2011

Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt - Black Falcon

Perhaps it's because we envy them their ability to soar effortlessly on air currents invisible to our eyes that humans have long equated the flying birds are capable of with freedom. With gravity's grip relentlessly keeping us rooted to the earth we can only watch in helpless awe as even the humblest pigeon easily passes over walls that confine even the mightiest of men. Poetry and songs from all over the world confirm our fascination with birds in the way they are constantly used to evoke thoughts of freedom and escape from peril. Even now when we have developed our own clumsy means of taking to the air, who hasn't stopped to watch a bird's passage and marvel at its effortless crossing of the sky.

Of course nothing we have accomplished to date can match the natural aerodynamics and control exercised by the hunting and diving birds who stalk their prey from thousands of feet above until suddenly plummeting from the sky like a bolt of lighting to swoop away with a fish from beneath the waters or break the spine of a rabbit. Raptors of all kinds can instil fear in the best of us, which could be why the eagle has been a symbol of power and intimidation for empires and royalty since the time of the Romans. Others, with more respect for the natural world, have interpreted their power as a sign of being touched by the divine, and eagles are considered the messengers of the Creator, with the smaller raptors taking secondary roles.
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While the eagles, condors and hawks of the world are recognized for their power, when it comes to speed falcons are known to outstrip their larger relatives by a good margin. Unfortunately these small birds also seem to have come into conflict the most with humans in competition for habitat. While some falcons have been able to make homes for themselves among the skyscrapers of major cities - some cities have encouraged this nesting in the hopes the falcons will help with pest control by feasting on rat and other vermin - the populations in the wild have dwindled. The peregrine falcon of Northern Canada flirted with extinction until it was declared a protected species. The black falcons of Europe and Australia are not quite as fortunate, and both are considered endangered. Nomadic animals, the very freedom we envy is what's being denied them by the continual erosion of habitat as we devour more and more of the wild.

It's both the steady decline in the falcon's numbers and the conflict between man and the wild which provided the impetus for the collaboration between Turkey's Erdem Hevacioglu and Australia's Ros Bandt and their new release on Double Moon Records, Black Falcon. The seven compositions on the CD combines modern and traditional musical technology as both a lament for the falcon and an expression of the conflict between the wild and humanity's insatiable desire to subdue the untamed. With the disc being recorded in only one day, and five of the seven pieces improvised, the project in of itself isn't what you'd call tame, as the two artists are having to rely on their artistic instincts in order to pull it off.

Even the instruments used in the creation of the pieces reflects something of the tension between the natural world and the technology we use to shape and control what's around us. While Helvacioglu creates layers of textured sound utilizing electric guitar and electronics, Bandt is playing a simple four stringed instrument modelled on an ancient design called a long necked Tarhu. Inspired by instruments as diverse as the double bass, traditional Eastern and middle Eastern spike fiddles and the Indian Vina, Australian luthier Peter Biffin created an acoustic system for the tarhu which transfers its strings vibrations to a featherweight wooden cone suspended from its body. Whether bowed or plucked the design means the instrument is exceptionally sensitive and offers a musician a huge range of tones to work with.

I suppose we could continue to carry the analogy further by stressing how much the tarhu is like nature in when you pluck one string the whole resounds in ways you can't predict. However it would create the misleading impression of the two musical styles being in conflict, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Technology in of itself is not evil, nor are all modern advances. What is dangerous is how we have let them both deaden our senses to the world around us. In the hands of as gifted a musician as Helvacioglu a piece of electronics can create music as sensitive as any acoustic instrument no matter what its pedigree. Needless to say, Bandt proves herself just as capable of producing sounds and tones that are as unsettling as anything you'll hear created on any electric instrument. Maybe the irony here is that both the modern and the traditional employ freedom and wildness to deny our expectations of what they should do.
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The music itself is a series of abstract creations built around various themes. The opening track, "Black Falcon", does more than just try and define the bird, but also brings us into its world. By that I don't mean the two have gone the obvious route and tried to recreate the sounds of flight. What they have done is created something that might give us the idea of what it could feel like to be as unfettered and free as a falcon. While there is beauty, there is also sadness as the bird and the freedom it represents are slowly vanishing, so in the midst of this celebration of its prowess we are made aware of the awful hole that would be left if it were to vanish forever.

While the various pieces on the disc celebrate the wildness of the natural world, never once do you have the impression they are guilty of sentimentalizing it either. There's nothing idyllic or pastoral about this animal's life, it is a predator after all and relies on killing other creatures to survive. As the music progresses over the course of the disc the two delve deeper into the meanings of untamed and why it strikes such fear into the hearts of humans. Wild just isn't being born free, its the unchecked rage of a hurricane, the explosive power of a volcano and the uncaring nature of the towering mountain. The falcon goes about its life and business in much the same way as it would if we weren't around to intrude upon its existence the same as any other elemental force.

It's fascinating to hear how this image is created over the course of the recording. At times I was hard pressed to remember there were seven individual pieces on the disc and found that I was listening to it as a single entity. Perhaps your experience with it will be different. For like any abstract work, perceptions on what is being presented will change from individual to individual. However, no matter what you "get" from the music, you can't fail to be impressed by the talents of the two musicians and the scope of their achievement. At times I was unable to distinguish who was creating which sounds so adept were each with their instruments. Bandt's control of tone and texture is so good at times it was hard to believe she was creating her sounds acoustically, while Helvacioglu electronic washes of sound were so delicate they could be mistaken for something occurring naturally.

Humans are split between our envy of the freedom represented by a bird in flight and our desire to control the wild nature behind the ability. Unfortunately the one can't exist without the other and if we continue on the way we are going we will destroy that which we desire so much. Perhaps that's why we are so bent on the destruction of nature - our selfishness won't let us simply enjoy something that splendid. If we're not to be allowed those gifts we aren't willing to let anyone else have them either. The music of Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt on Black Falcon might not say such things explicitly, and it may suggest some other idea altogether to you, but you won't be able to listen to it without being affected in some way.

This is a wonderful piece of work created and performed by two very unique talents. With this creation they have given us a perfect example of how acoustic and electronic instruments can work together to create something that combines the best elements of each without either overpowering the other. I wonder if there's a lesson in there somewhere; what do you think?

(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt - Black Falcon on Blogcritics.)

February 1, 2011

Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music

The cello is not most peoples idea of a glamourous musical instrument. Even in the world of classical music, where there have at least been pieces of music written specifically for it, it plays second fiddle (couldn't help it) to its sexier kin in the string section, the violin. Outside of the concert hall it receives even less recognition, for while instruments like the trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, violin, and even its larger cousin the double bass have become staples in the world of jazz, you don't often hear a cello leading a jazz combo or showing up in your average rock band.

What most people don't realize, save those who have taken the time to sit and listen, is the astounding variety of sound and the wondrous richness of tone a cello can produce. As a child my parents decided, in spite of an almost complete lack of aptitude, I should play an instrument as part of my education, and I somehow ended up paired with a cello. For three years I learned proper bowing and fingering techniques, but it was soon obvious I was no match for the demands of the instrument, surrendered to the inevitable and stopped inflicting myself upon the poor long suffering music teachers in my school system. However, even my pitiful scraping of the strings were enough to convince me that in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing the cello would sound wonderful.
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All of which brings me to the intriguing new project released earlier this month by Six Degrees Records entitled Chamber Music. Normally the term chamber music refers to pieces performed by a condensed version of a symphony orchestra with the number of musicians reduced from its usual over a hundred to around thirty or forty. In this case though, we're dealing with something even less traditional as cellist Vincent Segal of France is joined by the kora playing Malian Ballake Sissoko. While this may seem like a strange combination at first glance, a twenty-six string traditional harp like African instrument being paired with an instrument from the European classical repertoire, the gap between the two men and their instruments isn't actually that large.

Both Segal and Sissoko, while trained in the classical traditions of their instruments, have worked in what most would considered non-standard genres musically before. For Segal this has meant working with everything from jazz combos to hip-hop groups while Sissoko has collaborated with people like Taj Mahal and contemporary composers. At the same time the music both men were initially trained in has far more in common than you'd think. In spite of increased exposure due to the proliferation of world music labels there is still the widespread misconception that music from African countries is either high energy pop music or tribal based drumming. Sissoko's training was in a much different type of music as like his father and grandfather before him he had been prepared for the role of historian, praise singer and bard for his people. The music he played was designed to help tell stories and create an atmosphere that was conducive to people listening to him, not to pulling them on their feet.

Even if you don't know anything about the two men or their backgrounds, as soon as you listen to them playing together the connection between them and their music is obvious. From the opening, title track "Chamber Music", to the closing song on the disc, it sounds as if they have been playing together for decades. First of all the two instruments compliment each other perfectly as the kora, much like a European harp, has a light almost ethereal sound that blends beautifully with the cello's rich, earthy tones. However, instead of the cello being relegated to being a support instrument, as is the case most often in European classical music, playing the bass line to the higher pitched instrument's melody, the two men have created pieces in which neither is confined to any set role.
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Some of the pieces are based on traditional African melodies Sissoko suggested and in those Segal has improvised an accompaniment. It's fascinating to hear the sounds of the two instruments interweaving as Segal mixes bowing, plucking and slapping his strings to create a solid foundation for the complex tunes Sissoko picks out on his kora. Then there are tunes like the more jazz sounding "Oscarine" where the leads they pass back and forth build off each other in much the same manner as you'd hear in any jazz combo. On this occasion the contrast between the sounds of the two instruments is at it's most striking and potent, pulling the listener into the music through our anticipation for the next interesting combination of tones.

While the disc is primarily a collection of instrumental tunes, the two men are joined by Malian Awa Sangho on the track "Regret". The song is a tribute to Sissoko's late friend, singer Kader Berry, and is a stirring and emotional piece in which you can hear the feelings of the title expressed in almost every note. Sangho's vocals are a third instrument and serve as a focal point for both the listeners and the two other instruments. While the cello delves into the depths of regret one can hear in the singer's voice, the kora echoes the sharpness of the pain felt from the loss of a dear friend.

Musical collaborations between cultures used to be few and far between. Times have changed however, and we are starting to see more and more musicians searching for the common ground which will allow them to work with others from different traditions. While it might seem a cellist trained in European classical music would have little in common with a traditional Malian kora player, Chamber Music proves otherwise. This is a wonderful combination of sound and style that will both surprise and delight listeners from all backgrounds

(Article first published as Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music )

Music Review: Dhoad: Gypsies Of Rajasthan -Roots Traveller

While everybody assumes the people most refer to as Gypsies, who prefer the name Roma, are travellers. In fact the common stereotype we have of the Roma is they travel around in caravans stealing from regular hard working folk like ourselves. Since most decent hard working folk tend to spit on the Roma as soon as look at them, their opinions and views, on the whole, can probably be safely disregarded. Even the one part of the picture they manage to get partially right doesn't even begin to tell the story of these people. For, if they are such wanderers by choice, why are there permanent Roma settlements throughout Eastern Europe?

The people we call the Roma are descendant of folk who left the Rajasthan province of Northern India some time during the early part of the first millennium. The best guess is their migrations began around the same time the Mogul Empire began its expansion into Northern India from Persia. Maybe they were simply fleeing the fighting, or maybe they had no wish to live under the rule of this new Empire, we'll never know for sure. What we do know is they began to make the long trek West following the Silk Road through the Middle East and eventually made their way into Europe following the Danube River. A wonderful documentary movie, Latcho Drom, retraces the route they took through visits with musicians in each of the countries the Roma have settled in.

As with any diaspora of people, not everybody left, and there are still many in Rajasthan who are the descendants of those who didn't make the migration. However, as their role in the history of the Roma has been a relatively recent discovery for the world at large, we still know only a very little about the people and their culture. Aside from the movie mentioned above, their music was also featured in the film When The Road Bends: Tales Of A Gypsy Caravan, a documentary which followed the North American tour of Roma musicians from all over the world. Unfortunately both movies only offered samples of the type of music on offer from the people of Rajasthan and releases by individual bands from the region were scarce and hard to come by.
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Thankfully that situation looks like it's beginning to improve. While there might be something slightly cynical about a few thousand year old culture being "discovered", a benefit is the increased availability of music from the region. One such example is new disc out on the very good international music label, World Village Music, from the French based Rajasthan band, Dhoad: Gypsies Of Rajasthan, called Roots Travellers. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, the review copy I received didn't contain the DVD included with the CD as a bonus feature. However judging by some of the stills you can see of them performing at their web site, both dancing and fire breathing appears to play a role, it has the potential for being quite the spectacular.

Dhoad are now the third or fourth group of musicians I've heard from this region of India and my experience this time was no different from the previous occasions. The difficulty faced by Western audiences listening to music from India is we are so unfamiliar with the both the scale in use and the sound of the instruments, no matter what region its from, initially, it all sounds the same. So don't be surprised if Dhoad, in spite of the word Gypsy included in their name, at first listen sound little or nothing like Roma music from the West and a whole lot like most everything else from South East Asia.

However as you start to pick out individual instruments within the mix you'll begin to hear patterns in both the instrumental work and vocal stylings that have things in common with bands in Romania and other European communities. The first of the disc's ten tracks, "Banno", is a good example of this as what catches your attention are the vocals and the multilayered rhythm of the tabla. The vocals have the high pitched, almost falsetto, nasal quality I've come to associate with male singers of a certain style from India and the tabla being played in a time signature my body raised on the basic syncopation of the West - everything a multiple of two or three - just can't recognize. Yet, when a break occurs and the vocals and tabla fall away leaving only the sound of their harmonium type instrument playing, all of a sudden there's a note of familiarity. In it I can hear the accordions of the bands from Eastern and Western Europe. It's not just the way the instrument sounds that is familiar, but the way it is being used. Both the tempo it is being played at and the quality it is adding to the music are identical to the contribution made by its Western counterpart.
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When the second set of vocals kicks in on the same track anybody familiar with other Roma bands will hear startling similarities between this singer's voice and vocalists in other bands. It might have been just my imagination, but there was even something about the way the language sounded that was somewhat the same as what I've heard sung by some Romanian Roma. Of course there are other songs on the disc where Dhoad are deliberately sounding like other musicians. "Rajasthani Reggae" starts off with an obvious nod in the direction of Jamaica - which doesn't really have much to do with Roma music no matter how you look at it, but is in keeping with the disc's title of Roots Travellers. They might not be the first band from outside the Caribbean to take a stab at a reggae tune, but theirs is one of the most original ventures into that genre you'll ever hear.

One of the most difficult things about listening to the music of another culture is avoiding the trap of interpreting what you hear based on the criteria you would use when judging music you're more familiar with. We tend to make decisions about someone's emotional state based on the sound of their voice. In most cases, even in the instance of listening to a song in another language like French or Spanish, we would be completely justified in our efforts as we share many vocal indicators in common with most Western languages. In the case of this recording though, all of those preconceived notions have to be discarded as the vocal clues given off by the singers aren't ones we're going to be familiar with. In fact if we judged them by our standards it would sound like all of the songs were plaintive appeals dealing with grief of one kind or another.

Listening to this disc is an adventure, a real journey into unknown territory. If you approach it with an open mind you will find ways to appreciate the music you hear for what it is, not what you anticipate music should be. Listen for the interplay of melody and rhythm, the intricate patterns made by the weaving together of the vocalists' harmonies, the tabla and other instruments to create a tapestry of sound both rich and colourful. While those who have an understanding of the music of South East Asia will obviously get more out of this disc than others, there's still plenty for the rest of us to enjoy. Don't think of this disc as a door that's closed to you, rather think of it as an opportunity to begin opening a door to a new world. You might feel a little lost at times, but you'll soon develop your own map for finding your way around.

(Article first published as Music Review: Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan - Roots Travellers on Blogcritics)

December 20, 2010

Top Ten Listens Of 2010

Another year is drawing to a close and now is the time for all those with pretences of critical prowess to pontificate on what they thought of as the best music of the past twelve months. We all take pride in our taste and discernment; we all wish to show how unique we are in our judgements and impress you, our readers, with our worldliness through the obscurity of our choices. To be honest, after five plus years of receiving at least a CD a day in the mail I've been finding it harder and harder to find anything original to say about what I hear. While this has probably more to do with my inability as a writer rather than any lack of talent in the musical world, it doesn't change the fact its taking more to excite me enough to sit down and review a piece of music.

Whatever the reason, I've reviewed far fewer CDs this year then in the past, and its from that much reduced pool that I've selected the following ten discs (plus two honourable mentions) as the ones that impressed me most. There's no real rhyme or reason to my choices, they just all happen to be ones which distinguished themselves sufficiently they stuck out when I surveyed my past year's worth of reviews.. If you wish to read the full review for any of the following their titles serve as a link to its location. So without further ado, and in no particular order, here then are the ten music CDs which stood out the most for me in 2010.

Sin Rumba no hay Son Septato Nacional. Formed in Havana Cuba in the 1920s this is the fourth generation of musicians to perform under the banner of Septato Nacional. While true to their roots as one of the originators of the Afro/Cuban sound, their ebullience and skill keep the music as fresh as if it were only just being discovered today instead of eighty years ago. You'll have difficulty believing there are only seven people performing so full is their sound. So infectious is their enthusiasm, not only will you find yourself swaying to the beat of their music, don't be surprised if you find yourself on your feet dancing. Truly a Cuban national treasure for all to enjoy.

Koonyum Sun Xavier Rudd & Izintaba. Hailing from Australia Rudd has long been associated with surfers, a laid back reggae influenced sound and the Aboriginal influences in his music. Originally a one man band, playing guitar, kick drums and yirdaki (commonly known as digeridoo) his sound has evolved over the course of his career to the point where he now is accompanied on this album by the South African drummer and bassist duo known as Izintaba. Even more impressive is the growth he has undergone as a lyricist and the emotional commitment to his music he now displays. While he has previously penned songs about conditions among Australia's Aboriginal population, the environment and his personal connection to both subjects, on Koonyum Sun he has taken the next step in his development. He has taken his personal feelings on the dissolution of his marriage and translated them into universal expressions on the nature of love, freedom and individuality. This is the work of a mature artist who can write about personal experiences in such a way that all can identify with them.

Homeland Laurie Anderson. Not many people have hit records by accident, but one has the feeling that's what happened to Anderson back in the late 1970s when her song "O Superman" brought her to popular attention. Even referring to her simply as a musician fails to do justice to the complexities of her creations as they have far more in common with stories than they do with songs. Homeland has her focusing her unique talents on the state of the world, specifically the United States, today. While she is well known for her use of technology in her work, vocoders to alter her voice and effects for her violin, there is something infinitely human and intimate about it. While definitely intelligent, Anderson also possesses a wonderful sense of the absurd which when combined with her apparently innate appreciation for the beauty in the world makes her material as close to sublime as possible for a secular artist.

Elephant: An African Tale Francis Jocky. Hailing from the Cameroon Francis Jocky has had to deal with other's expectations that he play "African" music when his interests have stretched far beyond his home continent's borders. So there is almost something tongue in cheek about his sub-title "An African Tale" in this instance. For while the story he recounts over the course of this song cycle is firmly rooted in his birth nation, it is not blinkered to the fact there is a huge world out there waiting for all of us. His recounting of one family's struggles expresses the hopes and fears of people all over the world. It may be based in Africa, but this is a truly international recording.

Woman In Sin Fishtank Ensemble. Every once in a while a band comes along who manage to convey a wildness of spirit with their music that no matter what they play your can't help envisioning people dancing with reckless abandon around a bon fire in a forest glade. There's something about Fishtank Ensemble, no matter if they are covering a torch song or playing a crazy reel, which makes you remember what it is about music that can upset the status quo. It frees the spirit and releases you from your inhibitions just as easily as booze and drugs, but without the nasty side effects. This group of extremely talented musicians are the perfect antidote to the deadening effects of the mundane. If you ever feel the need to remember what it means to be alive in body, mind and spirit again - this is the band for you.

Oooh La La Crash Test Dummies. Brad Roberts' voice, intelligent lyrics filled with wry humour and emotional insights combined with weird and obscure musical toys from the 1970s; what more could one ask for? Heck I could sit and listen to Brad Roberts sing pretty much anything and be content, but thankfully the main creative engine behind Crash Test Dummies has never given into the temptation to just get by on his voice. Oooh La La is no exception as he and co-producer Stewart Lerman used a stock of musical toys as inspiration for the musical accompaniment to Roberts' lyrics and created something truly distinct. The result was a delightful mishmash of styles tinged with that slightly mechanical feel one identifies with the sound of electronically produced music from before the age of digital recordings. The contrast between his rich baritone and the undertone of cheap circus music the old toys give the music might disconcert initially, but, in the end, made this one of the more original and invigorating releases of the year.

Sub City 2064 Erdem Helvacioglu & Per Boysen. Erdem Helvacioglu changed my perspective on electronically enhanced music forever the first time I heard one of his recordings. Unlike others who rely on machines to create their music, for him they are another instrument to be used in the creative process. On Sub City 2064 he and collaborator Per Boysen have created a series of atmospheric creations that bring to life an imagined future where we live beneath the waves. In turn beautiful and frightening the two men have created a recording which should serve as the benchmark for composers of electro-acoustic music in terms of emotional honesty. A work of intense beauty, it will remind you its the artist behind the instrument who matters, and artistry and creativity will shine through no matter what the circumstances.

Leva-me Aos Fado (Take Me To The Fado House) Ana Moura. Fado music is said to have been borne out of the songs Portuguese sailors sung when missing their loved ones while sailing the oceans. That will give you some idea as to the nature of the music and how, in the wrong hands, there is the potential for it to be tiresome. However, in the hands of Ana Moura, Fado becomes more than the sum of its parts. These aren't merely love songs bemoaning missing sweethearts or broken hearts as the ache expressed by their yearning could be caused by the loss of freedom to tyranny, worry for one's loved ones in a time of war or any of the numerous ways in which the world can break one's heart and spirit. It's no wonder the former military dictatorship of Portugal closed the Fado Houses upon taking power; the last thing they would have wanted were such vivid reminders of the emotional costs of their reign. Don't listen for overtly political lyrics in Moura's words, but if you can't hear the crying of a mother who has lost her child to an act of violence in her voice, you need a hearing test.

Metal Machine MusicLou Reed. In 1975 Lou Reed set records for the number of returns generated by a newly released popular musical album when he first released Metal Machine Music. Ironically if it had been released as a work of contemporary composition it probably wouldn't have raised any complaints. Reed's experimentation with sound, electronics and electricity was very much in keeping with work being done by composers John Cage and others in the avant-garde. His mistake was in hoping people would be able to forget that he was a pop musician and listen to his music in its proper context. Now, finally, Metal Machine Music has been released as it should have been it done thirty-five years ago. Taking advantage of digital technology he has re-mastered the original quadraphonic sound to accommodate modern audio equipment and offered both CD and DVD versions of the recording in one package. Hopefully the world will be ready to listen to this other side of Lou Reed a little more readily today then it did years ago.

I Can See The Gates Of Heaven Marta Sebestyen. Probably the best thing about the fall of Iron Curtain that separated Eastern Europe from the West has been the new accessibility we've gained to musicians previously denied us. Marta Sebestyen is from Hungry and sings a mixture of traditional sacred music and folk songs from her homeland. A beautiful singer, she has an expressiveness to her voice that makes an understanding of Hungarian moot as she is able to convey emotions and feelings through her tone alone. One of the real treasures of Eastern Europe, Sebestyen's music will lift your spirits no matter which God you believe in and what part of the world you come from.

Last, but not least, are two albums released in 2010 that couldn't be ignored. Compilation and greatest hit type releases aren't normally titles I would consider for this type of list, but these two merit special consideration. Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s is just what its title claims, and is one the best collections of material from that time period that you'll ever hear. While you might still have trouble getting half of it played on the radio today, the majority of the songs on this collection are far superior to what passes for the equivalent you'll hear on today's airwaves. The second release probably wouldn't present any problems with obtaining air time as Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings gathers together all of Hank's old radio broadcasts sponsored by the Mother's Best Flour company originally recorded in 1951. While some of the material is hokey and sentimental, having the chance to hear Hank play live with his band and offering up trial version of new material, is something not to be missed. The collection comes with a book detailing the history of the recordings and providing full notes for each song on the fifteen CDS. There's also a DVD included featuring Hank's daughter Jett interviewing two members of Hank's band and one of the engineers from those broadcasts. Either one of these compilations would make a great addition to anyone's collection and are great fun to listen to.

So there you go, that was the music that stood out the most for me in 2010. A completely subjective and personal list of preferences, but than again, what did you expect, objectivity?

(Article first published as My Favourite Listens Of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

November 6, 2010

Concert Review: Septeto Nacional Live In Kingston Ontario November 3/10

In the first week of November the temperature starts dipping below freezing in Kingston Ontario, so it was some relief to have a warm Caribbean breeze blow in from Cuba November 3/10 and plunk itself down on stage at the city's Grand Theatre. Septeto Nacional has been bringing son habanero (the sound of Havana) to the rest of the world in various incarnations since 1927 and it was the fourth generation of players who blew into town and succeeded in helping to stave off winter a little longer. Infectious, enthusiastic and skilled the seven piece band (and two friends) seduced the evening's crowd with the sultry rhythms of their Afro/Cuban music.

On tour in support of its newly released CD, Sin Rumba no hay Son!, the band is criss-crossing North America. While the CD is a joy to listen to, it's only be seeing and hearing Septeto in performance that you can truly experience their finer qualities. Under the leadership of vocalist Euenio Rodriguez Rodriguez, "Raspa", the seven piece band weaves a musical spell that works its way under an audience's skin without them noticing. Just before intermission they showed how successful they had been by pulling the entire audience out of their seats to have them swaying to their music and dancing in the aisles.

The backbone of the band is their rhythm section consisting of Francisco David Oropesa Fernandes "El Matador" on bongos, Dagoberto Sacerio Oliva on guitar and Raul Acea Rivera on Bass. For those of us used to a band requiring at least a drummer playing a full kit and maybe an additional percussionist in order to lay down a steady beat, it might seem that one man playing bongos would be insufficient to create anything solid enough to carry a song let alone a band. However, "El Matador" not only was strong enough to get toes tapping, he worked in fills and frills that would make many a jazz drummer green with envy with only his two hands and one set of bongos. With Rivera and Oliva laying down the current feeding the tempo, Fernandes skipped and hopped like a water bug over top giving the music that extra edge which allows it to mysteriously find its way into an audience's feet.

Enrique Collazo Collazo on tres (a Cuban guitar) and Agustin Someillan Garcia on trumpet rode the stream laid down by their rhythm section like experienced sailors running before a steady wind. Collazo's subtle yet intricate fingering was a constant presence as he picked out melodies on his instrument. However, unlike rock and roll lead guitar players who seem to be always demanding that we pay attention to them with their flamboyant moves and attitude, Collazo played in service to the song at hand and nothing else. While he was always felt, the only time you were really aware of him was during his specific solos.
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A trumpet stands out at the best of times, so you'd think as the sole brass instrument amongst Septepto's players it would stick out like a soar thumb. However, in the case of Garcia, unless you specifically listened for him, he integrated himself so well into the band's sound, you would be forgiven for forgetting there was even a trumpet playing. That's not to say he was buried in the mix, or anything like that. Rather his playing was so perfectly pitched to the rest of the band's sound it was like he was singing another harmony to the two lead's vocals.

While Crispin Diaz Hernandez left the bulk of the lead vocals to his senior, "Raspa", when his turn came he showed a skill set that equalled the maestro's. It was he who was responsible for pulling the audience to their feet at the end of the first intermission through the simple expedient of a big smile and gesturing with his hand that everybody should rise. (As none of the band spoke much English, most of the on stage patter was lost on the mainly Anglo audience although judging by the laughter rising from the pockets of Latinos present it must have been funny). However, he wasn't just good at communicating with the audience, he had a wonderfully expressive and evocative voice, and you couldn't help but be swept up by the enthusiasm generated by his performance.

Yet, in spite of the skill shown by the rest of the band, whenever the dapper figure of Eugenio Rodriguez Rodriguez "Raspa" stepped up to take the spotlight, we were all instantly in the palm of his hand. Playing a bit of a fool with his between the song patter, slipping in and out of rapid fire gibberish and Spanish and pulling faces as if he just stepped off some vaudeville stage of the twenties, the moment he opened his mouth to sing you were transported. You wouldn't think such a small body could contain such a large voice. Soaring over the rest of the band he effortlessly carried the audience with him on every one of his flights of fancy. Not understanding his lyrics didn't seem as important as being carried away by the delight of listening to him sing.

Septeto Nacional are coming to the end of their fall North American tour, but will be back again in the spring. (You can find details of their tour on their page at the World Village Music web site) to hit any of the places they might have missed this time round. Judging by their performance in Kingston Ontario last night (Wednesday November 3rd/10) this isn't a band you want to miss hearing and seeing perform if the opportunity presents itself. My only complaint was there wasn't a program telling us who the guests were joining them on stage, which prevents me from giving credit to the guest vocalist and the Em C who are travelling with them.

There aren't too many bands who can get an audience ranging in age from tots to seniors up and dancing en masse, but these guys can and will. So bring along a pair of dancing shoes and practice smiling because you're going to be doing plenty of both.

(Article first published as Concert Review: Septeto Nacional, Kingston, Ontario - November 3, 2010 on Blogcritics.)

September 17, 2010

Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen- Songs From The Road

It's not often that items are released within a couple of weeks of each other about the same artist where one was originally recorded some forty years before the other. It's especially rare to have two DVDs about the same person with that time difference surfacing one right after the other. The number of performers who have endured from the 1970s to now are few enough as it is, but for there to be anything new under the sun from the past not yet released that is actually worth viewing is as remarkable as the longevity required for them still to be performing today.

Leonard Cohen has actually been around a lot longer then since the early 1970s, but the DVD scheduled for release on August 31/10, Bird On A Wire, was of the never before seen film made of his 1972 European tour. (As of now the DVD has still not been released due to "concerns" on the part of Cohen's current label - you won't even find it listed yet at either the distributor's web site or at Now two weeks later, September 14/10, Columbia Record's Legacy Recordings has released Songs From The Road a collection of twelve songs taken from Cohen's 2008/2009 world tour. Available as a CD/DVD package and Blu-ray, the songs are taken from eleven of the many venues Cohen performed at during his two years on the road, with two from his November 2008 concert at London's O2 Arena.

While twelve songs might not seem like much of a representation of a career that has spanned nearly five decades, that's not the point of this release. Instead it was an attempt to capture some of what the recording's producer, Ed Sanders, calls the tour's special moments. As we see in the special feature documentary included on the DVD, "Backstage Sketch", it was Cohen's habit at the end of each show to go directly from the stage to a waiting vehicle which would whisk him back to his hotel. Accompanied by only his tour manager and Sanders he would usually not even mention the show just performed. However, over the course of the tour there were nights when something special would have happened on stage which would compel Cohen to talk about the show. Each of these songs represent, either in Cohen's or Sander's estimation, one of those moments on the tour.
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Ironically, just like its predecessor from 1972, Songs From The Road opens with Cohen's Tel Aviv concert. In September of 2009 Cohen played to some 50,000 people at the Ramat Gan Stadium. While that might seem like a strange environment for a performer whose material is as intimate as Cohen's, you can't help but be amazed at his ability to connect to an audience no matter what its size. As he and the band work their way through a beautiful rendition of "Lover, Lover, Lover", the camera pans out over the stadium where the entire audience appear to be holding green light sticks which are swaying in time to the music like some eerily glowing field of grass. Even more than actually seeing the audience react to the song, one can't help but be impressed by the connection it demonstrates exists between Cohen and his audience or the implied power it represents. Yet, the appreciation he shows for their applause when the song ends is so genuine, it's his humility that leaves the strongest impression.

It doesn't seem to matter where he's performing, or the size of the crowd, each of the songs on this DVD manage to capture the sense of communion existing between Cohen and his audience. This is not your typical rock and roll tour with its crowd of worshippers, instead there appears to be a genuine feeling of reciprocity between the performer and his audience. After each song the applause is deafening and Cohen responds by standing before them humbly, either doffing his hat in recognition of their response or saying a genuine "Thank you friends", constantly surprised at the strength of their reaction.

No collection as small as this one will satisfy every fan of Cohen's, but what I liked about it is the mix of classics and lessor known pieces. "Bird On The Wire" and "Chelsea Hotel" are followed on the disc by "Heart With No Companion", "That Don't Make It Junk" and "Waiting For The Miracle", three songs that you won't often find on any greatest hits collection. "Heart", with its decidedly country feel and slightly tongue in cheek presentation, watch for the three back up vocalists doing some line dancing in the instrumental break, was an example of the rather surprising lightness of spirit that pervaded Cohen's performances. This was, after all, the guy who became famous for cutting a rather brooding and romantic figure. However, even though his material has lost none of its emotional intensity, there was prevailing sense of optimism to the proceedings.
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Perhaps the explanation lies not in what was being performed, but in the fact that both audience and performers were taking such joy in being present. This was something that went beyond the audience merely appreciating Cohen and the band's renditions of the songs, and is hard to define. Unlike other concerts where there is a clear demarcation of roles for both performer and audience, the line at these concerts seemed to blur somewhat. It was like the connection between the two was so strong each song became an experience to share, not something one sat back and passively observed.

One of the best examples of this is the recording of Cohen's performance of "Hallelujah" recorded at the Coachella Music Festival in California. Normally multiple stages are in operation at once, but festival organizers arranged it so Cohen's performance was the only one scheduled and he performed for the entire festival crowd. With a crowd that size standing in front of a stage you'd expect to notice people being distracted or looking around. Not on this night at this moment. Every face seemed riveted on the slightly stooped grey suited figure holding the microphone; hanging on his every word and awaiting their cue to start singing along with the chorus. As producer Sanders says in his notes, if he had to pick a moment as a highlight from the tour it would be hearing the tens of thousands of voices raised in a chorus of one word at the end of the song - Hallelujah.

Naturally the sound and visual quality of this CD/DVD package are excellent with the on stage visuals being exceptionally well done providing both wonderful close ups during solos and excellent full band coverage when required as well. However don't look to the special features for any startling revelations or insights into the artistry of Leonard Cohen. While the short documentary, "Backstage Sketch", introduces us to all the other people on the tour; band members, roadies, tour manager and even the tour accountant, Cohen himself only appears incidentally.

While Tony Palmer's film, Bird On A Wire from 1972 provided viewers with extensive back and off stage footage of Cohen and his band, the tour itself was plagued by horrible sound problems. As a result the footage from on stage was limited and not of the quality we're now used to. It was more than adequate considering the conditions and the time, but compared to what you can see and hear on Songs From The Road you truly comprehend the advantages our new technology has given us over films made in the past. While Bird On A Wire might have given us a better understanding of Cohen the man, Songs From The Road allows you a deeper appreciation of Cohen the performer and the amazing bond he has with his audiences.

(Article first published as Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Songs From the Road on Blogcritics.)

Music Review: Septeto Nacional -Sin Rumba no hay Son!

While there's nothing wrong with looking forward and looking for the means to improve things, doing so without paying attention to one's history can result in the creation of a cultural vacuum. Far too often in North America we're far more concerned with celebrating the next "Big Thing" and then discarding it once something else catches our eye to replace it in our affections. Instead of using what came before as a foundation for building something solid, far too often we end up with confections, that while looking good, are the artistic equivalent of candy floss. Lacking any real substance they usually blow away the first moment our attention is distracted by the next shiny pretty thing to come along.

Initially popular music in North America was close to its roots, building on the solid foundation of both its African American and European roots. Even before rock and roll and the successful marriage of country and blues, composers like Ira and George Gershwin drew upon jazz and blues influences when composing some of their most famous pieces. Porgy And Bess should have been a defining moment in the development of a uniquely American culture in the way it combined the classical form of opera with the music of the new world. Unfortunately, commercial necessity forced the brothers to divert their creative energies into musical theatre and eventually film. While songs like "Summertime" might live on through their occasional revival, Porgy and Bess isn't usually seen performed outside of opera houses, and the Gershwins are remembered more instead for the insipid music they wrote for Hollywood musicals.
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Popular music in North America has been like a series of coups and counter coups as in almost every new generation a type of rebellion occurs against what came before; rock and roll in the 1950s, psychedelic/acid rock of the 1960s, punk in the 1970s, rap in the 1980s and grunge in the 1990s, only to see each one co-opted and watered down by an industry geared towards treating development as a trend to be milked for every dollar possible. Having lived with this reality most of my adult life it always comes as a nice surprise to discover parts of the world where things are different. Not only do musicians and audiences recognize the importance of their cultural history, they see nothing wrong in playing and listening to the music their father's and their father's before them played. One doesn't even need to look too far from our own shores for an example either, for Cuba's Septeto Nacional has existed since 1927 and are onto its fourth generation of players. One of the original son bands who first combined the African and Latino sounds of Cuba, the latest incarnation's new recording, Sin Rumba no hay Son! (Without Rumba there is no Son), is being released September 14/10 on the World Village Music label.

Son music has its roots in the rural communities of Cuba, primarily former black slaves, and was brought to urban centres like Havana by migrants seeking work. It was in Havana that Ignacio Pineiro founded Septeto Nacional (the band takes its name from its seven piece line up; Eugenio Rodriguez Rodriguez "Raspa" vocals, Francisco David Oropesa Fernades "El Matador" bongos, Enrique Collazo Collazo tres, Dagoberto Sacerio Oliva guitar/vocals, Agustin Someillian Garcia trumpet/vocals, Raul Acea Rivera bass and Crispin Diaz Hernandez maracas/vocals) and proceeded to augment son with the rumba and other Havanan musical influences. In order to increase the music's appeal to urban inhabitants he also took the step of adding trumpet to the ensemble as the lead instrument. The resulting hybrid, son habanero (which translates as son of the people of Havana or Havanan son) was the forerunner of basically every popular Latin sound that has made the rounds of North America from mambo to rumba. (Hence this new disc's title)

After each of the fourteen track's titles on this disc the style of the song is listed in brackets showing that while this generation hasn't lost touch with its roots in son, its also not letting itself be stuck in the past. Rumbas, boleros, congas and guarachas are built on top of the son base resulting in a compelling mix of melody and rhythm. Each component, from vocals to percussion, while having a distinctive voice of their own, play an integral part in the creation of the overall sound. For, while the trumpet might be the lead instrument, it also accents the rhythm being created by the guitar and percussion to help give the music an extra edge.
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Unfortunately the intricacies of Latin music are lost on me, I couldn't tell a samba from a rumba if my life depended on it, so I'm not in a position to critique Septeto Nacional at that level. However, even someone as ignorant as me can't help but recognize the individual talents at work in this band, and the incredible job they do of combining them to make each of their songs absolute gems. Rodriguez has one of those voices that coaxes and caresses every last nuance out of each syllable he sings to the point where it becomes irrelevant whether you speak Spanish or not. Yet, if the rest of the band weren't so carefully attuned to what he was doing, pitching their contributions to compliment and augment his performances, he would be lost in the shuffle.

One of the first lessons in music appreciation I ever received was that the sign of a good string section was not being able to tell if it was one instrument playing or a dozen. In the case of Septeto Nacional you can obviously tell there are seven different instruments, but they play with such harmony the result is as if they were speaking with one voice. This maybe a band that's nearly a hundred years old, playing music that's been passed down from generation to generation, but it sounds fresher and more alive than most music you'll hear today.

Last year this incarnation of Septeto toured North America for the first time since 1933, and they are returning again this fall and again in spring 2011 for a second go round. As well as engagements in major centres like Miami (September 02/10), Los Angeles (September 07 - 09/10) and New York City (April 16th 2011), remarkably they are ever going to be making an appearance in my little backwater, Kingston Ontario, on November 03/10 (Check the World Village Music web site for the complete schedule). All I can say is I hope they leave room for people to dance at each of the venues. Listening to them on disc it's almost impossible to sit still - in person I don't see how anybody will be able to stay in their seats. If the opportunity presents itself for you to see Septeto Nacional during their tour this time - take it. Anybody who ever doubted there wasn't anything we could learn from history or who thought the past belonged in the past will quickly learn otherwise listening to these men play. Listen, learn, but most of all, enjoy yourself, because that's what this music is all about.

(Article first published as Music Review: Septeto Nacional - Sin Rumba no hay Son on Blogcritics.)

September 2, 2010

DVD Review: Bob Brozman - Par Avion

The first time I heard Bob Brozman was a few years back and at the time I was amazed at his abilities as a blues guitarist and vocalist. Aside from John Hammond Jr. I'd not heard another contemporary musician performing solo acoustic blues and be able to hold my attention for not only the length of a CD, but a ninety minute concert on DVD as well. So I was really surprised when talking to the publicist who had supplied me with those discs that he wasn't considered to be primarily a blues performer. Here was a guy who sounded like he was burning a hole in the neck of his resonator guitar his slide was moving so slickly, and yet blues was only considered something he did on the side. How could that be possible?

Well it turns out that Brozman is one of the few people around who justly deserves to be described as a world music performer. Unlike the majority of people who happen to be given that label only because they were born in a non English speaking country, Brozman actually plays music from all over the world. If it can be played on a stringed instrument, seemingly any kind of stringed instrument, there's a damn good chance he's played it at some point in his career. From the islands of Hawaii, Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar, the Okinawa Islands, Papua New Guinea, India, France, to the blues of his native America Brozman has travelled the world for thirty years seeking out new music and new musicians to play with.

While there have been individual recordings made of most of these musical collaborations, for the first time music lovers have an opportunity to view clips of Brozman and those he's worked with in action. A new DVD, Par Avion, for sale only through his web site, is a montage of video clips, still photos and of course music, dating back to his early days as a street musician in the early 1970's. While age and dubious equipment means the quality of some of the clips aren't the highest, it doesn't prevent the DVD from being a incredibly fascinating document.
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The movie opens with a couple of stills showing Brozman from his street musician days when he was making his living by travelling around America busking for a living. From there we move to 1978 for some faded black and white footage from Boulder Creek California for two tunes, "Ukulele Spaghetti" and "Shake It And Break It". Even at this age we see Brozman is already a virtuoso on his beloved resonators as he rocks the house on both a ukulele and guitar version of the old metal instruments. Combined with a clip from a local San Francisco news show in 1984, on which he's seen playing "River Blues", these pieces of video give viewers an indication of just how good a player Brozman is. With a voice like Leon Redbone and a dexterity on the fret-board like no one else, it's obvious he could have easily been a huge success playing only the blues.

However, this is the man who once said in an interview, "If you're bored it usually means your boring", and he sure wasn't about to let himself be either. The next few clips are from 1986 in Kailua Kona Hawaii and feature Brozman playing Hawaiian pedal steel. This is a style of music that even then had long since gone out of fashion, and in an interview done at the time he admitted that when he played those types of events he was usually the youngest person performing as nobody else his age or younger seemed interested in the genre anymore. It turns out he learned how to play it listening to old 78 rpm records of Tau and Rose Moe, Hawaiian musical stars of the 1920s. Somehow or other Tau heard of Brozman and in 1988 invited him to their home in Oahu. The result was a recording of Hawaiian pedal steel and lap blues unlike any that had been released in decades.

While the video clips from the recording session are faded black and white and over exposed in places, the sound quality is still crisp and clean. However the best moments are footage of Tau and Brozman sitting together jamming on their lap slide guitars against the backdrop of the Pacific ocean and lush green of the Moe house grounds. This section of the film ends with a beautiful shot of the two men walking along the beach together with Tau telling Brozman how much they appreciate a young guy like him from the mainland helping keep their music alive.

We then continue to hop skip and jump around the world and through the years with Brozman to watch him play swing music for ballroom dancers in Vancouver British Columbia in 1992, give a brief introduction to resonator guitars for a Japanese Television documentary in '94, and then down to Santa Cruz California to play some intricate jazz/blues with Martin Simpson of England. The hectic pace continues onto Okinawa, Reuion Island, Papua New Guinea, peppered with occasional stops at music festivals in Quebec City in Canada where he's seen performing with his friends from around the world including Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa, Rene Lacaille and Granmoun Lene from Reunion, and Debashish and Subhashis Bhattacharya from India.
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From what I've described I'm sure Par Avion sounds a rather disjointed affair, jumping all over the place as it does. However, when putting the clips together editor Daniel Shane Thomas has taken the time to build in transitions which provide some on screen text background as to where we are going and who we are about to see perform. Of course the other connective devise is the movie's subject matter, Bob Brozman. You can't help but be caught up in his enthusiasm, and obvious love, for the music he's playing and this, more than anything else, that serves as the through line for the movie. Brozman is not your typical musical tourist, taking what he likes best of other people's music and incorporating into his own. Rather he's there to learn how to play the music of whatever region he's visiting, and then record it with the local musicians. Therefore, with each new place visited we learn a little more about the fascinating common language human beings from every part of the world share - music.

Bob Brozman lives for and loves music and he's chosen to share some of what he has loved most over the last thirty years with us through the DVD Par Avion. If you've never heard or seen him play before, you've missed out on a truly extraordinary individual and musician and should take this chance to get to know him. The disc is only available through his web site, but it's well worth your while to make that little extra effort to pick up a copy. You'll be introduced to a whole new world of music.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Par Avion on Blogcritics.)

September 1, 2010

Music Review: Xavier Rudd & Izintaba - Koonyum Sun

You can tell a lot about a person's artistic quality by the way in which they respond to a personal crises, or any period of radical change with their chosen media. Do they descend into self indulgence and wallow in their own misery by creating stuff that excludes their audience through focusing on their own problems? Or are they able to find the language that allows them to use their own experiences as the basis for creating material which speaks to more than just themselves? The break-up album, the album a pop singer writes when his or her relationship goes south, has become almost a cliche by now as everybody from heavy metal to country singers have written "She/He done me wrong" songs.

Thankfully there are performers who are able to transcend the cliche and write songs expressing more than the typical sentimental garbage about crying in the dark while drinking their way through acres of beer. Change of any sort is difficult to deal with, and when it involves the sudden dissolution of a long term relationship the impact is even more profound. Yet change is the key to artistic growth, and it's only through embracing it is an artist is able to prevent their work from stagnating. It doesn't matter what the change is, its what the artist does with it. So when you listen to Xavier Rudd's most recent release, Koonyum Sun, you can't help but be impressed by his success in creating material which not only reflects changes in his personal life, but which is significantly different from anything he has released previously.
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During an interview I conducted with him in July of 2009 he was already talking with excitement about heading into the studio the following fall with his new bandmates, Izintaba; bass player Uncle Tio Moloantoa and drummer/percussionist Andile Nqubezelo. For the guy who started out as basically a one man band playing behind a bank of three Yirdaki, (didgeridoos) a slide guitar cradled on his lap, keeping beat with drums controlled by his feet and hiring musicians as needed for studio work and touring, working with even this modest sized band represented a significant change in how he'd have to approach his music. So while I anticipated Koonyum Sun would have sizeable musical differences from his earlier recordings, having no idea that his decade long marriage had ended as well, I wasn't prepared for the sudden maturity in his song writing.

While Rudd has always had the ability to communicate with his audience on a level that few of his contemporaries can match, there's an immediacy and intimacy to the material on this disc that makes it the most compelling work he's ever done. While there are songs that obviously refer to his marriage breaking up, "Love Comes & Goes" and "Set Me Free", they don't diminish the overall sensation of hope generated by the material on the disc. For while they don't deny the pain that he felt over what happened, they do so in a manner that recognizes while one part of his life has come to an end there is still plenty to look forward to. Even better, instead of wallowing in self-pity and inflicting the listener with his tales of woe, he has created lyrics which capture the experience so we can all understand it, even if we've never personally lived through something similar.

"The roads we take in life often seem to be very strong/We walk them carefully like we're walking on bricks and stone/Only when we look behind you will see the road is cracked/From there we must move forward/Gently as we tread... There's no other pain like losing a soul mate". Xavier Rudd "Love Comes & Goes" Koonyum Sun 2009

As Rudd has proved in the past he cares deeply about the world around him and has no hesitation in singing about those things. However instead of preaching about what he thinks is wrong with the world or what we should be doing to make things better, he gives us the opportunity to experience the world as he does through his lyrics. So we share his wonder and joy at the grandeur of nature or his sadness at how we are in the process of letting it all slip away through carelessness and neglect. "Shy To Ground", the disc's opening song is a great example of this as he offers a series of contrasting glimpses of the world around us. "I've seen all of the fear and all the murder on TV and I've been free on solid waves, Mother Earth's greatest treat".
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Musically, even in the days when he was a solo act, Rudd has always drawn upon a variety of styles and traditions including reggae, afro-pop, Native American and the aboriginal music of his native Australia. In his earlier material the reggae influence gave his songs a somewhat light hearted feel, as if in spite of any problems there might be in the world, we'd always be able to kick back and enjoy ourselves. While over the years he may have broadened his perspective so that his music has gained in intensity, he's still held onto the same joie de vivre that made him so appealing in the first place. On Koonyum Sun the music reaches new levels of intensity and complexity.

In part that's thanks to his new partnership with Itzentaba whose contributions on bass, percussion and vocal harmonies have added new layers of texture to his sound. There's a depth and intensity which didn't exist on previous albums, giving the music on this disc an urgency making the material even more compelling then previous works. Working with Moloantoa and Nqubezelo has also encouraged Rudd to experiment more with rhythm and tone. Building from their common background in reggae the three men have created new ways of using a familiar style so it sounds fresh again.

It's not often that you find an pop musician as willing to embrace change, no matter what shape it comes in and the difficulties entailed, as Xavier Rudd. At the same time, he has managed to hold onto the elements of his style which made him such an appealing performer in the first place. Koonyum Sun is perhaps his most musically and lyrically mature release to date and is easily one of the best new releases this year. If you've liked Xavier Rudd in the past, you'll not be disappointed, and if you've never heard him before, well, there's no time like the present for starting to listen to one of this generation's most articulate and passionate voices.

(Article first published as Music Review: Xavier Rudd & Izintaba - Koonyum Sun on Blogcritics.)

August 9, 2010

Music Review" Lee "Scratch" Perry - Revelation

There's reggae music and than there's reggae music. You see there's the safe reggae music that's produced for mass consumption you hear on the radio and than there's the other ninety percent of the music which most of us don't hear in North America. If you live in London England, or another community with a large Jamaican immigrant population, you stand a chance of hearing more than most. However, by and large, what most of us hear is a watered down version of something a lot more intense than what is normally allowed to be played on mainstream radio.

While Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Dennis Brown and to a lessor extent Peter Tosh, gained a certain amount of name recognition in North America, they only represented the tip of the iceberg as far as the amount and variety of music being made. Even those named above had difficulties receiving air time on mainstream stations, mainly because of lyrics advocating marijuana use, but also because of the strong social/political and religious messages contained in their songs. It's no coincidence that reggae's upsurge in popularity coincided with punk in both North America and England as both contained strong anti-establishment messages advocating change and questioning authority. So if reggae bands weren't running afoul of America's "Just Say No" to drugs campaign, the black nationalist content or Rastafarian messages in their songs prevented them from being palatable to mainstream radio.

Now if it was difficult to hear regular reggae music on the radio, the chances of hearing any of its offshoots was next to impossible. While in North America the idea of somebody travelling around with turn tables and a sound system and performing is a relatively new idea, the practice dates back to at least the early 1960s in Jamaica. In fact many of the studios which produced the first local Jamaican bands had their roots in these sound systems. While live bands began to supplant recorded music and the sound systems, there were also those who started to incorporate both elements and they were the genesis for what would become known as "dub" reggae. Dubbing is short form for a recording technique known as overdubbing which simply means taking a pre-existing piece of recorded music and either recording or performing new elements over top of it or creating new mixes utilizing the existing tracks and effects to create different versions of an existing song.
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If a performer were to create a dub reggae version of a song it would usually mean, in very simplistic terms, exaggerating the already heavy rhythm and bringing the bass up in the mix while capturing key phrases of the lyrics and stressing them with various effects and repeating them against the new heavier beat. However, some producers/performers took this a step further and began creating original works by laying down tracks, overdubbing them countless times and then writing lyrics that could be sung/chanted/recited over top of the music they had created. One of the style's originators, Lee "Scratch" Perry, has been around reggae since its earliest beginnings working as a producer and musician. Don't worry if you've not heard of him, or if his name is a vague rumour at best, because once you listen to his newest creation, Revelation, a State Of Emergency production on the Mega Wave Music label, distributed by MVD Entertainment, you'll understand why. This isn't the reggae that's safe for radio play by any stretch of the imagination. A good deal of its content would not only rock a few boats it would also rattle more than a few cages.

First of all Perry's Rastafarianism isn't just for show or something he takes on and off when it's convenient for others and his songs reflect that belief. The song from which the disc takes its title, "Revelation Revolution And Evolution", for example stresses the Rastafarian belief in the Book of Revelations. They offer it as proof of the late Emperor of Ethiopia's, Halile Selassie, status as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, whose teachings they believe have been corrupted by Christianity and the West. The cover art and the art work on the booklet included with the CD are a strange mix of Christian art depicting scenes from Revelations and the crucifixion, pictures of Perry and his wife, and a flow chart depicting the various aspects of the truths revealed in Revelations. So it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that songs like "Books Of Moses", "Holy Angels", "Let There Be Light", and "An Eye For An Eye" put a Rastafarian spin on Judea/Christian beliefs. However it also pretty much guarantees you won't be hearing them on a radio near you anytime soon.
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Of course if the religious content didn't cause a few twinges among radio programmers the lyrics to the song "Freaky Michael" would ensure Perry's relegation to the non-play zone. For in the song he questions why a certain person named Michael felt like he had to remake his physical image so extremely. At one point Perry exclaims - "I like my big nose" - leaving you to come to your own conclusions about his opinion of the radical plastic surgeries Michael put himself through.

Unfortunately Perry's vocal skills haven't withstood the test of time as well as his song writing ability. For while there's no denying he still possesses great production chops, as he has created great mixes against which to recite his lyrics, including seamlessly weaving in a searing Keith Richards' guitar solo and other guest contributions, the voice is now rather weak and scratchy resulting in the power of his words being somewhat diminished. Even though he's riding high enough in the mix so there's never any trouble discerning his voice, it still feels like you're close to having to strain to listen to him. However, no matter how rough or thin his voice is, what Lee "Scratch" Perry has to say is still far more interesting and provocative than just about anything you'll ever hear anywhere else. Whether you agree with him or not you'll have to admit it makes for a lot more entertaining and challenging listening than ninety percent of what normally comes across the airwaves.

Like everything else, once reggae makes it to the mainstream radio its content and quality have been reduced to the lowest common denominator so that it's guaranteed to be as innocuous as possible. Its a far cry from the music born on the streets of Kingston Jamaica that exhorted its listeners to celebrate Jah by smoking marijuana and called for the liberation of Black people throughout Babylon (White, Christian society). With both Peter Tosh and Bob Marley long gone there are very few of the voices from the original generation of reggae pioneers still out there spreading the word, but one of them is Lee "Scratch" Perry. As Revelation, being released August 10th/10 proves, his flesh might be a little weaker, but his spirit is still strong. This is definitely reggae you'll not hear on your radios anytime in the near future, but its reggae that's definitely worth listening to.

(Article first published as Music Review: Lee "Scratch" Perry - Revelation on Blogcritics.)

June 23, 2010

Music Review: Francis Jocky Elephant: An African Tale

The music industry in North America likes things to fit into neat little compartments, so if you're from Africa they want you to play what they would consider "African music". It seems to have escaped the notice of most people that Africa is a rather large continent made up of a huge number of diverse cultures. It's not like North America, where, no matter what Canadians might claim, two out of three countries share one culture, and the third (Mexico for those who don't remember) is only able to maintain its identity due to the fact they have their own language. So while you might be able to say something is American, when referring to North America, you really can't say something is African. I'm not sure how much somebody in Egypt even has in common with somebody from the Cameroon or South Africa.

It was in late 2008 when I interviewed Frances Jocky who was originally from the Cameroon and was now living in New York City. Growing up he had been exposed to music from all over the world and saw nothing odd in the fact that he really liked Dolly Parton and Jackson Brown. It was only when his family moved to Paris (France not Texas) that he discovered he was supposed to be listening to "Black" music, and was shocked to realize that people weren't comfortable with him asking where he could find the latest Dolly Parton disc. For those who've not heard his music, it reflects his interests, and is a great mixture of pop, soul, and R&B; hardly what most would consider "African".

This turned out to be a serious problem for him when he came to North America as one label interested in him wanted him to be more "African". I've often wondered what they meant by wanting him to sound, or be more, African. Did they want him to sing in one of the many dialects that are spoken in the country of his birth? Did they want him to sound like bands from South Africa? (Which may be the case because they said they saw him as the next Hugh Masekela, the famous South African jazz trumpeter) The trouble is, that's not what he was interested in doing at the time, so he never signed and continued to do his own thing.
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Times change and so do people's musical interests and Jocky is no exception, and his latest release finds him turning to the land of his birth for inspiration.Elephant: An African Tale, isn't available through a label as of yet and can only be purchased through the disc's web site. However, that isn't a reflection on its quality or Jocky's talent, as this disc not only shows off his talents as a musician and a songwriter, but his production skills as well.

Elephant: An African Tale is an autobiographical song cycle in which Jocky recounts his own journey from the Cameroon to New York City. The elephant of the title is the symbol of the indomitable courage required of the tale's character to achieve his goals and overcome the obstacles that life and circumstances put in his way as he struggles to come to adulthood and realize his dreams. Sung in a mixture of English and what I believe to be the language of the Duala people of the Cameroon (the credits aren't clear about this, but on the web site there is reference made to an annual celebration of the Duala people, "The N'gondo" and one song is called "Kaba N'gondo"), the songs take the listener on one person's odyssey, while conveying universal truths about the hardships faced by immigrants around the world.

The story begins on the Cameroon savannah, where young Sombol makes his daily way to school. One day he is diverted from his path by the sound of an elephant breathing and when he comes face to face with it, the elephant's spirit enters his body and Sombol falls into a deep trance. Although Sombol is recovered by people from his village, the ordeal of losing and then finding his son again was too much for his father and he dies. While they were once a well regarded family in their community, with the death of her husband, Sombol's mother finds her former friends and neighbours fall away, leaving her alone to deal with her grief and raising her four children. Putting aside her own sorrow she makes the decision to take her family away to start a new life. You can put an obstacle in an elephant's path, but his spirit will always triumph - he will always move forward.

The symbolism of the elephant's strength and endurance is a common thread throughout the entire song cycle as we follow young Sombol as he comes of age in France. He find solace from the hardships of life by hanging out in the local jazz clubs and throwing himself into his music. Deep within himself the spirit and breath of the elephant continue to supply him with the resolve to overcome obstacles and push forward in life. Eventually the story comes full circle as his son has his own encounter with an elephant in a zoo in New York City and eventually returns to his father's homeland where he heads up a study of the wildlife of the savannah.
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With the exception of "One World", which pays tribute to Bob Marley's "One Love", all the songs on Elephant: An African Tale are either written or co-written by Jocky, and he plays the majority of the instruments on the recording. However, he also has the sense to draw upon outside help when needed, as is shown by having his mother write the lyrics for "Wase", the song describing what the mother in the story experiences upon her husband's death. Not being able to understand the lyrics we have to rely upon the synopsis of the songs provided on the project page of the disc's web site to follow the story line. However, that doesn't prevent their emotional content from being conveyed through the music and Jocky's ability to communicate meaning through his song and music. There's an emotional power and depth to these songs that has to be heard to be believed.

What's most impressive about the music is how it continually conveys the message of the elephant. We can feel the strength of resolve that must be required by any person trying to make a new life for themselves. Whether the difficulties they face are those of the immigrant dealing with prejudice and poverty, or emotional barriers from their past, starting anew is a daunting task, and Jocky has managed to bring the experience to life with his music. He has called upon his own experiences to create something universal that no matter where you come from or who you are, you'll be able to relate to on one level or another. There is a power in his music that enable it to overcome language and speak directly to the listeners heart. While that may sound like a cliche - music knows no language - in this case it happens to be the truth, as you can't help but be moved by what you hear on this disc.

I don't know if Elephant: An African Tale would qualify as African music according to the folk at that record label years ago who wanted Francis Jocky to sound more "African". What I do know is that you'll not be able to listen to it just once. There's something wonderfully compelling about the recording that will have you playing it over and over again. Which, no matter where it comes from, is a sign this is something really special.

(Article first published as Music Review: Francis Jocky - Elephant: An African Tale on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Music Review: The Fishtank Ensemble - Woman In Sin

After reviewing or critiquing god knows how much music over the last five years I've discovered a pattern I tend to fall into. Although there are a few performers who I've followed for years and will continue to do so because of their ability to keep their work fresh by continually discovering new ways of presenting their ideas, too often a person or group will be initially exciting only to end up being disappointing by sticking to the same formulae repeatedly. While I can understand the if ain't broke don't fix it mentality to a certain extent, in my opinion when it comes to the creative process that only leads to stagnation and boredom. There are more times than I'd like to count over that I've been really excited by the first couple of discs a performer or group have put out to only become frustrated and bored with them by the third disc when they continue to do the same thing over and over again.

As a result I've been reviewing a lot less music of late. It just seems harder and harder to find somebody or some band interesting enough to even give a listen to let alone review. Maybe part of the problem is the number of press releases finding their way into my inbox on a daily basis using the same group of adjectives to describe whatever genre of music they happen to be promoting. Everybody, from blues to death metal, seem to be fresh and exciting, or at the very least invigoratings. So many bands are being described as alternative these days I'm falling back on Ellen Page's line in her roller derby movie Whip It and asking "Alternative to what?" How can you be alternative when you sound like a thousand other bands out there?
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Thankfully I tend to exaggeration, if the scene were as bad as I describe it sometimes I think I'd blow my brains out. There are still bands and musicians out there who provide genuine alternatives to the mind sapping pabulum that passes for popular music on the radio these days. One who I've just been fortunate enough to stumble across are a four piece outfit who go by the really odd name of The Fishtank Ensemble. They've just put out their third release - on their own label - called Woman In Sin, and I can guarantee you'll be hard pressed to find a more eclectic collection of songs gathered onto one CD anywhere. The lead singer, Ursula Knudson, used to sing opera; violinist, Fabrice Martinez is from Paris and studied with Gypsy violinists across Europe; guitarist Doug Smolens used to hang out with Billy Idol and Slash before becoming hooked on flamenco and running off to Spain to learn from masters in the caves around Granada; while Djordje Stijepovic started playing bass with local Romany bands in Serbia when he was thirteen until moving to the US where he joined a band with Lemmy from Motorhead and Slim Jim Phantom from the Stray Cats.

Okay, so these folk have been around a bit and bring some pretty strange influences to the table with them, but how does it all blend together and are they any good? Where to start? I've listened to the disc three times now and each time I've come away even more amazed then I was the previous time. I could tell you about Knudson's incredible range as a vocalist - how she can soar right up the scale and sing scat up there that will put your heart in your throat and then turn around and growl her way through a rendition of "Fever" that will leave you so hot and bothered a cold shower won't help. I could also tell you how Stijepovic's bass accompaniment on that song will make you think he's channelling Charlie Mingus and how he can also play slap bass in a way that you've never heard before, and might not ever again, when he leads the group through a Balkan dance number called "Djordje's Rachenitza".

Than there are the two lead instruments, well at least in most bands you would consider the guitar and violin the leads, but here they are content to be equal members of the band. Either Smolens or Martinez could easily dominate any ensemble they played with they are such virtuosos, and on the pieces where they step forward you can't help but let your jaw drop at their playing. However what impressed me the most about the two of them was their versatility. There are many violinists and guitarists who can play one, maybe two, and even sometimes three different styles of music well, but these two seem able to handle anything you can think of. Torch songs, flamenco, gypsy tear the floor up dance music, jazz standards, and the rest of their repertoire are all played with an ease that's not only deceptive but mind boggling when you realize their complexity. In fact they're both almost too good for their own good. They are so effortless in their playing you can almost miss noticing their excellence.
Most of the time when you hear a band being described as world music it usually means they play something that's not recognized as being pop music within our limited definition of that term. The Fishtank Ensemble actually do play world music as they are inspired by not only their different nationalities but an international variety of musical interests. While one song might sound like it comes from a demented cabaret populated by characters from a Kurt Weil opera another is redolent with the raw, naked passion of loss you'll only hear in the truest and scariest flamenco, and a third has echoes of a rain swept street in late night Paris. From small mountain villages in the Balkans to the urban sharpness of a hot jazz spot, The Fishtank Ensemble will take you on a musical odyssey that will leave your head spinning and hour heart soaring.

I listened to my first pop record back in 1965 when a baby sitter played me her daughter's 45 of the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand". In the interim forty-five years I've heard more music than I can possibly remember because the majority of it has been forgettable. Every so often though a musician or band has come along that won't let me forget them because of what they do and how they do it. For me its always been those bands who don't adhere to any set pattern and are always pushing themselves off into new directions who leave the greatest impression. With their third release The Fishtank Ensemble have shown that they are not only gifted musicians but also unafraid to take risks. That has the potential to be a memorable combination - we can only hope they're able to maintain what they've started.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Fishtank Ensemble - Woman In Sin on Blogcritics.)

May 16, 2010

DVD Review: Sound Of The Soul

The lack of tolerance for other people's belief's has been the bane of mankind's existence for who knows how long. Theoretically we're a rational species and after the millions of years we've been hanging around on the planet you'd think we'd have matured sufficiently to accept not everybody looks at the world the same way. Unfortunately the reverse seems to the be the case as the longer we hang out the more intolerant we seem to become. From east to west you'll find the world has become more and more divided into "us" and "them", with them being responsible for all of "our" problems, no matter who they are.

Yet wouldn't the world be a lot easier to live in if we weren't afraid of the person beside us on the plane because they're a different colour or call their god by a different name they we do? What makes it so hard for people to be tolerant of somebody else's beliefs or even worse, makes it so easy to hate and fear them for it? Are we all so desperate to find somebody we can blame for what's wrong in the world that we have to find a scapegoat? Why is it so easy for our leaders to convince us that those others over there are evil and we are good? Have you ever stopped to think what would happen if there were a place where people of all faiths could come together and appreciate what they have in common instead of fearing their differences? Where we could all celebrate the fact that we all believe in something and see that for the miracle it is?

You might think that's an impossibility in this day and age, but every year since the first Gulf War people of all faiths from all of over the world have been coming together to do just that for a week in June at the Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music in Morocco. Of course Morocco is a bit of an oddity in itself, for as hard as this may be for many to believe, its an Islamic country where Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived together in peace for centuries. The festival brings together faith based musical groups of all beliefs from countries all over the world to perform for international interfaith audiences.
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A few years ago director Stephen Olsson travelled to Fez to record the event and find out more about the remarkable circumstances that have allowed it to happen. The resulting movie, Sound Of The Soul is now not only available on DVD through Alive Mind Media, its also being broadcast on the Internet by Global Spirit, one of the many programs available through Link TV. (The initial broadcast is on Sunday May 16th/10 at 6:00 pm EST but check the schedule as it will be re-broadcast throughout the month) The Global Spirit broadcast will include a question and answer session with the director and a panel discussion about the film with Marla Kolman Antebi, Sarah Talcott and Kabir Helminski, a Jewish scholar, an organizer of Inter-faith youth camps, and a Muslim/Sufi scholar and musician respectively.

The movie not only takes viewers to the Fez Festival to enjoy the variety of music on display; vocal groups from Ireland, England, and Russia, a French Jewish vocalist singing with a Moroccan Muslim orchestra, a gospel band from New York City, a fado singer from Portugal, and performances by groups from Afghanistan, Morocco, various African countries, and South America; but provides a look into the remarkable history of its host country. Founded by a Sufi saint Morocco has a history of tolerance that should make it the envy of the world. When the Ottoman Empire was overthrown in Spain, Jews, Muslims, and those Christians not comfortable living under the Inquisition, fled across the Mediterranean to North Africa and settled in Algeria and Morocco. It was the latter that has proven to be the haven for all, as even through the turmoil of the last century she has not been swayed from her founding creed of respect for all.

The film maker interviewed leaders of all three faiths who talked about the history of their people in the country and their current situation. While the founding of Israel saw the Jewish community's numbers drastically reduced as people immigrated, it didn't create the huge divisions that occurred in other countries where there had formally been tolerance between Muslims and Jews. Not once in any of the interviews did you have the feeling that any of those being interviewed were dissembling in any way. It never felt like they were glossing over any uncomfortable truths or making the situation sound any better than it is.
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As we followed the cameras through the streets of Fez what strikes one is the way the modern world and the past have come together so comfortably. Narrow streets filled with people of all ages and sexes dressed in everything from t-shirts and shorts to headscarfs and robes rub shoulders naturally and seemingly without discomfort. We visit courtyards that are hundreds of years old and stare in awe at what first appears to be decorative patterns carved into the walls, only to discover it is scripture spelling out the tenets of Sufism etched by hand hundreds of years ago.

Of course its the music that brings people to Fez each year, and the music is incredible. If you buy the DVD you'll not only find bonus features of complete concerts, there's also a CD featuring some of the performers from the film. While there is plenty of commentary provided by members of each faith on the importance of music for building bridges between peoples, watching people's reactions to the different performers tells the story of music's power far more than talking head can hope. One only has to watch the young Moroccans dancing up a storm to the New York City based gospel group,The McCullough Sons of Thunder, to make that connection.

The camera also go behind the scenes at the Festival to cover a symposium being held at the same time featuring spiritual and business people from around the world, including members of the World Bank and the head of the World Trade Organization Michael Moore. This was the one part of the film where you could feel the tensions of the world intruding on what had been an oasis of peace until that point. It was hard to watch somebody like Moore, whose organization is one of the root causes of suffering in the developing world through policies that continue to siphon the wealth of many into the hands of few, spout words about tolerance and understanding without feeling a wee bit cynical. When the camera drew back to show his audience you could see the scepticism on the faces of many of those listening - especially those spiritual leaders from the developing countries. While the point of the symposium was the need for balance between the spiritual and the secular needs of the world, it was obvious the spiritual leaders present weren't convinced of Moore's sincerity.

Sound Of The Soul is a wonderful movie in that it gives us an example of what the world could be; of how it is possible for men and women of all faiths to appreciate and respect each other and their beliefs. However at the same time it makes perfectly clear just how unique The Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music is, and how far the world has to travel before we can live up to the example of Morocco and its remarkable people. In a world where hope for peaceful coexistence is in increasingly short supply, this movie is a godsend - no matter what your god looks like.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Sound of the Soul on Blogcritics.)

May 6, 2010

Music Review: Ana Moura - Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To The Fado House)

Searching the Internet for information about the Portuguese folk music known as Fado realizes few conclusive answers as to its origins. Although most sources seem to agree that it first gained widespread popularity in the 1800's, they are universally vague as to where, how and when it first developed. Like North American blues music originally offered African Americans the means to help relieve the pain of their day to day existence, fado, played on the street corners and in the brothels of working class districts in Lisbon and other metropolitan centres, provided the poor and working class of Portugal with similar relief.

Whether or not, as some claim, it came as a dance from Africa that the poor adapted or from homesick sailors at sea as others insist, by the twentieth century it was the most popular form of music in Portugal. One need look no further than the three days of official mourning declared by the country's Prime Minister in 1999 upon the death of Amalia Rodrigues, who had been the genre's biggest star since the 1940's, to understand the depth of its popularity.

Traditionally fado is performed by a trio comprised of a singer and two instrumentalists playing Portuguese Guitar, a type of twelve string, and a classical guitar. There are two distinct types of fado; that of the poor in Lisbon and that which had its beginnings in the university town of Coimbra among the students and professors. The latter is less concerned with the pain of everyday life and more poetical in nature as its themes focus on love and friendship. However no matter where it, or what type, is being played the essential element of saudade is shared. Roughly translated in to English as a longing, or nostalgia, for unrealized dreams, it is expressed by lyrics that speak of a yearning that can't be satisfied or fulfilled. It's this highly fatalistic world view that gives the music its shape and the sense of longing audiences look to hear and see in performers.
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At one time the performances by women were highly stylized affairs.They would stand slightly in front of the two guitar players with their head covered by a shawl and barely move for the length of their show. It was only through facial expressions and hand gestures that they were able to communicate any additional information their vocals and the song's lyrics were unable to express. While times have changed and there has been some slackening of expectations among audiences with regards to how fado is presented, the demand that the performer still be able deliver on the promise of saudade hasn't relaxed in the least. Just as we still expect a blues performer to "feel" what he or she are singing, a knowledgeable fado audience won't accept anything less than the genuine article.

Now in spite of my one quarter Portuguese heritage I can't make any claims to being a fado aficionado. However, I am quite capable of listening to a voice and recognizing genuine passion when I hear it, no matter what language it is singing in. From the opening bars of Ana Moura's Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To A Fado House), released in April on the World Village Music label, I knew at once she was the genuine article. Maybe hers isn't the type of voice to sing blues as we know it, but there can be no mistaking feeling and passion when they are so obviously present. The seventeen songs on the disc are in a variety of musical styles and show quite a number of different influences that she brings to the music, but no matter the tempo or the style her voice is without fail believable at all times.

Moura exhibits not only wonderful range as a singer, but control as well. There is no strain to be heard when she holds a note or as she goes up and down the scale. Unlike so many popular singers who attempt to make what they are doing sound difficult in order to impress us, there is a glorious ease in the way she moves through a song. Even better, as far a I'm concerned, she's not one of the school who think the louder and more piercingly I sing the more emotional I'm being. While it may result in you receiving a million dollars a gig in Las Vegas, try it in a Fado House and you'd be booed off stage. (During the reign of the dictator Salazar in Portugal Fado performers were forced off the streets and brothels and confined to "Fado Houses" and in these "Houses" tradition still holds sway)
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Aside from the variety of musical styles on the disc distinguishing her from more traditional fado performers, Moura also changes things up somewhat by increasing the number of her accompanying musicians and utilizing a wider assortment of instruments than is usual. While the sound is still guitar dominated the inclusion of bass and acoustic bass on some of the tracks not only gives the music added texture, but gives some of them a jazz feel. While there's an obvious appeal to the starkness of the original sound as she performs it, by adding the bass to the mix Moura, and her arranger/producer/composer Jorge Fernando, have found a way to compliment it without changing the overall intent of the music.

In fact, everything Moura and Fernando have done on the disc that might be considered a modernization, or change from tradition, has been implemented in such a way that when compared to the more traditional songs they sound like natural progressions. Instead of forcing a sound in order to make it more appealing to a new generation, they have been very careful to build on the existing base so it's still respectful of the original.

Of course that task is made easier by Moura herself. Listening to her you never doubt her sincerity, even if you've no idea what she's singing about, and you can't help but feel the passion she is expressing. You don't have to speak or understand Portuguese to feel the longing that underlies each song or appreciate the haunting beauty of the material. No matter what or how she is singing it sounds like she is keeping the spirit of fado alive in the song. What's most impressive as far as I'm concerned is how closely the feelings she generates while singing match up to the meanings of the translated lyrics for each song. I can't count how many times I've listened to a song in a language I don't understand and completely misconstrued its meaning based on the singer's presentation. With Moura you can count on the fact that what you're feeling when she sings is exactly the feelings generated reading the lyrics.

You may not speak any Portuguese or know the first thing about fado music, but that shouldn't stop you from appreciating Ana Moura's recording Leva-Me Aos Fados.This is a wonderful recording of beautiful and haunting music that won't fail to touch your heart. If you've forgotten what true passion feels like, this will serve as a timely reminder.

(Article first published as "Music Review: Ana Moura Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To The Fado House) at

April 22, 2010

Laurie Anderson Collaborator Competition For New Disc Homeland

When I first heard "Oh Superman" back in the 1970's I thought it was somebody's idea of a joke. In some ways it sounded like, at least to me, a take off of the European electro-pop that you could occasionally hear on the radio from groups like Kraftwerk. But, than again, I had no idea who Laurie Anderson was or what she was all about either. It wasn't until late 1979 or early 1980 that I started to hear excerpts from what was her major opus at the time, United States, a collection of tales, songs, and performances, that I realized she was far more than what could be contained within the confines of a five minute pop song.

Those were the days when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was still broadcasting interesting and diverse programming, and one of the best of those shows was called "Brave New Waves". You could hear everything from punk to avant-garde during the show, and it was here I first heard United States. One night the announcer came on the air and said, "Laurie Anderson was in town tonight" (Montreal), and she then proceeded to play it in its entirety. I had never heard anything like it before. It opened my mind to possibilities that I had never even considered when it came to the idea of performance. Unfortunately what I didn't understand at the time was that it required quite a singular talent to be able to realize those potentials, and since then have failed to find few, if any moments, to equal the excitement generated by that initial hearing.

The past thirty years have seen quite a few changes in my life but I've yet to lose the motivation to create inspired by that night and I still experience a thrill when a new Laurie Anderson release is announced. Although I long ago realized there is no hope of re-creating my experience of all those years ago - it was a singular conjunction of events and circumstances that were as much to do with my age and where I was in life as what it was I heard that night - her work is still something special for its intelligence and ingenuity. You can honestly say there's really nothing else quite like what she does being performed by anyone else.
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Although she has produced albums like other recording artists, a number of her recordings are actually records of performances she has been touring for some time. So instead of merely being a collection of songs that may or may not be interconnected, they are more like listening to a unified work along the lines of a orchestral piece or even a play. Unlike those structured pieces though her work in the past has been less formal in its presentation, and is more a collection of music and spoken word works designed to communicate with her audience her thoughts and feelings about the state of the world.

Such is apparently the case with her forthcoming disc on Nonesuch Records, Homeland, which is being released on June 15th/10. While its technically her first studio album since 2001, she has spent the last two years developing the music that will appear on it through touring a performance of the same name. According to the press materials from her label while it will feature Anderson's distinctive violin playing and vocals - including the assuming of different persona as she has in the past - she will also be drawing upon a range of musical styles and working with musicians from as diverse backgrounds as Tuvan throat signers to experimental jazz players from New York City. However, the most unusual collaboration will be what's planned for the song "Only An Expert".

Taking advantage of the increasing sophistication of Internet technology, Anderson has made the source tracks from the song available to musicians all over the world to see who can come up with the best re-mix of the track. Using the services of Indaba Music, a site where musicians find collaborators for projects by uploading and sharing their music, she has opened the competition to anybody who wishes to make a stab at either re-mixing, or even covering, the song. From now until May 13th/10 at 5:00 p.m. EST those wishing to participate can register at Indaba Music and then either download the tracks from the "Only An Expert" remix program page for use on their own equipment, or they can make use of Indaba's on line studio instead.
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While the winner won't have their track included on the hard copy of the CD, they will win $1000.00, be featured as an exclusive track on the ITunes release, have their track streamed on Nonesuch's and Anderson's web site and receive a year long Platinum membership to Indaba Music (A value of $250.00 - see their membership page for details). In addition to the grand prize winner there will be two second place winners who will have their track streamed on the Nonesuch web site and receive a year long Platinum membership and ten honourable mentions who will have their track streamed on Anderson's web site, receive a signed deluxe package of Homeland and a Pro membership to Indaba Music. Both the grand prize and runner ups will be selected from all the submissions by the judges; Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed and Mantis Evar from Indaba, while the ten honourable mentions will be selected from the twenty-five re-mixes who are able to garner the most support through voting conducted at the web site. Once an entry is uploaded and entered it can start receiving votes, and entrants are being given the opportunity to promote their contributions with widgets they can post at personal web sites and social networking pages.

Judging from the tracks I've downloaded (my wife is a singer/poet/songwriter and percussionist so I'm encouraging her to enter) the song is a biting piece of political and social satire dealing with our love of problems and the experts needed to solve them. If its any indication as to the rest of the release, Homeland promises to be as evocative and challenging as anything Anderson has put out in her career until now. While some might see this contest as merely a means of marketing the release, I'm of the mind that its a genuine way on her part of encouraging people to express themselves and make their voices heard about issues important to them. A contest like this is bound to generate as much resentment as good will - people complaining about not winning etc - and actually represents something of a risk in these mass communication, viral video messages gone wild days. All it would take would be one disgruntled competitor with a grudge and access to a server to generate enough bad publicity to hurt sales significantly.

Laurie Anderson is a unique talent who in roughly thirty years of producing music has only ever come to popular attention by accident. For the most part she has quietly gone about creating and performing her music, painting, and writing with little or no popular recognition. While it would be nice to think that this competition will draw more people to her work, the reality is that the majority aren't ready to deal with the issues she raises or the style in which she presents them. Intelligent, insightful and awe-inspiring she has the ability to take a listener places they might not have gone on their own, unfortunately too many people aren't prepared to make that type of trip. For those who are, you have Homeland to look forward to and in the meantime check out what other people have been making of her music over at Indaba Music, or even enter yourself - you might just end up being surprised by what you can accomplish when inspired.

April 1, 2010

Music Review: Jim Guttmann - Bessarabian Breakdown

One of the things I resent most about recent trends in popular music, and the technology that drives it, has been the use of bass as a weapon instead of an instrument. Every time one of those cars drives by with the bass cranked so high that you can hear its doors rattling in the frame (a friend who worked in an auto body shop told me they would get three cars a week on average needing doors re hung or with frames out of alignment due to the damage caused by their sound systems) I can't help think what a horrible legacy for the instrument of Charles Mingus. Subtlety and delicate phrasing have been replaced with ear shattering assaults that passes for keeping time. How is that music?

Thankfully there are still those out there who serve as reminders that the bass is an instrument to be reckoned with and are able to create music that won't leave you bleeding from the ears. All one needs do is listen to the new disc released by bassist Jim Guttmann, Bessarabian Breakdown to be reminded of what the instrument is capable of. Using the klezmer music of Eastern European Jews as his basis, (Besserabia, now part of Moldova, lies between Russia, Romania, the Ukraine and the Black Sea and before WWll had a Jewish population of over 200, 000) Guttmann and those accompanying him on the disc, have come up with some rather surprising results.

Certainly one will hear the clarinet and violin so often associated with klezmer music, but not only have they added some new twists and flavours to those arrangements, they have created some successful mixed marriages with Latin and contemporary jazz. I have to admit when I read about klezmar/Cuban, or Latin, in the press material accompanying this disc, I thought it was a typo or somebody had dropped a couple sentences from another press release into the one for this album. Even after assuring myself that it was indeed referring to the disc I had in front of me, I couldn't wrap my head around the idea of Latin klexmer music. However, listening is believing, and once you've heard "Descarga Gitano" and "Cuando El Rey Nimrod", like me you'll no longer have any doubts as to what's possible.
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While the first is a wonderfully orchestrated piece complete with horn section, saxophone, guitars, Latin percussion, and Coro ensuring it has that full sound we've come to expect from the style of music, somehow it also retains something of the plaintive air characteristic of Klezmer music. "Cuando" on the other hand is a simple trio featuring Guttmann's bass accompanied by drums and guitar alone. For those who have forgotten what a bass sounds like, how a stand up bass, or acoustic bass, can be the lead instrument in an ensemble simply because of the player's ability and not because of the amount of noise the instrument is making, this song will be a treat.

While Guttmann had stepped forward earlier on the disc in their rendition of Johnny Mercer's "And The Angels Sing", sort of a delicate popular number along the lines of some by Cole Porter or Nat King Cole, I think that "Cuando" allows him to show off his versatility as a player and musician to greater advantage. Here the phrasing is far less sentimental, with more depth of feeling contained in the notes than in the earlier piece, and Guttmann's playing is able to capture all the nuances needed for us to appreciate its complexity. If you thought somehow that this was a fluke, wait for his solo turn, the final cut of the disc, "Firn Di Mekhutonim Aheym"

Aside from the Mercer tune the other ten tracks on the disc are arrangements of traditional songs. While its interesting to hear old tunes being given new arrangements in order to see what if anything more can be expressed with them, I still found some of the older, more traditional versions of the songs touched me the deepest. "Sadegurer Chusidl" (Take Off That Shmatte) with its mixture of violin and accordion, supported by guitar, bass, and percussion, captures the simplicity of the original music, while also bringing to life the layers and textures that existed in the music to begin with. There is grief buried in this music best revealed by the intimate setting created by the smaller ensemble. While it's easy to sentimentalize the fiddle with thoughts of Hollywood movies, listening to Mimi Robson play on this tune and others, one can not fail to appreciate how she captures both the joy and sadness of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

That's not to say pieces like the disc's opening "Philadelphia Sher" or the title track "Bessarabian Breakdown" aren't wonderfully exuberant pieces that are a joy to listen to or are lacking in emotional depth. It's just when there are more instruments playing and the sound whirls around you like dancers, the excitement generated by the performance outshines any one emotion that might be generated by the music. In that case it's easy to become caught up in the "fun" of the music and perhaps miss out on any of the deeper or subtle meanings being conveyed.

The musicians assembled for this disc reads like a who's who of the world of klezmer, and it shows through in every piece as they take the music in directions you wouldn't have thought possible from hearing more conventional bands. However, no matter what shape a song takes, it manages to capture something of the spirit of the music, even the Mercer tune is given an Eastern European feel that belies its origins, and transports the listener across time and space to another era. The world that gave rise to klezmer music might no longer exist, but discs like this one not only preserves the memory of the music, it keeps it alive by injecting new life into it.

March 12, 2010

Music Review: Tomoko Sugawara -Along The Silk Road

I've never been one for sustained doses of light, ethereal music that floats around sounding pretty, but in the end has little or no substance. You know what I mean, its the kind of stuff you'll hear wafting out of stores that seem to sell primarily candles or offer some sort of spiritual renewal in exchange for a large investment of capital. Like the ideas being sold in those stores, the music is usually a co-opted, watered down version of some other culture's ideas being passed off as something original. Aside from the way it mal-treats music, the other major crime it perpetrates is the manner in which it abuses perfectly good instruments creating the impression they are somehow only good for creating this schlock.

Two of the instruments that have suffered the most at the hands of this industry have been the harp and the flute. Whether the concert variety of either instrument, or one of the many traditional types unique to various cultures around the world, they have been reduced to only pale imitations of their true capabilities. With their long association with angelic hosts harps probably have it worse than flutes, but with the "discovery" of the Native American cedar flute in recent years, both have become the instruments of choice for the vacuous and vacant.

Needless to say I was less then thrilled when I received a CD of harp and flute music in the mail, and under most circumstances I would have simply ignored the disc and gone about my business. However, a quick scan of both the press release accompanying the disc, and the disc itself, made it clear harpist Tomoko Sugawara was cut from an entirely different bolt of cloth than the perpetrators of the crimes described above, and her forthcoming disc, Along The Silk Road, being released on March 11/10 on the Motema label, offered the promise of something different and exciting.
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First of all there was the instrument she was playing on the disc, a type of harp which was first known to be played in 1900BC in Mesopotamia. The kugo, or angular harp, is not only one of the earliest examples of a plucked string instrument, it was also one of the more enduring ones as it was in use up until 1700AD in some Islamic countries. Even more fascinating is the fact it was in common usage along the length of the Silk Road - the historic trading route that connected the Far East with the Near East and could be found in China, Korea, and Japan as well as Egypt and Muslim occupied Spain. However the advent of the frame harp, the instrument most of us visualize when we think of a harp, in Europe around 800AD marked the beginning of the end for the kugo, and it had passed out of use in the Far East by 1100AD and gradually vanished entirely.

The kugo Sugawara plays was created from plans she and music archaeologist Bo Lawrengren developed based on a harp of its type pictured on a reliquary box painted in the 6th or 7th century BC. The thirteen pieces on her CD are a cross section of the various cultures where the angular harp was used, thus offering listeners a musical tour of the ancient world stretching from Spain to China. However, instead of merely trying to recreate the music of those times, many of the pieces are by contemporary composers from the countries where the instrument once held sway. These are balanced by pieces from its original heyday, dating back as far as the Tang Dynasty in China and 13th century Spain and Iran. While "The Waves Of Kokonor" and "Wang Zhaojun" have been transcribed and adapted from their original to better suit the range of Sugawara's harp, "Qawl" by Quth al-Dinal-Shirazi (1236-1311) of Iran is taken from the original's vocal part, which, along with the title's percussion line, is all of the song that has survived. Sugawara is accompanied by percussionist Ozan Aksoy on this track playing the bendir, with each of them adding improvised elements to flesh out piece.

The booklet that accompanies the CD offers detailed notes on each piece of music, including the modern composers explanation of how they tried to accommodate an instrument none of them had ever heard or seen played. While their talk of scales and tunings will be lost on any but those who are musicians, what is clear is that this is brand new territory for all of them. However, listening to the pieces one can't help thinking they've done an amazing job as the first thing you notice are the amazing variety of sounds and textures the instrument is capable of producing. Sugawara creates music with her kugo I would have never associated with a harp in the past. Her duets with alto flutist Robert Dick, "Shakugo I, II, and II" by Robert Lombardo, avoided all the usual cliches one has come to expect from this type of pairing, with the composer taking full advantage of both instrument's capabilities. While there are moments which can be described as ethereal within them, they are anchored by earthier elements that utilize the lower range of both their scales.
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While a flute and harp duet is pretty much what one would expect from this type of disc, harp and percussion are not what most would call a likely pairing. However, three of the selections on this disc, the previously mentioned "Qawl" from Persia (Iran) and "Cantiga de Santa Maria, No. 249 and No. 213 composed by King Alfonso X of Spain (12221- 84), show the kugo's versatility with Sugawara pairing with Aksoy on bendir and darabukka to great effect. There's nothing soft or fragile about this harp's playing, especially on the very robust Spanish tunes. In spite of their sacred sounding names they contain elements remarkably similar to those found in more contemporary secular dance music like tangos and flamenco. (It came as no surprise to learn that Alfonso's court was heavily influenced by his Moorish neighbours who ruled the South of Spain and he had both Islamic and Jewish courtiers at his court) Sugawara's phrasing in these tunes in particular sound far more like a lute, or even a guitar, than what one would normally expect from a harp, and offer a perfect counterpoint to the lively rhythms being played by Aksoy.

Along The Silk Road might feature a type of harp as its solo instrument, but this is not harp as we've come to expect it to be played based on recent examples. Everybody involved with this project, from the composers to the performers, have gone out of their way to allow Sugawara's instrument's capabilities to be explored to its fullest, thus creating a disc of music both diverse and exciting. This might be an ancient instrument that has not been heard or seen in performance for hundreds of years, but it sounds far more vital and alive than any harp recording I've heard in years.

January 28, 2010

Music Review: Marta Sebestyen - I Can See The Gates Of Heaven

For most of us the countries of Eastern Europe, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria in particular, remain places of either mystery or romance. When we think of them we either visualize dark and mysterious forests and mountains populated by the likes of Dracula or werewolves, or dark and handsome men and women singing and dancing round campfires all night long. What we fail to realize is that for over a thousand years these countries have experienced every major cultural influence in Western history. The Danube River has long served as a migratory path for humans moving from the Near and Middle East into the West, which means that everybody from invading armies to refugees fleeing conquerors have passed through the countries surrounding it.

The early Celtic tribes, the ancestors of the people we know as the Romany (gypsies), the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, and countless others have brought their beliefs, music, and stories to the region. While some of these travellers were only passing through, many of them stayed and settled in isolated pockets through-out the three countries. While the larger metropolitan centres may not differ too much from their Western counterparts throughout the world, in the smaller rural communities dialects that have died out elsewhere continue to be spoken and you can still hear the songs that were sung hundreds of year ago. Geographical isolation has played no small role in this, as cut off from outside influences old traditions haven't had to compete against the modern world until recently.

While there has been an upsurge of interest in some Eastern European music, it only becomes clear when you start listening to something like Hungarian singer Marta Sebestyen's, latest release, I Can See The Gates Of Heaven, on the World Village Music label, how little we've scratched the surface. Subtitled "Hungarian religious and secular songs", the disc provides the listener with an introduction to the amazing array of music that exists in Hungary today. For these aren't "museum" or "ethnic" recordings of songs only hauled out to be played as display pieces or as examples of cultural heritage, these are part of the living and breathing culture of Hungary today performers by Sebestyen in concerts all over the world.
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On I Can See The Gates Of Heaven Sebestyen has put together a collection that represents a cross section of the different styles of music to be found in Hungary, or where Hungarian is spoken. (There are Hungarian speaking communities across the border in Romania's province of Transylvania) It was the Hungarian composer, Bela Bartok who first exposed the world to the joys of his county's folk music by incorporating it into his symphonic compositions. However Bartok's role in uncovering the hidden treasures that still existed through out the country is probably of equal, if not greater, importance as it was through his efforts that so much of what people like Sebestyen perform today has survived. So it's not surprising to find Bartok's name listed in the credits for the first song on the disc, "Vision" as collector of one of the tunes it incorporates.

What Sebestyen has done in putting this disc together has been to create a series of medleys representing the various regions and dialects of Hungary. Each of the eight tracks on the CD are made up of at least two, and in some cases as many as seven, different songs which when blended together give the listener a good idea of the nature of a particular region's music. So "Vision" is comprised of two pieces, both of Moldavian Csango origins, "I Have Walked On Mountains And Valleys" and "Mary's Lullaby". What's amazing is that throughout the disc, whether it's two combined as in the opening track or seven like in the sixth track, "Valiant Knight" (Rare Hungarian dance melody, "Farewell To The Reigning Prince", "Jumping Dance", "The Nationalist Soldier Is Pure", "Heyduck Dance", and "Jumping Dance") you can't tell its a medley. Each part has been so seamlessly integrated with the other, thematically and musically, if Sebestyen hadn't told us we would never know they weren't originally single pieces.

I imagine most of you, like me have some pretty set ideas on what you think you're going to hear listening to Eastern European music. Either something that sounds like gypsy music or a Cossack flavour, with violins and other stringed instruments playing a predominant role. What you're not going to be expecting to hear are bagpipes, tin whistles, and something that sounds suspiciously like pan pipes from South America (listed in the credits as a shepherd's flute). In fact the only stringed instruments you're going to hear on this disc is something listed as an oriental fretless lute and a zither. There's also two instruments listed in the credits that are unique to this part of the world. The tarogato is a clarinet like instrument and is actually quite modern having first been made in the late 19th century, while the fujara is a traditional bass flute played by shepherds in the region for centuries.
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Sebestyen is an amazing singer, she also plays tin whistle and drum, who seems able to effortlessly find any note on the scale no matter how low or high it might be. While all the songs are of course in Hungarian, we're still able to have a good idea of what the song is about due to her ability to express character and emotion with her voice. Unlike some singers who are content with just sounding good, she takes the risk of taking her performance a step beyond that by imbuing it with an emotional honesty that crosses all linguistic barriers. Joining her on this disc are two splendid musicians, Balazs Szokolay Dongo who plays all the wind instruments and Matyas Bolya who handles all the plucked instruments. Both men display a virtuosity on their instruments that make them ideally suited to meet the demands of this disc as they appear to be comfortable playing any and all styles and techniques that come their way.

I Can See The Gates Of Heaven is not only a wonderful introduction to the world of Hungarian music, its a disc of great music. Vocalist Marta Sebestyen has a voice you can listen to for hours on end, and the material on the disc is equally captivating. Rid yourself of any preconceived ideas you may have had about Hungarian music because your in for a big surprise when you listen to this disc, but its one of the nicest surprises I've had in a while.

January 21, 2010

Music Review: Jerry Leake - Cubist

The Cubist movement in painting, spearheaded primarily by Pablo Picasso in the early years of the twentieth century, attempted to represent all possible views of a person or object on a two dimensional surface. The resulting chaos of shapes and colour resulted in images that seemed to bear no resemblance to reality, yet have managed to strike a chord in viewers so that they have become some of the most famous works in modern art. Picasso's Guernico, his cubist representation of the German bombing of the Spanish city of Gurenico during that country's Civil War in the 1930's, is as now readily identifiable as many of the works of Leonardo De Vinci and other traditional painters from previous eras.

However, this does not prevent hearing the word cubist bringing images of disjointed faces, with noses in places you'd normally expect to find ears, to mind. So when I first read the title of percussionist Jerry Leake's new CD, Cubist, released through his own Rhombus Publishing imprint, I couldn't help thinking that listeners would be in for a bit of a dissonant ride. For if one were to try and literally express cubism with music, wouldn't you have to try and show all the sides of the music at once? What kind of noise would that result in? Would you have to play songs backwards and forwards at the same time in order to hear everything?

Thankfully Leake and those who have accompanied him on this new CD haven't taken it quite that literally. Instead what they have done is reached out to the world's various traditions of music to explore what each has to offer and combine them on one recording. The title of the disc refers not to the structure of each song as much as it does to its content as it presents the many faces and sides of music from around the world. Everything from classical Indian to hip hop are performed using traditional as well as modern instruments. Whether its Leake himself on tabla and balafon, or Mister Rourke spinning turntables, it seems like they've attempted to integrate as many conceivable instruments as possible into this project.
This still sounds like it could be a recipe for chaos, as the idea of following traditional music from Tibet up with a rap song doesn't really sound very appealing. However, the result, while a little frantic in places, ends up being far more coherent than you'd think. While the nearly eighty minutes of music on the disc are divided up into sixteen tracks, I seemed to always end up listening to the disc as if it were one long composition. That's not to say that the individual tracks are not distinct onto themselves, but they also have enough in common the flow from one to the next is so natural that you barely notice any transition.

Each of the songs has used one culture as its base, and then been built up around that. For instance the opening track of the CD, "Aldebaran", opens with a decidedly Far Eastern sound that continues through out the track. The gongs and bells which serve as its opening fade out to be replaced by violin playing the melody, but the theme they began is continued by the glockenspiel that punctuates the rhythm. Nearing the mid point, the gongs and bells return, and, much like the bridge in a pop song, acts as a break between the opening and concluding halves of the song.

Throughout the disc each track has one predominant theme, but underneath layers upon layers of percussion instruments from various places around the world are being played. Listen, for example to the thirteenth song on the disc, "Chrysalis", and underneath the lead percussion instrument, in this case tabla, and the guitars playing the melody, you can hear a variety of bells, shakers, bells, gongs, and other instruments punctuating the sound. While this could have become an unholy mess resulting in nothing more than noise, through careful engineering and skilful playing it ends up sounding as if the various percussion pieces are working like the voices in a barbershop quartet singing in perfect harmony.
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By placing each instrument at a different point in the stereo spectrum during recording you hear each individual sound clearly. As a result you can almost visualize the instruments laid out in a line and "see" how they are working together in harmony. Even as one replaces the other, a shaker is removed and a gong is sounded, the tabla is a consistent sound in the centre of the line holding them all together. Much like a lead singer provides the melody for others to harmonize to, it provides the beat which every other instrument relates to.

Not every song is so complex, but each of them combine elements in a similar manner as the one described above with the same amount of success. In this way each of the disc's sixteen tracks not only allow the listener to experience the different ways in which rhythm and melody can be expressed, they also contribute to the overall "picture" the CD is creating of music. There's no way that one song could present all "sides" of music in the same way that a cubist painter is able to with his subject matter on canvass. The result would be a horrible cacophony. By creating a series of individual tracks that work together as a whole, Leake overcomes that obstacle and presents as true a vision of cubist music as I think possible.

Cubist is not only an interesting experiment, the music on the disc is well played and intelligent. Combining elements from various traditions and styles is not an easy task, but Leake and those he has chosen to work with on this disc have done an excellent job in finding interesting and exciting ways to do it. Not only have they found a way to ensure each style retains its own distinct qualities, but they have also found a way to ensure they work together in harmony.

December 24, 2009

Music Review: Top Ten Listens Of 2009

Well here we are again at the end of another year and its time again for everybody who critiques and reviews music to stick our necks out and name our favourite listens of the past year. Being as its the last year of a decade some are even being brave enough to try and come up with "of the last ten years" list. I've still not decided on whether or not I'll give one of those a stabs, it was difficult enough as it was choosing ten from this year's crop of releases that the prospect of sifting through ten years of music leaves me chilled.

This is by no means any sort of definitive list of the last year's best music, that would be impossible for any critic to come up with no matter what he or she might claim. First of all there's no way anybody could listen to all the music that's released over the course of a year - I alone must receive two or three press releases a day announcing some new CD, half of which are for bands and musicians I've never even heard of let alone planning on listening to. For all I know I could have missed out some brilliant piece of music without knowing it. Heck I probably don't eve listen to half the music that comes through my door, let alone the press releases that end up in my in box.

So for what it's worth, and in no particular order, here are the ten CDs of goodness knows how many I listened to over the past year, that stood out the most. It's a pretty diverse group of recordings which seemingly have very little in common. However, what they all share is an extra something that made them stand out from the pack in my mind. I've provided links back to their original reviews and what passes for the band's or individual's web site so if what you read is intriguing you can check them out in more detail. However, if you really want to understand why they meant more to me than anything else I listened to over the last three hundred odd days, I'd suggest giving them a listen and reaching your own decisions.

Songs Unrecantable by Ersatzmusika is as hard to describe in a few sentences as the disc's title is obscure. Sultry voiced lyrics roam over top of a mix of European sounding folk and the occasional jarring guitar capturing the mood of unease and uncertainty facing displaced persons everywhere. The majority of the band are Russian born and now make their home in Germany, and while they don't speak directly about that experience, the sense of loss and confusion that imbue so much of their work capture the state of mind of stateless people everywhere. This is folk music from the concrete blocks of apartments where we segregate our immigrants, of the people who have no home to go back to, but who aren't yet at home.

House Of A Thousand Guitars Willie Nile: As comfortable sitting down at the piano to play a ballad as he is searing the paint off the walls with burning guitars, Willie Nile's music marries the street smarts of New York city to a troubadour's sensibility to create intelligent, boisterous, and emotionally charged music. One of the great mysteries of pop music is why he's someone you think you might have heard of, while far lessor talents garner headlines. New York city's best kept secret for nearly thirty years - isn't it about time you heard of him?

Renegades Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings. Jazz flautist Nicole Mitchell is one of the foremost musicians of her generation. Band leader, innovator, composer, and superlative performer she is constantly pushing her music to the boundaries of what's been done before and beyond. However her willingness to experiment never overreaches her musical abilities so the results are as lyrical as her instrument of choice. Here she is joined by her string ensemble and her flute soars over the textures they create. Any hesitations you may have had about listening to avant-garde jazz can be put aside as Mitchell makes it as approachable as possible without watering it down.

Siwan Jon Balke The music of the Andalusian region of Spain has its earliest roots in the Sufi poetry of the ninth century. For Siwan composer Jon Balke has gathered together some of today's most innovative musicians alongside those steeped in the history of music to create a series of modern interpretations of traditional songs. Using poems and song lyrics dating back to the tenth century representing the three major cultures that thrived in the region, Islam, Sephardic Jew, and Spanish, they bring the music to life using modern instruments while retaining its traditional essence. A timely reminder of just how much Western culture owes the Islamic world when it comes to music.

If I Had A Key To The Dawn Lily Storm Lily Storm has one of those voices which bring new definition to the word haunting. Which makes it perfect for this collection of Eastern European cradle songs that evoke all the mystery and wonder of dark forests and silent mountains. Unlike North American lullabies, with their sickly sweet sentimentality, these songs range from dirges for a dead child to earnest pleas for their survival. Even without understanding the lyrics, they will pierce your heart and remind you there was a time when the birth of a child was not something to be taken for granted.

Saints And Tzadiks Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg. If anyone had told me that you could combine traditional Celtic songs with old Yiddish folk songs successfully before I listened to Saints And Tzadiks I would have thought they were nuts. Yet after hearing this collection of songs sung in English, Gaelic, and Yiddish its hard not to believe they weren't written to be sung together. The interplay between McKeown's alto and Sklamberg's tenor make for some of the most beautiful harmonies you'll ever hear, and their version of "Johnny I Hardly Knew You" will give even the most fanatical war monger pause for thought.

Let It Go State Radio Every once in a while it's good to be reminded that popular music can be a tool for social change without the music's power or artistry being compromised. To do this with sincerity, and yet still create music that's honest and fun is far more difficult to do that you'd think. Not since the heyday of the Clash has a group managed to mix politics and pop music in as seamless a manner as State Radio - Listen to one song and you feel empowered, listen to a whole album and you feel anything is possible. They definitely give you hope for the future.

Estes Mundo Rupa And The April Fishes. Singing in French, Spanish, and English Rupa and The April Fishes take you on a whirlwind tour of musical influences. One moment you're listening to the sounds of a Paris cafe, the next Mexico. Infectious and inspired they not only make it impossible to sit still while listening, but stop for a moment and read the translation of their lyrics and you'll hear stories that will open your eyes to the world in a way you've not heard before.

Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth. New York city is a place of excitement, creativity and dark secrets. Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth have created an album that not only brings all those aspect of life in New York city alive, they do so in a manner that doesn't gloss over the good or the bad. Not only that, it's also some of the best rock and roll music you'll hear this year.

Imidiwan: Companions Tinariwen. From the Northern Sahara desert Tinariwen are the leaders of a rebellion being conducted by electric guitars and pulsing rhythms. The Tuareg nomads of the Sahara have gradually seen their traditional territories eaten away by uranium mining and the encroachment of urban sprawl. While armed rebellion has been somewhat successful, their music has opened the world's eyes to their plight in a way no gun ever could. Compelling and irresistible, their music carries you deep into the heart of the desert and reveals the stark beauty of their lifestyle. They're not asking you to live like them, only to let them live the life they want - and they do it with such passion and love it's hard to argue their right to do so.

December 1, 2009

Music Review: Marta Topferova - Trova

The usual course taken by immigrants and their families when coming to North America is for the older generation to hold on their former culture while picking up enough English to get by. Children, either born over here or those who are young enough when they arrive to not have had time to become set in their ways, are far more quick to assimilate as they are immersed in the new world's culture through their educational experiences. Five days a week for most of their waking hours they live in the new environment, speaking the language and adapting their behaviour so they can fit in.

Yet what happens if they end up in a multinational city like New York in the US or Toronto in Canada, where depending on the neighbourhood you might very rarely hear English spoken on the streets? Sure they may receive their education in that language, but the children they play with in their neighbourhood might speak anything from Spanish to Russian among themselves and with their parents. Growing up in that type of environment there is going to be less pressure on them to blend in with some homogenous image of America or Canada. So not only will they not be in a hurry to forget where they came from, they stand a good chance of being influenced by what they see and hear around them.

Such was the case with Marta Topferova who was eleven years old when she and her mother and sister arrived in America from what was then Czechoslovakia. Not only was she influenced by the new dominant American society around her, she fell under the sway of Latin American music, while still retaining a desire to be connected to the land of her birth. While her musical early education was in classical music, her professional career has followed a far less conventional path. There are plenty of examples of musicians who perform in more then one ensemble or group, it's not often that each of the groups not only plays a different type of music, but performs in a different language.
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Topferova not only records in her native Czech, but the two major languages of her new homeland, English and Spanish. Not having heard any of her other recordings I can't speak to her success in either of the them, however, if her newest release Trova, being released on the World Village Music label December 8th/09, and her ability to perform in Spanish and play Latin music are indications of her overall quality, she is a rare talent indeed. In fact, even if she were to perform nothing but the Latin music you hear on Trova she would have to be considered a singer, songwriter, and musician of extraordinary capabilities.

Trova is not only the root of the Spanish word for troubadour, the wandering storytelling musicians of the middle ages, but is the name of a traditional Cuban music movement. Both meanings of the word are fitting to the nature of this album as not only did Topferova set out to create songs reflecting the Caribbean influences of Latin music, there is definitely something of the troubadour about her. The material she performs on this disc, both the eight she wrote and the three traditional tunes she's interpreted, are either stories about the world around her or expressions of emotions, a repertoire similar to those wandering minstrels of old. Of course she's also a bit of a wanderer, as this disc of Latin music, featuring Spanish musicians, was recorded in a studio outside Prauge in the Czech Republic.

As for the music and the songs themselves they are wonderful to listen to and feel as they work that magic on you that only well performed Latin music seems capable of doing. Now I'm not talking about the stuff you hear on radio that passes for Latin music these days that sounds like the performers are more concerned about the smiles plastered on their faces than the emotional content of their music. Although Topferova claims this disc is more upbeat then her previous release, you can still feel the heat of the Caribbean sun making sure nobody moves too quickly. Each phrase, whether sung or performed on an instrument, is savoured and expressed to its fullest without ever being taken over the top.
With all the material being sung in Spanish, without the liner notes to hold onto while listening to the disc, one has to rely on the feel the music generates, and the expression in Topferova's voice in order to guess at song's meanings. What was most impressive for me about Trova was even though I was unable to understand specifics of individual songs, the overall feelings that they generated in me meshed with what I read after the fact in their English translations. For while the music is inherently sensual, and there is a languidness about it at times that evokes a particular atmosphere, there are enough moments in each song expressing its individual characteristics we are able to discern something of each ones nature.

While a lot of credit has to go to the musicians accompanying Topferova; Aaron Halva (tres,accordion, & background vocals), Roland Satterwhite (violin & background vocals), Pedro Giraudo (acoustic bass & background vocals) and Neil Ochoa (congas, bombo,cajon,pandeiro, bell and cymbal), its her abilities as a vocalist that push this disc beyond merely being nice to listen to. When she sings she sounds like she is expressing the very soul of the music, giving voice to the story in the notes and echoing the heart beat of the rhythm. At times as smoky as a late night spent drinking rum, at other times echoing the sound of calm waters washing ashore at sunset in a secluded bay, she is able to communicate a wider range of emotion with just the sound of her voice than most singers are capable of no matter what lyrics they are given to sing.

I've heard any number of Spanish speaking vocalists over the past few years, and while I have to admit my ear isn't the greatest, Topferova sounds as at home in that language as anybody else. Maybe this is what is meant by somebody being a "World Music Musician", that they are able to play the music of their world, whatever that world might be. With Trova it's obvious that although she was born in Eastern Europe and raised in North America, a very big part of Marta Topferova's world is Latin America.

November 9, 2009

Music Review: The Silk Road Ensemble- Off The Map

The Silk Road criss-crossed through Asia and the East from Europe to China carrying merchandise, particularly silk, between the two continents. In the days before shipping was a reliable form of travel, without the Suez Canal the only way from Europe to Asia was via bottom most tip of Africa and there was as much chance of going down as making that passage successfully in the early days of sailing, the overland route was considered a lot safer. The Silk road wasn't of course an actual road, and the caravan routes that it was made up of traversed many countries and went in as many directions as there was trade to be conducted.

Aside from the obvious trade implications, the Silk Road also represented the first real communications between Europe, China, Japan, and the other countries of that region. As always, although believing itself superior, the West benefited most from the exchange bringing home pasta, silks, spices, and of course gunpowder. Although there wasn't necessarily reciprocity in the exchange between the two cultures, the idea of naming a musical ensemble interested in bringing together Eastern and Western music after the earliest known trade route between the two cultures makes a great deal of sense.

Which is exactly what world renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma did when he formed The Silk Road Ensemble a collective of around 60 musician, composers, arrangers, visual artists, and storytellers from twenty plus countries. Not only is the intent of the group to integrate the work of one culture with another, its to do so while maintaining the integrity of an art form's cultural traditions. Is it possible to take a piece of work composed by a Latin American composer and have it performed on traditional Chinese and Indian instruments while remaining true to both the composer's and performers' traditions? As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding, and in this case that's the forthcoming release on the World Village Music of the ensemble's new release Off The Map on November 10th/09.
Off The Map Cover.jpg
The disc contains four new works that reflect the cultural diversity of the ensemble not just because of the composers' nationalities, but also due to the nature of the work they ended up producing. "Ritmos Anchinos", by Gabriela Lena Frank, "Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain" by Angel Lam, "Sulvasutra" by Evan Ziporyn, and "Air To Air" by Osvaldo Golijov each represent the individual composer's attempt to implement the overall objectives of ensemble. Each of them not only developed their own approach to finding a way of doing just that, they've done so without sacrificing artistic or musical integrity.

The biggest worry I have about projects like this is that the politics will over ride the art; the composers will lose track of music in an attempt to fulfill the mission statement of the organization. I guess I should have known better, this is not a collection of new age "wanna-be's", but a group of serious and dedicated musicians and composers who not only obviously love music, but have a deep and abiding respect for other's cultures and traditions. So whether it's American born Spanish-American Frank writing with the Chinese guitar like instrument the pipa in mind, or Hong Kong born and Western trained Lam composing a piece centred on the Japanese flute, the shakuhachi in an attempt to articulate a young girl's confusion about death, you never once have the feeling that they have compromised anything in the process. If anything the challenge posed by incorporating the new elements has pushed them to create works that are stunning in both their beauty and intelligence.
Silk Road Ensemble.jpg
As with the case in most contemporary compositions there are elements in each of these pieces that are going to be difficult for those used to more "traditional" European classical music to assimilate. In this case not only will the listener have to be prepared for the usual structural differences that are to be expected with new music, but will also need to adjust to hearing the sound of instruments we are unfamiliar with like the two mentioned above, or in Golijov's piece previously recorded music. However, if you're willing to let go of preconceived notions of what music is "supposed" to be and allow yourself to settle into the individual pieces, the rewards will be well worth the effort. Beauty is in such short supply these days closing our minds to any new potential for its experience is tantamount to criminal. Allow this music to work its magic on you and find whole new vistas of possibilities for its appreciation being opened for you.

In order to make it easier for you to appreciate the work, the booklet accompanying the CD contains notes in the form of conversations between the composers and one of the musicians who performed their piece talking about its composition. In each case they talk about what they are trying to accomplish and how they've set out to achieve that end. What this does is give you a framework, or a context, within which to place the music, and goes a long way to helping you understand what it is you are listening to.

In the end though its all music, and music does the same basic things the world over; expresses our inner thoughts and emotions. The sounds might be a little different than we're used to, but the language is still the same, and its still talking about all the same subjects music has ever talked about. The pity is that more of the world's communication isn't being done through music.

November 5, 2009

Music Review: David Murray & The Gwo Ka Masters (Featuring Taj Mahal) - The Devil Tried To Kill Me

If there is one genre of popular music that has managed to to both refrain from being co-opted by commercial and corporate interests yet still remain culturally significant, it would have to be jazz. Of course there have been moments when one performer or another has captured the public's imagination and the industry has tried to cash in by attempting to replicate that person's success with imitators, never meeting with anything but limited success.

One of the true glories of jazz is that it remains the purview of the individual, and you can no more recreate or imitate one person's music, to any degree of success, than could a dancer duplicate what another does exactly. Oh they might be able to follow the same steps, hold their arms in exactly the same manner, but they won't imbue it with the same spirit. The same spirit that made it so attractive to the audience in the first place. Like dance, the personality of the individual performing in jazz is what helps establish the connection between the performer and the audience. No matter how hard they try, record companies still haven't figured out how to mass produce individuals so they can cash in on his or her creativity.

Like so much of our popular music, jazz developed out of the music brought over to North America from Africa by those who were dragged into slavery. In the latter part of the 20th century, specifically the 1960's, jazz started to become an avenue through which many African American musicians began to explore their African heritage. Whether through improvisation around rhythms or collaborations with musicians with more direct ties to the continent, a real sense of who they are and where they came from has started to appear in the music of many of todays African American jazz players.
The Devil Tried To Kill Me Cover.jpg
Such is the case with the latest collaboration between David Murray & The Gwo Ka Masters, The Devil Tried To Kill Me, on Justin Time Records. This is the third recording American Murray has made with this group of musicians from Guadeloupe. The tiny island nation is unique in that former slaves who inhabited the island rebelled and achieved independence 100 years before slavery was abolished in the United States. Although their state hood only lasted a decade, they were integrated into France after ten years, their history is unique among African Americans in the Western hemisphere. As Christian Laviso, guitar player on the disc puts it, "The Americans lost their drums...that is what they seek here, the rhythms and melodies of our ancestors"

Murray, (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet) and Laviso, are joined by; Jaribu Shahid (bass), Renzel Merrit (drums), Klod Kiavue (Ka Drums), Francois Landrezeau (Ka Drums), Rasul Siddik (Trumpet), Herve Samb (guitar), and special guest vocalists Taj Mahal and Sista Kee. While the music on the disc has elements that will be familiar to anyone with jazz, there's also the distinct flavour of the Caribbean to it that gives it a texture I've not heard before. It's hard to describe as it doesn't come across as any particular sound or rhythm, but more like a sense of overall movement that is different from almost anything else I've come across in either jazz or music from the islands either.

All the tracks on the disc are original tunes with music by Murray, and lyrics for "Africa", and "The Devil Tried To Kill Me" by poet Ishmael Reed and "Southern Skis" by Grace Rutledge and Kito Gamble. There are two versions of both "Africa" and "Southern Skies" included on the disc, with the second ones being shorter versions edited for radio play. "Southern Skies" and "Africa" stand out in particular on the disc for their provocative lyrics. "Africa", which features Taj Mahal's growl, looks at the continent from the point of view of a person describing how they would provide care for it if they were a hospice worker and Africa were a patient in an infirmary. Aside from ensuring she has enough food and proper medical care, the hospice worker would also ensure that Africa's bed pan was emptied, her sheets would be changed regularly and her body washed carefully to make sure there was no chance of bed sores.
Dave Murray & The Gwo Ka Masters.jpg
It's hard to figure whether Reed who wrote "Africa" sees the continent as being that sick, is commenting on the neglect and lack of care shown her by the rest of the world, or is describing the depth of his love for her - or even a little bit of all the above. "Southern Skies" on the other hand is more direct in its statement as it is a lament for the ill treatment of African American women at the hands of men. Sista Kee and Taj Mahal share the vocals on this song, with both of them delivering the solid message that things have to change: "Southern sky is cryin cause she/Still payin dues".

As leader of the band you'd expect David Murray to be front and centre on most of the material, and while he delivers some great solos with his tenor saxophone, there's a wonderful point on the opening track "Kiama Fro Obama", where he takes flight, his priority is obviously the integration of the two different styles of music. Even the solo on track one is built up to gradually over the course of the tune until it finally rises up almost of its own volition - as if the saxophone was some mysterious tropical bird bursting out of its lush jungle background. The other occasion I noticed Murray's playing in particular was on track six ""Canto Oneguine", taken from an opera about the Russian author Pushkin - who was of Cameroonian descent - which Murray wrote the music for.

Bass clarinet is not the most common of instruments, so for a second I was slightly puzzled as to what could be making one of the most soulful sounds I've heard from a woodwind before. Like a rich baritone voice, its sound was like a balm to the ears as it literally caresses them with its playing. Even when Murray gradually climbed the scale there was an elegance to the sound I've never associated with a clarinet. Usually there is something very aggressive and strident about the instrument that pushes it into the forefront whether its meant to be there or not. In this case, however, it blended itself in with the other instruments as a compliment to the overall sound of the piece.

The Devil Tried To Kill Me is an example of how fiercely independent jazz is, and the benefits that we listeners derive from the fact that the music industry hasn't figured out how to control it yet. The combination of different styles of music contained within the eight tracks of the disc is not something you're liable to find on recordings of any type aside from jazz. The playing, and singing, from all involved is exemplary, with Murray's saxophone and bass clarinet leading from within instead of dragging everyone behind him. American and Caribbean music come together on this disc to create a sound as distinct as their individual parts, as unified as their common ancestry, and a genuine pleasure to listen to.

November 1, 2009

Music Review: Kitka - Cradle Songs

When the Iron Curtain came down at the end of WWII effectively splitting Europe into East and West, in some ways it only emphasized a division that had existed long before the rise of Communism. Ever since the Roman Empire split in two with the East being ruled by an emperor in what was then Constantinople (Istanbul in present day Turkey) and the power in the West remained seated in Rome, the two halves of the same continent have moved in different directions. When the Empire in the West collapsed it descended into what we now refer to as the Dark Ages, while the Eastern Empire flourished becoming a centre of trade and culture.

To the rest of Europe there has always been something mysterious and slightly dark about the eastern countries. They have deep and dangerous forests where unknown creatures lurk and high mysterious mountains that could be home to any sort of nameless dread. It's no real coincidence that the story of Dracula was set in Romania. These were places where witches lurked in glades waiting to lure small plump children to their death and spells could cast enchanted sleeps that lasted hundreds of years. Now it may seem odd to mention all of this in connection to a recording made up of lullabies, but the CD being released by the San Francisco based women's vocal group Kitka, Cradle Songs on their own Diaphonica label, isn't what most of us would expect from songs nominly used for putting children to sleep. In fact some of them sound like they would give most children nightmares rather than sweet dreams.

Of the eighteen tracks on this CD thirteen have Eastern European roots, two are Jewish - which amounts to being about the same thing when it comes to music - one Russian/Ukrainian, one American, and one, "Nani, Nani, Kitka Mou", is made up of fragments of songs from around the world. However, and given their predominance it's not much of a surprise, it's the Eastern European songs that leave the strongest impression on the listener. While translations of the lyrics are supplied in the booklet that accompany the CD, we can't help be effected by the sound of the music and, in some cases, their almost dissonant harmonies, which give the tunes an eerie almost scary sound.
Cradle Songs Cover.jpg
True, the lyrics to the songs when translated into English belay some of the strangeness of the music. However, the contrast between the gentle nature of the words and the offsetting sound of the music end up making the pieces sound even more alien in some ways. How can we reconcile the one with the other? Part of the problem is what we have been conditioned to expect a lullaby to sound like through our exposure to Hallmark card like expressions of sentiment that are meant to pass for emotions. In much the way the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have been turned into the saccharine tales we see presented by the good folk at Walt Disney - try comparing the cartoon version of Cinderella with the original Brothers Grimm tale some day if you want to see what I'm talking about - lullabies and cradle songs have been diluted into sweet and airy tunes.

Here they are replete with references to Goddesses of fertility like in "Megruli Nana", the second song on the disc, where not only is Nana a Georgian word for lullaby and mother, but is also traceable to an ancient oriental Goddess of fertility and light. "Nana (sleep), my darling. The child resembles the sun and the moon". Throughout the disc variations on the word nana (nani, and nanourisma - Romanian and Albanian respectively) show up, and in each case the same multiplicity of meanings is implied. "Kakhuri Nana", the ninth song on the disc, starts off with "I'll sing nana to you. Go to sleep, little rose", where nana could mean lullaby. However it finishes with "In mother's bosom you have found your sweet home." Which could either imply being rocked to sleep in your mother's arms, or being buried in the ground in the earth Goddesses arms.

Not the most cheerful or delightful of sentiments is it? However it represents the reality of a people who would have lived with a high infant mortality rate. Lullaby's that offer comfort to both the child and the parent would have been common if they had to wish a child safe journey very often. Even today we talk about somebody being in the cradle of their saviour's arms when they die, especially in gospel songs. Therefore its not much of a leap for lullabies and cradle songs to do double duty for mourning and easing a child into sleep for the night.
The eight women of Kitka take it in turns to sing leads on the various songs while the others supply harmonies and background vocals. While some of the songs are quite straightforward in their arrangements, it's the more complex ones where they really shine. Here the distinct personalities of each voice comes clear, and instead of merely sounding like another choir singing a sweet song, they take on character that increases our interest. In some instances it appears they are each singing a different harmony, and it's those songs in which we can really feel the power of the music they are singing. These are also the songs which allow us to hear just how different the songs of Eastern Europe are from what we are used to, and the skill required to bring them to life.

Cradle Songs not only offers the listener an opportunity to experience the power and mystery of Eastern European choral music, but is a fine example of what the human voice is capable of creating. Kitka are by far one of the most exciting and challenging vocal ensembles you're going to hear in North America, and their music is always an enchanting delight to listen too. This disc is a perfect example of why they have gained a reputation for performing difficult music with grace and style. When the Iron Curtain came down at the end of WWII effectively splitting Europe into East and West, in some ways it only emphasized a division that had existed long before the rise of Communism. Ever since the Roman Empire split in two with the East being ruled by an emperor in what was then Constantinople (Istanbul in present day Turkey) and the power in the West remained seated in Rome, the two halves of the same continent have moved in different directions. When the Empire in the West collapsed it descended into what we now refer to as the Dark Ages, while the Eastern Empire flourished becoming a centre of trade and culture.

To the rest of Europe there has always been something mysterious and slightly dark about the eastern countries. They have deep and dangerous forests where unknown creatures lurk and high mysterious mountains that could be home to any sort of nameless dread. It's no real coincidence that the story of Dracula was set in Romania. These were places where witches lurked in glades waiting to lure small plump children to their death and spells could cast enchanted sleeps that lasted hundreds of years. Now it may seem odd to mention all of this in connection to a recording made up of lullabies, but the CD being released by the San Francisco based women's vocal group Kitka, Cradle Songs on their own Diaphonica label, isn't what most of us would expect from songs nominly used for putting children to sleep. In fact some of them sound like they would give most children nightmares rather than sweet dreams.

Of the eighteen tracks on this CD thirteen have Eastern European roots, two are Jewish - which amounts to being about the same thing when it comes to music - one Russian/Ukrainian, one American, and one, "Nani, Nani, Kitka Mou", is made up of fragments of songs from around the world. However, and given their predominance it's not much of a surprise, it's the Eastern European songs that leave the strongest impression on the listener. While translations of the lyrics are supplied in the booklet that accompany the CD, we can't help be effected by the sound of the music and, in some cases, their almost dissonant harmonies, which give the tunes an eerie almost scary sound.
Cradle Songs Cover.jpg
True, the lyrics to the songs when translated into English belay some of the strangeness of the music. However, the contrast between the gentle nature of the words and the offsetting sound of the music end up making the pieces sound even more alien in some ways. How can we reconcile the one with the other? Part of the problem is what we have been conditioned to expect a lullaby to sound like through our exposure to Hallmark card like expressions of sentiment that are meant to pass for emotions. In much the way the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have been turned into the saccharine tales we see presented by the good folk at Walt Disney - try comparing the cartoon version of Cinderella with the original Brothers Grimm tale some day if you want to see what I'm talking about - lullabies and cradle songs have been diluted into sweet and airy tunes.

Here they are replete with references to Goddesses of fertility like in "Megruli Nana", the second song on the disc, where not only is Nana a Georgian word for lullaby and mother, but is also traceable to an ancient oriental Goddess of fertility and light. "Nana (sleep), my darling. The child resembles the sun and the moon". Throughout the disc variations on the word nana (nani, and nanourisma - Romanian and Albanian respectively) show up, and in each case the same multiplicity of meanings is implied. "Kakhuri Nana", the ninth song on the disc, starts off with "I'll sing nana to you. Go to sleep, little rose", where nana could mean lullaby. However it finishes with "In mother's bosom you have found your sweet home." Which could either imply being rocked to sleep in your mother's arms, or being buried in the ground in the earth Goddesses arms.

Not the most cheerful or delightful of sentiments is it? However it represents the reality of a people who would have lived with a high infant mortality rate. Lullaby's that offer comfort to both the child and the parent would have been common if they had to wish a child safe journey very often. Even today we talk about somebody being in the cradle of their saviour's arms when they die, especially in gospel songs. Therefore its not much of a leap for lullabies and cradle songs to do double duty for mourning and easing a child into sleep for the night.
The eight women of Kitka take it in turns to sing leads on the various songs while the others supply harmonies and background vocals. While some of the songs are quite straightforward in their arrangements, it's the more complex ones where they really shine. Here the distinct personalities of each voice comes clear, and instead of merely sounding like another choir singing a sweet song, they take on character that increases our interest. In some instances it appears they are each singing a different harmony, and it's those songs in which we can really feel the power of the music they are singing. These are also the songs which allow us to hear just how different the songs of Eastern Europe are from what we are used to, and the skill required to bring them to life.

Cradle Songs not only offers the listener an opportunity to experience the power and mystery of Eastern European choral music, but is a fine example of what the human voice is capable of creating. Kitka are by far one of the most exciting and challenging vocal ensembles you're going to hear in North America, and their music is always an enchanting delight to listen too. This disc is a perfect example of why they have gained a reputation for performing difficult music with grace and style.

October 29, 2009

Music Review: Group Bombino - Guitars From Agadez Vol.2

It was while watching the DVD documentary Palace Of The Winds that I first really started to see the similarities between the situation facing the Tuareg of the Sahara, indigenous peoples in North and South America, and Australia. While all of them are dealing with poverty, institutionalized racism, and the gradual erosion of traditional territories in the face of encroaching civilization and the exploitation of natural resources, the biggest cause of friction between them and the rest of the world, is their desire to be left alone to live their lives as they have for longer then many of our so called societies have even existed.

Unfortunately there's always some reason why it's vitally important to interfere with a people's lives and the Tuareg of North Africa, especially in Niger, have been learning about that the hard way in recent years. When uranium was discovered in the Agadez region of the country the usual promises were made guaranteeing them economic benefits from the mining operations and the protection of their traditional way of life. As detailed in the film Ishumar, les Rockers Oublies du Desert (Ishumar, The Forgotten Rockers Of The Desert) by French director Francois Bergeron, all the people of the region have seen so far is an increase in cancer and birth defects among those living close to the mining operation. None of the economic benefits promised have been fulfilled, and even jobs in the mines are being filled by outsiders. In 2007 the situation came to a head again with uprisings in both Mali and Niger, with Agadez and uranium being the hot spot in Niger. Peace talks brokered by Libya in May of 2009 appear to have brought a level of calm to the area again, but the government is also going ahead with the construction of what is being billed as the largest uranium mine in the world and there is no word on whether or not the conditions that gave rise to the rebellion in the first place have been addressed.
Guitars From Agadez Vol. 2.jpg
What, you might be wondering does all of this have to do with a review of a CD? Well since the uprisings of the 1980's, music has played a major role in the Tuareg rebellions through the messages of hope and resistance it spread throughout the region. A sign of how effective they were is that the first cassettes issued by the now internationally renowned band Tinariwen were banned by the Niger and Malian governments and owning them was a criminal offence. In 2007 when the next wave of rebellion started up, new voices were singing out for justice for their people, and at the forefront were Group Bombino and their recording Guitars From Agadez Vol.2.

Originally released as an LP, its now been re-issued as a CD on the Sublime Frequencies label. The music on this release was recorded in 2007 just as the rebellion was taking hold. A year later the leader of the group Omara Mochtar (Bombino) was in exile in places unknown, Agadez was cut off from the rest of Niger by land mines and the only way in and out of the town was by military escort. Like many of Sublime Frequencies recordings, Guitars From Agadez Vol. 2 was not recorded in a studio, but on location with the performers in various locales. In this case the first four tracks of the CD are from the bands archives, while the last five were recorded live in the desert in 2007 by field recorder Hisham Mayet.

Mochtar, who was born in 1981, like other Tuareg musicians of his generation, makes no secret of the influence bands like Tinariwen and the others from the first musical uprising have had on him. Listening to the songs on this disc you'll hear the familiar hypnotic guitar work that has come to be emblematic of the Tuareg sound. However, it's how Mochtar and Group Bombino use that as a foundation for their own creations that makes them so riveting. The first four tracks are much what we've come to expect from the music of the desert, with the voices and the guitars creating an almost trance like state while the rhythm seductively sways like solitary trees caught in a desert wind.
Group Bombino.jpg
It's when we hit the live recordings though that Mochtar starts to show his distinctive style as he seems to feed off the energy of the desert. His guitar seems to take on a life of its own, unloading bursts of energy that sear the night air and shoot up like sparks from an exploding log in a fire. While there aren't any accompanying lyric sheets for this disc, let alone translations into English, there's an unmistakable message being delivered by the music. There's a raw, almost primal energy being unleashed during these five tracks that speaks of freedom and independence in a way that doesn't need to be translated. This isn't music that's going to make you feel particularly safe, but than again there's nothing safe about true freedom. Never the less the chills this music sends up your spine aren't from fright, their caused by the excitement of knowing there are still those out there pushing to live on their own terms, not what's dictated to them by others.

If there's anything that scares oppressive regimes it's people who dare to defy them by advocating truth and freedom. In 2007 when the Tuareg were taking up arms against the Niger government newspapers reporting on the rebels were being shut down by the police and the military. While a peace accord signed in May of this year ended open hostilities and a journalist imprisoned for over a year on charges of sedition for reporting on the Tuareg rebellion has been released, the Niger government has been cracking down on civil protest against corruption through arrests and intimidation.

The environment in Niger doesn't look like it's going to be getting any healthier for the Tuareg anytime soon, and bands like Group Bombino face real danger as long they continue to speak out on behalf of their people. As the liner notes for the CD say - this is the music of the rebellion, and you can hear that in every note they play and every word they sing.

October 26, 2009

Music Review: Rupa & The April Fishes - Este Mundo

In the 1930's Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the plight of the Mexican migrant workers who picked fruit and vegetables in California. "Deportees" detailed how these workers were treated little better than slaves and their status as illegal workers exploited by the folk who hired them. As long as there was fruit that needed picking they were allowed to stay, but the second there was no work - presto they became deportees - illegal immigrants - to be shipped back where they came from post haste.

Now a days things aren't really much different save for the work that's being performed by the so called "illegals". The wealthy hire them to clean their houses, they clean the dishes in our restaurants, and scrub the toilets in our office towers for less money then most people would accept for opening their eyes every morning. Cynical and unscrupulous employers hire them knowing they can do what they want with them and also secure in the knowledge that while their employees will be deported if caught, there will always be more to replace them. It's not only in North America where you'll find migrant workers; all over the world men and women leave their homes to find work in an effort to feed their families. Not everyone guards their borders and their shit jobs as jealously as we do in North America, but what kind of world is this that we make people leave their homes behind them in order to eat.

Este Mundo (this world), the new CD from Rupa & The April Fishes being released on the Cumbancha label October 27th/09 explores the kind of world this is through their songs. There are songs about love, about trying to find one's way in this world, about people who are lost, and the frontiers we all have to cross - whether they're the ones that separate countries or the ones we build up between ourselves and others. Full of unexpected joys and infectious rhythms, nonetheless there are as many songs tinged with the sorrow for the world as there are once that celebrate it. Maybe that's what Rupa and company want us to know though, that for every sorrow, there's a joy and if we keep travelling along we will find them in equal measure.
Based out of San Francisco California, Rupa & The Fishes are familiar with the problems of migrant workers and frontier. Lead signer Rupa Marya is no stranger to moving either having lived in India and the south of France with her parents before the finally settled in the Bay area. She's even experienced what economic hardship can do to a family, for as a child her parents were forced to send her off to live with family in India when they were unable to provide for her properly themselves. So when she sings about the difficulties faced by families and individuals in this world, she speaks with the voice of experience.

The songs on Este Mundo reflect Rupa's polyglot background as the lyrics are in French, Spanish, and even the occasional one in English. While that may make it a little more difficult for some of us to understand the lyrics, the languages work with their respective songs as they sound like they fit the music. For us uni-lingual types the CD comes with a booklet that provides the lyrics in their original language and a translation into English. Anyway, doesn't it seem appropriate to be singing a song like "Por La Frontera" (Along The Border) in Spanish when it talks about a line that's worth more then life, an obvious reference to the American Mexican border? How can a line be worth more then life? When people die crossing it on an almost daily basis is how.

Although some of the songs are definitely political in nature, that doesn't stop Rupa and The Fishes from including ones that are pure poetry as well. "Neruda", lists the poet Pablo Neruda as its author, with additional lyrics by Marya, and although I'm only slightly familiar with his work, it has the same feel to it as any of his poetry that I've read. To my mind its something he shares with the great American poet e.e. cummings; an ability to express gratitude for the various wonders that you can find in life. "thank you violins/for this day/of four chords/pure is the sound/of the sky/the blue voice/of the air". When I read that I can't help but think of the soft blue skies of spring, full of promise for new life.
Rupa & the April Fishes 2009 by Judith Burrows 02.jpg
Musically the disc is as diverse as the topics covered by the lyrics as one song will have a hint of reggae, another will see Marya delivering her lyrics in a rap, another will sound like its from the streets of Paris, and yet another could be from Seville, home of Flamenco. What's amazing about this, is that instead of sounding like some God-awful mess when you listen to it, it's more like somebody has figured out how to put together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that you don't think should fit together, but the final picture makes perfect sense. It helps that "The Fishes"; Aaron Kierbel (drums, percussion) Isabel Douglass (accordion and bandoneon), Safa Shokrai (acoustic and electric bass), Ed Baskerville (cello), Marucs Cohen (trumpet), and Rupa (glockenspiel, guitar, vocals, and wineglass), play instruments that are suited for working with others to create an overall sound instead of the normal popular music instruments which are geared towards individual creation. Therefore, they are more adept at finding a way of pulling diverse elements together to make a whole.

There are two instrumental tracks on this disc, the first song "La Frontera", and the ninth song "El Camino Del Diablo (The Devil's Highway). The second title refers to a stretch of treacherous land in Arizona's Sonoran desert full of ancient trails that run through the badlands. Most of the 1,000 people who died between 1995 and 2000 trying to get into the US did so in this region, and most of them died of thirst and exposure. The song is a mournful trumpet being played over the sound a desolate wind blowing. "La Frontera" is equally sad, however the trumpet is replaced by cello and the mournful cry of someone calling out. As there are no lyrics, the band has included a dedication for the disc in their place. To the memory of those "migrantes" who have lost their lives making the perilous journeys around the world looking for work and a better life for their families. The band also offers their best wishes and respect to those making the journey and welcomes them.

Like Woody Guthrie seventy years ago, Rupa & The Fishes make it pretty clear which side they are on in the whole illegal immigrant argument. Unlike Woody though their music doesn't necessarily speak to the specific issue, but instead addresses the band's overall concern for the human condition, and through that they find their way to the Mexican American border. Although there's a spring in the step of this music, it's not the most cheerful. You can still dance to it like you could the Fishes' previous disc, but it will also make you think a lot more than you'd expect. Read the lyrics if you don't speak French and Spanish, listen to the music, and feel what it is they are talking about - it makes a lot more sense than anything any politician has to say on the subject of immigration.

October 12, 2009

Music Review: Tinariwen - Imidiwan: Companion

To most of us the desert looks to be an inhospitable land, devoid of life. You wouldn't think to look at it that anything could survive out there let alone humans and their herds of goats and camels. Yet for generations that's exactly what the Tuareg people have done in the Northern Sahara desert. In a territory that stretches from present day Algeria in the north to what is now Niger in the south they have moved with their flocks from watering hole to watering hole, and followed the changing of the seasons in search of grazing land for their herds.

It was the coming of the colonial masters that began the troubles for the Tuareg. They created the borders that divided the desert into artificial segments. However the end of colonial rule in the early 1960's didn't do anything to improve their lot and 1963 saw the first of the Tuareg uprisings. The government of Niger began a systematic campaign of terror and persecution against the Tuareg, and they responded by taking up arms against them. However they were ill equipped to combat a modern army, and many were forced to flee to the north. Among those refugees was a young Ibrahim Ag Ahabib, whose memories of the trek include his grandfather dying on the forced march.

Like many young Tuareg of that generation, Ahabib, were involved in the next Tuareg uprising in the 1980's. However it wasn't only a gun he learned how to use in the training camps of Libya where the Tuareg received their training. He, and others, began to play guitar, and give voice to the dreams and aspirations of the rebellion through songs. Mixing popular music from the west, specifically the guitar driven music of Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, with their people's traditional sound, they recorded cassettes of music that were distributed throughout the Tuareg territories. While the governments of Niger and Mali quickly made their music illegal, it didn't stop the messages of hope and pride from being spread among the people. While he has long since put down his gun to focus on his music, Ahabib and the band he leads, Tinariwen, continue to sing about the life of the Tuareg, only now their audience has expanded to include the rest of the world.
On their latest release, Imidiwan: Companions on the World Village out October 13th/09, they have also included a DVD containing a documentary about the making of the recording directed by Jessy Nottola. Up until now Tinariwen have had to travel to Europe in order to make their CDs, but this time they were able to ensure that the recording studio came to them. As a result the film isn't just of musicians setting up in some arid studio to record tracks, it follows the band to some of their favourite places in the Malian part of the Sahara desert. These are places where they have sat, played and sung to the desert and the stars throughout the night in the past. The places where the heart and soul of not only the music, but also, the Tuareg, reside.

While six of the fourteen songs on the disc are composed by Ibrahim Ag Ahabib, song writing duties are now split up amongst more members of the band then they seem to have been in the past. Yet no matter who writes, or for that matter performs, a song, they are all equally powerful in the emotional pull they are able to exert upon us while we listen. The guitars are the focal point, whether acoustic or electric, as they provide the energy that fuels a song. They are an insistent thrum of sound which increases and decreases in volume through out the course of a song creating peaks and valleys much like the desert itself is crested with dunes and dotted with hidden bowls excavated by ages of wind eroding rock.

It's in one of these bowls, surrounded by walls of rock, that we watch the band set up to record on the DVD. A lone figure swathed in blue robes, head wrapped to protect the face and skull from the heat and sand, sets down a stone and carefully counts off paces in four directions placing another stone at the terminus of each count. He then gradually forms a large circle out of rocks in amongst the boulders strewn on the canyon floor. Gradually, on camel, and in four wheel drive vehicles, the rest of the band and the equipment arrive and are established within the circle. As the day loses its heat and light, the band begin to play, and the setting sun paints the rocks around them orange to match the fires they will soon light to keep off the cool of a desert night.
Tinariwen Desert 2.jpg
The lyrics they sing are in the language of their people, Tamashek, and although we can't understand what they are saying, their sound combined with the guitar and the steady beat of the drum and bass, are quickly mesmerizing. You can't help but be caught up in the wash of sound, but at the same time there's an urgency to the sound of their vocals that makes you strain to understand on any level what it is they're saying. Interspersed through the song is the occasional sound of the women background singers creating the undulating sound the women of the desert have used to denote moments of high emotion for centuries. I defy anyone not to feel a chill run up your spin upon hearing the trembling high pitched voices raised as a kind of exclamation point to the lyrics that proceeded them.

The booklet accompanying the disc has the lyrics for each song written out in both Tamashek, transcribed into our alphabet, and English. While we can hunt among the lyrics for some clues as to what the songs are about and for insights into the people who are singing them, even in English the meanings can be oblique. For the songs talk about matters that are specific to the people of the desert. However there are still nuggets of information the translations provide us with. For example Imazeghen (pronounced Im-Az-Arr-En) is the collective noun the Tuareg use to refer to themselves, as Tuareg is an Arabic word imposed on them by outsiders. So the song titled "Imazeghen N Adagh" (pronounced Ad-Arr) is about the people from the region in Mali, Adagh, where Tinariwen come from. It's a simple call to stand up and be recognized. To look around themselves and instead of being confused and overwhelmed, to remember who they are. "You don't understand the confidence you possess/Once you rode upon the camel's saddle".

There has been a disturbing tendency to romanticize the Imazeghen of the Sahara which does them a horrible disservice. As recently as a few months ago armed rebellion had broken out again in both Niger and Mali as they continue to fight to preserve their way of life and be given the freedom to chose how to live. Territory that was given them by treaty is being taken away as uranium deposits are discovered under the sands of the desert in Niger. Newspapers writing articles supportive of their plight are closed down by the government while activists and sympathizers are arrested on charges of sedition and terrorism. Tinariwen's songs aren't about something that happened to the people in the past, they are about a people's fight for survival in the face of a world that doesn't look like it has room for them anymore.

Listening to Imidiwan- Companions one can't help feel the world would be a lot emptier without people who feel as deeply about their way of life and their land as these people do. Is our need for uranium that great that we need to destroy a civilization that can produce music like this? It would be a great pity if we let the answer be yes.

September 29, 2009

Music Review: Trio Ifriqiya - Petite Planete

I don't know when my fascination with Moorish Spain began but it has been ongoing for a while now. At a time when the rest of Europe was clouded over by superstition and disease it was a bastion of civilization and relative tolerance. For although ruled by Muslims, Christians and Jews were both allowed relative freedom of religion. Both did have to pay an additional tax for the privilege of being allowed to practice their own religion and the more fanatical members of the Islamic community spoke out against them, however compared to the way Muslims and Jews were treated in Christian communities, it was a bastion of tolerance.

In our history books we talk of the period known as the renaissance as if it were a miracle that sprang up out of the earth. When in actual fact it was the influence of Moorish Spain that provided both the knowledge and the impetus for the great re-birth of art and learning. That influence continues through to this day primarily through the music of Andalusia. When the Christian armies marched on Spain, with the Inquisition in tail, Muslims, Jews, and Gypsies (Roma) were faced with the choice of fleeing, conversion, or burning at the stake. While the Jews and Gypsies seem to have mainly chosen more tolerant European destinations, the Muslim population took ship across the Mediterranean to Algeria in North Africa. Its there that they have kept alive the words and music of the songs that were created in Andalusia.

While there are some who continue to perform and create music much as it was made more then five hundred years ago, there are others who draw upon the traditional sounds and combine it with modern influences. Trio Ifriquiya, Didier Freboeuf (piano), Faycal El Mezouar (vocals, violin, ud (oud), and percussion), and Emile Biayenba (percussion) use the music of Andalusia as the core for the eleven pieces on their latest release, World Village Music label, and broaden its scope by incorporating traditional and contemporary jazz, and each performer's musical influences.
Cover Petite Planete.jpg
Of the eleven tracks on Petite Planete five are from the traditional Arab/Andalusian repertoire, according to the liner notes specifically from the Granada region of Spain, while the balance are one original composition by Mezouar and five by Biayenba. Mezouar is the impetus behind the trio, as he was deeply steeped in the traditions of Andalusia during his schooling where he not only learned the instruments he plays, but the Sufi poems that were the music's original inspiration. Freboeuf brings a modern jazz sensibility to the group with his piano, while Biayenba, founder of the drum group Les Tambours De Brazza from the Congo in central Africa, opens the door rhythmically to the rest of Africa and the world.

Yet no matter if they are playing one of Bizyenba's or Mezouar's originals, or if the jazz piano of Freboeuf is taking the lead, Andalusia is never far from the surface. Whether it's the interjection of the ud, the sound of Mezouar's vocals, a trill in the melody evoking the older music, or something about the quality of sound generated by a hand drum, there's always something that will pull us back to that centre again. What I found most intriguing about the more modern compositions was that instead the songs building upon a foundation of the Andalusian music, they start from the contemporary and build to old. It's almost as if they were showing us how, no matter where you start, or with what, you will always come back to this point of origin.

While both Frebouef and Bizyenba play key roles in the music, Mezouar is the heart around which this trio beats. As the one with the direct connection to the source of their inspiration if he falters, or strikes anything resembling a false note, the whole ensemble will fail. However one only has to listen to him sing a few notes to have any doubts about his sincerity or his skill dispelled. His voice brings to life songs whose lyrics could have been penned centuries ago and makes them sound as alive and inspiring as if he wrote them himself. Listening to him you can visualize in your mind's eye the open courtyards and minarets of Moorish Spain with their whitewashed walls and the elaborate mosaic pattern of their tiled floors.
Trio Ifriqiya.jpg
Yet this is not just some journey into the past but rather an exploration of the past and the present meeting in harmony and the music of one culture working with others while maintaining its distinctive flavour. With each man bringing his own particular influences into the mix the music becomes a meeting place for styles and traditions. As a result, while we never lose track of the Andalusian core, we are almost always aware of a much wider world existing outside of that particular time and place. At times the sum of the three parts; jazz piano, the rhythms of central Africa, and centuries old Arabic music, becomes a whole that is unique to the moment it was recorded. Even more intriguing is the fact that although you can hear the distinct parts, simultaneously you hear them blending into one.

The music of Andalusia influenced the musicians of Medieval Europe both in style and content. Minstrels and troubadours alike, with their songs about love and devotion accompanied by a lute or harp, wouldn't have taken the form they did if it hadn't been for the music of the Ottoman Empire. Now, more then a thousand years later, that same music is still providing a blueprint for musicians. Trio Ifriqiya have drawn upon the same source material that so many others down through history have and not only brought new life to an ancient tradition but have created new sounds of their own. Petite Planete is a perfect example of how looking to the past is sometimes the best way to find something new.

September 20, 2009

Music Review: Fanfare Ciocarlia - Fanfare Ciocarlia Live & Best Of Gypsy Brass

Somewhere near the Hungarian border in Romania lies a town so small that it doesn't even show up on the country's roadmaps. The trains don't stop at Zece Prajini, you have to tell the conductor which piece of farmland, indistinguishable from all the rest, is the one you want to be let off at, if you plan on travelling there. According to those who live there, a hundred years ago their families asked permission of the area's landowner if they could move their village from a desolate hilltop where they had been forced to travel miles each day for water and fire wood, to this valley where life would be somewhat easier. Easy is a relative term when you're Romany living in Eastern Europe, and they were grateful for any kindness.

The one way the inhabitants had of supplementing their incomes was the fact the village was famous for its brass band.They would be booked to play weddings and other events requiring music by neighbouring communities for miles around and over the years their reputation continued to spread and grow throughout the region. It was their reputation which drew a young German music enthusiast, Henry Ernst, to come and seek out this tiny village and its brass bands. He had been travelling through Eastern Europe searching out, and recording if possible, Romany musicians where ever he went, and he eventually heard of these amazing brass musicians who lived somewhere in Moldavia at the eastern edge of Romania.

The miracle is that he ever found the musicians the world has come to know as Fanfare Ciocarlia, let alone launched them on an international career. Yet now instead of playing weddings for Romanian farmers who were just as likely to stiff them as pay them because they were gypsies, and who was going to believe their complaints of being ripped off, they now play concerts on stages the world over and are fast becoming international stars. If you've seen the movie Borat than you know their music as they were the brass band who tore through "Born To Be Wild" for its soundtrack. Realizing that there are plenty out there who might not have had the opportunity of experiencing Fanfare Ciocarlia, their German record label, Asphalt-Tango, is releasing Fanfare Ciocarlia Live, a two disc CD/DVD package, and Best Of Gypsy Brass, a greatest hits package on a high quality 180 gram vinyl LP.
Fanfare Ciocarlia Live CD.jpg
The title Fanfare Ciocarlia Live is slightly deceptive, because aside from containing a recording (the CD) and a film of a 2004 concert they gave in Berlin, the DVD includes; the hour long documentary on the band, Iag Bari (Brass On Fire), an interview with the late elder statesman of the band Ioan Ivancea relating a history of the village and the music that has grown to define it, super 8 film the band members shot of themselves, and a variety of video clips of the band. The concert, both the film and the CD, are wonderful as they give listeners a chance to hear and see what happens when the band's intoxicating music meets a live audience. It's a wonder the roof doesn't blow off the concert hall with the amount of energy being generated by the combination of the band performing and the fervour with which the audience throws themselves into dancing to the music.

Yet, what's equally amazing about Fanfare Ciocarlia are the nuances and subtleties that you hear in their music. I don't know about anybody else, but normally when I think of a twelve piece brass band made up of tubas, trumpets, saxophones, percussion, drum, and a clarinet, noise is the first thing that comes to mind and music second. However, these guys do things with brass instruments that I've never heard from anyone. Even when they're playing at breakneck speed, so the music is pouring out fast and furious, every note is distinct and the music speaks to something inside of you on an emotional level that conventional bands can't hope to match. It's hard to describe the experience, except to say the music manages to capture the full range of the human emotional experience while blowing the doors out.
In Iag Bari we travel back to the early days of the band when Henry Ernst was still skidding his car through unpaved roads, where the mud and icy slush came halfway up his hub caps, in order to rehearse the band for their third CD. We attend the wedding of a band member's daughter, meet the people in the village, and are taken inside their homes. Most are still heated by stoves, electricity is rudimentary at best, and pony carts are the predominant form of transportation. It's only when flash to shots of them on tour, with Henry steering their bus across Europe, that we remember it's 2004 when this movie was shot. This isn't the world of I-pods, cell phones, and personal computers that you and I take for granted.

One of the most telling scenes in the movie for me was the band members meeting with a Eastern Orthodox priest, and going over their plans for restoring the church in the village. They have pooled their earnings from touring and record sales so the village can have the first officially recognized "gypsy" church in Romania. The smiles that crease their faces when the priest tells them the project has been approved, and it will be consecrated are wonderful to behold. They may be on the verge of international success and becoming the darlings of the World Music scene, but that doesn't change who they are and what's important to them. Perhaps it's that sense of community that they carry with them onto stage when they perform that makes their music so special, They aren't just Fanfare Ciocarlia when they climb on stage, they carry with them the history of their village and the stories of all the people who live there.
Fanfare Ciocarlia LP Cover.jpg
While the CD/DVD package takes us only up to 2005 in telling the story of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the LP Best Of Gypsy Brass takes you right back to the earliest recordings the band made and then carries you to their most recent triumphs including their infamous recording of "Born To Be Wild". I'm not sure what motivated Asphalt Tango to release this on LP instead of CD, but the music is still the music no matter how you present it, and this greatest hit's package is a perfect introduction to their music for someone who hasn't heard them before. Not only do the songs cover the entirety of their career but they also give you a good idea of just how diverse their sound is.

In the interview with Ioan Ivancea on the DVD where he talks about the history of Zece Prajini and the music they play, he makes a very telling remark. The people of this village he says have always had to toil in the fields, do hard physical labour, and work with their hands. As a result they've developed great lung capacity and have calloused and misshapen fingers. You couldn't imagine any of them even trying to play a violin or other instrument which requires delicate fingering, so it was only natural they gravitated to brass instruments. He also recounts how in the days when the Ottoman Empire ruled over this part of the world, the Turkish armies were always accompanied by brass bands, which would either lead them into battle in an effort to frighten their enemies or blow the fanfares that marked the coming of dignitaries. So not only were they suited to the instruments because of the nature of their existence, these were also the instruments the people of the area were most familiar with.

Fanfare Ciocarlia have gained the reputation as one of the supergroups among Romany musicians and are justifiably respected and appreciated where ever they play. With roots that are not only planted firmly in the soil of their home village, but the history of Eastern Europe, their music resonates with the sound of the human experience in a way few other bands can ever hope to emulate.

September 17, 2009

Music Review: Various Performers - Footsteps In Africa - The Soundtrack

About a month ago I reviewed a DVD, Footsteps In Africa: A Nomadic Journey, which was purportedly a documentary about the Tuareg people of the Northern Sahara desert. However, Kiahkeya, the group responsible for producing the film, didn't just set up cameras and film their subjects like most documentarians as they had an agenda to promote. The group of "artists" who were responsible for shooting the movie weren't there to report on the living conditions of the Tuareg, or their struggles to hold on to their traditional way of life in the face of encroaching civilization. No they were there to try and capture the "experience" of being a nomad, and to show how the nomadic way of life has something to teach all of us.

The movie was as annoying as it sounds, in that you didn't learn anything about the Tuareg, except a couple of simplistic aphorisms spoken by a couple of members of the older generation about water being power in the desert and the necessity of sharing. Since those responsible for the movie also believed that part of the "secret" of being a nomad was passed down from generation to generation in the music they decided to experience that as well. However instead of merely listening and recording any performances given by the Tuareg and others, they had to participate and instigate what they called "jams". While there was some footage taken at The Festival In The Dessert of Tuareg musicians and dancers, it was hard to tell what was staged for the film and what wasn't.

Now, with the release of the movie's soundtrack, Footsteps In Africa, available as a download through I-Tunes, it's made clear how much of the music in the movie was actually created by Tuareg, and how much was instigated by the movie makers. Aside from two songs by the Tuareg band Tinariwen and a recording of Habib Koite, a Malian musician who is neither a Tuareg nor a nomad, performing at the Festival In The Desert, the rest of the music on the soundtrack disc was either made by a member of movie's crew, Jamshied Sharifi, a new age musician and film score composer or the result of "jams" between members of the production company and various groups of Tuareg.
Footsteps In Africa cover art.jpg
While the two cuts by Tinariwen, "Assoul" and "Alkhar Dessouf" are as good as usual, and can be heard on the band's own recordings, Koite's recording doesn't do him justice as the sound quality is not very good and his vocals distort. Unfortunately those are the highlights of the disc as the rest of the music is really not that interesting. Sharifi's incidental music for the film was much what you'd expect as it was merely filler and not really that interesting. Even when listening to it on the soundtrack I couldn't remember hearing it in the film.

I suppose the film makers wanted to create the impression that they were gathering field recordings of the Tuareg when they recorded the music they refer to as "Jams". Field recordings are just what they imply, recordings of people playing their indigenous music made on location using portable recording equipment. Normally these are made by music historians or anthropologists in order to create an authentic as possible recording for posterity and study. Normally those recording the session do not participate or instigate the performances, but act as passive observers so they can be sure of creating the most accurate record possible.

However that's not the case here as in each of these "jams" musicians from the folk at Kiahkeya are involved as at least participants, if they didn't instigate them. While there is no doubt that some of what you hear is traditional Tuareg music, there's no proper context for it to tell us what significance the music could have for the people, nor is their any attempt made by those recording it to interpret what, if anything, is the meaning of what is being sung. For instance, what is the significance of the "Red Ladies Tent Jam", why is this music important to them. Is there any significance to the fact that the women are playing music together at this location, or is it just where everybody happened to be hanging out when the film makers instigated a performance?

One of the things the people behind the film claim is that within the music of the Tuareg there are messages about humanity's relationship with the earth. The film, and hence the soundtrack as well, are vehicles to allow the message of their music to be heard. Unfortunately neither the film nor the soundtrack give that argument any credence as they don't allow the music of the Tuareg to speak with an unadulterated voice. Aside from the two songs by Tinariwn, there isn't any music in either the movie or the soundtrack which speaks with the voice of the Tuareg alone. While it is true that most cultures create music which gives insight into their lives and their history, the soundtrack to the movie Footsteps In Africa, like the movie, speaks with the voice of the film makers, and what they have to say isn't really that interesting.

September 15, 2009

Music Review: Terakaft - Akh Issudar

I've never seen a desert, save for on film, let alone set foot in one, so have no understanding at all of what life in that environment would be like. Sure, I have a vivid imagination, and looking at the endless vistas of sand under an unremitting sun I get the general idea. However, I seriously doubt anybody who hasn't lived with those conditions for an extended period of time can ever fully appreciate or understand what it's really all about. Even if I were ever to spend any time in the desert it would only be as a tourist not someone who lives there without the escape clause of coming back to a life where sand isn't everywhere and water is usually no further away than the nearest faucet.

The Tuareg people of the Northern Sahara desert have been there for as long as anybody can remember - which means dating back to at least prior to Mohammed and the coming of Islam. Their traditional territory spanned the caravan routes from the Mediterranean Sea in the north which carried trade goods and produce from the port to countries in land.. Mainly herds people, they would move with their flocks of goats and camels from water source to water source in a perpetual cycle of the seasons. However with the discovery of Africa and the eventual break up of the land into countries - primarily Algeria, Mali, and Niger - their mobility and land have been restricted. Since the 1960's there have been three armed uprisings among the Tuareg because of persecution and loss of territory, with the most recent still simmering in Mali.

It was the second generation of rebels, those who fought in the uprisings in the middle of the 1980's, who began the musical rebellion which brought the Tuareg and their music into the public eye. The most famous of these groups is Tinariwen who were formed in 1982 but spent the first seventeen years of their existence underground as their music was banned by the Algerian and Malian authorities because of its political nature. Two of the original members of Tinariwen, Kedou ag Ossad (guitar and vocals) and Liya Ag Ablil (guitar, and vocals), have joined forces with Sanou Ag Ahmed (guitar and vocals) and Rhissa Ag Ogham (bass and vocals) to form Terakaft, which gave its first concert in 2007 at the now famous Festival Au Desert in Mali, and recorded their first album, Bismilla (The Bko Sessions) later that year.
Terakaft Akh Issuda Cover.jpg
Having been a fan of Tinariwen for a few years now, I was very excited to stumble upon Terakaft's second release, Akh Issudar, at their label's, World Village Music, web site while preparing another review. Released almost a year ago in October of 2008, this disc will come as something of a surprise to those expecting all Tuareg music to sound alike. While there are some similarities in sound between Tinariwen and Terakaft (Tinariwen's leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib contributed a song - "Islegh Teghram" - to Akh Issudar), and their songs share the same concerns and address the same themes, you're not liable to mistake one for the other any time soon. The potency and the power are the same, as is the obvious urgency of their message, it's the manner of its delivery that's different.

If Tinariwen are the rallying cry that travels across the desert like a wind, than Terakaft are the whisper spoken around a campfire passed by word of mouth from encampment to encampment. For those of us who don't speak Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg, we might not understand the specifics of the messages being given in each song, but that doesn't prevent us from forming an overall impression. Listening to the songs you can't help but form images in your head of the desert they and their people have walked through for centuries. You may not be able to understand what they are singing about, but you can't help but feel how important it is to them.
Listening to Terakaft I hear a sound that echoes with the resonance of the wide open spaces around them and the high vault of the sky above them. It's not necessarily a pretty or pleasant sound either, for there's nothing particularly attractive about emptiness. Sure it implies freedom and quiet, but it also suggests a barren and stark environment where life is harsh and difficult. That they love their land and take pride in who they are is obvious through the sounds of their voice ringing in harmony, yet they don't project any illusions about their reality either.

While each of the fourteen songs comes with a brief description of its theme, the lyrics supplied in the booklet accompanying the CD are all in their original Tamashek. For example the title song of the disc, "Akh Issudar" has a brief statement telling us the Tuareg have a saying; "Aman iman, akh issudar": Water is life, milk is survival". Other songs are accompanied by what I can only assume are quotes from their lyrics like: "The desert is my country, I love it and I will never divide it" ("Tenere Wer Tat Zinchegh"), or, "The roads are cut off, and the borders closed. It's forbidden to travel" ("Haran Bardan"), and "My soul burns while my people are under the yoke." ("Arghane Manine"), which tell you all you need to know in order to understand what they are about.

Terakaft were supposed to be touring the Unites States in the next little while, but have unexpectedly cancelled. When I heard that piece of news I didn't think twice, stuff like that happens all the time in the music industry. However after listening to this disc, and knowing that the Tuareg rose up again this year in Mali and Niger and some fighting is still ongoing in Mali , I have to wonder what's become of the band members. Francois Bereron, the French director of the film Desert Rebels, a documentary about Tuareg and French musicians playing together, was arrested and jailed for six month when he went to Niger in 2007, as was one of the people interviewed in his movie on suspicion that they were sympathetic to the rebels. Terakaft are not only sympathetic with the rebels, but two of its members took part in the armed uprisings in the 1980's and their music is overtly political in a way that Tinariwen's isn't. There's also the fact that they aren't as well known on the world stage as their compatriots, so could possibly disappear without there being too much fuss made about it internationally.

I hope I'm wrong and nothing has happened to any of these men who make such glorious music. However, when you love something as much as they love their people and their land, and are as obvious about it as these men are, there are those who will see you as a threat and act accordingly. When you listen to the music of Terakaft on their CD Akh Issudar the depth of their passion for their subject is obvious. Unfortunately for them what they sing about is a land without borders and a people who aren't defined by a state, and that's not welcomed in the twenty-first century.

Music DVD Review: Indian Ocean - Indian Ocean Live In Delhi

One of the great pleasures of being a critic, and one of the things that keeps me from becoming jaded, is when you find a musician or a group you've never heard before who are performing music unlike anything you've ever experienced. While sometimes this means they are doing something that's truly original, other times it just means the approach they have taken to what others have done before is as fresh and invigorating as if it were brand new. However, no matter what the case is, hearing them is usually enough to remind me there are still musicians our there willing to experiment and, more importantly as far as I'm concerned, playing music for the sake of playing music, not to become rich and famous.

In recent years, as the music from various cultures from around the world becomes more available, there have been more attempts at fusing the music of North America with the other cultures' music. While it's obvious how many African musicians are able to find a common thread for their music with what's currently popular in North America, the same can not be said about those from India. Yet, while there is no denying there are differences between West and East when it comes to ideas about rhythm and the structure of a piece of music, much of the East is East and West is West and never the train shall meet idea that has been perpetuated about music arose out of the differences between Classical Indian and European music.

Once you break away from the rigid confines of 18th and 19th century Europe when it comes to music, you all of a sudden see that there's plenty of common ground to be found. Now I don't know as much about classical Indian music as I'd like, but I do know that much like jazz improvisation around a theme is a key element. So although I remember being surprised when I first found out about the popularity of jazz in India, the more I understood about classical music in that country, the more I saw the connection. Therefore, when I first heard the New Delhi based band Indian Ocean's DVD, Indian Ocean Live In Delhi, I was not overly surprised by their sound's marked jazz influence.
Indian Ocean has been together in its current line up since 1994, and have built up an enormous following in India. While they have played in North America before, the tour they are currently embarking on is their most ambitious to date as they are criss-crossing the United States over the next month giving people from Albuquerque to Ohio a chance to hear their unique fusion of jazz and Indian music. However, those of you planning on attending one of their concerts and anticipating seeing sitars and other instruments you associate with India, will be in for something of a disappointment.

For while percussionist Asheem Chakravarty plays tabla and drummer Amit Kilam plays the two stringed percussion instrument from West Bengal known as the gabgubi, whose sound can be modulated by pulling the stings with one hand while simultaneously tapping out the rhythm with the other, the remainder of the instruments employed will seem very familiar. Kilam sits behind a very conventional drum kit and the rhythm section is completed by Rahul Ram on Bass, and Susmit Sen on guitar rounds out the group.One way they do differ from a great many modern jazz bands is the role vocals play in their music. Now all four of them have been known to pitch in on the vocals, but the majority of the vocals are split between Chakravarty and Ram with Sen and Kilam providing mainly harmonies and background vocals as required. Chakravarty's voice in particular is extraordinarily captivating as he soars in and out among the other instruments in ether a free form flow similar to scat or singing lyrics

While the band does introduce the songs partially in English, the lyrics are most definitely not in English, and the DVD I have was produced for an Indian audience so there was no explanation about the songs provided, let alone any liner notes. (If you buy a DVD make sure that you specify the right format as the version I have was PAL and I could only play it on the DVD writer in my computer as even my DVD Rom wouldn't play it - you want NTSC in North America, Japan, and a few other countries in the world, while most of Asia will want SECAM, and Europe and the rest of the world will want PAL) However I didn't find my enjoyment of the music in any way diminished by not understanding the lyrics. Chakravarty's voice in particular is so expressive that it's almost an instrument in of itself.
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I think the first thing you'll be aware of watching and listening to Indian Ocean is how full and rich their sound is. You might be wondering how a four piece band made up of two percussionists, a bass player and a guitarist could create music elaborate enough to be considered jazz, but that's only because you're used to how limited most pop musicians are when it comes to what they can do with their instruments. Each member of this band, it seems, is contributing to both the melody and the rhythm of each song. As a result a song builds and acquires a texture as it is played and another layer of either melody or rhythm are added. It's amazing how quickly you forget there are only four musicians playing.

Aside from stepping out from behind his drum kit to play the aforementioned gabgubi, Kilam also picks up a recorder at one point and produces a sound so hauntingly beautiful that you look at the instrument in astonishment. I had a hard time reconciling it with the cheap plastic things we used to play in grade school and try to play such complex songs like "Old Grey Mare" and fail miserably. Perhaps that's what so amazing about Indian Ocean overall, the way they take conventional instruments like guitar, drums, and bass and create such incredible music. Certainly the inclusion of tabla and Chakravarty's vocals adds an element that we're not used to, but that's not enough to explain how good they are or why their music is so entrancing.

Technically speaking the concert was filmed beautifully as the cameras didn't jump around all over the place from band member to band member or shot to shot, but lingered long enough at each point of focus for us to appreciate what was happening on the screen. The sound was crystal clear and perfectly balanced and the DVD offered you the choice of either Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound or regular stereo, so no matter what your set-up you'll be able to enjoy the music.

Indian Ocean: Live In Delhi is a great introduction to an amazing band playing some of the best, and most heartfelt, contemporary jazz that I've heard in a long time. If you have the opportunity to catch them in concert during their current tour of North America do so. However if you're not able to attend, get a hold of this DVD and it will serve as some compensation. Indian Ocean are one of those bands that remind us why we loved music in the first place and listening to them will leave you feeling as refreshed and revived as you would after a summer storm.

September 11, 2009

Music Review: Harry Manx - Bread And Buddha

There's always been a fine line between what's interesting and what's tedious when it comes to acoustic music. For while some performers seem to have the knack for imbuing a song with the heart or soul necessary for bringing it to life, others can sing the exact same song and it will just lay there like a wet dish rag. It doesn't even seem to matter how skilled or unskilled the performer is either, for their fingers could skip and skim over the fret board of their chosen instrument and sing with the voice of the angels, and still bore you to tears. Yet the person whose voice sounds like gravel and who can only strum the few basic chords making up the bare bones of a tune, can break your heart or bring a smile to your face that will light up the darkest night.

People who have listened to folk music, acoustic blues. or country for any length of time will be familiar with this phenomenon as they have will undoubtedly heard plenty of examples of each over the years. While undoubtedly a listener's individual tastes and preferences in music have hand in deciding whether a song has emotional depth or not, the musicians can't escape being responsible for the quality of their music. Perhaps the most disappointing are those who you start off liking because what they do is interesting enough to hold your attention. However, over the course of a few CDs their music doesn't seem to change, or the novelty of their style begins to wear thin, and you begin to notice deficiencies in their sound.

About five years ago a friend of mine introduced me to the music of Harry Manx, who played an interesting mixture of Western and Indian music. He had studied for twelve years under an Indian master on an instrument known as the Mohan Veena. Shaped like an oversized guitar and equipped with an additional set of "sympathetic" strings that give its sound a quality similar to a sitar, its played in the same manner as a lap slide instrument. Taking advantage of these properties, Manx has married traditional Delta blues with the sound of India. While one can't help but admire the skill that's gone into playing and creating the music, and there is something undeniably captivating about the elegant, almost ethereal, sound he can produce at times, after listening to his forthcoming release, Bread And Buddha, coming out on September 15th on his Dog My Cat Records label, I can't help but feeling there's something missing in his music.
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Don't get me wrong, the music is still expertly played as Manx is as skilled as ever and those who are accompanying him are equally adept. However, there's also been no change in what's being presented either, and after four CDs of hearing elegantly played blues and acoustic music, I find myself wishing for a little more rawness, or a hiccough of some sort or another to break the monotony. I like my blues music, and my country, to be a whole lot rawer and earthier than Manx seems willing to play. The lack of emotion and passion, that to me are the hallmark of those genres, can only be ignored for so long before the music starts to wear thin.

With its complicated, intricate, and intertwining rhythms, and the way it piles layer upon layer of themes on top of each other, Manx's style is ideally suited to classic Indian ragas. There the musician almost approaches his subject sideways, gradually building the picture he or she is trying to create until the audience can feel it on many levels. However the music he is playing on this disc, and his other releases, needs a more direct approach and requires a performer to commit him or herself to a song immediately. Whether it's the vocals or the instruments, the audience has to believe the performer right from the outset for the songs to have the emotional impact they require to be effective, and that's not happening on this disc.

It's especially obvious on his cover of the song "Long Black Veil". An old melodramatic, tear jerker of a country song, it tells the story of a guy who let's himself be hung instead of admitting he was in bed with his best friend's wife at the time the murder he's charged with was being committed. There's two ways you can ruin this song, one being by chewing the scenery and really overplaying it, but also by going to far in the opposite direction and not giving it enough. While there's no way Manx will ever be accused of being guilty of the former, although maybe that's what he needs to start shooting for, he definitely makes the song way too bloodless.
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Ironically he has chosen to reduce the use of his trademark Mohan Veena on this disc, for instead of its absence giving his music more emotional oomph, those deficiencies have become even more obvious. On the two songs where it is employed we are given beautiful demonstrations of its haunting qualities and how adept he is with the style of music the instrument was initially created to play. So when he switches to playing more conventional Western instruments and genres, but retains many of Indian music's sensibilities, the problem stands out in very sharp relief. The mellowness and subtlety he employs on the former, don't have what's needed for the latter.

Harry Manx is a highly skilled musician who plays any instrument he get his hands on with elegance and style. Vocally he has a decent range and his delivery is as smooth and graceful as his playing. Unfortunately a great deal of the music he plays calls for rough edges that he doesn't seem to be able to deliver. When he picks up his Mohan Veena, and plays music that is Indian influenced the difference is immediately obvious, and those songs transport you in a way the other songs don't. While Manx is able to accomplish his version of fusing East and West technically, stylistically and thematically it doesn't quite work as there is an emotional void that leaves you feeling the songs are incomplete.

September 8, 2009

Music Review: Kailash Kerr & Kailasa - Yatra(Nomadic Soul)

It's only been in the last few years that North Americans have begun to learn about the mysterious world of Bollywood. Unlike Hollywood in the United States, which is an actual place and where more than one type of movie is made, the name Bollywood refers to a very specific type of movie made in India. Ornate, lush, opulent, and flamboyant, a Bollywood movie is first and foremost a musical. Filled with singing and dancing, they are popular all across South East Asia, one of the few things able to effortlessly bridge the divide between the multitude of languages, cultures and religions that are concentrated in this one region of the world.

While elements of Bollywood have been making their presence felt in some movies released in the West, Bend It Like Beckman, The Guru, and My Bollywood Bride (released in North America on DVD as My Faraway Bride), the majority of people in North America would probably still look at you funny if you said the word Bollywood to them. I have a feeling that those who do know about Bollywood, tend to think of it as quaint because the movies eschew sex and violence and aren't very realistic. However since the majority of what comes out of Hollywood has very little basis in reality and is less honest about sexuality than the average "Adult Film", the condescending attitude towards Boolywood would be laughable of it weren't so pathetic.

For while it's true that the story lines of the films themselves are rather simplistic and formulaic, most people watch them for the music and the dancing. Bollywood "phillum" music sells and sells, and the playback singers, those singing the songs, as very rarely does the actor on screen sing, are some of the most popular figures in India. While there have been some compilation of music by Bollywood singers released in North America, there has never been a CD released by a singer from India with an international audience in mind. Kailash Kher is probably one of the most popular singers in India right now, and aside from his film work, he and his band Kailasa, have become one of the most successful popular music groups as well. So it only makes sense that they are the ones to attempt to breakthrough over here, and their first international release, Yatra (Nomadic Souls) on the Cumbancha label, will be in stores as of September 15th/09.
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While some of the songs have been freshly written for this CD, many of them are their biggest hits from India that they've reworked for an international audience. However, that doesn't mean they have done something ugly like merely paste on some effects or a few electronic drum tracks to songs to make them sound more American. In fact, unless you are familiar with the original versions of these songs, or well versed in Indian popular music, you wouldn't know they have had made any concessions to Western audiences.

Now I don't know about anybody else, but Bollywood music always puts a smile on my face. There's something about it that's so infectious and full of life that you can't helped but break out into a grin when you hear it. So when I heard the first song on Yatra, "Kaise Main Kahoon" that was my reaction, even though the song's meaning isn't exactly cheerful as it talks about the helplessness of falling in love. On the other hand the music is so effervescent that it's hard not to get carried away by it in spite of lyrics when translated into English that say things like "But I doubt that she even knows that I exist". Of course, this is one of the difficulties of listening to music from other cultures is that the clues we are used to hearing in a song that tell us the emotional feelings of the person its about are different from those we are accustomed to.

Yet when I listened to it a second time, even without having checked the lyrics, I began to notice inflections in Kher's voice that I had missed before, and wondered at the seemingly plaintive notes that were being expressed. It's important for us to realize when listening to this music that just because a tune is lively or up tempo it is not an indication of its emotional mood. We are used to songs where the music is as subtle as a brick wall when it comes to expressing a mood - slow ballad means love song and swelling strings means high emotions. With a song like this it's important to listen to the inflections in the singer's voice as there are more clues to be found there than in the music.
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As the CD continued though I noticed a decided change in what they were doing musically as they began to sound less like the soundtrack to a Bollywood film and the songs became more intimate as the disc progressed. Even more interesting is how they have made subtle shifts in some of the songs to incorporate Western elements. On the second song of the disc, "Dilruba", for instance Kher describes in his notes how he and the band have adapted the rhythmic patterns of a 13th century style of music called qawwali by adding elements of funk and reggae to it. What's nice is they have actually managed to do this without it sounding jarring or intrusive. It doesn't sound like anything has been grafted on to the song unnaturally, but more like this is the way the song has always been played.

India is a multicultural nation and Kher and Kailasa do their best to reflect that in their music, drawing upon such diverse sources as the mystical poems of the Sufi where divine love is expressed in terms of human love, philosophies that form the basis for the Sikh faith of the Punjabi region, and the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. At the same time they utilize different musical styles from the various regions of India, the Middle East, whilr incorporating elements of Jazz and other Western influences. Like the song mentioned earlier with its funk and reggae tinged rhythms, the blending of musical styles is done seamlessly ensuring that each song retains its original cultural uniqueness while giving Western listeners something familiar to hold onto as the means to find their way into the song.

For those of you who have some knowledge of Indian music, whether it be the traditional classical music from the various regions of India or the phillum music of Bollywood, you'll hear some familiar sounds on this disc. However even if you've never listened to any music at all from the country, it represents a unique opportunity to experience it for the first time. Not only will you be amazed at Kher's abilities as a vocalist and the virtuosity of the musicians in Kailasa, but you can't helped being swept off your feet by the splendour of the music itself. It will be different from almost anything you've ever heard before, but you shouldn't let that stop you, as its an experience not to be missed.

September 4, 2009

Music Review: Les Triaboliques -rivermudtwilight

I'm not a musician, but I don't see how anybody can play the same type of music day in and day out for years on end without getting bored. Surely after a couple of decades of playing blues based rock and roll a guitar player would want to explore something else, if for no other reason than to open their minds to new ideas that could be incorporated into their genre of choice. However that doesn't seem to be the case with the majority of popular musicians out there, as they appear quite content to keep doing the same thing over and over again with only a few minor variations along the way.

All of which only serves to make the work of Les Triaboliques on their soon to be released, September 8th/09, disc rivermudtwilight, on the World Village label, all the more impressive. Les Triaboliques are Ben Mandelson, Lu Edmonds, and Justin Adams, guitar players who began their popular music careers during the British punk era playing with bands like Magazine and The Dammed, or in the case of Adams, as sideman for people like Sinead O'Conner. They are the first to admit that American music of the twentieth century was the first and major influence on their music, but unlike others their musical voyage didn't stop there.

Perhaps it's only fitting that Justin Adams has become well known for his work with the Tuareg nomad band Tinariwen, as he, Edmonds, and Mandelson, have been musical and literal nomads. Wandering the world, from Siberia to North Africa and stops in between, each of them has absorbed a variety of influences that has broadened their musical horizons far beyond what we normally find in popular music. It seems only natural these three wanderers would eventually end up together when the winds blew them back home to Great Britain, where they all originally hail from, pooling their talents and experiences to make this recording.
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The eleven tracks on the disc not only represent their multiple influences but also the huge variety of instruments that each of them have taken up. Brilliantly, what they've decided to do is not wed an instrument to its country of origin - ie have an oud only play Turkish music - but have used them where they fit best and feel most appropriate no matter what an individual piece of music's background might be. Naturally some of the results might sound a little startling to your ears, especially until you get used to the sounds of the various instruments, but if you can put aside any preconceived notions on how a song is supposed to sound you're in for some delightful surprises.

For, while Adams sticks mainly with the instrument he's mot familiar with, guitar, Mandelson and Edmonds get to show off their versatility on instruments like things called a thee planktone, cumbus, bow bus, or khomuz. Now I doubt if I could have told you those names before listening to this disc, and even now I doubt I could recognize them by their sound (the only thing lacking in this disc is the fact that they don't break down which instruments are used with which song), I do know they are being played extraordinarily well. For it becomes abundantly clear that this is not just some affectation or dalliance on the part of these guys to pick up other instruments because they sound "cool". You can't do the things they've done on this disc without having spent a serious amount of time studying, practising, and playing. This isn't a group of guys simply hacking around for the fun of it or to make themselves look good. They are three musicians who are so passionate about what they do that they've exerted a lot of time and energy into how to make it h more interesting for themselves and of course those who listen to it.

One of the best examples of this is probably the medley of "Hora Anticuta Draga" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". You haven't lived until you've heard the latter played on what sounds like it must be the barizouki. Aside from the version sung by Michael Burdon and the Animals, I can't begin to count the number of times I've heard this song performed by an endless succession of bar bands, and yet hearing these guys play the song it's like I was hearing it again for the first time. Instead of it being almost the challenge that it usually sounds like, they've managed to capture its more plaintive nature and turn it into a genuine plea for understanding.
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Each song on this disc has been given the same careful consideration that they've shown towards "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" when it comes to choosing the instruments to be played and its arrangement. As a result, even on songs that you're most familiar with you'll hear something new. Yet at the same time they haven't gone out of their way to change songs just for the sake of changing them. It's extremely difficult to play a song written by somebody else and retain its core while giving it your own interpretation, but that's exactly what Les Triaboliques have done.

What's even more impressive is the fact that they've taken on the extremely difficult task of performing songs from other cultures as well as their own and not sounding awkward. Too often you'll hear somebody playing a song from another country, or singing in a language other than their own, and it sounding affected or false. Yet listen to Edmonds singing "Gulaguajira" ("I The Dissolute Prisoner) in it's original Russian, you don't think about the fact that he's singing in another language - in fact I didn't even notice he was until the second time I listened to the song - because he is so completely involved in the story of the song that you can't help but believing in it.

When you're an established popular musician it's very easy, and acceptable, to keep doing much the same thing over and over again. However there are those who aren't satisfied with just playing variations on the same theme endlessly and so push themselves and their music in new directions. Justin Adams, Ben Mandelson, and Lu Edmonds have pushed further than most on their new album rivermudtwilight and the results are remarkable for not only their integrity, but for their quality as well. It's not often you get the chance to hear music as well played and lovingly presented as the material on this disc so don't miss out on it.

August 23, 2009

Music Review: Orchestra Of Tetouan - Escuela de Tetuan Tanger - Musique Andalouse

After the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City in September of 2001 the unfortunate but unhappily expected backlash against Islamic people and all things Muslim took place. It didn't matter that those responsible for the act were no more representative of Muslims worldwide then right wing extremist Christians trying to bring about Armageddon represent the majority of their faith, if you looked Arabic you became the enemy. (Believe me I know - I'm dark skinned of Jewish descent and "look" Muslim enough for the red necks that I had my share of "towel heads" thrown my way, which would have been laughable if it wasn't so sad and scary).

Thankfully there are some saner heads in this world and though it took a while to get off the ground individuals and organizations around the Western world began work geared at countering the image of all Muslims as fanatical terrorists. MENA Music (ME - Middle Eastern and NA - North African) was set up in New York City in 2006 by Kazko Kawai a Japanese American who has lived in the US since 1985. Her thought was that through music she could enhance mutual understanding between the Arab world and her new country. MENA are committed to bringing the best musicians of the Middle East and North Africa to North America in order to develop audiences for the music from those regions. Ironically the orchestras which have been brought to North America to date have predominately been ones playing music that originated in the west. Andalusia was once one of the cultural capitals of the Ottoman Empire which stretched from Istanbul through the Middle East, North Africa, across the Mediterranean into Spain, parts of Austria, Bulgaria, to the former Yugoslavia and most of the Balkans.

While under the Ottoman rule Christians and Jews were allowed the freedom to practice their religions and in some cases hold positions of real authority. (In Cordoba the principal advisor to the Caliph was Jewish) After the Reconquista, when the Spanish retook their former territories, there was no reciprocation of tolerance. Under the Inquisition Muslims, Jews, and gypsies were forced to flee, convert or burn. It is the descendants of refugees in North Africa, primarily Jewish and Muslim, from this era who have preserved and developed the musical and poetic traditions from the Middle ages that from the basis for today's Andalusian Music.
The Orchestra Of Tetouan were formed in 1944 in Morocco and is now into its third generation of musicians playing the music of their ancestors and are about to embark on a tour of the American Mid-West sponsored by MENA. So far dates have been announced in Madison, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Bloomington with tickets for the Boston and New York concerts , September 23rd and 24th respectively, currently on sale and available for purchase by following the links at the MENA home page However those wishing a preview of what's in store can search out a recording the Orchestra made a few years back on the Pneuma label called Escuela de Tetuan Tanger - Musique Andalouse (The School of Tetuan Tangiers - Music of Andalusia)

While there have been recent recordings made that have featured music from that period re-interpreted for modern and Western instruments, they don't really prepare you for listening to the real thing. Although a recording like Siwan by contemporary musicians and singers is based on the same traditions, and is beautiful in its own right, in reality it has little in common with the original music. For while there might be some similarities in arrangements, there's not much else in the original for a Western listener to hold onto that's familiar.
Everything, from the strings to the vocals, are higher on the scale than what most of us are comfortable listening to. In fact, I have to admit that it initially set my teeth on edge. However I encourage you to persevere, for although it might be work to listen to for the first little while, once you become accustomed to the difference you begin to feel it's power. While the lyrics are of course incomprehensible if you don't speak Arabic the music is not without it's power. Gradually what was annoying becomes enthralling and you're swept up in the swirl of sounds and the hypnotic rhythm tapped out on the goblet drums and tambourine of the percussionists. Of course it's not too surprising that we find the music initially alien to out ears as the instruments used aren't ones we're liable to hear everyday, and the ones we are familiar with are tuned to different keys and played in ways we're not used to.

The lute, violin, and viola might all have been used at one time or another in Western music, and some of you might have heard a zither, but the rebab a one to three stringed bowed instrument, one of the central instruments in the traditional orchestra, will be unknown to most. The music relies heavily on periods of improvisation on the part of the players called taksim or taqsim which literally translates as division, interspersed with vocals. Each taqsim is based on a complex system of modes or melodies and rhythms, with each melody being a combination of twenty-four different quarter notes and each combination having its own mood associated with particular feelings. There are one hundred and eleven distinct rhythmic patterns that a musician can use, the simplest being the rajaz based on the rhythm a camel's hooves make on the sand. Obviously the taqsim chosen will reflect the mood of the vocals in order to provide the proper atmosphere for their theme.

The majority of the vocals seem to have been taken from Sufi poetry which used human love as a metaphor for divine love. As a result this music has the distinction of being secular and divine simultaneously. While a true appreciation of this music would only come with a better understanding of which combination of notes is associated with which feelings, it is still possible to listen to this music and appreciate it for the magnificence of the spectacle and the way it manages to hold your attention. There is something about the combination of the sound and the beat that is enticing, and gradually, almost without noticing, you'll find yourself held by the plaintive keening of the vocals, the shifting sands of the rhythms, and the mysteries of the melodies.

The music of Andalusia was known as the music of love, and while we may not completely understand the message being delivered by the Orchestra of Tetouan, we can't help but be fascinated by it. If you have the opportunity to catch one of their concerts when they are in the US this fall, check them out - it will be an experience unlike any you've had before.

August 10, 2009

Music Review: Santana - Santana: The Woodstock Experience

The first time you see a performer or a group in action goes a long way towards forming your opinion of them and their work no matter what you see and hear of them anytime after. Well that's the case with me anyway and, whether its fair or not, if they suck the first time I see them its going to take a whale of a performance in the future for me to change my opinion of their music. That first exposure will have made an indelible impression on my memory banks, and somewhere in the back of my mind I'll always carry the awareness of that lousy gig and be waiting for them to repeat it. Than again if they are magnificent the first time, and it will take a lot for me to give up on them.

The first time I saw Santana in action was also the first time I saw the movie Woodstock. It looked like Santana was the first group to go on after the infamous rain storm which had turned Yasgur's farm into a mud bath. In the movie the crowd had started to do their own percussion thing to entertain themselves with people playing on everything from fence posts to beer bottles in order to participate. After a couple minutes of that the movie segued into Carlos and the boys playing "Soul Sacrifice". While I had heard them play the same song on the soundtrack, actually seeing them perform it was completely different experience.

Although both the movie and its soundtrack only have Santana playing the one song, like everyone else who played "The Woodstock Music & Art Festival" they played between forty-five minutes and an hour. Now, for the first time, the whole set Santana played Saturday August 16th 1969 has been released on one recording as part of Legacy Recordings' Santana: The Woodstock Experience. The two CD package also contains a copy of the group's 1969 release, the self-titled Santana, their first recording, and a poster of the group performing at the Woodstock festival.
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I have to assume the eight tracks on the Woodstock disc represent the entire set performed by Santana that afternoon after the rainstorm, and the order they appear in on the CD match the original performance order, as it doesn't say different anywhere on the packaging. There's two reasons that's important to me; one it means they basically performed, with the addition of "Fried Neck Bones And Some Home Fries" and the subtraction of "Shades Of Time" and "Treat", their album for the concert, and two, "Soul Sacrifice" hadn't followed directly after the audience's spontaneous percussion performance as the movie implies, as it was the second last song in their set. What happened on screen was the result of creative editing on the part of the film makers, not some shared experience between audience and performers.

While that was a little disappointing to discover it did nothing to diminish the electricity of the band's overall performance on the live recording. For not only was "Soul Sacrafice" as good and exciting as it was the first time I heard it in the movie theatre all those years ago, now that it was placed in its proper context as being part of the band's overall set, it somehow became even more exciting. Santana is one of those bands whose performances are a cumulative thing, with each song building on the momentum and energy created by the one preceding. Like a rising tide the music builds in its intensity until it finally reaches its high water mark leaving the audience feeling like they've experienced something equivalent to a force of nature.

It's not often you have the opportunity to listen to a band doing studio versions and then live version of pretty much the same songs on the same release. This is especially interesting when dealing with a band like Sanatan where everybody from Carlos Santana on lead guitar, the conga and percussion players Mike Carabello and Jose Chepito Areas, drummer Mike Shrieve, bass player Dave Brown, to Gregg Rolie on keyboards (which in those days meant piano and organ) are such gifted musicians they can play extended solos on their respective instruments that are miniature performances unto themselves. The embellishments they each add to a song during a live performance aren't just gilding, they almost take it to a new dimension as they push the material as far as it can go without becoming self indulgent.
Something you have to realize listening to these two discs, especially the live one, is that in 1969 the type of music Santana was playing was something most people hadn't heard before. While today bands like Los Lobos and others have made the mixture of Spanish music, blues, and rock and roll well known, it was Carlos Santana and his band who first popularized it, and it was this concert that started it all. Before they had played Woodstock Santana hadn't been known outside of the San Francisco Bay area and this concert brought their sound east for the first time.

Mike Shrieve's drum solo in "Soul Sacrifice" is now one of those seminal moments in rock and roll history for the impact it had on the audience that day. Michael Lang, co-producer of the Woodstock festival recalls, according to the liner notes, it was that solo that captivated the audience and completed the job of winning them over. While they may have missed some of the subtler nuances of the performance simply because of the size of the audience and the primitive sound system, Shrieve's drumming wasn't something that anybody could miss. While normally I find there's nothing more boring than a rock and roll drum solo, and am ever so grateful that they are now mostly gone the way of the dinasour, the solo he uncorked that concert was like the best of jazz drumming, but tinged with the wild abandon of rock and roll.

When Carlos Santana and the rest of his band strode onto stage on Saturday afternoon on the 16th of August 1969, nobody quite knew what they were going to hear. Unlike them we've had the privilege of being able to listen to Carlos Santana for forty some years now, but you've probably not heard him quite like you'll hear him on the live from Woodstock disc. Of course according to this article in Rolling Stone Magazine he was peaking on mescaline when they went on stage, which might have made some difference. However that, after all, was part of what the era was about too and you can just consider that part of the spice that makes the music so special. The sound quality might not be the best on these live recordings, but that doesn't really do anything to diminish their significance and how the music will make you feel and what you just might experience listening to it.

August 6, 2009

Music Review: Susan McKeown & Lorin Sklamberg - Saints & Tzadiks

Although the diaspora of Jews from Israel began as early as 8th century BCE, it was the destruction of the Second Temple and the razing of Jerusalem in CE 70 by the Roman Empire that finally succeeded in scattering their population throughout the known world. Over the next century or so communities of Jews were established from India to Great Britain, and a period of mourning was declared which included a Rabbinical edict banning secular music.

The ban lasted to the middle ages, and the music that developed after was much like the language, Yiddish, that was used in daily life, a hybrid of the various cultures and people they found themselves living among. So you can hear Slavic and German influences in both the music they played and the language the lyrics they sung. Therefore it's not difficult to see Jewish music easily adapting itself to work with most other cultures. However, the idea of mixing Irish and Jewish music together still seems at first blush as maybe pushing that envelope a little too far. Can Gaelic and Yiddish have enough in common for such an effort to be possible? Yet that's exactly what Susan McKown and Lorin Sklamberg have done on Saints & Tzadiks, a new release on the World Village Music label.

This is nothing new for this duo, they won a Grammy award three years ago for their first collaboration, Wonder Wheel, so there are plenty of expectations for them to live up to with this recording. Well I haven't heard the previous work, but all I can say is if anybody finds Saints & Tzadiks a disappointment they need to consider having their ears checked for hearing loss. Each of the twelve tracks on this disc are a wonder and a joy that tap into the wide range of emotions both traditions are famous for. What's really wonderful is that for two cultures with plenty of reasons for music to be replete with sadness, the collection on this disc does more than just break your heart as they have uncovered treasures to lift the heart and well as making it ache.
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While the majority of the tracks are sang either in Yiddish, Old Irish, (Gaelic) or English, some are actually a mix of all three. "Prayer For The Dead" starts off by blending together the old anti-war song, "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya", with the Yiddish song "kh'bin Osygeforn felder,velder, oy'vey!" (I've travelled across fields and forests, Oh woe), sung in alternating verses by McKown and Sklamberg respectively, and then concludes with the singing in Gaelic and Latin of "Deus Meus Adiuva Me" (My God come to my aid). While McKown sings the part of the young woman not recognizing her beloved come home from the war for all the body parts he's missing in "Johnny", Sklamberg sings of finding the corpse of a soldier in a field and wondering who will do the funeral rites for him. Finally they conclude with the haunting prayer, written in the 11th century, asking God to fill the soul with love and sunlight.

The effect of the three songs blended together in this manner changes what are nominally anti-war songs, and songs about misfortune, into a prayer for something better. For, after hearing the litany of sufferings brought about by war, the beseeching a God to be filled with light and love is made much more powerful and turns the song into something more than the sum of its parts. The two principle tunes blend sufficiently well together they don't sound out of place being alternating verses of the same song, while the contrast between the two, ensures they become more than just one culture's lament by emphasizing the universality of suffering.
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Like I said earlier this is more than just a disc about how horrible it is to be either Irish or Jewish as the two also have some fun. " My Little Belly" is an old Yiddish children's rhyming song that lists off various ailments by running through the various body parts with the two vocalists alternating verses. Sklamberg in particular has fun with making himself sound as plaintive and suffering as possible. "The Hag With The Money" is another combination of three songs, this time three Irish tunes; "I'm In Arrears", "The Hag With The Money", and the instrumental "I Buried My Wife And Danced On Her Grave". This time the two alternate singing the Gaelic verses of the first song, and then McKeown sings her verses of "The Hag" in Gaelic and Sklamberg sings it in English and Gaelic. The story that's told by stringing the three together is a warning to all women of means - don't be marrying a guy in debt or you just might find him dancing a jig on your grave.

While the material is equally wonderful throughout the disc, listening to how McKeown's and Sklamberg's voice mix and contrast is the real marvel. Sklamberg has a beautiful tenor with which he communicates a wide range of emotions in all of his singing, while McKewon is a husky voiced alto with a rich sound. While it initially sounds like her voice will overpower his as they're not competing with each other that's not a problem, and the way in which their voices compliment each other is a marvel. If you can imagine two voices dancing and alternating who is leading as the music behind them shifts, you'll have a good idea of how well they work in tandem. Each of them serve as a perfect conduit for the meaning of their songs, so even though much of the material isn't sung in English listeners, should have no problem drawing a general idea of each song's emotional tenor.

Even if you need to acclimatize yourself to the idea of Yiddish and Gaelic material being sung together, you can't help but be moved and impressed - even awed - by what Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg create on Saints & Tzadiks. The combination of their voices and the material being sung is as powerful as any music I've listened to in the past. It's not often that secular music is able to obtain the heights of beauty one would normally associate with religious music, but this recording iss as full of passion and wonder as any oratorio to a god.

July 31, 2009

Music Review: Caravan Of Thieves - Bouquet

For all that I'm liable to complain about the system of labelling musical performers by genres I find that I end up doing the same thing in my own way. It's only natural I guess to categorize music in some fashion, how else are you going to differentiate one piece of music from another? However, that's still a personal choice based on my own likes and dislikes and an understanding of the type of music I like to listen to when I'm in a certain frame of mind, not something that I'm going to use in order to answer the question, what kind of music do they play?

While it's true there are some musicians you can say play blues or rock fairly easily, there are other bands who just aren't going to fit into anybody's neat little categories no matter what you do. In fact, I'm discovering the music I'm enjoying most these days is that by performers who can't be pinned down as belonging to any single category. In some cases the number of genres they fall into is so great that they'd have more back slashes in any attempt to label them than the average web-site has in its address: they play a punk/jazz/folk/acoustic/blues/country/gypsy/swing sort of thing with some classical influences. By the time you get finished reciting a list like that it becomes meaningless and you might just as well have said they play music.

One of the most recent examples of this I've come across are the band Caravan Of Thieves. After having listened to their latest release, Bouquet, I could no more give you a one word answer to "what kind of music do they play" than I could explain higher physics equations. Even telling you that the four core musicians play, guitar (Fuzz and Carrie Sangiovanni), violin (Ben Dean), double bass (Brian Anderson), and are occasionally joined by Bruce Martin on accordion, isn't going to help, as a line up like that could indicate anything from a country group to a folk ensemble from the streets of Paris.
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So what can I tell you about their music if I can't tell you what it is? I can tell you that lyrically they are sly and witty and musically they are full of life and vigour. I can also tell you that the signing of the Sangiovannis is perfect for the music as they harmonize beautifully without trying anything overly fancy, and have voices equal to the task of expressing the ideas, emotions, and humour in their songs. They are sufficiently skilled at playing their instruments to play fast enough to make your head spin and be equally effective playing something more pensive. Their music hops, skips, jumps, and swings through the twelve songs on the disc without once missing a beat or striking a discordant moment.

One of the interesting things about Bouquet is how they've divided the disc up into three acts, and an intermission; an instrumental piece appearing to be called "Zu Zio Petals". (I say appears because the text is so stylized that I couldn't tell you whether the first letters of the first two words were a Z,Q,J, or even something else - I don't know why bands insist on using type that is almost indecipherable when reproduced at the size required for CD liner notes) The impression this creates, when coupled with some of the other song titles, especially considering the name of the band, is that they are a group of less than reputable carnival hustlers.

While the opening track's title "Ghostwriter" might not at first glance appear related, when you realize the lyrics are referring to someone who is dead, not just someone hired to write something for you, they complement the overall theme with its suggestion of mediums and communicating with "other side". However its songs like "Freaks" with its peon to the different in the world, and "Box Of Charms", which when opened has cures for everything and whatever ails you. Although not without risk of side effects - spontaneous combustion, decapitation, loss of limb, or turning you into a flesh eating zombie.
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However, you do begin to wonder whether its not a medicine show or carney after all, after you listen to "Angels In Cages". The show that they describe in this song sounds suspiciously too much like the state of the world for it to be just some low rent carnival. "Its a lovely show with fire and explosions./We are sure you will all be charmed to death." Not what you'd call the most enticing of blandishments. I personally would think twice about stepping right up to see a show where the clowns are in charge of the heavy guns no matter how much I'm reassured that it's all in fun.

There's something about listening to Caravan Of Thieves' new CD Bouquet that put me in mind more of what I'd expect to hear from a European group than one from North America. While there are plenty of groups from this part of the world following the same configuration of instruments as Caravan, few of them ever play anything aside form zydeco or other music which has roots here. It was only because of the fact that they sounded like a musical tour of Europe, rather than being from one specific point on the continent that distinguished them from European groups or ensembles who tend to only play the music of their homes. For not only can you hear sounds from the streets of Paris, there's also music that could only have come from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, plus a liberal sprinkling of swing spicing up certain songs.

Bouquet could have been recorded in New York City or Bucharest, but what really matters is the fact that the music is a pleasure to listen to and the lyrics are witty and intelligent. While there aren't many people who can play more than one style of music, the number who bounce around between quite a few on the same disc and yet maintain a continuity of music is very rare indeed. When it comes to this Caravan Of Thieves the only thing you have to worry about them stealing is your heart, as their music sweeps you across the dance floor and then bounces you around quite a bit.

July 28, 2009

Music Review: Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae

Normally trips down memory lane are exercises in sentimentality that have little or no interest to anybody save for those directly involved in the events being rehashed. When such excursions are married to popular music the results are as varied as people's individual tastes and how they choose to remember their own past. It's difficult to generate enthusiasm for these exercises in nostalgia if you actually lived through the era in question, especially when the music designated as being representative of the times doesn't appeal to you now anymore then it did when it first polluted the air waves. Duran Duran don't appeal to me now anymore then they did back in the 1980's and I really can't see how anybody can look back on music like that with anything other than nausea. However, there's a difference between those sordid attempts at pretending there was anything worth remembering about bad pop music and embarrassing clothing trends and celebrating a specific genre of popular music.

In Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae the musicians who were at the forefront of performing this precursor of reggae reunited in Kingston Jamaica to record and perform some forty years after the genre's heyday. The documentary movie made of the reunion follows them around the city checking out their old haunts and into the studio as they re-record their rocksteady hits. While the movie has only received limited release, it opened on July 24th/09 in four cities in Canada, the soundtrack, Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae was being released on the Moll-Selekta label.

A joint Canadian and Swiss co-production the movie probably won't get much distribution action south of the border, so the CD might just be Americans only opportunity to check out the greats of the rocksteady era coming together to play their music one more time. Judy Mowatt, Leroy Sibbles, Rita Marley, Sly Dunbar, Marcia Griffiths, and Hopeton Lewis might not be familiar names to most of today's audiences. Reggae fans might recognize the names of the three women from their time as the "I-Threes" singing harmonies for Bob Marely (and in Rita's case, as Bob's wife); Sly Dunbar as the drumming half of the ubiquitous reggae rhythm section Taxi Squad; and Leroy Sibbles from his days as the lead singer of the Heptones and his subsequent successful solo career. However, most of the other people involved in this won't be known to many people outside of Jamaica, as rocksteady didn't seem to travel off the island.
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Before any of them made names as reggae stars, they were playing and recording rocksteady. In a lot of ways it seems like the main difference between rocksteady and reggae was the amount of recognition and money the performers received as compensation for their efforts. The music, at least what's been recorded on this disc, doesn't sound much different from reggae, save perhaps that it's lighter on the bass and a bit more up tempo. What makes these songs so important is they represented the beginning of the move away from ska music, which had dominated the Kingston music scene until the mid 1960's, that would eventually lead to reggae.

It was rocksteady that slowed the music's tempo and added the heavy bass that has become such a distinctive part of the reggae sound. It was also these new performers who first started to write lyrics about love and conflict. Listen to a song like "Sounds & Pressure" by Hopeton Lewis and you hear elements of both ska and reggae. The peppy horns have always been a feature of ska, but here the music is at a slower tempo and is propelled with the slower, almost insistent beat, that distinguishes reggae. Unlike reggae though there is a definite lightness to the music. While they might be talking about subjects like needing to find work or your love leaving on the next train like in U-Roy's classic "Stop That Train", the music just doesn't seem anywhere near as dense as reggae.

Listen to Ken Boothe singing "Freedom Street", with it's exhortation to walk down freedom street in order to rid the world of war and injustice. The message might be heavy but the music is a lot brighter than what you'd hear if it was sung by someone like Marley or Tosh. There is a pop element to the songs that is lacking in reggae, and you get the feeling that it doesn't take itself anywhere near as seriously as reggae does. Of course there's another big difference, you're not going to hear anybody mention Jah, or any talk of Rastafarianism for that matter, in these songs.
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Now listening to these songs there's something else you have to keep in mind, the average mean age of the people recording them has to be at least somewhere in the sixties. These songs were all recorded in 2008 at the old Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston where many of the songs were recorded the first time - forty years ago. I can remember when Leroy Sibbles came to live in Canada in the late 1970's to escape the political violence that was tearing the slums of Kingston apart, and he wasn't a young man then. Yet hearing him on disc now, he sounds no different then he did all those years ago.

The same goes for all of the performers on this disc. Judy Mowat's voice is as strong and powerful as it was when she first recorded "Silent River Runs Deep" or when she Rita, and Marcia were singing harmonies for Bob Marley. These folk are ageless wonders, and they are superbly backed by musicians just as capable as they are. The rhythm section, anchored by the incomparable Sly Dunbar on drums, is so tight that you can drop a penny on it and it will bounce in perfect time. Songs like "Shanty Town (007)" sound as good now, if not better, thanks to improved recording techniques and technology, then they did when I first heard them on the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come, The Harder They Fall from the early seventies.

Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae is a wonderful collection of music from an amazing group of musicians who made history forty years ago by paving the way for people who went on to become far more famous than most of them ever did. It amazes me that rocksteady never caught on in the wide world in the same way ska and reggae did outside of Jamaica. It's far more infectious than reggae and much more accessible than ska, meaning there's no reason why it shouldn't catch on with a wider audience even now. According to Sly Dunbar a lot of Jamaicans would say they prefer rocksteady to reggae because it had better sound, singing, playing, and better instrumentation. Well, while some might argue with some of those specifics, it's easy to see how somebody could prefer rocksteady over reggae. If you've never heard this music before this is the perfect opportunity as your not going to find anybody who can perform it better than the people on this disc. One warning - there's over sixty minutes of music on this disc so be prepared as once you put it on you're not going to be able to sit still until the last note fades away.

July 27, 2009

Interview: Xavier Rudd

It's not very often that my health problems interfere with my life, but this past week I had reason to rue them for the first time in a number of years. As a treat to celebrate our wedding anniversary I had purchased tickets for my wife and I to go and see one of our favourite performers when his tour stopped in Toronto Ontario for two nights. Unfortunately as the day drew nearer it became obvious there was no way my body was going to be able to stand up to two and half hour trip by train that it would take to get to Toronto. I put off the inevitable for as long as possible, but in the end I surrendered and we gave the tickets to a young couple we know who appreciated the music as much as we would have. I figured the only thing worse than not going, was not going and having the tickets laying around the house reminding me of the disappointment.

A part of me knew all along we wouldn't be making the trip, I've not been able to make a trip of that length since 2002, so how could I have thought now would be any different. I guess I had hopped that when the time came for us to make the trip somehow it could happen because it would have meant so much to us. You see, there's something about Xavier Rudd's music that I've connected to it on a personal level, in a way that I never have before to any musicians work. My wife summed it up best when she said, "he always seems to be able to articulate how I'm feeling about the state of the world with his music."

Rudd released his first CD, To Let, in 2002 and has since produced four more discs and toured the world extensively. The Australian born multi-instrumentalist's initial albums and tours saw him performing as a one man band. Sitting behind a stand holding his three Yidaki (an Australian Aboriginal instrument named for the hunter who not only discovered it but whose spirit now resides within them, its better know by the name Europeans have given it, didgeridoos) he would play either slide or regular guitar, keep the beat with a stomp box and small percussion instruments, play some harmonica, and of course sing. Over the course of the three discs that followed To Let; Solace, Food In The Belly, and White Moth; Rudd's music gradually became both more musically and thematically complex, a period of development that culminated in his most recent release, 2008's Dark Shades Of Blue.
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When it had looked like I would be travelling down to Toronto to see Rudd in concert I contacted his Canadian publicist to see if I could set up an interview. Of course that fell by the wayside when the trip fell through, and I had to settle for fifteen minutes on the phone with him. It's a somewhat frustrating experience trying to engage a person in conversation when you know you're working against the clock as you have to keep curtailing topics in order to cover any ground at all. However fifteen minutes turned out to be plenty of time for us to talk about the current tour, Dark Shades Of Blue, his music in general, and even touch upon his wife's (Marci Lutken-Rudd) art that served as cover for Dark Shades Of Blue.

A conversation like this, if you're lucky, gives you a series of glimpses into a artist's soul and from that you try and piece together a picture of the person behind the music you've been listening to and appreciating. With Rudd, something you quickly realize is there is no separating the man from the music, for as one changes the other follows. I had started off by asking him whether the harder edge that can be heard on Dark Shades Of Blue was indicative of the direction his music was going in. I had noticed over the course of his two previous recordings that each had become progressively edgier and this one had gone even further down that road.

Xavier's answer took me by surprise, because it's not too often your going to find a musician who is willing to admit, "I don't think too much of where the music comes from it's just something that happens." Now lest anyone thing he's saying he doesn't think about his music, he's talking about inspiration here, not the music itself. You see the music he's working on now has moved in a completely different direction from what was on Dark Shades of Blue - in fact he described it as "Light and bubbly, and much brighter" Part of that he attributed to two South African percussionists he just started working with who have brought a different perspective into the mix. The other thing though is that he also sees Dark Shades of Blue as being the culmination of a journey that he had begun even before the release of his first disc.

"I was going through a really profound time and this (Dark Shades Of Blue) was a more personal album than any of the others." He continued by saying that after ten years of being in the music business he had felt like he needed to take time for self-reflection which made the disc much more introspective than anything previous. "I needed to go into the dark rooms inside myself and clean off some of the dusty shelves and this was the result."
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Now, in case your worried that this sounds like a bunch of self indulgent twaddle, you only have to listen to the disc once to know that the last thing this guy is going to do is engage in a fit of public naval gazing. Sure he might have been re-evaluating where he was at the time, but the material has universal appeal. If you've ever spent anytime looking inward you're sure to be able to identify with a great deal of what's being expressed on the recording. Anyway, if you were at all worried about him getting overtly serious, don't be. Rudd has to have one of the most irrepressible spirits going - it may have feeling the weight of working nearly non-stop for ten years while working on Dark Shades Of Blue but now...

"I'm coming down the other side of the mountain on two wheels" is how he described it. "What I'm doing now is not only brighter and lighter, its also sweet and spicy, full of life. Having the two new percussionists cross my path right now has been great. Before setting out on this part of the tour I had taken six months off, and that was the longest break I had taken in ten years from either touring or recording and so it really feels like something fresh is happening."

That might have sounded silly or funny coming out of someone else's mouth, but there's something about his excitement and sincerity that evoked an image in in my mind's eye of him popping a wheelie at the top of a mountain and riding down on two wheels in the bright sunshine of a new morning.

If you look back to when I was talking about the instruments Rudd plays, I've mentioned an aboriginal one called the Yidaki. It was Rudd who told me the story of the instrument being named for the person who discovered it and also asked that I refer to it by it's proper name. Aside from the fact that he plays an Aboriginal instrument, he has featured both Native Canadian (Marci is a Canadian) and Australian singers and musicians on a couple of occasions on his discs, and some of his songs have been about their circumstances. So I was interested in finding out if his song writing had been influenced by either Native Canadians or Australians.

It turns out the influence is a lot more direct than I thought as he is of Aboriginal descent through his father's family. Now I've met more then my fair share of folk who are something like 1/32 native blood who try and make out that it gives them some sort of special connection to creation that makes them superior to the rest of us. What I heard in Xavier Rudd's voice, first when he talked about Yidakis - asking that I make sure to call them by their proper name in this article - and then again when he talked about the cultural inheritance passed down to him through his father - was respect. Respect for how they give voice to the spirit of their country and for part he plays in letting that voice be heard through his music.
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One of the ways he lets that voice be heard is through touring and Rudd tours a lot. Part of that is of course because he's from Australia and if he wants people elsewhere to listen to his music he has to spend time in North America and Europe. With the music industry it's very much a case of if you're out of sight, you're out of mind. However, when I asked him about the difficulties involved with having to be out on the road so much he simply said: "I know a lot of people would give anything to be in the position I'm in. I feel blessed to be doing this and touring is a part of it all". Naturally that led me to asking him about touring and performing...

"A concert is like a ceremony", he said, "people come to the shows to celebrate the good stuff in their lives and use it as an opportunity to let go. All the energy they produce I channel and give it back to them so that it becomes a real exchange between us. It's a very powerful situation that shouldn't be taken for granted by looking on it as only an opportunity for making money, which given the nature of this industry is something that happens far too often." (The tickets I bought for the Toronto show were the most expensive at $32.00 each. Compare that to the close to the $100.00 your liable to pay for anyone else and you really begin to appreciate his commitment to keeping his music accessible to as many people as possible.)

My time was running out and I'd already dropped a couple of questions I had wanted to ask Xavier by the time we got to this point. I had been really intrigued by the artwork his wife Marci had contributed for the cover of Dark Shades Of Blue so I quickly raised the topic of her work and any interconnection there might be between their two fields. While they don't work at the same time there's still a connection between their work according to Xavier.

"Her artwork was important during this time because of what it meant in regards to our journey together and she selected the piece that was used for the cover." Unfortunately we didn't really have time to explore the question of Marci's art work much more than both Xavier and I to agreeing on how wonderful it is and for him to add, "While we don't directly inspire each other there is a connection between our work because of the energy we both bring to what we do and how its part of us."

So then there was only time to ask what was up and coming for Xavier Rudd and to learn that he was going into the studio in October with the two percussionists from South Africa, who are currently on tour with him, and he's feeling incredibly rejuvenated and "ready to be busy".

Fifteen minutes isn't very long to spend talking to anybody, and you sure won't get to know them intimately in that time. However after spending fifteen minutes on the phone with Xavier Rudd I feel like I have a clearer image of the man responsible for creating the music that has moved me more than anybody else's in the past five years. He's touring across Canada and the US for the rest of the summer - check his web site for the remaining dates - and if you get a chance to check him out do so. Only, do me a favour and don't tell me about it, because I really don't want to know what I missed out on.

July 24, 2009

Music Review: Selaelo Selota - Lapeng Laka

Anyone who has listened to any amount of music from Africa will quickly notice the different flavours it acquires dependant on the region it's from. Once you have become familiar with the characteristics of a region's music, it becomes easy to identify where a performer hails from simply by listening to them play. Although that has to be qualified with the proviso that the person plays music that has at least been influenced by the music from that region. If they've succumbed to becoming a part of the great melting pot that is popular culture that's a different story, but for the most part, no matter what genre they're ostensibly supposed to be playing, you can usually pick up some clues as to which part of the continent they come from.

While a great deal of the music we're hearing these days is coming from the North West of Africa and the Sub Saharan region, the region which has been most consistent over the years in producing music that has reached beyond its borders has been Southern Africa, and specifically South Africa. Even during the days when the country was an international pariah due to minority rule and apartheid, the music of South Africa was making itself heard. Either through the efforts of ex-patriots like Hugh Masekela or foreigners like Paul Simon recording with local performers, we became familiar with many of the different traditions that colour South African music.

Ironically it seems like since the end of minority rule the amount of new music coming out of South Africa has slowed to a trickle. In the past few years, judging by the items I've been offered for review by most of the "world music" labels, all anybody seems to be interested in is what's happening up north. However that doesn't mean there isn't anything happening musically in South Africa, or that there isn't musical territory in that country yet to be discovered. A fact that's brought home by Lapeng Laka, the latest release from jazz guitarist Selaelo Selota now available on the Sony label.
This isn't the first recording that Selota has made that bears the influences of his home province of Limpopo or to be sung in the language of the sePedi people who live there. However for nearly the past decade he has been dedicating himself to establishing his reputation as a jazz player through study and performance. That Lapeng Laka is a return to the roots of his music is made clear through its meaning in the sePedi language -"in my house". However, like many other musicians who have begun to explore other genres of music, he's not simply content to play old tribal melodies on traditional instruments. Instead he's reached back to incorporate the traditional folk-tales of the region and its music into what he's been doing for the last number of years.

While it's all very well and good to play traditional tribal music on traditional instruments, by not allowing a culture to grow and expand it becomes stagnant. However it takes a delicate touch to manage something like this without completely ruining the original music. There have been some horrible examples of people merely sampling traditional music and welding it onto electobeat technology and making a mockery of what was once beautiful and sacred. However with a musician of the calibre and creativity of Selota, it's clear from the moment you listen to the first song on the disc that's not something you have to worry about in this case.

It's only fitting that the disc opens with the title song, "Lapeng Laka", as it opens the door to the "house" of music that Selota has built for us to listen to. His guitar is the foundation for the rest of the house, and it has all the smoothness and elegance that one has come to expect from the great jazz players. At the same time he's incorporated what are obviously rhythmic elements of the traditional music into his playing as it traces patterns you don't normally hear from jazz players. As the focal point of the music the guitar could come to dominate what we're listening to, instead it serves as the core around which everything else coalesces to form each song.
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Surprisingly Selota also supplies the vocals on this disc, it's not often a jazz guitarist can sing as well as play, and his voice is more than up to the task of blending the vocal lines in with the rest of the music. With the lyrics in sePedi we obviously can't hope to understand what he's singing about specifically, but the music and the tone of his voice do manage to convey a general sense of hopefulness to all the music. According to the notes at Selota's web site a great many of the songs are derived from the folk tales of his home province, but without being able to understand the lyrics the specifics of each of those will be lost on listeners.

However, that doesn't mean that you won't take away an appreciation for the music and the culture of the Limpopo province. For Selota has worked very hard to ensure that musically the disc is as strongly flavoured as possible by traditional sePedi music while at the same time making it accessible to those who won't be familiar with its sounds or the language the songs are being sung in. It's hard to describe what the music sounds like, but there's a gentle flow to it that evoked images of rolling grasslands and horizon lines that stretch off far into the distance. The little I do know about the geography of South Africa is that there are such vistas to be found in the country and its easy to picture Limpopo as one such area.

Selaelo Selota has done the remarkable job of finding just the right balance between the traditional and the new to bring the music of his native province in South Africa to life. What makes this recording special is that he has managed to do this without seeming to sacrifice any of the music's unique regional qualities while making it accessible to a wider audience. It's been a while since we've heard a new voice from South Africa, but as this recording tells us there's still plenty that's new left to be heard from that country. With people like Selota leading the way there's reason to hope that this is just first of many new recordings that we'll hear from South Africa in the near future.

July 15, 2009

Music Review: Oran Ekin - Kelenia

These days the borders between musical worlds and genres are blurring at an ever increasing rate. When a musician who was born a Jew in Israel and now lives in America who grew up playing the music of African Americans makes a recording with Malian musicians that combines his native and learned traditions with their music, well perhaps we are finally hearing world music. Up until now when we've called something world music we've really meant its from outside the boundaries defined by our language and cultural tradition.

It's become so ridiculous that a Native American recording in his own country, where his ancestors have lived for hundreds if not thousands of years, has his music classified as world. On the other hand a group who records material derived from traditional anglo/Irish folk tunes is called Americana. It's even funnier when you consider that the latter are using instruments that originated in Africa (the banjo) and Spain (guitar) while the former's instruments originated in North America. What kind of world are we talking about when we say world music? A world where we work together to create something of harmony and beauty? Or a world divided into those who are like us, and those who are different and not quite as important?

Oran Etkin was born in Israel and fell in love with the music of Louis Armstrong when he was nine years old and has been playing jazz ever since. However at the age of nineteen he also started playing with Joe Camara, a percussionist from Mali. While it was Camara who broadened Etkin's musical horizons by inviting him to Mali to live and play with him, it was Balla Koyate, a balafon (xylophone) player from Mali, and Makane Kouyate, percussion and vocals, he joined forces with in 2003 to begin the process that has resulted in the production of his new release, Kelenia on the Motema label.
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The title of the disc, Kelenia, is a word in the Bambara language meaning the love felt by those who are different from each other. This is highly appropriate when you consider the backgrounds of the original trio, and those who have joined them on this recording. Of course the music is an expression of the sentiments expressed in the disc's title as well as the different backgrounds come through in the music. For not only do we hear the obvious African and American influences, but in Etkin's clarinet playing one can also hear the echo of Klezmer and faint traces of Eastern Europe wafting through as well.

What's most impressive about the music on the disc is how well the musicians have managed to blend their diverse talents to create music that not only reflects their individual musical backgrounds but something new as well that's a result of that intermingling. The music of Mali was not written with saxophone or clarinet in mind, but not once on any of the disc's eleven tracks do either of those instruments sound out of place when being accompanied by the balafon, or when they provide accompaniment to Makane Kouyate's vocals. The same applies when Balla Koyate joins Etkin for a rendition of Duke Ellignton's "It Doesn't Mean A Thing", as his balafon, although lending the song a more exotic flavour than we might be accustomed to, sounds right at home.

There have been recordings made of North America musicians playing with those from countries like Mali before. Yet they have not been like this, because most of those have attempted to graft the blues or jazz onto a tradition, that while sharing some similarities, still has its own distinct flavour. In the past that flavour has usually been close to washed away, resulting in people exclaiming about how much "they sound like us". Of course any similarities that exist do so because our music descends from theirs, or, in other words because we sound like them. However, the real problem is the fact that the styles never seem to meet on equal terms.

On Kelenia Oran Etkin and his band mate aren't trying to graft anything. Instead they have synthesized their individual musical and cultural identities to create something that not only allows them to express a unified sound, but also preserves their individuality. The last thing I would think anyone would want to hear would be a sound that eliminates our differences in order to create something homogenous and without character. Somehow these musicians manage to both celebrate their differences and ways for them to work in concert. As you listen you'll be able to pick out traits that sound familiar to your ear which serve as a bridge into this new musical landscape that has been created.

What is so amazing about this recording is that its a disc where nobody is trying to imitate somebody else's way of playing music but that all involved have figured out how their music can work as part of the other's style. The result is something extraordinary and wonderful to listen to. For not only is the sound harmonious, but so are the feelings generated by the intent behind the making of the disc. For as the title means the love of people who are different from each other, so the music celebrates how people can love each other because of their differences, not in spite of them.

When you listen to this disc you will have to rid yourself of any preconceived notions that you may have of how certain types of music should sound. However, you'll soon realize that if more people were willing to make the kind of effort these musicians have made, it would be more than a new world of sound you'd be experiencing, it would be a far more harmonious world.

July 11, 2009

Music Review: Tsuker-zia Frank London & Lorin Sklamberg

When you mention Jewish music to most people they will most likely either think of Fiddler On The Roof, groups of Kibbutzim dancing Israeli folk songs, or maybe even Klezmer. However most people don't associate Judaism with religious music, and for the longest time music was forbidden to Jews by Rabbinical edict as a symbol of their mourning the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. Yet, by the middle ages those strictures were relaxed and instruments were once again to being used to help celebrate religious feasts and secular events.

Of course with such a huge break in their own musical tradition, and the fact that most Jews were now living in Eastern Europe instead of Jerusalem, their music was heavily influenced by the folk music of their gentile neighbours. Like Yiddish, the language spoken by the Jews of Eastern Europe for day to day usage, you can hear traces of everything from German, Polish, Czech, to the Romani (gypsies) in Klezmer and Jewish religious music. While Klezmer music has obtained a level of popularity recently and there are any number of recordings available, the same can't be said for the religious music. However two musicians who were instrumental in creating the interest in Klezmer music through helping found the band The Klezmatics have now begun making recordings of Jewish religious music as well.

Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg have just released Tsuker-zis on the Tzadik label, a collection of fourteen songs celebrating various holidays and aspects of Jewish religious life. The title is Yiddish for sugar sweet, and according to notes accompanying the release Jewish imagery often uses sugar metaphorically to describe the divine sweetness of our lives. That doesn't mean the songs on the album are sickeningly sweet, rather they are expressions of the joy the various holidays bring to people. For even a holiday as intimating sounding as Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, can be considered joyous as its a part of the overall sweetness of the divine in a Jewish person's life
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However, you'd be forgiven for wondering what kind of disc of Jewish religious music features an Armenian oud player, Ara Dinkjian, a tabla player from North India, Deep Singh, and an electric guitar player, Knox Chandler, whose credits include Cyndi Lauper, the Psychedelic Furs, and Siouxie & The Banshees. Well, when you consider that trumpeter and keyboard player London has worked with everyone from Itzhak Perlman to LL Cool J and vocalist and accordion player Sklamberg has taught Yiddish singing from Maui to Kiev, the fact that they have elected to work with three musicians from such diverse backgrounds makes a little more sense. Anyway, remember the Jewish musical tradition that has inspired this recording drew upon a wide variety of musical influences to begin with. It only follows that modern day adaptations of these songs should follow in their footsteps by drawing upon the world around them as well.

Right from the opening track, "A Sukkah Of Branches", you realize you're in for something completely different from what you're used to if you've heard any Jewish music before. While I have to admit that swirling, atmospheric keyboard music was the last thing I expected to hear when I hit the play button, it not only suited what they were doing with that song in particular, it served as an overture to the whole recording by giving you fair warning of what was to come. This isn't another "ethnic" recording that would look good on stage in "authentic" clothes accompanied by "traditional"cuisine for those looking to take a Disney world tour of cultures.

Instead of merely being content with recreating music as it would have been played five hundred to six hundred years ago, the musicians have found new ways to turn music into a celebration of the presence of the divine in people's lives. While four of the tracks either are composed by, or include text written by, others, the remaining songs are either originals or new arrangements of traditional songs. Not only does this make the music more relevant to a modern audience, it also has the added benefit of allowing them to make the music accessible by including instruments not normally associated with the Jewish tradition.
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Now that doesn't mean they have done anything stupid like disguise what it is they are singing about by hiding the fact that the songs are about religious celebrations. With titles like "Our Parent, Our Sovereign", "The Lord Sent His Servant", and "Elijah The Prophet Bought A Red Cow" it's pretty hard to miss the fact that the songs aren't just pretty little tunes or interesting music to listen to. In fact even just listening to the music without knowing the titles, or understanding every word being sung should be enough to let you know what's going on.

For somehow these five musicians have created music that no matter what your belief system communicates the joy and sweetness that's to be found in the act of believing. However, even if you should somehow miss the point from the music, once you hear Lorin Sklamberg start to sing you can't help but understand what the music is about. I'm not one to use the term divine inspiration lightly, but when you listen to Sklamberg sing you can't help but feel like he's been inspired by something beyond the mundane. It's hard to describe, because he's not doing anything overt like engaging in histrionics or any of the other melodramatic things some singers do to indicate their "sincerity" and "passion". Yet, there can be no doubting the depth of his passion or the level of his sincerity. He has integrated himself into the ensemble as another instrument to the point where he sounds like he's giving voice to their feelings letting you know its the message that's important, not the messenger.

Taken as a whole Tsuker-zis celebrates the belief in the divine on a universal level even though its content is specific to one religion. For even if you're not Jewish, you can't help but be moved by the what the musicians involved have created in the name of that belief. If you're Jewish you will definitely be moved by this disc, but if you're willing to listen with your heart as well as your ears, you can't help but be moved no matter who or what you believe in.

July 3, 2009

Music Review: Kimi Djabate - Karam

I always find it very funny when someone says to me they really like "African Music" and then become almost insulted when I ask them which country's music they're talking about. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and hope they're only stupid and not being deliberately insulting by implying that a continent filled with more countries, cultures, and peoples than North and South America combined could possibly be represented by one style of music. Still it's hard not to laugh at them when they become indignant when asked for specifics.

Of course that's being a little unfair as most types of music played in Africa, with the exception of popular genres, aren't specific to one country but to a region of the continent. Of course that's only because the borders of so many countries bear no relation to traditional tribal boundaries. As a result some people have found that they now live across the border from other members of their own tribe. While others, like the nomadic Tuareg, have found that travelling across their territory now involves crossing four or even five borders. Looking at a map of Africa, it's easy to understand why you wouldn't know the location of Guinea-Bissau. The tiny former Portuguese colony is crammed between Senegal to the north, Guinea to the south, Mali to the east, and the Atlantic ocean on the west. It's one of the most impoverished countries in the world as the majority of its people survive through subsistence farming.

Still, like other West African nations, they have their own musical history, and Kimi Djabate, is one of the contemporary links in a chain that extends back in time hundreds of years. Centuries ago his ancestors had been travelling musicians from Mali. The king, of what was then Guinea, loved their songs so much that he invited them to stay and offered them the territory of Tabato, where Djabate was born. Born into a family of Griots - musicians who are keep track of their tribe's history and tell the stories of the people through song - Djabate started playing music when he was three years old. His first instrument, the balafon (a type of xylophone), remains his primary instrument to this day. However as his forthcoming release, Karam July 28th, on the Cumbancha label shows, he's expanded his repertoire of instruments to include guitar and various types of percussion.
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At the age of nineteen, in 1994, while touring Europe as part of the national musical and dance ensemble of Guinea-Bissau, Djabate decided to settle in Europe and has based himself out of Lisbon in Portugal ever since. Listening to the fifteen tracks on Karam, all of which he wrote, one can hear that while he has stayed attached to his musical roots, he has also reached out to graft on some new branches to create his own sound. While still at home he had been sent off to neighbouring territories to learn some of the regional differences available close at hand, but he also took it upon himself to learn about music that was from even further afield. Since landing in Europe he's continued that musical education and now you can hear traces of everything from Nigerian Afrobeat, blues, jazz, to Cuban being used when appropriate to the material at hand.

Of course like all Griots, first and foremost Djabate is a vocalist. As it was their responsibility to be able to sing a family's or tribe's history, Griots by necessity have voices that make you want to listen to them. However this doesn't mean being loud or overpowering, it means having a voice that draws you into a song. Djabate isn't going to overpower anyone with voice, but there's something about his melodic tone that captivates the ear and holds your attention. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that the majority of the material on Karam isn't sung in English. Yet, in spite of that, you find yourself wanting to try and hang on to every word he sings.

Perhaps it's the subtle power of his music that ensnares the listener. With the balafon and acoustic guitar switching as lead instruments the overall sound of this record is far less rhythm heavy than one would probably expect. In fact, there are occasions that the music comes close to being too understated, but is saved from being trance or sleep inducing by Djabate's precise playing of the balafon. Unlike a drum the sound of this instrument is very mellow and instead of propelling a song, it moves with it, emphasizing and breaking up the flow like punctuation does a sentence. Grown accustomed to popular music that's pushed forward by a full drum kit supported by electric bass it takes a while for our ears to get used to the type of interplay of rhythm and melody employed by Djabte's, but once you do you'll find it just as effective as any other style.
Although living in Europe Djabate's focus remains firmly fixed on Africa. He sings about the social and political realities facing his people including the rights of women, the fight against poverty, and about freedom. The last is particularly important to his homeland as its history has been checkered with civil wars and military coups since their independence in 1963. With one of lowest per capita mean incomes, around seven hundred American dollars per year, and an average life expectancy of around forty-five, Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world. What little infrastructure it had was destroyed during a civil war in 1998-99, and a military coup in 2003 has only increase its instability. As a Griot Djabate tells the story of his people in his music, and right now its not a pretty picture.

This goes a long way towards explaining the subdued tone of this disc. It would be hard to be too exuberant when singing about those topics. Yet even so the music isn't depressing to listen too. While we may not be able to understand the exact words that he's singing, the tone of his voice communicates that he has hope that things can improve. In spite of what I referred to as the subdued tone, there is an infectious quality to the music that gradually encourages you to move to the music. Normally you're not going to want to dance to songs that only bemoan fate, as the music can't help but reflect the spirit of the lyrics, so the fact Djabte's can inspire you to move tells you while things might not be so good right now there's no reason to give up hope for the future.

Kimi Djabate, like so many other West African singers we're hearing today, comes from a long line of singer/storytellers, and he carries on that role with his own music. However, instead of merely speaking for one village, or even one family he speaks for his country and his continent. His use of music from traditions other than his own and his softly insistent voice combine to ensure that while we may not understand what he is saying, we are not only compelled to listen but take away a good sense of what he is talking about with each song. Don't worry if you've never heard of Guinea-Bissau, or know next to nothing about the north-west of Africa, with people like Kimi Djabate around as long as you're willing to listen you'll learn quickly enough.

July 2, 2009

Music Review: Lily Storm - If I Had A Key To The Dawn

It's probably a hangover from watching too many Hollywood movies. but when I think of Eastern Europe I can't help seeing in my mind's eye a dark and mysterious landscape. Gloomy forests climbing the sides of sharp mountains suddenly give way to deep lakes under whose surface lie mysteries better left undisturbed. It's hard to imagine the sun ever shining in this environment, let alone it ever being daytime, as if it exists in a state of permanent twilight. It's in woods like these you'll find the gingerbread cottage of "Hansel and Gretel", or perhaps chance upon a girl in a red cloak making her way to her grandmother's house.

However, in spite of the darkness, there's also a haunting beauty which can take your breath away in the same way that plunging into an icy mountain stream will leave you gasping for air and in pleasure at the same time. Yet it's a beauty that seems tinged with sorrow, like a heartbreaking poem or song. Perhaps it's an overly romantic view of something I know very little about, but it's also based on knowing some of the history of the region and the hardships faced by a great many of those who have lived there. Subsistence farms carved out of available land, continual invasions by one army or another, and the twentieth century's contribution to horror - ethnic cleansing after the fall of Yugoslavia and the death camps of WWll.

A new release by vocalist Lily Storm, If I Had A Key To The Dawn on her own Songbat Records label, of primarily traditional songs from that region shows, no matter the country or language, the music does nothing to dispel those impressions. Whether Russian, Armenian, Albanian, Romanian, Bulgarian or Hungarian each of the songs she performs on this disc are beautiful but hint at sorrow in their music and lyrics. Yet for some reason there is nothing depressing about them either, as the honesty of emotion exhibited by each song is beautiful onto itself.
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One of the hardest things about singing in a language, or as in this cases languages, that your audience is not going to understand is to communicate with them the nature of the song. Although Storm has included translations for all the lyrics they aren't really needed to make these songs work for us as she shows herself capable of expressing their overall feeling with her voice. What I really appreciated about her singing is this is the type of situation where a singer could very easily give in to the temptation to over emote in order to get their message across. Storm not only refrains from doing that, she is also able to imbue her voice with character that gives the listener an idea of the story behind the song as well as the emotional content.

As for the material itself they remind you that folk music can be in the right hands a genuine expression of a people's experience. Whether a lullaby or a love song these tracks are devoid of the sentimentality that are the hallmark of so many contemporary songs that deal with similar themes. First of all they employ poetic imagery to convey their ideas that you would never find in even the best folk songs in North America let along most popular music today. Not only does this give the material greater emotional depth, it also allows for an ambiguity of meaning that makes you have to think about the song's real meaning.

The opening song of the disc for instance, a traditional Ukrainian lullaby called simply "Sleep Child" is only two verses long, but contains a world of meaning. A mother tells her child to sleep and she will cover it with leafs and leave it by the water. From Moses on down there's a long history of hero legends where the baby is set adrift by its mother and goes on to become a great leader after being rescued. However, the same lyrics could also express a young mother's frustration and resentment at being tied down to a squalling baby and her desire to be free of the noisy and demanding thing. Listening to the way that Storm sings the song you notice a certain amount of ambiguity in her voice, and a definite lack of anything that can be construed as heroic. While you wouldn't be able to discern the alternative meaning from just hearing her performance, you can tell that this isn't your typical lullaby.
Of course having the translations also makes a world of difference when it comes to appreciating some of the nuances of material. The sixth song on the recording, a Hungarian piece whose title is translated as simply "Love, Love" is both an ode to the pain of love in general and a long ago love in particular. "And for my love of long ago/what I wouldn't do/the water of the sea/I'd scoop out with a spoon/and from the bottom of the sea/I'd gather small pearls/and for my love of long ago/I'd make a pearl wreath".

What starts out sounding like one of those poems that are describing the lengths somebody would go to in order to express their devotion for their lover, is quickly turned into something else by the last word in the song. The singer isn't going to drain the ocean one spoonful at a time to make a necklace celebrating love, no, it's to make a wreath to place on its grave. Of course that the music accompanying the lyrics sounds like a dirge, and Storm sounds like she's just lost her best friend, gives you a good idea of the singer's mood and their opinion of love even without understanding what she's saying.

Probably when most of us think of the music of Eastern Europe we either think of the colourful and exuberant folk dances of the Ukraine, the fiery music of the Romani, or perhaps even polkas. If I Had A Key To The Dawn, from the atmospheric photographs included in the accompanying booklet and on the cover, to Lily Storm's magnificent singing, brings a different side of that part of the world to life. Listening to the music on this disc reminds you that just as there is beauty to be found in the darkest part of a forest, it can also be found in the expression of some of our darkest feelings. A song from the heart is a beautiful thing no matter what language its in or what its about. You may not have thought that a broken heart could be as beautiful as a lover's kiss before, but after listening to this disc you'll see how it's possible, and you'll understand how tears are just as special as a smile.

June 28, 2009

DVD Review: Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement

It was in the 1950's that the United States of America began to pay the price for the years of treating African Americans like second class citizens. Refusing to be segregated and denied a voice in the selection of their government any longer, African Americans began campaigns of protest and education in an attempt to be treated equally. It wasn't only the Southern States where segregation and other forms of discrimination were practised, but it was states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi where they were most enshrined either by law or custom, or both.

Therefore it was these states that became literally the main battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's. People from all over North America congregated in the South to show their support for the movement by taking an active role in their protests. Sit in's were staged by black people in white only dining facilities, bus seats in the front, white only sections, of municipal vehicles were occupied, voter registration drives that ensured black people previously shut out from the polls were able to vote, and people marched in the thousands demanding equal rights. The battle they faced wasn't an easy one as they were routinely attacked and beaten by both the police and mobs, and there were deaths among both the white and black protesters.

Now as the churches were key in galvanizing the people in the South, it should come as no surprise that when the protesters turned to song in order to comfort themselves and keep up their spirits, their first thought was the spirituals that were sung in church. It was easy to identify with songs taken from the stories of Moses leading his people to freedom, and it was those songs that were first sung and even adapted to suit the needs of the movement. However, as the recently released DVD of the documentary Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement shows, spirituals weren't the first or only music that were part of the movement. It also shows how the music of the African American community grew to reflect the changing moods of the people as the needs have changed.
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Narrated by Louis Gosset Jr. Let Freedom Sing traces the history of music protesting the situation of African Americans from Billie Holiday's performance of "Strange Fruit" with it's graphic descriptions of black people hanging from trees as the result of lynching, to Public Enemy's songs about life in today's urban core. However, as befits its title the majority of the movie's focus is on the relationship between the music and the quest for equality. Interviews with musicians and former freedom riders are interspersed with footage of protests of the era helping to both recreate the era for the viewer, and providing first hand accounts of what the music meant to those involved with the events depicted.

As was mentioned earlier, spirituals were the backbone of the movement to begin with, but gradually songs from both outside the church and the black community became just as important to the people on the ground and in getting the movement's message out to the world at large. Young white musicians like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were key in ensuring that young educated white audiences in the northern states at least were aware of the issues, if not inspiring them to take an active role in protesting. Perhaps the most famous song associated with the civil rights movement of the early 1960's was "We Shall Overcome" and there's a nice little bit with Pete Seeger, where he makes sure to stress that all he did was introduce the song to people, and they were responsible for its genesis into the powerful protest song it became.

While some of the conversations with the musicians were interesting enough, some of them have bore a striking familiarity to ones that I'd seen in other documentaries before. The interviews that were most fascinating were those with individuals who had been active in the movement. Not only were they each articulate about their experiences, they were also able to tell us just what music had meant to them and how it had helped them through difficult times while protesting. Music not only has the power to inspire crowds, as it did in one man's memories of spending the whole night in jail singing, it also could give individuals the strength to stand up to the abuse heaped upon them by the counter demonstrators.
Time Life
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While there's no denying the veracity of the history that's being presented in Let Freedom Ring, and on the whole the music is a decent cross representation of the era as it related to the civil rights movement, there was a little too much emphasis on the music that had crossover appeal for white audiences in the 1970's. While there was acknowledgement of the rise of black power, that whole aspect of the history was skirted over aside from a brief speech given by Stokely Carmichael and some pictures of various Black Panther members like Angela Davies. Perhaps most annoying was there was almost no mention of Malcom X, any references to Huey Newton and his false arrest on manslaughter charges or any of the various efforts made by the FBI to discredit not only the Panthers but even mainstream leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

The other problem I had with the movie is although it refers to itself as being about music and the civil rights movement, in actual fact it's about music and the history of African Americans struggle for equality. If you're going to use a title as inclusive as civil rights, you have to include all those groups who are striving for acceptance; Hispanics, Gays & Lesbians, Native Americans, women, illegal immigrants, and the disabled. While it's true that in the 1950's and 1960's the focus of civil rights activists was on the African American community, the latter part of the twentieth century saw other groups struggling for acceptance as well. While it was good that the movie included events that happened beyond the borders of North America by talking about South Africa and Nelson Mandela, if they're calling themselves a movie about the civil rights movement they need to be more inclusive.

While the movie Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement does a good job showing the connection between the fight for equal rights for African Americans and the popular music of the community, it's an incomplete and slightly misleading history as it leaves out references to key figures and events. Even if we accept it's title at face value, that the civil rights movement was only concerned with African Americans, it's still an inadequate job of telling that history.

June 23, 2009

Music Review: Jon Balke, Amina Alaoui, Jon Hassell, and Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche - Siwan

The common perception most of us have of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire until the fifteenth century is one personified by the title the period is designated as; The Dark Ages. Its depicted in our histories as being marked by the spread of the Black Plague, ignorance, and superstition. It wasn't until the miracle of the Renaissance, which literally means re-birth, that Europeans began to drag themselves out of the mud and filth and started to create beautiful art and rediscover the teachings of the ancients. Reading most standard histories of the time you could get the impression this awakening was somehow spontaneous; one morning people just woke up and looked at the world differently.

The reality is that the knowledge was never really lost and not all of Europe had descended to the same depths of ignorance, only Christian Europe. Al Andalus was the area of Spain ruled by Muslims until 1492, and during those dark ages all the so-called lost knowledge and arts were alive and kicking. Everything from the concept of zero in mathematics, philosophical concepts of the self which would have seen you burnt at the stake in Christian Europe, to the arts and music, thrived in the city states of Cordoba and others through out the region. Muslims, Christians, and Sephardic Jews lived in relative harmony and there was a free exchange of ideas and learning between scholars of all three faiths. It was from here that the knowledge which fuelled the so called Renaissance trickled into Italy, France, and other countries.

How much of this beauty and knowledge was lost when the Spanish Inquisition purged the region of heretics and non-believers by forcing Muslims and Jews to either convert, flee, or burn, will never be known. However much of the great poetry and ideas on music were preserved and passed on. The music was probably the easiest to spread as wandering minstrels and troubadours would have carried tunes and lyrics across borders and passed their ideas on. It's this music, and the poetry that sometimes supplied the lyrics for it, that forms the basis for a collection of music being released on ECM Records under the guidance of Norwegian pianist Jon Balke on June 30th in North America.
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Siwan, the title of the disc, is the word for balance in Aljamiado, the Latin-Arabic hybrid language spoken in medieval Andalusia, is a collection of eleven tracks, nine of which feature the work of poets from that region married to music inspired by the era. The earliest song, "Thulathiyat" was written by the Suffi mystic Husayn Mansour Al Hallaj who lived between 857 -922 AD while Lope de Vega's "A la dina dana" demonstrates how the influences of the era lived on after the re-conquest as he lived from 1562 - 1635 and is considered one of the major voices of the golden age of Spanish literature for his plays and prose. The booklet accompanying the CD not only gives a history of each song and the poet who wrote it, but their lyrics in the language they are sung in, either Spanish or Arabic, and an English translation.

Jon Balke has an extensive background in both jazz and world music with credits including compositions for theatre, dance, and chamber orchestras. The three other main musicians, vocalist Amina Alaoui, trumpeter Jon Hassell, and violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche each have experience and talent relevant to the work at hand. Alaoui and M'Kachiche are Moroccan and Algerian respectively and both have extensive backgrounds in the history and playing of the music of Al Andalus. Jon Hassell's musical experiences have seen him studying from Europe to India and he has created what he calls "fourth world" music - music without borders that combines classical,pop, secular, and sacred elements from all over the world. With these four serving as the nexus, and the rest of the musicians drawn from traditions and cultures ranging from traditional Persian to early European music like baroque and renaissance, everybody involved has had their musical experiences influenced by what was born on the Iberian peninsula.

As for the music itself, I'm struggling to find the words to describe it. If you're familiar with any of music from North Africa, Spain, Persia (modern Iran), or renaissance Europe, than you're bound to recognize elements in each song no matter what language they are sung in. In fact there are times while listening to various songs that you'll swear you've heard it before as patterns that you've heard in another context will tug at your memory. However, all of the compositions have been created for this recording. What Balke and his fellow musicians have done is compose music which reflects the depth and breadth of the influence Muslim Spain has on us to this day. It shows, no matter what anybody would have us believe, that Islam is one of the cornerstones of Western culture, as the philosophy and thought that went into the creation of the music from that region continues to strike chords of recognition with us today.
One of the great wonders of Siwan aside from the beauty of the music, is the singing of Amina Alaoui. While all the musicians are wonderful, it's around her voice that the nine tracks with lyrics live or die. The more I hear female vocalists from traditions other than North American pop or European opera, the more I realize why I've always felt there has been something lacking in our music. There's nothing forced or controlled about Alaoui's voice like what were used to. While I've always been able to admire the technical prowess of an opera voice, its lack of human warmth has always left me cold. Alaoui's voice is every bit as technically proficient as any I've heard sing opera, but she has the humanity they lack. Rich like velvet her voice also retains the rawness of human emotion that allows us to identify with her song even though we may not speak or understand the language she's singing in.

Carl Jung talked about the idea of race memory wherein we remember things that date back thousands of years through a type of collective unconscious. While some of that has been formed by specific associations like religion and language, some of it we share in common with all humans. In some ways the music on Siwan is like that as you recognize it without actually knowing any of the songs on the disc. However, what's important is the music on this disc is beautifully sung and wonderfully played. It doesn't matter what you know or don't know about history, or even if you give a damn about who influenced who. Listening to this disc is an experience that transcends any of those concerns, proving once again that regardless of what anyone thinks or does, great art exists in a world of its own.

June 4, 2009

Music DVD Review: The Rhythm Devils -Rhythm Devils Concert Experience

I was never much of a Grateful Dead fan and never really understood people's obsession with the band. Oh sure, I liked some of their songs and admired their skill as musicians but there are a lot of bands I can say the same thing about and there have been plenty of others who I've liked a whole lot more. In fact I knew so little about the band, that although I recognized the name I didn't even know what instruments Mickey Hart had played for them until I first heard the Global Drum Project, the all world percussion group he founded.

All of which meant that I knew nothing of the history of The Rhythm Devils and how they evolved as a separate entity within the Grateful Dead. Hart and Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann earned the nickname The Rhythm Devils during their years with the band. During the band's live concerts, portions of the show would be given over to the duo, and any friends who were on hand to assist them, for a percussion set. Which is how they came to the attention of Francis Ford Coppola in the 1970's and were commissioned to compose music for his film Apocalypse Now. The Apocalypse Now Sessions was their first and only release as the Rhythm Devils while The Dead were still active.

In 2006 the Rhythm Devils got back together with some friends to do a series of concerts. Joining Hart and Kreutzmann were Mike Gordon on bass, Steve Kimock on guitars, Sikiru Adepoju on talking drum, and Jen Durkin handling the vocals. Former Dead lyricist Robert Hunter wrote them a handful of new songs, and the group set out on a short tour. Now, three years later, StarCity Recording Company has released a two DVD set, Rhythm Devils: Concert Experience, commemorating that tour. Packaged in a hard covered book featuring illustrations and the lyrics to the songs performed, one DVD is the concert while the second is a behind the scenes documentary with backstage and rehearsal footage.
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As I said earlier I've become familiar with Mickey Hart's work with the Global Drum Project and was hoping to hear and see something of similar quality and style on this DVD. However, while there is no denying the overall skill and talent of the instrumentalists, the music was not of the quality that I have come to expect from Hart's other projects. While there were undeniably moments of musical magic during the concert, overall there wasn't much to get excited about. There was far too much of what sounded like directionless jamming where the same patterns are repeated over and over again during a song and nothing is ever developed to the extent it could be.

While they would always start out promisingly enough it often seemed like the band was content to find a groove, get comfortable, do their solos, and then repeat few times over again. Every so often the vocalist would sing a couple of verses of whatever song they were doing, and the pattern would then be repeated. Each time they went into a new instrumental break you'd hope for something new, but after a while even the solos began to sound the same and the music became even more pointless.

Perhaps it might have been better if the vocalist was able to provide some variety, but Durkin seems limited in what she is capable of doing. While she has the potential to have an interesting voice, for there a great husky quality to it, at the time of these recordings she was monotone and uninteresting. At times she wasn't even singing in the same key as the band and it just sounded unprofessional. Perhaps it's because she had to wait so long between verses during a song it made it hard for her to retain her focus. However if that's the case than perhaps she was the wrong choice for this band, but that's something you need to discover during rehearsals, not on stage.
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One of the selling points of this DVD package was supposed to be the post production video added to the concert footage. This included using old cartoon footage, excerpts from what looked like early television commercials, a collection of shots of various nebulas, and other colourful pictures from space and earth. Unfortunately instead of augmenting the experience of listening to the music it was mainly a distraction. They were either used in such a cliched manner that they bordered on silly, or they would have so little to do with the song they accompanied that you wondered why they were even being shown.

Even the hardcover book that made up the package for the two discs in the set was slightly ill-conceived as it didn't contain proper sleeves for the DVDs and it would be very easy for them to fall out and be damaged. There was also very little practical information about the band or the people involved aside from telling you who was playing which instruments. It would have been nice if they could have supplied a little bit more than just the lyrics to the songs and the set list. Unless you're willing to go hunting around on the Internet, you're not going to learn anything about the band's history or about the individual band members themselves. It's almost like the producers of the package have assumed anyone buying it are going to know that information somehow.

The sound and video quality of the concert disc are good, but I was rather surprised that they only offered it in Dolby stereo and not surround sound. If it's possible to re-master CDs from the 1980's in surround sound, it should be for video recorded in 2006 as well. However, that was only a minor disappointment compared to the music itself. Maybe if you're a big fan of the old Grateful Dead you'll enjoy Rhythm Devils: Concert Experience but having seen what Mickey Hart is capable of doing these days, this was quite a let down.

May 18, 2009

Music Review: Inbar Bakal - Song Of Songs

It's not often that we think of popular music and the Old Testament in the same breath. Heck even the majority of today's gospel music looks to the New Testament for its inspiration. However, when you consider the source of the new release Song Of Songs on the Electrofone Records label, the Old Testament connection makes a lot of sense. Inbar Bakal was born in Israel and is a descendant of Yemenite Jews whose traditions have long included putting their belief to music.

Like all young Israelites Bakal did her years of national service, as part of an anti-aircraft battalion, before embarking on the career of her choice. While that choice was always destined to be music, (her grandfather, a famous kabbalist thought by some to be able to predict the future, told her when she was sixteen that she had a big star in the sky that said she was going to be a singer) it was only after she gave up a career in the armed forces and moved to Los Angeles that it came to fruition. It was the same grandfather who inspired Bakal's version of the traditional psalm that is her release's title track, Song Of Songs. For while many consider the sensuality of that particular psalm to be an allegory for the love between man and God, her grandfather believed it was about love fro a woman, because it is truly divine.

That should give you a clue as to the fact that although this disc might look to the Old Testament and traditional Jewish music and culture for its inspiration, its not what you would call religious music. Bakal is very careful to enunciate that while she takes great pride in her Yemenite heritage and has a very traditional sense of her culture, she is not especially religious. Nor, at least judging by her approach to the music on Song Of Songs, is she so wedded to her traditions that she's unwilling to tamper and experiment with the music using the technology available to today's musical performers.
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While listening to the disc you'll also notice she's done a little more than just add a few technical advances to the music. She's put together a band that's comfortable with the instruments and musical styles of a great many different cultures through-out the Middle East and the Mediterranean. This means that intermingled with the sound of instruments like the oud which is native to the region, you'll also hear the strains of a bouzouki and piano mixed in. Of course the most obvious additions are those that were added in the production room; electronic sounds and rhythms.

There has been a noticeable trend among younger international musicians towards modernizing the sound of their parent's and grandparent's music with decidedly mixed results. While some have been able to strike a delicate balance between the old and the new, others have shown themselves to be far to eager to discard what it was that made their music special in the first place. Thankfully that's not the case with Inbar Bakal as she and her producer Carmen Rizzo have demonstrated they share an awareness of just how far they can push a song in that direction before it loses the distinctiveness that gave it character in the first place.

While Bakal sings in a mixture of Hebrew and English, the lyrics of her songs are another way in which she brings the material into the modern world. The song "The Bride" is a great example of this as its actually two songs in one that deals with the difficult subject of an arranged marriage. In the first song we are given the bride's perspective. She begs her family not to marry her off to this man whom she abhors and their answer is a resounding no. The "second" part of the song deals with the wedding itself and serves as a contrast to the bride's misgivings and reluctance.

What I appreciated most about Song Of Songs was the ability that Bakal and her producer showed in finding the balance between the modern and the new and the traditional and the innovative. Neither the use of instruments from the other cultures nor the manner in which they used production values interfered with the inherent beauty of the original music. You can not only feel the power and the passion of music that's been handed down from generation to generation, but Bakal's love and respect for what she's doing as well.
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Listen to the title track, "Song Of Songs", and you'll hear just how well she's able to blend the modern and the traditional. She has taken the words of the psalm and turned them into not only a wonderful love song, but a song that also celebrates the wonders of love. You can hear within the litany of praises for the lover's attributes her belief in what her grandfather called the divinity of love between people. Instead of the usual sentimental tripe normally heard in contemporary love songs, she has created a piece of music celebrating the awe and wonder that such feelings can exist between two people. After listening to "Song Of Songs", you can't help believing those emotions are so rarified they have to be a gift from some higher power or another.

Of course it doesn't really matter what the music is like if the person at the centre of the band can't deliver the goods. Thankfully Inbar Bakal delivers on the promise that her grandfather predicted for her when she was a teenager. Not only can she write wonderful songs, she has the vocal abilities to bring them to life. The two most obvious are her range and the amount of expression she's able to project no matter where on the scale she is singing. Some singers are able to climb and descend the scales at will, but lose their ability to project emotion at certain points. That's not the case with Bakal, as she is equally capable of letting you know what's being felt by the subject of her material whether she's singing in a low throaty growl or whispering at the upper end of the register.

The only complaint I have to make about Song Of Songs is that at six songs it ends far too quickly. In fact this disc is so short its really more an EP release than a full length disc. Than again, I suppose that's better than having to listen to a full length disc of really bad music, and never wanting to hear a performer again. For, there's one thing for certain, after listening to this disc you're definitely going to want to hear more. This is a collection of wonderfully crafted songs performed with passion and skill by a talented and expressive singer that successfully melds modern technology and ages old traditions.

May 15, 2009

Music Review: Casey Driessen - Oog

When you're told that someone plays the violin, or even the fiddle, you would be forgiven for thinking a recording of theirs would most likely either be of classical, country, or bluegrass music. Sure there're occasional recordings of jazz music done by violinists and you'll sometimes hear a violin as a featured instrument on a popular music CD, but those are exceptions to the rule. Therefore, when I was sent the newest Casey Driessen CD, Ogg I wasn't expecting anything much different from what I had heard from other musicians.

However, nothing you have heard before can quite prepare you for the experience of Casey Driessen. For although he's playing the same instrument, more or less, that other violinists have played in the past, what he does with it, and the music he records, is altogether unique to him. Listening to Oog the first time was like stepping into a maelstrom; at first the music pushes you one way, and the next moment it's pulling you another, so you don't ever quite get your bearings. He even denies you the comfort of anything like a discernible genre which would help you get your bearings.

However, a quick read of the extended liner notes provided at his web-site goes a long way towards helping you find your bearings. "I wander and wonder with open eyes and ears..." he writes, and then continues to explain how he finds his inspiration in the work of other artists, both visual and musical, the forces of nature, and "that difficult to pinpoint personal inner well where emotions and experience become one." Listening to Oog (the Dutch word for eye by the way) with this in mind at least gives us a context within which we can place the material, while the notes for each song give specifics as to what inspired him to create it.
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"Hummingbirds Vs. Yellowjackets", the third track on the disc, would appear at first glance to be one of the more obvious examples of how Driessen has turned his observations into music. For in the note about the song he tells us how he spent time one afternoon observing a gang of yellowjackets and hummingbirds competing for the nectar contained in a hummingbird feeder. However he cautions us not to expect to hear something literally representing the two creatures, for the majority of the tune had been written prior to him having witnessed the conflict, he merely finished writing the tune while watching them.

Well so much for the liner notes being of any help in deciphering the music, I don't think he could have been any more obscure if he tried. What the heck is he doing calling a song "Hummingbirds Vs. Yellowjackets" if its not about the creatures in question? However, he does say is that it was written in harmony with them, which means the music should at least reflect something about the experience in general. The funny thing is, that when I listened to the track again keeping what he had written about it in mind, I immediately visualized myself sitting outside in a backyard on a brilliantly lit sunny day, the type of day where both hummingbirds and yellowjackets would be out and about.

While there's none of the angry buzzing that one might expect from a conflict between angry insects and other creatures, the atmosphere Driessen creates with the music brought to mind the environment where the situation could exist. If you've ever stretched out in a backyard on a lazy afternoon where trees cast pockets of shade that contrast with bright patches of sun, and bumblebees float from flower to flower getting drunk on pollen, you'll begin to understand what he's talking about when he says the music is in harmony with the activities of the title creatures.

Of course this is only one piece of fourteen on the disc, and only begins to tell the story of Casey Driessen and Oog. He's also an avid experimenter in both form and style as can be seen with what he does on track seven, his rendering of Bill Monroe's bluegrass tune "Ashland Breakdown", and the approach he took for recording the ninth track "Lunar Cages". Instead of being merely satisfied with covering another's tune, Driessen takes "Ashland Breakdown" apart and literally puts it back together backwards. He learned the melody of the tune backwards and after recording it flipped it around and played it back "forwards".
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What he ended up doing was recording both backwards and forwards melodies and rhythms for the song and then playing them back together. It had to be one of the weirdest listening experiences I've ever had, hearing the same bit of music being played backwards and forwards at the same time. It felt like you were standing on a train track listening to the sound of two trains approaching, as you could actually hear the music moving in two directions at once. You can't help but be impressed by the mind that came up with that idea, and like he says, "everybody likes a backwards solo". Although you're not going to hear any hidden messages in this one.

"Lunar Cages" uses an old cajun fiddle technique known as "fiddlesticks" where the instrument is set to an open tuning and a rhythm is tapped out on the strings using small sticks. While his percussionist, Matt Chamberlain, established the initial beat on one fiddle Driessen wrote a melody that would float on top. The song itself was inspired by watching the lunar eclipse of February 2008, while the "Cages" of the title is a nod to John Cage and the pieces he created by rapping on the strings of pianos with a hammer. This time the piece is not only inventive in form, but the quality of the music is equally impressive. The thrum of the violin strings as they are being tapped by Chamberlain creates a beautiful harmonic sound that forms a backdrop for the other instruments to gradually build over while they simulate the slow eclipsing of the moon.

Casey Driessen is not what anyone would call your average fiddle player, and by no stretch of the imagination is Oog your average collection of fiddle tunes. On the other hand, if you come to the disc with an open mind and a willing imagination, I can guarantee you an experience unlike any you've ever had before listening to someone play the violin. While you may not like everything he does, you can't help but admire Driessen's intelligence and the spirit of creativity that drives him to explore his instrument's potential to its fullest. Music would certainly be a lot more interesting in general if there were more musicians as willing to take risks like Driessen.

May 11, 2009

DVD Review: Palace Of The Wind

Living our lives of ease and luxury in the cities of the world it's easy to forget that there are places on the planet where life is hard and unforgiving. Where a simple error in judgement can easily lead to dangerous accidents or even loss of life. We see photographs of the high Arctic or the Sahara Desert and we wonder at their harsh beauty. Seemingly lifeless, they both offer vista's of what seems like unchanging landscape for miles in every direction. Yet appearances are deceptive as each of them are home to not only a variety of plants and animals, but people as well.

Traditionally the people of both lands were nomadic, but gradually the lands they once utilized to hunt or graze their flocks have been taken away from them. Whether it's permanent cities and their auras of waste that spread for miles in every direction, men trying to harvest the gifts that lay just below the earth's crust, or borders between countries, the wanderers of this world are no longer as free to travel as they once were. However while some have elected to settle among the cities of this new world, others have found ways to adapt to the changes and maintain the life of their ancestors.

Documentary film maker Hisham Mayet spent the better part of two years travelling through the Sahara desert filming and recording the people and the musicians he met there. One of the results of that trip is a new documentary DVD, Palace Of The Winds, being released on May 12th/09 by Sublime Frequencies. However, don't expect your normal documentary movie with voice overs and talking heads leading you by the hand to tell you a story because that's not Mayet's way. His camera and sound equipment give you eyes and ears to see and hear the world he is travelling through but he leaves you to form your own impressions based on the information you're able to absorb.
Throughout the length of the roughly fifty-five minute film Mayet cuts between footage he shot while travelling between Guelmim in Southern Morocco and Nouakchott in Mauritian and footage of five groups of musicians he met along the way. With the music playing in the background as we travel through cities, nomad camps, and desert landscapes, we gradually begin to understand the context within which it was created. From the Atlantic coast in Morocco where the tidal flats appear to butt up against the beginnings of the Sahara, the sands and hills shaped by the wind that are the desert, a collection of felt and hide tents seemingly in the middle of nowhere that makes up an encampment, the back streets of a city lined with sun-baked clay buildings crumbling onto the sidewalk, to wide avenues cutting through a modern city; all are part of the world these people move through. 

At times watching this movie you occasionally lose track of the fact that you're in the twenty-first century, while at other moments you are confronted with a visual that emphasises the dichotomy of the nomads' world and the world they are travelling through. One of the most powerful images in the film was the camera pulling back from a large felt and hide tent only to see that it has been set up in the middle of a town square and that is surrounded on all sides by buildings and shops. Inside the tent a group of women, swathed from head to toe in cloth, some with their faces partially shielded, are either conducting some sort of divination ritual using sticks, or playing some sort of elaborate game. We have no way of knowing which as neither their demeanour or behaviour give us any indication as to the nature of what they are doing.

On another occasion the camera brings us inside and we are surrounded by woman, who are again covered head to toe with cloth, but this is obviously some sort of celebration as they are decked in all the colours of the rainbow. Bright yellows, greens, oranges, reds, purples and blues flash and glitter until you begin to feel like you've wandered into the nesting grounds of exotic tropical birds who've decided to compete to see who can grow the flashiest feathers. Initially the camera stays tightly focused on small groups of women and you just assume the music playing is simply the soundtrack like on other occasions. However when the camera finally pulls back to reveal the scene we see the band is playing live and that the only men in the room are two of the musicians and the waiters serving the women. Some of the women get up to dance and they are completely covered, faces and all, in their bright colours so that it looks like a rainbow has been called into life by the pulsating rhythm of the music. 
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While it might sound frustrating that Mayet never offers any clues as to what you're observing - what exactly were all those women doing together in their bright clothes being waited on by men? However, if you look at Palace Of The Wind in the same way you would a collage, a series of images placed together seemingly at random in order to create an overall impression, and don't worry about the meaning of each chapter in the movie, you will see that he has done an amazing job of depicting life among the nomads of this region. 

Of course, tying everything together is the music that plays continuously throughout the movie. Nearly half of the footage in the movie is of the musicians performing. Now we're not talking about them playing concerts, except for that one occasion described above, as for the most part they've been filmed in what looks to be rooms in their houses. Like other bands from the region the music is dominated by electric guitar and characterized by the hypnotic, trance like quality of its sound. Although, as we move from region to region a new band takes over, the music doesn't undergo any real noticeable changes. No matter if we are in a major metropolitan centre surrounded by cars and buildings or in the middle of the desert at a Nomad camp, the music is the thread that ties us to the people and that connects all the various scenes. They are the music and the music is them, and its what distinguishes them from the world around them.

Palace Of The Wind is not your usual type of documentary movie as it contains none of the narration or interviews that you're used to seeing. What it does do is give you an unprecedented look into the lives of the nomadic people of the Saharan desert, and the interrelationship between the people's lives and their music. Its an amazing voyage of discovery and exploration from which you're sure to retain vivid memories that will stick with you forever. You may never travel so far without leaving your house again.

April 21, 2009

Music Review: Various Performers The Rough Guide To Gypsy Music Vol.2

Descendants of nomadic people from the northern Indian province of Rajasthan, the Romani, commonly and erroneously referred to as Gypsies (the word gypsy comes from the Greek word Aigyptoi and comes from the story given out by the Romani that they were exiled from Egypt for sheltering the baby Jesus), began their western migration into Europe around 1100AD. In spite of being predominantly Christian, some are Islamic, they have been persecuted to an extent only equal to that suffered by Jews, since their arrival.

While a good deal of the prejudice against the Romani stems from their nomadic lifestyle marking them as notably different from the majority population, the darker complexion of their heritage is also a contributing factor. However, in spite of, and maybe because of, this persecution, a sentimental and romantic image of "The Gypsy" has developed in the West. Somehow Romani men are all passionate, and slightly dangerous, lovers, while the women are fiery and gorgeous seductresses. All of them, no matter what their gender, dance the Flamenco to the sounds of a wild violin around a roaring fire.

Now while it is true that the Romani from Spain, specifically Seville and the Catalonia region, were responsible for the development of flamenco music, that represents only one segment of their population. Music and culture changes from country to country, and even from region to region within a country, and as the Romani have travelled throughout Asia and Europe, their music has come to reflect the variety of cultural influences they have brushed against. Like everyone else they too have felt the impact of technology upon their lives, and new generations of Romani musicians, like their contemporaries the world over, are making use of it to help generate their music.
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A new release from the World Music Network, The Rough Guide To Gypsy Music (Second Edition) , attempts to show the diversity of music played by the Romani people as the fourteen tracks range from the expected flamenco guitar, brass band ensembles, and the sounds of northern India. While a couple of the groups represented on this disc have managed to reach international audiences in the past, Fanfare Ciocarlia and Taraf de Haidouks are probably the best known, very few of the other names will be familiar to many people.

If there is one complaint to make about the disc, aside from the title - isn't it about time labels stopped using Gypsy and began using Romani - it's the fact that its focus is a little too narrow. Sure they have an adequate representation of the various styles of music, but there is a tendency to lean towards horn dominated groups with some of the other styles not as adequately represented. That's not to say to say you won't hear violins, guitars, and the other instruments that are traditionally associated with Romani music, but on a causal listen those tracks where there isn't a horn playing stand out in sharp relief. I can understand their desire to get away from the stereotypical "gypsy violin", but there's more to the music than horns as well.

Two of the groups that do stand out because of their noticeable differences from the rest represent on the one hand the easternmost area of the Romani's range and on the other nearly their westernmost point in Europe. Son De La Frontera are from the birthplace of Flamenco, Seville Spain, while Musafir are a group of musicians playing the music of Rajasthan, India. Both groups have built upon the traditional music of their predecessors to develop a sound that is both familiar and new at the same time.
Listening to Son De La Frontera play "Un Compromiso" one hears not only the expected sounds of vibrant flamenco, but the sounds of Cuba mixed in as well. All that is stirring and inspiring about flamenco is still there, but they've also added the element of the Cuban steel string tres that gives the sound a harder edge than you'd normally expect. While the additional guitar might give it some extra spice, it's still the power of flamenco that makes this track so moving. These five performers are as powerful as any I've heard before as their voices soar in stirring harmonies and the music stomps fire into your veins; you hear this one song and you're going to want to hear more.

While the performers in Musafir aren't actually members of the tribal group who are the ancestors of today's European Romani, and wouldn't probably play together if they lived in Rajasthan, they do play music that is representative of the region. While some of the influences on their music - Indian film music and Arabic pop music - wouldn't have been around to influence those who migrated into the west, they would have been hearing the classical music of Northern India and the Islamic devotional music that also makes up Musafir's sound. Listening to their song, "Barish" you hear elements of classical Indian music; the steady beat of the tabla, the buzzing sound of a string instruments sympathetic strings resonating as it's strummed, and the familiar vocalizations, blending seamlessly with the more modern influences. It's an ear catching sound that at first attracts your attention because of its novelty, and then successfully holds it because of its energy and beauty.

The Rough Guide To Gypsy Music Vol. 2 contains music by obviously skilled performers who share a passion and a love for the music they play. While it goes a long way to dispelling the myth that Romani music consists solely of wild violins, and includes music representing many of the geographical regions they inhabit, it still felt like they hadn't cast their net wide enough. There are just a few too many songs by bands that sound too much alike for it to be an excellent disc instead of merely a good one. As a bonus, World Music Net is throwing in a previously released disc Introducing Bela Lakatos & The Gypsy Youth Project, a dynamic collection of Hungarian Romani music originally released in 2006.

April 14, 2009

Music Review: Trembling Bells Carbeth

In the late 1960's a new type of band appeared on the British pop music scene that combined elements of traditional British Isle folk music with modern instruments and psychedelic rock. Groups like Fairport Convention, Renaissance, and individuals like Bert Jansch, were famous for their wonderful instrumental work and breath taking vocal harmonies. While incarnations of each of the two bands are still active today and keeping that sound alive, the current crop of musicians interested in the same field are prone to tinkering with the old formula.

Judging by their debut album, Carbeth released on Honest Jon's Records, the four person band Trembling Bells have a similar affection for the music as their predecessors. Yet instead of being merely content to emulate them, they've also added some distinctly unique flavouring of their own into the mix. For while some elements of their sound; distinctive vocals, acoustic instruments, and a passion for early music stylings, are common to both generations of folk groups, Trembling Bells has spread their net somewhat further afield than Great Britain.

Your first indication that this isn't going to be quite like anything else you've heard comes right from the opening track on the disc, "I Listed All Of The Velvet Lessons". For although there's the expected soaring soprano female lead vocal singing what sounds like a tune written when central heating meant a fire pit in the middle of the room, the horn that sounds like it sprang from a parade through the streets of New Orleans is something new. On top of that, throughout the disc there are moments of discordance verging on cacophony which prevents the music from becoming overly precious and introduces an element of darkness absent from those earlier bands.
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The core of Trembling Bells are percussionist/drummer Alex Neilson, the above mentioned female soprano, Lavinia Blackwall, also handles the keyboard chores, Ben Reynolds plays guitar, harmonica, and chips in on vocals, and Simon Shaw is on bass. The sound on Carbeth is rounded out with the inclusion of trombonist George Murray and viola player Aby Vuillamy. While the former helps push the band into uncharted territory for a traditional folk group, the latter keeps them firmly rooted in the early music sound expected of them. If you think of them as the two extremes of the band's sound, you begin to get an idea of just how different they're from what's come before.

For although the titles of their songs sound appropriately medieval; "I Took To You (Like Christ To Wood)", "Willows Of Carbeth", and "Garlands Of Stars", the majority of them aren't about to inspire anybody to start Morris dancing on the village green. In fact most of them have a definite split personality when it comes to the music. This is especially noticeable on those songs where Blackwall takes the lead vocals as her beautiful soprano is a sharp contrast to the music playing behind her. Whether it's the keyboards swirling dervish like or the trombone playing blues tinged jazz, her voice is made to stand out so much it's purity plays against itself to the point where it almost jars against the ear. Like a sharpened knife her voice cuts and wounds and is one of the clearest indications that Trembling Bells aren't sentimental in their approach to traditional music.
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While some might find this approach disconcerting when they compare it to what they're used to, it seems to me a far more honest approach to the music than the overly romantic, and rather cloying sounds, of others. There was nothing easy about life during Medieval times when for the majority it was a struggle merely to survive. If you didn't die of disease or starvation, the back breaking work of merely staying alive would ensure you didn't live past forty. Trembling Bells may not sing songs about pestilence and famine, but the qualities they've imbued their music with dispels any notions of this era being some sort of rustic paradise.

Lest I've given you the impression that Trembling Bells are simply a discordant bunch of noisemakers, let me reassure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Their songs are all marvellously crafted and superbly played pieces of music performed by extremely talented individuals. It takes an incredible amount of talent and skill to push music to the very edge of dissonance without ever falling over into discordance and they show a fine ear and a deft touch by never allowing that to happen. Like the best avant-garde jazz they might give the impression of chaos, but the reality is they always know exactly what they're doing.

Trembling Bells may have deconstructed the traditional folk music genre, but that doesn't mean they are without affection for it. In fact, I think their efforts to breath new life into this style of music, their desire to give it a more authentic feel, shows the depth of their appreciation. Certainly the music on Carbeth is not easy to listen to, and requires a certain amount of effort on the part of the listener, but the result is something far more rewarding than anything previously attempted in this field. If you come to this album simply hoping to hear a rehashing of what's been done before you will be disappointed. However if you're willing to listen carefully and allow the music to work its magic on you - you'll be amazed by what they have to offer.

April 9, 2009

Music Review: Jake Shimabukuro Jake Shimabukuro Live

It's been difficult for me to take the ukulele seriously as an instrument ever since I saw Tiny Tim squeak his way through "Tip Toe Through The Tulips" in his annoying falsetto. To be perfectly honest up until a few years ago I did my best to avoid anything remotely connected to the instrument because of the association. I first started to overcome my prejudice while listening to the multi-instrumentalist virtuoso Bob Brozman and learnt the instrument was capable of doing much more than I had originally thought.

However, it's only now that I've listened to Jake Shimabukuro's forth coming release, Jake Shimabukuro Live (April 14th/09 on Hitchhike Records), that I've truly come to appreciate the ukulele. After listening to Jake play you can't believe that he's playing something with only four strings. There's plenty of guitar players out there who would be hard pressed to do what's he's capable of doing with four strings with their six strings.

The nearly twenty tracks on Live range from Shimabukuro's interpretation of classical pieces, to his renditions of such pop classics like "Thriller" and George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps. What's truly amazing about the show he puts on is he holds your attention as a completely solo act; there's no band, nor orchestra, and nothing on tape backing him up. It's just Jake and his ukulele.
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The ukulele is a four string, two octave instrument, making you think that it must be extremely limited in the the sounds that produces. Not if you're a performer like Shimabukuro as he's able to squeeze sounds out of his instrument that will have you swearing he's playing a regular guitar. There's none of the "plink-plink" sound one would normally expect from a high pitched instrument like it, nor does he use it simply to keep rhythm by strumming a few chords. Instead he's turned it into a lead instrument that rivals the mandolin for its intricacy, and the guitar for its diversity of sound.

Although the first thing you're bound to notice when listening to Jake Shimabukuro is the speed at which he plays, what impressed me the most was that unlike other technically proficient players he also plays with a lot of emotion. Even though it seems like his fingers are flying almost all the time, either up and down the fret board or picking, he doesn't neglect the emotional content of his material either. Certainly his cover of something like "Thriller" is primarily an example of technical prowess. However his performance of "Bach Two Part Invention In D-Minor" makes you forget what instrument he is playing as the beauty of the music is the focus, not his talent or his technique.

Listen carefully to the song that made him famous, his cover of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and you'll soon find that you're again forgetting about the instrument he's playing and becoming wrapped up in the music instead. While it's a little strange at first to hear the song being played as an instrumental, eventually you begin to hear the lyrics being "sung" in his playing. As the notes are picked to form the tune that is so very familiar, the melody comes to life with such passion and love that you soon forget its not being sung. I've heard many attempts to play instrumental version of pop songs, especially ones by the Beatles, but this is the first time I've heard one that manages to capture the spirit of the original song.
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It's not just classical music and pop songs that he brings his remarkable talents to bear on either, for one of the earlier tracks on the disc is a cover of the Chick Corea tune "Spain". Now I was never much of a fan of Chick Corea's music when played by him, as they ran far more in the direction of pop music than jazz for my taste. Hearing Shimabukuro playing the piece gave it a dimension that it lacked before and I found myself appreciating the song more than I ever did when it was performed by the composer.

Part of that might have been the novelty of hearing the song being played on ukulele, but if that were all there was to it, I would have lost interest after only a short while. While it might have been the instrument that captured my attention in the first place, it was Shimabukuro's ability to breath life into the music that held it for the entire length of the piece. There's something about how he plays, perhaps it has to do with a deftness of touch or the precision with which he plays each note, that allows you to hear and feel each note no matter how fast he's playing, which pulls you into the piece and holds you fast until its completed.

Listening to track fourteen, "Sakura Sakura", a traditional Japanese folk song that's normally played on the thirteen string Japanese instrument know as a Koto, you really appreciate that ability. This is one of the slower songs on the disc and somehow he makes each note ring as if far more strings were involved than just the four at his disposal. Each note is allowed to resonate to maximum effect before he strikes the next one, allowing the listener to feel it completely. There's an intensity to the performance that almost makes it unbearable, so in some ways you're relieved when the song ends because each note is so beautiful that you quickly become overwhelmed by them.

To many people the ukulele is a novelty instrument and not to be taken seriously. However, when you hear Jake Shimabukuro play you're quickly disabused of that notion. In his hands it's comparable to any stringed instrument, whether bowed or plucked, and capable of playing any genre of music. Jake Shimabukuro is an amazing musician who is not only technically skilled, but able to plumb the emotional depths of any piece of music he attempts. This is a magnificent recording by an amazing performer that shouldn't be missed by anybody who genuinely appreciates great music.

April 2, 2009

Music Review: Ersatzmusika Songs Unrecantable

I suppose that most people in North America if they think of Russian music at all will either think of the Red Army Chorus extolling the virtues of the "Workers Paradise" by singing "The International", or groups of Cossack dancers doing improbable steps to the sound of balalaikas. Well the "Worker's Paradise" hasn't existed, if it ever really did, since the late 1980's, and Cossacks haven't had much to dance about in years, so you need to throw all those old expectations away and be prepared for anything when you listen to what contemporary Russian musicians are creating.

Germany and Russia haven't what you call a history of amicable relationships down through the years, and the twentieth century was a particularly bad time as each took turns in occupying the other for extended periods. However, this hasn't stopped Russian musicians being welcomed when they've gone searching for greener pastures in the West as they look to make a living from their craft. Which explains how the Russian group Ersatzmusika comes to be based out of Berlin Germany and is about to release their second CD, Songs Unrecatable, on the German label Asphalt-Tango. (While April 10th/2009 is the release date for the physical disc, you can download, and preview, the CD at the Asphalt-Tango site above as well as a songbook illustrated by the band's lead singer, Irina Doubrovskaja.)

If you download the songbook one of the first things you'll notice is the lyrics are in English, and that's not because they've been translated, it's because almost all the songs on Songs Unrecantable are sung in that language. Although to be honest lead singer Doubrovskaja's accent is so thick that if you're only listening casually chances are you're probably going to assume she's singing in Russian. To be fair it's not just her accent, the music the band plays is so different from what most of us are used to hearing when it comes to Eastern European folk, that the combination of the two makes for a sound so alien to our ears you can be easily forgiven for not noticing she is singing in English. It's a little different when native English speaker Thomas Cooper (he also translated all the songs into English) sings on tracks eleven and thirteen, but by then the disc is almost over and the atmosphere been long set.
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Before anyone starts jumping to any conclusions about brooding Russians or anything equally stupid, by mood I'm referring to the fact that Doubrovskaja sounds likes a Russian accented Marlene Dietrich. Yet while both she and Dietrich evoke smoke filled cabarets with dim lights, musically, lyrically the two women are miles apart. For while the former's stock in trade was sultry love songs, the latter's lyrics drip irony onto music that tastes of a little bit of everything from Balkan beat box to traditional folk sounds. There's actually something eerily familiar about Ersatzmusika's overall sound that escaped me for the longest time, until it struck me how much they reminded me of The Doors in their slower and more pensive moments.

While they might share certain characteristics with other performers and have drawn upon various styles, it's doubtful you've ever heard anything quite like Ersatzmuika before. While the instruments in play sound like the normal array for an Eastern European folk ensemble/pop group: guitar (Leonid Soybelman, Sergej Voronzov, Fuslan Kalugin, and Phil Freeborn); bass (Konstantin Orlov, and the late Igor Vdovchenko on two tracks); drums and percussion (Michail Zukov and Roman Buschuev); keyboard, piano, and accordian (Irina Doubrovskaja); cello (Sergej Chanukaev); synthesizer (Werner Zein); and harmonica (Roman Buschuev), the results are anything but standard.

Where one has come to expect a lively sound inspired by polka's, the heady influence of gypsy violins, or other rural traditions, you find moody, atmospheric sounds which are a far more accurate reflection of life today. The lyrics in turn are a match for this sound as they offer commentary on humanity's checkered history and uncertain future. The opening lines of "Gypsy Air", the first track on the CD, give you a good idea of the band's appraisal of our past: "Woe filled times we must abide/& woe betide him who knows not this...Let us compile a list/Of the wrongs that man commits/Never shying ignominy/Clipped the wings, ducked the tail/Little boy, Nagasaki."
However it's not only the past they are concerned with as they capture the true price of the greed and materialism that plagues today a little later in the same song with the following lines, "That tenderness' needs must contrast/With tender, its negation." I don't think I've heard a condemnation of a system that puts selling above caring phrased so succinctly and directly before. Now, lest you think they're only a one note band, they also show themselves capable of being darkly humorous. "Oh Pterodactyl", track seven, is a darkly delightful examination of our genealogy. "There has of late been much debate/Bout what is round and what is straight/And why no politician/Could have a forebear simian/But oh pterodactyl/To you we owe a/Oh pterodactyl/A debt of honour/Oh pterodactyl/Although that Noah/Oh pterodactyl/Wants to disown ya."

It's hard to describe the experience of listening to Songs Unrecantable by Ersatzmusika simply because there's not much else like them around to offer up as a comparison. Their accents mark them as Eastern European, and there are elements of their music that reflect that heritage, but not in the way we've grown accustomed to hearing them as presented by world music labels. This is an edgier, more contemporary, and urban sound which, while it doesn't discount its heritage, uses it as its springboard to something new instead of just recreating what's been done before. It's only fitting though considering their song's lyrics, which are not only predominately in English to allow for more universal comprehension, are also far more relevant to today's world than what we're used to.

Recently we've seen how young musicians from backgrounds as diverse as Balkan and Roma have begun to make their sound more contemporary while maintaining a connection to their traditional music. Ersatzmuzika is on the leading edge of the movement intent on proving anything old can be new again and in the process are creating some great music.

March 27, 2009

Music DVD Review: Tinariwen Tinariwen Live In London

Life has always been hard for the nomadic people who live in the deserts of the world. However the advance of civilization and all that accompanies it has seen what used to be a tough but possible existence become virtually impossible. This has been especially true for the Tuareg people of the Northern Sahara. What was once their territory has now been split up among five countries and severely curtailed by the encroachment of cities and mining facilities. From Algeria and Libya in the north, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso in the south, the Tuareg have gradually been forced to give up their traditional nomadic ways and try to adopt to a sedentary existence.

They have not surrendered without a fight though, and their history in post colonial Africa since 1963 has been marked by sporadic uprisings in an attempt to secure rights and maintain a hold on their territories. During the uprisings of the 1980's a group of young Tuareg receiving military training in Libya started performing music together first as a means of entertaining themselves and the other Tuareg in Libya, but then as a way of spreading the message of the rebellion among their scattered peoples. The songs spoke of what they had lost and what they hoped to regain, and were designed to inspire people to resist and fight for their rights.

This was the beginnings of Tinariwen, who have arguably become synonymous with the Tuareg in Europe and North America. Since then the band's founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, and his first band mates have been joined by younger Tuareg musicians eager to learn the style of music he pioneered. Combining traditional tribal rhythms with the sound of the modern electric guitar might at first sound like an odd mix, but you only have to hear Tinariwen once to become a convert to their sound. Even better than listening is seeing, and the recently released Tinariwen: Live In London DVD produced by Independiente and World Village Music combines sixty-eight minutes of concert footage with interviews and documentaries to bring both the band and the people they represent to life.
The concert footage is from the group's performance at The Shepherds Bush Empire in London England in December of 2007. Watching them perform, even via a camera, one can't help but be drawn into the oasis of sound they created on the stage that night. To our eyes the composition of the group might seem odd; a djembe (hand drum), a bass player, up to three people on guitar, and two background vocalists isn't the line-up we've come to expect at a pop music concert. Than again you need to throw away any and all expectations you might have about music when watching and listening to Tinariwen, for they can't be defined by any of our genres.

As the lyrics of all the songs are sung in their native Tamasheq, it's the music the band makes that we focus on. As it turns out, the sound of their voices play a key role in the overall atmosphere of the music whether you can understand them or not. With each song following the pattern of the lone drum setting the pace and establishing each song's rhythm and the bass and rhythm guitars reinforcing what he's started and adding a melody for the vocalists to follow and the lead guitar to counter point, there is a certain amount of similarity to all the songs. However this does not mean they all sound the same, just that they share common elements, much like would happen in any style of music.

Tinariwne's music is deceptive, for initially it merely sounds like they are endlessly repeating the same musical refrain over and over again. Gradually, however, what might have become boring in the hands of others, becomes almost entrancing. For as the music works upon you it also takes hold of you, and becomes more compelling the more you listen to it. There's something about it that draws you deeper and deeper into the sound, until finally you are not only able to feel it affecting you physically, in that it makes you want to tap your feet and move to the rhythm, but emotionally as well.

If you're at all familiar with the Sufi Muslim tradition of the whirling dervishes where the dancers obtain a trance like state through music and movement, than the state that the music Tinariwen manages to induce in its listeners won't be unfamiliar to you as you undergo a similar transformation. Now obviously you won't be ascending to quite the level as dervishes, but the music will "carry" you in a way that pop music just isn't capable of doing. Of course watching them perform only contributes to this sensation, for during the songs individual members of the band allow themselves to be caught up in the music and through their dancing we are drawn even deeper into the music
Aside from the concert footage the DVD also contains an extensive interview with the band's leader and founder, Ibrahim, in which he discusses his life, the contemporary history of the Tuareg, the rebellion he took part in, and what he hopes to accomplish with the band now that armed uprisings are a thing of the past for him.(Although they're not a thing of the past for all Tuareg as oil exploration in Mali has provoked new uprisings because of how it threatens even further depletion of the Tuareg's traditional lands) Its a fascinating, and rather graphic, description of the poverty and hardship faced by his people, and his efforts to keep their culture alive through his music.

Tinariwen Live In London is a wonderful opportunity to see this incredible band in concert. Combining elements of traditional Tuareg music with modern electric guitar, Tinariwen are arguing the case for their people's survival by showing the world their culture is still vital and alive. Where once their lyrics might have inspired their fellows to take up arms, now they recount their history and remind Tuareg listeners of their cultural heritage. While we might not be able to understand the details of the message, the power of their performance is testimony to their strength of spirit and the importance of this band. They are currently touring the United States, check the World Village Music web site for dates and locations, and if this DVD is anything to go by, that's a concert you don't want to miss if at all possible.

March 26, 2009

Music Review: Chris Darrow Under My Own Disguises Box Set

Have you ever noticed how there is always some great musician that almost no one's ever heard of who supposedly is better at what he or she does than all those who have become famous for playing the same style of music? It's amazing how ordinary so many of these supposed hidden great ones turn out to be, and the reason they never made it big becomes obvious as soon as you listen to them. However, once in a while one of these folk turn out to be the real deal, which is the case with a guy named Chris Darrow.

I don't know about anybody else but I'd never heard of him before I read the press release announcing the Everloving label was releasing the Under My Own Disguise Box Set consisting of Darrow's first two solo releases, Chris Darrow and Under My Own Disguise (from 1973 and 1974 respectively) on both LP and CD, plus a forty-eight page 12 X 12 inch photo book. The review copy I received was a single CD without any of the bells and whistles, but it did contain what really matters, the twenty-one tracks from the original releases. While it's true what I said about having never heard of Darrow before, reading through his biography made me realize how many times I had heard him without knowing it.

Even the briefest summary of his career sounds like a whose who of the country/rock genre and folk as Darrow was one of the founding members of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back in 1967, played with Linda Ronstadt and Hoyt Axton, was the basest on Leonard Cohen's first album, and played fiddle and violin on James Taylor's Sweet Baby James. When he wasn't doing country/rock he was experimenting with psychedelic rock by co-founding with David Lindley Kaleidoscope, playing bluegrass with The Dry City Scat Band (again with David Lindley), and even had a stint with The Flying Burritos. It appears that he hasn't met a stringed instrument he doesn't like for he plays guitar, fiddle, bass, violin (which is different from fiddle playing), banjo, Dobro, lap steel, and mandolin for a start.
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However its his own work that we're mainly concerned about here, and while there are a lot of great session musicians who can pick up almost any instrument and play it, very few of them ever go on to recording their own music, or if they do it ends up not being that special. I wasn't sure what to expect from Chris Darrow; his press materials mentioned one of my personal favourites Graham Parsons, but also made reference to that mockery of country rock, The Eagles. Much to my relief Darrow's music from that period was far closer to Parsons then The Eagles, while at the same time being almost completely different from most anything else I'd heard before.

While some of the songs are pure country, like "Albuquerque Rainbow" or "We're Living On $15 A Week", there's others that veer over towards the psychedelic jug band sound of the Grateful Dead. "Take Good Care Of Yourself" seems to have four different melodic patterns going on, starting with the reggae derived beat that drives the song and finishing with Darrow's laconic, country tinged vocals on the off beat. Somehow, although it constantly feels like its on the verge of imploding, this strange mixture not only manages to find its way to the end of the song, but it sounds great.

The rest of the songs from those two early solo releases show off Darrow's virtuosity as he plays mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, bass, fiddle, slide-guitar, dobro, guitar, sings lead, and produced them as well. Probably the only stringed instrument he doesn't play is the Celtic Harp played by Alan Stivell. "Devil's Dream" is a beautiful instrumental with Darrow accompanying Stivell's harp with his mandolin. The harp shows up again on the next track "We Don't Talk Of Lovin' Anymore", which sounds like Darrow's reached back and grabbed the Celtic roots of country music and combined them with American folk to create this aching and haunting song.
Listening to Darrow's music one can't help feeling cheated, because you realize just how severely country music and so-called country rock have compromised themselves in their attempts to be commercially viable. The irony is once anybody listens to any of Darrow's music they're not going be satisfied with anything from either Nashville or the bland tedium of the Eagles. Darrow's music has the honesty and passion of Graham Parson at his best and the musical inventiveness of the Dead, while drawing upon traditional folk, blues, early rock and roll, and psychedelic pop for inspiration.

Today we'd probably try and fit him into the roots rock or Americana genres, but realistically you can't cram him into any of those neat little categories. I mean what are you going to do with a guy who covers Hoagy Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues" and then latter on has a song like "That's What It's Like To Be Alone"; a plaintive lament whose lead instruments are cello, harp, what sounds like a kazoo, and harpsichord. The fact that medieval and renaissance instruments like the rebec (and early stringed and bowed instrument), sacbut (an early version of the saxophone) and others equally obscure show up to rub shoulders with mandolins and guitars only make him harder to pin down.

It's one thing to go back in time and re-discover music by someone who's no longer with us and mourn what's been lost and regret over what could have been. It's another thing altogether to look back on an artist's career to help put his current output into perspective. Chris Darrow is still alive and well and producing compositions quite unlike anything you'll see and hear anywhere else. The web site Chris Darrow's Art contains examples of both his photography and current music projects and shows that he's still drawing outside the lines and charting his own unique course.

While some have seen fit to lump Chirs Darrow's work from the 1970's into the same category as the Eagles and other California so called country/rockers, it doesn't take long to realize just how erroneous a judgement that is. Even one quick scan through either Chris Darrow or Under My Own Disguise will tell you how much more exciting and innovative he was than anything else from that era. The early 1970's might have been primarily a wasteland of commercial pabulum when it came to pop music, but there was at least one shining light being hid under a bushel, and his name is Chris Darrow.

March 7, 2009

Music Review: Fareed Haque & The Flat Earth Ensemble Flat Planet

Anybody familiar with even the most basic history of jazz and blues knows how they both have their origins in African tribal music that came to North America with slaves. When the slaves were Christianized by their masters those sounds formed the basis for the music of their churches, which in turn provided the inspiration for its secular cousins jazz and blues. Of course African American traditional, or folk music, isn't the only one to have inspired other genres. In Louisiana's Cajun music one can hear the sounds of Normandy that were brought south by the deported former settlers of New France, the Acadians, while traditional Hungarian, Romanian, and Roma (gypsy) music inspired the orchestral compositions of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.

So it's only natural for a jazz musician whose origins are in South East Asia to want and go back to the traditional music of where he was born and use it as inspiration for a new series of compositions. Which is exactly what Fareed Haque has done with his latest group, Fareed Haque & The Flat Earth Ensemble, on the soon to be released CD, Flat Planet, on the Owl Studios label. Drawing specifically upon the folk music of Pakistan and North Western India (which is also the basis for today's Bollywood music as well) Haque's intent was to emulate fellow jazz musicians of African American descent embracing of, what he calls, "the groove of gospel music", by doing the same with "the groove of my own heritage". Punjabi folk music, he claims, is to India what gospel is to America - funky, fun, danceable and spiritual.

In order to achieve his goal Haque has augmented Flat Earth Ensemble's regular line up with some special guests. The band is already a mix of traditions featuring as it does players on the instruments we normally associate with jazz; guitars, saxophone, drums, keyboards, and bass as well as those playing tabla, dhol, and other South East Asian percussion instruments. However the addition of sitar and Hindustani violin allows them to expand their sound even more and explore melody as well as rhythm.
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Anyone familiar with Bollywood musicals, especially modern ones, and movies like Bend It Like Beckham that have brought Indian music to Western audiences, will know that Haque isn't exaggerating with his description of the music as funky and fun. However if you come to this disc expecting to hear something along the lines of what you'd hear in one of those movies you'll be disappointed. Remember he's not trying to recreate either Bollywood, traditional folk, or even the dance hall music that has sprung up out of the fusion of Bhangra (the name given a specific type of folk and dance music from the Punjabi region of India) with hip-hop, reggae, and house music. What he's doing is creating music that draws upon those influences like jazz draws upon gospel.

While some of the tracks have beats and sounds that make them immediately identifiable as South East Asian, much like you can hear identifiable elements of funk in some jazz fusion projects, there are quite a few more where he's taken a couple of quantum leaps away from his source material to create something new. However, in order to ensure that listeners are able to appreciate, as much as possible, what he has created, Haque builds up to those pieces by beginning the disc with songs containing elements of either rhythm or melody that we can identify with. It's like he's showing us the various stages he went through in working with the music in order to develop his final sound.

Whether it's the track that leads off the disc, "Big Bhangra", with its insistent, tabla and kanjira driven beat that evokes the pulsating rhythm that propels dancers across the screen of a Bollywood musical, or "The Chant", incorporating sitar and violin to flavour the melody, the tracks at the beginning of the disc introduce the listener to the various elements that are used in the traditional music. However, even with these tunes he and the band are starting to expand and develop those aspects and give you an indication of the direction he will taking the music in.
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Somehow or other, even at this stage, the music doesn't seem like a fusion of sounds, where one has been welded onto the other. Instead it feels like Haque and his band are taking individual elements - as described above - and seeing how they interact with the band's regular sound in order to develop something new. It's like they are asking themselves what does a sitar do to the melody line of a song and how can we create that feel without actually using its sound? Of course, as these songs are in of themselves great pieces of music, the music is nowhere near as clinical as that sort of description makes it sound. However, as we progress further into the recording and the band is pared back to only its original membership, we begin to feel the Punjabi influence more than actually hear Punjabi sounds in the music.

So by the time we reach the conclusion of the disc, three movements from "The Four Corners Suite"; tracks nine ("North"), ten ("South"), and eleven ("West"), Haque and the rest of The Flat Earth Ensemble have created a sound in which you can hear the debt owed to the folk music without actually hearing any of its distinctive elements. It's like you would never think to hear it that John Coletrane's music is related to African American gospel, as it has evolved so far from that sound.

Flat Planet by Fareed Haque & The Flat Earth Ensemble is a great disc that's not only filled with interesting and fun music, but gives you an insight into how a musician will develop a new sound. Derived from the traditional music of the Punjabi region of India and the surrounding environs, the sound he ultimately creates is not only appreciative of Haque's cultural background, but beautiful in its own right.

January 31, 2009

Music CD/Book Review: Various Performers Money Will Ruin Everything Second Edition

Almost every week without fail you can read somewhere about how the end of the CD is nigh. Digital downloads of Mp3s are no longer the way of the future, they are now. All those big cumbersome CD players are being replaced by teeny little I-pod clones that can hold hundreds if not thousands more songs than one 700mb CD ever could. At one time the downloading of music from the Internet was the province of hackers and considered an illegal activity. Now every major record company has got in on the act and new releases are routinely available to download from I-Tunes long before they come available in hard copy.

Of course this saves them tons of money, as there's no longer the need to create physical packaging. If an item is being downloaded what purpose is served by spending a small bundle on cover art or liner notes - simply post the stuff to a web page once and be done with it. Well maybe I'm old fashioned, but one of the things that I still miss most about LPs (Long Playing records for those folk under thirty who don't remember what came before CDs) is the great album art. CDs are such dinky little things that what you get is a postage stamp compared to the huge expanse of colour that covered LPs. Yet at least with the CDs you get something you can hold on to while listening to your music - some tangible proof that somebody, somewhere, went to some effort to produce something.

It turns out that I'm not as alone or weird as I thought I was in those thoughts as the independent Norwegian label Rune Grammofon is proving with the release of Money Will Ruin Everything: The Second Edition on February 3/09. Gathered together on two CDs, a poster, and an accompanying book, they are releasing their second package celebrating the various performers signed to their label. The two CDs contain samples from the various groups and individuals they've recorded and the book is chock full of interviews, articles, photos, album art, and other mementoes related to the past five years of their recording history.
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To be honest I'd never heard of the label until I received the press release from their North American distributor, Forced Exposure, and had no idea what kind of music they produced. What attracted me was the fact that this little label had the balls to produce this type of package when nearly everyone else is going in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. I had to know more about this label produce that they would go to this much effort to celebrate their performers and who are the people responsible for making it happen.

According to an interview that's published in the book with label owner Rune Kristofferson it sounds like its pretty much a one man show with Rune doing all the work himself. Although it means he's unable to sign or record all the bands he wants to, it's a very deliberate effort on his part to keep the label small and not become another big corporation where money is the bottom line. I think that the sub-title of the collection, But The Music Goes On Forever tells you all you need to know about what motivates Rune and his efforts.

When I requested a copy of Money Will Ruin Everything I didn't know what to expect, but I thought it might be a collection of experimental and electronic music that verged on the edge of dissonance. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that although some of the music fell into that category, there was also a great deal of diversity to be found among the groups and individuals signed to the label. From the ethereal sounds of Susanna And The Magical Orchestra's version of Henry Purcell's "When I Am Laid" to Shining's cover of the old King Crimson cut "21st Century Schizoid Man" there's something here for every ear to listen to and be amazed by.

The overall impression you get from listening to the two disc set is that Rune Grammofon is a label where it's the quality of the music that matters, not the kind of music being played. Considering it's only one person making the decisions behind what gets recorded each year you'd expect some sort of pattern to develop that would give you an indication of his personal preferences when it comes to music. Instead what you get is a wider range of music than anything you'd find on any label with multiple producers and talent scouts.

As for what attracted me to request a copy of this collection in the first place, the packaging, that doesn't disappoint either. The book is an amazing collection of images from the last five years of Rune Grammofon's existence including everything from examples of some of the most interesting cover art you've seen together in one place, images of Oslo Norway where most of the recordings have happened, and photos of most of the folk who appear on the compilation. The articles that have been written for the package reflect how so many different people mourn the passing of cover art, and respect and admire the work that Rune Kristofferson is doing with his little label.

There's also a wonderfully chaotic atmosphere to the layout that captures the free spirit of the label. Absolutely nothing about anything you see, or hear, in Money Will Ruin Everything says "corporate", which to my mind is a good thing when it comes to music, especially popular music.

In this day and age when less is increasingly becoming the adage of all music production companies and album art is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, it's taken a small independent label from Norway, Rune Grammafon, to remind us what a joy it is to have something tangible to go with the music you love. Money Will Ruin Everything The Second Edition proves that not only does music not have to all sound the same, but you can still make the experience of purchasing it a pleasure for more than just one of your senses.

January 25, 2009

Music DVD Review: Ladysmith Black Mambazo -Ladysmith Black Mambazo Live

Like most North Americans my first exposure to Ladysmith Black Mambazo came through Paul Simon's Graceland recording. While the album featured other guest performers from various backgrounds, this amazing sounding male vocal ensemble from South Africa stood out from the rest. In those days, the mid 1980's, the idea of world music was still a novelty to most people, and the sound of their voices was enough to make us notice them. During the North American tour that followed Graceland's release they appeared on Saturday Night Live (SNL) with Paul Simon, and I was given a far too brief glimpse of this amazing vocal group's power.

In the ensuing years I've had plenty of opportunities to listen to their music on CD and each time have been amazed anew at their ability to harmonize and the sounds and atmosphere they are able to create with their voices alone. One of my biggest regrets is that I've never had the opportunity to see them perform save for that brief appearance on SNL nearly twenty-five years ago. Thankfully the perfect remedy is now at hand as on January 27th/09, Heads Up International will be releasing the DVD Ladysmith Black Mambazo Live. Recorded live from EJ Thomas Hall at the University Of Akron in Ohio, the DVD captures not only the music that bewitched me from their recordings, but their awe inspiring ability as live performers.

Those of you who have seen them in performance, either live or through concert footage, know what I'm talking about and how simply listening to them perform fails to capture their complete essence. I'm not just talking about the dance steps or hand movements that are a choreographed part of all their shows, although that is a key component. No, what you fail to experience when listening to their CDs is the brilliance of the energy they exude while performing.
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At the beginning of the concert the group's founder and leader, Joseph Shabalala, talks about the power and strength of tradition and how when its properly rooted, people, like the strongest of trees, are able to withstand any storms the world can throw at them. Watching Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform is to see that personified, for what else could explain the mesmerizing influence they have on an audience. Without instruments, without fancy light shows, or any of the other accoutrements that we associate with music concerts these days, they hold us spellbound. When they sing they seem to be drawing upon the history of their land and their people and are expressing the feelings of joy that they derive from being who they are.

Even a deceptively simple song like the fourth track "Hello My Baby", that appears to be nothing more than a typical love song, evolves into something far more compelling than the song's title seems to justify. The lyrics aren't overly complicated or even stimulating, nor does the way the group arranges itself on the stage, a row of nine with the tenth, leader Shahbalala, standing alone in front, lend itself to supposing anything dramatic is about to happen.

Then they start to sing. You may not notice anything besides their wonderful voices, the amazing harmonies, and the effortless grace with which they incorporate small and large movements into their singing to start with, but as the song continues you can't help but be aware that something is gradually building. I know it sounds sort of "New Age" and flakey, but it begins to feel like they are weaving some sort of ritual that takes you inside the music so that at some point what's being said ceases to matter and the music takes on a life of its own.

Although Ladysmith Black Mambazo are still up there singing and moving, they are now accompanied by another presence - the music. Okay, I know what that sounds like, and let me assure you my days of pharmaceutical experimentation are long in the past, but there is a quality to their performance that verges on the hypnotic, akin to the chanting that one would associate with rituals used to evoke trances. The more you allow yourself to be drawn into the music the stronger its pull on you becomes, until you can't help but feel it as a distinct, living, and breathing entity.
One of the reasons that you are able to experience this sensation while watching this video is the magnificent job that has been done in filming the concert. The cameras have been situated such that you are right on stage with the performers. Imagine having seats at a concert where you're on stage with the band and have the freedom to wander around so that one moment your standing nose to nose with an individual and the next you have stepped back and are able to take them in as a full ensemble, and you'll have a good idea as to what a good job they have done.

Even more remarkable though was the quality of the sound recording. Like everything else these days you have the option of 5.1 surround sound, but it's what the cameras pick up that make it special. Periodically the members of the group dance while singing, and there are moments when their movements take them out of range of their microphones yet you can still hear their voices singing faint but clear. It's touches like this that really bring the magic of this concert to life in a way that I've never seen done before on DVD.

Included on the DVD are interviews with Shabalala, and other members of the ensemble. Shabalala gives an account of how the group was originally formed and a little of his own personal history. While these are interesting enough, it's the music that makes this disc truly remarkable. Singing in a mix of Zulu and English, unaccompanied by any instrument, a Ladysmith Black Mambazo performance has to be one of the purest forms of musical expression you can hope to experience. Ladysmith Black Mambazo Live brings that vibrancy into your living room via your television and DVD player.

If you've never had the chance to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo in person, this is the next best thing. In fact it might even be better, as the cameras capture moments that you could easily miss while sitting in the audience of a concert hall. Note for note this is probably one of the best concert DVDs that I have ever seen.

January 5, 2009

Music Review: Novalima Coba Coba

Prior to the coming of the Spanish in the 16th century Peru was home to the sophisticated civilization of the Inca empire. Although the Inca had managed to subjugate their various neighbours and raise exquisite cities, they quickly fell to the Spaniards due to gunpowder, disease, and deceit. Once the conquistadors had sated their lust for gold it was time to start settling the territory, and since they had pretty much exterminated the local crop of potential slaves they had to rely on importing Africans like everyone else.

As has been the case throughout the Western hemisphere where Africans were used as slaves, the African population in Peru brought with them their own traditions, including music. However, unlike North America where it became one of the key foundations for popular popular music, in Peru their music, like their population, has remained segregated from the mainstream. African Americans in South America are routinely second class citizens, and anything associated with them is considered inferior, including their music. So, aside from sporadic recognition from outside performers like David Byrne's The Soul Of Black Peru released in 1995, little Afro-Peruvian music has been heard outside of its own community.

In 2001 four young Peruvians, Ramon Perez-Prieto, Grimaldo Del Solar, Rafael Morales, and Carlos Li Carrillo, from outside the Afro-Peruvian community formed the group Novalima as a way to experiment with their appreciation for both Peruvian and modern music, and in 2002 released their first disc, Novalima. They had invited various musicians from the Afro Peruvian community to participate and created a disc that mixed both traditional rhythms and contemporary sounds. When the disc went platinum in Peru, they realized they were onto something and in 2006, they released Afro internationally, and firmly establishing Afro-Peruvian music on the world scene as it spent ten weeks at number one on the US Collage Music Journal's Latin Alternative and New World charts.
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The band has now expanded to include permanent Afro-Peruvian musicians; Juan Medrano Cotito, Mangue Vasquez, Milagros Guerrero, and Marcos Mosquera, as well as renowned Peruvian drummer and percussionist Constantino Alvarez. It's this group, plus a variety of guest performers from the Afro-Peruvian music community, who can be heard on the band's forthcoming release (January 13th/09 US & Canada and the 16th for the rest of the world) Coba Coba on the Cumbancha label.

On first listen the disc was almost overwhelming with its seemingly inexhaustible supply of rhythmic variations. My first impression was of one continuos song whose sole purpose was to enable me to forget it was minus twenty out and I was trudging through ice and snow. It was only once I had recovered from the initial exhilaration that the music inspired, and was able to listen to the disc with something approaching a critical ear, that I began to discern the distinctive elements of each song. For although all the tracks share a common foundation, what's been built up around it gives them each unique characteristics.

The opening track on the disc, "Concheperla" (Mother of Pearl or Pearl Shell) is a traditional Peruvian dance called a marinera that dates back to the 1800's. These "mariner" dances were composed as patriotic tributes to Peru's navy and were originally performed by brass bands. Originally transcribed and arranged by the great grandmother of band member Rafael Morales, its a perfect example of how the band reaches back into their country's history for inspiration without getting stuck in the past. While the trumpet you hear is a nod to the military bands of yesterday, the rhythm and beats are the sound of today and a recognition of the band's African roots.

"Concheperla" is a fitting overture to the rest of the disc in the way it successfully combines traditional, or older, melodies with modern musical technology and a variety of musical influences. While in this instance the foundation is a song from the dominant culture's history, some draw upon Afro-Peruvian songs for their inspiration and others the folk music of various regions around the country. However, regardless of a song's provenance, they are all subject to a creative process that gives them added depth and dimension by adding new layers of rhythm and different musical textures.
"Ruperta/Puede Ser", the fourth track on the disc is a great example of this as it takes an older song, "Ruperta", combines it with "Puede Ser" by the Cuban hip-hop duo Obesion, and mixes it all together in Jamaican dub style inspired by the likes of Mikey Dread (known for his dub work with The Clash). The result is something really spectacular, as the dubbing techniques serve to tie the two songs together rhythmically, without being overbearing or dominating the melodies. I have to say that normally I find dub music tedious and and annoying, but that's not the case here. Instead of making the song sound like someone with speech a impediment who was forced fed Quaaludes like dub normally does, here the dubbing is used to accentuate the beat like an additional percussion instrument and gives the song an extra spark of life.

In fact one of the most impressive parts of the disc is the manner in which they have combined the old and the new. Far too often when you hear of these types of projects you end up with little idea of what the original music sounded like as it ends up buried under the bells and whistles of the modern technology. Novalima never lose site of the original music and keep it front and centre all the time. They understand that you can't replace, or simulate, the power and passion of these songs with studio tricks or programmed beats. What they have done is use the technology to give the original music a platform on which it can be shown off to its best advantage.

It's not often you get to hear a funky bass line accompanied by traditional percussion instruments like the jaw bone of an ass or cajon (a hollow box with a resonator hole like a guitar's) like you do on "Tumbala", or hear the words to a poem describing the history of Afro-Peruvian music turned into a song like you do in "Africa Lando", but Coba Coba is replete with moments like that. Not only does this disc shine a spotlight on music that has been neglected for far too long, but it does it in such a manner as to make it appealing to a wide variety of people without diluting any of its passion or diminishing its integrity.

Novalima sets the standard for all other bands wishing to bring modern technology into play when adapting traditional music. This is brilliant stuff that will not only keep you dancing, but will hopefully open some eyes to the ongoing discrepancies in Peruvian society.

December 29, 2008

Music Review: Rupa & The April Fishes ExtraOrdinary Rendition

If music from countries outside North America and England is considered world music, and music by people from English speaking North America is considered popular music, what would you call music performed by a band whose lead singer was born in the States to parents originally from the Punjab region of North India, who moved to the South of France when she was ten, and now lives in San Francisco again? In an industry where an entire band can have been born and bred on the streets of Brooklyn, and still be referred to as world music I guess the answer is obvious, but it does beg the question - which "world" are they talking about?

The one Rupa, the lead singer of Rupa & The April Fishes, was born into in San Francisco, the world her parents left behind in the Punjab, or the new world they all discovered in Aix-En-Provence in southern France? With the majority of the songs on their first release, ExtraOrdinary Rendition on the Cumbancha, being sung in French, the answer seems obvious, yet there's a lot on more going on here then what first meets the ear.

While it's true that some of the songs contain elements that are associated with French music; the drawn out sound of the accordion, a slightly melancholy air, and a passionate vocalist. Since the days of Edith Piaff these have been hallmarks of French chancon style of performance, but that's only one of the elements that have gone into the music you hear on ExtraOrdinary Rendition. There's latin beats mixing with the swing of a gypsy violin while a guitar strums in a style reminiscent of American folk, and a cello dances in the background.
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Now there are plenty of bands that have taken to combining elements from various styles of music lately that gives their music a transcontinental flavour, but there is something about what Rupa & The April Fishes do that distinguishes their music from others who attempt something similar. It's not obvious at first, but gradually you realize there is a sensibility at work in this music that's not prevalent in others. Others who I've heard combine musical styles seem compelled to attack with their music, as if the only way they can succeed is by breaking down any barriers an audience might have preventing them from accepting it.

Rupa & The Fishes have taken another approach. While some of their music is every bit as high tempo as other bands, there is also a subtlety about it that makes it feel less like a direct assault upon your senses and more like a gradual seduction. With the majority of the lyrics being sung in French those of us with limited language skills are forced to rely upon the music and the sound of Rupa's voice, the lead vocalist, for our clues as to the nature of each song. However listening to the songs, one gets the feeling that the band has taken that into account. The compositions are such that the sounds of the instruments and Rupa's voice work together to create an overall emotional landscape that tells us enough about each song's nature we can appreciate them without understanding the lyrics.

Of course it doesn't hurt that the band members seem to have a innate ability to express themselves with their instruments as if they were singing. In some ways this even gives them an advantage over groups that sing in a language listeners are familiar with, as they don't have to worry about a song's lyrics being taken literally. As an audience member I know that I will automatically let my feelings be dictated by the meanings I give to the words I hear a band sing no matter what subtext the music might be supplying. Here, where the vocals are merely another instrument generating sound, we are forced to listen to all the nuances that the music generates in order to try and understand what a song is about.
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In fact when you read the translations of the lyrics that are provided with the disc, you realize it wouldn't matter too much even if you spoke French fluently, as they are more like abstract poetry than the song lyrics most of us are accustomed to. Like the music, they are a series of thoughts and images that work together to create an overall all impression that the listener will carry away with them. Take track three for example, "Poder", which translates as "Power", and the way the lyrics sound. "the fish can/the wind can/even money/but not me/the song can/love can/even a little kiss can/but not me."

The lyrics, which incidentally are sung in Spanish, are accompanied by an upbeat, latin influenced, rhythm that seems to be offering a challenge to whoever Rupa is addressing with the song. You thing you know what power is, but what can any of us know what power is? All of these things, the items she lists in the song's lyrics, they have power, but we don't. Without understanding the lyrics of the song it sounds like she is being defiant, either daring somebody to do something or dismissing their authority over her. The expression in her voice and the challenge offered by the music exemplify the scorn the song's lyrics express about people's ideas of power, and the desire to hold power over other people.

Rupa lives in San Francisco, sings in French, Spanish, and English, in a band whose musical influences are from nearly every part of the globe. For a change this is a band whose sound you can call world music without it being a misnomer as they represent the sounds of more than just one country. Yet what makes them truly world oriented is that it doesn't matter whether or not you understand the language they sing in, because you can still understand what their music is about. Like true citizens of the world their music speaks to all of us and is in a language that all can understand.

December 19, 2008

Music Review: KAL Radio Romanista

It used to be you could safely walk into a record store and pick up a long playing record of Irish, zydeco, klezmar, or gypsy music and know what you'd be getting. You could tell just by looking at the covers that those were simpler times. Everybody was wearing their colourful ethnic clothing and had big happy smiles plastered across their faces. You knew who was who and what was what; gypsies were gypsies, Jews were Jews, and you would never confuse the music they played with anything somebody from New Orleans or County Warwick released. Now, not only do you have to buy your music on those CD things, where you can barely see what the people on the cover look like let alone what they're wearing, you can't even be sure if you pick up a recording of gypsy music it will sound like its supposed to sound, like the way you want it to sound.

Its all the fault of that damned, so-called Irish band, The Pogues. They were the ones who first started messing around and changing people's attitudes towards ethnic music. Making them believe that it didn't have to be played the same way over and over again. That it was all right to sing about contemporary issues instead of the great events from hundreds of years ago that were truly meaningful. Well it was bad enough when it was only Irish music, but now its spread everywhere. Punk zydeco bands who play klezmar music, klezmar bands that use hip hop techniques and gypsy violins, and now, worst of all, punk Gypsy music.

All you have to do is listen to the upcoming release from the Serbian gypsy band KAL, Radio Romanista, being released on Asphalt Tango Records January 2009, to hear an example of how deeply the influence of those miscreant Pogues has spread. First off, just look at the way the members of KAL dress. Instead of wearing the colourful costumes of their people, they dress in black. What kind of statement does that make? Haven't they ever seen pictures of how they're supposed to dress, don't they have any respect for what we expect gypsies to look like?
Then there's the music they play. While they might play all the right instruments; violin, accordion, guitar, percussion, and drums, it sure doesn't sound like what its supposed to sound like. I don't care what the lead singer says about "stereotypes" and "cliches". Where does he get off saying things like, "If you expect from me music because I am a Gypsy then I'll do it but don't think that I'll not use it to say very important things about my people - Don't just look at us as entertainers - we're no longer going to stay silent and entertain you." That's all very well and good, but what kind of gypsy music sounds like a run a way train, or is accompanied by that hip-hop, beat box, rhythm that you usually hear in dance halls. They have the gall to take so much pride in the fact that they've even given it a name: Rock n' Roma!

Even the name of the band, KAL, is depressing as it means black in the gypsy language, and than there's the songs themselves and what they talk about. It's a darn good thing they don't sing very many songs in English I tell you. Who wants to hear songs like "Radio Romanista" which imagines a gypsy country that has a national radio station. Gypsies don't have a country - they wander, how could they be gypsies if they had their own country - don't these guys know anything? Or what about "I'm A Gypsy", the title sounds promising enough, but then the lyrics: "I'm a gypsy, I'm looking for my place under the sun, I have no home, my country is the entire road" Well, duh? Everybody knows that - but he doesn't sound happy about it, it sounds like he wants a place to call home. What kind of real gypsy complains about not having a home or a grave?

They don't even call themselves gypsies these guys in KAL, they call themselves Roma, which is really confusing as it makes them sound like they either come from Italy or from Romania. Why can't they be happy being called gypsy like we've been calling them for years? Don't they understand anything about tradition? Have they no respect for what we expect from them? What ever gave them the idea that we wanted to know about their reality? That they fall in love, get their hearts broken, or that their lives are anything at all like ours? Why can't they be happy being what we want them to be?
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No, they insist upon joining the twenty-first century and changing their music to suit their needs so it expresses how they're feeling. Who wants to know that they live in segregated neighbourhoods, that their houses get burnt out from under them, and that they are still harassed and tormented wherever they go? Why can't they sing songs about caravans, dancing round the fire, and other traditional stuff like they show in the movies? Haven't they ever seen King Of The Gypsies or listened to Cher? Aren't they modern enough for them?

It's a sad commentary on the state of the world when you can no longer count on ethnic groups to behave the way you want them to. Radio Romanista by KAL only confirms this disturbing trend of people taking charge of their own lives and justifying it with words like pride and self awareness. Not only do they expect us to call them by the name they use for themselves, Roma, they expect us to accept the fact that their music can change to reflect the world around them just like everybody else.

I don't know about anybody else but I blame it on the Pogues. Blame it on the Pogues, blame it on the Pogues, you'll feel so much better, just blame it on the Pogues. (With apologies to Kris Kristofferson)

December 18, 2008

Music DVD Review: Celtic Women: The Greatest Journey Essential Collection

One tends to forgive a lot when a people's history has been as fraught with difficulty as has the Irish. Although Irish nationalist invective is aimed towards the English these days, they are merely the most recent of invading forces that swept across the Islands to the west of mainland England. According to legend even the Celts were invaders at one time, sweeping the original inhabitants away, only to be pursued themselves by the Romans, who in turn were raided by Saxons and Vikings alike before the English even got it together to invade. Even the supposed hero of Ireland, St. Patrick, was an invader, as he was second a generation Roman born in Britain who led an army into Ireland to purge the traditional religion and ensure the ascendancy of Christianity.

So it's easy to understand and forgive them if they tend to get maudlin and sing songs that celebrate their occasional victories over an enemy, or getsentimental over the sound of a clear tenor voice singing of the glories of a dark haired woman's sparkling eyes. Of course there's a world of difference between the Chieftans and The Clancy Brothers singing the old songs, and The Pogues tearing a hole through tradition and singing about Irish life in the twentieth century, but it's all from the same tradition, so to try and generalize about Irish music is as dangerous as it is to try and generalize about anyone's culture.

On the other hand it gets a little difficult not to when in recent years we've seen an upsurge in the marketing of big market Celtic extravagances like Riverdance and its offshoots. One of the more successful successors of the dance shows has been David Downes', the musical director of Riverdance, latest show Celtic Women. Currently featuring four vocalists (there have been as many as five) and a violinist backed by traditional Irish instruments, a choir, and a orchestra, the show is a mixture of Irish songs, show tunes, contemporary, and original material in one glitzy package.
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Since its inception in 2005 the show has sold millions of CDs and DVDS, made television specials and appearances, performed countless live shows, and saw their first CD hit number one on the Billboard world music charts for sixty-eight weeks. This year Manhattan Records has released a compilation DVD, The Greatest Journey: Essential Collection, that brings together excerpts from the three television shows; Live From The Helix Dublin, A New Journey: Live From Slane Castle, and A Christmas Celebration which acts as a retrospective of their career to date.

Over the course of twenty-five tracks the DVD gives you a very good idea what it must be like to attend one of their shows, even though the Slane Castle show was staged and not shot live, as they capture the total experience with orchestration, lights, sets, and audience interaction. Of course the other thing it does is give you a very good idea of what they are like musically. While there is denying that all the women are gifted musically, the music carefully orchestrated and arranged, and the individual soloists within the accompanying band very talented, the show is designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Therefore many of the rough edges that can make folk music in general, and Irish music in particular, exciting, have been smoothed away for easy digestion.

The choice of material is the first clue as to the direction the show will take as it includes such chestnuts like "Danny Boy", a composition by David Foster called "The Prayer", "Somewhere Over The Rainbow", and other songs taken from the safe and comfortable middle of the road catalogue that could fit into the play list from any adult easy listening station without making waves. The only occasions on the disc where the music even approaches obtaining some of the wildness and abandon that one associates with the best of Irish music are the violin solos by Mairead Nesbit as she careens around the stage wailing away on her fiddle. In fact her performances, especially on "Shenandoah - The Contradiction" where she's joined by both percussionists on bodhran, are probably the best things musically about the DVD.

Of course in some ways the choice of material isn't really the appeal to these concerts, it's the spectacle that captures the imagination and captivates the audience. When you have anywhere up to six very attractive woman dressed in gowns appearing on exotic sets with a castle as a backdrop, like at Slane Castle, illuminated by lights and blazing torches, and backed by not only an orchestra but gifted individual musicians, you can't help but get caught up in the moment at times no matter what the music is. The package is designed to elicit an emotional reaction from the listener, and the DVD does this with far more success than a CD ever could as you are exposed to the full weight of the show.

Technically the disc is superlative, with Dolby digital sound and wide screen picture. Although, since the original shows were shot in the days before high definition, and apparently shot directly to video, you still get the occasional colour distortion in the background from the glare of the lights. As far as special features aside from the main body of the disc, they've included a documentary that tells how the show Celtic Women came about, behind the scenes looks at the recording of the three television specials and the their second CD, and interviews with each of the regular cast members, David Downes, and various other members of the production company.

There can be no doubt that Celtic Women is a phenomenal success the world over, selling out shows in Europe, North America, and Japan and continuing to sell CDs and DVDs by the bushel load. However, the music you hear on this DVD, and I'd have to assume on their CDs, isn't what you'd hear scratched out on fiddle and guitar down at the pub on a Saturday evening, and you're not going to hear anything even mildly controversial, or even precious little Gaelic. Light and ethereal, the music is as fluffy as a cloud and generally as substantial as candy floss; neatly packaged in a show designed to maximize emotional reactions and minimize thought. As musical extravagances go Celtic Women The Greatest Journey: Essential Collection works remarkably well, as an example of Irish or Celtic music on the other hand, aside from occasional flashes of life, its a pale imitation at best.

December 13, 2008

Music Review: Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou The Vodoun Effect: Funk & Sato From Benin's Obscure Labels

I'm sure we've all seen or heard various documentaries about the history of popular music in North America that have traced the roots of jazz and blues music back to the tribal sounds of Africa. Or how the blues developed out of the songs, "hollers", that the slaves used to sing while working in the fields that were a mixture of old tribal rhythms and the Christian hymns that the slave owners forced down their chattel's throats in an attempt to pacify them. However, most of us are probably unfamiliar with how the music that developed in both North and South America returned to Africa to influence the popular music scene in various West African nations.

In the 1980's, thanks to Peter Gabriel's World Of Music and Dance (WOMAD) festival, African popular music started to come the attention of European and North American audiences. Performers like King Sunny Ade from Nigeria exposed us to the previously unheard of genres high life and juju; guitar driven, high energy, and exuberant music that kept people on the dance floor for hours on end. However Nigeria was only the tip of a widespread pop music scene in Africa. Thinking that King Sunny Ade represented African pop music would have been as stupid as thinking a blues musician from Chicago represented all of North American pop music.

Benin lies on the West coast of Africa and butts up against Nigeria in the south, Niger in the east, and equally tiny Togo to the north. What distinguishes Benin from its neighbours is the fact that it happens to be home to Vodoun - or as we know it over here Voodoo. So it should be no surprise that the popular music of Benin draws heavily upon the rhythms of Vodoun rituals, but what is surprising is the other influences that have come into play. The Vodoun Effect: Funk & Sato From Benin's Obscure Labels 1972 -1975 a recent release on the Analog Africa from Germany, that has collected together fourteen tracks by one of Benin's most popular bands, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Recorded in the 1970's on a variety of small independent labels, they show not only the Vodoun influence but how music from both South and North America found its way back across the Atlantic Ocean.
According to the publicity material that came with the disc in the late 19th century a group of freed slaves from Brazil returned to Benin and over the years their dances and songs were incorporated into Beninese ritual, and from there worked their way into the popular culture. In the 1960's and 1970's American soul and funk music started making its presence felt in Africa, and along with the sounds of pop music from neighbouring Nigeria were assimilated into the popular music scene in Benin.

When you listen to Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou you have a choice, you can either try and analyse the individual songs in an attempt to discern the particular influences that are present in each song, or you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. Of course there are times when you just can't help noticing obvious influences, especially when the songs are as radically different from track to track as they are on this disc. One moment you'll be listening to a song that you swear if it continued a second longer would have sent you off into a trance the rhythm is so hypnotic, while the next, you can't help feel like you're listening to 1970's era Santana the Latin groove becomes so strong.

Now a lot of these songs were recorded early in the band's career and you get the feeling in some instances that they are trying out a new sound. However, on some of the tracks, and these are the ones that are my favourites, they have started to synthesize the various influences into their own sound. While you can still hear the occasional distinctive trait; the staccato horn sound of funk, an underlying rhythm that sends a peculiar shiver up your spine, or an electric organ riff that sounds like it might have strolled over from "Black Magic Women" to sit in for the take, the band shows they weren't going to be content just being imitators of other people's sounds.

It's interesting to hear the difference between various tracks on the CD as they show the band's sound developing and becoming more sophisticated. On the first track, "Mi Homlan Dadale" they sound like any number of African pop bands, not even incorporating any of their own traditional rhythms into the music. By the sixth track, "Se Tche We Djo Mon", and the seventh track, "Dis Moi La Verite", your hearing an amazing progression in their playing. The latter of the two is especially impressive for you can hear the beginnings of a successful marriage between the hypnotic rhythms of Vodoun, the distinctive sound of a latin melody, and the brassiness of American funk. It still sounds a little like three different styles of music are being played at once, but you can tell what the band is trying to accomplish, and it in no way diminishes the fact that the song is a hell of a lot of fun to listen too.

The only drawback to The Vodoun Effect is the sound quality on some of the tracks is not very good. This has nothing to do with the contemporary engineering, but with the fact that when the band originally recorded it was often with everybody piled into the studio gathered around two microphones. It's actually remarkable at how well balanced the sound is considering the size of the band and the number of instruments involved in making the recordings. The only real problem that crops up is distortion of the vocals and the horns, as they both occasionally sound like the levels were far too high when they were recorded.

This is a fascinating recording of some extraordinary music, by a group of highly skilled and dedicated musicians. We still know so little about African popular music over here in North America, that any recordings that shed light upon something that hasn't received wide spread exposure yet is interesting as well as important. It's also nice to know that Analog Germany is making plans to release more music by Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou from later in their career that should show the band's talent in a far better light. If they're this good raw, we're going to be in for a real treat when the next batch of recordings are released, the only pity is that it's taken so long for their music to find its way back over the ocean again.

December 9, 2008

Music Review: Various Performeres Rich Man's War: New Blues & Roots Songs Of Peace And Protest

Music has always had the power to inflame people's passions. From ultra nationalist songs that whip up hatred against others to religious music that inspires devotions, music has the potential to have the strongest and most immediate emotional impact of all the arts. Therefore, it's little wonder that down through the years music and songs have been written to express both dissatisfaction and appreciation for the way the world is going.

While I'm sure you can find examples of protest songs from almost every era of civilization, just check out the Irish songs about the British occupation, it really wasn't until the twentieth century that English language protest songs began to take the shape that we are familiar with. Most of the early ones dealt with the plight of the working class in North America and called for the establishment of unions. As the twentieth century progressed, and fell into the depression of the 1930's, songs the plight of the poor farmers and the social/political system that could allow the crises to happen began to be heard.

However it wasn't until after WWll and the popularization of folk music that protest songs began to obtain widespread popularity in English speaking North America. With first the civil rights movement in the United States, and then the war in Vietnam, causing people to question the moral authority of government and society's inequities protest, songs and the people who sang them gained widespread popularity. Country Joe McDonald's "Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die Rag", and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changing" were along the lines of typical folk songs, while Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers Of America" showed that the protest song didn't have to be limited to just folk singers.
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Yet, after only a relatively short time the protest song's popularity died again. It seemed that when the impetus created by the unique combination of events and circumstances that had fostered the movement for social change died, so did interest in listening to songs about what was wrong with society or other people's troubles. While punk bands like the Clash, or musicians like Billy Bragg made no bones about their politics and did their best to motivate their listeners, the majority weren't interested. Like punk, rap and hip-hop had the potential to speak for the disenfranchised, but it was co-opted until now it glorifies the very things it originally protested against. (Check out the the lyrics of any Grandmaster Flash song from the early eighties and compare it to what's being sung as rap now and you'll see what I mean)

Now that doesn't mean that protest music is dead, it just means you have to look a little bit harder to find it. As a public service the good people at Ruf Records in Germany are releasing a new compilation CD of protest music recorded in the last few years. Rich Man's War: New Blues & Roots Songs Of Peace And Protest, to be released in the United States and Canada in the new year, is a collection of topical blues songs that were written in response to the first American presidency of the 21st century. While Ruf Records is distributing the disc, only two of the performers appearing on the disc are from their label, as producer Kenneth Bays has searched out recordings by as diverse a group of blues players as he could find. You'll notice that some of the songs seem to stretch the definition of blues somewhat, which explains the slightly unwieldy title, but does nothing to diminish the quality of the music.

I guess it only shows how unpopular protest songs have become when of the twelve songs on the disc not only have I only heard two of them before, "Follow The Money" by Bob Brozman and "Jesus And Mohammed" by Candye Kane, but I only recognized the names of two of the other musicians who had contributed to the recording; Guitar Shorty and Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. Which is a great pity, because not only are the songs on this disc all intelligent, and sometimes quite funny, but even better, they are all good pieces of music. Protest music has received a bit of bad rap over the years for being painfully earnest and painful to listen to as its been wilfully misrepresented by those who'd rather we'd not be reminded that the world isn't quite the way the government depicts it.

Needless to say as the songs collected here are all in direct response to the Bush administration and its policies their primary focus is on topics that have dominated the newspapers since his election. What was nice to see was how each of the performers found a way to address the issue they chose to talk about without resorting to making villains out of people like the soldiers being sent overseas, but attacked the policies and motivations of those who made the decision to send them. Even better, there are a couple of songs that don't even resort to blaming anybody in particular, but instead seem to be shaking their heads with regret at the whole damn situation.

Two of the best songs on the disc are the previously mentioned "Jesus And Mohammed" by Candye Kane and "A Time For Peace" by Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. In the former, Candye Kane imagines a conversation taking place between the two prophets and them shaking their heads in disbelief at how their followers could have screwed up their respective messages so badly. "This isn't what we wanted, both were heard to say, how could our words of love lead us to this day/ Oh my children don't you understand, misery and hatred won't get you to the promised land". Sung along the lines of a country/blues gospel number, and especially with Candye Kane's big and expressive voice, the song is a particularly effective condemnation of the hatred generated by all those who would have their followers on either side believe they are fighting a holly war.

Like Candye Kane, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater has turned to the gospel roots of blues music for his song, complete with an echoing organ solo and church choir. "How many politicians have to lie? How many good soldiers have to die?". What makes this song so effective is the stark simplicity of its message, "It's time for love/It's time for peace/It's time for cease", and the genuine passion that he and the choir are able to bring to what they are saying. "A Time For Peace" is a genuine prayer for peace that transcends individual religions or politics and reminds us if we don't keep love in our hearts we're no better than those we criticize for making war.

Rich Man's War is a collection of intelligent, musically interesting songs written in response to events of the last eight years. You probably won't have heard many of the songs on this disc performed before, and you may not have even heard of some of the performers themselves. However, after eight years of listening to one version of events and maybe starting to feel a little uncomfortable with what you've been told, don't you think it's about time to give some other opinions a chance? This CD represents that chance - maybe you should give it a listen.

December 4, 2008

Music Review: Teslim (Kaila Flexer & Gari Hegedus) Teslim

Even centuries after an empire's fall, traces of that civilization can be found throughout the geographical area that it once occupied. Roman ruins dot the landscape from Great Britain to the Middle East, the decorative arts of the Ottoman Empire can still be seen throughout Spain, and the Taj Mahal in India is a permanent reminder of the Mogul Empire. However, if you want to see examples of the influence that's still being exerted by some of these great powers look at the similarities in traditional music among the countries they once occupied or that came under their sphere of influence.

This is especially true of the various cultures that at one time or other were ruled by the Ottoman Empire of Turkey. Aside from any of their own musical traditions that they might have carried with them as they expanded across Europe and the Middle East, they also brought with them any of the influences they may have absorbed along the way. From Egypt to Spain and throughout the Balkans enough similarities in music can be found that it's possible for contemporary musicians with roots in any of the cultures touched by the Empire to feel comfortable playing and adapting the music of another region that had come under their influence.

This was really brought home to me when I listened to the self-titled CD by the duo who make up Teslim. While violinist Kaila Flexer draws upon a background in Jewish music, oud, and a multitude of other plucked string instruments, player Gari Hegedus combines his Eastern European heritage, Hungarian, with a love for the traditional instruments of the Middle East. As a result the music on their CD, Teslim, not only reflects their individual heritage and interests, but is an example of the common ground that exists between the music of different cultures.
Would you have considered it possible for a traditional Sephardic Jewish melody in praise of God, "El Meod Na'ala" ("God Is Very Divine") to be played in such a manner that it would be reminiscent of Turkish Sufi music? Maybe not, unless you happen to remember that the Sephardic Jews inhabited the Iberian peninsula, Portugal and Spain, in relative peace when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. While it's highly doubtful that they would have written music that was in that style, the music that they developed during that time would have reflected the culture around them.

Listening to "El Meod Na'ala" you'd never know that it hadn't been originally written the way its performed on Teslim as it sounds perfectly natural. There's none of the forced sound that you so often hear when people try and combine musical traditions that have no business being put together. In fact unless you knew that it was made up of a melody from one culture and the rhythmic pattern of another you couldn't tell as they fit together so seamlessly. While not all the of the songs on the CD draw upon multiple traditions, each of them could very well have its origins in one or other of the countries that at one time was under the sway of the Ottoman Empire.

While that may explain why the divergent styles being played on this disc work so well, it doesn't even come close to describing the experience of listening to the music these talented musicians and their occasional guests perform. I have listened to any number of CDs by extremely talented musicians playing all sorts of music on an incredible array of instruments, but very rarely have I heard music that has managed to affect me in the way this disc did. There is a haunting quality to everything they played that seemed to speak to me on an emotional level that nothing I've heard before has done in the same way.

Have you ever been somewhere, for me it's usually somewhere in nature - deep in a forest or by a large body of water early in the morning - where you are reminded of just how truly magical the world is? Where for a few precious moments you are able to forget everything about the mundane world we usually live in and are transported outside of yourself. Listening to this CD had a similar affect on me. There was something about the sounds of the instruments and the rhythm they followed that elicited the same sensation of being part of something far bigger than my own life and its trivial concerns like when I'm surrounded by the wonders of nature.
It's not like the songs are about great spiritual matters or anything like that, or there has been any attempt on the part of the musicians to create that type of atmosphere. I think the closest they come to writing about spiritual matters would be the song I mentioned earlier, "El Meod Na'ala" and another piece called "Knight Of Cups", inspired by the Tarot card of the same name. Most of the other songs are about more mundane matters, like Gari's granddaughter learning how to walk, "Kiana's Waltz", or inspired by the rhythmic patterns of other songs as was the medley of "Elk"/"High Tide"/"Yetierre", where the first two songs were inspired by the time signature of the last.

It's not even as if the music is able to overwhelm you with its power either, as there only at most four people playing at a time, and the majority of the time only two, Perhaps, though, that's part of the answer; the simplicity of the sound allows it to be a more direct and personal experience than we're used to having with music today. With the most elaborate arrangement on this disc involving three violins, a couple of different plucked instruments, and a frame drum, there is an immediacy to this music that you don't often experience anymore.

Normally we are listening to multiple sounds that we have to sort into a form inside our head that will allow us to comprehend them. Whether we want to or not that means we are bringing our intellect into play and erecting barriers between our emotions and the music. Here the music has the opportunity to "speak" directly to us on an emotional level as we are not having to "interpret" or rationalize it. Haven't you ever noticed how much more powerful a solo instrument is, even though its quieter than the entire band or orchestra? Well it's the same situation here, but for the entire length of each song instead of just for a moment or two during the piece.

Of course if the two musicians weren't as incredibly gifted as Kaila Flexer and Gari Hegedus are it might be a different story. For not only are they technically skilled at what they do, but they have an amazing ability to transmit emotion with their playing. At the same time they never exaggerate the significance of what you're hearing, but are able to communicate the feelings that are generated by the simple pleasures in life - like watching your grandchild take her first steps - in such a way that it captures the true sublime nature of the moment.

Teslim by Teslim is not only unique because it allows us to see the common musical heritage that so many different cultures draw upon, but because the music on the disc brings the magic of the world alive. This is a beautiful collection of music that will remind you of what it is that music can do in the hands of skilled people whose love for what they do comes through in every note they play.

December 3, 2008

Music Review: Avishai Cohen Flood

With contemporary composers utilizing such a wide range of instruments, and drawing upon so many different sources for inspiration, is it still reasonable to differentiate between them and the modern jazz musician? As both genres continue to explore forms of composition and musical styles that extend beyond the boundaries previously associated with them, the space dividing them has narrowed considerably. In fact, judging by some of the music I've heard recently, jazz musicians seem to be the ones doing the most to expand music's potential to express ideas and emotions.

This was brought home to me again listening to the latest release on Anzic Records by trumpeter Avishai Cohen called Flood. Flood is the second recording in what he's titled The Big Rain Trilogy, and while the CD is a description of a flood along the lines of the one experienced by Noah, Cohen describes it as an attempt to tell the story from the point of view of nature, where death is a part of the natural cycle and is actually crucial for nature's survival. As he says, "Nature does not lament the flood nor resist it, but rather accepts it as its own." With the trilogy he is attempting to build a picture of the life that exists before, during and after the flood; nature's strength and beauty, and humanity's search to improve itself in the hopes of preventing another flood.

Flood is divided up into seven sections with each one representing a different stage in the life of the flood from its very beginnings as rain ("First Drops"), to the earth's renewal after the waters have receded ("Cycles: The Sun, The Moon, And The Awakening Earth"). With Cohen's trumpet, only being accompanied by band-mates Yonatan Avishai's piano and Daniel Freedman's percussion it's difficult to see how they could create the range of sound one presumes would be needed to fulfill his objective with the music. However, after listening to the composition for the first time I realized that Cohen was utilizing more than just the sounds of the instruments to achieve his desired objective, there was also the manner in which the sounds were played to be considered, and of course the various rhythms utilized and their inter-relation.
It's the piano that opens the piece, and Yonatan Avishai's playing captures the sound and feel of rain drops falling to the ground. At first its very relaxing, almost trance inducing, like listening to the sound of a gentle rain on a peaceful summer afternoon, and even as the rain intensifies with the addition of percussion and trumpet, you never are given the impression of being at risk, as the sound continues to wash over you. Gradually though a certain level of discordance creeps into the music with both the piano and the percussion starting to increase in tempo. However, instead of the trumpet becoming more shrill or intensifying in some way to match them, Cohen continues to play with the same smoothness that marked his entrance into the piece.

Nature doesn't panic when it rains, that's a human thing. So, although I found myself initially wanting the trumpet to reflect the anxiety I would feel because of an increase in a rain storm's tempo, Cohen's trumpet reminded me that this wasn't about humans, but about nature. The smoothness of the trumpet, and its repeating the same patterns all the way through the opening piece, establishes that nature accepts the flood and all its consequences without reacting like we would.

Talk about making best use of minimal resources. With only three instruments not only does Cohen manage to create th