Are world music fans (particularly those of us who are in, uh, a certain advancing age bracket) a bunch of stodgy purists that don’t appreciate it when purity is tainted for any reason? Methinks not. Okay, I teeter toward the purist mentality sometimes, but if I can have my cake and taste mostly authenticity, I’m going to enjoy it for the treat it was meant to be.
Combining the grandeur of a string quartet with the alternating lilt and melancholy you know and love from Celtic music, Ozere locates the middle ground on Finding Anyplace (self-released, 2015). Violin, upright bass, cello, mandolin and guitar are the primary instruments here, and band leader/violinist/singer/composer/musical traveler/visionary Jessica Deutsch, a denizen of Toronto, applies them like colors to a beautiful aural painting.
Imagine a folk music session where a few of the players showed up in tuxes without upsetting those who wore jeans, and you’re there. Instrumentals “Anyplace” and “Wind Tunnels” (which add percussion and piano respectively) have a chamber-like finesse, and the addition of singer Emily Rockarts brings a balladeer sensibility that draws you right into the middle of tunes like the traditional Americana “Wayfaring Stranger.” This is music that comforts and, in its own unpretentious way, thrills.
How the heck do you write about a band that’s laying down tumbling bluegrass one second and evoking the barren landscape of the Iraqi desert the next? Words like “eclectic” don’t begin to describe TriBeCaStan, whose music would make an ideal soundtrack for the most crazy-cool travel show imaginable. Their latest, Goddess Polka Dottess (EverGreene Music, 2015), finds the dozen-plus-strong NYC collective touching down in and grabbing sounds from the Balkans, Bollywood, the Caribbean, East Africa, urban and rural America and most prominently the mythical land from which they take their name.
They also expertly reference musical eras (swing, jazz, surf and psychedelic among them) and don’t even get me going as to how many instruments figure into the crafting of their bewildering but unfailingly tight and catchy sound. Global deities are the loosely defined theme of the album, so the band has even created one of their own, hailed on the consciously goofy title track. Helmed by multi-instrumentalists John Kruth and Jeff Greene and populated with players who possess the chops to make this sort of musical exploring sound so much more than gimmicky, TriBeCaStan may be the one band that can do it all.
I’m a great fan of Gnawa music, and I don’t mind that Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa add some rock, jazz and Senegalese strains to the trance-inducing, spirit-conjuring Gnawa foundation on Mazal (World Village, originally released in France on Geomuse in 2014). Sahmaoui was once a member of Orchestre National de Barbes, the Paris-based band known for jolting North African music into some fiery new directions. His quintet takes a more sparse approach, putting mandole or West African n’goni lute in the lead role atop a backbone of bass traditionally played by the three-stringed gimbri.
So the thump and clatter of most Gnawa music is downplayed. But guitar, percussion, kora and electric piano richly fill the space that the circular rhythms make way for, and Sahmaoui sings like he’s presiding over one of those all night spiritual cleansing sessions celebrated in Gnawa culture. Guest players show up brandishing such instruments as soprano sax, flamenco guitar and violin, bringing the same sort of fusion boldness that bands like Nass Marrakech pioneered a while back. Mazal simultaneously rocks and hypnotizes most splendidly at every turn. Looking for a university curriculum with an emphasis on musical harmony and pure invigorating joy? Got it right here. Enroll now.
Born in Armenia and based in Los Angeles, guitarist Vahagni combines the traditional music of his country with classical, flamenco, electronica and jazz influences. Imagined Frequencies (Vahagni Music, 2015) shows his musical imagination to be very vivid indeed and his fingers to have an almost supernatural delicacy and precision.
Highlighting spatial atmosphere as much as beats and melodies, the album mixes sound design and real instruments with very pleasing results. The organic deftness of Vahagni’s picking is given dramatic support from piano, bass, cello, percussion, duduk and dashes of studio processing to create pieces that are sometimes tight and snappy though just as often moody and pensive. Vahagni has served as guitarist in the touring band of Spanish singer Buika, and her guest vocals are one of many things that make Imagined Frequencies an engaging sonic adventure.
Brazilian music and programmed sounds have long enjoyed a good relationship, usually because the latter is incorporated with sufficient subtlety that frames and even enhances the real. Such is the case with Caieira (Zip Records, 2015), the third release by bossa nova/MPB singer Tamy.
Her voice has the sort of silky sensuality that’s borderline stereotypical among Brazilian female vocalists, which isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s great when a song like “Dava Pra Ver” unexpectedly comes out hitting harder than anticipated and really grabs you in the process. So let me reiterate: the disc is contemporary by virtue of some synthesized flavoring and remixes (plus you gotta love the drum accents on the title track that sound grafted straight from a Wailers album) but nails the best of both worlds via mostly flesh-and-blood instruments, guest turns by Lokua Kanza and Jacques Morelenbaum and vocals that don’t need studio artifice. In other words, it’s top notch.
The psychedelic influence on samba has been evident worldwide since the 1960s, when a good many Brazilian artists began electrifying and spacing out one of their country’s signature styles. Some of those compiled on the Rough Guide are from the more nascent era while a good measure show how the style has endured in recent times. A few tracks overreach, but the majority better ones (which to my ears include those by Marcos Valle, Alma Tropicalia, Zulumbi and Wal San’tana) really deliver.
It took longer for the wider world to realize the extent to which cumbia (particularly the Peruvian kind) was bitten by the psychedelic bug in the ‘60s. But it was worth the wait. The 18 Rough Guide selections are packed with the galloping Afro-Latin rhythms, stinging organs, surf-influenced guitars, shout out vocals and subversive spirit that make the music great. Some of the featured artists hail from places as far from the point of origin as the US and Germany, showing the global reach of such wild and wonderful music.
Author: Tom Orr
Tom Orr is a California-based writer whose talent and mental stability are of an equally questionable nature. His hobbies include ignoring trends, striking dramatic poses in front of his ever-tolerant wife and watching helplessly as his kids surpass him in all desirable traits.