From sea to shining sea (2 divas from the Americas)

Natalie MacMaster - Live
Natalie MacMaster – Live

Natalie MacMaster – Live(Rounder Records, 2002)

Mariana Montalvo – Cantos del Alma (Putumayo, 1999)

Occasionally I dig through the shelves of world music CDs at the public library. Lately, the mail has been slow and I have found myself with too much free time on my hands so I decided to unearth two gems of women vocalists from the Americas. Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster will need little introduction since this well-known performer born of Cape Breton fiddling royalty has been recording for 20+ years while getting tired bodies out of their seats and kicking their heels to her lively jigs and reels. Chilean musician and vocalist Mariana Montalvo is a relative newcomer releasing her first album, Cantos del Alma on Putumayo in 1999. As far as I know and beyond my comprehension, Montalvo hasn’t released any recordings since that time.

So I thought I would have a little fun and I hope you will join me in first journeying to Canada’s Atlantic coast to explore Cape Breton fiddle music. Then we’ll drop down south all the way to Chile that borders on the Pacific Ocean and lies close to the South Pole (in case you have forgotten your geography lessons).

I had read about Natalie MacMaster’s recordings in the Rough Guides World Music Volume 2, but I hadn’t actually heard her music until I picked up her Live CD released on Rounder Records (2002). Ironically, MacMaster performed in Seattle a week ago and sadly I missed the concert. Judging from the concert that took place at the Living Arts Center, Mississauga, (Ontario) on July 31, 2001 and appears on this 2 CD set, I missed a spectacular event. The CD set also features a down home square dance event in which Natalie performed along with guitarist David MacIsaac and pianist Joel Chiasson at Cape Breton’s Glencoe Mills Hall. This event took place in 1997. Certainly CD 2 showcasing a romping stomping good time while offering a slice of Cape Breton life, yet CD 1 outshines the 1997 recording.

CD 1 features a lively backing band including pianist Allan Dewar, guitarist Brad Davidge, bassist John Chiasson, drummer Miche Pouliot, keyboard player Kim Dunn and percussionist Daniel diSilva who adds that Latin tinge to the performance. And in fact, the third track Torna A Surriento provides Latin groove and sweaty fiddle licks. A repeated performance occurs later in the concert on The A Medley in memory of Paddy LeBlanc, a man most likely dancing in his grave given the funk bass and Latin beats that Natalie and company blend with fiery reels.

And the fresh-face and long-legged fiddling lass kicked into high gear on the opener, The Farewell. It’s easy to wonder where she gets the energy to step dance and fiddle her way through this performance. However, she does allow some breathing space now and again, with slower tracks such as the first tunes that appear with the medley Tullochgorum, or the song, Blue Bonnets, but she only
allows for a couple deep breaths and then its off to the races once again. On the encore, she invites audience members to not be shy and to dance in the aisles. It’s surprising that they wouldn’t have already stormed the stage, but then Canadian audiences tend to be extremely courteous, at least from what I have witnessed from my limited experience.

MacMaster has joined the ranks with other international fiddling talents from Norway’s hardanger fiddler Annbjorg Lien and an array of Canadian talent. Here she offers a relentless fiddle workout that is sure to please even the most discriminate listener. This lovely disc appears on Rounder Records.

Mariana Montalvo - Cantos del Alma
Mariana Montalvo – Cantos del Alma

Chilean musician-songwriter Mariana Montalvo spent a great deal of her life exiled in France (she fled from Chile in 1974). Similar to Chilean author Isabel Allende, Mariana fled Augusto Pinochet’s regime, but kept the Chilean culture intact. You can hear Chilean and Argentinean folklore as well as, quena (pan-flutes) and charango sifting their way through Mariana’s solo debut recording, Cantos del Alma (Songs of the Soul). These South American instruments appear along side French violin, Parisian café accordion, Afro-Latin percussion then topped off by Mariana’s silky vocals. She draws comparisons with other South American vocalists such as Afro-Peruvian Susana Baca, Peruvian Tania Libertad as well as, Mercedes Sosa. Yet, she arranges her songs in a refreshing manner while performing double duty on guitar, cuatro, charango and chorus vocals.

The music is further enhanced by Mario Contreras (guitar, Puerto Rican cuatro, charango, cavaquinho and percussion), Juan Manuel Forero (percussion), Osvaldo Torres (quena), Josè Almeida (bass) French musicians Jacques Descamps (accordion), Dominique Praquin and Pierre Bluteau (violin) and Charlotte Tournel (chorus).

Overall, Cantos del Alma is a stunning recording featuring a marriage between Chilean folklore with French music. Mariana revisits Serge Gainsbourg’s classic, tu color café (your coffee color). She also adds her own unique arrangement of Calderòn de la Barca’s If I Looked at You with a whimsical result. M. Duras’ India Song backed by quena (pan flute) and guitar portrays erotic lyrics, “Perhaps I will tell you about her. About the burning fire of her skin, of your skin, of love and volcanoes of love and flames.”

Hermana (sister) a song written about Mariana’s sister who died many years ago acts as a gorgeous tribute with its sweet lyrical French violin augmenting nostalgic lyrics reflective of a joyful childhood. Cieba (silk-cotton tree) is spiced with call and response vocals, Afro-Latin rhythms and French accordion. Danza (Dance) recalls Susana Baca’s repertoire and is backed by soulful percussion. However the swirling accordion sets it apart from Baca’s work.

I have had the pleasure of listening to this CD several times over the years. Each time I wonder why more people haven’t heard of Mariana Montalvo? Cantos del Alma was released on Putumayo label (1999) and is still available on the label’s web site. If you have trouble finding it in your local record store, buy it at Cantos del Alma.

Author: PatriciaHerlevi

Patricia Herlevi is a former music journalist turned music researcher. She is especially interested in raising music consciousness. She is looking for an agent and publisher for her book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit). She founded and hosts the blog
The Whole Music Experience and has contributed to World Music Central since 2003.