Six from Seattle, traditional music from the Emerald City

Jovino Santos Neto
Jovino Santos Neto

I have been enjoying traditional music from around the world for the past three years and only recently have I focused my attention on traditional music from my own backyard. While I had attended the Northwest Folklife Festival, (a folk music festival that showcases traditional music performers from the Pacific Northwest), for many years, it has only been in
recent years that I have fully grasped the range of ethnic music and culture from this region of the U.S. I started listening to the community radio station, KBCS broadcast out of Bellevue Community College in addition to attending NW Folklife and I discovered Seattle based Latin, flamenco, Balkan, Asian, African, French and American roots performers gracing the airwaves. So I decided to delve
further and in this article you will be introduced to 6 traditional musical acts that make Seattle their home.The acts featured in this article include, Balkan Cabaret, Jovino Santos Neto Quintet, Elizabeth Falconer, her trio, Dragonfly, Correo Aereo and Carmona Flamenco. These performers were either born and raised in the Pacific Northwest or they immigrated to Seattle from Brazil, Guinea,
Japan, Okinawa, Mexico or other parts of the U.S. Each of the musicians bring diversity to the community at large offering cultural opportunities for people of all ages and bridging the gap between the new and old worlds.

One can catch these acts performing at various nightclubs, cultural centers, museums and festivals such as Northwest Folklife Festival, as mentioned earlier. You might even catch one of these groups
performing at a wedding or other private celebration. The musicians teach their craft, act as spokespeople for their traditions and some of them tour internationally.

While many fusion groups do exist in Seattle that wed more popular styles of music with world music influences, I am focusing on folk roots groups. I’m an advocate for acoustic instruments as well as, the timbre that comes from wood, metal and strings. Handcrafted and ancient instruments pique my curiosity and those musicians that play these instruments also excite me.

I would like to add that Seattle boasts an array of musical traditions ranging from Nordic fiddling, to Celtic, bluegrass, Indian classical, African, Latin American and numerous other traditions. This article gives you a small taste of what to expect, but my hope is that you will explore the myriad of musical traditions in the Seattle area. The best place to start is the NW Folklife Festival or tuning into KBCS root music programs.

Balkan Cabaret (traditional Balkan)

This critically-acclaimed Balkan ensemble comprised of vocalist Mary Sherhart, fiddler/clarinetist Joe Finn, accordionist/vocalist, Michael Lawson, bassist/vocalist Rich Thomas and instrumentalist Steve Ramsey performs traditional ballads that you would find in the cabarets, cafes of Belgrade, Sophia, Sarajevo and Balkan cities. The ensemble’s debut CD, Nostalgic Cafe Songs From The Balkans highlights traditional songs from Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Macedonia that cause its listeners to weep or to get lost in a swirl of weeping violins, clarinet, accordion, double bass, guitar and Sherhart’s passionate vocals.

Balkan Cabaret’s debut CD, “presents songs of ageless heartfelt human passion; love found, and love lost, joys and regrets, home and family,” as described on the CD cover. While I have not heard a lot of Balkan music, I have heard a few of the top performers on the radio and I would say that Balkan Cabaret is among the best of these performers. And perhaps the Balkan community and Eastern Europeans residing in the Seattle and beyond could also attest to this claim.

In fact, Balkan Cabaret consistently performs at sold-out venues in the Puget Sound. The ensemble has also been awarded one of Seattle’s best world music acts in the Seattle Weekly. The ensemble received this honor for the past two years. I was unable to attend a packed a NW Folklife cabaret showcase in which this ensemble headlined and I wasn’t the only person
turned away from what I’m sure was an unforgettable evening. This ensemble spends a great deal of time researching Balkan music and their repertoire includes traditional songs from throughout the Balkans. The musicians give a great deal of care and attention to each of the songs that appear on this CD.

Carmona Flamenco (contemporary and traditional Flamenco)

While the husband and wife duo, Carmona Flamenco led by guitarist Marcos Carmona and dancer/vocalist Rubina Carmona are not the only flamenco performers in the Seattle region, they have garnered a favorable reputation among local flamenco aficionados. Marcos and Rubina keep busy teaching classes,
performing at local festivals and venues as well as, touring the U.S. and Spain.

I have seen the Carmonas perform several times at Northwest Folklife and Bumbershoot and I have enjoyed the Carmonas passion for their rich Spanish heritage. The duo has also appeared at various theatres, banquets and venues throughout the Northwest and beyond. They specialize in contemporary and traditional, (leaning more toward traditional), flamenco that finds its roots in Andalusia, Spain where the couple had spent time studying and performing with flamenco artists of that region.

Carmona Flamenco released a CD, Reflejos (1999) includes Rumbas, Tangos, Alegrias, Bulerias and other flamenco styles. Reflejos features
flamenco guitar and voice performed in a straight forward traditional manner. Palmas and dancing along with the guitar provides the polyphonic rhythms and Rubina Carmona provides the high-octane vocal power. The music on this CD and showcased at the duo’s live performances aims to please diehard flamenco aficionados. Certainly the recording is a good jumping off point for fans of flamenco, but seeing this duo live is also pleasurable. And for those readers residing in the Seattle area, Rubina and Marcos teach flamenco vocals, dance and guitar.

Correo Aéreo (Latin American)

One day last winter I turned on the radio and caught an on-air performance of the Latino music duo Mexican instrumentalist/vocalist Abel Rocha and American violinist Madeleine Sosin, Correo Aéreo. When Abel brought out a Latin American harp and Madeleine contributed her virtuoso violin, I realized something special was happening. I followed up by contacting Madeleine and asking for the duo’s second CD, Lo Que Me Dijo El Viento (What The Wind Told Me).

Around nine months later I was able to catch this duo in action when they performed at a café in my neighborhood. I was amazed what two musicians could achieve on a small stage and to the degree of their musicianship. Abel and Madeleine performed on several traditional instruments, switching instruments between songs like actors changing costumes between scenes. Abel’s main instruments were vocals and a Venezuelan harp, but he also took to various guitars and lutes like a duck to water, while proving to be a born natural to each of the instruments.

Madeleine handled violin duties with a great deal of virtuosity, but also held the beat with drums and maracas, sang intricate harmonies and played various lutes. Amazingly enough, she had just had surgery and confessed that she was feeling a bit spaced out from post surgery medication. And yet, she delivered a spirited performance with aplomb.

Correo Aéreo originally formed in Sante Fe, New Mexico then it relocated to Austin, Texas where it won national critical and local acclaim, and the musical partners produced their second CD. This later led to a collaboration with the Tex-Mex group, Calexico and inclusion of their songs, Pena Huasteca on the soundtrack for the Alan Parker film, The Life of David Galeand Fiesta Llanera included on the Putumayo Records compilation, Music of the Coffee Lands II. However, Correo’s chilling version of the traditional Mexican, La Llorona was the song that captured my attention. This CD remains one of my favorite Latin music recordings in my collection so I can see why Putumayo Records, Alan Parker and Calexico are impressed with this duo’s talent and
innovative approach to traditional acoustic music.

Correo Aéreo currently resides in Seattle and can be seen performing traditional Venezuelan, Mexican, Peruvian and Argentine music at both larger events and at the local bookstore or ethnic restaurant.

Dragonfly (traditional Japanese, Hawaiian, Tahitian & Okinawan)

Similar to Correo Aéreo, I also discovered the members of the gentle Asian trio, Dragonfly over the local airwaves. The name Dragonfly aptly applies
to the enchanting group comprised of American koto master and spokeswoman Elizabeth Falconer, Japanese jazz/folk performer, Aiko Shimada and Okinawan sishan player and vocalist Mako. Each of the women musicians are truly amazing performers in their own right and their musical collaboration is pure alchemy, while bringing in traditional songs from Okinawa, Japan, Hawaii and Tahiti. The weave of ukulele, koto, sishan, acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies that appear on their Koto World release, Island Dreams prove stunning.

I attended a concert that featured Mako and Elizabeth at an intimate teahouse on a hot summer day. The small teahouse located in the Ballard district of Seattle, was packed to the brim with people of all backgrounds enjoying a cold glass of tea and Dragonfly’s delicate songs. Mako with her cherubic face and quite voice introduced her Okinawan lute and she sang a repertoire of songs that hailed from Japan, Okinawa, Tahiti and Hawaii in three languages. Elizabeth graced us with a virtuoso koto performance and a quirky sense of humor.

The third member of the trio, Aiko Shimada had recently given birth to a son and had taken a sabbatical, but no doubt this trio’s next recording will be as spectacular as Island Dreams.

Elizabeth Falconer (traditional Japanese/koto)

For many Seattlelites, Elizabeth Falconer is associated with the traditional Japanese zither, koto. Elizabeth’s exploration of the koto began in 1979 when she began studying the instrument with koto masters in Japan. Since that time, Elizabeth has become known for her storytelling and musical gifts around the world. She has released several CDs on her label, Koto World while incorporating some innovative arrangements and approaches to classical koto music.

Two CDs that have come to my attention are, Chocolate Suite, a playful recording that features both Elizabeth and her 10-year old son, Brian Falconer performing koto duet of mostly original compositions. This CD is perfect for children of all ages because it sports a playful attitude towards koto music. And in fact, Chocolate Suite would be a good primer for a beginning koto student as well as, an educational tool featuring a unique tradition. That is not to imply that the music on the CD is simplistic since in fact, it is quite complex and stunning. Yet, the playful theme introduced on the CD and the young Brian Falconer give this CD a youth appeal as well as, a set of gorgeous songs that would satisfy even the most sophisticated musical appetite.

Deep Pool ventures into more heady territory and features original music that was inspired by a group of Japanese paintings that appeared at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in 2000. The CD was recorded live at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The music on this recording falls into avant garde territory and at times the music is dissonant while never straying away from the koto’s delicate timbre. Elizabeth Falconer has certainly built up a solid reputation as a traditional storyteller and master musician in Seattle and beyond.

Jovino Santos Neto (Brazilian jazz)

Brazilian composer, flutist, pianist and educator Jovino Santos Neto is certainly one of the busiest world musicians in Seattle. Besides, teaching at Cornish College of the Arts, he also leads the jazz ensemble, Jovino Santos Neto Quintet, has recorded several
CDs, has published music books and is a local advocate of Brazilian jazz. Jovino performs in a variety of formats around Seattle and the remainder of the world. Hailing from Rio de Janeiro, Jovino relocated to Seattle in 1993.

He has worked with renowned Brazilian musicians such as the legendary Hermeto Pascoal and been a featured musician with several world music projects, working with diverse cultures as Native American and Indian classical tradition. Jovino Santos Neto Quinteto featuring, jazz musicians, Chuck Deardorf (bass), Mark Ivester (drums), Jeff Busch (percussion) and Hans Teuber (saxophone, flute), released the sunny recording, Canto Do Rio in 2003. The quintet performs at various venues and outdoor concerts in Seattle and beyond.

I have not seen Jovino or his quintet perform in concert, but I have enjoyed listening to the CD Canto Do Rio as well as, Jovino’s contributions on the public radio station, KBCS where he educated the public about the history of Brazilian piano or engaged in an informative conversation regarding Brazilian jazz with the station’s volunteer radio hosts. This international artist can be seen performing on a regular basis around Seattle or in other cities.